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Changing The Subject

Changing The Subject

Changing The Subject

By Richard Christian Nelson

When I began to study art, it was the figure that captivated me. Adoring the work of the Masters, studying anatomy, making strides in the figure drawing class, beginning to paint head and figure studies... it was all intoxicating. William Hosner, a great instructor at Detroit's College For Creative Studies, said "if you can paint the figure, you can paint anything, but you won't want to paint anything else". This became my credo as I learned, graduated and began working. Later, when teaching figure drawing and anatomy at my alma mater, I repeated Mr. Hosner's statement to classes. As I started to get portrait commissions and show figurative gallery painting, my world felt complete.

It was a student at CCS who really opened my eyes to the possibility of also painting still life and landscape. Richard Seaman was very persistent, and soon Wednesdays were reserved for still life or landscape. It took about one session of each to be hooked. In fact, after 19 years of painting, it felt like the inspiration of the early days of art school. Six years later I am truly grateful for his determination. Whole worlds have opened up which have helped me as an artist (and portrait artist) in so many ways.

Making a still life study from life is one of the best ways to learn about, and teach, painting. By setting up a simple arrangement and then capturing it you are addressing all the steps of painting over and over again; inspiration, composition, drawing, value, color, paint application and edges, and the big one; calling it 'finished' and starting a new one. Going through this process repeatedly, one cannot help but grow as an artist. I like to teach this way because the subject is not going to move or require payment or fail to show up or cloud over... with controlled lighting you can focus on the steps of picture making at your own pace. I often use a small box with a cool light above it to create a setup that can sit for days if necessary. There is no rush, just go through the process again and again. Heaven, with the occasional bit of hell thrown in for good measure.


Hilton Vase With Onions And Garlic- oil 20 x 16


Mackerel And Copper Bowl- oil 14 x 11


Bybee Vase With Apples- oil 16 x 20

Painting like this cannot fail to improve your portraits. I often say that the subject reveals itself to you as you paint. You may elect to focus on certain areas and sublimate others. Now you are 'conducting' the picture using principles of visual truth. I maintain that this is the enduring appeal of Sargent's genius; showing us the world as he saw it, not slavishly detailing every aspect of the picture. 


Another glorious way to paint is out in a field, or next to a stream, or nearly anywhere. With a paintbox, umbrella, and other small necessaries you are good to go. Of course storms will blow up, bugs will bite, you'll forget sunscreen and regret it, but this is all part of the deal. Once you get your equipment and such squared away, you are a warrior. Each day presents the opportunity to capture sun, earth, air, water, light, animals, structures, life. This can be a great way to spend time with other artists if you like. And inevitably you will meet all kinds of people, many of whom will tell you that they cannot draw a stick figure or straight line.


Whiteside Mountain- oil 24x36


Pacolet River Rocks- oil 11x14


Lake Lanier 10/10- oil 11x14


While I began landscape with daytime outdoor studies, soon ambitions for more 'transient' images beckoned. Your mind begins to see compositions everywhere; sunrises and sunsets, storms, night skies, waves, snowscapes, intensely backlit scenes, etc. 


Skyuka Road Pines- oil 20x16


St Simons Sunrise- oil 16x20


All of this also surely informs your portrait painting. Especially if you are doing portraits from photos, this will teach so much about representing life. Your outdoor portraits will be done with so much more confidence and knowledge. From still life many elements of your indoor portraits such as fabric and furniture will be handled with more confidence. Soon you will find that you are 'orchestrating' the picture as opposed to copying each element. By delving into these different subjects, that pang of guilt that you're not a 'complete' artist can be greatly alleviated.


Charlie- oil 44x32


Elizabeth And Sally- oil 30x38


Dr. W.R. Chitwood- oil 42x30


There is a downside; you will likely never be able to take a 'normal' vacation again. Our kids groan when I load my paintbox and canvas into the van. But they will have braces! Because I show and sell these paintings, which really completes the circuit for an artist. Portrait clients have bought gallery paintings, and vice-versa. Perhaps there is a benefit from concentrating on one thing exclusively, but there is also a cumulative effect from doing many things. It may take longer to get good at them, but making the attempt fits my nature. Thank goodness for Mr. Seaman's persistence.

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