This month I shall continue the theme of brushstrokes as I am very hopeful that you find it interesting and an eye opener! I can do no better than share with you words from one of 20th century’s teaching luminaries – Robert Henri – an American artist/teacher and an outspoken advocate of modernism in painting. He taught at the Art Students League in New York from 1915 -1928.
Taken from his book ‘The Art Spirit’, this is his initial definition of a brush stroke. Here and there I have added a few words to help with the meaning which, for a painter, is understood.
‘The mere matter of putting on paint.’ (RH is saying this is all that is needed from a brush stroke)
‘The power of the brush stroke.’ (RH’s description of its elemental realization and nature)
‘There is a certain kind of brush stroke that is both bold and bad.’
‘There are timid, halting brush strokes.’
‘Stokes that start bravely, but don’t know where to go. Sometimes they bump into and spoil something else, or they may just wander about, or fade into doubtfulness.’
‘There are strokes in the background which come up against the head and turn to get out of the way.’
‘Strokes which look like brush strokes and bring us back to paint.’
‘There are other strokes which inspire a sense of vigour, direction, speed, fullness and all the varying sensations an artist may wish to express.’
Robert Henri was was a founding member of the Ashcan School. Emerging in the 1900’s the Ashcan Artists painted with devotion and vigour to New York’s great energetic changes occurring around them. Do go to your computer and look for George Benson, one of the group, and look for his painting of 2 boxers in a bare knuckle fight surrounded by their baying audience. Find other painters of this school and their works. Then you will be able to see the freedom the Ashcan Artists were using to make paintings in a way which seems a very reaction to the energy around them.
This powerful response formed their identity as artists in choosing for their subject matter, the chaotic destruction of huge building projects, rushing crowded streets, the illegal boxing match just mentioned. Their work is madly exciting. As an artist I can only dip into Robert Henri’s book, it is so filled with the very spirit of his teaching that each sentence fairly sends me spinning.
Let’s finally return to brushstrokes and how the shine of the oil paint can be manipulated according to RH.
‘Sometimes the stroke may be made in the direction drawing dictates, and the shine can be killed by a very delicate and skillful blending stroke with a clean brush; thus breaking down the light-catching ridges of the original strokes. This is difficult to accomplish without a resultant weakening or softening of the original stroke.’
In these few words I hope you can gain an understanding of what it is like to actually and physically paint, of what mastery of the skills and with what great familiarity one wants to build one’s palette of colours to begin each day.
I am using a portrait sketch as a demonstration. We were inside an old Tuscan barn and the terracotta floor was casting this wonderful, warm glowing depth to the face. It was a fast alla prima sketch (literally at first) – which means it was completed in one sitting, with the first paint as the finished work. Though I have to admit I had to return to ‘tweak’ it using a photo. You can see lots of brushstrokes that give vivacity and life to my method of working.
The Art Spirit – Robert Henri (pronounced Henrye)
The Ashcan School – A school of New York painters in early 1900’s