Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bartlett Worshop Insights

**UPDATE November 1, 2009:
After I posted this I realized I had failed to mention another very moving part of the weekend. During our lunch break Bo shared with us the documentary he helped produce on Andrew Wyeth, called Snow Hill. It was an incredibly moving and beautiful film and a stunning tribute to one of the most important American painters of our lifetime. You can purchase the dvd at either the Farnsworth Museum's Store or Brandywine River Musuem store.**

Bo Bartlett, Demo Painting, oil on panel, done at PAFA 10/09
I have purposefully taken my time to write out what it is I ‘learned’ from the recent workshop with artist Bo Bartlett that I attended in Philadelphia. I wanted to give all the information and insights time to seep into all the right places. In fact, when I returned, it was rather hard to get back into the ‘normal’ routine. For several days I found myself daydreaming about thoughts raised by this long weekend. I have only been to one other workshop (with artist Stephen Assael, several years ago) so I don’t have a real good idea of what happens normally during such workshops. Yet still, I HAVE to think this was a unique workshop experience. I think most workshop attendees expect to be taught the artist’s trick or technique, given simple step by step instructions to create a masterpiece. Bo had a totally different idea about what was a valuable lesson. For me, this workshop was more about the Philosophies of an artist than a technical explanation. In fact, his method of teaching was also very different than any I ever have encountered. His calm approach and inquisitive nature pulled ideas forth from each individual present and we were given several opportunities to connect and share with each other. We started each morning in a semi circle, greet and share session. People shared life stories and art concerns as well as technical questions. It was a very organic meeting which ended with us all doing Yoga together. I am a skeptic by nature but I was really trying to be open and excepting of whatever it was he would share with us or ask us to do.
The first studio practice he had us do, was so simple and yet for me, so profound. He started by telling us we would be drawing the model for the first day. Then he continued to talk about line. All he wanted us to do was draw a straight line from one side of the page to the other. At first take, this was merely an exercise to warm up or practice line, but as he continued to talk in his slow, meandering way, it emerged that there was more to this seemingly simple exercise. The first line was to be a line that represented “me or myself”. Faithfully and studiously, I drew a straight line at the top of the page from left to right, conscious of the weight quality and line variation, thinking every wobble was a valid symbol for the flaws within me as a human. I listened carefully and followed his instructions with each stroke, trying to put real thought and intent and meaning into each line. Next, (as if to continue the farce that this was merely about technique) he asked us to think “STRAIGHT LINE” (insert stern voice). I thought he was trying to show us how we may get constipated if we put too much pressure on ourselves for making the perfect line or artwork for that matter. Maybe that was part of it. Then he said, “Now draw a line your mother would like”. Hmm, pause… but, ok here I go… not bad I guess. “Now draw one for your Dad”… I could feel my eyes tear up. All of a sudden I became aware of how loud my sniffles were. Embarrassment flushed my face. But ok, here’s a broken, dashed confused line to represent the strange concoction of emotions that represent my feelings toward my dad… “Now draw a line for Pain” and this is where my eyes turned to an open faucet with my nose soon following suit. I tried to breath and calm myself so I could draw that damn line. I tried. I just honestly couldn’t think of a way to draw that line. And through all the thoughts of what would be a ‘good’ representation of PAIN came the thought “I don’t want to”. Relief! I had the choice to represent pain or not. Long ago when my first child was born, I made a conscience decision to try to represent the beauty of this world for her and to not focus on the easily represented pain of it. So in this simple exercise and with his gentle approach, Bo had reminded me of something so deep and so powerful.

Bo Bartlett, demo drawing (detail and full image), charcoal on paper, done at PAFA 10/09

The rest of that day was spent on several drawings of the model progressing from simple 20 minute line drawing all the way to a full scale, full value charcoal drawing using the pull out method. It was a great way to familiarize ourselves with the model. In fact that night, I found myself doing several thumbnail portrait sketches of the model from memory (which had decent likeness). Bo explained that he only uses people he knows for his paintings. In fact, the model he set up in front of (there were two models for our large group) he brought from his home town. The final thing we did that first day was to do a simple quick grisaille painting of the model which was to be wiped out at the end of the day. It reminded me of how I used to love the figure sculpture classes in school, because we would do one pose all day and then tear it down. There was no pressure to have a ‘finished’ work at the end of the day and therefore there was so much freedom and ease to each sculpture.

Alisa, chacoal on paper, 24" x 18", painted at PAFA 10/09 Bartlett workshop
The next two days were spent developing a painting from a finished grisaille through to full color. I am not accustomed to using a full prismatic, high chroma palette. I usually compare subtle variations of mud (earth colors), to make a full color painting. Not being familiar with each color on his palette was definitely a disadvantage for me. Most of the pigments had high tinting strength and yet I found that in the end my painting was very chalky looking. I've included 2 photos of my work here. The first I took once at home with my 'good' slr digital camera, and the second is poorer quality because it was taken with my phone, but better color, I think because it was taken in the same north light that the painting was painted under.
Alisa Study, oil on panel, 24" x 18", painted at PAFA 10/09 Bartlett workshop
Bo Bartlett’s Full Color Palette:
Alizarin Crimson
Burnt Sienna
Cad Red Dark
Cad Red Medium
Cad Orange
Cad Yellow Dark
Cad Yellow Medium
Yellow Ochre (or Raw Sienna)
Cad Green
Raw Umber
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Cobalt Violet

Something that I found interesting about his approach was that he really only paints the figures in his compositions with this process of developed grisaille to full color. All the other elements and background of his images may be sketched in, but then painted directly with local colors. I am not clear if he does this is for expedience sake or to make the figure be the main focus.

There really is so much more that I got out of this weekend, but I can’t seem to articulate, at the moment. I guess the two things that I’d like to remember the most from this weekend with Bo Bartlett, is that I do deserve success and that I had forgotten how to dream big. Self doubt is a nefarious creature capable of stopping any endeavor, but to push past this nasty beast and see the full value of one’s work is a great gift to the world. Life has seemed to stall my fast growth as an artist. But, it is ok that my career is at a slow progression right now, for perhaps (I’d like to think), it is like a good soup stock that takes several hours on low heat to come to its final full flavor.

Lastly, I am so grateful to have been able to have this experience in Philly. I feel so much appreciation to my dear husband who knows me better than I do. He knew how much I would benefit from this experience. He knew how much it would feed me. I am so blessed to have such a loving and caring man!
Downtown Philly (it rained the entire 4 days!)


  1. Wonderful post! Though you may have learned something about painting, it sounds to me as if you learned a lot more about passion and spirit. I know how you feel about life getting in the way of progress. It is such an inspiration to see you overcoming the cloud of self-doubt. Life should not be an obstacle to our development as artists. It should be the inspiration for our most personal and heartfelt works. As always, thank you so much for sharing Alia.

  2. Jeremy, yes you are so right. Thank you for your thoughts and encouragement. Hope all is well!

  3. Thanks for the post Alia. I've been meaning to ask you how the workshop went. You are right about self-doubt. That's one of my biggest hang-ups. I also like what you wrote about choosing to show the beauty in the world, not the pain. The power to choose the good, true, and beautiful.
    I'm curious, why do you think your work looked chalky? I switched to a higher-chroma palette after taking Jeremy Lipking's workshop. It's given me some beautiful greys and mud colors to work with.
    Miss you guys

  4. Kyle, thanks for your comments and great question. I've been thinking about the whole chalky thing. The first reaon I can think of is simply that I am not familiar with mixing a full, high chroma palette. My first instincts were to dull down all those bright colors. I tried to do this by mixing complements to get the nice greys and browns but I didn't trust my mixtures and added white to see if I was getting it right. These tints crept their way into my shadow masses and therefore I got a chalky painting... Also, another reason may have been that we were working under very dull and cool lighting conditions (North Light, but on 3 very rainy days). Hope that makes sense. I too miss Pennsylvania. Philly has left quite an impression on me.