Artist Musings: Art Class

Print This Post Print This Post

Broadening the Palette
with Steven Assael

Kristin Oil Sketch (2011, oil on panel, 20″ x 16″)

When American Artist magazine debuted its East Coast edition of Weekend with the Masters and offered a three-and-a-half-day studio-based workshop with New York City’s own Steven Assael, artists traveled from as far away as Tampa and Los Angeles to participate.

For this sole New Yorker who took advantage of another opportunity to study with the well-known and respected figurative painter and draftsman Assael, climbing the  four flights of stairs to his studio was the least of the challenges that lay ahead.

First came the list of paints.  Old tubes of colors rarely used had to be flamed with a match before giving ground to plyers.  New colors had to be purchased.  Then a panel had to be covered with (horrors!) acrylic paint–a very bright cadmium red light, at that.  Lead white stayed home; titanium white made a comeback.  The fan brushes–both bristle and sable–that Assael favors had to be purchased.

The day of the first class, the group of ten students plus several helpers gathered around the master as he demonstrated the technique that would trip up everyone over the next two days.  Using a hot-red spotlight and ambient florescent lighting, Assael contrasted bright, warm highlights against cool, blue lights, punctuating them with warm dark shadows, for his signature effect.

Starting with ultramarine blue, he placed his marks to indicate the figure’s location and to suggest a background.  As he began to apply large swatches of color, Assael shifted his palette onto the left side of his canvas; that is, he squeezed piles of paint directly onto it.  He likes his paints handy and believes it’s important to have them under the same light source as the painting.

The magic that Assael performed during those few hours inspired his students when they set up their work stations the following day.  Palettes had to be either vertically attached to the side of the panel or placed between artist and easel.  Students had to work at arm’s length (Assael uses extensions on his brushes to get even further away) and from the shoulder, not the wrist.

Oddly enough, following directions works.  This artist’s first attempt at Assael’s method–the culmination of which is pictured above–proved a most remarkable experience.  Shelving attention to details and focusing on the bigger picture lends coherence and rhythm to a composition, giving it power.  And it’s more fun!  Refinement can safely wait until later.

Lessons learned by practicing Assael’s approach transfer well to other work.  In returning to the Childhood’s Edge painting, this artist has been painting from the shoulder and when working on sketches, first lightly indicating the entire picture.  Look for evidence of these changes in future gallery postings.