Last Friday Thomas Buechner's portrait class started. It runs from October to June. My friend Bruce was kind enough to share his 'slot' with me. (There's a waiting list.) We alternate Fridays. The model for this month is a young teen, the daughter of one of Buechner's more famous models - Sonjia.
I have to admit I wasn't looking forward to this. Mondays I study with Dustin Boutwell and my plate is pretty full for the rest of the week. Tuesday is catch-up (framing, painting.)Wednesday is our nude model session, Thursdays I generally go to Ithaca for another model sesssion. Saturday's Open Studio at 171 Cedar Arts will be starting up. (Saturday is also a bird hunting day.) My Sundays in the fall (and spring) are full of soccer and coaching soccer. So the idea of painting Friday nights didn't have me too excited. But -after attending the first session with Tom Buechner I was excited.
I wasn't sure if Tom remembered me from past plein air sessions, but he did. The classes are held at his home on a hill high above Corning, NY. I arrived a few minutes early, which was fortuitous. Tom was able to introduce me to his studio assistants Eric and Maria and generally orient me as to rules and procedures. In order to get the full benefit of the sessions he suggested I paint his way, just like in a workshop, then after a while I could decide if I liked it.
His studio is amazing, and amazingly organized. There are hardwood floors, a wall of northlight windows, shelves of books on various painters (all arranged alphabetically of course) a model dais and mirrors and reflectors and painting materials...go to his website and you'll have a neat view of the space. Tom moved his giant Hughes easel out of the way to accomodate the class, and he painted from his ancient Jullian. Most of the students brought Jullians, though I did see a Soltek. Everyone present had been painting with Tom for years. There's no conversation except on model breaks and he plays opera over a state-of-the-art sound system. Oh, and turn your cell phone off, please.
My position was beside and slightly ahead of Tom. We were all squeezed in pretty tight and it wasn't a full class. Photos with no flash are allowed, so after every break I grabbed a few. I couldn't help but notice on the wall behind me a large blue ribbon. It was an "Award of Merit" from an OPA show. I asked him what he'd submitted and he said he didn't know, that Eric and Maria go through his paintings and pick one out. He's received it in the mail recently. Jeez.
The way Tom explained his method of portrait painting to me was this: the first class draw a contour of the model on your surface. Then fix it at home. then stain it with a wash of yellow ochre and Ultramarine for a weak green. The next session is for painting the extremes of light and dark using Tit white or Naples yellow and a dark. After that he said we'd get into full color and half-tones.
The Contour is supposed to be a "road map" with no modeling whatsover. I hadn't spent three hours drawing one contour in years. Through the first break and most of the second I worked to place the head and shoulders in my rectangle. After I was happy with the position I started the contour in earnest. Generally if doing this on my own I'd make marks to place the bridge of the nose, zyphoid notch, jawline etc. Tom didn't want that and made me erase it. He also said my lines were waaaaay too heavy (at one point asking if I were doing stained glass). I struggled to reduce them. At the end of the three hour session I had a reasonable likeness. Sonjia, the model's mother, was appreciative of it. One thing the exercise did teach me is how easy it was to lose a likeness; one second it was there and the next subtle correction it was gone....
Tom has some great stories to tell and a lifetime of information to impart. He seems to have either taken a workshop with everybody famous or he sat next to them at a dinner party. He doesn't drop these names boasting, but in conversation while making a point about painting. During this session I learned he sat next to Richard Schmid at a dinner years ago, and had a very long conversation with him about painting. He's also told some funny stories about workshops with Kevin Macpherson, and contrasted styles of artists with Nelson Shanks. Stories like these bring the art world to life. I'm left wondering if he has any Hopper or Wyeth stories to tell. I don't know, hell, maybe he has one about Homer or Eakins.
As I said in an earlier blog entry Tom has a retrospective currently at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, VA. There is a piece about him in the October issue of American Art Collector Magazine. His October show opens this Thursday at West End Gallery in Corning, NY. Last week I was previewing the show and got a jolt as I noticed something. Tom must have been pulling out some very old photo references because he has a beautiful portrait of a girl about 12 or 13 years old. The same girl modeled for us recently. Now she's a 22 or 23 year old woman. Upstairs from Tom's show at West End I'll have a nude painting of her sitting on a diving board. Pretty cool.