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In this essay, I will explore painting techniques and styles with oil paint by researching and comparing two of my favourite artists. The first is Norman Rockwell famous for his iconic images of everyday life. He painted in oil paints onto either linen canvas or wooden panels in a realism style, and in his lifetime painted over 4,000 original artworks. His work allowed Americans to see the lighter side of life during difficult times like The Great Depression and the Vietnam war, he had a way of injecting humour into his paintings which created an escape and gave hope to a lot of people.
The second artist I will look at is Christian Hook, a Gibraltarian artist who rose to fame after winning Portrait the artist of the year 2014. Previously he had worked as a teacher in Gibraltar alongside illustrating for ‘readers digest’ and ‘Disney’. He has recently been awarded ‘The Freedom of the city of Gibraltar’. His preferred medium is Oil but uses an acrylic base and an oil paint primer to give a smooth finish.
His style is based on realism but then has a vague casual presence that stops it from looking like a photograph but a definite inventive unique style of painting. He uses predominantly more muted calmer colours sometimes injecting a bright colour as a tangent. I want to try and make my style more adventurous and less purely realism based on his work and control my colour palette choice and utilise a more limited palette.
The works from both these artists that attracts and inspires me the most are their portraits.
Norman Rockwell’s style is very realistic and almost photo perfect, although he did exaggerate some features to create a humorous touch in more every-day scenes. However, when dealing with the more serious subject matter the exaggeration is less which stops the humorous spin, his intention being to bring messages of important events to the forefront of people’s minds. The subjects he chose to paint are mostly depictive of real day to day life, the subject matter is mundane like someone eating in a restaurant or visiting a friend, or a family gathering, but he manages to inject an almost magnetic feel of humour and kindness with a twist of over-exaggerated sweetness. Rockwell painted generally flat or simple backgrounds like a wall or a window as he wanted the subject to stand out and be prominent, sometimes his backgrounds are just white, this was mainly on his magazine covers. His work for magazine covers gained mass exposure to the general public.
Within his painting technique, he uses a muted colour palette with earthy tones, using a very smooth technique of application. His brushstrokes were not visible which created a flat surface and when painting flesh gave the skin a pristine glow. His subject content is very appealing and gives a feeling of comfort and home, and almost an enviable image of a perfect life. And I feel this quote from Norman Rockwell himself sums up that feeling, he is quoted have said, “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be” Rockwell, N(1960)
His first illustration job was to illustrate twelve stories called ‘Tell me why’ these are child and adult interaction books. These illustrations were black and white ink drawings. He soon became an established artist after proving himself an important member of the team
Front Cover Image – Rockwell with ‘Boys Life’ magazine where at 19 he became Art Editor. He continued with this work for a few years receiving great praise and affirmation for his work until it was suggested by his friend that he should send in artwork to the ‘The Saturday Evening Post is, something he had only dreamt of. This was a successful decision and from 1916 to 1919 he had published over 25 cover pages and numerous illustrations for them. During this time his style became more painterly sophisticated than his former more caricature style.
His colour choices are muted and sometimes dull hues in his earlier work, his brushstrokes are non-existent and his compositions are always eye-catching as they draw you into the main subjects on the page.
The colours within fig.4 ‘Country Doctor’ are stronger and more intense and I love the composition with the little boy sat on the right taking it all in and even the dog looking on, you follow their eyes to the main focus of the painting, even the lamp is directed towards it. There is so much to see as is the case in a lot of his paintings. The background contrast compared to the front covers is vast, on the front covers he wanted the characters to be the main image of interest and what they were doing, whereas the ‘Country Doctor’ is telling a story that he wants you to linger over.
Norman Rockwell allowed his audience to look through a virtual window into a more idyllic world during times that maybe were not so idyllic. His magazine covers made him a household name in America and somewhat of an icon, he stated, “In those days the cover of the Post was the greatest show window in America for an illustrator. If you did a cover for the Post you had arrived. Two million subscribers and then their wives, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, friends. Wow! All looking at my cover”. Rockwell,N(1947) .
He had a natural knack for storytelling in its simplest form. His process of storytelling began with a very time-consuming process, initially, he would take photographs of his neighbours, family etc then choose the ones that best told his story best. First, to work out his composition which he did by drawing out his narrative. He then projected this onto the architect’s paper on his easel, he could position it closer or farther away to achieve the size he wanted. Next, he would choose the best photos for the scene he was creating and place them separately on the projector. He moved each one into place over his sketch until he was happy then he trace them erasing the first sketches in the process, and a more detailed drawing would follow.
To get this image onto a canvas he would either use transfer paper or project again onto canvas. He would also produce loose colour studies to get his tonal qualities right first.
He would surround himself with all his reference materials and get to work with his paint. His paintings were a labour of love and he was often stressed over the length of his process, but he was a perfectionist and it had to be right, sometimes completely repainting a whole section if he wasn’t happy with it, and sometimes even discarded the whole painting.
Norman Rockwell’s influences are said to be Haddon Sundblom and Joseph Christian Leyendecker. Fig.6 and 7 show Hadden Sundblom’s paintings. You can see that the style is very similar to Rockwell’s in that the subject matter of everyday topics is very similar, his colour palette is a little brighter and his strokes are visible which gives a more painterly texture. Sundblom was coca-colas main illustrator for Santa Claus Fig.5 shows Rockwell’s Santa Claus next to Sundblom’s. Rockwells is more caricature-like, whereas Sundblom uses a richer colour palette and has more realistic tendencies.
Leyendecker’s paintings are of a similar colour palette to Norman Rockwell but his painting technique is very different, his backgrounds are washy and sometimes unfinished showing blank canvas and his paint application, in general, is looser, as shown in Fig.9 and 10. I feel a similar quality could be achieved today with alcohol markers, there is also a more defined outline to his subjects which gives a cartoon like style.
My second artist is Christian Hook I chose him because ever since I saw him win ‘The portrait artist of the Year’ I have been stunned by the quality and uniqueness of his style and have followed his journey. After winning the Portrait Artist of the Year in 2014 he was commissioned to paint Boxer Amir Khan, he started the portrait in the boxing ring with Amir by photographing him moving around the ring, then painting quickly to get the quality of line and movement into the piece. The finished piece is almost a moving image, you can feel the speed of the movements, it has realism but also simplicity of shapes and lines, you can almost smell the boxing ring within this image.
He was also commissioned to paint Alan Cumming for The National Gallery in Edinburgh he has since been commissioned by Sky Arts to paint a few famous faces, Sue Johnston, Mick Hucknall
It is interesting to watch his technique as he starts to paint Alan Cumming’s portrait. He first asked him to dance to his favourite piece of music and then he started to apply paint echoing the movements of his subject, to allow the same movements to gather on the canvas first. Then he began to block in colours of light and dark within his face, this then became a starting reference for his final piece. The outcome was remarkable and done in only minutes.
Capturing motion and time is a passion of Christian Hook’s he does this by including lots of different view-points of the image and merging then into one stunning painting.
Christian says his main influences are from music, again the importance of time and movement shows its importance in his work, and he also is a musician himself which he claims helps his art style to develop.
The development of his artistic style has changed over the years, initially being very traditional and realistic now changing into his fine art style of today. The images in Fig. 15 and then 16 show the contrast of how his work has developed. He has kept the realism, but his painting technique has become unique and feels quite spiritual, you can really feel the emotion and movement in the later image compared to the earlier one where this technique is very commonplace. I feel my work has similarities with his earlier realism work, this is something I am trying to move away from and become more fluid with my paintings.
His inspirations are Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to mention a few. Looking at Bacon I can see some comparisons in their limited colour palettes and creation of movement in their brushstrokes, but Christian’s realism is more apparent and still shows through from his more traditional training, whereas Bacon realism is not apparent at all.
The similarities between Lucian Freud and Christian Hook I feel are more apparent. Their realism style is still similar, and their brushstrokes take the same route in how they block colour. However, Christian does inject more contrasting colours into his work by diluting the strength of tone, whereas, Freuds palette is very limited in general and almost has a depressing, subdued feel.
Norman Rockwell and Christian Hook’s styles are quite different yet similar in their mindset. Rockwell was a rigid perfectionist with his work to the point that he would literally throw his work away if he wasn’t satisfied and it had to perfect in a way to mimic the subjects down to literally not wanting a hair to be out of place. Christian Hook has this mind set too but not with creating photo realism, but creating a perfect feeling, a moment in time that is perfect, they both wanted their art to replicate a simple moment of time, but the outcomes are massively different. Hook sees things in his mistakes and utilises them to create the next brushstroke, he does paint from photographs sometimes like Rockwell but he wants art to be alive not just a replica of what he sees, he tries to allow you to interpret the painting with all your senses not just your eyes. In Hook’s latest collection named ‘The Darwin Series’ he creates many paintings of horses inspired by Charles Darwin’s book ‘Origins of Species’ which he found in a book shop when looking for inspiration. The book is about the theory of animal species and their fragility to survive in the world. He wanted to create images that showed how fragile nature can be. He describes in a video I watched how one of his paintings is part painted in gloss paint so that when it is viewed in a certain angle part of the image becomes fragile and disappears. I find this concept very interesting and could be something I could use within my self-negotiated brief about extinction. He also wanted to interpret the words and have a relevance to each of Darwin’s theories, one of these theories being the ‘Grain in the Balance’ meaning that nature has a way of selecting the fittest. Hooks interpretation of this is a piece called ‘The line in the balance’ which balances line against blocks of colour and represents this balance in nature and Darwin says his theory ‘Grain in the Balance’ determines which individual shall live and which shall die – which variety of species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, and finally become extinct’. Darwin,C.
Hook is constantly trying to get movement and emotion into his paintings and states ‘We’re always on the move if not physically but mentally’ Hook, C(2017).
Looking at these two artists I can draw comparisons to my work. In a previous module I painted images of my family members and deliberately tried to replicate Rockwell’s technique of painting flesh tones, I also mimicked his colour palette which is muted in tone and easily absorbed by the eye, as it is not too garish.
Fig.21 Oil painting of my daughter and puppy – Barnes
I also liked his technique of playing around with photography and moving images around which also inspired me to try this is in the same module where I put my daughter’s photo with another separate photo of a puppy.
Hooks method of painting from real life at the beginning a painting is something I want to try more of as it is something that doesn’t come naturally to me.
Christian Hook(2020). Available at: https://www.christianhook.com/videos Accessed on:(1st February 2020)
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