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Monday, April 3, 2017

The Copyist Program: Washington D.C.

I had a dream and then I had an adventure. I met new people, faced new challenges and worked hard to accomplish my goal. And through it all I learned so much.

Let me back up a bit and say that for years, each time I had the privilege of visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I would see the empty easels in some of the gallery rooms neatly placed out of the way but still very noticeable. Each one looked like they were waiting for someone. Curious, I asked at the information desk what the easels were for. That question was the first of many that eventually led me through the application process for their Copyist Program. Once accepted my excitement grew as I anticipated the portrait I had requested to paint. There were so many paintings to choose from but I had always admired and studied the work of John Singer Sargent. In the art world he has long been someone I respected because of his strong brush strokes and ability to confidently paint the likeness of fabric with such efficiency. I knew his portrait of Mrs. Henry White would be a difficult challenge (her life size portrait was quite intimidating) but I decided that I might as well go for it and see what happens.

Setting up my canvas made my heart beat faster. I was surrounded by greatness. To paint in this atmosphere where the walls were adorned with actual historical masterpieces almost took my breath away. My dream was about to come true.

I worked quickly sketching in her likeness with a thin wash of paint.

Once the sketch was done I began painting her face -- using her features as my reference for the rest of the painting. 

My excitement grew as I began studying her dress by laying down paint with values, colors and strokes as Sargent had. My goal was to copy it as closely as possible so that I could learn from Sargent's method. He was my instructor speaking to me through this painting; I tried to pay attention to everything he said.

Time was running out. By this stage I was at the beginning of the last day of my extraordinary adventure. When I chose this portrait my goal was not to do a complete the copy but to see how far I could go with a portion of it. 

Each hour in front of that easel seemed like ten minutes. Visitors from all over the world would come and go, occasionally asking questions and taking photos of me and my progress. I especially enjoyed the groups of school children who politely asked me about my work and the Copyist program.

I was allowed to paint from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. each day. Four o'clock came quickly on my fifth and final day. I wasn't expecting to even begin to paint her right hand so that was an extra treat. Her gold bracelet on her left wrist was also a lot of fun. I loved Sargent's attention to detail when he applied it to her face and jewelry and then surprised me with the light and contrast that brought out the beauty of her satin and tulle dress.

What a an absolute blessing and privilege this was! I can hardly wait to go back and apply what I have been taught to a new painting. Perhaps another Sargent?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Wine Bottles Commission

Painting commissions are always an adventure. The adventure becomes even more interesting when the subject matter is something that I have not painted a lot of before. This was one of those adventures.

I have always enjoyed and often admired some of the art on wine bottle labels. They can add so much drama and appeal to the wine. The challenge in composing this painting was to arrange the chosen bottles in a way in which they would enhance and compliment each other. It reminded me of curating an art show -- deciding which paintings would go well "hanging" side by side on a gallery wall.

It was not only a challenging commission but a fun one as well. The canvas was 24 inches high by 36 inches wide which gave me the opportunity to add extra drama by enlarging the bottles beyond life size. Painting the light and shadows on each bottle along with the art on the labels seemed a bit overwhelming at first and so I decided to remain calm and break it down to painting one bottle at a time.
Stages 1 and 2: Drawing the composition with a thin mixture of paint and mineral spirits allowed me the freedom to play around with the placement of the bottles without feeling too committed to the plan. As it turned out, I arranged and rearranged a couple of times as you can see by my lines. From there I went on to my first wine bottle (stage 2), painting it as efficiently as possible. Accuracy of the Opus logo reminded me of the accuracy necessary in a portrait. Either it looks like the subject or it doesn't.

Stage 3:  Graceland. With this purple and gold lined label and the tiny house in the center, I had to bring out my smallest brush that I bought specifically for this painting.

Stage 4:  1981. This eagle and its numerous twigs and branches along with the detail in the bird itself kept me on my toes. I didn't try to replicate every single detail but squinted my eyes to see and paint the general idea of it. The small lettering on each of the bottles was approached the same way. 

Stage 5: CAYMUS.  This CAYMUS bottle was the intended focal point, front and (almost) center. It was pulled forward to give it even more attention. There is something attractive about a tall, slender bottle of wine with a gold, artsy label and red cursive. (Once again, my tiny brush saved the day!)

Stage 6: 1982. Another eagle to compliment and frame the CAYMUS bottle. These eagles were detailed but fun. As you can see, this painting had miniature paintings within the painting. And then it was on to a golden chardonnay...

Stage 7: Aubert and Proper. Time was running out. This was a Christmas commission and Christmas was just two weeks away. I was so thankful that these last two bottles were a bit simpler in label design. I was also grateful for my past experience as a professional calligrapher. You just never know when past experiences are going to come back to help you.

Stage 8: The background. David Leffel taught me that if you want the focus to be entirely on the subject, keep the background simple. I used Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber to create this warm black.

Wine Still Life
24 x 36", Oil on canvas
Rita Salazar Dickerson (c) 2016

Stage 9: Completing the painting. Once the background was done it was time to paint the foreground. I kept it simple. Adding the light hints of the bottles' reflections in the wood was the effect I was looking for. Because this was a commission, I intentionally chose a wood color that would go well with the new owner's home.