Artwatch UK

Art and Photography

30 October 2013

Returning from an ArtWatch trip to New York and Philadelphia (refreshed and invigorated, as always), a first task was to take clippings from the previous week’s newspapers. On facing pages of the Times of 26 October, two startling and memorable images shouted in hilarious unison – and surely not in accidental juxtaposition? The first (here Fig. 2) was of a squirrel that had dropped a nut. The second was of one politician (Hillary Clinton, Fig. 1) endorsing another at a rally. The pendant pair of images testified to photography’s special, most distinguishing technical trait: its unique power to make/capture instantaneous-but-enduring mechanical records of particular scenes at singular moments. Photography (in its chemical and digital forms) has been a profoundly revolutionary addition to the world’s image making and recording capacities. That it is so at this point is beyond any dispute, but, then, it has never constituted, as some still hold, a replacement for those hand-crafted (painted, drawn or engraved) images made by people who are sometimes called artists. (See Gareth Hawker’s “A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation“.)

On 25 October, at New York’s famous art school, The Art Students League, we were privileged to watch a kind of master class given by the painter Thomas Torak, who for thirty or so minutes, worked over a student’s oil painting of a model – a heretical procedure in many educationalists’ eyes. Using the student’s own palette, paints and brushes, he explained the artistic purpose of every change and adjustment as he went along. Starting at the passage depicting the model’s forehead, Torak suggested that the tones were too uniform. Lightening the student’s own flesh tint on the palette, he placed a firm highlight against the darkest tone on the shaded side of the head. Instantly – at a proverbial stroke – the form of the brow sprang forward from the canvas and turned convincingly in (evoked) space. With a stronger forehead, Torak moved down to the eyes in their sockets, darkening the shadowed hollows and placing strategic lights on the lids and the bulging eyes themselves. And so on and so forth down the head and into the body. Every adjustment was made on the authority of values seen to be present on the model herself, at that time and in that light. Seemingly, nothing was being invented: piece by piece, step by step, observable relationships between adjoining values were first carefully appraised and then artfully replicated in hue and tone on the palette, before being judiciously laid onto the painting.

However, as facet related to facet and form to form, the mosaic whole began to assume a compelling and designed narrative form from a brush that drew and revised as it coloured. Finally, Torak introduced consideration of the model’s entire body and clothing to the values of the background wall within the then-present natural top-down light. Here, again, the student had made too-equal an appraisal of the relative figure/ground values: the background was markedly too dark and too warm. Lightening and cooling its tone and hue caused the untouched figure to jump forward on the canvas in a startling “before-the-eyes” pictorial magic. Watching the demonstration and the entire group of students, it was apparent that without seeing Torak’s painting but simply by heeding his words of analysis and explanation, other painters in the studio were modifying their own work on similar rationales and to considerable benefits.

As a mild-mannered, softly-spoken man, Thomas Torak may be one of the art world’s most insufficently appreciated figures. Fortunately, the deftness of his speech and the acuity of his eye find other outlets at the Art Students League. Writing in that art school’s magazine LINEA (- and how very fortunate New York is that such an institution should have survived waves of modernist iconoclasm), Torak quietly, gently shredded a recent noisy attributional upgrade, rashly made on the back of a pictorially disruptive restoration at the now curatorially hyper-ventilating Metropolitan Museum of Art: see “The Rediscovered Velázquez” of 25 December last year.

Returning to our hotel at 11 p.m. on the last night of the trip, we witnessed another kind of artistic tour de force. On the corner of Times Square and West 48th Street, a “street artist” was working on a triple portrait, made in conté crayon on the basis of a photograph taken on a mobile phone (see Fig. 7), as his three subjects sat on the sidewalk behind him. The image of each head on the photograph could have been no more than half an inch high, and yet, from this miniscule photographic record, the artist was producing at speed perfectly credible heads with very fair likenesses. Like David Hockney – as we discovered once when drawing by the side of Lake Como – artists never pass one another without making an involuntary detour to take a peek. “Where did you learn to draw like this?” I asked the street artist. “In China” he replied. Ah yes, and alas, it could hardly have been recently at the Royal Academy Schools in London where Tracey Emin has been appointed Professor of Drawing. (See Harry Mount’s “Where will the Queen hang her rubbish portrait by Tracey Emin?”)

Michael Daley

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Above, top, and below right, Figs. 1 and 4, Hillary Clinton, detail of a photograph by Yuri Gripas/Reuters, as shown in The Times 26 October. Above, and below left, Figs. 2 and 3, a picture by Ajeet Vikram (detail) as published in The Times, 26 October.
Above, Fig. 5, a squirrel seen in Union Square on the morning of 27 October when en route to New York’s (magnificent) Strand bookshop, home, since 1927, to 18 miles of shelves of new, used and rare books.
Above, Fig. 6, an artist (“Han”) working on a triple portrait from a mobile phone photograph at the junction of Times Square and West 48th Street at 11pm on 27 October.
Above, Fig. 7, Jean-Baptiste Isabey’s “Seated Man Leaning on His Right Arm”, as reproduced in the 29 October Daily Telegraph review by Richard Dorment of an exhibition at the Wallace Collection of some forty drawings from the golden age of France’s royal academy system. (Photo: ENSBA)
Below, Fig. 8, the Royal Academy’s present Professor of Drawing, Tracey Emin CBE, RA (as drawn by the author for The Independent on Sunday).
NOTICE: On Thursday 31 October, the former Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, Leonard McComb, RA, spoke at the Royal Watercolour Society on making large watercolour drawings.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

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