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Why this ebook?
One of the greatest difficulties I have encountered in artistic training is to reconcile theory with practice. When I see Hollis Dunlap painting I wonder what the hell is really going through his mind... why does he make the decisions he makes? Well, one gets a very clear idea of what's going on in his head because he verbalizes it, literally, everything. He is a torrent of information in real time.
I learned more in five days at his workshop than in a whole year on my own and the reason I wrote this little book is to organize a lot of notes I took, some stained with oil, and so many others with wine. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
The Hollis Dunlap I knew
Officially we know that Hollis Dunlap was born in 1977 in Northern Vermont, United States, and that has been intensely dedicated to the study and practice of painting since he was 14 years old. We also know that he is currently painting and teaching in Southeastern CT and exhibiting regularly in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Miami. Though all that is true, it does not quite describe the Hollis Dunlap I knew.
Hollis Dunlap is a vivacious, intelligent and talking guy, a good life and good painting lover. His head goes fast, very fast; And sleeps little, very little. He loves painting and sees the world as if it was painted so that you can feel how he fantasizes with the planes of your face, or how he triangles the cheek of the guy next to him while talking about Velázquez. What I liked the most from the very first minute was the fact that he is a modest guy, but intellectually sophisticated. He has a bullshit detector that does not allow him to take his feet off the ground at any time, so he is modest enough not to intimidate you, but not so much that he does not let a sweeping personality shine.
«Sometimes I have a painting started for more than a year until, one day, I watch it and discover exactly what’s failing and what it needs»
Think painting, paint thinking
Hollis Dunlap's compositions look for simple, everyday moments with a divine touch, like a beam of light that triumphantly enters a room and floods a wall. He seeks in all genres a dramatic approach using the everyday subject as an excuse to work the chiaroscuro. As you may suspect, he adores Caravaggio and a handful of good boys of the Renaissance and the Baroque. The celebration of light is his true theme, sculpting the light that bathes his figures.
Influences and education
In his time at the Lyme Academy (1995-1999) he had exceptional teachers who taught him everything he knows. His technique is a mixture of interests and pictorial influences, stealing what interests him most of each. According to Hollis Dunlap, it is vital not to be influenced by a single artist, but to drink from different sources. It is not very healthy to see a student struggling to dilute his personality by imitating the teacher. Perhaps, for this reason, he never intended to reach the technique of his most influential mentor, Professor Deane G. Keller, whom he deeply admires.
Hollis Dunlap teaches by demonstrating that he knows how to do what he teaches, verbalizing every decision he makes in his demonstrations. He pushes each student individually to question their methods and to overcome them so that his corrections are not intended to be merely formal, but conceptual. He wants the students to take responsibility for the process, but not so much for the result, promoting a well-unfinished painting with clearly defined objectives better than a poorly finished painting.
The art of making visual decisions
Drawing is the way of observing, and the way in which what is observed is organized. The technique used is irrelevant, because in no way a pencil is more indicated than a brush when making decisions. To draw is, in a way, composition. But also experimentation, rehearsing which line will work best in our work and choose the most accurate one. For Hollis Dunlap, the true essence of drawing is an artist making decisions about what looks best, rather than engaging in copying shape.
A lot of work and feet on the ground
His teacher Larry Golden encouraged him to take his private lessons and to copy the great masters. That helped him a lot in beginning to understand the drawing. Deane G. Keller often reminded him that «everything is work» —it’s about the work— reminding his students that, to be a good draftsman, the first step is always the respect for manual work and assume that excellence is only achieved after years of practice and study. If we look back and think of Michelangelo, we already have that respect for workers and artisans. His art was connected with the stonemasons, with the very earth from which the stone came, with the most physical nature of its resources.
This contrast with Michelangelo's roots in the real world and the frivolity and gossip of the current artistic panorama tells a lot about the way to follow for a student looking for results over emptiness and clucking.
Study, struggle, and talent
«Talent is not found, it’s worked»
Hollis Dunlap appreciates the students' ability to keep struggling to paint something good, spending sleepless nights even though their work is not going well. That struggle keeps them hungry, attentive and lucid. However, many students simply stop fighting at the very moment when they see real progress, because, unfortunately, there is a belief in our days that one must find his talent instead of work his talent. Talent is not caught like a flu, it corresponds to a continuous attitude of struggle and curiosity. The talent is never the result of an initial period of effort that awakens the hidden talent that must then explode. There is no such jump... There is only one attitude.
The Renaissance was the summit of this concept of drawing, and we can’t help thinking of Rafael Sanzio, who rehearsed various contours around an arm, enveloping it with potential solutions, and then deciding which of them was the best. We also think of the great Michelangelo, who refined every shape to its absolute perfection, and every little element is perfectly coupled with the whole figure. In Moses' sculpture, not a single line is out of place; Even the curls of the beard are in perfect harmony with the rhythm of the shapes of the arms, the folds of the tissues, and even the legs. The lines flow beautifully and gracefully from all angles and positions of the figure. That is the most sophisticated conception of drawing, where each line involved flows naturally into the next as if they were a single organism.
«In the Renaissance, they knew how to treat form so that it was seen in the most optimal way»
The human figure
«The figure is a vehicle of universal and timeless communication of emotions, symbol of all possible experiences on this planet»
In his figures he seeks a universal idea rather than the particular, evoking feelings and stories with an iconic connotation that moves away from the mere portrait.
There is something very interesting and magical in the way we move a life observation into the two dimensions, and we make it look like an illusion in three dimensions again. The moment you see how the form emerges and a simple sketch happens to have a body and identity that go far beyond the model are fascinating.
As a good sciences lover, Hollis Dunlap delights in human anatomy as a mechanic with the pieces of a Rolls-Royce does. He’s fascinated by how DNA dictates to each bone and muscle fiber the way it should grow, and what function to play, with unprecedented precision. He adores the human shape, intrinsically beautiful and interesting, and how capriciously reflects light; how nature makes its way through rhythms and patterns in the funniest way imaginable; how forms grow and develop, playing an essential function; how the will to survive creates an inertia in its development in the most optimal and logical way possible.
The body is an organized structure where nothing is left to chance and everything responds to a vital function that ensures its survival in the most efficient way possible. Only when our eye is sufficiently trained can we understand the universal structure that models it, recognizing the unique design that brings them closer to the universal.
Nothing is orthogonal in the human body and everything is connected without interruption. Fluency is an indispensable condition for life and the form flows allowing the impulses to be transmitted between the parts. Every structure ends where the next begins in a constant vital flow, as in Michelangelo’s Moses. The geometric shapes do not allow an organic flow between them because they are symmetrical and contained. When you use geometry as a goal and not as a medium, robots are drawn. The discontinuous and contained shape does not allow any painting to seem alive. Geometry is an abstraction that helps us to understand perspective and light over the organic form, but they are neither form itself nor represent life: the human model has no planes, everything is curved and fluid. Nothing is flat or straight, every shape has three dimensions and a certain degree of curvature.
«The human anatomy is a good traveling companion, but a bad guide»
The anatomy is very useful if you know how to apply it well. The difficulty is that it differentiates parts internally segmented, though within the figure they are not. For example, the hand and the forearm, which if conceived as two categories can obstruct drawing them as a single entity. The student tends to concentrate his analysis on the particular, obviating the whole. The most important thing is to understand the body as something that moves, feels and thinks as an entity, and the variety of its parts corresponds harmoniously.
Scientific, categorical, verbal and symbolic segmentation can be a problem when our objective is to paint the light that bathes the figure. Ignorance has never been a prerequisite for talent, and Hollis Dunlap recommends studying the structure of the human body as long as we know that knowing how to observe is the key.
Workshop material list
Material list provided by the students:
✓ Primed panels or canvases not smaller than 12×16in, not bigger than 16×20 in
✓ 5-6f lat and/or filbert different size bristle brushes, and 2-3 different size softer brushes (sable kind).
✓ Oil dipper or small pot for medium.
✓ Oil colors (no particular brand)
Material list provided by Menorca Pulsar:
«I do not think the best materials are needed; I do not want to spend time thinking about it»
The supports he uses are quite cheap. They work well for him because they are poorly absorbent and the paint flows very easily over them.
The key is to use what eases your painting, over the qualitative criteria. Perhaps the best support in the world is not the most suitable for your purpose, so you must use the support that best fits your way of painting, provided it meets a minimum quality requirement.
You can use anything that is good enough so that it does not fall to pieces in your client’s hands, and work without worrying too much about it: having your mind occupied in these details will take a lot of concentration from painting. You will need to put all your potential in the painting, not in how you are going to use the materials.
«I like to keep things as simple as I can. I work with simple materials, nothing I do not need»
Hollis Dunlap recognizes that, although he loves good brushes, he spoils them so quickly that he simply goes to the corner store and buys a handful of cheap brushes. He defends the fact that we must take care of the quality of our painting regardless of the quality of our brushes.
Two groups of brushes are used: one for lights and one for shadows. This is helpful for maintaining a clean division that avoids muddy mixtures.
Hard VS. Soft
The best brushes are the hard ones, bristle ones. Flat Synthetic ones are perfect for details. Soft brushes should only be used to soften at the end and should be avoided when possible.
The palette is designed to be harmonious and versatile, avoiding chromatic redundancies. It is quite limited but you can extract practically everything you need if you learn how to mix colors well.
Dark Ultramarine Blue is the most versatile of the blues. Most pigments have a very useful violet hue to get good purples if mixed with red. It also offers a good range of greens when mixed with Cadmium Yellow. Prussian, Phtalo, Cobalt and Cerulean blues have green hues that can ruin the mixes. The best one is Cobalt blue, but being lighter does not allow transparent shadows and can whiten the mixes.
It is a color that differs a lot between brands, so not all Burnt Sienna colors will work well in this palette. The most indicated one is the warmest and most transparent one, such as Windsor & Newton or Utrecht. Whichever brand is used, it should look orange when mixed with white.
It is the substitute of Alizarin Crimson, Madder, Magenta and other violet reds. While it is more earthy than any of the above if properly used it offers a very natural range of violets when mixed with ultramarine and white. It has a high dyeing power and should be used in small quantities so as not to generate a red dominant in our entire painting. It is not easy to control and requires practice to master it, but its versatility is excellent. This color allows obtaining most observable reds. Eventually, it can be reinforced with Cadmium Red, but that will never be necessary for the human figure.
«The palette is designed to be harmonious and versatile, avoiding chromatic redundancies»
Limited palette without black?
There is no need to further complicate the palette with black. For the darker mixes, mix Ultramarine with Burnt Sienna. Also, the same mixture is used to obtain chromatic grays. Punctually black can be used to reinforce some accents, but it is not recommendable to incorporate it into the mixes of this palette.
On the right side of the palette —which usually rests on the easel tray— there is always a stack of previously cut kitchen paper sheets where you frequently rub the brush. Hollis Dunlap is a meticulous painter and does not stain his hands, clothes or floor when painting: there is only paint in his palette and in his work, which is where it should be. Both Lead White and Cadmium Yellow have a high toxicity and we must be careful with our own safety.
«If what you really care about is work, you do not need to spend a lot of money»
Medium, who needs it?
«You can study painting just observing Velázquez»
If, when squinting eyes —closing them slightly— some information disappears which when directly observing can be seen well (nose holes, etc.) you have to paint a balance between both ways of seeing.
It is necessary to observe how much the tones reflect the surrounding colors, and how much the color of the light is more important than the local color. His teacher David Dewey, when speaking about adding lights, said that light should be a color —make it a color— which means that even the highest lights are a defined color. That helped him to better understand modern painting and began to work indistinctly drawing and color in a much more interesting way for his work.
«A painting should look real without any detail»
First of all, we will cover support’s white with a warm optical gray, with a wide brush loaded with solvent, scrubbing a mixture of Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine, and Lead White. If our brand of Burnt Sienna is too opaque to use as a primer, we should try to use a more transparent pigment (perhaps a transparent oxide) or a hint of Cadmium Red due to its high dyeing power.
Light and dark keys are established for a good starting, simultaneously. Many artists recommend moving from dark to light, or vice versa, but Hollis Dunlap works in both directions at once in order to get a clear view of relationships from the very beginning.
He used to start with a dark paint sketch, using the brush as if it were a pencil and then filling it with color. But he does not paint this way anymore. Now he starts with a very basic blocking: a few indications with thin paint, paying close attention to wide angles before any detail. Then he sets large blocks of color for the lighter lights and later he gets into drawing inside them as if they were containers.
We must try from the beginning to get a look close to the final approach in our painting –Hollis Dunlap comments that he recommends this perhaps because of his impatience– which allows to paint more quickly with a more solid perception of the sense of light. In the same way, he also tries to emphasize quickly the hardest and softest edges. The idea is to avoid painting in phases and start by putting our painting in a global way, all at once. The division of tasks disperses the overall vision.
Background and figure?
Background and figure are also painted at the same time, conceptually they should not be differentiated because the light affects both beyond its symbolic connotation. An arm is not an arm, it is first a brushstroke in the right place with a value that we must relate to the rest. Then we will take care of the form.
«The reflected light is part of the shadow and its leadership must be attenuated to highlight the color and value of the main light»
Position, proportion, and shape
The position is more important than modeling the shape. Therefore, they are established in this order:
The centerline –geometric axis– is worked before contours. Then the contours are bounded more precisely with the help of negative shapes and anatomical knowledge.
«A great virtue for any painter is patience, even more than discipline»
The art of mixing well
«The skin color has more to do with the color of light than with its local color»
✓ Color, value, and chroma are decided and mixed in the palette, not in our work.
✓ We do not "see" colors in the model corresponding to our work, they simply mix in the palette. They are color relations, not correspondences of color samples taken from the model.
✓ Colors are mixed using two o three colors. There is a great risk of mudding if we use more than three colors per mixture.
✓ We should not think in terms of temperature –cold and warm– but in families of specific colors –red, blue, yellow, etc.
✓ The colors should be mixed in the palette and applied cleanly as specific values, without mixing or overworking on the support. Then, in the end, we will decide if we are going to blend or manipulate the painting, but it is a bad habit to do it by inertia while we paint. The master in this was undoubtedly Vermeer.
Hollis Dunlap developed a fast painting technique, with a heavily loaded brush, to capture the effects of ever-changing light. Over the years and a lot of practice, these studies helped him build confidence since his goal was to experience over the pressure of painting a good painting.
He learned to compose with quick 2-3- hour studies - such as this one - where he could rehearse much more compositional concepts that interested him more than at works which required 40 or more hours of execution in the approach, and another 35 to refine the result.
«A painting is composed of colored grays in harmony»
«Nobody wants to see the painting of an artist who fears to lay paint»
From general to particular, from hard to soft
It all starts with large brushes and ends with small brushes. This order is unalterable. Flat brushes are the most versatile ones, as they allow both a broad brush and a thin line. To begin the painting it is advisable to work with hard bristle brushes, the cheapest ones, and then go progressively using increasingly smooth brushes such as nylon. Are we painter or mice?
We must load the brush well before painting since most students tend to load it little because of fear. Nobody wants to see the painting of an artist who fears to lay paint... We must load the brush well and lay paint without fear!
The brushstroke, wide
As Sargent said, the brush stroke should be applied as long as possible, avoiding unnecessary detours. Then we'll take care of the details if we finally decide to add them. The brushstroke must be executed straight and long, deciding later if we want to rip it, repair it, break it or leave it as it is.
A brushstroke is never repeated mechanically, but each stroke must have an intention and a previous job in the palette. Hollis Dunlap uses a ritual in which he doesn’t allow himself to execute more than three brushstrokes on the canvas without mixing again in the palette. You must put a stroke at a time, without insisting or wandering with the brush.
«People are not pink or orange: they are made of colored grays»
The Spanish brushstroke
The Spanish school’s brushstroke, especially Velázquez’s, consists of loading the brush a lot and dragging it towards one side, looking for an edge to be hard and loaded, and the opposite soft and blended. The contrast of hard edges with soft edges creates a volume effect with great brushstroke economy. A good connoisseur of this technique is his colleague Sean Cheetham.
Blending and retouching
They are reserved for the end, and the least possible ones are made. Blending too much ruins our painting, especially in the beginning. The procedure is, with the fresh paint, to pass over a dry brush without dragging too much, giving slight touches. The best brushes for blending are the worst and cheapest ones, especially soft hair, such as pony. Also worn nylon brushes serve, those who have hair so open and curly that look like a pompom.
«You proceed gradually from large shapes to smaller shapes»
If a painting has a good sense of detail and no sense of proportion, it is wrong and should be checked as many times as necessary until it is completely safe to add details. The details will only look good after properly painting the larger shapes, so if any part does not work well, Hollis repaints it as many times as necessary until it looks good. Not in vain did he claim that patience is a greater virtue than discipline.
You proceed gradually from large shapes to smaller shapes, always checking that every detail that is added is in its right place, value, and shape. And only when the first patches are checked and in place, you can experiment with textures and thicknesses of paint.
Precision and details
To paint details it is best to hold the brush vertically and make vertical brush strokes. The greatest difficulty lies in making brushstrokes with whimsical movements and angles so that it must be done by respecting a control axis — the vertical one— with the help of the handle as a guide.
The more details you put, the more likely chaos appears and nothing is in place.
«The more details you put, the more likely chaos appears and nothing is in place»
The areas that require a lot of work and a considerable level of detail are always areas of interest. These nodes —heads, hands— should start slightly larger, as the successive adjustment work will eventually reduce them to their correct size.
Edges and variety
«I’d rather look for a well- unfinished painting, than a poorly finished one»
Lights are not achieved by adding more white, but with harder edges. Again, the study of Velázquez’s brushstrokes is key to get light without abusing white, as it dilutes colors, turning them into chromatically poor inks.
The variety in the brushstroke, as opposed to detail, is not a problem if we are painting correctly: when value and chroma are good, any mark is interesting.
Sargent used to break his long brushstrokes and then 'repair' them, making them much richer and interesting.
«Sometimes what is missing may be a simple addition of color, or sometimes something more complex, like a greater abstraction in the figure»
Among Hollis's future plans is to experiment more with color, so that painting is more a way of showing what he wants rather than reproducing what he sees. His idea is to retain drawing experimenting only with color with the same techniques and cocktail of traditional styles that he deeply loves.
In that sense, he would like, beyond experimenting with painting, experimentation to begin with the approach and concept of pose itself and its illumination.
VI. ABOUT THIS WORKSHOP