I recently took a workshop with Steven Assael, the renowned figure painter from New York City. The weekend program was offered at The Compass Atelier, an art instruction facility in Rockville, MD.
Steven Assael, a New York City native, is recognized nationally as one of the leading representational figurative artists of his generation. His portrayal of the human image is inspired by the classical tradition of painting and is based on a deep knowledge of anatomy and craft. His work is often compared to that of Rembrandt—empathic, ennobling, and psychologically penetrating.
The workshop started with a lecture and demo. While he showed images of his work, describing the sources and inspiration for the paintings, Mr. Assael spoke freely of what art means to him. I wish I had taken better notes, because most of it was quite interesting, quoting mythology and philosophy. The one quote I remember is “Art is Passion in the Service of Reason.” or words to that effect.
He followed the lecture with a portrait drawing demo. While one of the participants volunteered to sit for him. Mr. Assael proceeded to slowly work up the form using a variety of pencils, starting with marking light marks with a very hard pencil and moving to soft lead for the darker areas. It was quite mesmerizing to watch and the drawing slowly evolve. One thing I learned from watching was that the likeness is the last thing to appear. It was only until the last ten minutes of a drawing that took over an hour that it looked at all like its subject matter. He focused a long time on developing the shadow under the jaw and secondly the shadow of the nose. Which makes sense since those are the largest shapes but my first instinct would have been to start with the eyes. The eyes however were last thing he worked on. He drew on a smooth bristol board which allowed for a very delicate touch. He often smoothed out areas by rubbing his thumb on it. Finally he used some oily pencil marker that created an intense flat black that was useful for hair and created a striking contrast with the white paper.
I wondered afterwards what happens to the finished drawing. Would he give it to the volunteer model if she asked for it? Given that his drawings sell in the thousands of dollars, it didn’t seem likely, nor did it make sense that he would sell it along with his other work without the model’s permission. Since these questions were never asked we may never know.
The next day, the actual workshop, he started with a painting demo, which I missed part of arriving late. There were two models hired for the two days. Each of them were lit with a colored light. Mr. Assael artwork often features figures that are lit dramatically. One model dressed in a colorful outfit, sat by the window with a bright orange light grazing the side of her face. The other model, who did a standing nude pose, was lit by a green light.
We were asked to choose a model and start painting. I decided to start with the nude model. I recognized that to make the green light work, the shadows would contain its complement, red. I strived to find all the variations of green and red I could find. But after a while of staring at the model it was hard to figure out what color I was looking at. Was the brown backdrop lit by a green light, green or brown? And how was it different than skin tone that was lit by the same green? After a while it all become blurry.
Steven Assael teaches mostly by example. He may give a few reminders that he addressed in his demo but soon after he grabs your paint brushes and goes to work, showing not telling. He went around in an orderly fashion and spent at least a quarter with each student in most cases reworking the canvas so much that the original painting was hardly recognizable.
After working several hours on my painting, Mr. Assael stopped by my easel. He intensified the contrast between shadow and light, slapping a big hunk of burnt sienna on the shadow areas to darken them, and white and yellow on the highlights. He works incredible fast and fearlessly at first, throwing paint on with abandon but then delicately moving the paint around, usually with the tip of a fan brush or a mop brush. I was amazed with his accuracy too. He quickly corrected some slight errors in my anatomy; this comes I’m sure from a lifetime of drawing the figure. With a few deft strokes he hit all the right highlights on the figure making it look fully dimensional and actually lit from a green light.
At the end of the workshop, scores of Steven Assael’s reworked canvases graced our easels. But what to do with them? They are neither officially his or the student’s. How could they be displayed or ever offered for sale? I suppose mine will have to grace a corner of my studio, a reminder of a valuable workshop forever.