Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Artist's Studio
20 x 18 Oil on Linen

When an artist starts a new painting he stands facing a flat surface. In the art world this is known as the picture plane. An artist who does trompe-l'œil painting endeavors to convince the viewer that the objects in the painting stand in front of the picture plane. Most artists, however, attempt to create an illusion of depth and three dimensionality that could be described as penetrating the picture plane. The viewer stands outside the picture plane and views the objects within as if looking through a window. I prefer to think of my canvas not as a blank surface but as an empty space. The space in my painting is the same space that I am standing in, the objects are lit by the same light and breathe the same air as the artist creating the painting or the viewer encountering the piece. The model or chair or drapery, or apples or grapes, are not objects trapped behind the picture plane, they are on one side of the easel and I am on the other. They are the current inhabitants of the painting, they have entered the space that is my canvas. I like to think that they could leave the space at any time and someone or something else will come to visit me, will enter that space, and become my next painting.....


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pip Meets the Aged P
12 x 14 Oil on Panel

After I left the classroom (you don't graduate from the League you leave whenever you are ready) I stopped painting figures for awhile. I had painted portraits and nudes week after week for many years and wanted to paint something else. Besides I didn't have enough money to hire models to pose for me privately. So I painted landscapes and still lifes. Still life quickly became my favorite subject because of the endless possibilities in composition . Before long I began to think about painting figures again and figure composition. It didn't go much farther than a few doodles on the subway on a religious or mythological theme. Then a gallery in Connecticut called and asked if I wanted to participate in a Dickens themed exhibition. I quickly batted out a painting of Scrooge counting his miserly fortune. I had done many paintings of single figures so that wasn't so hard. Then decided to do a small composition. I was reading, or more exactly rereading, Great Expectations at the time so I took my theme from there. I always had a great fondness for the Aged P, Wemmick's moniker for his aging parent, so I painted the scene where Wemmick brings Pip home to meet his father.

"You wouldn't mind being at once introduced to the Aged, would you? It wouldn't put you out?" I expressed the readiness I felt and we went in. There we found, sitting by a fire, a very old man in a flannel coat: clean, cheerful, comfortable, and well cared for, but intensely deaf. "Here's Mr. Pip, aged parent," said Wemmick, "and I wish you could hear his name. Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that's what he likes. Nod away at him, if you please.....

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

PAINTING OF THE MONTH

Bread and Wine
Oil on Linen
Image 12 x 16 - Framed 17 x 21
$1500

Simple or complex. If the viewer sees only bread and wine, that seems simple enough. But if it is the beginning of a great feast the meaning becomes more complex. If it is a representation of the Eucharistic meal it takes on yet another layer of meaning. The colors seem quite natural, quite simple. But if you realize the painting is built on a red, blue, yellow harmony then it is filled with the full complexity of the rainbow. The composition could sit quietly on the tabletop or it could be a complex swirling maze moving in and out of the painting. What is the meaning of this painting, what was the artist's intent, what does the viewer see, is it simple or complex.....

The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Bread and Wine, which retails for $2400, is being made available for $1500 (includes shipping, VT residents add 6% sales tax). To purchase this piece contact me at thomastorak@gmail.com. Payment is by check only please, no credit cards. If you prefer you may make 3 monthly payments. This offer is available for 30 days from the date of this post.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Breakfast Cantata
19 x 24 Oil on Linen

I'm very fond of Bach's cantatas. His church cantatas are like small oratorios. He also wrote secular cantatas which have stories and characters, they might be called operettas by the next generation. One of my favorites is the Coffee Cantata, which concerns a girl whose father will not let her marry until she gives up her addiction to that extremely popular drink. As I worked on this breakfast painting I heard it as a rather comical cantata. There were several characters. The frying pan was a bass of course, the grapes a gossipy chorus, the eggs sopranos, the oranges tenors, and the toaster a big, burly baritone. The broken egg shells sounded a bit like a musical joke. The disappearing toaster, as described in the previous post, only added to the fun. The music was quite lively and jolly, and the story, well I'll let each viewer create their own version.....

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Breakfast day 1

Advice to young artists: Think twice before taking something from the kitchen to put in your still life. I thought we didn't use the toaster very much, so if it was gone for a few days it wouldn't be a big deal and it would free up some kitchen counter space. Not long after I got my still life set up and started painting Elizabeth came to the studio to ask if she could borrow the toaster for a few minutes, she wanted to have toast with her sardines for lunch. "Of course" I replied and the toaster went back to the house and then returned to the studio after she had finished with it. The next morning I wanted toast with my eggs so the toaster made the same trip as the day before. As I worked that day, a rather chilly, gloomy day it was, it occurred to me that a pot of tea and cinnamon toast would be quite comforting. This time I brought a loaf of bread, an extention cord and a serving tray out to the studio.....

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The renaissance and baroque periods, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, are generally considered to be the height of oil painting. Later periods, in attempts to paint better, made rules and formulas, and became more and more rigid. By the 19th century these rules became dogma, inflexible and inviolable. Manet and Van Gogh didn't fit the mold, their paintings were unacceptable. The reaction against this, of course, was the modern era. Now there is a reaction against the modern era and a return to the ways of the 19th century. But why do contemporary artists want to go back to the rigid ways that brought on the modern period in the first place? Yes, Ingres and Bouguereau did magnificent work in the academic tradition, but Monet and Whistler did extraordinary paintings as well. But why stop there, why not look back farther, before formulas and correctness, loosen the screws, allow artists to draw and paint freely? How about Carravagio, Tintoretto and Pontormo, Hals, Leyster and Brouwer.....

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Yellow Nasturtiums
24 x 20 Oil on Linen

Some artists paint in prose, some paint in poetry. Some artists paint facts, some paint metaphor. Some artists paint light and shade, some paint luminosity. Some artists paint space, some paint atmosphere. Some artists design, some compose. Some artists paint tones, some paint color. Some artists paint what they see, some paint what they perceive. Some paintings speak, some sing. Some artists paint to live, some artists live to paint.....

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

PAINTING OF THE MONTH

Day's End, Bass Harbor
Oil on Linen
Image 12 x 18 - Framed 17 x 23
$1500

I tried my best, I really did. It was a lovely scene, sun setting, boats resting in the distant harbor, the clouds creating a bit of drama. I started to paint, then wiped it out. A second attempt yielded the same result. Then on the third try I got something, but it was uninspired. I went to a nearby playground and shot some hoops while Elizabeth finished her painting. A few years later I pulled it out of the racks and went at it again. This time it came easily to my hand. I imagined myself back at the scene, I kept painting until the sun set, there was no time for basketball.....

The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Day's end, Bass Harbor, which retails for $2600, is being made available for $1500 (includes shipping, VT residents add 6% sales tax). To purchase this piece contact me at thomastorak@gmail.com. Payment is by check only please, no credit cards. If you prefer you may make 3 monthly payments. This offer is available for 30 days from the date of this post.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Everyone in the classroom seemed very anxious when I arrived to teach last Thursday. The model they had been painting for the past three days called in sick. He was about 60 years old and took a pose looking down, reading from a large book. The replacement the office sent up for the day was a young woman in her twenties. “What should I do?” one of them asked, “Should I start a new painting?” “Nonsense” I replied. “You've been looking at that model for three days, you should be able to work without a model. Fortunately you have someone taking the same pose. The light falls the same way on a young woman as it does on an older man. The planes are essentially the same, the underlying structure of the head is the same. Let's use the model we have to finish the painting.” So for the next twenty minutes or so I reworked the head in the painting pointing out the similarities of the two models and creating the original character from memory. I knew the shape of his head, the receding hairline and wavy wisps of hair. I remembered his pouting lower lip and the white whiskers below it. Add the glasses with the peculiar amber colored plastic frame and there he is.....

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Day at the Quarry
24 x 30 Oil on Linen

Chapter 4. Tom was now ready to put the finishing touches on his painting. One concern that he had had in the back of his mind all along was where the painting was going to hang. Francis and Clare had a wonderful house, but being an old house it had very uneven lighting. The place where the painting was to hang was a rather dark spot over the fireplace. Tom was aware of this problem and painted the painting a bit brighter than he normally would. Now it was his main concern. He brought as much sunlight and sparkle into the trees as he could and picked up the light on the marble and figures wherever possible. He knew, of course, that a painting cannot illuminate a dark space but he worked hard to keep it from looking dark on the wall. Francis and Clare are coming up this weekend, the painting is finished, varnished and in the frame.....

Epilogue. Francis and Clare loved the painting and they all lived happily ever after.....

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chapter 3. When Tom was at Francis and Clare's house measuring the space for the painting he noticed that one of their children was looking at some photos the family had taken on a day at the quarry. A few days later he asked if they could email him a few of those photos. He was hoping he might find something that would allow him to put the children in the painting. There was a great photo of all 3 children diving off the marble ledge together. Perfect, that would become the focus of the scene. The figures were less than 2 inches high in the painting but that was enough to suggest their characters. At the beginning of the next day's work he went right after this focal point. The figures had been well drawn the first day but now he increased the weight and form and worked on the illusion of them floating in space. Then, of course, he reworked all the other figures and brought more structure and solidity to the marble.

Now the trees and bushes had to be developed. They are not the main focus of the painting but they do occupy more the half of the space. Tom had painted this mass of trees before and knew their general shapes and patterns quite well. The trick here is to paint them fully and beautifully but not distract from the activity of the figures.....

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chapter 2. Tom awoke early the next morning and was anxious to get started. The canvas was already stretched and prepared with a light umber tone. He had two rules for starting a painting. One was to take your time and decide what you want to do before jumping in, and two, not to wait to paint what you are most excited about. He squared the canvas lightly in pencil and broadly sketched in the composition with vine charcoal to satisfy the first rule. But he had been dreaming about those figures all night and couldn't wait to get going on them. To the casual viewer this looked a bit like starting a portrait by painting the eye first and then building the head around it, but Tom was so well prepared for this painting that he was able to take this bold step with confidence. He had so much to say that it ended up being nearly 30 figures.


Toward the end of the day he finally got around to filling out the rest of the painting. It was all going beautifully, it was the best composition of the quarry he had ever done. Then he suddenly realized how exhausted he was. He was so excited about what he was painting that he hadn't noticed how hard he was working.....

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chapter 1. Once upon a time Francis and Clare wandered into a gallery and saw a painting of the local marble quarry. While they were deciding whether or not to purchase the piece it was sold to someone else. They knew it was just what they were looking for so they contacted the artist, Tom, and commissioned him to do one for them. Tom had painted the quarry a few times before and was happy to do so again, but this time it was a little different. When he paints something for himself he can take a bit of artistic license. If the trees are shorter or the figures larger than in nature who's going to know or care? But when he is commissioned to paint something he views it as a collaboration. Francis and Clare knew the scene well and wanted the painting to be a fair representation of it. It was, therefore, important to him to find the view that best represented the quarry and to make the proportions reasonably accurate. He had been to their house and measured the space where the painting would hang so he knew the dimensions of the new piece. So one sunny afternoon, when Tom knew there would be lots of activity at the quarry, he made some compositional drawings and sketches of some of the characters on the scene. When he got back to his studio he made another drawing to the exact proportions he wanted for his painting, then squared it to transfer accurately to his canvas.....

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

PAINTING OF THE MONTH

Ruby Red and Gold
Oil on Linen
Image 14 x 16 - Framed 20 x 22
$1800

Imagine an exhibition catalog where each painting is described as if it were an entree on the menu of a fine restaurant.
Ruby Red and Gold..... A light and lively treat. Two grapefruits, a pitcher and cloth arranged in a delightful composition, executed with bold confidence and bravura brushwork. A perfectly balanced palette dominated by yellows and golds set off with cool grays and topped with warm red glazes. Finished with a simple American frame accenting its quiet elegance.
That sounds really good. Oh curator, could I get that to go.....

The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Ruby Red and Gold, which retails for $2600, is being made available for $1800 (includes shipping, VT residents add 6% sales tax). To purchase this piece contact me at thomastorak@gmail.com. Payment is by check only please, no credit cards. If you prefer you may make 3 monthly payments. This offer is available for 30 days from the date of this post.

This offer is currently available to my Facebook friends.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fireflies
16 x 16 Oil on Panel

It was late. It was very late. I went outside to study the night. Each step I took away from the the house took me deeper and deeper into the Stygian darkness. Except for the fact that I could feel my feet on the earth I could have been floating in space. Soon my eyes began to adjust and shapes and patterns and colors started to appear. The shapes were massive, the patterns unrecognizable, the colors variations of black. I heard music. Music that I'd never heard before. A piano sonata for the left hand alone. It was deep and lovely. I don't think it ever rose above the lowest octave on the instrument. No composer had ever stayed that low for that long. Or any painter. Even Whistler didn't go that far in his nocturnes. Rothko and a few others did black paintings but they were spiritual journeys, color experiments, abstractions. I was experiencing the landscape. The shapes became familiar. A mass of trees. No details, just a hint of form, a suggestion of color. The pattern was the tree tops against a moonless sky. The color a subtle shift from dark greens and grays and blacks to gentle, but still dark, blues and violets. Then a flash. Then another. Fireflies. Beacons of life. The right hand hovered above the piano occasionally dropping down to find a fluttering eighth note. Then another. Each with its own color. One yellow, one orange, one iridescent green. It was beautiful. I watched and listened. Then I walked back inside and began to plan my painting for the next day.....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Making your own gesso may not be for everyone. If you can say what you want to say on an acrylic primed canvas board that's fine. For many painters it's hard enough finding to time to paint let alone prepare materials, but if you can work with good commercial panels and canvases so much the better. If your skills, however, are at a level where commercial products are keeping you from fully expressing what you have to say then you may want to look into preparing your own materials. The ground is the foundation of the painting, whatever is painted on that support will be affected by its strength and quality. The story of the three little pigs, as every young artist knows, is really a parable about preparing canvases and panels.
When you come to the final stage of preparation, the final glue and tone, you are starting to create your painting. The color you choose for the tone is the first color choice of your painting.

Earth colors are the most common choice. They are inexpensive and give you a gentle but solid support. Here I used raw umber. It is a warm, quiet color that will not overwhelm whatever I put on top of it. Ivory black works in the same way but is a cooler tone. They are like your best friends. Comforting, supportive but not intrusive.



If raw umber and ivory black are your best friends than terra rosa is more like a spouse. All the good qualities of your best friend but more exciting. It is a very jazzy, sexy, rich tone that wants to be part of the painting. It can drag down light colors if they are applied too thinly, but it can liven up a painting if it is allowed to show through from time to time.



Now if terra rosa is like a spouse then thalo green would be your mistress. It is a daring and dangerous tone, one that should not be used without careful consideration. Thalos are attractive but very strong colors and could easily overpower your painting. You might think you have everything under control only to realize later that the thalo ground has infected every color you put on top and ruined your beautiful painting.

Uh oh, this is starting to sound a bit too much like pygmalion and galatea.....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's been a while since my last post. I haven't been painting, I've been preparing materials. A new batch of canvases are in the works, I described that process in an earlier post. I'm also preparing gessoed panels. Most of the commercial panels are prepared with acrylic gesso which I find to be too slippery and insensitive to my artistic touch. There are now some better products starting to appear on the market but I prefer to make my own. It is a lean ground made with chalk and glue water. First I decide on the support to be gessoed. Wood panels, masonite or paper all work well. I do not recommend this gesso for stretched canvas because it is not very flexible and could crack under stress. For this project I am using masonite and had two 4' x 8' sheets cut to size giving me 36 panels to prepare. All you need to make the gesso is a hot plate, a pot, a wooden spoon, rabbit skin glue, water and chalk. I use commercial whiting but gypsum or any other chalk should be fine, feel free to experiment, you may find that you are an inventor as well as an artist. Add 1 oz of rabbit skin glue to 20 oz of water and gently heat them together until the glue is dissolved. Stirring the water while heating will keep the glue from settling to the bottom of the pot. Then slowly add 20 oz of chalk. Like the glue it will settle to the bottom in a clump so continue stirring. When the chalk and glue water have completely combined the gesso is ready. Using a large brush apply the gesso to the panels (I like to keep the gesso warm and stir it ocassionally) and set them aside to dry. Allow them to dry overnight then lighly sand the surface and apply a second coat. Repeat the process adding a third and fourth coat. Finally make a pot of fresh glue water, also 20:1, and apply this with a bit of dry color as the finishing coat.....

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Early Morning
8 x 10 Oil on Panel

In the previous post I noted my dislike of "capturing a moment in time." In freezing time, even to relish the moment, one takes the chance of forgetting the past or losing sight of what is to come. When I went out to paint Early Morning it was misty, very misty, foggy. There was no view to paint. I could barely see what was 50 yards in front of me, but I love mist and fog and atmosphere and mystery so I proceeded to paint a clump of trees on a nearby hillside shrouded in a thick cloud. It was marvelous. Large arboreal ghosts appearing and disappearing, making silent entrances and exits. Then within minutes the sun burned off the fog and revealed the identities of the actors. Now the play was over, my subject changed and a new play had begun. I could save my little misty masterpiece and start a new painting or change what I was working on and make it into a sunny morning sketch. I was not happy with either option. The misty version seemed unresolved and the sunny option too stark. I needed something in between, those few moments when the sun was burning off the fog. Leaving some of the fog reminds us of how the morning started and picking up some of the sunlight points to the day ahead. The painting is not a snapshot of a moment but tells a story with a past and a future. The future however is not fully revealed, the story is not finished, and we can delight in the anticipation of what is to come.....

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

PAINTING OF THE MONTH

Summer Storm
Oil on Linen
Image 20 x 30 - Framed 27 x 37
Sold

Beethoven. Symphony No. 6 in F Op 68. The Pastoral. Fourth Movement. Gewitter, Sturm. Thunderstorm. Allegro. The great composer wanted his symphony to be "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds." To feel, to engage, to experience. I rather dislike "capturing a moment in time" in my paintings. Instead I would like the viewer to take in the whole of the storm. To feel the first few drops, watch as the sky darkens and the winds push the clouds and drive the rain, hear the thunder and fear the lightning, to know the relief of the sun finally breaking through. To expect a rainbow to appear if they look at the painting long enough.....

The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Summer Storm, which retails for $4800, was offered at a discount and purchased by a reader. Next month a new drawing or painting will be offered.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Summer Rain
8 x 12 Oil on Panel

When you live in Vermont you are surrounded by snow for a good part of the winter. White is everywhere. One day last February I had an intense desire for color. I pulled a small panel from the racks and decided to paint a landscape, a summer landscape. Storms have always fascinated me but are rather hard to paint from nature. There is the fear of being drenched at any moment as well as the fear of being struck by lightning. So I often watch storms from a safe and dry distance storing up information for just such a moment as this. The painting was there in my head, all I had to do was transfer it to the panel. No reference photo, no pencil drawing, no plein air sketch, just me and my memory and my imagination. It started as a great storm, dark on the horizon, clouds racing through the sky, trees bending in the wind. I worked on it for an hour or so from time to time over the next few weeks while continuing with my larger paintings. As the days passed by and my color anxieties eased so did the storm in my painting. The wind gradually died down, a bit of sun broke through, and the fierce storm turned into refreshing rain. But I still had that great storm in my head so I went back to the racks and out came a larger canvas.....

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The class at the League goes from September through May. It focuses on portrait and figure painting but also includes still life, composition, color, drawing, pretty much anything that has to do with indoor painting. But to be a well rounded artist you must also be familiar with the principles of outdoor painting. DuMond was an avid fisherman and, I am told, took students with him on his fishing/painting excursions to Nova Scotia. After he bought a small farm in Old Lyme, CT he invited students to join him there. When Frank took over the class he took his students to Lubeck, ME to paint seascapes. By the time I came along the class was meeting every June in Stowe, a beautiful skiing community in northern Vermont. We would meet 3 times a week for critiques and work on our own for the rest of the time. I've moved the class to southern Vermont to the town of Pawlet, a good place for the class for a number of reasons. First, I have my home and studio there. It is a farming community which echos the DuMond's Old Lyme class. And finally it has long had resident artists and is comfortable seeing them along the roads. Ogden Pleissner, a former DuMond student, and Jay Connaway both lived there. Pleissner was famous for his sporting art, especially fly fishing scenes, and Connaway was a great landscape painter known for his big bold brushwork. So for the past month we dotted the landscape with french easels and pochade boxes at all hours of the day and often late into the evening. Obsessed with greens and blues and light and atmosphere. Before long we will all be back at the League again, obsessed with bones and muscles and structure and form.....

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I painted these peonies from my garden on a Monday, early the next morning Frank passed away. I think it would have made him happy to know that a few hours later the landscape class was out for a sunrise crit. The tradition continues. Elizabeth and I attended his funeral service in New York on Saturday. Colleagues, clients and friends filled the pews of the beautiful Grace Church in lower Manhattan. Many of his former students were there, arriving from Pittsburg, Nashville, New Orleans, even Venice, as well as neighboring states. There was a large number from Vermont where Frank and Anne owned a house for many years and where Frank taught his landscape class. We all said farewell to our old mentor then met at the Salmagundi Club to share our memories. After the reception Elizabeth and I walked down to Chinatown for a bite to eat with my old roommates and dear friends Bill and Kim Darling and 4 of their 8 children. It turned into a rather jolly meal and, unwilling to part with them again so soon, we decided to walk back uptown with them. It was a pleasant, sunny day but there was a sudden late day cloudburst. We found shelter and when the rain stopped continued our trek uptown. As we walked along there appeared rainbow after rainbow. Finally we stopped and looked back downtown to see a particularly intense rainbow. It was right over Frank's studio. We were all thinking the same thing, it was obviously Frank showing off his new palette.....

Thursday, June 18, 2009

En Plein Air
48 x 48 Oil on Linen

Not long after I wrote the previous post I received word that Frank Mason had died. It's hard to believe that the 53 year old powerhouse that I studied with at the League is gone. Yes, he was 88 years old, but I had seen him survive lead poisoning and heart and lung problems that would have taken down any normal man. I thought he was indestructible. He was a great, great artist and had enormous influence over the next generation. He shaped my artistic vision and that of countless others. Of course I have many memories of wonderful demonstrations, critiques and lessons. Many of his students share those memories, but from time to time I remind myself to make mental snapshots knowing that the moment I am in is important to me and one that I will want to remember. Those snapshots are not always of painting, but of Frank playing baseball with us after a landscape crit, or Frank playing the piano at one of the parties in his studio, of the time we were adjusting the lights in his studio at 2am because he was having an open studio show the next day, of the two of us having lunch during a break as I framed and crated his paintings for an exhibition. One day Elizabeth and I were at his house in Vermont helping him prepare canvas. We worked all day until suddenly Frank began to panic. "The sun is almost down and we haven't painted yet. Drop everything" he said. So we did and quickly set up and started painting. We only had about 20 or 30 minutes before the light was gone but in that time I did a small study on paper of Frank as he stood painting the last light of the day. It is the only time I ever painted him and is one of my sentimental favorites. Many years later I made En Plein Air from that sketch. The world has lost a great artist and a great man, and I have lost my teacher and my friend.....

Friday, June 12, 2009

I know my painting lineage better than my own family tree. Frank Vincent DuMond started painting with Sartain and Beckwith at the Art Students League in New York in the 1880's and then went to Paris, as was customary at the time, where he studied with Lefebvre, Constant and Boulanger at the Academie Julian. Shortly after returning to America he began teaching at the League, at the age of 27, and continued as an instructor there for most of the next 59 years. Frank Herbert Mason enrolled in DuMond's class at the age of 16 and continued to study with him for the next dozen years or so. One day while they were sitting together in the League's cafeteria DuMond asked Mason when he was going to start teaching. Mason replied that he wanted to paint and had not thought about teaching. DuMond let Mason know that he didn't expect him to keep everything he had been taught to himself. When DuMond died in 1951 Mason took over the class. He was, like his mentor, a young man when he began to teach and would have a long tenure as a League instructor. Frank had been teaching for over 20 years when I arrived at the League in 1974 and, after a few months of studying anatomy and drawing with Robert Beverly Hale, I became a Mason student. As Frank began his 57th season at the League he realized his health was not up to the challenge. I had substituted for him for a day or two over the past few years but this time he asked me to teach the class for a few months while he recovered his strength. So I returned to my old classroom, this time as the instructor. As the weeks wore on it became clear that he would not be going back and he informed the League's director that he was retiring. I was soon asked to stay on and became the 3rd instructor to teach the afternoon class in Studio 7 at the Art Students League in the last 116 years. I'd had over 20 years to work on my painting but now it was my turn to pass on what I'd been taught. I suppose 50 some years from now an artist will write a blog post about how they studied with someone who studied with Torak, who studied with Mason, who studied with DuMond.....

Monday, June 1, 2009

PAINTING OF THE MONTH

Low Tide, Cape Cod
Oil on Panel
Image 10 x 12 - Framed 15 x 17
$900

Once, as a young boy, I was idly thumbing through a book on the lives of the saints and came across St. Therese of Lisieux. As a young Carmelite nun she was ordered by her superior to write an autobiography. At first she protested that she was a simple person and had nothing to write about. She was not a big fancy rose, she said, with large showy petals, a rich fragrance or intense color, but rather a delicate little wildflower which is easily overlooked. In accordance with her vow of obedience she began writing and her work was published two years after her death at the age of 24. Her simplicity and devotion inspired many to follow the example of the little flower, as she came to be known. Her story came back to me many years later. As I set up to paint Low Tide, Cape Cod I thought to myself "There is nothing here to paint." Where are the waves, the sailboats, the big puffy clouds, anything? But artists too have taken a vow, a vow to paint no matter what, and I proceeded to paint the scene before me. As I worked I began to understand my subject. It was never going to be the sketch for a big impressive painting showing off the grandeur of nature. It was forever going to be a lovely, delicate, humble little painting. The kind of painting that could be easily overlooked... or greatly enjoyed by those who are sensitive enough to stop and appreciate it......

The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Low Tide, Cape Cod, which retails for $1600, is being made available for $900 (includes shipping, VT residents add 6% sales tax). To purchase this piece contact me at thomastorak@gmail.com. Payment is by check only please, no credit cards. If you prefer you may make 3 monthly payments. This offer is available for 30 days from the date of this post.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Peanut Butter and Jelly
20 x 30 Oil on Linen

The previous post prompted a reader to inquire how I define my painting style. This is a subject I amuse myself with from time to time. Among the terms currently available I find myself landing in a group called contemporary realists. It is, however, a most unsatisfying solution to the problem. I don't deny that I am a contemporary artist but that won't last forever. It seems rather silly to call Marcel Duchamp modern when he did his best work 80 years ago and died over 40 years ago. So contemporary seems to be of limited use. Realist suggests that one is in competition with trompe-l'œil painters and photo realists for the title of most exact rendition. That's not a good description of my work. I like the term classical when it means reaching for the ideals of truth and beauty, but less so when it requires adherence to rigid canons. My work is somewhat romantic, but not so much so that the classical ideals are buried by irrational exuberance. Traditional always sounds old and stale and unimaginative so I don't see that working for me. Representational has become popular over the last few decades. As far as I can tell it means not non-representational. I might well be a representational abstract expressionist. This is where my brain starts to shut down and I realize that my time might be better spent reading a book. When I don't overthink it and go with my heart instead of my head I refer to my style as visual poetry.....

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Yellow Variations
24 x 20 Oil on Linen

In the art world there is an implied power structure. Anything cutting edge, no matter how well or how badly done, is at the top. Next is anything that used to be cutting edge but is now dull edged. Then what never had an edge but was none the less considered to be a new idea within what is known as modernism. Finally there is anything that has a germ of an association with anything before the modern era. In the field of what is known as representational painting, or traditional, or classical, or to some people old fuddy duddy obsolete painting, there is also a hierarchy. Here those that do large figure compositions are at the top. Followed by those whose figures stand alone, then figures in landscapes, landscapes without figures, and the lowest of the low, still life. Which brings me to my current painting. Yellow Variations starts out with virtually no respect in the art world. Flowers? Please, give me a break. Well, at least they're well painted. And the title isn't so bad, it suggests the painting isn't really about the flowers. Maybe it incorporates some abstraction. And, hey wait a minute, the coffee pot is from a drip coffee maker and that vase is a milk carton. Those things are modern. This could be considered a modern painting. What if it's like a retro thing? Yeah, retro with a modern twist. That's kind of cool. Maybe retro is the new new. This might be the next big thing, it could be...cutting edge.....

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Before I go to sleep at night I like to visualize what I'm going to be painting the next day. It's very relaxing, a kind of meditation, and I always see myself painting well. For this painting I knew the flowers would not last long so I focused on what I needed to do to finish them, as much as possible, in one sitting. I saw myself deciding which yellow or combination of yellows I would be using to paint the centers of the two daffodils facing me. Then deciding on how I wanted to approach the white petals, how high to go in the lights, how low in the shadows, how much reflected light I was seeing and how much transmitted light was coming through the petals. I visualized how I was going to apply the paint, big, rich opaque strokes in the lights and thinner, more transparent ones in the shadows. Next I would boldly lay in the milk carton and then decide how to use the background to set off my bouquet. With the flowers finished I could relax a bit and then go after the muffins. Rounded golden forms, they made a nice variation on the yellow theme of the daffodils and carton. On and on it went as if I were watching a How to paint a still life video with me doing the painting. I don't remember when I fell asleep but when I went to the studio the next day I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It all seemed so familiar somehow.....

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spring has arrived, the growing season begun, daffodils are blooming. As I was falling asleep last night I thought about how I would like to paint them this year. When I awoke this morning Brahms' first piano trio was playing in my head. Before long the daffodils and the music merged and I clearly saw, and heard, the composition for my painting. A bit of shopping, a trip to the flower patch growing by the stone walls lining my driveway, pick up a few things from the kitchen and off to the studio. Scrape off the old, dried colors on my palette, prepare some fresh paint, strain the clear mineral spirits (for cleaning my brushes) into a clean jar and wash out the sediment from the old jar, look for a canvas that is the right size and has good karma. Now that the still life is set up and my materials organized I am ready to start painting...almost. What's the rush? Sit, meditate, gather your thoughts, hear the music. The hours have passed by quickly but no time has been wasted. I have only an hour or so left to paint but that is all I need. On the first day of a new painting I like to take my time. It is like the final rehearsal before a performance. I get the feel of the canvas, plan my composition, lay a few tones down, perhaps practice some of the more difficult passages. Tomorrow I go off to the League to teach and when I come back it will be dry and ready to go.....

Friday, April 24, 2009

Silver and Gold
23 x 36 Oil on Linen

I've been reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia. It examines the place music occupies in the brain and chronicles anomalous perceptions of music by his patients. Some experience seizures when exposed to certain kinds of music (musicolepsia), others hear tunes or musical phrases repeated over and over (brainworms), some, like Schumann, are tortured by a single repeated note. Some suffer from amusia (perceiving music as noise) while others with perfect pitch cannot help identifying the musical signature of a car horn, or a sneeze or a dog's bark. Last night I read the chapter on synesthesia. Synesthesia literally means a fusing of the senses. The most common form is seeing color when hearing music, D major is blue or G minor is yellow. Some people experience letters of the alphabet as colors while others can taste musical notes. Normally only the auditory cortex of the brain is activated when one hears music but a synestete experiences activity in more than one part of the brain. If they see color when hearing music both the auditory and visual sections are activated. I hear my paintings as music and am often asked if I experience synesthesia. I think not because my associations are not so specific but rather general patterns and rhythms and dynamics. The auditory and visual sections of my brain are playing with each other or having a conversation rather than acting in concert. Reading this book has made me aware, however, that I hear music all the time. It is at a very low volume and is easily overridden by, or combined with, any other brain activity. It does not disrupt my life in any way but it is always there. If my mind is not occupied with another activity the musical volume increases and keeps me company. It has been my constant companion as far back as I can remember. On the other hand I've probably never experienced a genuine moment of silence in my whole life.....

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Roses and Apples
18 x 16 Oil on Linen

I met someone at a party and introduced myself as an artist. "Oh I would love to have your life" he said, "just wake up each morning and paint exactly what I see in front of me." We were standing near a kitchen counter with a toaster oven, a small vase with a flower and a napkin holder on it. "Well" I replied "if you paint exactly what you see you'll be painting a mask of what is there." He looked confused. "You are only seeing the front of everything" I continued. "To paint a convincing illusion of what you are seeing you need to also paint what you cannot see. You must be able to convince the viewer that the vase not only has the front that can see but also a back side that you cannot see, and that there is space between the vase and the wall. You can't see weight and yet the flower must look lighter than the toaster oven. Then of course you have to think about what it is that you want to express." "Oh" he said deflatedly "that's a lot harder than I thought it would be, but at least you get to do what you want and then sell it for a lot of money." "Oh yes" I said not wanting to deflate him again "Rubens did quite well for himself." I didn't mention that Van Gogh only sold one painting, or that Rembrandt had to sell everything that he had, or that Hals died in the poorhouse.....

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

PAINTING OF THE MONTH

Spring Runoff
Oil on Linen
Image 16 x 14 - Framed 22 x 20
$1400

When winter begins to fade away the word spreads quickly. As soon as the temperature nudges above freezing the first few drops of melted snow drip into the hard stream bed. Each drop seeks out another and before long they join together and start flowing along. As they go they begin to send out the word "spring is coming, spring is coming" they whisper. Awakened by the call the frost begins to thaw in the ground and rises to the surface to accompany the little stream. Now the melting snow in the lowlands and valleys joins in and the stream becomes stronger "spring is coming, spring is coming" is heard clearly across the land. The momentum builds and soon water is rushing from the mountain tops "SPRING IS COMING, SPRING IS COMING". There is now so much excitement that the water dashes over the rocks, jumping and splashing, tripping over itself in it's headlong rush downstream. Landscape painters know when nature is about to put on a good show so you will often see them perched next to the rushing waters, painting the spring runoff.....

The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Spring Runoff, which retails for $2400, is being made available for $1400 (includes shipping, VT residents add 6% sales tax). To purchase this piece contact me at thomastorak@gmail.com. Payment is by check only please, no credit cards. If you prefer you may make 3 monthly payments. This offer is available for 30 days from the date of this post.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Winter Scene
14 x 16 Oil on Linen

We changed the clocks last night and the first day of spring is not far away, but I can't let the seasons change without a post on winter. Winter is always on your mind when you live in Vermont. We jokingly call the four seasons winter, mud season, the fourth of July and winter. It all starts out quite charmingly, the magic of the first few snowflakes, the familiar smell of the woodstove, the nip of a chill in the air. Then soon enough the snow is quite deep, the roads slippery, the woodstove becomes a daily chore and that nip of a chill turns into biting, bitter cold. You have two choices, either embrace the snow and head off to the slopes or hunker down. Those who hunker down find ways to keep in touch with a monthly book group, a weekly drawing session or, for the heartiest, moonlight hiking. Others are grateful for a few extra hours to read, or reflect, or spend that longed for time with some Schubert lieder. If the artist should start to feel low he has only to visit his palette. While the rest of the world seems dark and cold and forbidding the artist's palette is light and cheerful and exciting. Everything is high in pitch. Instead of white in the highlights now white is everywhere. Even the shadows have moved from the bottom of the palette up to the middle. The only thing at the dark end are the stubborn evergreens who refuse to partake in the change of seasons. Everything on the palette, and in nature, is soft and gentle and noiseless. Goodbye dear winter. Soon the finches will be putting on their golden spring outfits, the daffodils will push forth to announce the growing season, and the brilliant greens and blues and yellows will return to the palette.....

Friday, February 20, 2009

Daffodils
20 x 18 Oil on Linen

I have more paintings in my head than I can possibly produce in one lifetime so if this idea appeals to any artist reading this post please feel free to use it. I am thinking about a series of paintings based on Bach's cello suites. Each of Bach's six suites starts with a prelude, setting the theme and mood of the piece. That is followed by five dances, a moderately paced allemande followed by a lighter courante, a stately sarabande, then a pair of minuets (or gavottes or bourrees) and concludes with a gigue. Now let's take that format to the easel. For a landscape it might look like this, a suite of six paintings of the same scene. The prelude would be sunrise, followed by a clear morning (allemande), then clouds and wind appear (courante), an afternoon storm (sarabande), a rainbow or sunset (minuet) and finally the same landscape lit by a full moon (gigue). For Andy Warhol fans the suite might be arranged for unaccompanied soup cans, tomato (prelude) followed by vegetable beef (allemande), cream of potato (courante), beef barley (sarabande), chicken noodle (gavotte) and minestrone (gigue). We could use Daffodils and Bartlett Pears from the previous post as the prelude for a suite on the theme of daffodils, although it would also work nicely as the minuet. Daffodils seems to me to be a sarabande. Now, four more daffodil paintings and my suite will be complete.....

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Daffodils and Bartlett Pears
20 x 18 Oil on Linen

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote six magnificent suites for unaccompanied cello. They are very high on my long list of favorite pieces of music. I like them so much I have four different recordings of them; an intense, full bodied version by Mstislav Rostropovich, a lighter, livelier interpretation by the Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma, Yo-Yo Ma's correct but somewhat colorless rendition and the warm, sensitive performance of Pablo Casals. I find it fascinating to hear the different personalities even though they are all playing from the same score. I try to develop this same sense of uniqueness in my painting students. I am the composer telling them what to paint and how I want them to approach it and they are the musicians, each interpreting my instructions in their own way. This week is the annual class show for my class at the Art Students League. As we hung the show on Sunday I was delighted to see all the different versions of the same pose. Each student worked hard to get the drawing, light and shade and atmosphere, trying to understand and employ what I was teaching them, but each brought their own personality to their work. Some intense, some lively, some colorless, some warm and sensitive. A mature artist, on the other hand, often works alone and consequently there is only one version, one interpretation of his subject. I often wonder how my still life would be rendered if there were another artist in my studio painting the same subject. What would Daffodils and Bartlett Pears look like if painted by Mason or DuMond, Matisse or Cassatt, Manet or Goya or Breughel.....

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

PAINTING OF THE MONTH

Untitled Landscape
Oil on Panel
Image 16 x 16 - Framed 21 x 21
$1600

I painted this Untitled Landscape twentysome years ago. I don't remember why. I doubt that I was taken by the subject, the trunk of a half dead apple tree in front of a whitewashed old shed, a gate that hasn't been closed in a generation. And why a square panel? That's certainly odd for a landscape. The play of light and shade is delightful and the abstraction is quite compelling. Was that my motivation? It's an unusual piece yet I've never had any desire to rework it or wipe it out. I've tried several titles but they all seemed rather pedestrian. Sometimes I'm a mystery even to myself. Perhaps one day a critic or an art historian will explain it to me. I've kept it all these years because I like it, it fascinates me, I don't know why....

The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Untitled Landscape, which retails for $2600, is being made available for $1600 (includes shipping, VT residents add 6% sales tax). To purchase this piece contact me at thomastorak@gmail.com. Payment is by check only please, no credit cards. If you prefer you may make 3 monthly payments. This offer is available for 30 days from the date of this post.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Quoddy Head, Maine
24 x 34 Oil on Linen

A few years ago, quite a few years ago, I had a yearning to paint the sea, to paint waves, really big waves. So I packed my landscape easel and headed off to Maine, to Acadia National Park. It's my favorite place for seascape painting, partly because it is so beautiful and partly because it is public. There is nothing worse than finding a beautiful place to paint and then have someone tell you "You can't paint here, this is private property." I stayed a few days and painted even though it was misty the whole time and consequently no big waves. Then proceeded to drive up the coast hoping to get out of the persistent fog. I stopped in Lubec because Quoddy Head State Park was there and I could stroll along the public coastline. The fog had indeed gotten thicker but I was determined to paint. There is a lighthouse there that is situated on the easternmost point of the United States, I sallied forth and set up my easel. The fog was now so heavy that I couldn't see the lighthouse but I decided to work anyway thinking that when the fog burned off I could dash in the lighthouse in a few strokes. All I could see in front of me was my easel, I thought of Philip Glass and how, with the wide range of notes available to him, he would pick out a few notes and repeat them over and over and over again, and I thought with all the beautiful colors on my palette I was now repeating the same few tones over and over and over again, and my mind began to see shapes and patterns in the dense fog and I tried to get that variety in my painting as I repeated those few tones over and over and over again, and then the shapes and patterns became rocks and a footpath and I realized the fog had softened to mist and I had a few more tones and colors to work with, Philip Glass gave way to Claude Debussy and there were delicate melodies and harmonies, and the endless repetition became a tone poem. Everything was lovely and peaceful and wonderful even though I never saw the lighthouse and there never were any waves, any really big waves.....

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sailing near Brooklyn
14 x 16 Oil on Linen

Sometimes inspiration is served to the artist on a silver platter. This happened to me a few weeks ago when I received an invitation to enter a competition at The Salmagundi Club. The Salmagundi is wonderful arts organization founded 137 years ago. It is now housed in a beautiful brownstone building on 5th Avenue in lower Manhattan. Elizabeth and I have been members since the early 90's. I love being part of a long tradition, walking the same halls and exhibiting in the same gallery as such great American artists as J. Francis Murphy, Childe Hassam, William Merrit Chase, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Louis Comfort Tiffany, as well as my teacher Frank Mason and his teacher Frank Vincent DuMond. The competition involves an exhibition at the Salmagundi to celebrate the Dutch founding of Manhattan 400 years ago. Artist members were asked to paint contemporary scenes of New York waterways. From this exhibition juror Leendert van der Pool (you can't get much more Dutch than that) will select 40 works to travel to the Zeeuws Maritiem Muzeeum Vlissingen in the Netherlands. Holland, the home of great seascape painting, Ruysdael, van Goyen, van de Velde, de Vlieger. I couldn't pass up an opportunity like that, but I moved out of the city 14 years ago and whatever cityscapes I had were sold long ago. What to do, what to do, think Torak, think. I used to live in Brooklyn Heights and frequently walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to lower Manhattan, I especially enjoyed exploring the South Street seaport area. So I rummaged through some old sketch books. There's got to be something there that I can use. Aha! The bridge! Perfect! Late afternoon, the sun to the south of the bridge and west of Brooklyn. Yes I remember it well. Keep it luminous, the Dutch love luminosity, a few big clouds, the Dutch are famous for their clouds, simple, contemporary, atmospheric, cheerful...done. The show opens at the club on Monday. Wish me luck.....

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Onions
24 x 36 Oil on Linen

Why does an artist paint a particular subject? Where does the inspiration for a painting come from? Many artists will answer "I don't know, ideas just come to me." The more poetic might say "Inspiration is everywhere, it's in the air." Students, generally, are not inspired at all but are given something to paint, a still life or a model. Their goal is to paint what they see. Fair enough. After that goal is achieved the budding artist begins to struggle with expressing the character of their subject or their emotional reaction to it. Bravo. Soon enough they are out of the classroom and must find their own subject matter. A flower, an aroma, a bit of conversation, a written phrase, the seeds of inspiration are easily planted. Now how does one go from inspiration to masterpiece? How those seeds are nurtured is often what makes a work of art. Some artists invite everyone in, "Come see what I'm doing. What do you think?" He feeds on every comment, every suggestion, anything that comes along while the work is in progress. Then he takes what he likes and uses it to cultivate his seed. Other artists can't bar the door fast enough. Any interference with his thoughts is considered poison to his seed. He ponders and puzzles and toils in solitude. Only when the seed has matured into a strong healthy painting can it be shown to others. I belong to the latter group. I often become very quiet in social situations, rarely offering my opinion. It's not because I am antisocial or uninterested in the conversation, it's because I am in my garden of inspiration protecting my seedlings.....

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Morning Newspaper
18 x 20 Oil on Linen

Elizabeth did a wonderful painting of me 15 years ago. I was working on a painting and she painted me in rim light which made me seem to be at the moment of inspiration. Tom Painting she called it. Later that year I was inspired again as Elizabeth sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. She agreed to spend the next couple of days in her bathrobe as I worked away at The Morning Newspaper. Not long after I did that painting we moved to our new home and studio in Vermont. It was the year of our 10th wedding anniversary. We don't keep many of our paintings because we need to sell as many as we can to make a living, but we decided to give each other these two pieces as anniversary presents. It was the perfect way to commemorate our first decade together in our little studio in New York. It seems like yesterday but it was 14 years ago. Today is our 24th anniversary. Harmony, happiness, delight...bliss.....