Oil and pastel painter William Schneider credits several sources for his work today. He’s taken workshops with the world’s best artists and has devoted hours to copying masters like Nicolai Fechin. His epiphany with design came after four intense days of study at an exhibition of the works of J.W. Waterhouse in Montreal. His efforts have been noticed. He was awarded with Master Signature status in Oil Painters of America (OPA), and in addition, the Pastel Society of America has recognized him as a Master Pastelist, IAPS (The International Association of Pastel Societies) has named him to the Masters’ Circle, and AIS has made him a Master Signature Member (AISM).
Art Notes: You work in both oil and pastel. What are the challenges and benefits of working in two different media?
I find it tremendously beneficial to work in both media. In fact, I encourage my oil painting students to take up pastel … because it will make them better oil painters! Certain things are easy as pie in pastel but devilishly difficult in oil. For example, it’s easy to layer a cool color over a warm color in pastel. The resulting effect is akin to the shimmering impressionistic technique achieved by placing complementary strokes of colors next to each other. The pastel particles are, of course, much smaller than a brushstroke. The effect replicates the natural translucence of flesh and creates more believable skin tones. Once the artist sees the result, he or she will work to find a way to create that effect in oil. (It can be done!)
Another example: If one blends the pastel strokes (a technique I learned from my mentor, Harley Brown), all edges are automatically soft; the artist has to consciously work to make them sharp. In oil, the reverse is true. Working in pasteldramatically improved my edge control in oil.
On the other hand, it’s easy to get a deep, transparent, warm dark color in oil paint but hard to get the same rich dark in pastel. By working in both media, the artist naturally learns to stretch and improve his or her technique to achieve the same look!
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
A lot depends on the complexity of the painting. If I’m making a larger piece, perhaps with multiple figures or focal points, I’ll create a number of compositional thumbnail sketches to work out the placement of each focal point on the picture plane. I’ll also figure out the dominant value of the painting and create a color rough to work out the dominant hue and overall harmony. (In both my composition videos I provide exercises and masterwork examples to clarify all of those techniques and procedures.) In the words of the great illustrator and teacher Andrew Loomis, “All creativity is in the planning … the rest is just good carpentry!”
Of course, the planning is much easier if I’m just doing a head study or vignette. I often just dive right into the painting without the need for sketches. In a head study I tend to follow these steps:
Art Notes: Where do you do your thinking? What does that look like?
I’m thinking at every stage of the painting. Non-artists believe that painting is a mindless process, all feeling and no thought. They couldn’t be more wrong! It requires understanding, concentration, and a Zen-like mindfulness. Unlike golf or playing an instrument, we don’t have to train our muscles, but we do have to train our minds. There are literally thousands of decisions that must be made in the course of a single painting.
Art Notes: How do you make sure you have the best composition possible? How is composing different for your portraiture work than your still life or landscape work?
At its core, composition is the arrangement of a few large value masses on the picture plane. Prior to the 20th century, schools like the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris trained fledgling artists in compositional principles. Students were expected to learn various methods to place primary and secondary centers of interest, how to use value as a design element, and how to use color. They were also expected to learn how to create a narrative … either explicit or implicit.
Unfortunately, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism and all the other isms of “modern art,” universities stopped teaching composition. (Again, in my two composition videos I try to teach some of those timeless principles.) The good news is that the basic principles apply equally to landscape, still life, and figurative work.
Having said all that, it helps to make thumbnail sketches to quickly test possible compositions. I also recommend an app called Notanizer. The app lets the artist photograph the subject and reduce it to two values (anotan —Japanese for “light-dark”) You can also see it in three or four values; it’s a great compositional tool available through the App Store!
Art Notes: How do you plan the edges in your pieces? Where and how in your process does that planning occur?
I assume you mean the hierarchy of edges in the painting, from razor-sharp to completely lost. I don’t so much plan that hierarchy as Iobserve it. At the American Academy of Art in Chicago I was taught to squint at my subject to see the range of edges. If we gradually close our eyes, the last edge that still reads is thesharpest edge. Once we have identified that edge, it is easy to judge how hard or soft other edges are in comparison. The trick is to remember to do it. Master artist Dan Gerhartz has a notecard taped to his easel; it says “Squint.” I often write “squint” right on my canvas to remind myself.
I try to get those edge relationships in place right from the beginning. As I said, for me it is observation rather than theory that drives the decision. (In other words, I don’t place my sharpest edge at my focal point if it’s not really there in my subject.) I will say this: the understanding of edge and temperature relationships separates advanced artists from intermediate ones.
Art Notes: Translating your subject: What is critical to get correct? What’s less critical? Why?
For a representational artist, the key critical element is the drawing, and by “drawing,” I mean proportions. If I don’t have the right parts in the right place, I’m dead in the water! I can render the most exquisite eye, but if it’s half an inch too low, the viewer thinks the painting is amateurish. Fortunately, drawing is the most trainable skill because it’s mostly measurement and angles … but it takes constant practice.
As artists we simplify and clarify our observation for the viewer. Richard Schmid puts it this way: “Viewers don’t want to know what yousee; they want to know whatyou see.” In other words, it’s our job to show viewers the beauty we noticed that they may have missed. So, we have a wealth of possibilities in what we choose to emphasize.
In fact, I teach a workshop called “finding your voice” or, for lack of a better word, creativity. One of the modules I call “the series exercise.” I ask students to paint a very simple subject in as many different ways as possible. The key is to ask yourself “What if?” questions. “What if I painted it in shades of gray?” “What if I only used blues?” “What if I only painted the shadow shape?” “What if I limited myself to 20 strokes?” etc. When I did this exercise, I learned several crucial things:
Art Notes: When a painting isn’t working, what questions do you ask yourself?
Bill Parks, my life drawing instructor at the American Academy, gave us a four-part question that solves most problems:
I would add a fifth question: Is the distribution of light and dark shapes interesting? In other words, does it have a strong design?
The answers to the first four questions can save a painting that is in process. The design usually needs to be worked out in the beginning; it’s often not possible to salvage a painting that wasn’t well-planned at the start.
Learn more about William Schneider including his new video, "Heads & Hands" here.