I was privileged to be asked by the Education Department at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. to teach a class to visiting school children. The class consisted of several groups from third to sixth grades. As a copyist, I often have to speak to students who come through with their teachers and chaperons. They are always interested in speaking with a real live artist, even more so than looking at the paintings on the walls. They ask all kinds of questions. “Did you paint all the pictures hanging on the walls?” “Did you do this in one day?” “Do you sell your painting for a million dollars?” The questions are endless and their curiosity is enormous. Although I’m asked some of the same questions occasionally from adults, the children are so much fun. They want to know how did I get to paint at the gallery, how do I begin, how long does it take to finish, at what age did I start painting? This time I finally had an opportunity to interact with them.
The Education Department wanted to develop a program so the children can see the process of a working artist. The course began in the East Wing in front of a painting Both Members of This Club by George Bellows. We talked about how to develop a drawing by studying the shapes of the subject or a model – picking out rectangles, cylinders, circles, squares that form a figure. The Bellows painting has many shapes. The children were fascinated by the bloody boxing figures, which are of course a bit violent for the younger children, but they were really more interested in picking out shapes in the composition than interpreting the meaning behind the subject.
During the second half of the course the children were able to spend time with me in the West Building watching me paint. The Education Department chose the Self Portrait by Vincent van Gogh for demonstration. I showed them how I prepare to begin a copy, from making a grid to drawing, underpainting and finally what they all long anticipated – the actual painting. Of course I didn’t have time to complete the painting for them, but the teaching team requested I finish the painting, which you can see in the photo above.
The background of the original portrait appears blue, but through the use of x-ray imaging, conservators at the NGA have discovered the original background was likely bright purple. Over the years, it seems the red pigment van Gogh used to mix his purple (a light sensitive pigment called “Geranium Lake”) has faded out of the mix he applied for the background. I chose to stay true to the original and paint my copy with a bright purple background.
The third part of Art Around the Corner was painting in the education studio where the children were able to do their own painting.