David Jamieson is our March 2012 Artist of Month. His oil painting, Golf Pencils, was a finalist in the floral/still life category of The Artist’s Magazine’s 28th Annual Art Competition. Keep reading this artist profile to learn how he came to art later in life and how he’s motivated to paint.
Working from Life, Most of the Time
I work primarily from life, but I’m not dogmatically opposed to using photo references. I prefer to work from life because it feels more honest, where the painting is the result of a direct interaction between the artist and subject. But more to the point, I actually find working from life a little easier. I think there’s a popular misunderstanding regarding the use of photos in this regard. It gets denigrated in part because it’s held to be a cheat, a crutch, a kind of shortcut taken by impatient artists who seek to avoid the hard work of learning to draw and paint from life. But I’ve had plenty of experience working from life, and on the occasions where I do work from photographs I find the experience frustrating. The photo is so limited in what it tells you about the 3-dimensional structure of objects, that it’s much harder to understand what you’re drawing. It requires you to improvise—to fill in the gaps of what the photo doesn’t tell you, and that’s actually a very sophisticated thing to attempt. When I do work from photos, I’m always left wishing I could just see the real thing.
That said, paying models for hours on end gets expensive, and if it comes down to a choice between painting something from photos and not painting it at all, well… what can I say? It seems a shame to walk away from a good idea for a painting because of a preconceived ideology about photographs.
I don’t have a set color palette. Every object, every surface, every atmosphere is different, so I try to rethink my palette for each painting. Typically, however, I’ll have out a few variants of each required hue, providing some range of values and chromas for that hue family. For example, for yellows, I might have out a cad yellow medium for maintaining high chroma in the lighter values, a mid-value/mid-chroma option, like yellow ochre, and raw umber for a low-value/low-chroma alternative. These provide a spectrum of options within the same hue family, and are useful for adjusting the value and chroma of a color mixture while keeping the hue relatively constant. For this particular painting, cadmium yellow deep was instrumental as a base local for the golf pencils, while mixing in flesh ochre and Indian yellow seemed to work for some of the darker values.
While painting Golf Pencils, I was surprised by the hue shift on the pencils. I had assumed that the yellow pencils would maintain a constant yellow hue in both light side and shadow, but there’s a lot of reflected light bouncing around in there, and as the light bounced from yellow surface to yellow surface, it got warmer—the hue shifted toward red.
I execute each painting in stages, beginning with a thorough drawing, working out structure and composition in advance with pencil and paper. This drawing later gets transferred to the canvas. Next, I almost always do a small value study in which I work out the basic value structure for the painting in Grisaille, reducing the image into a handful of “notes” that are carefully tuned. It’s a process akin to tuning a guitar… each string must sound correct in relation to all the others, and no one note is correct until all of them are. This study provides a useful reference for working out color mixtures. With target values predetermined, the search on the palette is limited to the remaining two dimensions of color, which is much easier. To switch metaphors for a moment, think of the difference between juggling two balls versus three. Most of us can handle two without much trouble. Three is where it gets difficult.
Truth in Art
My motivation for still life is simple and always the same: to communicate the unique structure and light of things with fidelity and grace. I find still life appealing for this reason. It doesn’t have to be about anything else, and so you can get right to painting without worrying as much about content. A still life can be a painting of plates or bottles or whatever, and if it’s done with integrity, that’s enough. I think it taps into the initial spark that made me love drawing as a kid—that moment when I step back, look at the picture and realize that I got it… I captured the essence. It always feels like a magic trick, and when I manage not to screw it up it still gives me a dopamine rush—even after all these years. I’m addicted to it.
I think some artists seek to communicate through their work—to present ideas and spark a conversation—but I don’t. Rather, I seek to document—to record with fidelity how something or someone appeared to me at a particular time. When it’s done well, there’s something compelling about the result. Viewers are drawn to look at images that present some glimpse of truth. Some call that beauty. Others may find it meaningful in a less definable way, but it’s always hard to ignore. For artists, there’s pleasure to be had in looking closely. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I know I’ve really seen something, that I understand it fully. A successful painting provides evidence of that understanding—evidence that at least when I’m at the studio, I’m not just drifting through life with blinders on but rather interacting with a part of the world on a deep level. I like how that feels. That keeps me painting.
How Jamieson Came to Art
I was a relative latecomer to drawing and painting. My undergraduate degree is in Political Science, which I studied because I genuinely found it interesting, and I assumed would lead to some sort of career—law, journalism, civil service… something like that. It wasn’t until I graduated that I realized how sick I was of spending so much time in the library. I didn’t want to go back to that right away, and recalling how much I liked art class in high school, I decided to look into art college for a change of pace. I wasn’t sure it would lead to any kind of career, but at the very least I thought it would be a great way to enjoy life for a couple of years before getting serious about a “real” profession. Besides… I knew people in law school, and they were miserable.
I was interested in realism from the beginning, and had some really good teachers, but they were frustrated by the constraints of an institution that didn’t really value representation. My figure drawing class, for example, met only once per week and had more than 40 students enrolled. Under those conditions, it was difficult to progress very far, despite the best efforts of my talented but frazzled teachers.
I learned enough from them, however, to know I wanted more. I became aware of the New York Academy of Art from an alumnus who spoke highly of the school. For me, it was just what I was looking for: a school with a focus on representation that didn’t feel “old-timey.” Rather, the Academy sought to balance traditional techniques with contemporary ideas about subject matter and imagery. It was perfect. In my two years there I inhaled as much knowledge as I could, and came away with a trove of information that would fuel my studio practice for years. My only complaint is that it didn’t last longer.
Keeping it Real
I do try to keep things light in the studio. A lot of artists take themselves too seriously, it seems to me. I often have students in the studio, and when I do I encourage conversation and joking around. We’re not monks. We’re not curing cancer. In the grand scheme of things, what we do in the studio isn’t that important. Ultimately, most painters do what they do because it’s enjoyable. I think it’s important to act like it.
David Jamieson teaches at post-secondary schools, and at his studio. Visit his website at www.davidjamieson.net. Artists of the Month are chosen from the list of finalists of The Artist Magazine’s Annual Art Competition.
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS