Ephraim Rubenstein: Ruins in Mixed Media

This article on Ephraim Rubenstein, written by Judith Fairly, first appeared in the Auly/August 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

 

Selinunte I by Ephraim Rubenstein

To get the look of the pitted and weather-beaten stone in Selinunte I (mixed media, 38×50), Ephraim Rubenstein sprinkled salt into the washes when they were wet, As the ink wash dried, each grain of salt pulled a bit of dark ink around it, making a dense texture.

 

Growing up in New York City, Ephraim Rubenstein felt the power of art to transcend time and place at an early age. As a child, living in a loud, crowded urban milieu, he found a refuge among the tranquil galleries at the Brooklyn Museum. “The fact that a painting could create an alternative reality really got to me in an immediate way,” he says. Rubenstein learned how to draw and paint from his grandfather, Edward H. Freedman, a commercial artist and illustrator, and continued his art education at the Art Students League of New York and Columbia University, where he received his undergraduate degree in art history and a master of fine arts degree in painting before embarking upon a career as artist and teacher.

Ephriam Rubenstein has taught at the University of Richmond, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute College of Art. “I teach my students the importance of basic skills and of a thorough knowledge of their materials,” he says. “When students ask me, ‘When will I be ready for better materials?’ I tell them, ‘When you can tell the difference between them.’” Rubenstein also encourages his students to be conversant in as many techniques as possible. “While it is imperative that they feel deeply about things, their feelings cannot be communicated without a language; if they are not intimate with the range, strengths and weaknesses of each medium, they cannot exploit its potential for expression.”

 

Agigento 1 by Ephraim Rubenstein

“Most of these temples have been on the ground at some point,” says Ephraim Rubenstein, “either through sheer entropy or through a cataclysmic event like an earthquake, and then they were rebuilt. So, at any given moment, the stones are moving, ever so slightly. It is this dynamic quality that I have tried to highlight in Agrigento I (mixed media; 38×50).”

 

Working in Series

Ephraim Rubenstein tends to work in series, whether it’s a cycle of paintings inspired by abandoned buildings in rural Virginia, sunny Italian landscapes, urban cityscapes, or a variety of still lifes, drawings, Vermeer-like interiors, or riverscapes inspired by the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. He sometimes creates more than on work based on the same composition (see “Variations on a Theme” by Ephraim Rubenstein, below).

“On some level, painting all subjects is the same,” says Ephraim Rubenstein. “We do not paint with cloth or flesh or trees or stone; we paint with shapes of colored paint on a flat surface, and if we get it right, it will look like a piece of drapery or a figure or a landscape or a building. I am mostly interested in what I have to say, emotionally. If it takes a figure to say it or a foggy riverbank or a ruined Doric temple, so be it. Jamie Wyeth said that even a bale of hay can be a self-portrait if it is painted with feeling.”

 

VARIATIONS ON A THEME by Ephraim Rubenstein

Cathedral V and VI by Ephraim Rubenstein
Much like a printmaker who inks the plate differently for subsequent proofs, in some instances—for example, in Cathedral V (A) and Cathedral VI (B) (both mixed media, 50×38)—I have taken the same basic drawing and developed it two different ways. Drawing A is of a brighter, clearer day, and I have emphasized the sculptural forms of the gargoyles. In B, I tried to evoke a rainy day by keeping all of the forms softer and wetter, which makes the gargoyles’ function as drain spouts more obvious. The “mapping out” and the first waxing stages were identical for both drawings. But for A, I allowed the ink to spatter on dry paper so that the splashes and drips held their dynamic shapes. Then, for B, I kept the paper wet so that the ink washes dissolved into a more traditional wet-into-wet look. While I was working on these, I went to an art supply store and asked to buy anything that made a black mark. I wanted to find an instrument that could put down the darkest, most velvety black. That material turned out to be a black Nupastel stick.

 

Resisting With Wax, Mixing Media

In his new series, Temples and Cathedrals, Ephraim Rubenstein employs almost a dozen materials to construct dramatic mixed-media portraits of the remnants of lost empires and majestic feats of architecture. “The emotional appeal of the subject matter dictates the medium,” says Rubenstein. The wax-resist technique allows him to unite the classical subject material with the abstract and uncontrollable properties of the medium, resulting in a dynamic chiaroscuro rendering that invests the monumental structures with movement and depth.

Wet and dry techniques collaborate in the creation of multilayered, large-scale works that tread the boundary between drawing and painting. Beginning with sheets of Lenox 100 paper (similar to paper used for printmaking), Ephraim Rubenstein builds up layers composed of graphite, wax, ink, vine charcoal, compressed charcoal, Alphacolor Char-Kole, black Conté crayon, black Nupastel and black pastel that produce a tactile, velvety surface.

 

The great European cathedrals were built over a period of 500 years. “Over that time,” explains Rubenstein, “the relationship between the size of the windows and the walls changed considerably. The cathedral in Cathedral VII (mixed media, 38x50) is particularly massive and fortresslike, and its gargoyles are very old, looking more like ancient animal figures than what we think of as gargoyles."

The great European cathedrals were built over a period of 500 years. “Over that time,” explains Ephraim Rubenstein, “the relationship between the size of the windows and the walls changed considerably. The cathedral in Cathedral VII (mixed media, 38×50) is particularly massive and fortresslike, and its gargoyles are very old, looking more like ancient animal figures than what we think of as gargoyles.”

 

The wax-resist approach plays areas of light, where the paper is glazed with wax, against a wide range of darker tonal spaces. “I am not sure I would have been able to master the wax-resist technique without my experience in printmaking,” says Rubenstein. ”Working up an intaglio plate taught me to think in specific stages, to plan ahead and not to move on until I have done what I need to do at each stage.”

Ephraim Rubenstein’s Complex Approach

Because the drawings are built up in as many as eight to 10 discrete stages, wax-resist is a method that cannot be done alla prima. Ephraim Rubenstein switches between his easel and the floor, where he lays the paper to do the washes (see “My Studio Setup” by Ephraim Rubenstein, below). Some drawings can be finished in a day; others take many weeks.

The complexity of this approach (and the unwieldy size of the paper) requires that the drawings be completed in the studio rather than on location, and he relies on reference photographs, such as those, which he took by the hundreds, of the temples at Paestum and Pompeii. “If you have spent a lifetime painting in front of your subject, you know what nature looks like, and you learn to use the photograph and to compensate for its deficiencies,” he says. “If you have not, you become a slave to the photo and you get into trouble.”

MY STUDIO SETUP by Ephraim Rubenstein

Wax stage of mixed media painting byEphraim Rubenstien
This is the drawing after the first or second wax stage. I do the dry parts of the process—drawing, applying the wax and so forth—with the surface upright on the easel. I do the wet parts—the ink washes—with the board flat on the floor. That way, I do not worry about gravity pulling all of my washes in one direction, and I can move around the image freely, attacking it from all sides.I have everything I may need handy on my taboret because it only takes a couple of seconds for a value to dry and be no longer adjustable. I try to do as much of the work as I can standing up; remember, these are large, expressive drawings that are meant to be read from a distance. I constantly need to back away from them just to see what I’ve done. As you can see, I use clips to hold the drawing to the board; I do not tape the paper down.

 

Perfecting Techniques

It took Ephraim Rubenstein close to 10 years before he felt as if he had achieved some level of mastery of the wax-resist technique. A friend, David Dodge Lewis, a professor of fine arts at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, introduced him to the method more than 20 years ago. “Lewis’s work, some of the most powerful and engaging you will ever see, has pushed me to get as much emotional intensity out of my subject matter as possible,” Rubenstein says.

 

Cathedral II by Ephraim Rubenstein

The view in Cathedral II (mixed media, 50×38) has a tremendous amount of architectural information in it—the windows, balconies and all the decorative carvings on the facade. “The richness of the ornamentation was overwhelming,“ says Ephraim Rubenstein, “so the trick was to keep all of the details in balance so as not to lose a sense of the whole. As I worked through the later stages of the drawing, I ended up removing details, not adding them.”

 

He had previously spent another decade making prints—etchings, dry-points and some lithographs—and he also works in oil, pastel, gouache and a variety of mixed media. “All of these processes have taught me something, have added some dimension to my work,” he says. “Many artists I know stopped drawing once they got out of art school. They get preoccupied with painting projects, and drawings do not sell. But I think that is unfortunate. Besides the obvious pleasures of the materials, drawing keeps you honest and keeps your thinking and your hand-eye coordination sharp.”

Many years ago, Ephraim Rubenstein attended an exhibition at the Boston Museum of the works of Camille Pissarro that had a profound effect on the way he thought about color. “It made me realize how brown all of my paintings were and that I had to start to explore warm/cool relationships rather than just value ones.” Though drawings don’t attract as large an audience as paintings do, Rubenstein says he wants to return to the “basic power” of black and white. In this series, he explores the warm and cool nuances of black (and white); while some ostensibly black materials tend toward the warmer brown tones, others veer toward the cooler blues.

Holistic Expression

Ephraim Rubenstein is currently on the faculty of the Art Students League of New York and the National Academy of Design School; he also teaches life drawing to medical students in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. The class is part of an innovative program that helps the student “to see the patient in a holistic manner rather than as a sum of separate parts, to humanize medicine,” he says.

 

Paestrum IV by Ephraim Rubenstein

“I sat for hours and watched the sun and shadows move across this wall of pillars for Paestum IV (mixed media, 38×50),” says Ephraim Rubenstein. “The contrast between this ancient building and the fleeting effects of light was so mesmerizing, I hardly knew where to start to capture the subtle differences in tone. This was by far the most complex wax-resist drawing I had ever done.”

 

“During the course of my career, I have gone back and forth between two poles: sometimes drawing and painting in a linear, tighter style with a higher degree of finish, sometimes becoming looser and more painterly, emphasizing the materials and language of painting more expressively,” says Rubenstein. “Even if you have got your technique under your belt at an early age, technique only gets you so far. Struggling with the initial concept for a painting constitutes the greatest challenge for me,” says Rubenstein. “There is always a gap between the depth of your feelings and what comes out on the paper.”

 

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