Re-Creating the Masters

I began painting very early as my grandmother was a painter. I took an interest then, mostly in paint-by-numbers, but it didn’t evolve into anything. In junior high school, I had the Colorado painter Don Coen as an art teacher. At that point, the interest was keener, but being typical teenager, I didn’t concentrate on it.

Painting class figures

Before I knew it, I was in the working world. Then about 25 years ago, I just started painting and haven’t stopped since. I began painting Impressionistic, almost van Gogh-like landscapes with heavy paint and not much thought involved; just pure emotion. Then I took a figure-drawing class taught by the renowned artist Daniel Sprick. I took the class for nine years and it changed everything. I began thinking in terms of how light moves, values, edges and composition. I also began painting mostly still lifes.

Now, I paint full-time in oils, usually seven days a week. Even though I took a figure drawing class for quite a few years, my main subject matter is still life, simply because I set it up and it doesn’t quit until I do. Something might wilt or rot, but nothing else changes.

My inspiration for Still Life With Breton (below) was a trip to New York City in 2002. When I saw this painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I almost cried, it was so beautiful. I took a photo of it with high-speed film and decided to incorporate it into a painting.


What I like best about this reproduction of Jules Breton’s wonderful work it that it’s almost like walking in someone else’s shoes while trying to faithfully re-create his work.

I’m working now on a series of reproductions of masters’ works. One reason is to add a human element to my still life work and another is to define space as a wall. Furthermore, I want to communicate my love of the masters with my own “academic traditional realism” to carry on the time-honored endeavor. Almost like a bridge from hundreds of years ago to the present.

From the cradle
I work on cradled wood panels that I make myself and the process has changed a lot over time. I used to do drawings and value studies but now I simply set up the tableau and take out a prepared panel and start with a simple soft vine charcoal “cartoon.” I make a light x from corner to corner to arrive at the true center of the panel and try to balance my composition among the quadrants, generally avoiding dead center.

When that’s complete, I use a liner brush to do a more precise drawing over the charcoal with an “inky” Vandyke brown. When that’s dry, I wipe off the charcoal (since it’s soft vine, it just disappears) and I’m left with a fairly accurate road map of where I want to go.

Then I do a block-in, which is simply covering up the white with thin paint in the general color and value of each object. This leaves an unattractive stage of the painting, but well, one must have faith.

Then the real work begins. If there are any changes to make. I start painting them now. I start from the background and work toward the front. Everything I paint is right before me including the photos of the painting I’m re-creating. I usually tape these right to the panel while working on the reproduction.

If the palette fits

I’ve used the same palette for years: six yellows, seven reds, two greens, three blues, brown and black. I mix Permalba white with Winsor & Newton Griffin alkyd titanium white to speed the drying process.

I spend from three to four weeks on a 24×30 painting. Because I work in stages, I generally try to finish what’s behind before painting what’s in front. Therefore, I save my greatest value range and color strength for the front. By the end though, I’m sometimes surprised by how simple or how darned hard something was.

All the same, I paint because I have to and if I’m going to be true to myself, that’s what I must do. This is my legacy.

John Bickford is a contributing editor to The Artist’s Magazine.


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