This is part 2 of my interview with Annapolis oil painter John Ebersberger. In this post John and I discuss art training, cartoon, and the nature of appeal in art.
TS: As a working artist, and part-time teacher, what advice would you give to a high school student who wants to be a classically trained painter and is considering going to art school?
JE: There are going to be certain places in life where you will need to be able to say that you graduated from college. The unfortunate thing is the education you get from accredited colleges is probably not going to be as good as if studied under a good painter.
I always maintain that you have to study with an old man, or someone who has studied with an old man. They have the grounding of experience that arcs back over the reign of abstract expressionism, post-modernism, and all these other ‘ism’s’ that distracts one from the pure study of nature. What you don’t want to study is ‘art about art.‘ Post-modernism deals with conceptual problems about art. It generates works of art that are only concerned with art being an object of art in itself. Artists got caught up in the various trappings of art. They were drunks like DeKooning and, who’s the other guy with all the paint on the floor?
JE: Jackson Pollack! Guys glorifying depravity and other nonsense. A young person that wants to be an artist has got to understand that if he wants to make a living selling paintings to people, he’s going to have to appeal to normal, healthy tastes. You have a very limited audience for ‘artsy art’. Ultimately you want to appeal to everybody. If you don’t, then you’re forced to chase around grants from state agencies that will give you money to do this crap.
JE: College education is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately a lot of the art schools are a waste of time regarding their studio training. You have some schools trying to fly the banner of ‘New Realism’, but just because you say you’re painting from reality doesn’t mean you have the understanding to approach it.
You can take a photo and copy it and think you’re a realist painter, but you don’t have the foggiest notion of the rhythmical flow of the form, or the understanding of the structure of the anatomy you’re painting.
There are some good schools out there trying to get on board this new realist movement. The director of the Hershal Adler gallery, one of the big heavy galleries in New York, recently curated a show of realism, and wrote an interesting essay on the revivalist movement. This is a promising sign, coming out of the post-modernist Mecca of New York. There is definitely something happening there with this newfound appreciation of realistic painting.
But, what I’ve seen is they don’t have any clue about color. The show I saw, the artists went out of their way to seem ‘classical.’ The work had the trappings of it without the profound understanding of figurative art, and certainly without the color quality. So that’s not going to help us out. So then the artsy crowd will accuse us of being ‘retro,’ of adopting the guise of ‘claaasss-eee-caaal’ painting. Anyone who doesn’t understand color is barking up the wrong tree as far as I’m concerned.
The Glory of Visual Existence
JE: My friend John Todd is a great boat builder. He said he would get these guys who want him to create old style boats. He would have to make the point that he will make them a fine boat, but there are certain things in the process of building that, if those builders had this given technology back then they would have used it, because they were doing the best that they could.
You see what I’m saying. Don’t pretend to be ignorant. Don’t go back in time to be a great renaissance painter and, oh by the way, forget the impressionist movement ever happened. They would not have done that. Henry always made the point that if Rembrandt had the pigments available in his day, he would have probably been painting with a lot more color. Can you imagine Rembrandt painting in color? Some people will be very offended by this statement. Rembrandt was such a fine tonal painter that most people would not believe the paintings are in color.
They’re brown and gold, very beautiful. They look like light. You know what, let him try outdoor light-he couldn’t do it. The tonal tradition, using tones of the same color (using brown soupy notes in the shadows) only works if you’re trying to recreate an indoor lighting effect. You can kind of get away with it, but try to create a high noon bright light painting–you can’t do it! It doesn’t work. You have to embrace color.
A lot of people get stuck in the notion of tradition. ‘I’m an impressionist,’ or ‘I’m a realist.’ We pigeonhole ourselves and our art. We need to look at the glory of visual existence in all of it’s totality, and say, I’m not concerned with style, movement or this or that. I’m interested in communicating the beauty of the world in all of it’s aspects in an emotional way as I see it. You don’t have to get locked into ‘what you are,’ and have some allegiance to some camp. People get hampered by these dogmas, and I can see it in the Hensche crowd as much as it is in the tonal crowd in New York. A lot of the Hensche-ites denigrate the figure painters, but look at the drawing chops that figure painting demands. There’s no reason to come down on anybody. We can appreciate all aspects of art, and hopefully pull them all together.
Cedric Egeli, who I studied figure painting and portraiture from, came from the traditional tonalist background. He studied with Henry Hensche for awhile. Cedric said to Henry early on, “I don’t know, Henry, if I’m cut out to be an impressionist.” Henry looked at him and said, “Don’t you understand? It’s not about whether you’re an impressionist or not, it’s about getting the color right.” That appeal to Cedric’s rationale and he took to it. It’s about getting the color right.
JE: Good training is essential. You have go all over the country looking for good artists. There are many, many great artists today teaching workshops. It seems to be the era of workshops. Primarily because you have artists who have trained under an individual artist. I studied under Henry.
You have working artists who spend more time painting than teaching. It’s those artists you want to study under. They don’t have the time to teach full-time, but the workshop is a good vehicle for them to teach. The only trouble is the workshop experience has become something people think they can come to a week-end workshop and voila’, they’ve got the magic color. There’s a lot of hobbyist painters, and face it, they help pay the bills for the workshops.
But what I’m trying to say, is that you can’t flit from here to there and get what you need. Painting takes a lifetime of study and application. Find artist’s whose work you admire and study with them. Email them, write them, call them on the phone. Ask them what they have available as teaching. Every time I run into a good artist I ask ‘who did you study with?’ ‘What was that teachers lesson to you?’ You can learn fascinating things that way.
You should not be locked into one discipline. Everything can add into your work. For example, I’ve been taking classes with Steve Perkins who’s an amazing sculptor. He studied with Leslie Posey.
Posey sculpted in an old garage in Florida, and was ancient when Steve studied with him. Posey studied with Albin Polasek, who taught at the Chicago Art Institute and was a contemporary of Hawthorne. Polasek sculpted a portrait of Charles Hawthorne, and Hawthorne painted Polasek’s portrait. Polasek studied with Grafly who is a very well know figurative sculptor. He did the Mead War Memorial in D.C.
TS: Yes, I’ve seen that.
JE: The funny thing is you can see Steve Perkins sculpture in the Mead War Memorial. You can tell these ideas were transmitted down. The premise of his art is the rhythmic flow of organic forms. Steve doesn’t teach anatomy so much as he teaches the music of the form. How the forms flow into one another. His teaching has had an incredible impact on my paintings.
I would advocate artists to study outside of their discipline. I have also taken your classes in gesture drawing. Though I had a background in cartooning, you taught me the gesture and movement of the figure, which has had an impact on how I approach the figure. Even the simple constructive points on how you construct the figure, even in a cartoon sense.
JE: As a kid I was interested in cartooning. Cartoonists were always interested in line quality. This isn’t the important phenomena anymore. Ever since the invention of the Rapidograph pen people have drawn with a uniform line. This was in 1956. There was still the remnants of the old school of illustration. Chester Gould was still alive. The artists use to have flexible nib pens, and the thick and thin lines were part of the beauty of the cartoonists work. Alex Raymond did beautiful works with Flash Gordon, and then on the animation cells of Disney.
This quality arches back to the Japanese artwork, and you see it in John Singer Sargent’s brushwork, and James Montgomery Flagg. This beautiful quality of line continued in the great cartoonists.
The line work was an appealing aspect of cartooning for me, and I may not have been able to ‘get it’ if I had been studying realistic painting. At that time realistic painters were not interested in line quality. The comic book art of the late 60’s, early 70’s was wonderful, with Neil Adams, Gene Colan, Bernie Wrightson and Jim Steranko revolutionized the look of the comic book medium.
JE: Ollie Johnston had a checklist of what makes a good cartoon. One of the things was “Does it have appeal?’ I thought that was interesting. That is important. To develop an eye for beauty. It has to do with sensitivity, what you bring to a piece. Some artists know all the anatomy in the world, great sense of proportion, they’ve studied everywhere, but there is something missing. Their artwork has no appeal. It’s like looking at a cartoon. Does it grab you? You shift a line a little here and there and it changes the whole attitude.
I think that’s something that is rarely talked about. You have to expose yourself to quality art. In our culture you can’t drive down to West street and find quality art. You can’t go to the mall or Barnes & Noble and find quality art. You have to seek it out and look at the best that was done. Feed yourself with good stuff. Clip out images and hang them out where you’re going to see them and be fed. I put clipping on the bathroom mirror, over the kitchen sink, places where I’m going to see them and be fed.
I painted a picture of a violinist. We talked about art and music. She actually studied how to teach violin. She was aghast that art was free-form, and that there was not some methodical approach in art instruction, such as benchmarks and what-not. She said when she teaches a child to play violin and they are given a piece of music to play, they are given a tape of how the piece is supposed to sound, played by a master violinist. This helps the child accustom his ear to the mark of quality that they are to attain. The student knows where they are heading. So likewise with painting, we must accustom ourselves to greatness. Every time I find a great art book I think, “Gee, I should really buy two copies, one to keep and one to cut up and hang around the house.”
You look at an art book, you fold it up and put in on the shelf. If you have the good stuff hanging around, near the computer terminal or whatever, you’re feeding your mind. Familiarize yourself with the masters.