After waiting years for a chance to study in-depth with legendary Artist and teacher, Steve Huston, I finally headed to the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art (LAAFA) to take part in Steve’s annual workshop. This workshop was a 5 day intensive focused on drawing and painting the figure. Although it was taught as a figuartive class, I learned so much more. I learned about art, myself and how Steve, aka “The Man” thinks, plans and executes his renowned gallery work.
The event was held at LAAFA in Van Nuys, California, from March 24-28th. This is a breakdown of the class each day and my thoughts going through the workshop.
Day 1 ( Wednesday, March 24th )
Day 1 was an introduction in a way. First we got to know The Man and his philosophy on art and creating art. In fact, one of his points is that, ‘an artist is a philosopher’. Steve’s teaching method, like his art or like any good philosopher is to start with the general idea and then work to refine it. For Steve, it is all about the idea, or the expression of that idea.
Steve breaks down figurative art into 2 fundamental elements: parts and relationships, or gesture and structure. This principal is so fundamental to his approach that it was echoed throughout the 5 days and is echoed throughout his work.
Parts and relationships. Gesture and structure.
Since the gesture line comes first, we spent the entire day on this core principal. After an hour or so of lecture, we got our first chance to try out our new ideas and draw from the model. Of course Steve was there to observe and work with us individually. Like I said, ,day 1 was about getting to know each other. Teacher and students. At the end of the day, I knew I was in the company of talented and hungry students that were going to lift each other up throughout the next 4 days.
Steve Huston getting his quick sketch on. 5 min. poses from Day 1.
Day 2 (Thursday , March 25th)
Having our first taste of Steve’s method, we dived right into the second major principle of his philoshopy, structure. Steve is renowned for a lot of things, but dynamic structure is what his work resonates with. In my opinion he is probably the greatest living teacher on the subject of structure, so we were in good hands. Learning how Steve approaches structure was what I personally wanted to learn most, so I was glued to the lecture.
The information in the lecture hit the class like his boxers. Powerful information hitting my brain like a left hook and a right straight. Steve not only hit us with technique, but with fundamental ideas. The core of this idea is that structure is movement. In Steve’s words:
“If gesture is movement between forms, then structure is movement over forms.”
He also demonstrated that structure can be used to design the figure, instead of just ‘copying’. Once, I was able to grasp this concept, I finally understood why I liked some of my drawings and what was working in them. After the lecture, we gathered around Steve for a demo from the model. The remainder of the day was spent drawing, with Steve working with us individually, one on one.
This is what I came to see. Steve’s structure demo from day 2. He wanted us to focus our practice by isolating a body part or form.
My ‘homework’ for the day. I was so fired up, I could of drawn until morning. I wanted to review and internalize as much as I could of Steve’s teaching in the short time we had. 10 min. quick sketch, ballpoint pen and colored pencil on toned paper.
Clearly, 2 days is not enough to fully grasp this unique approach to drawing. It could easily be a 1 to 2 year course. However, the class had to switch gears and dive into our first painting class on day 3.
Day 3 (Friday, March 26th)
Friday was our first painting day. Even though I hadn’t painted in months, I was fired up and itching to paint with Steve. Upon entering the studio, I could feel my classmates excitement as well. The room was alive with the electricity of anticipation.
Canvas, check. Brushes, check. LAAFA flavored coffee, check. Good to go! The mood in the class was electric today.
Like any good painting teacher, Steve focused our first painting day on tones and values. Black and white was all we would use today. The lecture focused on light and shade. Steve introduced us to the concept of using a 2 value system (something I was familiar with from studying Reilly method). Then Steve hit us with another huge left hook and introduced us to the Laws of Light.
There were 4 Laws of Light (5 total) that he touched upon. I won’t spoil them all for you, but 1 that did strike me and would have a dramatic impact on my drawing was the first law:
Different Value = Different Plane
Or inversely, same value equals same plane. Again, this was another major insight on why some of my drawings were working and how I can really push the illusion of forms turning into space.
The class was divided up into lecture and tonal painting from the model. Steve had us focus on small tonal studies, limiting us to only 3 values, light, dark and mid-tone. This was a great visual exercise and a great warm-up to painting. Which we would definitely need heading into day 4.
Day 4 (Saturday, March 27th)
Having built some confidence from tonal painting the day before, I was looking forward to our first day of painting in color. That confidence wouldn’t last because color would prove to be a formidable foe. Even though color is an incredibly complex subject, Steve was able to break it down quite well. He went to his roots and to his biggest influence, the ‘Tonalist school’ and specifically Rembrandt.
The tonalist, or ‘Brown School’ painters, also known as ‘indoor painting’, limits the palette and relies on draftsmanship (drawing) and tone to turn forms and create impact. This was good news to me, because I could approach the painting as a draftsman. Bad news because it was still oil painting and mixing color, and my lack of mileage showed. The only thing that saved me today was the core principal of Tonalist painting:
Cool shadows, warm light.
Sounds simple, but could take a lifetime to master. Once Steve broke down how Rembrandt approaches painting shadows, and how to turn shadows into a cool, grey brown, I felt like my eyes had been opened to a world of possibilities. Being a drawing fanatic, this approach resonated with me. I finally had the tools and workable system to practice and apply in my oil paintings.
Steve’s 25 minute demo of tonalist/’Brown school’ painting. An insight into Rembrandt’s elegant approach. The palette includes: ivory black, titanium white, indian yellow, lemon yellow, cadmium red, aliziron crimson and ultramarine blue.
Huston Live Painting Demo (Saturday evening, March 27th)
LAAFA had booked Steve for a 3 hour painting demo with a live audience. Since the demo was included in the price of the 5 day workshop, our class had front row seats.
After today’s lecture and painting for 3 hours, I was exhausted by the time the demo started around 7pm. Having seen Steve paint for 2 days, I had an idea of what to expect. Despite this, it was still a great experience to be in that audience and watch Steve work his magic.
Steve not only painted, but used his charm and humor to put on a show. I got the sense that he enjoyed talking and sharing his ideas more than the painting that night. Being able to articulate ideas and philoshopy is a gift among artists. Hearing his 30 years of teaching and practice distilled into refined ideas was invaluable.
The main thing that I took away from tonight’s demo is that it’s not the technique that makes an artist’s figures stand out, it’s their unique idea. I also learned the value of allowing the painting to emerge, experimenting with techniques and cultivating happy accidents.
Day 5 (Sunday, March 28th)
Final day of the workshop. Despite being exhausted and have my confidence crushed by yesterday’s painting exercises, I didn’t want the workshop to end. I could sense that my classmates felt the same way. Knowing this was our last day together, everyone brought a lot of energy and was ready to dive into impressionist painting.
Steve characterized Impressionism, or ‘outdoor painting’ by their use of value and color. The impressionist value scale was much brighter than the Rembrandt/tonalist school. Their color palette was also much more complex. There was white, and a cool and warm for each primary. Black was strictly prohibited because it was an outdoor method, and the bright sun tends to wash out (lighten) dark shadows.
After the brief lecture, Steve did a quick demo focusing strictly on color studies. Specifically, how to harmonize colors on the palette, how to pick a color scheme by ‘keying’ off a color and how to add depth and interest using a color’s temperature (cool or warm) and intensity.
I needed a lot of help mixing, so Steve worked with me on mixing and being patient. He demonstrated on my palette his technique of ‘chasing’ to get to the right color and how to subtly mix colors. He continuosly stressed the importance of getting exactly the right color and being disciplined enough to mix until the color was just right.
I spent the majority of the day practicing mixing and observing color’s value and intensity. This day taught me that impressionism, and solid painting in general, is more about patience and discipline then technique. This insight was not just an artistic lesson, but a philosophical lesson that taught me something about myself. Quite fitting considering that’s how Steve approaches art and teaching.
I can sum up this 5 day workshop into 3 words, everything and more. It was everything I expected, but so much more. The first two days of drawing was exactly what I needed to break me out of a rut and put a spark into my drawings. I finally got to work one on one with my long time hero and learn gesture and structure from the master himself.
The 3 days of painting felt like a rock climb and a boxing match all in one. It was both a tremendous learning experience and a personal challenge that led to tremendous growth and insight. Having learned Rembrandt’s simple and elegant approach to tone empowered me as a draftsman. Having learned the impressionist approach to color and mixing gave me the tools to observe color and the confidence to experiment with color.
Overall, it was a trememdous experience. I highly recommend Steve Huston as an artist and teacher. I congragulate LAAFA on organizing this event. It was well orgainzied and worth far more than the asking price. The have such a beautiful space that creates the perfect environment to learn and inspire. I also feel blessed to have the classmates that I had that week. We were constantly feeding off each other creating a dynamic and nurturing environment. I look forward to seeing their progress throughout the year.
My only gripe is that it was only 5 days. At the close of Sunday’s class, I didn’t want the experience to end. This could easily have been a 1 -2 year course, but Steve did a masterful job of condensing the information into the time we had. Much love to Steve and LAAFA for this event. I will see you again in 2011 for the next Huston Workshop.
Myself (in the black shirt) gaining a new appreciation for Monet. Steve (grey hair and huge arms) working with a student on our last day of the workshop. Photo courtesy of LAAFA. See you guys next year!