Vincent Desiderio On Art

There is no doubt in my mind that a hundred years hence, Vincent Desiderio will still be counted among the greatest artists of this generation. It has been my good fortune to be able to interact with him on a number of occasions this semester. About a month ago I had the opportunity to visit his studio where he had a number of paintings in progress…

Vincent Desiderio's Studio

Tuesday last week he came to the Academy to give a clinic. The intended format was to have students bring in works which were pretty far along, but with problems that had no clear solution, and then watch how an artist like Vincent would solve those problems. As it turned out, he had quite a lot on his mind that day and spent a considerable amount of time discussing art in general. Although it is always useful to see another artist painting, I doubt we were any the poorer for the change. Over the course of the day, I took over a eighteen pages of notes, which is not to say that he lectured the whole time. Indeed, he showed us how he would begin a study for a larger painting as well as working on a couple of student paintings. In retrospect, it seems criminal to me that we students didn’t have the foresight to record him. Truly, I wish I could listen to his talk again and I’m sure there will be countless times in the future when I would have enjoyed hearing what he said that day.

Hopefully, this posting will help to pass on some of the benefit I received, as well as crystalizing the salient points for myself. What will be lost, I’m sure, is the personality of the speaker. Vincent has a generous and sincere disposition, and his excitement about painting is contagious; it is a joy to experience. I don’t pretend to have the skill necessary to convey his animated speaking personality in an abbreviated written format; on that account I must beg pardon. However, there were insights about art and painting relayed to me that are not for me alone. Given the state of the larger art world, this type of understanding needs to be disseminated.

  • The first mark on the final support should be done with forcefulness in working toward the completion of the painting. This beginning should only be begun after several oil studies. These oil studies are an opportunity for you to discover and solve as many of the problems of the painting as you can so that they won’t hamstring you on the final work.
  • Devote a lot of time to the study. If you chance upon something nice, document it, perhaps set it aside, but by all means do another one.
  • Use the study uncover every problem that you will have to solve over the course of the painting. Then use studies to try to find as many solutions as you can, so that you may select the best one. This doesn’t mean that the larger work will not surprise you, just that you will be armed with solutions to the most common problems that you will face in the work.
  • You need to think about how your work will look hanging next to an Eric Fischl, or a Lucian Freud or a Jenny Saville; that is, whomever you feel are the best artists of the day. Your work must be able to stand up with theirs.
  • You need to be driven by the illusion, the ravishment of the aesthetic. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to use linear perspective.
  • A painting is finished when all of the component parts become autonomous and work by themselves. You’ll know when you are getting closer when the work starts to tell you what it needs. A finished work of art will have a life completely separate from the artist.
  • Think of painting towards an enigma.
  • Need to learn the difference between overworking and re-working. You need to gain the ability to reassert a lost ground (drag the original ground color over a passage and re-glaze).
  • It is only the relative relationships that the eye sees. Think of thick opaque passages to make the other areas seem more transparent.
  • You should try to have areas that are very transparent, where the light can seemingly penetrate the image a great distance and other areas where the paint is thick and stops the light at the surface of the painting. Oddly, this is exactly why black-velvet paintings are arresting.
  • Studies are key. Pencil and perspective drawings are insufficient to successfully begin a large scale painting. Must learn to work in the medium of the oil sketch.
  • Subject matter is important, but so is the technical narrative (meaning how the work is painted). Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were ostensibly painting the same thing, but which one do you go to the museum to see?
  • How the work is painted is every bit as important as what is painted. Both aspects must be addressed with intentionality.
  • The best examples of the times are done by the legions of mediocrity. Think about the artists that you really admire: their work was almost always running counter or at least transverse to the work of the day.
  • Design is the most abstract portion of the work. Invention is one of the most respected aspects of design. Think of a blank canvas as containing infinite possibilities. That said, newness is not the most important thing. Remember Delacroix, “what [men of genius] make is not new ideas, it is that the idea – possessing them – that what has been said has still not been said enough.”
  • Try to keep your composition fresh. Artist do learn a great deal from copying the work of other artists, so having your work look like other (contemporary) artists isn’t the worst thing in the world. But it is not to be desired.
  • Think of your heroes, not just in art, but also in music, literature and film. These great men are not outsider artists. They contribute quite a lot to contemporary culture and discourse.
  • Byzantine art was about compartmentalization, even the way muscles were designed as separate discrete muscle groups. Renaissance Neo-Platonism is about interrelatedness as opposed to this compartmentalization; organic flow between forms, rather than discrete blocks of form. Linear perspective is an idealization of Neo-Platonic though concerning the inter-relatedness of all things with God. This is an allegorization of method.
  • If you employ linear perspective (or you choose not to), you are embracing a specific world view. Either you see the world as ordered, logical, rational and interrelated, or you do not.
  • The Mannerists reject this world view and therefore work counter to linear perspective. DeKooning is working with perspective issues the way the Mannerists did.
  • You need to be aware of what your artistic choices mean philosophically and use the tools that reinforce your world-view (allegorization of methods).
  • Shadows and half-tones are going to reflect the ambient color of the environment. Think of these areas as passive reflecting pools for color. If you want to observe this, hold you arm up to a light, then pass different chromatic objects underneath your arm and observe how much the color of the shadows is dictated by the color of the chromatic object.
  • This also explains why a wipe-out looks so good: the shadows and the background are the same color, whereas the lights are clearly separated.
  • Think of light as an aggressor that will drive away the ambient colors from wherever the form can support the light.
  • Clearly this means that if you don’t include something of the nearest ambient colors in the shadow side of the forms, the forms will ‘fall out of the painting’; that is, they will not look like they are sitting in the environment you have constructed.
  • Think of a clear, snowy day. What color are the shadows? If shadows are reflecting pools of color, where does that blue color come from?
  • How do you organize a composition optically without a geometric backdrop? The Baroque artists used the incident of reflection (a.k.a. this highlight) where the light would ‘flash back’ at the viewer. All of the highlights off of reflective surfaces must favor the viewer. Think of how each person looking at the reflection of the moon on a still body of water will see the reflection in front of themselves. As you move along the water, the reflection follows you.
  • Thus, you can organize a picture plane convincingly using only the light. Think of Rembrandt’s Night Watch: it is an impossible space made believable by the plausibility of the light organization.
  • For the representation of form there are two models: the classical model favors the rational and logical. The romantic model favors the emotional and psychological. (see below)
  • Delacroix spoke of the ‘grey day’ where the there was not direct light and everything was composed of half-tones which are reflecting pools of color. Note that, in this context, grey does not refer to a mixture of black and white, but rather a optical graying of chromatic colors by the broken mixture of their complements (e.g. ultramarine blue and burnt sienna will mix to give a beautiful chromatic grey).
  • In Matisse’s Red Studio, the artist has no lights or shadow; the floor, walls and ceiling are all the same (chromatic) red color. This is an allegorization of Delacroix’s ‘grey day’.
  • Delacriox believed that the emotion lay in the colors and that most of the color in the world lived in the turning of the form, the half-tones. This was the exotic realm of color.
  • In Picasso’s Mademoiselle d’Avignon, the artist organizes the light in the center of the canvas with a flash of white off of the central characters. Thus, we find that the African Masks the women wear (the exotic element) occurs in the half-tones of the form. The painting can be read as an allegorization of Delacroix’ realm of the exotic.
  • These ideas can be a touchstone that allow you to relate to other great artists and thinkers.
  • This is what is meant by Allegorization of Method. Find a way to use the language of images to convey your philosophy. Always work in service to your philosophy.
  • Art should be the vanguard of critical theory and culture. Be an intellectual: develop theories and critic them. Don’t illustrate other theories. This is theoreticsm; you need to participate in the dialog.
  • It is advantageous to use changes in paint handling to denote changes in distance (textured objects tend to advance, smooth objects tend to recede) as well as surface (you can not paint burlap and silk with the same marks). Objects with different surfaces need to be painted differently.
  • Continually rework the canvas over and over. Work from the most general to the most specific. Continue to glaze over and repaint.
  • Start freely and then continually improve the painting.
  • Always think of a grisaille as a mixture of two complimentary chromatic colors.
  • Chalkiness and muddiness should be avoided. Chalkiness tends to come from having coolness in the lightmass as well as the in the shadows. Muddiness tends to come from having warmth in the light and shadow masses. The transitions from warm to cool are critical.
  • Dont worry too much about values from the first marks; establish the masses first. Proportions are key.
  • When transferring from the original sketch, use mechanical means only for rough placement. Then redraw on the final support to keep the composition and mark-making organic.
  • Keep everything open as long as possible to allow for possibilities.
  • Identify and describe the four areas of the form (light mass, half-tone, shadow mass and the incident of reflection).
  • There will always be obstacles to overcome. You must persevere. Don’t assume that your work is exceptional; assume that you are mediocre and then find a way to overcome your limitations.
  • The ‘technical narrative’ can be thought of as the resolution or compromise between dynamic opposites: Think of opacity versus transparency, dark versus light, ground versus overpainting, textured versus smooth, sharper versus softer edges and passage (open-form) versus silhouette (closed-form).
  • You need to embrace the artifice. Construct everything exactly the way you want it to appear and then hide your tricks. Remember Picasso: art is the lie which allows us to learn the truth. You have to believe the lie. Think about the level of artifice in a Hitchcock movie, yet you are still able to suspend your disbelief.
  • Your studio practice should not anticipate critical participation.
  • The distance between the eye (the station point) and the picture plane is sometimes thought of as a ‘contemplative distance’. The greater the distance, the more rational and logical (e.g. David, Ingres, etc.). As this distance diminishes, time becomes compressed and you get artists working more emotionally (e.g. Van Gogh, Gauguin, etc.). Once the eye reaches the picture plane, you have Monet, who is painting not the objects, but the light of the moment. The eye then moves through the picture plane and you have artists who are painting psychological states and emotions rather than the perceptual (e.g. Kirchner, Munch, etc…).
  • Cezanne understood what this trend meant and wanted to find a way back to logic, structure and reason. This is why linear artists build off of Cezanne.
  • Picasso is a classicist; he wanted to find a way to construct logical, ordered paintings. His genius was in finding a way to do so that did not ignore the fractured reality of the 19th Century.
  • The Deconstructionists looked for binary oppositions that were taken as a given and attacked the underlying tenets, e.g. Up-Down as having definite intrinsic connotations rather than just their denotive meanings. This led to an acceptance of anything, and ‘universal inclusion’.
  • We are moving towards a post-critical, post-conceptual art. However, to get there, we need to construct a world view that includes the fractured reality of the last generation; the severe doubt of the previous model.
  • Find the screen of complacency and tear at it. Be wary of laughing at the same old jokes.
  • Find plastic heuristics; avoid subscribing to dogma.
  • Being an artist means being part of Art History. You have a responsibility to be the very best.

As you can see, the breadth of topics broached was wide-ranging. Some of the ideas I had encountered before, but much of it I have never heard from anyone else. One particular point struck me and I couldn’t get it out my head for several days, the part about assuming that one is mediocre and striving to overcome the limitation. It is a well known phenomenon that the vast majority of people consider themselves to be above average at certain skills. By way of example, most people consider themselves to be above-average drivers.

Though I can not claim to have know many truly exceptional people, it seems to me that those I have come in contact with are never satisfied with their own output. They know that they have the capacity to produce something better than they have, and that knowledge burns them as much as it drives them. It seems to me that admitting something as sufficiently past the mean is a way of accepting a limitation. The distance between an above-average man and an exceptional one is infinitesimally small and yet it makes all the difference in the world. It seems to me that nowhere is the difference more obvious than in the selection of yard sticks they would use to measure themselves.

The burden weighs on me….

– Jeremy

Oh, I made figures as well to help illustrate the difference between the classical and the romantic light models. The temperature transitions in the classical model are key to turning the form. They can run warm, cool, hot, cold; or they can run cool, warm, cold, hot. Normally, the shadows are opposite the temperature of the light. That is to say, warm light (like sunshine) generally gives cool shadows where cool light (like most artificial light) gives warm shadows. Vincent suggested that the shadow mass should remain neutral rather than follow the logical progression of alternating temperatures, since it must reflect the ambient color of the environment, which is more likely than not to be neutral.

Remember that the classical model privileges the rational and the romantic model privileges the emotional…

Classical Light Model
Romantic Light Model







7 responses to “Vincent Desiderio On Art”

  1. liz bradford Avatar
    liz bradford

    It was wonderful to read your notes on Vince Desiderio. I used to model for him in the early 80’s when he was a student at PAFA. he was always kind, engaging and a joy to work for –you knew you were contributing to a work of art that meant something.

    I have since followed his artistic success with great pride.

    Next time you see him, tell him Beth Sample (my maiden name) says hello.


  2. Terence Sullivan Avatar
    Terence Sullivan

    I am currently studying painting, chem, and art history. I was introduced to Vincent’s work this year and I was floored by it. I am trying to locate information on workshops or lectures that he may be offering in the future, if there is somewhere to find this information I would appreciate the help.

    Thank you-
    Terence Sullivan

  3. David Avatar

    I want to thank you for typing all this up for the public to read. I am an aspiring artist, and I had a student of Vincent as a Profesor this summer. Reading your notes gave a lot of light to the way this profesor taught, and helped elaborated on it.

    Thank you


  4. Steven Avatar

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I have followed Vincent Desiderio’s work in magazines for a few years, and I saw his Sept 2011 exhibition at Marlboro Gallery Chelsea yesterday. His work stands out as different from many other paintings. It is really strong, and his viewpoint is unusual, and varied. I found him hard to “pin down,” and I mean that in a good way. Your writing has helped me better understand some of what is behind the really strong paintings I saw yesterday. Thank you.

  5. Benjamin Avatar

    Those bullet points are tremendous. I appreciate you taking the time to document them. thanks.

  6. Kyle McKenzie Avatar

    Thank you so much for putting this together. Your spirit of sharing reminds me of the great advantages that we contemporary painters possess. Recognizing valuable information, and taking the time and effort to share it with other artists, is a wonderfully selfless act, and I greatly appreciate it.
    Take care,

  7. rose Avatar

    Amazingly helpful – gratitude for the sharing from this great master and from you who obviously must be a great listener. Inspired.

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