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Overcoming Obstacles

In International Artist magazine issue 149, we talked with a few of our new and returning faculty artists to discuss a range of subjects from mentoring and education to overcoming the most challenging obstacles. The first pair of artists we spoke with was Max Ginsburg and Dominique Medici, and we asked them these questions:

1. Your work focuses on the figure, what do you find is the most challenging thing when it comes to portraying the human figure?

2. Where or are they specific obstacles you encountered while establishing yourself as a figurative artist?

3. During COVID a lot of artists turned to on-line teaching, did you and have you been able to successfully implement your teaching style to an online format?

Here are Max Ginsburg’s responses:

Max Ginsburg, Subway Trio, oil on canvas, 22x26”

1. Yes, my work concentrates on the figure, but to put it correctly and meaningfully, it concentrates on the human being. I try to capture the individuality of the person by carefully observing the unique forms of the model, the structure, the relationship of the shapes, values, colors, etc. This means that careful observation of the person I am painting, throughout the total time of the painting, is very important because the relationship of the forms are constantly changing. After all, I am painting a real individual, not a mannequin. I am painting the unique image I see; I am not following a formula.

2. The biggest obstacle while I was developing as a realist artist, in the 20th century, was the lack of opportunities to develop my realist skills in the schools and colleges I attended. Freedom Of Expression of Realism in Art was discouraged while Modern Art was being taught and promoted. Galleries and museums primarily promoted and accepted Modern Art and even realism that was badly drawn and unskillfully executed. Galleries and museums were not accepting and encouraging all forms of art, which they should have been doing in a free society.

3. Yes, during COVID, I too turned to online teaching. Even though I have recently returned to live teaching with a live model at the Art Students League of N.Y., my private studio class, and workshops, I still continue my online class. I believe there are some advantages in this set up. I have students from all over the world who now don't have to commute. In addition, the Zoom resolution of the image of the live model is not good, so I have found that using a good photo of the model as reference is better. I am also enjoying the use of candid photographs as reference for painting figuratively. The gestures of figures in these candid shots are more real and spontaneous, not posed, which I believe is more expressive of the reality of people.

Here are Dominique Medici’s responses:

Dominique Medici, Self Portrait, toned paper, 12x12”

1. "A true vocation calls us out beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place." — David Whyte

I love this quote because it really sums up the artistic journey. We could say that gaining technical competency is the first of the three great challenges when it comes to painting the figure: gaining technical skills, attaining mastery, and rarely, transcendence. I first saw the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo in high school, and it filled me with awe. It was my first experience of aesthetic arrest, and this encounter set my artistic journey in motion. With a passion to learn, I went to a small atelier in London and specialized in sculpture and painting. I spent about 8 years there training, then exhibiting and working on portrait commissions.

Once a basic level of skill is acquired, the artist needs to take these skills to a deeper level, the level of mastery. I think of Sargent’s charcoal “mug shot’’ drawings as he called them. In these “mugshots”, he not only captured an uncanny likeness of his subjects but did it with a sense of ease. Sargent’s keen perception, subtle observation of form and exquisitely simplified expression marks the real mastery of this second challenge. The telltale sign of mastery is that we can't help but say “wow” when we see these works. It's no longer a drawing or painting, there is a felt presence there, someone or something is staring back at you.

Once these more subtle skills are acquired (a lifetime's work), then there is the greatest of all challenges, to create awe inspiring works that transcend time, culture and inspire generations. These works bypass the sentinels of the mind and speak directly to our core.

I think of the ancient Greek Kouros sculptures, the frescoes of Masaccio or possibly my favorite work of art, Leonardo’s drawing of The Virgin and Saint Anne. Somewhere through the Virgin’s eyes, a hidden dimension opens up that transcends identity and biography. Leonardo’s drawing stops me in my tracks and brings me to the deep mystery of life that is normally veiled. It awakens in me an awareness of how marvelous, precious, and unlikely life is. Creating work that elicits these soul stirrings represents the very greatest of artistic challenges because it calls for the artist to find these depths in themselves and in the process realize that all of life is an art.

For me these are the three great challenges, and I am not sure that the process of mastery ever really ends. Looking back, now in my 40s, I admire the effort I made in my 20s but also am secretly embarrassed because the peaks that I thought were so high are only foothills to the giants I see in front of me. This realization is humbling but encouraging because the journey keeps going, the hidden dimensions unfold and reveal ever more mystery and beauty.

2. Finding out how to navigate in the world, make a living and stay anchored to oneself is no small challenge and definitely a reality when we leave art school. We didn’t learn about business, commerce or marketing in art school, and it was strangely taboo to talk about it. So, without any guidance on how to use my skills to create my profession, my strategy was to say yes to everything: commissions, teaching opportunities, competitions, shows, workshops, all of it. I wasn’t picky, and I took everything as a learning opportunity. I did whatever was needed to stay in the game, and I gave everything I had. My motivation at the time was that it was all good experience.

One of the biggest challenges back then and now is to not get discouraged and try to remain objective. For example, you put your heart into a painting and then submit it to a show, and in the beginning, there is more rejection than acceptance. You pay to play only to have your hopes squashed in the process. Even when you do get in, there are shipping fees and there is no guarantee your work will sell or win awards. However, over time you realize it isn’t personal, that these fees are just part of the year's marketing budget. It is the price you pay for networking, building your CV and in the big picture is inconsequential.

I also found that finding your niche in the marketplace takes time. The trick is to stay true to yourself but also keep the window open to see what others are doing, what is working and in subtle ways allow yourself to be influenced without compromising your integrity in the process. You find your niche by finding the places that your unique skill set can thrive. This part can’t be planned, it arises on its own. It is only when we look back that we see a clear path to where we are.

My current challenge relates to navigating social media. I am wary of engaging because of the way it subtly manipulates us. It is literally designed to be addictive and trigger the dopamine reward system. That said, social media is also very useful, fun and to be honest is probably one of the main reasons I am able to work as a full-time artist. So, to that extent I am grateful. Like all these other skills, it is a matter of balance.

All of this to say that, eventually you get your foot in the door and in the process, you realize that you have developed a thicker skin and can withstand criticism and rejection. Persistence in the face of defeat without losing yourself or getting bitter in the process is an awesome skill to develop and certainly worth the price.

3. Pre-pandemic I taught at my studio in Seattle and traveled to teach at various art schools around the country like The Art Students League and Scottsdale Artist School. I was already experimenting with teaching online because it was a great way to stay connected with students. The timing of the pandemic was unfortunate, though I suppose it always is, because I had just bought a townhouse and suddenly all my classes and workshops were canceled indefinitely. I really needed to make the online format work. My goal was simple. The online classroom needed to be elegant, easy to use and most importantly, a great learning experience. The right combination of tech was a must but figuring out what makes the online teaching experience a meaningful alternative and equivalent to teaching in person was the real challenge and it took some time to figure out.

Once I had the online classroom up and running, instantly there was a lot of interest and students seemed to really like the experience. We were thousands of miles apart but finding new ways of work, connect and create. Many students told me that our classes really helped them get through the pandemic.

I expected a drop off after the mandates were lifted but instead the online classes continued to grow. Surprisingly, my painting class has been full every month since the pandemic started. I think what makes the classes unique is that I teach with a 4-step method, and I demo every class and explain my process as I am painting.After class students then have a week to do the assignment before submitting their painting for critiques. Practicing this way month after month leads to marked improvement and progress.

I think my students give you a much better sense of it than I can:

“Dominique expertly guides you through a process to dramatically increase your drawing skills, focusing on proportion, value, color, and edges. Through her demos and kind critiques, she helps you: 1) see what she sees, 2) break down drawing subjects into simple, manageable shapes, and 3) learn effective ways to correct errors. I cannot recommend her classes highly enough.” – Lisa Wheldon

“I have been very impressed with Dominique's teaching. I am now taking my 3rd online class with her. She is very organized and uses state of the art technology in order to present her lessons. Her teaching method breaks down the techniques into simple, manageable steps, so that one can really learn and gain control over the elements of perspective, value, color, and edges: all the components of making a great painting. I highly recommend studying with her!” – Sylvia Vigliani

“The only thing that could have made it better is to go back in time and have taken this class 50 years ago. It would have changed my life.” –Patti LaBate

There is a kind of comfort in knowing that challenges run right through everything, through every level, and the challenges just keep deepening and expanding. We start from where we are with what we have, and our skills refine over time and with practice. The beauty is that we don’t have to do it alone. We can work together in a supportive online class and learn from the lessons, demos as well as from one another. Whether we see the challenges before us as blessings or curses is really just a matter of perspective. Given enough time and with the right effort there isn't a technical challenge that we can't master.

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