Ovanes Berberian Workshop, Day 1

What a beautiful day in Idaho! I arrived at Ovanes’ studio to find cheerful Vickie Reece (Ovanes’s assistant) had set up wonderful outdoor still lifes in the orchard surrounding his studio. They were perfect juxtapositions of shapes, colors and values. The dappled light from the fruit trees made the subject both challenging and inspiring.

After we painted outdoors a while, Vickie invited us in for a demo in Ovanes’s studio. The first thing I noticed–other than the inspiring art on the walls–was his palette, filled with a full spectrum of colors piled high. I’m guessing there was about one full cup of each color!

We were asked not to photograph in the studio, so I’ll do my best to describe his method.

PREPARATION:

  • MEDIUM: 1/4 Linseed oil, remaining split of Gum Turpentine and Damar varnish (yes, it smells, work in a well ventilated room or better yet outdoors!). Ovanes explained the importance of this medium: to avoid muddy color, you need the under painting to dry quickly.
  • CANVAS: three coats of acrylic Gesso. The more porous the better to absorb the toning and under-painting
  • PAINT: Classic Artist’s Oils. Mix linseed oil as necessary to achieve a uniform consistency (of mayo).

The steps I describe below are my own interpretation of his process, Ovanes didn’t enumerate his process.

STEP 1: OUTLINE GENERAL SHAPES. Outline the big masses, paying attention to a pleasing distribution of positive and negative spaces.

STEP 2: TONE THE CANVAS. This is an interesting phase. He covers the white canvas completely with very thin washes of rich color (approximate to the local color of the object), avoiding firm edges, lots of blending, very loose and watercolor-like (including runs/drips). Alternate warm and cool colors. Don’t worry about the true local color at this point. Use no white.

STEP 3: UNDER PAINTING. Start with rich, juicy darks, keeping as thin as possible. Exaggerate the color. Again, think warm/cool, and place colorful grays near your most intense colors. I noticed he painted his darks with vertical stokes, and areas in the light with horozontal strokes). Create warm/cool vibrations with the toned canvas beneath. Other than alternating warm/cool, he said to keep the colors harmonious, but didn’t offer a more specific color theory. He discribed “happy accidents” of color that you’ll discover.

He stopped at this stage. As I see more complete demos, I’ll update this post/blog.

Later in the afternoon, he walked around to each of us while we were painting to offer a critique. He seemed to like my work (asked me if I sold my work!) Then offered advice. He liked some of my color harmonies (see still life, left), but felt the study was a little to broken up, perhaps not solid enough. He felt my flowers were missing some cooler shadow colors (which I added), and felt I should have included some of the background in light.

I–and others–then followed him from critique to critique to learn from others’ work. He was very generous with his time.

Ovanes and Vicki were very gracious hosts. If you get the opportunity to study with him, do it!
After class, I went to the nearby snake river boat slip–where I later learned Ovanes paints many of his paintings. I did this landscape study of the late night sun through the trees (click to enlarge).

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