About a hundred years ago when three-colour “process” printing was being perfected, some artists, particularly illustrators, wondered if they might paint like that too. One of them was the American Maxfield Parrish. Marveling at the richness derived from a small range of printer’s inks, Parrish invented a painting system that used only cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Instead of photographically separating the four as in the printing process, he methodically assembled them on a bright white (generally stretched paper) ground. Transparent oil glazes were alternately isolated with varnish. The result was luminosity — and a unique style.
Fortunately, there are a few of Parrish’s half-finished paintings around. In Dreaming (1928), there was originally a nude woman seated by a large tree. After publication, Parrish decided to remove the girl and change various elements. He never completed the job. This painting clearly demonstrates his technique.
Using a small group of models, including himself, Parrish, together with photographic aids, contrived his subjects into idealized, often flattened compositions. Faces in profile or facing the viewer come out better than three-quarter views. Monochromatic and analogous colour schemes intersperse with magnificent gradations — often in the legendary “Parrish Blue.” The overly golden aspect of some paintings, however, is the outcome of maturing varnish. His backgrounds are the stuff that dreams are made of. When you let your eyes cruise the originals (they also show well on the Internet) you can’t help but think of some of the digital art that is being done these days. Parrish also noted a benefit of his slow-drying oil glaze process — simultaneity. Racks of paintings were on the go at once.
Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) lived most of his life in an ivory-tower fantasy in Cornish, New Hampshire. A ‘prop shop’ nearby was used to build his complex reference. Apart from doing book and magazine illustration, he made a comfortable living from paintings that were often made into prints and posters. Yesterday, while cruising the local flea market, I met up with a miraculous, androgynous girl, naked in a fairytale world.
PS: “The hard part is how to plan a picture so as to give to others what has happened to you. To render in paint an experience, to suggest the sense of light and color, of air and space.” (Maxfield Parrish)
Esoterica: Parrish was a creative inventor who took pains to get things right. I get the impression he was a self-effacing, practical, workaday person, very much in touch and struggling with his shortcomings. Industrious to the end — he painted until age 90 — “fine art” was a bit of a mystery to him. “There are countless artists whose shoes I am not worthy to polish — whose prints would not pay the printer,” he said, “the question of judgment is a puzzling one.”
Paintings by Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966)
The Enchanted Prince : A simple statement with aerial perspective — warm against cool. The twisted, anthropomorphic trees add romantic magic to the froggy encounter.
Waterfall : Late light and appropriate light focus. It may not be right, but it works. In 1930 Parrish told the Associated Press: “I’m done with girls on rocks.”
Lady Ursula : Here’s the classical stage (columns and all) with symmetry and profile that must have affected Rockwell. Note Vermeer’s tiles and Fra Angelico’s hair.
A Venetian Night’s Entertainment : A simple pattern for a complex subject. Monochrome, mainly, with a bang of counterlight. Glazing controls jumpiness.
How is paper prepared for oil?
by Brian McPartland, Long Beach, CA, USA
I’ve wanted to experiment with oil glazes on paper, but didn’t know what to do to prepare the paper for oil (so that the paper wouldn’t dissolve). Are you able to tell me how this is done?
(RG note) Thanks Brian. Parrish was undoubtedly not consistent in his systems. Some paper and certainly Masonite supports appear to have white gesso brushed on and then sanded. Others look to me like shellac as a first coat on smooth white paper. I tried it a few times using clear shellac and then putting down a clear shiny coat of copal varnish and then painting in oil on the lovely shiny surface (good for wiping and scraping off as well as putting on) Today I would put a coat or two of clear shiny acrylic medium because I have pretty good reason to suspect that it will remain clear (non yellowing) and free from cracking almost indefinitely. Sad to say, but you have to remember that illustrators like Parrish were often only interested in getting things to hold up long enough for the printer to get the separations done. There’s a lot of bad varnish-induced craquelure on some Parrish paintings.
Model lived with Parrish family
by Doug Purdon, Scarborough, ON, Canada
I recommend The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin by Alma Gilbert. It’s quite an amazing story as Parrish and his model Sue Lewin lived together along with his wife and children. Sue occupied a small apartment in the studio and he visited her daily. At one point a delegation of the local church board visited Parrish to tell him to mend the error of his ways but he promptly escorted them off the property. Sue served as the model for most of his paintings, posing as pageboys, nymphs and jesters. The book has excellent illustrations of Parrish’s paintings and also many of the reference photos of Sue that he used.
Paint surface thin
by Beaman Cole, New Hampshire, USA
I went to a big show of Parrish’s work at the Currier Gallery of Art a number of years ago and also a show in Cornish. I was struck at how small he painted his late landscapes. He made a model of the house and barn for the painting Moonlight Night which you featured. The painting is 16 x 20 inches. Seeing the landscapes in books, I expected a canvas to fit the feeling of the piece, i.e. something much bigger. In looking at some large mural paintings he did for the Vanderbilts, I don’t think he used his tri-chromatic technique. My guess is he painted his people, clothes, buildings in a thinned, light, tint (local color) and let it dry. He then worked over the area with glazed darks to give things plasticity. I can picture him painting with a rag in one hand softening any edges and rubbing back to the light.
I would guess that in large, flat areas of the mural he painted his top glaze with a rag or a very dry brush. He didn’t heighten things up with opaque lights, at least not in these large mural paintings. The paint surface of most of his work is extremely thin. The canvas looks stained in most cases. He was a heck of a painter. They say that in his day, one out of four homes in the U.S. had a print of his on the wall. His judgment must have been okay. I’ve also seen a few pictures by his dad. He was a very good painter, too.
by Lorraine Khachatourians, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Using Richard Nelson’s Tri-Hue Watercolour Technique I found that by focusing on using just the three hues, I could understand colour that much better. I began painting in 2001, never having had an art background, so the theory part has been a steep learning curve. Richard’s teaching has been very helpful in understanding colour and light. The grid was made during one of his workshops. Using layers of different values of the three colours, we could produce this wide range of beautifully transparent and intense colour. I love the luminosity that develops. I hadn’t realized the Parrish used a similar method, and it explains the magic of his work.
Matching pigments in oil
by Roberta Faulhabe, France
Would you happen to know what pigments he used in oil if indeed these were oil paintings? Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are printer’s inks or did he actually use the printer’s inks?
(RG note) Thanks, Roberta. The pigments in oil that match closest are generally Hansa yellow light, Rose red, Phthalo blue and Carbon Black. I tried some printer’s process inks once, found them sticky and difficult to handle. I’m not sure if Parrish ever tried them.
Water-soluble printer’s inks
by Sharon Cory, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
For years I’ve been using water-soluble printers’ inks as watercolours. I’ve had one tube for ten years! A little goes a long way. The pigments are intense and soak deeply into the paper and when I apply one colour over another, the effect is similar to Parrish’s. I’ve had to learn when to stop, but the overall effect is dark and dramatic, a far cry from the usual pale and pretty watercolour. The inks have helped me develop a distinct style. One thing I’ve struggled with is trying to avoid the “studio” look where the picture becomes too composed. I prefer the freshness of field painting.
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, Spanish Springs, NV, USA
I attended the 2005 opening of The Nevada Museum of Art’s west coast premiere of Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe, a retrospective of Parrish’s work. I knew of him as a marvelous illustrator but was dazzled by seeing his work in person. The meticulous nature of his work was so amazing that I took off my glasses to get up close for a really good look. A member of the museum staff saw me and I was given a personal guided tour of his work and a detailed description of his process. His layering process was fascinating (and reminded me of digital layering) but the outcome was almost surreal in his ability to convey feeling and depth. I can’t imagine the patience it must have taken to paint each image (his larger works are mural-sized) basically three or more times due to the multiple layers of color he added, as many pieces had not broad strokes but a meticulous stippling effect. The exhibit is still on tour in 2006 and I recommend it even if it requires some extended travel to arrive at its next destination.
Inventor of studio tools
by Lois Jackson, Corinth, VT, USA
Maxfield Parrish was my neighbor in Plainfield, NH. Although he is often referred to as part of the Cornish Art Colony, he actually lived in Plainfield. Although he was nearing the end of his life when I knew him, he was very generous with his knowledge. His innovation was not just in his paint-layering technique, but he also developed mechanisms for moving himself around in front of his huge canvases and murals. Windsor, VT, just across the Connecticut River from Planifield was the center of Vermont’s machine tool industry, and he loved putting his head together with the engineers over there to develop new tools for his studio.
Grisaille gives confidence
by Marsha Stopa, Ferndale, MI, USA
I learned a version of glazing over a grisaille from Bill Creevy’s book, The Oil Painting Book: Materials and Techniques for Today’s Artist. Using photographs I had taken of a friend’s modern dance company in rehearsal, I did three very small studies to sample the technique with a differently colored grisaille under each — a yellow, a blue and a gray grisaille. I recorded all my color layers. Deciding I liked working with the neutral gray the best, I then enlarged the images to 48 x 48 inches, laying out the composition first on paper with watercolor. Needless to say, I thought that I was pretty prepared after I painted the low-key grisaille on the canvases and isolated it with a coat of Liquin.
Metamorphoses of printing
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
The technology of color separation and dot on dot process printing are in and of themselves art forms. My early exposure to these processes back in the late 1960s were instrumental in my decision to get my art degree. The first real job I took out of high school was in a print shop. The shop was equipped with two Heidelberg single head presses. That meant each color required a separate pass through the press. Watching that metamorphoses take place was magic to me. Especially when the last pass through being black would bring the photographs and art work to life.
Commercial artists vs. fine artists
by Karen Pettengill, Portland, ME, USA
Maxfield Parrish and N.C Wyeth were both prolific and gifted artists whose work in commercial art kept them from ever being considered as “fine artists.” They and so many other talented artists who work in the commercial art field seem to suffer the same fate and I wondered if you could explain why it is so difficult for commercial artists to be accepted in both fields. These labels do a great disservice to so many talented and important artists.
(RG note) Thanks, Karen. There has often been a stigma against illustrators. Frequently this has been based on the perception that they were “commercial” — and consequently “successful.” Further, they are often branded as “not serious.” This has been an unfortunate designation as people so positioned have often missed some great art. While facility, control, compositional ability and design-sense do not always make for great art, they tend to lead to competence, which is something their distracters can’t always claim.
Crystal clear now
by Marie Louise Tesch, Black Hills, SD, USA
I thought I had read every thing I could find about Parrish, but your simple breakdown of his process in terms of printing made some things crystal clear. I am always trying to achieve that wonderful gold. As for the “Parrish Blue,” I have read that we cannot possibly emulate it because some of the materials used to produce it are no longer available. Today some of Parrish’s works are disintegrating because of the varnish. I always wonder how many more things he could have produced if he had lived in this age of quick drying acrylic paint and gel mediums. Next month I am making a pilgrimage to The Palace Hotel in San Francisco to see the mural of The Pied Piper of Hamelin in the bar — now called Maxfield’s in his honor.
How is varnish used to isolate colours?
by Hamish Tucker, Kelowna, BC, Canada
I have for years been attracted to the layering of transparent colors. Instinctively I often wish to “isolate” layers with a coat of varnish — meaning apply a thin coat of varnish after each layer of paint. However, I am always advised not to do that when I ask teachers or folks in the store. So the question is perhaps, could you give a bit of a description of how Mr. Parrish, or even Classical painters, who I believe also used varnish to “isolate,” actually did so. This has been a troubling question of mine for many years. In archival terms, is it okay to separate thin layers of paint with a layer of varnish, or even a Galkyd medium for that matter?
(RG note) Thanks Hamish. There is a lot of misinformation floating around. It’s useful to identify your goals in order to come to the answer that’s right for you. The value of an isolating varnish is twofoldone is to prevent the sullying of colour by the colours below or above. Premature mixture in this way can lead to muddification. The second reason is to build a transparent space between layers so that a truer vibration between tones is achieved. Imagine, for example, the degree of mystery and razzle-dazzle that might be gained if the isolation coat were like a sheet of glass a quarter of an inch thick. Not that you want to go that farmaybe you dobut simple isolation does go a long way toward the making of surface magic.
On track with good old Max
by Becky Hicks, New Braunfels, TX, USA
I’ve been lurking around your site for several months now and have worked my way through your wonderful archives all the way back to August 2000. I’m slowing down to savor the last of them. I’ve gotten more inspiration out of this site than any other artsy thing I’ve done since the mid-1960s. That’s when I discovered a small Maxfield Parrish print of Ecstasy at a yard sale in Houston. That one little print (probably from a calendar) has thrilled me daily and has kept me on track to be true to my artist self for all these years. Since then I have learned a lot about and from good old Max, and know that my life would not be the same without him in it.
Problems with paints
by Joanne Knauf, South Africa
I noted that you recommend artists use yoghurt cups to mix their colours in order to have exactly the correct colour if they return to that part of the work later on. I was wondering what acrylic paints you are referring to because the paints which I use — Winsor & Newton Galeria as well as Chromacryl which is an Australian product available here in South Africa — dry very quickly. There is no way that I could use them later! I have had problems with both products (Galleria tops are badly designed as the tubes are very difficult to open from half way and the Chromacryl tubes frequently split at the bottom. Both companies ignored my queries/complaints.) I am, therefore, not particularly loyal to them due to the import price we have to pay for them here. There is such a limited variety here. Which acrylic paints do you favour and do you add something to prolong drying time?
(RG note) Thanks Joanne. My experience is that any of the brands I’ve tried can be made to last nicely for several days in small yoghurt cups providing you put lids on them. I add a bit of water and a bit of medium. I use mainly Golden Acrylics. I seldom add a retarder.
To title or not to title…
by Trudee Siemann, Hilo, HI, USA
My friend and I are having a debate about titling our art pieces. I feel no need to title my art, and he feels a title adds to the art piece. We are both black and white photographers; he shoots landscapes and I shoot images seen in my imagination. Could you please comment?
(RG note) Thanks Trudee. In my humble opinion everything but everything needs to be titled. Titles are a sly but harmless way to connect with people. Titles add value and interest to your creation. In The Painter’s Keys book, I discuss the importance of titling. There are five main kinds of titles: Sentimental, Numerical, Factual, Abstract and Mysterious. Choosing the kind of titles that suit your nature and what you are trying to do with your art helps you to define yourself and to make creative progress.
Dixie Forest, Utah
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Jean W. Morey of Ocala, Florida who wrote, “With the Parrish system not nearly as much money is needed for supplies.”
And also Jerry Snyder of Reading, Pennsylvania who wrote, “There is a Parrish Houseraisonne online DVD and instructional video filmed in his house shortly after his death.”
And also Jackie Strickland of Brunswick, Georgia who wrote, “I, also, was at a flea market and bought a calendar of his — The Waterfall. I’ve enjoyed it for about 10 years and am now considering selling it. If anyone’s interested you can contact me.”