My late friend Bert Oudendag used to open his oil tubes from their back-ends, squeeze the contents onto a steel tabouret and carefully fold in 50% by volume of stand oil, a small amount of copal varnish and a drop of cobalt dryer. He then put the mixture back into its tube and put the remainder in a glass jar. All this was in aid of an extended and more fluid brush stroke that gave his work a kind of Franz Hals character. He was particular about his stroke.
The unique blend of creativity and chemistry is what makes ours an interesting game. I’ve always noticed that when artists are fussy and particular they are generally onto something. In Bert’s case: specific grey grounds, oily imprimatura (not linseed oil), rigid palette (five warms, one cool, plus black and white), unique brushes (specially trimmed), a special way of holding and using them (some for warm and some for cool), and unique hand-made boxes for painting storage. His studio was built around a vast bank-vault. Nobody else knew the combination. I watched him work on location many times. He would simply look for and find something that turned him on — he never asked why — then he quickly prepared himself, squeezed out, and began. Sometimes it was all over in twenty minutes. “Do not make the mistake of asking me my particularities,” he used to say, “You will have to find your own — otherwise you will lose your individuality.”
Bert kept as many as nine bicycles. “You must have a feeling for choice.” He was what we call a Renaissance man, but he always said it was important to have “French bicycles and Dutch paint.” Bert didn’t believe in wearing a bathing suit either. In the water in front of his beachside studio he would remove his Speedo and leave it attached to a fishing float. “Complete freedom is vital,” he said. When Bert died we let loose his float and impedimenta onto the high seas.
PS: “When painting the faces of young persons, use the yolk of the egg of a city hen, because they have lighter yolks than those of country hens.” (Cennino Cennini)
Esoterica: Cennino Cennini (1370-1440) was a Florentine painter who wrote a craftsman’s handbook that marks the transition between medieval and Renaissance art concepts. He offered detailed advice on the techniques of painting. At the same time he was one of the first to call for the use of imagination in art and to elevate painting from artisanship to fine art.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
by Jim Rowe, Lakefield, Ontario, Canada
For the last couple of months I have been painting with brushes that I have made myself. I quietly go around the village on my bicycle and pick up any squirrels that have been run over. Take them home, chop the tail off with pruning shears, give it a flea-bath, then cut the hair off close to the tail-bone with scissors. The hair is held together by dipping the back end in an oil-base paint, then using epoxy, glued onto a stick and wrapped with duct tape, shrink tubing or what-ever. I am saving up an inventory of different colors and different lengths of hair. Also the hair is different in the summer than the winter. I feel I am painting better this way.
by Faith Puelston, Germany
I was intrigued by your vivid description of the eccentric Dutch-born painter. This is one of the links I found and there are plenty of others about his life and work: He must have been an extraordinary man: inspired, unconventional, innovative. The sort of epitaph we’d all like to have.
(RG note) On rainy days Bert loved to do still life. He set up anything, anywhere, and just painted it. “I love paint,” he said. One day I came by and he was painting the garbage cans at his back door. It seems to me that early on in his life he figured out how he wanted to paint, and then he couldn’t get it stopped.
by Joan Miriam Adams
Your story about your friend Bert Oudendag, reminded me of another one told to me by a friend. It seems that she had approached him for a drawing and painting lesson. She much admired his figurative work and had asked him to teach her how to approach life drawing in the same manner as he did. When she arrived, he was all set up and ready to work. Much to her surprise, he told her she could disrobe and take her pose for him. Now my friend (who was over 65 at the time) was always a bold lady so she did so. Bert then proceeded to teach by giving a demonstration of how he worked, with him as artist and her as model. I personally would have loved to see the results of the exercise, but I never have. I only heard the tale.
Fond memories of Bert
by Loreena M. Lee, Salt Spring Island, Canada
I have many fond memories of Bert. We used to have spirited discussions about art, specifically about portraits. He was a fascinating man. He’d often ride up on his bike, come into my studio wearing his toque down to his ears, lean his knuckles on the table and proceed to expound on some profound insight. Then, without further ado, or waiting for a reply, he would turn, mount his bike and depart. He was one of a kind, a rarity.
by Daryl Tracton
I had to larf at the city hens versus the country hens. I’ve heard of Oudendag, but not Cennini.
(RG note) Cennini offered particular advice on a lot of stuff. Among chapters and chapters on many things he said that you must “draw only with a willow charcoal, (which I have heretofore taught you to make.) This charcoal should be bound with a little cane or stick so that it is as long as your face — thou wilt find this most agreeable to compose with.” He recommended using a feather for corrections and also suggests laying things aside for a few days so that corrections can be made in a more leisured manner. He suggested dusting off drawings with the feather until it had almost disappeared, then “taking a vase half full of clear water to which is added a drop of ink, and with a little pointed brush of miniver or squirrel, strengthen the drawing everywhere — thus will remain a vaporous drawing which will render everyone to love thy work.” He also advised copying the great masters or, if possible, hanging out with Giotto.
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
I have a beautiful new studio, with everything possible an artist needs, for the first time in my life. It is intimidating. I’m used to cramped spaces, like cars and kitchens, and just looking at the new studio easel (my first) both makes me want to paint — big, bold and beautiful — and run away. The situation is improving, but I still love and use my “spitbox” paints. The term comes from Don Lougheed, who used to teach shape painting in watercolor outdoors using 5 x 7-inch paper held down by elastic bands to a small board, one No. 8 brush, three to five colors, all to fit in a pocket. The best way to take down “shorthand” painterly notes in 10-15 minutes, and instantly available. This has evolved into my “fanny pack”, containing a portable, lidded paint-box large enough for the lid to act as easel, the palette to support a film canister with water, tissues, pens, pencils, never an eraser, and you’re off, equipped to paint anywhere, anytime, on your knees, in canoes, sailboats, in freezing weather inside your car, with small, intense descriptions that you can turn into large paintings in the studio.
(RG note) Jane Champagne has written about this activity in her book “Painting the Ontario Landscape, a practical guide to painting in watercolor on location” (University of Toronto Press, 1991).
Painter’s Keys Gallery III
(RG note) Thanks so much for all the wonderful images. My assistant Therese Lewis, my daughter Sara Genn and I chose these ones as “exemplary.” They are in no particular order. Thank you for the variety, the quality and the sharing. Please feel free to send more at any time. I am looking at every single one.
by Elaine Joy Sills
Many are the artist’s ways
To see, to imagine, to resonate, create,
The distant eye, the closer eye,
The sensing eye, the inner eye.
From illusive overlays of visions,
Comes forth the revelation.
The miracle of message
An unforced flow through passages
From eyes to mind to heart,
Channeled into language
Forming colours, shapes and media
Obeyed and dedicated by the hand.
Trust. Believe. In all of us
There is an artist’s way.
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