The straight eye


Dear Artist,

Relatively few artists are able to look at the world and see clear reality. The cold truth may not achieve decorator popularity, but when savored, it’s exhilarating. Add fantasy and mystery and you have high art. Two painters who have it in spades are Robert Lenkiewicz and Lucian Freud.


acrylic painting, 15.5 x 11 inches
by Robert Lenkiewicz

Robert Lenkiewicz, (1941-2002) late of Plymouth, England was a radical realist who specialized in vagrants and disturbed street-folks. One of his favourite models was the wise and hairy Edward Mackenzie, who Lenkiewicz referred to as “Diogenes.” When Diogenes passed away, the artist had his body embalmed and installed in a secret drawer in his studio. Weirdness aside, the paintings are exemplary straight-eye works of remarkable facility. Dreams, optimism, humour, humanity, candor, feminine mystique, love and lust are his subjects. He frequently included himself, caught in mid-expression or transient thought, somewhere in the discomforting crossfire of civilizations. His legacy has brought fame to the Barbican of Plymouth and fresh credibility to figurative work.

Lucian Freud (b.1922) is a German-born British painter with a brilliantly straight eye. His subjects include the abject, isolated, alienated and the thoughtful. Showing the fragility of the current human condition, plain truth mingles with stressed awkwardness. The obese, the elderly and the weak are examined without pity — many in sad resignation or outright depression. With Freud we observe the touch of human tenderness, the trusting beauty of animal bonding, the specter of immanent death and the plaintive hope for the morrow.

Where does this purity of sight come from? What does it take to generate this sort of vision? In both artists there was a life-shaking event that lifted the veil. Lenkiewicz, who grew up in London, was banished to the counties for his weirdness. In an artistic sense, he “came out” in the microcosm of Plymouth. Freud, on the other hand, escaped the tyranny of Nazism when his family immigrated to England in 1933. Growing up in a Jewish environment, he never forgot the world’s potential for brutality. But his eyes were sensitized and made more tender by mankind’s poor performance.


“Reflection (self-portrait)”
oil painting, 56.2 x 51.2 cm
by Lucian Freud (1985)

Best regards,


PS: “I am looking for an honest man.” (Diogenes the Cynic, 400-325 BCE)

Esoterica: Both young and old may be blessed with above average clarity and honesty. The eyes of youth can be fresh; the eyes of the elderly can be wise. In their early and late attitudes as well as their art, both of my straight-eye painter examples are a curious mixture. You can apply their principles in your studio. To the benefit of both new and well-worn subject matter, take off the glasses of mid-life custom, habit, expectation, obligation and ordinariness. See the subject with the twin blessings of innocence and wisdom. Look before you leap. You may see your work respond with further integrity and honesty.


The straight eye

Robert Lenkiewicz Documentary


Artist appreciation: Lucian Freud (slideshow of work)



Sheltering the neglected
by Henryk Ptasiewicz, St Louis, MO, USA


original painting, by Henryk Ptasiewicz

Robert Lenkiewicz life and work shows there’s no secret, just hard work. I had the good fortune to meet him, and go into his Barbican studio. I realized there and then that art is not an easy option, it is an exploration of the world around you trying to make sense of things on different levels. He made between 3-400 paintings a year, it was the sheer scale of them that left an impact. Another thing Lucian Freud and Robert Lenkiewicz had in common was that they were both heavily impacted by the Nazi regime. RL spent a lot of time trying to understand the roots of Fascism. He grew up in a home full of the survivors of the death camps, his parents built a refuge for them, which in turn is what Robert did for the down and outs of his time, giving them shelter in his studios, meals at Christmas. He died way too early, in part because he worked in a freezing cold studio, and it weakened his heart.


Lenkiewicz and photographic reference
by Adolfo McQue, South Africa


Robert Lenkiewicz in his studio

I was blown away by Lenkiewicz’s technique, old master size, wide range and social conscience. Do you know if Robert Lenkiewicz used photographic reference in his work, or, like Lucian Freud, did not?

(RG note) Thanks, Adolfo. When I visited his studio in Plymouth in 1995 I was shown around by an assistant. There were photos and slides here and there, but I got the idea that Lenkiewicz worked from all angles — life, reference, fantasy. He was a widely read fellow who was interested in many avenues of thought — history, witchcraft, religious cults, ancient technologies. With his appreciation of illustrational technique he would have been familiar with the methodology of photographic reference.


Freud’s honest approach
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Scout Lake”
acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Lucian Freud is one of my favorite artists and I am so glad that you emphasized his honest approach. One thing that may be a bit misleading is that one may conclude that Freud intentionally seeks infirm models, which is not true. He states in his autobiography that he always just simply painted what was around him — his family, neighbors, friends, people he met in the bar. He addressed the commentary about his alleged distortions of human body in his early works — he said that was simply the best he could do at the time. He seems to be a simple man, almost never traveling anywhere, using the same shabby studio in London for the most of his life, brush rags piled into mountains in the corners so they even make a backdrop in many of his paintings. What a simple bare-bones artist! Some consider him simple-minded, but what a master and what a humble life!


Painful and bittersweet
by Terry Rempel-Mroz, Ottawa, ON, Canada


coloured pencil drawing
by Terry Rempel-Mroz

Clear reality is often painful and bittersweet. For me it must be balanced with escapes into other universes where I am able to express my feelings. This I do by abstraction — I have an abstract ’emotional library’ that helps me deal with such realities as an aging mother with Alzheimers. But the abstract expressionism is based on clear reality, in fact needs a dose of it in order to fan the flame. Thus, every once in awhile I venture into straight-eye work, such as the portrait of my mother, wrinkles, grey hair, and the most alive eyes I have ever seen. As I said, painful and bittersweet.


Visiting the ‘monsters’ of painting
by Lilian Valladares, Switzerland


digital illustration
by Lilian Valladares

At the Foundation Maeght in the South of France there was an exposition of the two “monsters” of painting. They were related only in total opposition and behaviour — Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. It was not just an accurate sight of fables and reality, but above all, a course in how to paint. Each stroke of colour masterminded in a way that very few can. Leaving techniques aside, as one of the first visitors to the opening, the chance to turn my body around in each room and see from far and from very close every one of the paintings exhibited was one of the most exciting experiences in my career as a painter, as an eternal student of art. I have spent weeks staring in my mind the running faces, colours and forms of Bacon’s works, and each stroke of Freud’s brushes filled with a world of colours. As in a film, all this went thoroughly shifting as if I was surrounded by a thick cloud of fantasy and sadness. Both artists painted the very soul of their subjects. The rest was remaining just for the eyes as a pure, sublime delight.


Artists and their models
by Paul Massing, Amelia Island, FL, USA


pastel drawing
by Paul Massing

Quotations from artists concerning their models and comments by the models have always interested me. One of my favorite quotes: Picasso said, when someone observed that Gertrude Stein’s portrait did not look like her, he replied, “Never mind, she will!”


A model that I often use in a workshop is from my local supply of interesting characters is a handicapped person. He has some great costumes in his trunk of memorabilia. To capture the drama of his sittings is always a challenge. His Pirate get-up is always a good subject.


Why are artists shunned?
by Kathy Feig & Robin Pitt-Taylor, Sutton, PQ, Canada


oil on canvas, 47 x 67 inches
by Vita

We know a painter who is so honest and outspoken in his work that no gallery other than ours will show his work. We have a good friendship with him. He is a solitary sort and does not join any group. He does not seek recognition and paints under a fictitious name. When he visits galleries, he is repeatedly shown the door and we are curious to know why.





Sensibility to fellow humans
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada


“Hotel Bedroom” (1954)
oil on canvas, 91.1 x 61 cm
by Lucian Freud

I used to live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, home of the amazing little Beaverbrook Art Gallery. They are the proud possessors of a Lucien Freud, Hotel bedroom, and recently had their ownership of this and other valuable and wonderful paintings brought into question in a lawsuit by the Beaverbrook Foundation (heirs of Lord Beaverbrook) who sought to lay claim to works that were believed by the gallery to belong to them, as his legacy to the people of N.B. Fortunately, the court found for the gallery, for most of the works, happily the Turner (valued at a cool 20 million), and many other fine paintings. So the Freud is still to be seen there. Lenkiewicz and Freud are not only great painters on the skill level, but have a great sensibility about their fellow human beings.




Drawn to art
by Susan Delaney, AB, Canada

I am inexorably, compulsively, drawn to art and the creative life despite more traditional, lucrative and secure options — I still struggle on a daily basis with the question, “Why?” Worse, I am drawn to landscape which, given my severely intellectual and conceptual training, makes no sense to me and downright frightens me. The snob in me is at war with… something. What is that something? What about this elusive question, “Why art?” I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(RG note) Thanks, Susan. Intellectual and conceptual training often poisons the will to create. That’s the “something” you’re at war with. Skilled art, in its purer forms, is a natural human tendency that most people intuitively know is wholesome. The way to overcome the pedagogy and the snobbery is to satisfy your self-directed creative will—and go to work. As you gain proficiency you will begin to wonder what all the fuss and prejudice was about.


Unwritten rules about portraiture?
by Andrea Cooper, Whakatane, New Zealand

I am hoping that you might have some wisdom to share on what I assume are unwritten rules about portrait painting. Living down here in New Zealand, I am not to sure how this works. I am wanting to do a portrait of a well-known political figure in American politics. This is not to be formal portrait or a cartoon and will be in a favourable light, if you get my drift. I have recently been doing work, which might be called contemporary social comment. Do you think I have to get this person’s permission? I’m by no means a well-known artist (yet) and I’m sure they are not going to be interested. If this work goes well I would like to exhibit it. I will not be using any professional photos of this person. I understand that kind of copyright.

(RG note) Thanks, Andrea. Some people are so much in the public eye that their fame seems to give permission to copy. Fortunately for us, people can’t be copyrighted. It’s the art (including photography) that’s done of people that may be copyrighted. Go ahead, make your painting. Make it different, make it interesting and make it fun.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The straight eye



From: Angela Treat Lyon — May 17, 2007

Andrea Cooper has a good point to ask about license to use well-known people’s images. Many of them, esp. actors and people who depend on their images for a living, actually do have “brandable” images and can, indeed, sue for infringement. I’d say it would be a good idea to google the name and see if you can find any info on whether or not that person would object on any grounds.

Another way to angle it, though, and one that would be more probable to get a good response, would be to paint away as Robert says, and make a very good print of it and send it to them as a gift. Who could refuse that? They may even want the original!


Angela Treat Lyon

From: Charles Peck — May 18, 2007

“Sensitive dependence upon initial conditions” is a little phrase I ran across a few years ago in my random reading between painting/drawing or sailing that still is one of the most liberating concepts I know of.

I feel it relates directly to the question of the value of figure drawing to a practicing visual artist.

There are legions of quotes and references to famous artists and their use of figure drawing but that is not what I find useful. I have been figure drawing at least weekly for quite awhile now and it is what is the basis of all I do.

The point seems to revolve around being human and getting closer to an understanding of what that means. The point of of most all human activity is in relation to other humans and their understanding of it or our attempt at expressing some sense of human-ness.

When one is drawing or painting the human figure there is more than just anatomical or the muscleature understandings. I find an hard to describe sense of looking in a live mirror no matter what the gender of the model is. A constant back and forth awareness that seems to increase as the pose continues. A furthering of my knowledge of myself and my understandings.

This assists me in all the rest of my life doings … whether that is landscape, portrait or mural painting, trimming sails and managing the hull as it moves through the water or reading another human’s writing.

In short it is the initial condition that creates an unfolding sensitive awareness that just keeps getting better.

I could not imagine what it would be like to spend my time working at art without constant immersion in figure drawing.

From: Lynn Thomas — May 18, 2007

Thanks so much for sharing with us.

From: Dave Wilson — May 18, 2007

The sound of “art therapy” is lovely, but what exactly is it? Catherine C.R. has mentioned it but I remain clueless about how it works, in spite of Internet inquiries on the subject. Anyone have experience with this?

From: Julie Roberts — May 18, 2007

My computer is an iMac OS X 10.2 and for several months I have not been able to see the larger form of the pictures when I click on them. Instead, I get a blank square of the same size as the picture beside it and on top of the script. Still, I enjoy the journals immensely and read all the clickbacks. Thanks to all who are responsible for the site!

From: Fannie Griffin — May 19, 2007

In response to Dave, there is an excellent book on art therapy by John Graham-Pole. Illness and the Art of Creative Self-expression.

From: BJ. Wilson, CA. — May 22, 2007

(…in response to Dave Wilson’s Q: What is art therapy anyway?) I once volunteered to fill a request for an Art Therpist in an ordinary looking house (but secured in many ways) that served as half-way house for mentally disturbed people. My program could be anything I chose to make it. So I’d go in, set up a still life, give a peptalk on “looking” or “how beautiful things smell” etc. to the group that had assembled waiting for me to come. I was fortified with 18×24 drawing newsprint and some pencils and considerable enthusiasm for the project. Some, I had to prod, “You can begin now if you want to.” Others dived right in. Some drew completely other things, and I was permissive. I’d go around watchng and giving such encouragement as I was able to give to those who were willing to receive (many were not, so I’d smile and move on). One man was especially interesting to me. He put on a successful air of “not interested at all, lady!” and turned his chair in the other direction. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he’d sneak a peek at the setup and turn briefly back to his paper and – concealing every mark he made with his hand, he’d make some markings, then turn away again each time he caught me looking in his direction. Disinterested! There because he was expected to be there! The body language was clear. We worked about an hour and I gave people warning that I’d like to come around and pick up their drawings so we could all see, etc. At that point he got up, pushed his chair back noisily, threw the pencil down on the table and left (also noisily). Absolutely not going to participate! We looked at the results one page at a time and found good thngs in every one (of course). He was officially “gone,” but he was just outside the room, peeking around the corner of the doorway. I never looked at him, but when we came to his paper it blew me away! There in the middle of the big 18×24 sheet was a most sensitive and refined, elegant, tiny, tiny drawing of everything – the still life, its surrounding, the table everything was sitting on – no bigger than a dollar bill. (He was waiting for me the following week and the behavior was identical.) As always, the drawing was beautiful, he was disinterested – but he always left it there for me to find and see and comment about. The psychiatrist in charge of the hospital talked to me on various occasions and pointed out that the things the patients did with art were very personal, uninhibited (if that was his own norm) and that the staff had a better idea of what was going on in a patient’s head by looking at a drawing than things they might question him about, and personal problems could sometimes be spotted and addressed. After volunteering for many months, I had to give it up, It was too emotional for me.

From: Maia — May 23, 2007


In the click back to “The straight eye” in your note to Andrea Cooper (Unwritten rules about portraiture?), you said that people are not copyrighted and that she could go ahead in painting an American politician.

I remember a while ago, watching a programme on BBC about a British female artist who had made a big painting. She had incorporated in it, Kylie Minogue or part of her (Minogue’s backside?). Through a lawsuit, this artist was forbidden to show her painting. Even in the programme itself, the image was blurred.

The artist commented that because she had no money to fight this lawsuit, she chosen not to show her work. I do not know the end of this story today.

Should somebody not weigh better who to painting?

Even if somebody decides to paint someone from the public eye, should this painter not be prepared for some eventual complicated lawsuits? And possibly, being forbidden showing his/her work?

How do the caricaturists get away with it?










acrylic painting
by Bonnie Hamlin, Warren, MB, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Márcio Merg Vaz of Porto Alegre, Brasil who wrote, “I believe I recognized you as a member of the brotherhood referred to by Robert Henri, and your vision and will to share, like with a brother (who tries his eyes and arms with paint on canvas), has been making my life more rich. I especially thank you for introducing me to Robert Lenkiewicz, another complex and compassionate soul.”

And also Steve Mahovlic who wrote, “Is it reality to focus on the challenged and downtrodden? I often wonder about the expression ‘the cold truth’ being used to describe the harder side of life. Does this mean ‘the warm truth’ is the much higher percentage of people who are experiencing a wonderful life?”

And also Josephine Siedlecka of Great Britain, who wrote, “I don’t think it is necessary to just portray the grotesque and ugly in an clear-sighted way. I like really accurate and perceptive portraits of people in all shapes and forms.”

And also Catherine C.R. who wrote, “As an artist and art therapist living in Sweden, I have very little access other visual artists. Today you really inspired me and gave me two great ideas I can use in upcoming art therapy workshops. The two ideas are Lenkiewisz and Freud. Their art works fit in brilliantly with a presentation I’m doing on the origins of art therapy. Both artists’ works are highly realistic yet pack a whale of a psychodynamic punch.”

And also Ron Grauer who wrote, “I’m working on a small book on being an artist and in it I mention the feeling of artistic pride. When one realizes that our relationship to the clan of great artists, before, during and after our brief period, includes us, our names, though we may never approach their greatness, it is a profound experience… like tears on my whiskers looking at Lenkiewicz’s work.”

And also M Frances Stillwell of Corvallis, Oregon who wrote, “Wolf Kahn said at his workshop, “Draw every sky as if it were the first time you saw it.”




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