Saturday, June 17, 2017

Watercolor Streetscapes of Irwin Greenberg

St. Germaine Nocturne by I. Greenberg
Irwin Greenberg (1922-2009) was an American artist and teacher whose watercolor street scenes were beloved by his students and fellow painters. Mr. Greenberg—or "Greeny," as he was known to his friends and students—taught at the Art Students League in New York. One of his former students, Ricky Mujica, told me more about those watercolors.

James: What got me thinking about Greeny was that I was looking at a book called "How to Discover Your Personal Painting Style" and there were a few examples of his watercolors, including this one "St. Germaine Nocturne." It's a gorgeous little mood piece. 

Ricky: That's awesome! I want a copy of that book!

James: I was curious about what surface he was working on. It looks like a plate finish — but I could be wrong.

Ricky: Yes you are correct, most of these are painted on thick, super-smooth plate finish Bristol paper. For a while, back in the '80's he also painted with watercolors over gessoed paper. He made charcoal paintings on the gessoed paper too.

James: What brushes was he using? It looks like some giant brushes (at first), and with maybe some lifting.

Ricky: He used a very big mop brush to lay in the biggest shapes and then wiped out the lights and mid tones. He avoided colors that stain during the block-in stage, ie, ultramarine blue and alizarin. But he wasn't afraid to use them in the later stages of the painting. During the block-in stage, he preferred to use colors with pigments that stay on the surface and are easy to lift. He would also sometimes add a little Chinese white into his block-in colors because that also makes the colors stay on the surface and therefore easy to lift. The drawback with this is that it becomes hard to get dark because the upper layers become difficult to put down without lifting the floating under layers. His way around this was to use very soft red sable and let the dark colors puddle which made great effects.

James: Wow, that technique gives you a lot of flexibility.

Ricky: He really wanted to be able to keep the painting as malleable as clay throughout the whole process. He didn't want to get locked down at any stage of the painting (until he had to). Very often he would start with a big brush and layout the massive shapes first, and then he would come in with a pencil, or if he was working on a monochromatic watercolor, a fountain or homemade bamboo pen. Sometimes he might put down a very minimal pencil line first, but only for placement. As I said, he wanted to stay as flexible as possible for as long as possible, and pencil has a way of locking you in. Very often, he would avoid putting any pencil lines down until he was sure that an area was going to stay the way it was. But switching between brush and pencil was an organic process. It wasn't a question of one and then the other, but more as if the pencil was just another brush. It's a very effective way of working. You should try it. I think you would get a kick out of the flexibility it affords. When I see Sargent's watercolors, especially the later ones, I can't imagine that he didn't do the same thing. 

James: This one of under the elevated train is such a great value design. I get the feeling he was not painting stuff literally, but was simplifying and grouping values.

Ricky: Greeny was adamant about organizing a painting into its big shapes. His biggest influence was Rembrandt's etchings and very often his most important motif was the "Discovered Light" composition device that you see a lot in Rembrandt and in Vermeer. A dark interesting foreground, then the main action in the brightest light, then a dark behind that and often a mid-light behind that. The silhouette of the dark foreground should be as interesting as you can make it. The paintings above are both built around this motif. What is important to know is that the paintings look like they are organized into flat shapes, but a more accurate description is that they are shapes in space. They are overlapping shapes and he thinks of composition in 3D not 2D. The shapes are laid out kind of like train tracks receding into space along the "Z: axis of the painting as opposed to simply 2D shapes on the picture plane (X and Y axis). Hope that makes sense.

James: Yeah, I love the idea of thinking of composition with the Z dimension, like the Dutch term 'houding.'

Ricky: One important aspect that he always related to me was to not throw away any part of the painting. Even a vignette. To make everything as interesting as possible, even vignetted brush stokes. Even a flat area should be interesting. One shouldn't waste an opportunity to make something more interesting. The objects in the scene should be interesting. If you put a lamp in an interior painting, make that lamp the most interesting lamp. Make it the best lamp. Not just a generic lamp. Even negative shapes should be interesting. Details should be interesting and judiciously placed and not trivial. He was very against dotting every "i" and crossing every "t". Windows are suggested on a building or bricks suggested on a brick wall rather than putting everyone in. More important to selectively put in windows or bricks in an interesting way that goes with the composition and enhances the composition, than to put in every window and possibly ruin the unity of the art.

James: Were these paintings from life or memory or photography? Did he do sketches first and synthesize the design?

Ricky: Greeny worked primarily from life, though when the demand for his watercolors went up and he got older, he wasn't averse to working from a snapshot here and there. Most often he would make dozens of sketches from life in his sketchbooks and then go home and use them as reference for studio watercolors. Not much different than many of the Hudson River painters. People in his landscapes would be thought of as groups instead of individuals and very often he worked from memory or just made them up. He has sketchbooks full of little plein air studies of people and groups of people. (I wish I had been able to get one of those! Those are the most valuable to students who knew his work!!!!) They were carefully observed gesture drawings that he made with a fountain pen filled with brown ink and spit and a finger, or sometimes a little portable watercolor brush. He would have loved the watercolor pencils you sometimes use.

He would fill a sketchbook in two weeks and would draw everywhere. In trains, in meetings, on the street, on line at the bank. And these quick gestural sketches would be fodder for figures in the finished watercolors he did in his studio. It was like reference gathering. While you use your sketchbook in a journalistic way, like a journalistic photographer, he used his sketch like a reference gathering device.

He didn't plot out perspective, but rather eyeballed the perspective. No construction. But he was a master at perspective.

Ricky: Greeny often encouraged us to do little block-ins from memory. He encouraged us to do little landscapes or figure groupings from our heads. It was amazing to see how well and how effectively he could make a cityscape or a drawing of a group of people from his head as a practice exercise! He would start by making a random squiggly line, and then turn that into a beautiful little cityscape sketch! Or make something like an upside down potato sack and turn that into a very believable group of people! And in literally a minute! Lol, he would have given Bob Ross a run for his money with those! Amazing to watch.

James: You were so lucky to have him as a teacher and to watch him paint those things.

Ricky: You have to understand that he lost an eye in World War II and had poor sight in his one good eye! But he could put down a figure like nobody's business. He could get the life and the gesture so quickly, it would singe your eyebrows!

James: Didn't you end up with one of his sketchbooks after he died?

Ricky: When Max (Ginsburg) and I cleaned out his studio, I found a sketchpad behind a radiator. It's great, it is a full sketchpad that he made on a small vacation he took in Norway. It's full of monochromatic landscape studies from life while on vacation many of which became reference for finished paintings that I remember from his one man show in the late '80's! It's one of my most prized possessions! I feel very lucky to have it and there is so much to learn from it. I can't wait to show you. I also managed to rescue a few of his more finished watercolors that were still left. I got a bunch that he made before he started to use the smooth paper, and a couple of watercolors in the smooth paper style.

James: Thanks, Ricky. Greeny may be gone, but he's still alive thanks to his artwork and your memories.
Book with a few Irwin Greenberg paintings: How to Discover Your Personal Painting Style
Book that talks about the plate finish technique: Breaking the Rules of Watercolor by Burt Silverman


Lyle Foxman said...

This is fantastic. For those of us who were lucky to have Greeny as a teacher he was bigger than life. Here is a link to his practical Primer online, I still have the original one he gave me in class at SVA 25 years ago and lucky to have an original watercolor portrait from him as well.

Ernest Friedman-Hill said...

Fantastic post, James, many thanks!

kev ferrara said...

Wow, incredible post! Thanks to both of you! What a treasure...

Unknown said...

Greeny taught not only at the Art Students League, but for may years at the High School of Art and Design, and then, after his retirement, at the School of Visual Arts (where I had the privilege of studying with him). I believe he may have also taught at the National Academy of Design.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

I studied with Greeny's student Naomi Campbell who, I believe, took over teaching his watercolor class at the Art Students League after he passed away. She told us how much his student admired him and showed a sketchbook or two of his that she retained. There was a sale of his watercolors about a year ago at the ASL. Stupidly, I did not purchase any, even though none were as good as the works in this post. It'd be nice to have an actual book of his works published. Nowadays it is doable with Kickstarter campaigns (like the Dean Cornwell book)

Unknown said...

Lyle, that is such a fantastic list! I need to read it every day. Thank you!

James, what a great post on an awesome watercolorist. I recently discovered the artist Louise Raynor. She has wonderful atmosphere in her pictures. I was wondering if you knew anything about her process? It seems that she may have worked on top of a layer of white ground, but I'm not sure. Not much is available about her and she's fantastic.
Also, are there any watercolor teachers today that you think are really fantastic? I have been searching recently and have had some trouble finding one.

Thank you!

Unknown said...

*realist watercolor teacher

Leo said...

I remember discovering greenies class in sophomore year at SVA and continued studying with him for a year or two after graduation, He was an incredibly kind man who was generous with his time and advise towards his students. I still remember him to telling me “you may not get rich or famous from your art, but you do it because it calls to you and you can’t imagine not doing it”. Every so often I pull out my old sketch books just to look at greenies sketches, he really enjoyed making corrections on my work and I can clearly see when I pull those out that’s greenie alright... he also liked taking my sketch book and just dabbing off a head or landscape in seconds it was true alchemy, and to watch him at work such a privilege..