Garin Baker on figurative painting

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Garin Baker has been teaching figurative painting at the Art Students League in New York for the last seven years. His popular class is consistently full, with a long list of students anxiously waiting in the wings.

He was raised in a home of creative parents…his father was a writer, director and filmmaker, and his mother was a creator of knit ware for McCall’s magazine. Garin remembers visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mom, and strolling through Central Park in the 60s and 70s when it was filled with anti-war demonstrators and a colorful array of people, music, and cultures. Those powerful influences remain to this day and inform his work.

In high school he was accepted into one of NYC’s specialized public high schools with a focus on art. Max Ginsburg and Irwin Greenberg were among his instructors. His studies continued at the Art Students League under Gustav Rehberger, Harvey Dinnerstein, David Leffel, Bert Silverman and Ted Seth Jacobs. Now, as an instructor at the League himself, he follows in their footsteps.

In this first part of an extensive interview I had with Garin, he discusses figurative painting. I’m honored he agreed to let me interview him. He has a lot to offer. In future blog posts he will discuss his mural business, and later, professionalism. You won’t want to miss these.  (Click images to enlarge


You have an obvious love for figurative painting, why is that?  Figure painting has been the cornerstone of my training and where I find my true north as an artist; it cuts the mustard and keeps me honest as a representational artist. Similarly, plein air painting, along with a genuine understanding of the science of light and real atmosphere, does this as well.  The main difference between figurative and landscape painting is that things in the landscape are by nature more interpretive, and a less faithful accuracy of the scene is quite acceptable; in figure painting or portraiture, if things are inaccurate or off you can spot it in a heartbeat, and some of the best figurative works are where the artist has done enough study beforehand to distort and alter the form in an attempt to exaggerate the emotional content and impact of the painting.

“Three Second Rule” – 26″ x 36″ – Oil

“Three Second Rule” (Detail)


Briefly describe how you instruct students in your figure painting classes.  One of the most amazing things about the League is the autonomy each instructor has in his or her class. It’s truly an atelier system. Students sign up for my life painting and/or figure drawing class for a month at a time, and in many case they remain to continue their studies with a particular instructor until they have received what they need. Sometimes they move on and study with someone who is a better fit for them and their personal creative journey. Many of my students say my teaching style is quite strict, a no nonsense approach, but I feel I also learn a great deal from my students, sometime more than I think I’m offering. The real truth behind my approach is that I spend a great deal of time listening and observing new students before I try and impose my point of view on them; this enables me to customize my instruction to suit them best. I feel teaching is a collaborative effort. Once I’m able to see and understand where each student is coming from the more I can help them develop their approach and skills. Hopefully, depending on their consistency, focus, and determination, they will improve to be a better version of themselves. The last thing I want to do as a teacher is to create stylistic clones of my students or present them with a formulaic approach; that will stifle the individual’s opportunity to investigate their personal voice and will become more about style and technique…something that can be taught over the course of a few days in a workshop.

Art Students League class demo  (Detail)

“Times Square Crossing” – 16″ x 32″ – Oil

“Night Shifts” – 48″ x 72″ – Oil

“Salting the Herring” – 44″ x 58″ – Oil


What’s the key thing you’re trying to capture when painting the figure?  I suppose there are several key factors, but in the order of priority I would have to say, the spirit…meaning, the body language, gesture and likeness, also, a solid sense of light and form and richness of color temperature…muted, moody or dramatic. It’s these elements that move a simple academic study into a more unique work. These qualities are in most cases what I strive to create. They contribute to an authentic portrayal of a unique human being…something we figurative painters call “the life force”.  Many times figure paintings or portraiture are attempted as studies and it’s through this exercise that we can catch a bit of lightning, creating a work that just nails it.  These magical works are few and far between, but on those rare occasions when they do occur, the truth of the person we’re trying to capture actually goes deeper than what’s on the surface. Those special works reveal something behind the eyes, they expose the soul, and give a glimpse into their humanity and our’s as well. Some of the best examples, of many great portraits, would be the portraits of Juan de Pareja by Diego Velazquez or Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent.

Diego Velazquez (1606-1670) – “Juan de Pareja” – 32″ x 27.5″ – Oil

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) – “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” – 49.5″ x 39.5″ – Oil


Is the popularity of the female form throughout art history a result of artist’s being predominately male…or is there another reason?  Interesting question. Possibly so, but I think the mysteries of sexuality and/or societal dominance of the male exist elsewhere, not just in the arts, but hopefully things are evolving for the betterment of us all.  Additionally, I think there is something to be said for allegory and mythology. The story of Helen of Troy comes to mind…“The face that launched a thousand ships”; there is that too…and the allure of beauty and desirability…and what men of means will do to possess it.  For me on the other hand, the simplicity of form and the nude figure is and can be poetic and contemplative. The ability to paint the human form beautifully and convincingly, male or female, is an important benchmark of skill and language, and to do so competently only comes with much practice and a good bit of struggle.

“Portrait of Nava” – 18″ x 28″ – Oil


Does one need to have a thorough knowledge of anatomy to be a good figure painter?  It helps, but I prefer a greater sense of light and form with a bit less anatomical rigor. I have studied anatomy but by no means to the level of some of my colleagues who know every muscle and tendon, every bone and connection. I’m more interested in the light cast, warm or cool, and the topography of form and how the personality and body language of the model creates a conversation with the artist and canvas. It’s more spiritual and and less academic. Anatomical knowledge is great but when it overpowers the individuality of the actual person, the pose, and how the light influences the form, creating an overall mood of the painting, I feel it’s missing the truth of what I’m interested in depicting and celebrating.

***Two more articles with Garin Baker in the near future. He’ll talk about mural painting and professionalism.

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