If you read this interview with Oil Painters of America master artist, Kenn Backhaus, it won’t take long for you to realize that Mr. Backhaus is also a master teacher. He not only knows a lot about painting, he is passionate about you knowing its principles also; just reading his comments about value, edges, and color temperature is worth the price of a workshop.
Much of Backhaus’ works are a result of the imaginative and the observed. By observed, he explains that most of the effects created have been experienced. While using his imagination is a challenging experiment, it is guided by his past efforts, knowledge, and developing skills. Backhaus continually stresses the importance of embracing the sound historic principles of painting. Experience and knowledge develop skill. Applied skill will build confidence, and confidence will lead invariably to painting speed and accuracy.
It’s with pleasure I bring you this information filled interview with master artist, Kenn Backhaus.
Background and education
You received a formal and classical art education at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; how was that structured? It was a four year program called Visual Communications. The courses within this program were structured to the commercial art profession. Courses involved education in both the disciplines of graphic design and illustration. Four years devoted to draftsmanship, figure drawing, understanding form, value, composition and color theory. During the fourth year, the school brought in professional working illustrators to develop projects that would reflect a closer professional environment to prepare the student for the real world of commercial art.
How have your years as a commercial designer and illustrator contributed to your fine art career? The disciplines of solving visual challenges and problems has been a valuable skill that I still use and pull from in my day to day challenges as a fine arts professional. One of the skills needed in the commercial field was to offer multiple solutions to a problem. Early on in my fine art career I did not embrace this skill as much as I should have. Later on I found how important a role it has played in my results as an artist. In the end, an artist will be recognized and remembered more for their results than how they produced those results.
Why is it that you went into commercial art at the beginning of your career rather than fine art, when your love was always with the fine arts and outdoor painting? It was through suggested advice of my parents and art adviser at the time. In comparison, there was the practicality of making a living, paying bills etc. as a commercial artist verses that of a fine artist. When you think of it, both professions, fine art and commercial, develop a product. To receive some kind of monetary compensation the product has to be marketed and sold. The chances of selling “fine art” was a riskier option…not knowing if what was created would sell today, tomorrow, a month from now, a year from now, or maybe not at all! On the other hand, at that time, creating art for a commercial market seemed to be a better prospect for making a living and raising a family. I soon learned that the commercial profession was a very competitive market. To get ahead and stay ahead took much work. including many evenings spent perfecting techniques and styles that represented my talents and skills to art directors. Educating myself on new marketing developments, practices and procedures was an on-going process.
I was not aware at the time when I was neck deep in my commercial career that I would later develop a hunger for outdoor painting and a fine art career. Through meeting a young artist, fresh out of the Academy of Art in Chicago, by the name of Dan Gerhartz, this introduction changed my direction in art. Dan was hired by the studio that I was employed by and we soon became good friends. Dan and I bought outdoor painting gear and invested time in direct observation of the outdoors. I was hooked immediately and found a new muse. This new hunger and adventure in art came along about the same time that illustration was experiencing major changes, diminished interest, and use. A change in my career was on the horizon.
Your education is on-going; what form does that take, and what has been your latest “aha” moment? Experimentation has always been part of my on-going education. Art education usually affects how we produce our art, but what we produce through art is another challenge. All professions have been challenged through various happenings. The challenges of the economy bubble bursting after 2008 has spawned different ideas as to how I approached my product and the marketing of it. My occasional “aha” moments come from the constant challenge and a better understanding, resulting in successfully creating the illusion of what I am about to paint.
Art, creativity, and teaching
What is your definition of art? That’s the million dollar question! It might be better answered by defining what’s not art. Maybe I can use a comparison that I mention in my workshops. There are many outlets to the art of creativity; music, dance, writing, acting and various outlets of the visual arts, including drawing, painting and sculpting. These are some of the more popular categories that we have come to know. They all require various disciplines, foundations and principles that surround and guide the artist creating, whatever the product of that given profession. The definition of art would probably include not only the results from the given artistic profession, but also the energies coming from the human spirit that lives through the end product. The visual artist can produce results either expected or sometimes unexpected, both defining, encompassing and evoking all the various emotions and feelings. Another way I may explain the definition of art or what’s not art, let’s simply compare and define some of the other creative outlets. Since the audience reading this probably comes from the outlet of the visual arts, let’s use a different creative outlet, let’s use creative writing as a comparison. If I wanted to be a creative writer, but did not understand the definition of various words, proper use of grammar, or how to go about developing the structure of a sentence, I may have a problem and my efforts may be found undesirable. As a so called writer, I may know many words in general but just because I know words doesn’t mean I could write a successful screen play. Another comparison may be the creative artistic outlet of a musician. If I was to purchase a musical instrument but did not learn how to read music, understand musical notes, or take the time to learn how to play the instrument, do you think I could make music? We are not tone deaf to decipher good from bad music. As a society we expect meaningful writing and beautifully composed and performed music, but it is neither meaningful or understood unless it has the particular structure that allows for success. The visual arts should be no different, but we have somewhere along the way tolerated and allowed nonsense to enter the equation. As a society, in general we are not illiterate nor tone deaf, but we may have become sight blind to what is good verses bad art. Art that is born but not surrounded by principle, foundation, or structure should be questioned. We sometimes have been told what art is and that we should embrace it without questioning its validity. Be cautious as to where we get our definitions and education of art, either as a casual observer, collector or beginner to the profession.
Where does creativity come from; can it be taught? I don’t know how to best answer this. We probably all have heard the term “creative juices”. I do feel that where I have seen creativity, juices abound. It seems to come from one that has the knowledge of their medium, knowledge of the subject, personal experience, willingness to take chances, and knowledge of how best to convey all these elements into an appealing visual format. All this is guided by an inner sense or human spirit. You can teach foundational principals and important guidelines that could eventually equate to a creative end result. Just because one creates doesn’t make you creative in the sense of the word. I don’t feel that you can teach creativeness, I feel that has to come from within the creator and we all seem to know it when we see it.
You’re offering online instruction, and your classes are very popular; what can a student expect to gain from them? My teaching formats and philosophes haven’t changed, whether teaching on-line courses or in-person. My educational programs stem from the historic principles and foundations of art that guide us in creating a quality pictorial. Teaching preparation, structure, and developing good habits will result in an opportunity to create good art. When this is harnessed with the student’s passion, it’s a recipe for great results.
Subject matter, motivation, and process
You paint a wide variety of subject matter; what is the motivating factor when choosing a subject? It took me a while to figure out why I am all over the board when it comes to subjects that interest me. Most of it first comes from loving a variety of subjects. I now realize that it’s more about the challenge of creating the illusion of light and shadow, or the light effect of a subject, that seems to be a motivating factor.
Please describe your painting process when working in the studio. My process is not complex or profound. Its purity and honesty stems from experiences, emotions, likes and dislikes of life in general. Once a particular topic or subject is chosen, I make sure I surround myself with visual experiences (studies), notes, memories, photographic references, whatever it takes to better understand, motivate the mind, and simulate the eye. Depending on the goal in mind, I may go directly to a finished painting, but usually I work up additional studies. These additional studies may explore compositional changes, color harmony differences, and value shift changes. Comparison has become my closest friend in the process. The opportunity to be able to compare many possibilities has resulted in more dynamic paintings that never would have developed without the additional effort. My studio time is more about experimentation while the plein air work is about direct observation. Direct observation painting helps keep the eye and mind in tune, harnessing that with ones skill, while allowing the visceral response to result quickly on the canvas.
What colors are typically found on your palette? Titanium White, Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow, Raw Sienna, Permanent Rose, Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine Blue, Transparent Oxide Brown, Ivory Black.
How do you achieve color harmony? A lesser mother base of colors on ones palette will naturally help to keep harmony. We can easily visualize a painting constructed only with black and white possessing a very simple harmony. Add one additional color and you will probably still have harmony. Add twenty additional colors, and if not managed properly, you could lose the harmony very quickly. In addition, the understanding of the various light effects (cool and warm) on the subject will automatically aid in controlling and developing harmony in the scene.
Please put these words in order of importance: drawing, edges, framing, concept, values, composition, technique, color. Concept, Technique, Drawing, Values, Composition, Color, Edges, Framing
Most all of your paintings are very dramatic, capturing moods that might only last minutes; how do you manage that? Putting yourself out there to experience the effects is obviously of number one importance. These experiences are captured through various means such as on-location studies, heightened visual observation, written notes, and documentation using digital devises. All of the above aid in recording fleeting effects that can be the spark used in the studio to allow for better results. When in the studio I develop many interim paintings from the above options that are mini experiments in composition, value changes, color harmony shifts, all contributing to and aiding in the development of a more dynamic painting.
“Most of the subjects I paint are observed, meaning that most of the effects have been experienced but some effects are developed into a completely different scene or composition. I also enjoy pulling from my imagination. It is a challenging experiment all guided by my past efforts, knowledge and developed skills.”
How do you determine a painting’s concept, and what steps do you follow to make sure that concept is carried through to finish? Every painting should first start with the concept. That concept could be subject orientated or effect orientated. It may be the atmosphere that is the overpowering element, it could be the complexities of the subject or its simplicities. Whatever the concept, that concept determines the technique used…more rendered, less rendered, broken color, impressionistic, high key, middle key, low key value, or a more graphic approach. All these considerations contribute to the goal of the painting. This keeps me always focused, otherwise it’s too easy to lose focus and you may, for instance, start rendering elements that should only be placed in suggestively.
How are photographs used in your work? For me the camera has always been an additional source enabling recall of the scene. The camera will capture all the detail and nuances that the artist will generally overlook when the scene is observed first hand. Because of this, one of the major problems that can exist in working from photographs is the temptation to RENDER what the camera recorded! In the comfort of our studios the photographic scene does not change in light effect or mood. It remains the same and almost begs to be mimicked through the language of paint. First of all, I feel a photograph should never be used to aid an artist in their lack of ability to draw. I wish I had the time to collect information only through the process of an on-location study, but in today’s world that is not practical. I would be remiss if when I have traveled overseas that I would not have taken some photographic reference to help recall scenes when I returned home. If you recall, years ago when artists would travel overseas to paint, they would take probably a month or so to steam across the ocean. When arriving they wouldn’t just stay for a week or so, they planned a lengthy stay and painted studies that would become their reference when they returned home. Today if one was to go overseas for a painting trip, a long trip may only be 10 to 14 days. We can only get so many studies collected in that amount of time. I will paint many studies, but also record events, scenes and people through the use of photography or video. I find the combination of on-location studies with photographic information to be very helpful in the studio. A group of photographs can be the spark that ignites the creative juices. It’s rare that I paint from a reference photo without making some changes along the way. Sometimes I’ll work up smaller studio studies that combine information from on-location studies and photographs resulting in a totally new composition. When you think of it, this approach can be so much more rewarding then the temptation to simply render what is already captured in the photographic reference.
When you paint on location, what are your purpose, motivation, and goals? Is it your desire to capture what you see, or is there something more you want to achieve? Observation is the key goal! Looking for a subject to paint is a personal experience. What moves me may not move you and vise-a-versa. Usually when I find myself turning my head twice to look at something, there’s an interest to that particular scene from those viewed just prior. By nature we can’t help but compare, so go ahead and compare one scene with another and find out why one scene is attracting your attention over another. For me it could be the particular subject, the light and shadow on the subject, or the atmosphere and mood of the scene. So many various elements could be the reason one becomes attracted. At this point I will determine which element is the attraction, it could be only one of those mentioned or it could be a couple that peak my interest. I feel it’s best to determine which element or effect I should portray in this pictorial. By establishing the direction, I automatically set a goal that I will work to achieve. This keeps me focused on the important elements of the scene and allows me to better edit out information that does not aid in the direction I decided to take the pictorial. One never knows what can happen along the way while painting on-location; fog rolls in and changes the mood or focal point, or something enters into the scene that is irresistible. So, I always leave the door open to the possibility of changing the goal of the painting.
Working en plein air
How much of your work is done en plein air? Years ago I was involved in many major plein air events, so, much of my work was generated en plein air. I have since moved on from many of the plein air events and have turned to more studio work. The studio sets a different atmosphere for painting, allowing time to breath, examine, compare, recompose, and have more time for experimentation. As much as I tried to exercise some of these options while on location, it was not easy for me to accomplish. Plein air painting is still the place where the energy starts. My trips to the field are still met with excitement and discovery. It’s where the truth comes from and helps in laying the ground work for studio experimentation. I’m mindful of what too much studio time can do in corrupting one’s judgment of fundamentals and direction. Today a good balance of both challenges will hopefully keep honesty and excitement in my works.
What qualifies as a plein air painting? Gosh, I guess it shouldn’t be too difficult to answer, but over the years I have learned of many descriptions and definitions that have left me sometimes scratching my head. Years ago during my first introductions to plein air painting with the Plein Air Painters of America we just went out on location and painted. The events during those years were held on Catalina Island off the coast of California. In earlier years we painted for about a week prior to the gala event. Later on, that week of painting turned into about two weeks of painting. The extra time allowed the artists to explore other scenes of the island rather than just the town of Avalon. Artists approached painting either alla prima or by returning to the scene another day or two in order to complete a larger more complex composition of a scene that had a shorter light effect window. Evenings sometimes found artists painting nocturne scenes by setting up around artificial lights or by bringing their own light set-ups. The next comments that I will make are where I feel the definitions come into question. Usually the evening after a day of painting, artists will revisit the days efforts and adjust shapes, edges etc. Some people have questioned if this painting would still qualify as a plein air painting. I personally have never found this to be an issue that would disqualify the work as a plein air piece. I’m sure Corot, Sargent, Sorolla, or any of the great artists that practiced plein air might have occasionally adjusted a painting after having some time to revisit their efforts with a fresh mind and eye. I think many of these questions that have arisen are a result of the competition component within the plein air events. Any time you have a competition that awards prizes, you will have people questioning how another competitor achieved their results and if their award was won honestly. It’s unfortunately one of the evils of competition. This analysis always seemed to come from those that had difficulty just getting paint on the canvas.
If the work is created in the spirit of plein air, shouldn’t that be enough? Here is something for the readers to think about. If I sat in my vehicle using a hand-held thumb box set-up and painted a scene looking out of the windshield, would that be plein air? Another instance, during a winter plein air workshop we were all chased indoors due to inclement weather. The studio situation was on the ground level with crank out windows that went from floor to the ceiling. One of the students and myself cranked open two windows, removed the screens and set our pochade boxes right outside the windows. We went back inside, stood right in front of the window opening, reached through the opening and painted a scene that was in front of us. Our set-ups were outside but we were obviously inside. Would this be half plein air? What would you call it? Artists continue to challenge all these definitions and that’s all good, but where does it end and why does it exist to begin with? Years ago, if you would not see a particular artist on site, it was a standing joke that they were in their hotel room painting from their slide projector. Of course in today’s time, it could be the use of a computer, IPad or whatever the visual aid flavor of the month is. If an artist feels that they would have to do this to cheat the system, then they are only cheating themselves. When caught, the art community is small enough to correct itself.
How do you analyze and select correct value, edges, and color temperature? Making all these evaluations best comes from direct observation, comparison and an understanding of the science of how our visual perception operates, along with an understanding of the science of light. Let’s take them order.
Value – a guideline but not a rule – usually a painting will not have more than three major values throughout the composition. There may occasionally be an additional value or two but this would be rare. Considering this, I will first observe the various shapes within the scene. Using either a physical value scale or visually estimating the values existing between 0 and 10, (0 being white and 10 being black), I will judge the two most contrasting shapes of the scene and make a judgment as to the lightest and darkest shapes. This establishes at least two of the most contrasting values of the scene. It’s easier to now judge the value of the remaining shapes knowing that the remaining judgments will have to fall somewhere between these two. For instance, values of a normal scene may have the lightest light at a 2 and the darkest at a 9 or 10, with the remaining shapes falling somewhere in the middle. However, some scenes may have much closer value range contrasts. A high contrast scene would possibly have the lightest shapes in a 1 or 2 value range with the darkest maybe only a 5, with remaining shapes in a 3 or 4 value. Lastly, a dark contrast scene may have the lightest shape in a 5 or 6 value with the darkest shapes in 9 or 10, leaving the additional shapes in a 7 or 8 value. When viewing a scene with one’s eyes wide open we see too many shapes and our eyes will want to look at all the details. Squinting your eyes (shutting your eyes at least 3/4 quarter shut) allows the artist to better judge the contrasts or non-contrasts between shapes. With eyes squinted, you can better judge what shapes stand out from one another and which ones are closer in value to one another.
Edges – Evaluating and selecting correct edges in a scene is a very challenging task. It helps to have a good definition and understanding of what edges are and what propose they have in the painting. Edges help to define and separate one shape from another. Edges have a variety of qualities from razor sharp to very soft and feathery. This variety of edges helps focus the viewers eye… sharper edges attract while softer edges will have less or no attraction. A sharper edge in a scene will probably exist where there are two very contrasting values and a razor sharp edge will exist at the focal point of a scene. Our eyes are naturally attracted to areas of highest contrast. The sharper edges between two shapes will make the eye follow and speed up along these two shapes. As soon as the edge softens the eye will slow down and if the edge becomes indistinguishable the eye will have a chance to move through to the adjacent shape. Our eyes and mind are trained to react to what we perceive. Think of the two very different conditions of driving a car on a foggy day verses a clear sunny day. On a foggy day, it will be difficult to see objects and judge distances between objects. Sharp edges between shapes no longer exist, as everything is very soft and less distinguishable. Just the opposite occurs on a clear sunny day. Then, everything is more vivid and better understood through the eye and mind. A variety of edges help define the differences between shapes. The eye and mind can now better understand the differences and clearly distinguish between close, middle, and distant shapes. Too many edges of similar quality can produce a painting with a lot of competition. The viewer’s eye does not know where to focus. Everything has the same attention, making it impossible for the viewer to put everything into focus at the same time. We scan around the scene, find the focus point, but are continually attracted to secondary elements. The artist should consider developing paintings with a variety of edges.
Color Temperature – To better analyze and select proper color temperature the artist again needs to have a proper definition and understanding of the term. I’ve been teaching plein air workshops for over twenty some years and I delve into this topic through lecture and on-site descriptions. It’s not rocket science but much easier explained through direct observation with the student. I will address the topic here in a general term.
This is where the artist needs to merge art with science, in other words exercising both right and left brain. When referring to the science, it is the science of light, to be more accurate. If you believe in the nature of opposites, get ready because this is where you need to pay attention. Any time the artist looks to identify the correct color temperature of a shape, the artist needs to always use the power of comparisons. Compare what is known to what is in question and do not guess at the answer. When the artist applies science to the questioning, science does not lie. The artistic term referring to color temperature is used when identifying the particular light effect on the local color of an object or shape. A scene can have warm light as it’s dominate source or the scene could have cool light as it’s dominate light source.
For sunny days
A sunlit scene has a warm temperature light dominate with opposite temperature of cool light affecting the shadow areas. We have a general understanding why an object’s local color is warmed by the effects of sunlight and we also understand that objects or shapes that are identified in shadow are cool in comparison to those in sunlight. Shapes that are not in the sunlight are for the most part considered in shadow. Shadow has cool temperature effects on the local color of an object or shape, but where does the cool light come from? The areas not affected by the sunlight are effected by the ambient light. Ambient light comes from the blue of the sky. It is not strong enough to produce cast shadow but the nature of the blue sky has a color temperature effect on shapes. What I just identified are the obvious differences of sunlight and shadow, but what about the subtle changes that take place where both sunlight and ambient light affect a shape at the same time? For instance, picture in your mind a rock that is in sunlight and also has a shadow side to it. Let’s say that it is earlier in the day when the sun’s rays are striking an object at an angle. The local color of the rock’s edge directly facing the sun will be the warmest. The top of the rock may still be in sunlight but now that part of the rock compared to the edge facing the sun will be slightly cooler. The value will not change between both areas of the rock but the temperature of the local color of the rock will change to a cooler note due to the ambient light of the blue sky. Hence, a color temperature shift from warm to cool. As soon as the eye travels across the rock to where the rock is now in shadow you will have no sun effect but ambient light only. So it is possible for a sunlit object to have two temperature changes from warm to cool but still be in the sun. This continues to get interesting because there is also a temperature change in the shadow. Let’s continue with the mental picture of the rock. As the shadow side of the rock changes direction and moves away from the angle of the blue sky’s ambient light, the color temperature of the rock’s local color will become a warmer dark color. The reason for this is because as the eye travels across that rock’s shape it moves farther away from the cool effect of the ambient light. The lack of cool light will automatically cause a shift from cool to warm. If you were to look underneath a rock, for example, the color would be warmer compared to the outer surface in shadow. The reason is that the underside of the rock cannot receive the same amount of ambient light as the outside.
For overcast days
On an overcast day the sun does not have the power to cast shadow. The artist will not observe the contrasts of sunlight and shadow. The values are much closer on an overcast day. The scene is still illuminated but through a softer light that is filtered by a cloud layer. Objects receiving this overcast light effect are cool temperatures compared to objects that are not receiving this overhead light. Hence the opposite of the cool light means the other objects have to be slightly warmer. For instance picture in your mind and compare the top of a rock’s local color with the side of that same rock. The top will appear cooler when compared to the side. The side of the rock is not facing upward toward the cool light of the overcast sky but slightly away, so the light effect on the rock will shift to warm. The value of the top of the rock compared to the side probably does not change, but what should be identified is a color temperature shift. These observances and the painting of these subtle color temperature effects will make a big difference in one’s final efforts. When an artist does not have an understanding of the light effects, it is very noticeable. Don’t confuse value with color temperature. Value is the lightness or darkness of a shape, while color temperature is the warmth or coolness of a shape. You can have warm dark values and warm light values and you can have cool dark values and cool light values.
When visiting the wonderful museums around the country these effects can be observed and you can see how masters in the past applied this knowledge to their works. As you can see, the study of color temperature shifts is one that can possibly confuse the artist. Truth and knowledge will equate to intuitiveness and you will eventually know how to paint the color temperature shifts in a scene by simply observing the light effects upon the subject.
“For those desiring to become a professional fine artist, I would have to say first of all, get a sound education in the fundamentals of whatever phase of fine art you plan to go into. In other words get a specific education in sculpture, print making, painting, etc. Secondly I would have to say Practice. Lastly, Practice some more. And when you’re done with that practice, practice some more… in other words continue to put yourself in a position to continually learning.”
How does someone achieve individuality as an artist, and is that important? I refer to this as finding your own voice. Yes I feel this is important to one’s professional career. If I have identified what not to do, it might help you to answer for yourself what you should do. Throughout our whole life we have been influenced by someone or something. It’s almost impossible to think of things that we have not been influenced by. Influence is a good thing. It sometimes gives us hope because we can see a goal was achieved by someone before us. When I was in art school one of the ways that the principles and foundations of art were taught was through the introduction and observance of past master’s works. It didn’t take long to be attracted to a certain style or school of art. That attraction sometimes influenced one’s own efforts. You can learn a lot from mimicking another’s efforts. The artist needs to be aware of some of the hazards of influences. There are times that an artist is too influenced and their work begins to look like the work of another. You start to live in the shadow of that artist. Mannerism is the term that comes to mind. We must separate influence from mimicking and try to move on and find our own way of depicting the subject, using our own thinking. This usually takes a lot of trial and error, experimentation, and acres of covered canvas. Eventually, what you chose to paint, how you chose to paint it, your choice of vantage point, color harmony, value range, composition, canvas format, all these become the elements that lead to your individual style.
Kenn’s final words for those desiring to pursue art seriously: 1) Obtain specific instruction relative to your desired goals, whether that be painting, sculpture, poetry, etc. 2) Practice. 3) Practice. 4) Practice…practice.
Thanks, Kenn for this extensive interview. It will benefit all that read it.
For more, visit www.kennbackhaus.com
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
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