Much like Rembrandt before him, Nerdrum hides his tricks. So, just as I began my study of Rembrandt’s technique by studying the works of his students, who are not so skilled at covering their tracks, I began my search for Nerdrum’s secrets through his students as well. Unfortunately, this revealed important but limited information. Further, as I couldn’t see their work in person, I was left at an impasse.
This is when I decided to go to the master himself. I was incredibly honored that he accepted my application and, giddy as a child, I hopped on a plane to visit a land I had never before seen. When I arrived, jet lagged and exhausted, he and his wife greeted me at the train station and he immediately put me on the spot. “Why do you want to study with me?” he asked. And through the mists of my dream clouded mind, I was luckily able to furnish an answer, “I want to learn how your idea translates into a composition; how it speaks not like prose, but like poetry.” To this he grunted his assent. I sighed with relief that I had passed the first test.
But I could not have known how closely I nailed the question. This was precisely what he wanted to teach, and this was precisely the answer to the question of his technique. In order to understand how he paints the way he does, you have to understand why he paints the way he does. It is all in service of the idea.
Consider his self portrait above. There’s not much to it: a single figure stands in a murky atmosphere, surrounded by impenetrable darkness. Yet, this painting speaks more powerfully than many much more complex paintings. This painting speaks fluently in a visual language. It is poetic, like a perfectly structured Haiku. In order to discover why, I began by asking him about his influences. Of course, at first we covered the obvious: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Titian… but then two names struck me. Eugene Carriere and Joseph Beuys (he studied with Beuys in his youth). And what do these artists have in common? An interest in symbolism, spirituality, and an even hermetic interest in the artist as alchemist.
The pieces began to come together. What this painting is about is mortality. Not only that, but through contrast, the immortal spirit, the essence of eternal life. There are many levels on which we could read this painting. Critical theory would discuss it’s relationship to Platonic and Dionysian thought as a contrast to post-modernism which focuses on objective materialism. An art historian might point out its references to Rembrandt, Carriere and the iconic composition. Though all of these inform my search, what I’m really interested in is how he communicates this.
Study the detail above. What you might notice first is the incredible looseness of the paint application. It does not look as if he has resolved the form into clarity, but actually destroyed the form. Much of the face is accurate, but ambiguous. The effect is breath taking, and I choose my words carefully here because you might next notice the two things in greater focus: the nose and the mouth. This serves the minor purpose of creating depth in the painting, but weren’t we taught in the atelier that every inch of the canvas is as important as every other? Yes, and here, every inch is important, each nuance plays a role. But each element doesn’t have to be painted to the same degree of clarity or detail. In order to communicate it is necessary to have syntax, structure, a hierarchy, and therefore a focal point. The focal point here gives us the key to cryptographically decode the painting. His mouth is open, his nostrils are slightly flared, he is in ecstatic contemplation of a single thing: breath.
Breath, is the crux of life. In many ancient cultures, the last breath before dying was considered the soul escaping the body, and judging by how Nerdrum has enchantingly lacerated the surface of the canvas with sand paper as if he was an embodiment of Kali, the emotive mist that we feel so deeply in this painting is the veil between life and death. The centering of the figure invokes the memory of Byzantine Icons, yet the symmetry is thrown off balance by the addition of the bright yellow shock of hair below his left ear, injecting dynamic life into the composition. The detail and contrast in the eyes are compressed and lost almost to point of simply representing the sockets in the skull. The hair disintegrates into rusted shadow. Every value, every color, is condensed with the greatest care to enhance the solidity of a single idea: breath. There is no need for more information, there is no need for less. The ambiguity of the statement insures that each and every one of us can identify.
Consider the detail of a different painting below. The hand holding the palette is beautifully drawn in contour, yet there is almost no information in the shadow, nor much more in the light. This gives him the ability to use this hand compositionally as a singly shape, almost in the sense of formal abstraction. The other hand (happens to be mine, as I modeled for this painting) is painted in much more clarity and contrast, because as it is the hand holding the brush, it is the acting hand, the one that creates. These methods are simply a few in Nerdrum’s oeuvre, which he uses to lead the eye of the viewer, and therefore to the meaning. It is the difference between the musical emphasis of speech and the monotone of writing.
Odd Nerdrum’s Materials
1. The Canvas:
2. The Ground:
You can see the color and value in this image. It’s a very strong and flexible ground. In fact, you will tear the canvas before you would be able to remove it. This is very important, as this ground is like nothing I’ve ever painted on before. Mix the Blanc de Meudon with boiled linseed oil very thoroughly, about 30% boiled linseed oil.
Mix it with a large palette knife until it’s a very thick consistency and you feel strong resistance when mixing – almost to the point where it begins to crumble, but is still a viscous fluid. You must add enough opaque oil paint so that the ground is not transparent! Odd uses burnt sienna, yellow ochre, titanium white, and a little mars black to neutralize the color. But he also sometimes mixes mars black and yellow ochre to produce a nice green ground. He adds titanium white for opacity, which you’ll find absolutely necessary. Or you can use only titanium white if you want a light ground for more luminosity. This works well if your technique relies on a lot of glazing. A light ground will not work if you are scraping and sanding. You apply it straight to the canvas that has already been sized with rabbit skin glue (or PVA sizing for an alternative) with a large palette knife. Scrape it smooth so that the ground rests in the furrows of the weave and a thin layer on the ridges. Try not to leave any ridges from the palette knife. Let that dry for two or three days and repeat. 2 layers should be fine. You should be able to paint on it after a week.
Essentially, gesso is a cheaper replacement for this. Gesso is chalk suspended in oil, but the stuff that you buy in the stores is not ground as finely, nor is it as absorbent as blanc de Meudon. Blanc de meudon is composed of particles of calcium carbonate, also known as Precipitated chalk, or Spanish Whiting). It is the main component of limestone and chalk.
It is composed of a very fine chalk and boiled linseed oil. He, of course, uses the finest of both. But I have found that quality chalk is more important than the oil, so since I’m on a budget, I go for the good chalk and use merely decent boiled linseed oil as opposed to the stuff that he uses, which he has specially made for him.
3. Brushes:Odd uses anything and everything can find. So, there’s little I can tell you here. He tends to like cheap brushes, but keeps a few nicer ones around.
4. The Palette:
Take note of the pre-mixed colors. He has chosen these specific values and tubed the mixtures in order to make modeling flesh faster and easier. This is one thing (as well as great skill and years of experience) that enables him to mix color right on the canvas as he goes without mixing on his palette.
The palette alone is also not the trick to great flesh tones. It has to do with nuances created in the process of painting between the palette, application of broken color, textural variations, and subtle layers of semi-opaques, glazes, velaturas, semi-transparents, etc… which makes the flesh look luminous, semi-transparent, and thus: lifelike and beautiful.
Here’s an old posting I did on technique that will be quite helpful. Oil Painting Techniques: Glazing. The part about light temperature and form at the end is particularly relevant to this discussion.
Odd, like all masters old and new, understands two different modes of temperature in painting flesh: local temperature and form temperature. Form temperature, I’ve detailed in the above link. As far as local temperature is concerned, a great example are the ear lobes, nostrils, hands, toes, and cheeks. The color of the flesh in these places tends to be warmer as blood vessels approach the surface of the skin. Conversely, in areas such as the forehead, where there is very little between the skin and bone, the color tends to be cooler in temperature. Take note of these while painting and you will notice a tremendous difference.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep track of, Odd also uses another means of color shift on a large scale for both compositional, and illuminatory purposes. This is loosely based on optics, but is greatly exaggerated to exquisite effect. It’s quite an interesting and beautiful concept: as light gets farther from the source it scales through the spectrum from yellow, closest to the light source, to orange, red, violet, and all the way to blue or sometimes green. You can see this particularly in his void paintings.
Now this is a general rule of thumb. If you look closely, he breaks and bends it all the time. Also, he takes into account local shifts in color and temperature as well as form shifts in color and temperature. Furthermore, there are changes in chroma related to the light, the angle of the planes of the form, local temperature and chromatic shifts in the skin, and some changes made purely for compositional purposes. As he moves into the shadow the color becomes cooler and more neutral.
Moving on past the palette and its application we come to….
5. The Medium:
It’s actually quite simple. Like Rembrandt did, Odd uses primarily refined linseed oil which he lets stand in a jar… so it becomes essentially stand oil. That, mixed in various percentages with turpentine (he tends not to be particular about it), becomes a versatile medium.