by Michael Lude
As an artist and oil painter I have studied the greats throughout history, their style, what medium they work in and the techniques they used. There are hundreds if not thousands of phenomenal artists who are truly masters. You don’t have to be a connoisseur in the arts to have heard of the big names like DaVinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, or even the more modern artists like Norman Rockwell. As an artist I have a real appreciation for what made these artists stand out and what they did to earn the title Master of Art.
You may not recognize the name Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) but chances are you have seen his work. He is one of the most reproduced and published artists in history. His painting Daybreak was in TV shows as recent as Witches of East End (2014) and was the basis for Game of thrones’ set design. His first illustration was For Mother Goods in Prose, he then moved on to drawings for Knickerbocker’s History of New York, the Golden Age, Harper’s Weekly, and Scribner’s. Parrish’s illustrations were based in fantasy and fairytale mostly because of the company’s and publishers he illustrated for but these themes later spread into his fine artwork and murals. I’m bit of a romantic with a love of fantasy and fairytales so I naturally gravitated towards his work, but what made him my favorite artist is his technique. I too wanted to possess his skill and patience as an artist.
Parrish is known for his tedious style that many artists find too laborious to do. He chose wood panel over of canvas as a main choice to paint on. He was a fan of combining outdoor scenery mostly foliage and forest settings any human figures would be painted separately then crop into scenic painting. Many people ask how he is able to achieve not only realism but get his colors to literally glow. This is where Parrish is a world apart from today’s artists. His process was first prime the wood panel in titanium or zinc white then he would start with the underpainting, (usually trees). He did this in monochromatic hues like medium blue (cobalt) and once it was all painted out he would glaze one color at time over top the underpainting.
The key is to use mostly warm colors like burnt sienna, oranges and yellows but they need to be more or less transparent when applied to achieve this affect. He would wait for the layers to dry (6 months before paint cures) then he would glaze over the art with varnish creating a glossy polished look. The varnish also protects the work beneath making it easy to wipe off any mistakes without affecting the layers beneath. After the varnish dries he would add another color and repeat this process until you can literally see the color start to glow. All of the monochromatic colors begin to darken and when the layering is done a masterpiece is born.
First rule for painting is never use black unless it is necessary, with the beauty of Parrish’s layering the dark lines create them self darkening with each layer. He was often criticized for how long his process took but he never wavered. When asked about this method he said he paints the same way a print press works. He wanted to maximize the quality of his reproductions-it is much like the modern reproductions in four color half tone, where various gradations are obtained by printing one color plate over another on a white ground paper. Even with his impressive amounts of artwork that he’s accumulated from 1912-1966 his process limited him to producing an average of three paintings a year which he had to work on them simultaneously. His hard work paid off, unlike most artist’s he achieved fame well before his death and his work still continues to spread throughout every avenue of public entertainment.