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Borsheim Art Newsletter:

by Kelly Borsheim copyright 03 March 2013

  1. What in the world is Tenebrism?
  2. Portrait Painting Workshop - In Florida!
  3. Blog Highlights
  4. Subscription Info.

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[Palette Tenebrism Still Life Oil Painting]

Kelly's palette, in the beginning!
This painting in Tenebrism style requires few bright colors.

Dear Art Lover,

Here in Firenze, Italia, I am working to improve my oil painting skills. That means taking on specific projects and focusing in a new way. I am currently creating a painting in a style called "Tenebrism" and once again, I have used my personal experiences in the Renaissance City for the inspiration of my composition. This time with an Italian "playboy" who wants to receive kisses instead of money for repairing shoes! He is quite "famous" in my neck of the woods.

[Caravaggio Tenebrism painting]

The term "tenebrism" is derived from the Latin word 'tenebrae' meaning "darkness" or "shadows." It describes a painting style in which much of the composition exists in the dark, while the more important subjects will appear as if a shaft of light fell upon them. You might imagine the high drama of so much contrast. Paintings using tenebrism certainly have more of a moody feel than paintings created in a "high key" (very few dark tones or colors). Caravaggio gets the most credit for excelling in this style, but it was around before he was and other artists have used it to advantage as well, including Rembrandt. [See Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" on the right.]

There are many things that I am trying to accomplish in this tenebrist project that also happens to be a still life composition (and sadly, does not yet even have a working title). Thus far, I really enjoy working in the shadows and I have been enjoying the mechanical objects, such as the old sewing machine. [This is a continuation of my fascination with tackling the creation of a backlit motorcycle in my charcoal drawing "Hellcat at the Pitti."]

In my search for a foreground collection of objects, I found a grouping of postcards at the Ciompi antique market here in central Florence. I bought a variety of cards, seeking different hand-writings, stamps, and marks. I was delighted to find an old envelope from a pharmacy. It even contained a small amount of white powder inside of it! More on this later … One objective in this project is to render some sort of writing in a way that the viewer recognizes it as writing, but cannot read the words.

I hope these little stories that go into each piece of art do not bore you, but I find them the stuff that helps me wake in the mornings. I like the connections between people and even, time. Allora, theobjects for the middle grouping were the score for me. In the antique market that happens once a month in the piazza near my home, I found the old wooden shoe forms (over which the leather is wrapped around while the shoes are stitched). In addition, my friend (and bodyguard!) Roberto helped me borrow some tools from our favorite shoe guy, Giuseppe. They are so old that Giuseppe said that he no longer uses them and would not mind my painting them for about four months. Sweet. These objects tell stories, do they not?

There is a bit of a story behind the acquisition of each object, which I will detail later on the Web page that will feature my painting once I have completed her. But I can tell you that while most of the objects came from Italy, there is a spool from Norway and another from the USA and were loaned to me by other painter friends.

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

Above Left: I had narrowed down much of the composition by this time. I had scraps of leather from Giuseppe, my friend who repairs the shoes (see foreground), but ended up not using them. I only used two of his tools. Also, note the hole in the top of the cardboard box. I later covered that in order to "push" the background object more to the back. Right: I used white powder (calcium carbonate) and charcoal dust to reduce the contrast of the Norwegian spool on the sewing machine. I wanted the black thread to be lighter than the background, and the wooden spool to be less bright, so as not to draw too much attention. The powders are an excellent solution because the object is not truly altered.

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

This is my still life setup from other views. I am creating this painting from a viewpoint about 2 meters away from the front plane. The Sight-Size Method involves a lot of pacing the floor and I stand back to look and move forward to mark the canvas. No wonder artists are nuts!

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

Here you may see that I have done the drawing stage. Normally, I just paint on canvas, but because I am trying to focus on precision and subtlety (in the drawing and in paint), I located the basic shapes in charcoal. You may also note the dark campitura or base color on my canvas. The image on the right is confusing since I have the easel cranked up a notch too high. From my viewpoint about two meters away, the shapes on the canvas should align horizontally with the arranged objects on the left. I am not sure why I lifted the canvas, perhaps because I wanted storage space below that for the portrait you see in progress there.

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

In the above images, you may see that I have begun to create the shapes in paint. The raw umber constrasts with the campitura, a mixture of burnt umber, white, and black. I took my time on this part, especially, because I will build off of this and I want to have as few shape corrections as possible in the latter stages. I am not just outlining objects, though. I am thinking abstractly in tones and starting to create three-dimensional forms as I related the darker raw umber to the campitura (using my charcoal line drawing only as a guide). I am only adding darkness at this stage, any tone darker than the campitura gets put in, as accurately as I can. This subtle and exacting process took me days.

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

Now, I begin here to repeat the process, only adding black to all areas that are darker than the umber. I built my darks gradually, and at the same time, clarified the shapes in my composition. Some artists in the classical art schools here in Florence, Italy, seem to think that Sight-Size is the best way to draw. I think that the Sight-Size Method is a tool. If one can draw, Sight-Size may be a time saver; however, if one cannot draw, Sight-Size is a crutch.

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

I am seriously in love with this process! I love the subtleties in the shadows. I have always felt that monochromatic images have a very different kind of power from bold colorful compositions. I find this intriguing and challenging. Note that I am keeping my edges soft!

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

Above left: Projects change in progress. When it was time to paint in the red leather thread on the spool in front, I realized that I did not like it. I am pushing myself on this composition because I see a lot of symmetrical things here... I mean the way that things relate. Not my usual vision. The thread originally hung down too low, tipping the balance in my brain. I had decided after arranging the objects and starting to draw them that I wanted the 70 x 50 cm canvas to be cropped square - 50 x 50.. and 55 x 50 cm (slightly off-square) is just not as appealing. So I moved the leather into a new shape that would please me once the canvas was remounted. You might be able to make out the thin red string that I used to help me visualize the space (above and below, as crop guides).

Above right: After having defined the darks, I have now begun to place the tones that are lighter than the campitura.

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

Here are a couple of detail shots to show you my progress. The process is basically making pass after pass in an area, layering color and texture and working to make a cohesive beauty. I am often frustrated by the problem of glare in this studio. For some reason, the eye can see around this, but the camera, not so much. I long for my film camera's polarizing filter. In the meantime, I am taking images off to one side to try to avoid glare, but still get an idea of the relationships, mostly light vs. dark ones.

[Tenebrism oil painting - real objects] [Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

Above Left: a photograph of the real objects; Above right: my painting as a work-in-progress. I tend to take photos of the process because I am fascinated by the process. But also, there are many times that I come home from the studio and look at the photos to compare. Like using a mirror or other "trick," seeing an image on my screen or even small on my camera viewer is a fresh way of seeing. All of a sudden, things that I never noticed stand out. The problem is, in part, and as in this case, I did not take enough care in the photographing. For the image on the left of the setup, I am looking across to the objects; whereas, on the photo of my painting, right, my viewpoint is slightly higher and I am looking down over the objects. Still, I can gauge overall tonal and color relationships and sometimes even see errors in shapes.

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life envelopes]

Now, this part of the story is just funny: In the antique market in which I bought the cards for the foreground, I chose many different types of texts for some variety in my composition. One night, after I had gone home for the evening, some of my French colleagues came into my work space to examine my efforts. The next day, I got the real story on this pharmacy envelope that still contains a white powder ... While there is an extra "h" in the main word, what is hand-written on the envelope (in French, not Italian) is: "Powder for the crabs" and on the side of the envelop "Use externally." My friends attributed the misspelling to the fact that this pharmacy from Genova listed it as also speaking English and thus, the error could have been from a foreign doctor's script and purely accidentaly or out of ignorance.

While we all had some laughs over this, I am still debating about painting a subtle crab into the envelope. If I do it well, no one but you will even think to look for such a thing since my exercise is to portray writing without being able to READ the writing!

[Tenebrism oil painting - still life]

The above shot is the most recent image I took of my efforts on this tenebrist painting (27 February 2013). I am currently working on painting the texture of the wooden shoe forms. Then I will work more on the foreground objects, developing the feeling of writing on the old cards and the end of the spool ever-so-gradually. The sewing machine in the background will be addressed last because I need to develop the main subjects so that I understand how much or how little I want to develop the object that is the furthest from the viewer. Later, I will add layers of black to the background to really get richness in here. Now, to start thinking of a title . . .

Portrait Painting Workshop - In Florida!

[portrait drawing Nestor]
Portrait of Nestor, pencil, by Kelly Borsheim

I will be teaching a 3-day portrait painting workshop in central Florida.
Dates: May 17-19, 2013: a Friday evening, plus Saturday and Sunday (14 hours total)
Location: Private historic Victorian estate in Sanford, Florida (central Florida). Sanford is close to Orlando.

More information, such as what specifically I will teach you, the materials list, and registration link is online at:

You may save $70 if you register before 1 April 2013: no foolin'!

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Thank you for sharing my journey with me. I would be grateful if you chose to forward this newsletter to anyone you think would enjoy it.

Pace (peace),
Kelly Borsheim
03 March 2013

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