Oil Painting: Milt Kobayashi: Paint What You Want to See

Oil Painting: Milt Kobayashi: Paint What You Want to See

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Milt Kobayashi grants students permission to take complete control of their paintings and not feel obligated to paint exactly what they see. During a recent workshop, he encouraged participants to change a model’s pose, coloration, and costumes to suit their own ideas.

by Molly Siple

His classes are more about learning to be open to possibilities and less about finishing the week with a new list of artistic dos and don’ts. As one student said in summing up Kobayashi’s teaching approach, “He gives us permission to trust ourselves.”

Artists who recently participated in one of Kobayashi’s workshops at the Scottsdale Artists’ School discovered that it isn’t easy to make painting decisions based on personal taste rather than observation. In fact, doing what you want is a learned process. The learning took place during each of the five days of the workshop, with the mornings devoted to a three-hour demonstration by Kobayashi, during which he very seldom spoke. “I teach in the way that I’d like to learn from Sargent,” he explained. “I’d want Sargent to paint and not just talk about it. I’d figure out what he’s doing myself!”

Kobayashi helped a student
strengthen her figure painting.

Although Kobayashi is short on words about his philosophy of art, he offers students plenty of opportunities, through observation, to catch on to his style of painting.

He also gives clues about his process in the way he answers questions. Asked about a particular mixture of colors that was a favorite in a previous workshop he replies, “Oh, I don’t do that anymore.” When a student wanted to pin him down on the way he establishes shadows or paints hands, he gave answers such as, “It keeps changing,” or “I normally do that, but not today.” Students came to understand they should stay in the present, trust what they see, and take artistic control of their work.

Kobayashi releases students to explore and invent in much the same way that art instructors teaching Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s placed the painting process above subject matter. The actual subject—the model wearing a particular outfit and positioned in a certain pose—was only a starting point. How the painting developed was based on what the artist saw on his or her canvas. About painting the figure, he said, “Paint what you think it should look like.”

Day one of the workshop started off with Kobayashi greeting what felt like a small crowd of adoring fans. (The class of 18 filled in the first 45 minutes after registration opened.) Several of the students have been attending his workshops for a decade or more. The seasoned friendships Kobayashi has with many soon became evident as the room filled with laughter and chat. One student asked, “Are you going to tell us about any new secret colors you’re using?” He immediately came back with, “If I knew, I wouldn’t be telling you.” This was said with a sly smile, as Kobayashi dispelled any formal barriers between teacher and students. He made himself and his instruction accessible, making the participants feel as if they were learning from a very well-informed friend.

All of Kobayashi’s demonstrations took place at one end of a long, ample studio. The model took her place in an ordinary white plastic chair set on a low platform. To begin, Kobayashi toned an 11-x-14 canvas-covered board with a mixture of dark green and ochre pigment mixed with some paint thinner and linseed oil. He applied quick, firm strokes, blended them, and tried various compositions by drawing a basic head-and-shoulder outline. He warned students to make sure the head was not aligned with the torso because that would be “way too stiff,” but to tilt it instead. He also tried to create variety within the pose. “In any pose, there is an active and an inactive side. I make one side very straight and the other crooked for counterpoint.”

Next he positioned the model to match what he’d drawn. He angled her head and used the pencil to guide her gaze. “This is how I work,” he explained. “I start with an idea of how I want the painting, and then I have the model sit that way.” At this stage of the initial drawing, he also began to establish the position of the hands, indicating them with simple rectangles. He tried out several positions, somewhat arbitrary in terms of anatomy and the pose of the model, but important in terms of design. He stepped back from the canvas frequently to assess the composition, then he adjusted the placement and angle of the elements, repositioning for flow, until he was satisfied.

Many of the students
(and their pets) had
attended previous workshops
with Kobayahshi and were
familiar with his approach.

To define the shape of the head, Kobayashi drew a circle for the upper skull, and then added a sort of triangle with a flat tip—a muzzle shape for the front of the face. If the placement hadn’t appeared correct, the artist could move these briefly noted forms. He finished planning the face by indicating the eyes along the arc where the circle wedged into the triangle. The mouth went at the tip of the triangle, and below it he drew a projecting cylinder that defined the chin.

Kobayashi credits George B. Bridgman, a renowned instructor of anatomy at The Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, for more than 50 years, for this approach to drawing the figure in which the human form is reduced to blocks wedged into other blocks. “His method was simple and easy, and the blocks showed the direction of the different elements of the body,” he explained. “This approach lets you get the skeleton right without worrying too much about the muscles—which works for my kind of painting.” Kobayashi recommended that students purchase copies of Bridgman’s books for reference: Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing From Life (Sterling Publications, New York, New York); Heads, Figures and Faces (Dover Publications, Mineola, New York); Constructive Anatomy (Dover Publications, Mineola, New York).

“Sometimes the pose I want is really difficult to hold,” Kobayashi explained. “I think this comes from my earlier years of cartooning, putting figures in odd positions.” To overcome this problem of having a model hold an awkward pose, Kobayashi often works from Polaroid photographs of the model.

“Before I get into too much drawing, I like to paint the masses so I can see where the painting is going,” Kobayashi explained as he continued the demonstration. He used a No. 4 filbert brush and his standard palette of earth tones, including a mother color such as black or a premixed warm gray, but no cadmiums and rarely white. He also favors Mars series colors but, beyond this, he does not give students a set palette of specific pigments because his favorites keep changing. Using yellow ochre, he outlined the head with strokes of varying width to convey form and dabbed in values for the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. He stopped a moment to assure the students that they could play with the placement of features. “The painting is really a lie. All you have to do is convince the viewer the painting is right.” He then slathered on a wild mass of hair. As he painted, Kobayashi commented, “I try to paint hair fast and loose because hair is loose. I remind myself of the kind of material I am painting so the brushstrokes express that.”

Student Work
Kobayashi avoids any
formal critique of student
work because in class
there is not enough time
to bring paintings to
completion, and he feels
judging them would be
premature. However, over
the years, Kobayashi has
seen one mistake most
students make: they are afraid
to use darks and start
their paintings with a
middle tone that makes
their work appear muddy.

Kobayashi may also change the color of the hair. In this demonstration, he painted the hair with Mars black because “it dries really black.” Black is an essential part of Kobayashi’s palette, in the tradition of artists such as Degas, Manet, and Velázquez. In general, he prefers ivory black rather than coal blacks, and when he wants hair to look very black he adds some ultramarine blue.

Next he tackled the flesh tones of the face and neck, using notably muddy colors, which are part of his signature style. He may start with Mars violet or Mars yellow, or a warm monochrome by Holbein. If some black pigment left in his brush from painting the hair mixes in with the other colors, all the better. “For me there is something wrong with fleshy, Band-Aid colors and rouge cheeks,” Kobayashi commented. “They throw me off track, and the painting starts to head in a more conventional direction instead of being a Kobayashi. I feel freer when I use unusual colors.” As he answered a student’s question about the specific pigments used for the face, he revealed the fun he has in being unconventional. “I’m planning on a gray, ugly skin tone—very dead looking.”

He blocked in the shadow of the eye socket next, followed by the color on the ridge of the nose and the shadow under the lip and on the neck. He mixed blue, burnt sienna, and a yellowish white for these. He also currently likes Holbein’s Mars orange because “it’s not too brown. It warms up a light blue and makes a great shadow tone.” Next he filled in the exposed part of the chest near the neckline, but with a lighter value since this part of the body usually receives less sun than the face. For Kobayashi, value is more important than color. “Value grounds your painting. You can then use any color you want.”

He turned his attention again to the hands, having the model try different positions. “I’m like a director. I take a lot of time posing the hands so they’re not clenched or have too geometric a shape. Bend the wrist a little or it will be too straight and look like a log. Think of how dancers hold their hands in positions that give movement to the form. I want them placed gracefully.” He takes Polaroid photographs of the model’s hands and uses them to lay in the basic planes. Although he makes the hands big, he likes to paint the arms skinny to give more action to his paintings and to lead the viewer’s eye out and into the picture. His arms are tubelike except when they rest on a chair back, sink into the upholstery, or provide an opportunity for creating a soft edge and an interesting shape.

Kobayashi proceeded by covering the canvas, laying in all values and shapes. “At this point, I want to know how everything relates,” he explained. He next asked the students to decide what color to make the model’s blouse. He suggested a cool color so the color of the face wouldn’t look drab. The students decided on lavender, and Kobayashi mixed a periwinkle from a combination of violet gray and rose. He then covered the background with a warm beige using a No. 8 brush and a palette knife, cutting into the hair form with the background paint. He kept this color light to maintain the silhouette of the figure. The artist says he avoids blue for the background because it looks too much like the sky.

Throughout this lay-in, Kobayashi’s brushstrokes were assured and harmonious. In relation to this, the artist had a fascinating tip for his students: “There is a rhythm to painting that extends from the palette to the canvas, and the size of the containers you use to hold your solvent and pigments can affect this,” he advised. “Use big containers to make big strokes. I keep brushes in a coffee can that holds paint thinner and use a tuna can with the lid removed for the linseed oil. Larger containers allow me to swish the brush around freely. It’s a continuous-flow thing. I don’t use those tiny cups they sell for holding oil. Making a little dip with a brush into one of those and then a big stroke on the canvas is a different rhythm.”

With the lay-in completed, Kobayashi finished stage one of his painting process in little more than an hour. “Stage two involves cleaning up the drawing,” he explained. Painting wet-in-wet, he worked on the face again. “Now I’m redrawing it for me.” He altered the values, added some Mars violet to the cheeks, and emphasized the projection of the nose.

During stage two, Kobayashi stood very close to the canvas for “serious painting.” Students got a close look through the binoculars they were asked to bring with their painting supplies. He added some light to the darker side of the face because, as he explained, “this side curves into the light,” and added a shadow to the lighter side to brighten it. Next he focused on the mouth, carving the edge with the adjacent flesh tone. He detailed the hands. “I think of the three middle fingers of the hand as a wedge with the pinky and thumb more like accents,” he commented. “These give expression to the hand.” He painted thick, black lines between the fingers to define them. He also noted a color change at the wrist bone and painted one plane a deep rose. But the hands were still flat and stylized, reminiscent of the graphic hands of Viennese Expressionist Gustav Klimt.

At this point Kobayashi considered adding a pattern to the figure’s blouse. True to the freedom he allows himself in painting, he made a design of dancing patches of color or stripes. By now the personality of the figure was emerging. When a student asked him who the women in his paintings are and if they have a message, Kobayashi answered matter-of-factly, “I’m a big believer in ‘it is what it is.’ This is just the way I paint women. I can’t explain it.”

Kobayashi worked on more detail as he moved on to stage three. He decided where to place the pupil of the eye—1 o’clock and high to open the eye—and, to give some texture to the pupil, he recommended using a viscous handmade paint such as Doak or Harding and dipping the tip of the brush into the pigment. Next, he adjusted the lashes and eyebrows and added to the mouth—the most expressive part of the face because it’s always changing. “At this stage I also check how one stroke works with another. I want the surface to look attractive.” He describes his signature brushstroke as ‘rounder’ and therefore prefers models with a fuller face.

After a break for lunch, workshop participants returned to the studio to discover three models posing in various areas of the room. They began painting the women, and Kobayashi toured the room complimenting a good shape, the graphic flatness of a design, or the handling of color. He explained that he would speak loudly when criticizing each person’s painting so those facing similar problems could benefit from his feedback. A student was having trouble with the pink of a satin dress one of the models was wearing, so Kobayashi showed her a reproduction of a Sargent painting in which he had handled satin. Then he helped the student find the basic color of the fabric the class model was wearing and painted that first before adding shadow and highlight colors. He also recalled the time he scanned a Sargent figurative painting into his computer and digitally erased the few darkest areas and highlights to discover that the master had relied mostly on just two values to portray the form.

For another participant he dug up a Spanish comb and placed it in the model’s hair to complement the background the student had painted. As the afternoon proceeded, everyone was engrossed in their work. Painting suddenly felt fun as Kobayashi broke the students free from the model study and encouraged them to create their own original paintings.

Over the course of the workshop, Kobayashi built a warm rapport with his students. On the final day someone brought a cobbler and ice cream to share, and Kobayashi gave the students hugs before they went on their way.

About the Artist
Milt Kobayashi was born in New York City, a third-generation Japanese-American, but he spent his early childhood in Oahu, Hawaii, and then Los Angeles. He earned a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1970, and soon began working as an illustrator. However, his style did not suit the Los Angeles commercial art market, and he returned to New York in 1977. Here, on a visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, he was so struck by a painting by Velázquez, the portrait Juan de Pareja, that his career took a major shift toward fine art. Kobayashi began studying the work of Whistler, Chase, and Sargent—all artists also influenced by Velázquez. Subsequently, Japanese art also became an inspiration for Kobayashi, in particular the 16th- and 17th-century Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print masters, such as Hokusai, Sharaku, and Utamaro. Kobayashi has received two major awards: the National Academy of Design Ranger Purchase Award and the Allied Arts Silver Medal.

Molly Siple frequently writes about art from her hometown of Los Angeles and is an artist-member of the California Art Club. See her other article in this issue on Kenn Backhaus.

Watch the video: Portrait Painting From Life by Alex Tzavaras (June 2022).


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