How going to an art museum helped me learn about painting

Visiting museum

Warning: this post contains photos of art containing nudity

For those living in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Legion of Honor museum has an exhibition of Gustav Klimt and Auguste Rodin, both of whom are groundbreaking artists of their respective movements. Rodin is known as the founder of modern sculpture while Klimt was the founder of the Vienne Secession movement, a movement where Austrian artists broke away from a conservative academic style of art in order to bring more modernized styles to the art form such as post-impressionism and expressionism. This exhibit currently runs until January 28th, 2018, for those of you who want to still check it out.

The Thinker
The Thinker by Auguste Rodin at the Legion of Honor

The thinker statue that greets you at the entrance to the Legion of Honor.

This weekend, I ended up making a drive to San Francisco in order to see this exhibit that so many of my classmates and my former instructors have been raving about. I had been to this museum a few times in the past, but there was a huge difference between looking at the works now as an art school graduate than from my first visit as a college sophomore looking at the works in order to write a paper for my art history class.

2014 Anders Zorn Exhibit

One thing that is said over and over is that seeing an original painting is a much different experience than seeing a reproduction of it in a book or on a screen over the internet. Several years ago, this same museum had an exhibition of artwork from Anders Zorn, a Swedish painter who was able to paint a wide range of portraits and landscapes using ONLY Ivory Black, Titanium white, Vermillion Red, and Yellow Ochre, also known as the Zorn Palette. We will be going over the Zorn Palette in a future blog.

Vacation painting from Anders Zorn - Source

I recall seeing this Vacation painting from Anders Zorn above at his 2014 exhibit in person and when I saw the reproduction of the same image in a high quality printed artbook sold at the gift shop, I was very disappointed with the reproduction. It did not capture the vivid cobalt blues from the ocean or the lively yellow ochres from the boat. There were a lot of rich blues in the painting that wasn’t captured in the reproduction. While I think this reproduction from the Legion of Honor website still is a great study that any aspiring artist can use to learn about value, composition, and achieving color using a limited palette, there is a magical feeling that gets lost when translating the image from an actual painting to a printed reproduction or a digital reproduction that is viewed on screen. Photography and digital scanning has a very limited spectrum on what colors they can process digitally. How a camera works is that it will sample out a few colors from a select area of the image, then process it into square pixels that are close in value to each other. This is one of the reasons why the nuances of vivid colors from the actual paintings get lost in reproduction and this is also one of the reasons why I encourage painting colors from life instead of a photograph. It is simply because modern technology is not advanced enough to capture color nuances. The most advanced high quality camera may be able to sample a higher range of colors, but they still have their limitations.

The reason why I mention this is because I will be posting a few images from the gallery into this blog, but the images will not show all the details that would have been visible to the naked eye viewing the actual painting in person. I am posting them simply as visual examples.

Sketches from Klimt and Rodin

When going through many of Gustav Klimt’s sketches, I noticed that he was very loose and gestural. His drawings were more about feeling than they were about being technical and clean. This is generally how rough you would want to be during the preliminary sketching phase.

While going through the exhibit, there was a quote on the wall that talked about both Klimt’s and Rodin’s process with drawing. It read as follows:

Drawing was an essential part of artistic practice for Rodin and Klimt. Over the course of his career, Rodin generated a staggering number of drawings- ten thousand sketches are in existence today. His craft as a draftsman developed significantly over his lifetime, and his later work is, in its economy, widely acknowledged as an important precursor to modernism. In these drawings Rodin reduced his graphic tools to mere line and color washes, which he used to capture his increasing interest in movement. He once said, “It’s very simple. My drawings are the key to my work.” Unlike Rodin, who wrote and commented openly on his work, Klimt rarely addressed his creative process. His drawings, therefore, provide an invaluable opportunity to see how he developed his ideas. Klimt drew on a daily basis, and critics universally celebrated his drawings, with one declaring, “Klimt is the supreme draftsman” - Klimt and Rodin placard at the San Francisco Legion of Honor.

In the world of art, it is very easy to get bogged down with many details such as color and value, so by Rodin reducing his tools to only line and monochromatic washes, it allows him to communicate his forms quickly without getting slowed down by color and rendering. These strategies are very helpful when you’re trying to get a lot of drawing done in a short amount of time, such as timed figure drawings or other weekly drawing exercises.

Rodin sculpture

One thing that struck me about Auguste Rodin is that even though this guy did not go to an art school and had no formal art training whatsoever, I was astounded by the level of accuracy in his anatomical sculptures. The men looked and felt like men(visually) and the women looked and felt like women. Although a number of his bust sculptures were unfinished. I felt that by seeing the unfinished versions of both Rodin’s sculptures and Klimt’s unfinished paintings that I learned a lot about their processes of how they approached their artwork.

Works by Gustav Klimt - Source

One thing that really struck me about this image at the show was that it was unfinished, and that this was one out of several iterations Klimt had done before creating the final version, which is pictured on the right. An art historian mentioned that Klimt was influenced by impressionist colors and Asian art when he created this piece.

What I got out of this piece: Your first idea will not always be the greatest. This is why many many professional artists do small thumbnails of their ideas before putting all their energy into the final version. The art historian also mentioned that Klimt made dozens of unfinished paintings  similar to the one on the left before generating the final finished piece on the right.

Something I also learned from seeing both this piece, other pieces in the museum, and Anders Zorn’s exhibition is that artists used gold foil in their works, which is why some of the paintings would have a shimmery look to them, as you can tell in this painting from Klimt. The shimmery gold look also adds to the feeling of the painting. I had seen reproductions of this piece many times, but seeing it in person was a much different feeling.

Two Girls with Oleander by Gustav Klimt
Detail of Two Girls with Oleander by Gustav Klimt

Lastly when I saw this image at a distance, I thought that it was one of those layered images where a painter painted cutouts of each subject and layered it on to make it look like a painting. That effect isn’t as clear when looking at the reproduction, but when I moved closer to see the painting, I noticed that the paint was applied very thick so it looked like a whole layer of paint was overlapping the canvas and other figures. I also noticed the same effect with the plants.

What I got out of this piece: As a painter, it is important to paint with thick layers of color to achieve the most amount of realism. If you keep your layers thin and watery, it’s going to take you forever to finish your paintings. Don’t be afraid to go bold with your colors. There were a few paintings from Klimt that really utilized multicolored underpaintings yet at a distance, the colors pop out subtly to give the painting life.

Avenue Of Schloss Kammer Park By Gustav Klimt
Detail of Klimpt painting demonstrating use of bold thick colors


A few things I learned from this trip:

Drawing loosely is a very fast and easy way to get your ideas out on paper. Don’t be afraid to draw through your figures. It helps define your form and gives your drawing a sense of movement.

Do multiple versions of your ideas. Concept artists and classical paintings will do a few variations of one idea before moving on to their final painting.

Paint boldly and paint with confidence. Many tiny details like the flowers, the ring and the leaves may have only taken a few strokes to achieve the look, but the artist also made sure there was enough paint on the brush to complete the form with solid strokes. While you don’t want to squeeze out an entire tube to complete a painting, there should be plenty of paint on your palette to create solid colors.

Observe the process of other artists. While it is easier to copy artists from your favorite cartoons such as Masashi Kishimoto from Naruto or Yoshitaka Amano from the Final Fantasy franchise, these artists also learned their craft through following the old masters, and it shows in their stylistic choices and loose sketchy techniques in their work. Although Gustav Klimt isn’t the first artist to draw loosely and draw through his figures, he certainly won’t be the last.

As artists, the easiest way to stand out and have authenticity is to go directly to the source of the artist’s influences and learn from the same people those artists learned from, or even from the people who taught your favorite artist’s mentor. This is because there are already thousands of people copying the same anime styles or copying artists from Pixar and most of the time, it just looks like a copy because those artists aren’t studying those artists in detail. I cannot stress enough how important it is to look up the names of the character designers or set designers of your favorite films because it is more than likely that they were studying the old masters and translating their drawing fundamentals to their works. Even the greatest storyboard artists at Dreamworks and cinematic artists at Blizzard looked towards older movies and story structures for their works.

The best way to check out works from old masters in person is to visit a local museum in your own or if you live really close to a major city such as New York or Los Angeles, making a day trip to one of their major museums is also a great way to find these pieces. Best of all, most museums honor student discounts so if you’re still in high school or college, those Student IDs will save you a ton of money.