Putting It All Together:
A Conversation With Lois Griffel
About Bold Color and Lively Brushwork
At the age of five, Lois Griffel looked forward to riding in the family car: It gave her a chance to study the moving patterns of shadows on the landscape. Since then, she notes, it's been "a long road to where I am now." While studying to be an art teacher at Southern Connecticut State College, she didn't take studio painting courses, but she does recall attending "wonderful classes in everything else." She adds, "David Crespi was a great design teacher, I received very good advice from Lawrence Jensen, I audited a course on Josef Albers's color theory, and I took graphic, drawing and architectural design classes." Her hands spread wide, as if holding all the information in her palms.
"By this time," she continues, "I had accumulated loads of theory, but I didn't know what to do with it. I loved my job teaching public school students because it allowed me to put my training to practical use, but I was bored on weekends when I was not working. Even so, I never found time for my own work."
Friends urged her to visit the Art Students League in New York City. "I'd grown up in Manhattan, but I didn't know anything about the League," she recalls. "But the minute I entered its doors, I knew I was home: The fragmented knowledge I'd accumulated in school suddenly had a resting place." Griffel took a year off from teaching to attend the League. She sopped up things like a sponge, and one of her teachers told her he'd never seen anyone take in so much so quickly.
That summer, Griffel and a group of fellow students went to Provincetown on Cape Cod to study. On the Cape, they became street artists for a season, trying to earn enough money to see them through the next winter.
"We did five or six portraits of tourists a day," she reminisces, "seven days a week, at $5 to $20 a head. We worked out of a framing shop run by a guy who mainly wanted to sell frames for the finished pictures.
I worked with terrific artists and picked their brains. On slow days, I could take time to apply what I was learning in class to a portrait; it was great practice." She thinks for a moment about the period. "That whole kind of life is almost gone," she adds, "and now that I live in Provincetown year-round, I miss the street painters. From a practical point of view, that experience helped prepare me for teaching; it taught me diplomacy and patience. But it was really hard work. My husband encouraged me to quit so I could devote more time to work that mattered."
What matters to Griffel now is her school on Cape Cod, which has become an ongoing concern over the past five years. It is housed in old buildings of some historic interest. Although the land is now bisected by Pearl Street, it was still an undivided lot when Charles Hawthorne, a legendary Provincetown artist, had his studio in one of the buildings and later when Henry Hensche ran his Cape School of Art there. Griffel lives and works in one of the structures with her husband, Hal Streib, a film and theater actor. Streib skillfully divided the interior into a comfortable apartment for them, a winter studio for Griffel, and a frame shop for himself.
A stand of bamboo growing alongside the road creates an impenetrable wall in the summertime when the yards are used by Griffel's students for color exercises in the open light and air. Advanced students work within call of Griffel's apartment. Across the street, next to Hawthorne's onetime studio, a sandy, bamboo-shaded work area is set aside for newer members of the class. Filled with tables in various states of serviceable decay, it's affectionately known as "The Sandbox."
The outside of Hawthorne's old studio, a rustic, barnlike building, is covered with Cape Cod's characteristic silver-gray shingles. Inside, storage racks and shelves hold rows of colorful saucers, pitchers, vases, and myriad still-life props. A "bored bin" holds scraped-down canvases saved for recycling. Some of the walls are painted green, some a classic barn red, and others blue. That's the way it's always been. An overhead loft is furnished with three beds, a cupboard, a table, and a worn braided rug. Some of the sketches on the walls have been up so long no one remembers who painted them. It would be sacrilegious to remove one. The original Cape School sign (the name Hensche used for the school after his teacher Hawthorne's death) stands in a corner. Griffel prefers to use Hawthorne's original name, The Cape Cod School of Art.
Today, Griffel is dressed in a black turtleneck, blue jeans, a purple coat, blue boots, and a silver necklace. Her jeans are tight at her ankles. Her hair is fuzzy and her nose is sharp, giving her face a markedly inquisitive look. She smiles as she surveys the room's weathered interior through her pink-rimmed glasses while discussing her plans for the future.
"I've spent eighteen years of my life in and out of this place," she observes. "Someday I'd like to winterize the building and expand the program to include classes by some of my professional friends. I'd teach still-life and landscape in the mornings and save the afternoons for my own work. The other teachers would expose the students to different approaches and subject matter, including portraiture and other mediums."
Griffel's thoughts circle back to teaching and the communication of ideas. "When I was a student," she explains, "I felt that some teachers made it hard for us to learn. I didn't know whether they were afraid of future competition-which sounds really farfetched to me now-or, more likely, they'd gotten too far beyond fundamentals to remember how to talk about them. They just made the whole business so elusive.
Sometimes I had an urge to go up to a fellow classmate who I could see was confused and tell him what I thought the teacher had meant." Griffel has a bemused look. "For instance, we would be told that a color was wrong, but the teacher wouldn't explain what was wrong about it. Was it the context? Maybe the value? We never knew. I remember a student's saying she just couldn't paint without a certain commercial pigment, so I asked her how she would mix the color if she ran out of it." Griffel spreads her hands in amazement. "She had no idea!"
"That's when I first knew something was wrong," she continues. "That student needed a deeper understanding of pigments and color because how can you use a color if you don't know its makeup? I decided then that when I became a teacher, I'd find a way to give students a consolidated, clarified education. I'd show them how to get over those early hurdles, without, I hoped, encouraging a formulaic approach. Isaac Stern, the noted violinist, once said that if he created dependency in a student, he knew he hadn't taught the student anything. He obviously realized the danger in studying with a guru is the tendency to follow his or her every footstep-you may lose the inclination for original thought. That's why I prefer to spend only a few hours a day with a class. I believe you have to fail to succeed. If I were available every minute, the students would come to rely on me too much. They'd be in my front yard for the next fifteen years!"
Griffel steps from the multicolored studio into the stark light of Cape Cod. "Teachers have to know when to let go," she continues, "and they have to beware of limiting their taste to one kind of art. I love color, for example, but I know that art is more than color. Working with Henry Hensche helped open up my thinking because he liked the way I challenged his methods. It's not that I disagreed with him; I just questioned his more categorical statements so that I could get a deeper understanding of the reasons behind his methodology. In a similar manner, he'd go after me using leading questions: For example, who did I think was the greater painter, Velazquez or Rembrandt? Of course, we weren't going to settle such a matter, but a question like that forces you to do some hard thinking. And Henry would argue with you, no matter which painter you picked!"
It was Hensche who introduced Griffel to the work of Hawthorne and to the ideas that Griffel refers to as "The Movement." "I'm interested in a pure response to color in nature," she says, "--the attempt to interpret light through color by gaining a full appreciation of the moment-whether indoors or outdoors, morning or noon, summer or winter. 'The Movement' is really the legacy of the Impressionists. To 'see the light,' students have to get sunburnt and bitten by mosquitoes. There's no better way than painting outdoors to get the basic tools that teach you how to see."
Griffel darts into the shade cast by the spring foliage. "Of course, students have many problems," she continues. "Two of the major ones are a reluctance to use paint as paint that is, to use it in a thick, luscious manner and not delicately as if it were watercolor-and an inability to keep color clean. They must overcome their uncertainties and learn to work with authority." The first step in this direction is a simple one, says Griffel; she teachers her students to use a set palette of twelve or fifteen colors, laid out in a logical manner such as a warm-to-cool arrangement or in groups of similar hue. The students make the choice. But they must also use the system every single day so as to become as familiar with the colors as they would be with the keyboard of a much-practiced piano.
She next gives the students a series of simple exercises that were originally developed by Hensche to make Hawthorne's insights understandable to the average student. Hawthorne asked his students to paint backlit models-"mud heads"-using putty knives so that they didn't get bogged down in drawing problems. Griffel uses Hensche's famous "bricks system" to the same end, but in a more controlled way. The bricks are actually wooden blocks painted in various colors: blue, purple, red, yellow. The student must paint a picture of, say, a blue block in full sunlight. The problem is to see how light affects each plane of the brick.
In what Griffel calls the "first round of color," the student determines what color is dominant on the top plane of the brick. For instance, on a sunny day, the bias of this color might be toward yellow. "If they can see that color," Griffel says, "then I have them paint the top a pure yellow, with a little white added. I don't want them to mix the yellow with other colors since overmixing is one of the students' main problems. The paint is applied flatly with a palette knife, as if the yellow shape were part of a jigsaw puzzle. No medium is used." Griffel stresses each point. "Hopefully, the students soon see that yellow isn't just plain yellow or blue just blue. They get beyond the obvious idea of local color and start to analyze how light affects and changes local color. By exaggerating the differences, students are better able to see them."
They next turn their attention to the shady side of the brick. In relation to the yellow top, this shadow might look very purple. Everything depends on the comparison of one color to another. "You can't see a color if you isolate it," Griffel explains. `That's one of the basic principles of Josef Albers's theory. Color can only be judged by what's around it." The shadowed end of the brick might have a reddish bias, so students are asked to paint it red in the proper value. They have about an hour and a half to establish these colors, after which the sun has changed so much as to make further comparisons useless. By the next day, the painting of the brick is dry and students begin the second round of color.
"Now they can be a little more local," Griffel says, "and work different blues over the yellow and red, letting the undercoats show through. Of course, these two steps can also be done alla prima. But most students don't have the skill to get the colors right on the first try."
Once they understand how to color the angular objects, the students begin to work on rounded ones and are able to investigate halftones, the places where light and shade meet. The problem of creating cast shadows is also added. "Sometimes," Griffel, says, laughing, "they fool around with the colors back in the studio, but I yell if anyone tries to paint morning effects in the afternoon!"
Eventually, her students tackle outdoor still-life exercises. The props they use are brilliantly colored and the differences between them more obvious than in objects found in the more subtly nuanced landscape. Finally, Griffel takes small groups of advanced students out into nature to paint.
"The whole process," she reiterates, "is designed to show them that impressionism is more than just using purple and yellow. A master like Monet used limited colors, but he balanced them in subtle ways. I spent five hours one morning studying the surface of a few Monet paintings and I'm convinced that he worked in away suggested by my blocks-that is, he laid down large areas of underpainting and then worked the local color over them. That must be why his later work is so beautiful and lush. He painted over the lay-in and then reintroduced the color of the lay-in on top of the overpainting. His pictures aren't like this," she says, pressing her two fists together, indicating separate areas of color. "They are like this." She moves one hand around another. "The colors intermix, flowing forward and back within the same area.
I love such a surface structure because it's hard to figure out. Monet is endlessly inventive in the way he unifies his pictures; he never isolates things. Each object becomes part of all the others. The whole comes first."
Griffel goes back to the studio door and pulls it shut. "I think anyone can paint," she continues, walking toward her apartment. "In all my classes, I've only had one person who couldn't.
Why he couldn't is still a mystery to me. Did he lack talent? But what's that? Love? Drive? Perseverance?" She thinks for a second. "You can teach a student how to paint, I think, but not what to paint. I can teach you the parts of a language, but I can't teach you to speak that language with flair. That comes from the artistry within the individual. A painter chooses a particular subject in answer to something inside him or her. Lots of pictures are great in technique but have no spark, no spontaneity."
Griffel's eyes brighten. "I've heard people say that teaching interferes with doing their own work, that it holds them back. But for me, the opposite is true. Teaching keeps me tied to the great fundamentals," she says, "to the pure roots of art. It keeps me anchored. It stops me from working by formula." She pauses again. "Hawthorne said that anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision. I'm grateful for the opportunity to keep Hawthorne's school alive and to share his vision with others. This sense of trust is what motivates and continually challenges me."*
Charles Movalli is a contributing editor of American Artist. He has edited books for Watson-Guptill Publications.
He paints and has a studio in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he runs workshops. He also conducts work- shops around the country.
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