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In the Studio: Michael Mentler

by Allison Malafronte

Michael Mentler in the studio of his school, The Society of Figurative Arts in Dallas.

I first met Michael Mentlerten years ago at American Artist’s Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. His sketchbooks were being passed around among the instructors, who were marveling at the technical dexterity and anatomical precisionfound inpage after page of his Renaissance-style drawings. When we finally tracked down the mysterious creator of these volumes, a wise-looking man with a long white beard and cane appeared, looking as if he stepped out of the fifteenth century himself to teach us about a process and approach that was long gone and yet very much remerging. 

Three Graces, 2007, ochre rollerball pen-and-ink and ivory chalk pencil on French Paper Co.’s Speckletone paper, sketchbook, 9 x 12 in. Ten years later, Mentlerhas become well-known as an important instructor of our time with a unique approach to classical drawing that he clearly differentiates from academic and atelier programs. He traces his lineage to the broader tradition of the High Renaissance, starting with Michelangelo and moving to John Vanderpoel, George B. Bridgman, and later Robert Beverly Hale. Mentler makes an important distinction in this approach, and that is the consideration of disegno,or design, in the crafting and shaping of an image. This stresses invention and imagination alongside observation, giving artists license to emphasize the most identifiable and aesthetically pleasing aspects of the subjects they are portraying.

Now approaching seventy-five years old, Mentler still makes drawing a daily practice, one that he does first thing in the morning as a grounding exercise before he heads off to teach at his school, The Society of Figurative Arts in Dallas. Over the years he has completed more than ten thousand of these educational exercises, which havehelped him strengthen his skills and find solutions to several technical challenges. As he shares in this Q+A, one of his life mottos is, “Never a Day Without A Line,” and that ritual is one that the artist plans to continue for many more years to come.

AM: You are considered a consummate draftsman of the figure, and are known for your hundreds of sketchbooks filled with figure, muscle, and feature studies. How many years have you been drawing, and is drawing still a daily practice for you?

MM: I have been drawing and painting for well over six decades.The daily drawing obsession began over twenty-five years ago when I decided that I was going to draw first thing every morning for at least five minutes, and I always ended up working longer than that. I have no plans to give up the daily drawing ritual anytime soon, quite the opposite—it is a way of getting grounded, much like a musician practices scales or a dancer does stretching exercises.

Golden Section and Dynamic Symmetry Study, 2010, ochre rollerball pen-and-ink on French Paper Co.’s Speckletone paper, sketchbook, 9 x 12 in.AM: Some might look at your sketches and notebooks and assume that you have been taught in an academic or atelier method but you actually have a different lineage that you are practicing and teaching from. Can you explain?

MM: Unlike programs in realist ateliers, which are usually based on sight-size observation, the formal training I have received and studied centers around the Classical Renaissance tradition, specifically the teachings of John Vanderpoel, George Bridgman, Robert Beverly Hale, and others who have taught figure drawing and artistic anatomy in a classical manner. Bridgman taught for forty-give years at the Art Students League of New York and Hale, who was Bridgman’s student, instructed at the League for thirty-eight. Rather than working strictly from observation, I choose to view the figure as pure design the way the Renaissance masters did, letting Michelangelo, Leonardo, Pontormo and their ilk chart the path. Bridgman's lineage can be traced back past Masaccio in the early 1400s. (It’s worth noting that the little drawings in Bridgman's books are life-size, which is a major reason people have trouble understanding them on such a small scale.)

AM: What is your definition of "Classicism?"

MM: True Classicism dates back past the Golden Age of Greece, was revived during the Renaissance, and continued until the latter part of the eighteenth century when it co-mingled with Romanticism. The tenants of Classicism in art revolve around the concept of the ideal, in the Platonic sense, residing outside of the natural universe. According to Plato’s student Aristotle, aspects of the ideal are in nature. It follows that it takes a combination of idealization and invention married with interpretive observation to draw and paint in the classical tradition.

Contrappostal Studies, 2018, Signo DX Rollerball pen-and-ink and Cretacolor white chalk on Strathmore toned tan paper.
The human form is idealized in balance, rhythm, harmony, and proportion. Artistic rhythms describe the change, contrast, and unity. Canons of proportions were developed using the Divine Section or Golden Ratio that created specific relationships between parts of the body. A historic landmark occurred in 480 BC in the statue of The Kritios Boy, which is the first known record of a contrapposto pose that begins to define the beauty, rhythm and harmony of the idealized human form. There is a concept of order and restraint present in classical works, which goes far beyond mere observation and representation.

It is about the design of a drawing, painting, sculpture, or building. It constitutes the design of forms in space. It was Kenyon Cox who famously said, "Without design, there may be a representation, but there can be no art." In the extreme, Classicism is pure design as opposed to Realism, which is pure observation. Interestingly, Cox also designed the logo that hangs over the door of the League which contains the Latin phrase "Nulla Dies Sine Linea." This translates to, “No Day Without A Line,” a motto I take seriously.

Anatomical Study, 2016, ochre rollerball pen-and-ink, ivory chalk, and gouache on French Paper Co.’s Speckletone paper, sketchbook, 9 x 12 in.

Many realist ateliers claim a classical lineage, which is actually more a lineage to classical techniques than classical idealism. The only real, unbroken classical tradition resides in the Russian academies and, in particular, the Repin Academy in Saint Petersburg. Because of the political environment, they have maintained a strong sense of idealization and geometric construction, which are hallmarks of classical tradition. They also marry these skill sets with an ample amount of observation, which gives their work a significant degree of authenticity. Like the Renaissance masters, Repin Academy graduates can all draw the figure without a model, the prerequisite to be considered a classically trained artist.

Pears, 2010, ochre rollerball pen-and-ink and ivory chalk on French Paper Co.’s Speckletone paper, sketchbook, 9 x 12 in. AM: As a figure-drawing teacher, you teach a method of working one third from life, one third from reference, and one third from imagination. Why do you think it’s important that imagination be part of the process?

MM: I work in the Renaissance (classical) manner as much as possible. There is a major misconception about how much those artists worked from nature. In the Renaissance bottegas (“workshops”),the students had a selection of their masters’ drawings and paintings. Apprentices copied these designs until they had memorized them. These masterworks had already solved most of the problems of position, proportion, perspective, and persona. The Renaissance Masters knew how to present the best aspects of their subject to the viewer. They knew that certain views contained the optimal information the viewer needed to determine what they were observing. These are aspective views, the angles that show the best aspects of the subject to the viewer. Certainly working from life is essential, but analyzing masterworks reveals the tricks of the trade. 

Nature rarely gives us her best aspect, and it is the job of the artist to make the necessary changes. One cannot make those changes unless he or she can draw from memory or imagination. Students struggle with a foreshortened arm that will never represent the idea of an arm no matter how accurately they portray it. Many put up the good fight because they have been brainwashed to believe artists copy what they see; they confuse accuracy with authenticity. The master draughtsman draws what he or shewants the viewer to see, which requires having a vaultof knowledge full of memorized optimal views, ready touse if needed. Drawing from memory and imagination are hallmarks of working in the Renaissance/classical tradition.

AM: You seem to use hatching to both create an armature for the structure of the form and to create value and dimension. Whatmarkers, pens, paper, and other mediaare you using for this “sculpting” approach?

MM: The preference is for hatching over graining because it gives more life to the drawing and gives more validity to the forms. The sketchbooks were done directly with pen-and-ink, with no pencil drawing, for more than twenty years to make the line work more confident. Fabriano is my paper brand of choice—they were used during the Renaissance by Michelangelo and others. Their Roma Michelangelo and Tiepolo sheets tinted with diluted Sennelier Shellac inks, which give them a sensitive tooth for dry media, is sensational the draw on.The sketchbooks are the new Sand and Stone toned papers from Fabriano.

Planar Pear, 2019, gouache on Strathmore multi-media paper, sketchbook, 5 x 5 in.   AM: I know that you took classes at the American Academy of Art and the School of the Art Institute while working in Chicago. What other avenues of education have you explored?

MM: During high school I took drawing, painting, art history, and humanities at a local college, later moving to Chicago to attend a sign-painting school. While in Chicago, I attended evening classes at both The American Academy of Art and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year I went to the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, completing their two-year foundation program. The next eight years were at Washington University in Saint Louis receiving a B.F.A. and an M.A.and instructing in the School of Fine Arts. This was in the mid-1960s, when the top-tier art curriculums still had robust, two-year foundation programs. Fortunately, they included several professors that had studied at the Bauhaus with Itten, Klee and Kandinsky. The design theories they taught provided a strong base of skill sets that are lacking in much of what is coming out of the ateliers. Werner Drewes was a real inspiration in design, as was Barry Schactman in figure structure.

All artists are to no small degree self-taught, they have spent countless thousands of hours in their studios toiling in self-doubt. As Michelangelo said, "If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all."

AM: What is your opinion on observation versus measurement when it comes to achieving accuracy of proportion and dimension? I know you use comparative measurement—did you at any point use sight-size or other methods?

MM: Everyone probably has some experience with sight-size. It is more observation than measurement, and it has its place mainly for the portrait artist where likeness carries a good deal of importance. However, it also has some severe limitations: a long-pose drawing that contains a pose the model can hold for a long time is by its very nature uninteresting. All foreshortening done sight-size is unconvincing and looks wrong to the trained eye. Sight-size as presented today was invented in the 1940s in the atelier of R.H. Ives Gammell and further solidified by Richard Lack in Minneapolis. Sight-size reigns at most of the mainstream ateliers throughout the world. The observational mimetic approach took root when artists started competing with the camera. Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype to the French Academy in 1838 and the movement toward photographic likeness began soon after.

Master artists to do not draw what they see; they draw what is needed to create the illusion they want the viewer to see. Picasso said: "We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know how to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and researched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything." The bottom line is that drawing is an intellectual activity, so if the hand is moving and the brain has left the room, stop immediately and go after it.

Workshop Demo: Palette Knife Still Life from Imagination, 2019, oil on panel, 6 x 8 in.
AM: As someone who is known as a draftsman, what is the painting process like for you in terms of switching gears mentally? Or are drawing and painting one in the same in your mind?

MM: Painting and drawing are not separate disciplines. Painting and drawing are part of the curriculum covered in The Society of Figurative Arts workshops. The theory regarding sketchbooks has always been to master as many skill sets as possible. Instead of doing works with a high degree of finish, thousands of smaller works were executed in gouache or egg tempera. It has been more about the lessons learned then the products produced. Few have made their way online, but the vast majority never see the light of day. 

Nicolai Fechin Master Study, 2011, sanguine rollerball pen-and-ink and white gouache on French Paper Co.’s Speckletone paper, 5 x 12 in. (cropped)AM: Your palette-knife still lifeexercises that you teach students are beautiful in their simplicity and colorful form construction. As someone who has spent so much time with line, how did you learn to approach color in painting?

MM: The recent small still lifes were done as class demos to show the apprentices how to create their own light source and color harmony. Moreover, learn how to begin by seeing the planar elements in latitude and longitudinal ways—to isolate the local color and realize how little of it there is. These exercises are done mostly from imagination, but sometimes they are done from a white still life setup to show them how and why to deviate from what they see. We treat color and value as one.

Colors vary, but it is always a limited harmonic palette with three to five colors plus white. Primarily we use colors of similar intensities and tinting strengths and very rarely use cadmiums or phthalos—modern pigments don’t belong in the same room with earth colors, let alone on the same palette. When doing a brown school painting the palette would be earth colors plus vermillion, and a blue-black. Generally, the palette is in a middle-intensity range with colors such as Rembrandt’s permanent yellows, reds, violets, blues, and greens. All mixtures are tertiary, nothing straight out of the tube. The approach used at The Society of Figurative Arts is a modified version of Frank Morley Fletcher’s Color Control. (A PDF of Fletcher's book can be found online here).

There are many good brands out there, and no one brand is the best for every artist.  The significant difference is between the artist-grade and student-grade.Most major brands get their pigments from the same sources, that means they have the same starting point, and single-pigment colors are pretty close across the board. They use different binders or combinations of binders/oils—walnut, linseed, safflower, poppyseed—and the consistency ranges from creamy and buttery to firm and stiff. Experiment, find the paint that is right for the job. It’s highly recommended to keep the palette to three to five colors plus white. (You mix the black.) I’m planning to start painting daily soon, much like the sketchbooks. Never a day without a line, and never a day without painting.

AM: If people want to learn from you, but are unable to get your school (The Society of Figurative Arts in Dallas) what are the best sources?

MM: Follow on Facebook at facebook.com/michael.mentler.1

Instagram at instagram.com/michael_mentler/

For information about The Society of Figurative Arts and future drawing and painting workshops, visit tsofa.com

Books and DVDs are available at the TSoFA website or through Amazon:
amazon.com/Book-Bones-Michael-Mentler/dp/0692421416

My latest DVD, Figure Drawing in the Renaissance Tradition, can be purchased through Streamline Video: lilipubsorders.com/products/michael-mentler-figure-drawing-in-the-renaissance-tradition