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Frederic
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On Craftsmanship
In this December 1946 article, American Artist Magazine Editor Watson interviews Frederic Taubes about his craft
American
Artist
Magazine
Article
Interview: 
On Craftsmanship
Taubes on Craftsmanship
Introduction
In the October issue of this magazine, Editor Watson wrote a piece about craftsmanship in painting. It brought a surprising number of letters from readers, many of whom asked the question "What precisely do you mean by craftsmanship?"
Because Frederic Taubes' craftsmanship in his own work is the foundation of his unique authority in the world of paint, we can think of no better way of answering the question than by passing the buck to him, and at the same time reproducing some of his canvases by way of demonstration — which will please a lot of his fans who have repeatedly asked that some of his pictures be shown in the magazine. What follows came out of a meeting of Taubes and Watson in the former's studio. — Editors

Watson:
Fred, we've got to give an answer to a lot of people out there who demand to know just what we mean when we talk about "craftsmanship." I think they would like to hear what you have to say about this word that is rather too loosely thrown out.
Taubes:
Thrown out is right! But I'd rather substitute the term paint quality for craftsmanship if you don't object, because the former permits of a more precise definition. The latter, you know, has acquired a connotation that does not express what, I believe, we both are thinking about in this discussion. Craftsmanship today generally relates to mere skill and virtuosity—qualities that are frowned upon by many estheticians rather than regarded as an asset. Some, on the other hand, use the term craftsmanship to cover the entire range of technical problems that enter into the compound of a work of art—its composition, design, etc.
Watson:
Yes, I know. And there is no point in debating the wholly academic question of definition. Let's get on to talk about "paint quality," since that is your meat. But later I'm going to bring up a few more inclusive questions which I had in mind when writing my editorial. Won't you tell us, then, just what paint quality is and how it is achieved?
Taubes:
It's pretty hard to put into words, isn't it? I think Thomas Bodkin did a pretty good job of it in the paragraph you quoted in your editorial. But can we not say that paint quality refers to the intrinsic characteristic of the painting's surface, expressed in brush strokes, texture, and treatment of contours, without reference to what the picture might have to say in subject, design, or composition. It results from the manner in which paint is applied to the canvas by a painter who, however creative he may be in all other aspects of his work, also loves paint for its own sake and has mastered all available means for giving it eloquent expression.
Watson:
What, then, are some of these means? What processes, what tools, what "secrets" do you employ to achieve this elusive paint quality?
Taubes:
Well, there are brushes and palette knives and the method of using them; there is under painting, impasto, glazing, and stumbling. Where shall we start?
Watson:
What about brush work? Let's begin with that?
Taubes:
Although any brush in good working condition is all one needs for the purpose (some wizards can use their thumbs or beards to that effect, perhaps), personally I employ an array of tools capable of producing variable brush strokes, contours, and textures: pointed and flat sable brushes, bristle brushes of different working quality, and a veritable arsenal of palette knives. To be precise, I operate with 12 knives, each having a distinct shape and flexibility. According to their characteristics they are reserved for specific purposes.
Watson:
All of this seems to put a lot of emphasis on skill in the use of many tools!
Taubes:
Naturally, you would not expect a painter to cultivate awkwardness in the use of his equipment; but the action of one's hand is really directed from a central office — the brain and the nervous mechanism. Skill therefore emanates from this office.
Watson:
Evidently here you refer to the distinction between creative and mechanical skill; but suppose we talk about this canvas, The White Turban, which we are showing our readers in color. Here your use of brushes and palette knife is quite evident. Won't you discuss the technique of this canvas?
Taubes:
In doing this I'm afraid I shall have to give myself away, and, even at a risk of shocking my clients, I shall tell you that I painted that face in seventeen minutes flat! A dangerous admission, unless I hasten to add that during the period of a year or more that canvas was repeatedly changed and overpainted. Underneath the final painting of the face (seventeen minutes' manipulation with a palette knife, held parallel to the surface of the canvas to effect blending, and some work with a pointed sable brush) there are, roughly speaking, fourteen other faces which, because they didn't suit me, suffered partial or total obliteration. Now, by some magic which I fail to nail down, much of the apparently futile energy, previously invested, manages to contribute heavily to the end result.
INSERT
Ruth
The small cut below is reproduced from the original 13 x 10 oil painting. The large cut is a detail at about exact size, showing the technical handling of palette knife and brush.
Watson:
What about the rest of the picture, the turban, the dress, the background?
Taubes:
Turban and dress were painted in vigorous strokes with a large bristle brush. No blending was attempted; however, because the paint was "long" the strokes grew together to an extent. The background was rendered with an extra flexible palette knife in glazes and scumbles on an underpainting which, because of frequent changes of intent as the work progressed, carries a heavy paint layer.
Watson:
You've used a number of terms there, Fred, that ought to be clarified — "long" paint, "glazes," "scumbles." What do you mean by glazes and scumbles?
Taubes:
Elementary, my dear Watson. Glazes are relatively dark, transparent colors applied to a lighter underpainting; scumbles are light, semi-transparent color passages applied to a darker underpainting. I like to put these transparent films into a wet underlayer of color. This, as practice shows, can be done best with a very elastic knife. As to "long" paint and the business of "growing together," they imply the use of an appropriate painting medium. Mine is copal resin-oil medium. My oil paints, too, are mixed with a cop I concentrate; that is, a mixture of copal resin and standoil. I add a few drops of this compound to one inch of paint as it comes from the tube. The working qualities of these copal–oil compounds are unsurpassed by any other media. They greatly enhance the drying and fusion of paint, and the execution of overpaintings, glazings, and scumblings.
Watson:
Comparing these two little heads, Ruth and Lili, I note that you have treated them quite differently. Ruth clearly is a palette knife job; the marks where the knife left off are plainly visible. Lili appears to have been done wholly with brushes.
Taubes:
Yes, Ruth, like The White Turban, was painted with a palette knife, but in the former I used a rather stiff, scalpel–like knife. No blending was attempted. A pointed sable brush was used for definition of the features. Lili is the work of bristle and sable brush — no blending. The soft fusion of the loosely applied strokes is due entirely to the nature of the painting medium. Extra "long" paint was used on the veil. "Long" paint — color generously spiked with the copal concentrate does not hold the effect of the brush marks. It levels off like enamel paint.
Watson:
What about all those palette knives? We don't see any such variety of knives in the shops.
Taubes:
Most of my knives are custom–made, so to speak. I have them ground and cut to specific shapes. Some of them are of my own manufacture — others are done by cutlers. Any good knife can be ground down to alter its elasticity.
Watson:
You are speaking all the time about underpainting, and I see around your studio several canvases which carry underpainting — presumably for pictures you are going to paint in the future. Do you never use the direct paint method; that is, without previous underpainting?
Taubes:
Never. I prefer underpainting, because glazes can most effectively be produced on an appropriate underpainting; and usually in all of my paintings some parts are glazed.
INSERT
LILI
The small cut below is reproduced from the original 12 x 10 oil painting.
The large cut is a detail at about exact size, showing the technical handling of the brush.
The picture shown below, HOME COMING AND DEPARTURE, takes its name from the two illustrative incidents in the background. The canvas is 12 x 14 inches.

Watson:
Do you mean to say that it is difficult or impossible to secure good paint quality by direct painting? If so, are you not limiting good craftsmanship to but one of several methods of painting in general use?
Taubes:
Of course a picture can have fine paint quality even if it is executed alla prima-directly on the canvas without any preliminary underpainting; but here the nature of the support (canvas or board) is of extreme importance. I would say, without reservation, that on an ugly commercial support an alla prima painting can never be a fine piece of work. Titian himself would have failed had he had to paint on one of those cotton canvases which are so popular nowadays-unless he had painted so heavily as to hide the unattractive, mechanical ground under an impenetrable paint layer.
Watson:
You say then that the alla prima painter ought to prepare his canvas in some special way before beginning his picture. Will you explain that?
Taubes:
The work of Frans Hals and Rubens certainly has superb paint quality and technique-yet neither used underpainting, generally speaking; their work was done on a light imprimatura and can be considered alla prima. Frans Hals used a hand-prepared canvas; Rubens used chiefly wooden panels, on which glazes can be beautifully executed-if one prepares his support specially for it.
Watson:
Shouldn't the temperament of the artist determine his method — alla prima or underpainting — to a large extent? Some painters might find underpainting uncongenial because, let us say, they like to paint on impulse without preconceived design. Doesn't underpainting narrow the opportunity for improvisation? Certain painters have told me that because they work impulsively-in the heat of creative fire-they could not possibly employ a method that imposes deliberation and narrows opportunity for improvisation. They say they rely a good deal upon happy accidents that appear as the painting progresses.
Taubes:
Such a viewpoint points to the fact that the function of an underpainting is not well understood. Under-painting does presuppose a carefully planned design, and I doubt if any good picture was ever painted without as much planning-in one way or another-as I put into an underpainting. But, mind you, the underpainting is kept in such a broad manner as to leave plenty of room for improvisation and for such accidents as the artist might profit from using.
Watson:
Could you go into this underpainting further? Or would it be worthwhile for us to reproduce an underpainting in our article?
Taubes:
In my book, Oil Painting for the Beginner, there are half a dozen underpaintings reproduced in color. They should be seen in color to be of any real value. To attempt to pursue the matter further here would be opening up a whole new chapter.
Watson:
Now about "impasto." Do you paint in impasto on your underpainting to provide a plastic surface for glazing effects? And do you try in every picture to achieve as much variety of texture as possible?
Taubes:
At times I build up an impasto surface for the purpose of glazing, but on certain occasions I also glaze over a thin underpainting-thin enough to reveal the structure of the canvas. This gives textural variety to the surface of the painting which indeed is an important factor in paint quality.
Watson:
Now, Fred, coming back to definition. What we have been discussing is the intrinsic, sensuous value of paint surface and its manipulation, without reference to color and design. At least we haven't been talking of color and design. Would you say that paint quality might conceivably be found in a painting that is undistinguished in color and design?
Taubes:
No. As a rule, knowledge of technique presupposes knowledge of composition and all other factors that are inherent in a work of art. In practice, a painter who has mastered the paint technique has long before mastered the coloristic problem, and the art of composition. Mastery of paint technique is by far more difficult to achieve — whereas problems of composition ate relatively simple.
Watson:
That is equivalent to saying that a painter who is weak creatively is not likely ever to achieve paint quality of great distinction?
Taubes:
Definitely!
Watson:
I think your statement that "problems of composition are relatively simple" will be contested by a lot of people. I am under the impression that many consider composition their biggest problem. Numerous books have been written on the subject and there are composition classes in the art schools.
Taubes:
I should have qualified my statement; of course, I am only speaking for myself and for some others for whom composition is largely intuitive. Books and schools-and my own magazine articles-are needed for many who may, none the less, have splendid overall talent.
Watson:
Now we have covered considerable ground relative to paint quality, although I realize that we have merely nibbled at the edges of the problem. But. as they say on the radio, your time is nearly up and we can have but one more question. I want to throw this one in a different direction. I don't see how, in speaking of craftsmanship, you can divorce paint quality from other creative aspects of picture making, from the structure of the painting, its design or composition.
Taubes:
If you use those terms "design and composition" synonymously, Ernest, I can't agree with your terminology. I think of design as the two-dimensional aspect -pattern perhaps. Composition involves perspective, the handling of volumes, in other words — the third dimension.

INSERT
THE DREAM
This recent canvas by Taubes is 22 x 35 inches. The nature of the support is clearly visible on the panel at the left end and the lower left foreground. Here the thin underpainting and the glaze reveal the character of the canvas grain.

Watson:
That is side-stepping my question, Fred. In my editorial on craftsmanship I referred to something more than the seductiveness of paint surface known as "quality." I deplored a considerable decline in the whole art of picture structure. There was a time when artists expected their pictures to be subjected to intelligent analysis based upon generally accepted criteria of judgment. Unity, coherence, and emphasis, for example, principles which you are discussing in one of your 4 composition articles in this magazine. How many contemporary temporary pictures that are winning awards in the big shows can be judged by these and other time-honored principles which are basic in the work of the old masters?
INSERT
THE GROOMING OF BATHSHEBA
This picture, conceived in a classic vein, is included in Taubes' exhibition at the Associated American Artists Galleries.

Taubes:
Alas, we have no standards of evaluation today! judging art seems to be a hit and miss process, and the criteria of quality are non-existent. This, of course, does not deter me from adhering to all the principles which have made good art good since time immemorial!!
NOTE:
We think our readers will be interested to know that an exhibition of Mr. Taubes' work will be held at the Associated American Artists Galleries, 711 Fifth Avenue, New York, December 9-29, 1946. Also that Taubes Monograph, with 60 full-page illustrations, has just been published by American Artists Group. $1.
Mr. Taubes' page on "Pictorial Composition" and his "Taubes' Page" with the Questions and Answers Dept. are omitted from this issue of the magazine, but the series will be resumed in the January number.

Frederic

Taubes


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