In conversation with René Tweehuysen
As we talk, over an hour on a FB video messenger call that keeps freezing or giving the impression that we are shouting at each other in a cavernous space, I imagine René going for walks and working in this atmospheric environment. Add to this the unpredictable climate, and he says he doesn’t need to travel for inspiration. And yet his landscapes make me itchy to do just that, and more so, to attempt plein air work which I haven’t done before.
René and I met through Facebook, which, as it turns out, is becoming a rich source of artists for me to meet and correspond with. During the video call he is engaged and good humoured, and in looks he reminds me a bit of the actor Tim Robbins. He thinks the term Modern Art is passé and that everything has been done before. “These days people’s ideas of modern art is to take something small and make it very large,” he chuckles. “Even portraits - you see a lot of that currently.”
Like a lot of professional artists I talk to, our conversation is peppered with references to Rembrandt and René says his work is indeed influenced by a long line of Dutch artists that came before him, “but with a contemporary take on things,” he adds. Certainly when you look at his beautiful landscapes, the influence of the Dutch masters is there, as it is in the style of some of his portraits. His plein air work is breathtaking, so it’s surprising to learn that he chooses to work almost exclusively from photographs for his portraits.
I have had art teachers scornfully maintain that to paint from a photograph is to achieve nothing more than a copy, rather than creating something original from observing life itself. To this René responds with “Photography is a very useful invention, also for painters. In my opinion it’s the same thing: observing life and then with great care taking photos from life itself. In comparison to working directly from life, the photo is simply adding an extra stage. I know painters who work from life but their work looks like it is made from photos and vise versa.”
My personal opinion is that the interpretation and subsequent strength of the communication of the subject matter renders whether or not it was achieved from life, a photo or a combination of these things irrelevant. And for me, ultimately, it always comes back to skill; how well you observe, how well you paint, and if your work makes the viewer feel something. It’s refreshing to hear someone who has been painting as long as René not only talk so openly about painting from photographs but to share his process and discuss the benefits of working in this way.
What I also enjoy and take reassurance from with this artist is his willingness to experiment. I imagine there's always a risk that one can get hemmed in by what agents, galleries and collectors come to expect of your style, and of what sells. Despite being an established and successful landscape and portrait artist who attracts commissions from the public and well known individuals alike, René maintains that each painting has a voice and therefore requires its own unique style in which to paint it in.
What follows is our conversation (including the requisite Proust-type artist questionnaire) which was conducted via a combination of the aforementioned complicated FB messenger call, email correspondence and many FB messenger exchanges. With thanks to René.
Q: How did you come to art and know that this was something you wanted to make a career out of. There is that point that you make the decision, and what influenced this for you?
I was always good at drawing and at a young age it was clear to me that I should go this way and would attend an academy to study art.
Q: When we spoke earlier we talked briefly about that distinction between an artist and someone who considers themselves to be an artist and wants to start painting portraits. At what point did you go from being a student to being a professional artist?
This was a long journey. After studying at the academy of art in Utrecht between 1978 and 1983, I had a productive and worthwhile period in which I produced many abstract paintings and graphic works. This abstract period came to an end however. In my eyes the revolution of modern art was finished, and everything had already been done in the 20th century by some great artists. From 1990 I returned to where my strength lay: figurative art. I studied 16th and 17th century old master's paintings and manuscripts intensively, and developed my style and painting technique. I devoted myself to painting the human figure and the landscape. In 1994 I exhibited for the first time with a series of portraits in Gallery Mokum. Since then I have painted many portraits, including commissions of noteworthy people.
Q: I like that fact that you are unapologetic about the fact that you work from photos, and find it interesting that you prefer to do portraits this way. Please talk to us about this?
Yeah, why is using photos still considered a taboo? As a contemporary artist I like to use contemporary techniques, like photos. This makes me think of the Hockney-Falco thesis. Artist David Hockney and physicist Charles M. Falco propose that advances in realism and accuracy in Western art since the Renaissance were quite likely the result of optical instruments - the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors.
Also, my experience shows that clients want an exact portrait. This increases the importance of taking quality photographs. A quality painting however can never be created by just aimlessly copying a photo! Just like painting ‘live', painting from a photograph also requires a translation into paint. The painting mustn't attempt to be just a painting of a photo.
A photo session can in many ways be compared to a live sitting because the same choices have to be made in terms of lighting and composition. The art of a good photo is to capture the character of the subject, and this requires a skilful photographer. Just like a painter does during a live sitting, I will take photographs from different angles. The light in the studio has to be just right. In order to achieve this I exclude light from all windows except for north facing ones and therefore can be sure that only quality light comes from this direction to fill the studio. I take about 30 to 40 photographs of each person. One of these photos will be the right one to use. The other photo's can be of use for certain aspects, for example because they show better details of an ear or the hair. All the photographs taken together will give a better three dimensional impression of the subject.
The expression on the subject's face is extremely important in a photo session. A friendly or blank look on the face works best. A broad smile (showing of teeth) is not really to be recommended, and in the long term can lose its appeal. Getting to know the subject's character is important, and this can be achieved through the contact between client and painter. The aim is to paint, in as personal a manner and as lively as possible, a human being of flesh and blood.
Q: So what are the tools you need to take a quality photo to provide the basis for a good painting?
A good quality camera and tripod. Good quality light. Photoshop
Q: What camera do you use?
Pentax. I use a 50mm standard lens which will give no distortion - as it corresponds to the human eye.
Q: Do you work from an iPad or screen or do you print out the photos and work from the hard copies, or a combination?
I print out the photos. One too light, one too dark and one medium.
Q: Given you work from digital images, have you ever used projection? And what are your thoughts about it?
No projection, never!
Q: You talk about working in layers to give skin and flesh a realistic feeling, how do you do this?
I aim for a rich paint surface with depth and texture. That's why I work in layers with rich mediums. The panel or canvas is prepared with layers of lead white (if necessary with texture), wherein the final layer is a coloured layer (imprimatura) - this could be, for example, in light grey, beige or pink. The drawing is then made on the canvas or panel. The underpainting is loosely applied using brown colours. Skin colours are first painted with shades of grey. At this stage no colours are used. The aim of the underpainting is to prepare the light and dark areas for later. This undercoat creates a strong base and texture for the actual finishing in oil paints. Where the oil paints are transparent or half transparent the underpainting will show through. This enhances the natural softness, depth and glow of the painting in a way that can never be achieved in one layer. In this way, the translucent nature of skin can be recreated.
Once the underpainting is completely dry, the actual painting is built up using a mixed oils / tempera technique. For the whites I use lead white. By varying thickness, texture, transparency and colour contrast a whole range of effects can be achieved. When these layers are finished and allowed to dry thoroughly, an extremely thin layer of diluted oil paint (glacis) is applied to give even more depth to the colours and shades. After drying the painting is finished off with a Damar varnish.
Q: Do you have a go-to palette for skin tones? And if so, what do you use?
Ultramarine blue deep
Yellow ochre light
Madder (Crimson) Lake extra
Q: And you use tempera? I am not familiar with this, how does it work?
This is achieved by adding egg to the paints. I use it to make the oil paint thicker. I mix a whole egg and use very very little of it, and also add a little sun thickened oil. It will affect the consistency of the paint and make it more mobile also (thixotropic). Another advantage is that it’s effectively a solvent free environment.
Q: Please describe a typical commission in terms of how it works (meeting the person etc) and how you plan it up until the point that you start painting?
An initial brainstorm with the client will give an idea of what the painting has to depict. I usually require just one hour sitting for a photo session. Sittings can take place either at my studio or at a location more convenient to the client. After the first meeting a creative process of sketching will develop the final concept sketch for the client to view.
Q: How much time do you spend with the person you are going to paint? Because I think one of the limitations of working with photographs is that you lack the conversation that sometimes happens within the sitting which becomes a part of the painting - the person’s personality, the dynamic between you and the sitter?
Yes it’s very important to have a conversation, but when I paint, I don’t like that. Also I like to paint from photographs because when a person sits for hours it can affect their posture and the pose.
Q: How do you manage people's expectations with commissions?
People who give you a commission always fall for your style. As always when painting I reserve complete creative autonomy.
Q: What is the strangest question/request/commission you have ever been asked?
There is no strangest question/request/commission…not yet….
Q: How much input in terms of how they want to be portrayed, does the sitter have? What’s that conversation like?
I like to brainstorm with the sitter about the kinds of things they like in their lives. When you paint from photographs you can choose the photo and get the sitter to look at it which means you have an agreement of the composition ahead of the painting and that solves a lot of problems cropping up later. This works really well for the sitter also.
Q: I’ve noticed there are quite varying stylistic approaches even between your portraits. What influences these kinds of choices?
When you have an older face, you can approach this with a lot of texture. When you have a young child or a woman, you have to work a little more smoothly and subtly.
Q: On this note, talk to me about the portrait of Heer van Ooij. I love the style of this - seeing your hand in it and the movement of the paint
Me too, I like to see the brushstrokes and to leave marks as they are and not to overwork them. Sometimes I forego the likeness because the visible marks are better for the painting as a whole.
Q: I also really like the painting of Paul Witteman
Yes he is a TV personality in Holland. I took the pictures for that in his house.
Q: Was he happy with it? Because I’d be happy with that - I think it’s a great painting
He was happy with it, but he didn’t buy it. Paul said his kids found that as a TV personality he got more than enough attention, which I can appreciate. Although that painting led to a lot of further commissions.
Q: I see you've painted a lot of children in your commissions. What is that experience like as opposed to working with adults?
It’s harder to paint children as opposed to working with adults. Children are always on the move so then it becomes much more difficult to paint them. When painting an adult every wrinkle is a helping hand to build up the face. When painting a smooth child’s face it is much harder to determine subtle transitions of the tones.
Q: Do you meet or correspond with other artists?
There are some really fine artists in the north of the Netherlands. I regularly speak to a few close artist friends, and I also meet artists during openings of exhibitions.
Q: What kinds of things influence your approach and style of working with a particular painting?
I try as little as possible to work in a fixed concept. A concept can be a straitjacket for your freedom and possibilities. I try to approach a new subject, which can be anything, with fresh eyes. I like to experiment with composition, shape, paint application, colour and texture etc.
Q: On this note, the painting of the ship on the dry dock is really beautiful - the application of the paint. And I like that you allow yourself to move between different styles within your work and to give yourself that freedom
Yes, every painting has something new. You start from the beginning and allow yourself to experiment. In this painting I used some marble dust, and sometimes I use chalk and egg in my paints to get certain textures which also work very well with a palette knife. I used a lot of the palette knife in this painting.
Q: We talked about you beginning to teach art. What would you hope to communicate to your students? What are some of the things that you've learnt and that you feel are really important to teach them? Also with what message would you hope that they leave your tutelage and go out in the world to work as professional artists themselves?
Yes, I’m going to teach in a space in an old factory that belongs to a friend of mine. It makes no sense to create all new René Tweehuysens, I can only draw upon my own experience. With that experience, I would like to help students to develop their own style. The message: give it some time to develop yourself and try to get lessons from different artists.
Q: I think it’s really important to have teachers who are working artists. To be taught by someone who is facing the same kinds of issues and challenges themselves on a daily basis. My current teacher is a working artist and I find him very relatable and his knowledge enriching
Yes I’d like to do that. I have a lot of experience and I can immediately identify things in people’s work and make meaningful suggestions.
Q: The importance of life drawing - I have heard that this facility is increasingly becoming a scarcity in art schools. Why do you feel it is an essential component in teaching and learning art?
Drawing is the basis of everything. Learn to see and then develop your own way to express it. Eg. by figure drawing you just know at some point where the reflections, warm and cool areas are. Life drawing gives you that extra knowledge and understanding which benefits your work from photos.
Q: What would you say, what advice would you give to people who are thinking of becoming a portrait artist?
Find yourself a good teacher.
Q: Is there anything, any bit of advice you wish you had received when embarking on a career as an artist?
No, not really. You have to find your own way anyway.
Q: Do you think there is a distinction between who you are as a person and the art you make? And how do you manage that?
I don't work with this idea deliberately. But of course, my art is me.
Q: Are competitions important and or relevant? And why?
The only competition I sometimes join is the BP Portrait Award in London. The shortlist can be helpful, whatever it means.
Q: How do you start a piece? What is the first thing you do? I appreciate this may vary from subject to subject
Usually I start painting with just a vague idea. Over the imprimatura I paint an underpainting where I have the freedom to adjust areas. While working ideas are coming up and choices are being made. I take my time to look carefully and to let it settle down. I apply a brushstroke and think about the next one. In a subsequent layer some areas will be worked out.
Q: How do you know when a piece is finished? At what point do you stand back, put down the brush, and say: OK this is it?
That is the moment that I think: OK, if I go any further this will add nothing extra. In fact, if I continue I will destroy things. Sometimes I let expressive brush strokes remain even if it is at the expense of the form.The freshness can be more important.
Q: Has there ever been a painting that you completed and then it felt difficult for you to sell, and why?
You never know, selling art is always uncertain.
Q: Do you ever struggle with the dichotomy between being commercially successful and your personal aesthetic as an artist?
No. If I'd wanted to be really commercially successful, I would have painted flowers.
Q: Do you have an achilles heel? Something that you struggle with, either in your work technically or in terms of being an artist?
I hate the obligations I have with the job as a painter: administration, promotion, computer work ... .etc. A waste of my valuable time. Ideally I would just paint.
Q: You used to work as an abstract artist before becoming a figurative artist. Obviously these are quite different disciplines. But having done both, what is the greatest distinction?
There is no distinction. My abstract period was very worthwhile. When working on a figurative painting it can be helpful to also view it as an abstract painting and vice versa. Sometimes I put a painting upside down in order to assess the abstract values better.
Q: What makes you want to paint/create? What drives you?
It is not a choice. It just happens and you cannot live without it anymore.
Q: Do you ever experience creative blocks or days you just don't feel like painting/drawing. How do you manage that, especially if you are working on a commission that is due or are putting a show together?
Not very often but when that occurs I go to work on the aforementioned administration, promotion, computer work ... .etc. There is always something you can do. You just have to plan the commissions very well. A deadline can be very effective.
(René’s website is really well put together and managed, so I suspect even though he dislikes the admin side of things, he appears to have a knack for it.)
Q: What are your thoughts in terms of price tags and how your art and indeed art per se is valued?
It is worth whatever you can get for it. My art is not yet in the arena of the art world’s celebrity-focused luxury market for the mega-wealthy. Outrageous values have become more important than the work itself.
Q: If (money permitting) you could buy any piece of art, what would it be?
A Rembrandt self portrait.
Q: Do you listen to music when you paint? And if yes, what's on your current playlist?
Not always. But when I listen to music it can be very diverse. From classical to modern composers, jazz, blues, Americana, folk music, world music etc. At this moment I listen to Martin Simpson.
Q: Which artists, living and deceased, do you most admire and why?
Rembrandt: The impressionist painter from the 17th century. His late work, the humanity of his painted human beings, and his paint - the geological paint textures.
Jan van Eyck, Titian, Vermeer, Velasquez, Piet Mondriaan, Mark Rothko, Andrew Wyeth, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Anselm Kiefer, Euan Uglow.
Q: At the end of the day, when you put your brush down, what is your favourite way to relax?
Going outside for a walk.
Q: Do you have any other talents or hobbies that might surprise people? An instrument, a sport etc?
I play dobro (lap style) and bottleneck slide guitar in the acoustic blues duo ‘The Mudbirds’ with my English neighbour.
René Tweehuysen and Alan Laws - The Mudbirds
Q: What book is on your bedside table right now?
De stilte van het licht (The silence of light) by Joost Zwagerman. About the issue of silence in art.
Q: What have you learnt about yourself through painting?
The experience of freedom.
Q: Do you have any superstitions / magical thinking regarding your work or how you work?
We live on this planet and we try to make the best of it .....
Q: If you weren't working as an artist you would ...?
Maybe a full time musician?
Photo of the artist by Ben Kleyn