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Corey Pitkin – Portraiture In The Time Of COVID

I love figurative work! And one figurative artist whose work I admire is Corey Pitkin. I’ve featured his work twice in my monthly roundups. The first time was with Summer Solstice in September 2016 and the second was with The Golden Apple in February 2019.

One of the things I love about Pitkin’s work is the mystery it evokes – there’s always a story waiting to be told. The artist brilliantly removes whatever doesn’t enhance his intention, focusing our eye on what’s important.

So you can understand why I was thrilled when Corey Pitkin said YES to guest blogging!

Don’t know his work? Here’s a teaser…

Corey Pitkin, "Eventide," 2020, Blue Earth pastels on LaCarte, 11x14in
Corey Pitkin, “Eventide,” 2020, Blue Earth pastels on LaCarte, 11x14in

Before I hand the blog over to Corey, here’s a wee bit of info about him.

Corey Pitkin Bio

A predominantly self-taught artist, Corey Pitkin’s award-winning work has been featured in The Pastel Journal, Art Renewal Center, Portrait Society of America, Pratique des Arts Magazine, and International Artist Magazine, and is held in collections across the world. He is a Signature Member of the Pastel Society of America and has achieved Master Circle status with the International Association of Pastel Societies. Pitkin teaches frequently in his local art community and regularly travels for workshops. He currently resides in upstate New York with his wife Esther and children Anastasia and Xavier. You can find more info and work on his website.

And without further delay, here is Corey Pitkin!

~~~~~

I’ve been working as a portrait-slash-figurative artist for about 10 years now. My weeks followed a steady routine: working from a live model on Mondays, Tuesday evenings working with my apprentice, Wednesday either studio work or more life drawing, Thursday studio work, Friday gallery reception (there’s always someone’s to attend), teaching on Saturday, studio on Sunday. This would occasionally be peppered with photoshoots with models, out of town workshops, conventions – the life of a working artist. It was busy but it was predictable.

Corey Pitkin, "Jake," 2020, misc pastels on UART dark 400, 9x12in. Painted from life with my local Monday night life drawing group pre-COVID.
Corey Pitkin, “Jake,” 2020, misc pastels on UART dark 400, 9x12in. Painted from life with my local Monday night life drawing group pre-COVID.

Then COVID-19 hit. 

And everything went away.

I found myself without models, without routine. I’ll be honest with you: at first, it was great. Probably the first true vacation I’ve had in a decade. I didn’t have to worry about deadlines, curriculums, travel, producing new work…just stay at home, dabble here and there, spend time with my wife and kids (they’re actually pretty cool – who knew?), just hunker down and wait for the whole thing to blow over.

You’ll be shocked to know it didn’t blow over.

So now what? How does a figurative artist continue making work when the world locks down? I needed a new approach.

Corey Pitkin, "Surfacing initial sketch," 2017, misc pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Touch, 15 1/2 x10 1/2 in. Done from life with my local Monday night life drawing group. The body was great but the face was completely off, so I lost it into the background.
Corey Pitkin, “Surfacing initial sketch,” 2017, misc pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Touch, 15 1/2 x10 1/2 in. Done from life with my local Monday night life drawing group. The body was great but the face was completely off, so I lost it into the background.
Corey Pitkin, "Surfacing," 2017, misc pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Touch, 15 1/2 x10 1/2 in. Sold.
Corey Pitkin, “Surfacing,” 2017, misc pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Touch, 15 1/2 x10 1/2 in. Sold.

Luckily, I’m not averse to working from photographs. There are many figurative artists who are adamant about working from life and find working from photos repugnant, blasphemous even. They argue that photos distort reality: that even the best camera lens warps proportions, flattens colors, loses subtlety, and creates a too-high contrast image. 

They’re not wrong – a camera lens at its most basic is a curved piece of glass that warps light to project an image onto film or a digital sensor. This curvature bends the light entering the camera so that the entire field of vision is compressed to fit the film or sensor in the back of the camera, typically a 35mm space. Distortion is going to happen.

Painting from photos has other pitfalls. Photos provide the artist with unlimited time to work on a piece. This is rarely to the artwork’s advantage. The pursuit of perfection can lead to overworked and lifeless pieces. Or the dreaded statement, “It looks just like a photo,” often meant as a compliment because culturally we’ve come to accept photography as equivalent to reality.

Corey Pitkin, "Stephanie," 2019, Blue Earth pastels on LaCarte, 13x19in
Corey Pitkin, “Stephanie,” 2019, Blue Earth pastels on LaCarte, 13x19in

Wait, didn’t I say I wasn’t averse to using photographs?

Working from life has its issues too. The light changes over the course of a session unless you’re lucky enough to have a space with north-facing windows or skylights. Models move during the pose. Models have lives that often don’t coordinate with the times you have available to work. Models need to take breaks. Sometimes models don’t show up. Sometimes they’re never heard from again. I’ve seen it all in life drawing, from the model needing medical attention halfway through the pose to having their significant other show up to pick a fight halfway through the pose. When you’re working from life, you’re working with people and that always has the potential to get messy.

Corey Pitkin, "Halcyon," 2018, misc pastels on Richeson Premium Pastel Surface, 16x20in
Corey Pitkin, “Halcyon,” 2018, misc pastels on Richeson Premium Pastel Surface, 16x20in

What’s the solution? Well, the real point of my digression is this: None of this really matters. If you’re looking for the model or the photo to provide you with completely accurate and trustworthy source material then you’re already in trouble. Because the point isn’t the source material, it’s what you do with it. The model or photo is the muse; the inspiration. The art is in what you do with that. 

You can make a great painting from a terrible reference photo if you have a clear vision of what you want the painting to be, and the perfect model won’t save an uninspired painting. Know what you want to do before setting pigment to surface. Use the reference to enhance and add detail, but truth is found on the paper. Accuracy is great but in the end, who cares? When I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, literally holding back tears standing in front of Diego Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja, I’m not saying to myself “it looks just like him!”

Corey Pitkin, "Marie Antoinette Wig," 2018, misc pastels on UART 400, 12x16in
Corey Pitkin, “Marie Antoinette Wig,” 2018, misc pastels on UART 400, 12x16in

Being willing to work from a photograph still poses an issue right now though. I can’t take a photo if I can’t coordinate with a model, and that can’t happen in the middle of a quarantine. So I need other solutions. 

For multiple reasons I’m not a fan of working from photos that I did not take, at least for “real” paintings. Sketches are practice and I’ll take my inspiration wherever I find it, but for a painting, I don’t want someone else making my decisions for me. If you’re working from someone else’s photo you’ve let the photographer decide your pose and lighting, if not the entire mood of the piece. Good or bad, the decisions made have to be mine.

Corey Pitkin, "Cavalier," 2018, misc pastels on LaCarte, 19x19in
Corey Pitkin, “Cavalier,” 2018, misc pastels on LaCarte, 19x19in
Solution 1: “Life” Drawing

In early June 2020, I started up a weekly “life” drawing session on Zoom. I’m putting “life” in quotes because, let’s be honest with ourselves, this ain’t working from life. All of the issues with working from a photograph that I mentioned previously are in play here, but now it also includes all the issues that working from life presents. Those are the cons. 

The pros, however, outweigh them: first and foremost I’m keeping our local life drawing group, and therefore a part of our local art community, alive. I’m able to provide some work for our local models when all their work has dried up. There are less altruistic reasons too. I’m forced to make quick design decisions like in life drawing and then stick to them. No time to switch gears halfway through. 

Corey Pitkin, Zoom Figure Sketch, 2020, PanPastel and conte on Strathmore Tan Toned, 9x12in.
Corey Pitkin, Zoom Figure Sketch, 2020, PanPastel and conte on Strathmore Tan Toned, 9x12in.
Corey Pitkin, Zoom Portrait Sketch, 2020, PanPastel and Faber-Castell Polychromos Pastel on Strathmore Tan Toned, 9x12in. One of the benefits of Zoom drawing sessions is that I can work with models that have moved away.
Corey Pitkin, Zoom Portrait Sketch, 2020, PanPastel and Faber-Castell Polychromos Pastel on Strathmore Tan Toned, 9x12in. One of the benefits of Zoom drawing sessions is that I can work with models that have moved away.

The Zoom platform is a double-edged sword: I have to compensate for often less-than-ideal reference (Zoom was not designed for fine art, and we’re at the mercy of whatever phone/tablet/laptop the model has at their disposal), but the poor video quality simplifies the image in much the same way that squinting does. I don’t have access to the detail that I would when working from life or a photo, but detail is often a painting killer. Better to focus on resolving the big shapes convincingly and attractive mark-making anyway.

Corey Pitkin, Zoom Figure Sketch, 2020, Blue Earth pastels on UART dark 400, 9x12in. One of our first life drawing sessions on Zoom.
Corey Pitkin, Zoom Figure Sketch, 2020, Blue Earth pastels on UART dark 400, 9x12in. One of our first life drawing sessions on Zoom.
Solution 2: Work With What You Have

I have a library of images from previous photoshoots that I can use. But I’ve already used all of the good ones. I’ll go through these pictures and occasionally find one that didn’t strike me before and make something decent with it, but inspiration doesn’t work the way that’s most convenient to you. Some ideas demand to be birthed. So I have to tweak the idea to fit what’s available to me now: myself, my wife, and my kids.

Corey Pitkin, "Suburbia," 2019, misc pastels on Richeson Premium Pastel Surface, 18x16in
Corey Pitkin, “Suburbia,” 2019, misc pastels on Richeson Premium Pastel Surface, 18x16in

I did a self-portrait a couple of months ago. I don’t do many self-portraits. I’ve probably I’ve done less than six in my adult life. 

Lighting can be a real challenge when doing a self-portrait because you need good light on your working surface but you also need interesting light on your face to make a good portrait. For some reason “interesting light” seems to always mean “pointed right into your eyes.” I found that a spare piece of mat board and some clamps can be used to block out any stray light that isn’t necessary for lighting your subject. 

Corey Pitkin, "Self-Portrait Sketch," 2020, misc pastels on UART dark 400, 9X12in
Corey Pitkin, “Self-Portrait Sketch,” 2020, misc pastels on UART dark 400, 9X12in

I made an effort to keep this pastel loose and emphasize the mark-making. The highest contrast is in the eyes, keeping the viewer locked in this highly analytical gaze that I apparently have when I’m working. I softened the edges separating the eyes from the face to further emphasize this contrast so that once I put in those hard edges on the catchlight, I had an instant center of interest.

I’ve been utilizing my wife and children as (mostly) eager models for years. I think these pieces have been some of my best work, and not just because of my relationship with the subjects. There’s something honest in these pieces that can’t be faked. Quiet, real-deal day-to-day love that comes from sharing the minutiae of your life with someone, not over the top and saccharine. 

Corey Pitkin, "Blackberry Winter," 2019, Blue Earth pastels on UART 400, 18x12in
Corey Pitkin, “Blackberry Winter,” 2019, Blue Earth pastels on UART 400, 18x12in

The concept has to come first. Sometimes it will come from a visual idea, like the pile of white papers on the dark table in Hodgepodge. Sometimes the title comes first, and the pose and costume are built up from that, like with Blackberry Winter. Occasionally you’ll get lucky and stumble across a fully-formed idea when looking through old photos, like The Golden Apple.

Corey Pitkin, "Hodgepodge" block-in, 2019, Great American pastels on UART dark 400, 18x24in. First colour pass. Values were adjusted in the next pass to make the paper more vibrant.
Corey Pitkin, “Hodgepodge” block-in, 2019, Great American pastels on UART dark 400, 18x24in. First colour pass. Values were adjusted in the next pass to make the paper more vibrant.
Corey Pitkin, "Hodgepodge," 2019, Great American pastels on UART dark 400, 18x24in
Corey Pitkin, “Hodgepodge,” 2019, Great American pastels on UART dark 400, 18x24in

I’m not looking to just create portraits of my family. I want something with emotional heft, something relatable. Think of it like song lyrics – you want to take something specific from your life and state it in a non-specific way. This allows your audience to free-associate and apply it to their own experience. If you don’t have the specific idea or event in place in your head then the piece won’t have the emotional oomph that’s required to really connect with people. Because it won’t mean as much to you. 

That might be the key to creating something that really reaches people – you have to love your painting when you’re painting it. Anything less and it is just work.

*****

WOW!

And did I hear you say WOW too? So much to be blown away by! So do let us know what strikes you. Go ahead and leave a comment or question for Corey. You know we’d loooooove to hear from you!

Thanks for joining us 😀

~ Gail

PS. You can see the video of Corey Pitkin creating his self-portrait here.

PPS. You can read my experience drawing from a model over Zoom

and also how I built up a pastel painting from one of those sketches.

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