Oil Painting: Warren Chang: Bringing the Past to the Present

Oil Painting: Warren Chang: Bringing the Past to the Present

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This California-based artist uses a 19th-century palette to create a nostalgic atmosphere in his paintings.

by John A. Parks

2003, oil, 40 x 30.
Courtesy Morseburg Galleries,
West Hollywood, California.

Warren Chang paints scenes from two very industrious worlds: the agricultural enterprises near his home in Monterey, California, and the art studios and classes in which he works and teaches. Both these subjects were popular in the 19th century when painters such as Jean François Millet (1814–1875) and the Barbizon School artists painted scenes of the lowliest agricultural workers laboring out in the fields and when Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) made famous images of artists working and socializing in their studios. Chang has taken the look and feel of those 19th-century pictures and given them a thoroughly contemporary dimension. The result is an intriguing dialogue between past and present in which contemporary imagery takes on the look of a past world and old painting conventions are demystified by a coolly modern attitude.

Art-Historical Comparison
The Demonstration 2004, oil,
30 x 40. Private collection.
Underpainting for The Demonstration 2004,
oil, 30 x 40. Private collection.
A Studio at Batignolles
by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1870, oil, 80 x 108. Collection Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Chang based The Demonstration on Fantin-Latour’s 19th-century work A Studio at Batignolles, which depicts Manet giving a demonstration to a young Monet and Renoir, among other artists. “I was teaching a figure-painting course at the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco, and asked the students to help in posing for this painting,” Chang says. “What’s most interesting to me is how the students of today have a much more casual dress as well as the fact that there are women artists present, whereas in 19th-century Europe there was a much more somber dress and an all-male presence.”

Chang achieves the look of his paintings by making use of a palette often associated with Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860–1920). “It’s really an extension of Zorn’s limited palette,” says Chang. “Before I began using it my color sense was always leaning toward tonalism so, regardless of how many colors I used on my palette, the color sense remained somewhat tonal and restrained.” The artist says that he is very much a believer in “less is more” when it comes to color. “The power of red, for example, is due to the grays and browns that surround it,” he asserts. “The limited palette allows me to control this type of color and helps me create the mood I’m trying to achieve.” Chang acknowledges that this mood, which might best be described as one of quiet restraint, has distinctly nostalgic overtones. He feels that the fine control his palette gives him over close value relationships greatly helps the strength of this mood. “I use Cremnitz white, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, cadmium red, terra rosa, burnt sienna, raw umber, and ivory black,” says the artist. “The palette leans heavily on the warmer earth tones so my blues can easily be achieved by simply using black and white. Occasionally I will add cerulean blue when painting subjects under natural light.”

Artist’s Palette
2004, oil, 14 x 18.
Collection the artist.

Chang explores an idea for a painting in a rough graphite sketch. “Usually I’m working from photographs,” he says, “although sometimes I will do a sketch on-site. I’m not ashamed of using photographs—I make no apologies whatsoever. It seems quite immaterial to me whether a work was painted from a photograph or from life.” The artist will often use multiple photographs to put together a scene that he will then sketch on a canvas. “I don’t use any mechanical means to transfer images,” he says. “Generally I have no problem just drawing it by eye.” The painting begins with a wash rendering in raw umber. Chang says that at one time he used burnt sienna for his underpainting but found that it made the color too lively for his taste. “I leave the lights open and build up the wash in the shadows,” the artist explains. “The wash allows me to explore the tonal values and render the scene in some detail.” Chang says that he prefers a wash underpainting rather than a full opaque underpainting because it allows him to later decide where he wants the paint to build to an impasto and where he wants the paint to be thin.

Portrait of Greg
2005, oil, 28 x 24.
Collection the artist.

Once the underpainting has been built into a fairly comprehensive rendering of the entire scene, the artist allows it to dry. He then adds color using a combination of bristle and sable brushes. Occasionally he will use a fan brush or even apply some paint with a palette knife. This approach yields a lively variation in the brushing and therefore builds life and movement into the painting even as the limited color palette conveys a sense of restraint and reserve. Although Chang’s finished paintings have an appearance of completion, the brushwork remains evident, and the artist’s touch is very much a part of the pleasure of looking at his work.

Some of Chang’s most successful paintings depict farm workers out in the fields in the Monterey Bay area where the artist grew up. In Approaching Storm: Broccoli Harvest, for instance, a field stretches away behind a group of figures who are clearly Hispanic and very much recognizable as the poor and often exploited laborers upon which the industry relies. They are completely involved in their work, hurrying against the weather as they bend to wrest the crops from the ground. Chang says he’s surprised that these images have been seen as having a political dimension and likes to think of them more in the context of art history. “These paintings are inspired, in part, by the writings of John Steinbeck and the ambience of growing up in Monterey County,” he says. “There is a historical precedent starting with the 19th-century French peasant painter Millet and the Naturalist movement in general of the mid-19th century. Artists Winslow Homer [1836–1910], Eastman Johnson [1824–1906], and later Thomas Hart Benton [1889–1975] all painted fieldworkers. I feel that I am continuing this tradition.” Although Chang insists that he has no political axe to grind, the very act of painting dignifies the subject and brings it to the public’s attention. Paintings such as End of Day and Dusk may be suffused with a gloriously modulated romantic light, but the hunched figures of tired laborers tip us off to the fact that the world we are looking at is no paradise.

Studio at Chestnut
2006, oil, 30 x 40.
Collection the artist.

Chang’s paintings of studio life are also very much inspired by 19th-century art. “My painting The Demonstration was inspired by Fantin-Latour’s A Studio at Batignolles,” says the artist. “Fantin-Latour depicted Manet giving a demonstration with a young Monet and Renoir, among others, overlooking this influential artist. I was teaching a figure-painting course at the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco, and asked the students to help in posing for the painting. In this way they could see firsthand my approach and method in constructing a picture.” The students were all too happy to agree, and Chang posed and photographed them before putting the painting together. “The lighting, of course, is impossible,” he confesses. “But nobody notices that the canvas I’m painting in the picture would, in fact, be lost in shadow.” Chang remarks that he was interested in how casual the clothes of today’s young students are compared to the more ‘proper’ 19th-century attire in the painting by Fantin-Latour. He also included women in the picture, while Fantin-Latour lived in a world in which a woman artist was a great rarity. Again, a charming interplay is achieved between past and present as the casually dressed young students take on some of the orderly posture and formality of the 19th-century group in the Fantin-Latour painting.

In Chang’s painting Studio at Chestnut, the artist conjures up a modern art class in a way that feels more contemporary. A group of students works at easels facing a model who is illuminated by a brilliant halo of incandescent light. A teacher is busy giving instruction to one of the students while balancing himself confidently on a stool. Meanwhile daylight creeps into the scene from the left, and fluorescent light is also apparent. “I centered the painting around the warm, yellow light hitting the model,” says the artist, “but I wanted the scene to feel completely candid and natural, without it feeling like a photograph.” Chang says that photography will often give remarkable images of poses and movements that would be impossible to capture from life. The problem is that the paintings done from such images can take on a photographic appearance. Chang is careful, therefore, to edit his paintings so that they retain a painted feel. The artist says Studio at Chestnut was one of the rare paintings for which he added a cerulean blue to his palette. “There was no other way to get the cool highlights from the daylight and fluorescent light sources,” he admits.

Dusk by Warren Chang
2005, oil, 24 x 30.
Courtesy Hauk Fine Arts,
Pacific Grove, California.

As for his choice of studio life as subject matter, the artist feels that it guarantees an authenticity to the work. “When I first fully embarked on a career in fine art in 2001, I struggled with what to paint,” he says. “After a 20-year career as an illustrator, during which I was always told what to paint, it was difficult to find a subject that was relevant to me and thus have some substance. By choosing my studio and classroom environments, I discovered a wealth of interesting subjects that were relevant, since this is where I spend most of my time, outside time spent with my family. Much of my subject matter is derived from my relationship to the classroom and to the people who inhabit it: the artists, models, and students.”

Chang feels that his teaching has aided him considerably as a fine artist. “It has helped me verbalize my theories of painting both in application and theory,” he says. “It also keeps me consistently working from life, which is important to my understanding of painting with the aid of photography.”

Studio Interior
2005, oil, 24 x 18.
Private collection.
Artist and Model
2003, oil, 24 x 18.
Private collection.

Talking about the future of his work the artist seems intent on pursuing his current interests. “I pretty much want to continue what I have been doing,” he says. “I’d like to paint even larger, more ambitious works. I’m reminded of the quote attributed to The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman: ‘Most artists have one good idea, maybe two. In the best circumstances, that’s enough for a career.’”

About the Artist
Warren Chang was born and raised in California, graduating from the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, in 1981. He began his career as an illustrator, and between 1990 and 2001 he had more than 200 paintings published as book covers. His work has won awards from the Society of Illustrators, in New York City, and Communication Arts magazine. Encouraged by fellow artists and teachers, he eventually broke away from illustration to pursue a career as a fine artist in 2001. Since then his work has been featured in American Artist, American Art Collector, SouthwestArt, and International Artist. He was awarded Best of Show at the Salon International 2003 held in Texas and Second Prize in the 2004 International Artist competition. He is a member of the California Art Club and has exhibited every year since 2002 in their annual Gold Medal exhibition. He currently teaches drawing and painting at the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco.

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.

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