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Painting a Multifigure Scene With Max Ginsburg

Painting a Multifigure Scene With Max Ginsburg

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The multifigure painting Unemployed On Line took over a year to complete—and a lifetime to imagine. This article by Max Ginsburg, first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Magazine.

By Max Ginsburg

The Human Condition

My painting has always been about the human condition, in the tradition of Rembrandt, Goya, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Peder Severin Krøyer, Ilya Repin, Joaquín Sorolla, Käthe Kollwitz, and many others. Like them, I feel that adherence to truth, as well as respect and compassion, is an important component of the art. It is important to state this because any specific subject I paint is based on this core belief and is deeply felt.

In Unemployed On Line (above), I was dealing with the issue of social justice, the conflict between good and evil, not as a metaphor but as an actuality. On one side are real people in need, and on the other side are banks and corporations. To create an image that would embody this dichotomy, I thought of an unemployment line with police and barriers to control and regulate crowds of people. On my mind was the injustice of bailing out banks and corporations while ordinary people were becoming homeless. At the same time corporate profits were soaring, too many people were becoming poorer and too many unemployed.This economic disparity was and is a tragedy that evolved, imagistically, into people being channelled into an unemployment line. In a broader sense, these people were lined up, restricted by the forces of the economy and society.

Initial Sketches and Design

I first made pencil sketches of people waiting on lines to visualize my concept. I then drew a sketch of the general design: the arrangement of the figures and their choreography. I also thought about props and background to help express my ideas.

Painting Studies from Life

It was important to get a real sense of the people on line by painting them from life. I hired models and asked friends to pose. Each model brought his or her uniqueness to the painting, which I hoped would give it a wonderful reality. After all, a line of people is really a group of individuals, not a mass of mannequins.

For these studies, I prepared Masonite (hardboard) panels with a coat of gesso and then toned the surface with a thin coat of gray oil paint to make the panel surface nonporous. Each model posed separately, except in one case where the woman was holding onto a man’s arm (see Esteban and Leticia above).

The lighting was my studio’s north skylight, which gave me a consistent and concentrated natural light, enabling a stronger feeling of three-dimensional form and atmosphere, unlike outdoor daylight painting, where reflecting lights tend to flatten the forms.

Compositional Pencil Sketches

Next I did a compositional pencil sketch based on the painting studies I had done of the models. I also included the policeman and dog in the foreground, the extension of the police barriers, and a few more figures (page 37, top right). Another concern was the figures’ size and positioning. I got some tear sheet references of SWAT police and roughly sketched the figure in the left foreground, knowing that I would have a model pose at a later stage.

Characters in the Allegorical Drama

In these compositional sketches, I further visualized my concept. I identify with the people, who in this case are the “have-nots” waiting on line. My imagery of the police, on the other hand, was not as protectors of the people, but as enforcers of the status quo. (I am reflecting on my own experiences at civil rights rallies, peace marches, and labor strikes, where I witnessed the police being hostile to the people. However, I must say that the police have been courteous and helpful to me personally, when I am not exercising my right to protest. I also regard them as part of the 99-percent “have-nots” because they are certainly not rich. But in this role as enforcers of the status quo, I am putting them in shade and hiding them in their uniforms to clarify my symbolic expression of evil—a device used by many artistss, past and present.) Both my concept and my composition did not end with these sketches, but continued to develop and change because painting, after all, is a living experience.

The Grid

On my compositional 4×8 sketch, I had drawn a 1-inch grid for the purpose of transferring the drawing onto a 40×80 canvas. I then bought a roll of Claessens double oil-primed Belgium linen, type 13, which is a somewhat smooth portrait surface. I ordered a custom- made stretcher with crossbars. I then cut the canvas out of a large canvas roll, allowing an extra 2 inches all around to stretch and staple the canvas to the stretchers. Next I drew a 10-inch grid in charcoal on the canvas in order to locate the position and size of the figures and then draw them in lightly in charcoal without any details.

Blocking In From Life

My painting approach is basically alla prima, so I started painting with a big brush, concentrating on larger forms first.

Once again I asked the models to pose for me in my studio one at a time. In most cases they posed as they did in the study. I painted them directly from life onto the large canvas (page 39). I didn’t copy my previous study because the live model had so much more information to offer concerning gesture, form, and color. Besides, when copying a smaller image onto a larger space, the artist has to invent form that often looks contrived and awkward, whereas, by observing real life, the artist can see the forms that actually exist and can be better adapted to the larger image.

My blocking-in process was done in a traditional manner that I learned from my father, Abraham Ginsburg, a portrait painter who studied at the National Academy of Design in the early 1920s, when the skills for drawing and painting were still seriously taught. I blocked in the figures alla prima, wet on wet, with a big brush (Raphaël Paris longer hair filberts series 3573, Nos. 4 to 10) in order to see the large shapes, forms, and relationships, avoiding details. I first painted thinly using turpenoid and shortly thereafter began using linseed oil to thin the paint as needed.

I began with the first person on my line, Victor, a former student. He wore his usual clothing and hat, and I asked him to make believe he was talking on a cell phone. I blocked him in first because each person on line overlapped the next person. I followed the placement on my compositional sketch and painted in massive forms only, starting with darks and lights and slowly began introducing color. Color is important but secondary to darks and lights in describing form. In more complex figure compositions like this one, it’s advisable to paint in the massive forms of the figures before developing any details.

The second figure I blocked in was Betty, an excellent model and a wonderful down-to-earth New Yorker from Brooklyn. She brought several clothing changes but most important she brought her street personality. I told her to look at the cop whom I had yet to block in.

The next two models (page 39, bottom right) are actually dancers; I asked them to dress as if they were looking for a job. Esteban assumed a pose of pride and determination. I asked his wife, Leticia, to hold her husband’s arm to show support. After I’d painted the study, I asked Leticia to change her dress to one with a traditional Latin flair.

Acting the Part

For the next person I originally painted Mayya, a Russian model from the Art Students League, in my painting study, but she couldn’t continue to pose, so I engaged Marilyn, the monitor of my workshops. She dressed as if she was looking for an office job, clutched her bag, wore earphones, and tilted her head, as if listening to music (page 39, bottom right).

Then there was Pat, the man with the beard, whom I met at Occupy Wall Street. I now felt the kerchief (from the study, page 37) was too costumey, so I asked him to remove it. His thinning hair, his unassuming stance, and his patient expression of having waited on lines many times, helped express his character and added more meaning to my concept (see page 40). I referred to my study only to pose Pat, but I blocked him in directly from life, which resulted in a more natural, masculine pose.

Next were Oscar, an artist, and Connie, a model at the Art Students League. I directed Oscar to pose as if he were having a conversation with Connie (see oil study, top left). Unfortunately for me he received a grant to paint in Spain, so I had to find another model. Fortunately, Sky was available. Sky’s personality seemed “cool” and played well with Connie, whose expression in the pose was animated. Connie posed in business attire, which was an interesting contrast to Sky’s casual appearance.

Adding the Diagonal Police Barrier

Next I started to block in parts of the police barrier, knowing that I would paint these as a complement to the figures (page 40). The figures on line were my primary interest, so even though the police, the dog, and the background were important, they were secondary. These barriers resonated as dehumanizing devices to control and restrict people, with a strong diagonal design emphasizing the diagonal of the line of people. In order to give these wooden barriers a realistic feeling, I cast some shadows here and there and changed the perspective in relation to the feet of the people, especially on the left side.

At this point I began to develop the policeman and the dog. I rented a SWAT uniform and asked Esteban to pose (page 40). The uniform didn’t exactly fit, but there was enough information, and together with a little imagination, I got it to work. At first I painted the full figure, but I hadn’t allowed enough distance or space for the police barrier, so I made the officer bigger and closer to the picture plane, cropping his legs, which made the relationship of the policeman to the people more dramatic. To further give the officer a sinister quality, I put him in shade by placing a canopy board above the model, thus casting a shadow on the policeman. It is important to note that this painting is not a naturalistic or journalistic scene, but a symbolic expression of the conflict between good and evil or the “have-nots” and the “haves.” Therefore, the image of the police I have painted is only symbolic of one of its roles: enforcing the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

To paint the dog, I referred to a photograph, a practice used since the middle of the 19th century, which helped achieve in art a greater naturalism than in previous centuries (see Dagnon-Bouvert, Zorn, Eakins, etc.)

Then I began to block in Lindsey, an art student studying art restoration (page 40). In my study she wore a black coat and boots, but I wanted her to contrast with the SWAT officer in the shade, so she changed to a colorful dress and sweater to pose for the block-in. Clutching an art pad, wearing glasses with her hair pulled back, she became another one of these distinct individuals looking for work.

Background of the Scene

I wanted to have more of a light space on the left and a darker space on the right, but I needed a reference. I photographed the facade of a bank, a symbol of corporate wealth, on 57th Street in Manhattan, which became my essential background reference. I started to block in the dark space of the bank’s entrance but then noticed that my line of people ended too abruptly; it had to continue past the policeman on the left side of the painting. I looked through some scrap reference and saw tear sheets of two unemployed men that looked just right for the end of my line.

Alla Prima Painting Finalizing

The block-in was essentially an underpainting. My final painting began with another alla prima painting, practically right over the block in, using my big brushes. I blended one form into another, painting wet on wet. Certain colors are more or less transparent, so the underpainting of the block-in came through in varying degrees. I painted as much as possible using my larger brushes, even when beginning to suggest smaller forms. In order to get a naturalistic ef

fect, painting the right value, rather than noodling with a small sable, works well. Blending with a big brush on a wet paint surface will produce a smoother form, a richness of color, and a painterly painting, as was the case with Rembrandt, Velázquez, Sargent, and other old masters.

“What You See, Not What You Know”

But I was most concerned with observing carefully. As my father, Abraham Ginsburg, and his teacher, Charles Hawthorne, said in 1920, “Paint what you see, not what you know.” In other words, what I see, and in fact what everybody sees, are abstract shapes, tones, colors, and relationships that when painted, even in a very painterly or impressionistic manner, look real and natural. As soon as we paint forms that we know or have memorized, we are painting stereotyped formulas that look awkward and contrived. Realist painting is a relationship of cool and warm mixtures of colors, which together with tone or values, create the illusion of three-dimensional form in an atmosphere (think, for example, of Rembrandt).

The Sum and Relationship of Its Parts

In the final stages, I painted one section at a time to completion or near completion, because I wanted the benefit of painting wet on wet, so each section of the painting would jell and eventually dry more evenly. For example, I repainted a head to a finish and then repainted the part of the figure just below the head—and then went onto another part. But of course I revisited and painted these areas again and again as other parts of the painting were being developed. After all, the total painting is not the sum of its parts, but the relationship of its parts.

This was also extremely important even when painting a small section or a head. The relationship of a part of that head to another part was critical in every way—proportion, value, and tone, etc. When painting one part, I always looked at other parts to see that I had the correct relationship; however, I sometimes made changes in those relationships. For example, the reference for the dog was in sunlight, but I painted him in shade in keeping with my concept. I darkened areas on the ground and the legs of people on the left side so they wouldn’t contrast and compete with the main lights of the people and the police barrier. I changed the hand of the policeman to be in shade for the sake of the concept; for that I used primarily burnt umber, ultramarine blue, and a little titanium white (not exactly the stereotype of the “local” color of skin).

Inevitable Adjustments

I consider my painting a living entity, not the rendering of a blueprint. Rethinking, developing, and adjusting is a part of my process. I repainted every figure numerous times. Victor (the first in line) was too small and too high, so I repainted him. I also changed the envelope Esteban was holding to a rolled-up paper. Marilyn’s hand was clutching her bag, which created an unwanted design, so I repainted her arm and hand so it seemed as if she was gesturing to the music she was listening to (see above). I also repainted Marilyn’s head to look proportionately smaller and lightened the shade on her face for more transparency. The feet of Sky and Connie needed to be made longer, but I had to still allow room for the police barrier—a perspective problem that occurs when you’re too close to the model.

I reworked the proportions of the dog numerous times, and I darkened the tone to put him in the shade. While keeping the strong design of the police barrier, I introduced some counterpoint in the form of vertical shadows. I worked the tone of the background, on the left side of the painting, to be light but not as light as the police barrier. In fact, I painted the light shapes of the people, background wall, and police barrier to harmonize, blend, and contrast. Unlike the variations of the people on line, the SWAT policemen are consistently in shade, but I kept transparency in the shade to describe textures—helmet, uniform, hand, etc. And the same is true for the policeman and the bank entrance on the right side of the painting.

Is the Painting Finished?

When is a painting finished? I guess when it is perfect. But perfect never happens. I look back at so many of my paintings only to discover that some part should have been resolved differently or the drawing was wrong, etc. During the last few weeks of this painting, I kept changing parts even when I thought it was done. Some say it is done when you sign your name, so I signed my name.

(See Ginsburg’s finished painting Unemployed On Line at the top of the page.)


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