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An Interview with Figure Painter and Classical Realist, Eric Bossik

EricBossikAs a young child, Eric Bossik was encouraged by his parents—two creative writers—to pursue art. So while he was in high school, he taught himself to draw. After graduation, he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Today he teaches at the Armory Art Center in Florida.

When Eric’s not busy teaching others to create art, he’s busy creating figure paintings and still lifes that are reminiscent of the Old Masters.

Alyice: Can you tell us about your time at the School of Visual Arts?

Eric: At the School of Visual Arts I learned nothing to very little from most of my instructors. None of the instructors really taught methods of working or techniques back then. You were just expected to squeeze paints out of a tube and go to it. I think the art school philosophy of that time was that you should just be able to roll out of bed and be creative. You also learned absolutely nothing about the business of illustration. It was a travesty!

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Luckily in my 3rd year I attended an Illustration class with Marvin Mattelson, a well-known illustrator at that time. Marvin was a motivated instructor and actually enjoyed teaching. Marvin would teach you everything you needed to do to put an illustration together. He would teach you real methodologies and techniques, but he was also working in acrylics at that time. I was trying to learn how to paint with oils, so I needed more training than he could offer.

Marvin was studying with John Frederick Murray at the same time that I was studying with him. It turns out that John Murray was a student of the late Frank J. Reilly a master instructor who taught classes for twenty eight years at the Art Students League of New York. Reilly is credited for teaching some of the top realist illustrators and fine artists in the U.S. Reilly studied with George Bridgman, Frank Vincent Dumond and Dean Cornwell to name just a few. His instructional lineage can be traced back to French old masters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme.

I started studying with John Murray, at his private atelier, while I was attending my last year at the School of Visual Arts.

John was a master instructor and he helped me round out my classical training. Most of my training with John consisted of drawing and wash-in underpaintings from live models. I continued to study with John as much as I could for the next two years up until I ran out of money. There was always one recession or another during the 90’s, and if you were trying to build an illustration portfolio you had to take a lot of low paying jobs. At some point there was little to no work, but there were plenty of bills to pay, including loans I incurred while attending the School of Visual Arts.

Alyice: How does creating art make you feel?

Eric: Invigorated, excited, euphoric, insecure, stressed in good ways and bad ways, frustrated, and even depressed when a project comes to an end. I’d say the creative process for me is a roller coaster ride. I can be a perfectionist in the worst way. The creative process can drain you completely. It involves more mental energy than physical energy. By that I mean that I draw and paint with my brain not my hand.

Alyice: Why did you choose oils as your medium?

Eric: Oils are the most powerful and versatile medium in existence.

The strongest images in museums were executed with oil paints. Oil paint exceeds every other medium today with its range of value, chroma, hue, impasto, translucency, and opalescence. You can use oils to work wet-in-wet dry brush (scumbling) and glazing.

Alyice: What do you wish you knew about oils before you got started?

Eric: I wish I knew how to use them. It took a lot of practice on my own until I learned how to mix paints and manipulate them on the canvas. I learned a lot about using the medium from John Murray. I continue practicing my craft and get better at it all the time. They say it takes a lifetime to learn how to paint.

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Alyice: What is your creative process like?

Eric: My process might seem somewhat lengthy to most people today, but the key word in your question is “process.”

Creating a great work of art is a planned out process and not a hit or miss type of event.

A. I start out sketching an idea, working out a simple composition and than acquiring visual reference. If I’m working from life I’ll set up my subject under the desired lighting, which in my case is usually form lighting (also known as 3/4 lighting or Rembrandt lighting). This type of lighting allows me to attain the maximum amount of three dimensional forms as well as a dramatic affect and mood in my paintings and drawings.

B. I complete a larger sketch or gesture drawing on good paper and than refine it to a simple cartoon with simple shadow shapes, but no real modeling (value transitions). This drawing can now be transferred to canvas. Remember that the drawing is the most important part of any painting. Without a good drawing your painting will never develop properly.

C. I will then go back to my original drawing on paper and finish areas of the drawing that I feel may help me learn more about my subject matter. This is my first study. When I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned, I’ll create two small studies with paint.

D. Studies are very important, and it’s similar to taking a test. You know that the more you study for a test the better your score will be. It’s also similar to a Broadway play, as the actors must rehearse before the final performance or they will fail. You have to think of your final painting as the performance, so you must practice in order for the final result to look fresh and effortless.

The first painted study is a very simple value study using neutral grey oil paint.

The second study is a simple color study consisting of just my local colors (Hue) and the brightness of those colors (chroma).

There’s very little detail in these small studies, just the simple shapes of the subject matter in my composition. These small studies are known as the “Poster”, the idea being that if the values and colors are working on a very small scale, they’ll work on a very large scale as well.

E. I now revisit the canvas and darken the lines in my drawing with either charcoal, watered down ink or thinned raw umber oil paint. When I’m done, I’ll either spray a fixative or retouch varnish on the canvas to seal my drawing.

F. I can now oil-out my canvas and execute an underpainting using just raw umber oil paint. I’ll still be able to see my original drawing underneath the raw umber and I use it as a map to guide me through this underpainting process.

G. The next step is to mix out the colors for my painting using the value and color studies as my guide. I mix strings of color values for each area of my painting.

H. When my color mixtures are prepared I thin them out and execute a color sketch over my already dry underpainting, This color sketch or color wash helps me to establish the first stain of color and enables me to make corrections in my mixed color strings if necessary.

F. When the color sketch is dry I begin the direct painting process. I add medium (1/3 linseed oil, 1/3 Turpenoid, 1/3 Damar varnish) to my colors and mix them till they have a consistency similar to Mayonnaise. I work till the painting looks finished.

Alyice: How has your style changed over the years?

Eric: I don’t know that my style has changed at all. In fact I don’t believe in style or creating a style at all. If you’re interested in becoming a classical realist you shouldn’t be trying to focus on a style. Focusing or contriving a style will stunt your growth as an artist.

I believe you should learn as much as you can all the time. Expose yourself to great art work from the past, including the ancient Greek and Greco-Roman sculptures. You’re style or individuality will eventually develop on its own.

I’ve always painted various types of subject matter and I’ll continue on that path, I don’t believe in sticking myself into a corner and focusing on just one type of subject. The galleries are loaded with artists that do the same thing over and over again. I think it’s boring, and I also think they’re ripping off collectors who don’t know any better.

My work gets better and better because I constantly challenge myself. I compete with the old masters and try to achieve what they’ve accomplished. The higher you set the bar the more you will excel at what you do.

Alyice: You are the author of an instructional oil painting e-book titled, How to Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters: A Step-By-Step Guide. How did the idea for this book come about?

Eric: I’m an instructor at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida were I teach classes in oil painting and charcoal drawing. I can only reach a certain amount of students by teaching in one location and I felt like I needed to reach out to art students all over the world.

Writing this book turned out to be a great idea.

I’m now able to share my knowledge with artists who can’t physically attend my classes or who can’t afford to spend $300 to take my classes. My book covers all of the methodologies and techniques that I teach in my class at an affordable price.

I get tremendous satisfaction from being able to teach art students all over the world. I also believe that everyone should have equal access to the same quality education, not just the privileged few. So far my book is a big success with several hundred sales. My book is available on my website, Amazon, Barns & Noble and Google Books.

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Alyice: Can someone really learn to paint like the Old Masters by referencing a printed guide?

Eric: The answer is yes.

The Wash-in (Imprematura) method of underpainting I teach in my book was a popular method used by many old master artists. If artists follow my step-by-step lesson in the book and practice it on a consistent basis they will see substantial increases in their ability.

Can you become a master over night? No, but you’re getting the same information the old masters had and if you have some talent and are willing to put in the time to practice, then there’s no reason why you can’t obtain the same level of expertise achieved by the old master artists of the past.

The old masters were not gods. They were people who studied and practiced the knowledge passed down to them from other masters.

Alyice: In your e-book you discuss underpaintings in great detail. Can you give our readers a brief summary of what an underpainting is and why it’s important when using oil paints?

Eric: A monochromatic (one color) underpainting is incredibly important for many reasons. It helps the painter establish or strengthen the drawing, establishes the correct values (darks and lights), sets the mood for the final painting, and is the beginning of the paint layering process that will ultimately develop into a solid and luminescent work of art.

Drawing and underpainting are the basic foundation of a painting. If you were to build a house, you would first lay down a concrete foundation and then begin to establish the frame. You wouldn’t begin by working on wall moldings and decorations. Underpainting is the foundation to build your painting on.

Alyice: Your historical military paintings have been featured on the covers of The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography and From Sea to Shining Sea, as well as a military history of early America published by Harper Collins. How did these opportunities come about?

Eric: I did a few book jacket illustrations when I graduated from the School of Visual Arts. My paintings were among those that were chosen to be published in the schools full color post card catalog. The catalog was sent out to hundreds of publishers and advertising agencies.

I guess the Art Directors at Harper Collins liked my paintings in the catalog and gave me the book cover assignments. I got the assignments based on the merit of my artwork, which looking back seems to have been a rare event in the illustration industry. I don’t know what the industry was like in the 50’s to the 80’s, but by the 90’s it was a business ripe with nepotism, cronyism and graft.

Alyice: What did it feel like to have your work showcased in this manner?

Eric: As a young idealistic artist just graduating from college, it felt great. My career was on track and I was ready to take on the world by creating great illustrations. It’s a great feeling to see your illustrations published on a book jacket. I recently illustrated the book cover for a novel, The Last Victim.

Alyice: Do you have any tips on how best to handle commission pieces for print publications?

Eric: You have to be able to take instruction from an art director. You first put together small thumbnail sketches to communicate your ideas for the project. When the art director approves a sketch, you can then take your photo reference shots. You finish the project to the best of your ability and on deadline.

At this time the illustration industry is pretty much nonexistent and almost extinct. It seems that the publishing industry decided that they no longer need artists to illustrate book jackets, and they use a lot of photos and Photoshop manipulated images. Maybe this is the reason they aren’t selling the same amount of books and some of the big publishers are going bankrupt. I guess they didn’t understand the concept that it’s the book cover that sells the book. Oh well!

There are still some small and independent publishers that may want quality illustrations, so try to seek out those opportunities. Otherwise, draw and paint what you enjoy. Look for opportunities to exhibit your drawings and paintings and you may just sell some of your work or even get some commissioned projects.

Learn more about Eric Bossik and his art by visiting www.bossik.com.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

Josh Tiessen has had the desire to create his own art since the time he could hold a crayon in his hand.

He first exhibited his art at the young age of 11, and has since shown his art is 20 exhibitions, sold over 60 original works of art, has been featured in over 50 publications, and has garnered over 20 awards honoring his talent and generosity.

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