Looking at my Faigin Still-Life Atelier first-year portfolio, it strikes me that I’ve become a gimmick artist.

I’ve done gimmicks of unusual perspectives…


…unusual arrangements of ordinary items…

Pandemic All-Stars

…ordinary arrangements of unusual items…


…hiding acrylics under oil paintings and then revealing parts using solvent…

Dissolving portrait

…a headless painting for selfie-takers…

You’re the Drummer

…household objects arranged like flowers…


…flowers arranged like a face…

Flower interview

…fruit arranged like a face…

From Études in Strings: Fruit face

…guitars with faces…

…and an animated fighting shrimp jumping into the still-life painting of a wok.

Wok Fight!

My biggest gimmick so far: A free camera lucida, or virtual projector. Using an invented technique using Zoom and open-source software OBS, I can overlay live video feeds of my canvas onto my still-life setups, and any reference photos to form a single, live, composite video image on a computer monitor. With this approach, I can easily rearrange a still life and immediately see what it will look like against any background image or even on the canvas of a painting in progress. Also, I can use the combined images on the screen to mark the canvas for size and position, which offers a tempting shortcut for doing accurate drawings.

Such labor-saving, time-saving, value-maximizing shortcuts are very much the domain of the gimmick, as described in depth by Sianne Ngai in Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2020). We react to a gimmick with a combination of repulsion and attraction (as we might with puns), and as Ngai writes, the gimmick’s “unwanted transparency” reveals paradoxes:

The gimmick saves us labor.

The gimmick does not save labor (in fact, it intensifies or even eliminates it).

The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too hard.

The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too little.

The gimmick is outdated, backwards.

The gimmick is newfangled, futuristic.

The gimmick makes something about capitalist production transparent.

The gimmick makes something about capitalist production obscure.

Within years, if not sooner, we can expect that my clumsy video compositing technique will be supplanted by AI-powered augmented reality goggles that allow their wearers to generate previously unimaginable images at industrial speed and network scale.

As for visual gimmicks, we don’t have to look hard to find similar examples in the contemporary art world, which is replete with gimmicks of every variety.

Maybe painting’s clever tricks of light and dark and contrast are themselves gimmicks, and if that’s the case, even as a gimmick artist I’m heading in the right direction.


Value studies

Here are three value studies done in vine charcoal on 18″x24″ BFK Rives printmaking paper.

The first is a Kensett seascape. Kensett was among the list of value-shape painters whose work would make a suitable subject for this exercise. I got the shapes right using the camera lucida gimmick.

The second is a Soutine painting of a side of beef. Soutine had an actual blood-soaked side of beef hanging in his studio.

From my very first painting (“The Picnic”), Gary pointed me toward Soutine, a very “loose” painter (as opposed to a “tight” realist) who uses bold colors and textural paint.

Soutine was big in France. He was part of the “Paris School,” a name given to the group of foreign, mostly Jewish, painters who were said to have come to 1920s Paris for its rarified artistic heritage, museums, history, climate, light, and liberty. By way of differentiation, the French-born artists of the time were known as the “French school.”1

You can see Soutine’s works in the United States thanks to Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia art collector who made his money from the antiseptic Argyrol, which was used to prevent and treat STDs and other infections until antibiotics were invented. Barnes bought 52 of his paintings in one purchase, and 21 of them are in the Barnes collection in Philadelphia.

For my Soutine value study, I started the drawing without the gimmick but then I may have used it for some corrections.

I didn’t use the gimmick at all for this value study of a Van Gogh, and the result was my strongest effort for this particular exercise. Just as the year was drawing to a finish, I was able to finish a drawing.

1 Stanley Meisler, Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 77-79.


Free Camera Lucida

How to trace images and live video feeds using free software and your smartphone and PC cameras

Red Onion (2021)

I was having trouble with my drawing skill, which was holding back my ability to complete paintings. And so I looked into computer-aided shortcuts.

I don’t consider it cheating, first because I was open about my process to the point of giving an in-class demo, and second because the way to learn a difficult skill is to break it down into constituent parts.

Here’s a painting by Valenciennes.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. Bâtiments de ferme à la Villa Farnèse, les deux peupliers (1780).

I did a drawing of the Valenciennes, and uploaded it to an appropriately-titled website:

What’s wrong with my drawing? Side-by-side comparisons.

As a value study, it’s not too bad, which means that I was making progress on that particular skill. But the drawing itself was off, and the website lets you see exactly where, using comparison lines placed on landmarks on the source and on your drawing. As you can see, the foreground is too large, the trees are too compressed and slanted, and the roofline silhouette is imprecisely drawn.

Checking your work is impeccable pedagogy. You’re doing it on your own, and then only using technology to measure accuracy.

But what if you could shorten the review cycle? What if you could evaluate, in real time, every mark you make on the canvas?

I figured out how with my second attempt at the drawing.

Sketch of value study for Valenciennes painting

That looks much better, doesn’t it? The trees look the right size, the composition is accurate. But how accurate is it really?

Overlaying a transparency of original painting on top of the drawing.
Precise contour match between the original and the drawing

Here’s how I did it:

The task was to overlay a transparency of live video of the canvas on top of the still image of the source photo, and then adjust the position and transparency of each.

The open-source Open Broadcaster Software OBS Studio essentially works as a video mixer. You can combine multiple sources, connecting to your laptop camera, an external device, or an application window.

The result is that you can see both images, video feed and still image, one superimposed as a transparency on the other.

At the beginning, it’s just the onion from the source image. Then, whenever you place a mark on the canvas or paper, you can watch the monitor to see your hand placing that mark exactly where it belongs. You’re drawing on the paper, but you’re looking at the screen.

You can use this technique to copy a source image onto a canvas, or you can take it step further by putting a camera in front of the still-life setup. This means you have two live video feeds: one for the canvas, and one for the still-life setup itself. With this approach, you can mess around with a 3-D still-life setup until it looks good on a 2-D canvas, without thumbnail drawings.

Our class had been working on a project to insert our own still-life objects into a master copy of a landscape painting. In my case, I wanted to add a new condo building in front of the Villa Farnèse in Valenciennes’ painting.

With OBS, it was easy enough to add another camera feed from my smartphone. I’m sure there are dozens of ways to do this, but I went with Zoom. I started a Zoom meeting from the PC, and used OBS to capture the video from the Zoom application. Then, I dialed into the meeting with the phone (turning off audio). With the phone on a tripod, I could then position the phone with a straight-on view of the still-life setup.  

I adjusted the camera height until the perspective looked right. 

I had the block just where I wanted it.

The next step was to trace the outline and key landmarks of the still-life object onto the drawing. Again, you’re looking at the screen, tracing an object that’s entirely out of view, while moving your hand on the canvas off to the side. 

And there you have it, The Poplars Luxury Condominiums at Villa Farnèse.

I know it’s a bit complicated, and I’ll have to shoot a YouTube video to do this explanation justice. In the meantime, if you want to try out something easier, it turns out there are all sorts of “camera lucida” apps for sale in the various app stores, and some of them look really slick.

But my approach has the advantages of price (free) and scalability (unlimited). You can do much more than just copy a still image, and by adding as many cameras as you want, you can do all sorts of things you could never do with a single camera.

Give it a try, and have fun!

And share your work! 



A Recap of “My Atelier Year” so far

My single best work was near the very beginning of class in September. I did some interesting experiments in the weeks that followed, but my garage art studio soon became a difficult place to work, and I particularly struggled with backing up interesting ideas with solid realist painting techniques. After the death of my father in November, I took a few weeks off, with only a few attempts at creating art.

With the new year came a new place to live. December was dedicated to the home search, January to the garage clean-out and move, and February to settling in. During that time, I worked at home, mostly in charcoal, which was the easiest to handle in the limited space I had available.

The studio space at Gage was open, but until I had my vaccine shots, I wasn’t really comfortable going there. And by the time I did get my shots, it was already late spring, and I had gotten into the habit of painting with acrylics at home, which was more appealing than the deserted Gage studio.

Anyway, here are some of the few drawings I did over the winter.


I chose Klee for a value study because of the Klee color squares displayed at my parents’ home in New Jersey.

Klee at my parents’ home

GF on Klee: “He’s too unknowable, intellectual. I don’t get Klee. I find him a mysterious, puzzling artist. He’s a hyper-intellectual driven by theory and philosophy. I saw a Klee show in Vienna, I went out of that show so confused.

“People love pieces like this. It has a sex appeal. It’s fun to look at.”

Still Life with Plums

Over the Winter holidays, the atelier students each did a master-copy, limited palette exercise of a Chardin, one of Gary’s favorite still-life artists. I did mine in charcoal instead of oil, and this was my first large-scale charcoal.

Galgo Corredor

Upon returning to class after the Winter break, I had somehow forgotten how to draw. Everything was out of proportion, out of scale, out of order. Three times, I tried drawing the same setup and my hand just came up with the same drawing.

Most students come to the atelier knowing how to draw. But Gary was patient with me, and he went back to basics during my critique.

Left: Setup
Right: Charcoal drawing, take 2, January 2021.
Bottom: In-class drawing by Gary Faigin

I don’t know how or why I forgot how to draw. And I wasn’t sure how to regain the skill that had suddenly left me, or how long that would take. But I did know that for the remainder of the atelier, I needed to get around the problem. What I needed was a gimmick.

(To be continued.)


Sinking (IVAN: Weeks 9-12)

The Slave Ship (1840), J.M.W. Turner

October 17, 2020. We filled out our election ballots that evening. It was the last time I had a drink.

November 7, 2020. Biden wins. Dad dies.

November 18, 2020. Attended Dad’s funeral via ZOOM.

November 24, 2020. One last garage painting.

Consul’s residence, Highland Drive (2020). Oil on 9″x12″ panel

“The landscape just doesn’t read. You want to be bolder with your values, even if you’re doing it quick. It’s basically all one value. There’s so little distance between the dark of that tree and the light of the sky that they all might as well be the same value. Your tonal range is too limited. You tend to stick to the middle, and what we need is paintings where you’ve got the dark darks and lighter lights. That’s your goal.”

November 30, 2020. Back to the drawing board.

When I opened the Saturday Life & Arts section of the Financial Times, I saw a face, a man with his baggy eyes closed, the image cropped from his bright forehead to the bridge of his nose. I redrew it as I had imagined it, as a value study using a traditional Chinese inkstick plus a calligraphy pen for the ship’s masts.

GF: You need to slow down. The format’s wrong. Turner’s was 1:2, yours is a square. Do a better job.


Flashlight (IVAN: Weeks 7-8)

“When you’re in a class, give the instructor the benefit of the doubt. Do it their way. But I see it as bad teaching if ten years later the student is still painting like the teacher.” – Gary Faigin

By late October 2020, it was too cold to socialize outside for very long, and nor were we spending time indoors with anyone, including our good friends in the building. I even wore a mask while petting a best friend’s dog.

My hours were constrained by work, but I painted in the garage when I could, using a small space heater to stay warm.

My last still-life setup in the garage depicted a flashlight with a bunch of CDs arranged to resemble a bouquet of flowers. These were placed on the rear side of a blank canvas. An intended companion piece was to show a lush floral display on the other, “right” side of the canvas. The depiction of a sonic flashlight on the reverse was to represent the secret behind the painted illusion, that whether digital or analog, it’s all tricks of the light.

As a compositional guide, I created an armature and brought out the compass to calculate a golden ratio.

I started with a charcoal value study and then did a small panel as a thumbnail.

GF: “There’s a big difference between a cool concept that’s an intellectual idea and a cool concept that makes a strong visual statement. Since we’re in the visual statement business, the concept is only as successful as this visual statement that goes with it. If it’s a great idea but a weak visual statement, the idea isn’t worth anything. This one happens to read strongly on the canvas.”

“I’m dubious about the back of the painting as something you want to preserve. You have a central element which is really interesting, and then this secondary element which doesn’t add to your concept.”

I took the maestro’s advice and simplified the overall concept, but not before assaulting the thumbnail with a palette knife and the remaining paint on my palette, changing the delicate CDs into meaningless textured squiggles cutting into a muddy dark background. Instead of being something to ponder with sustained pleasure, it became the physical record of an emotional encounter with an artifact of painting, still containing the traces of reluctantly abandoned ideas.

Restarting on a larger canvas, I flipped the setup on its axis.

GF: “Put in more contrast on the flashlight, and a darker shadow. There’s always an advantage in having a bigger value range. With darks in the shadow, it gives us enough room to put down some deep reds for the flashlight. We can get a stronger statement of color for that flashlight. The only problem is that it’s such a big change that you’d have to redo the whole picture, go through the CDs and find all the darks where they’re lying on each other. In this case, a change in one part requires you to adjust everything else.”

GF: “That’s the wrong paint texture. CDs are smooth. The point of our paint is to help express the physical quality of what we’re painting. And in this case, using that really gnarly tree-bark texture is contradictory to CDs. It’s a common fault with people who have been painting for a short amount of time.”

Sun in an Empty Room

My 98-year-old father had fallen ill. In early November, while pondering absence and death, I did a value study of a late-period Edward Hopper painting. The view through the window is almost completely blocked out, leaving only only a small curve of sky at the top. And yet the low light still illuminates the room.

Value study of Edward Hopper, Sun in an Empty Room

Link: Edward Hopper | Late Work | The Art Institute of Chicago

GF: Use charcoal going forward. Pencil doesn’t read the light as well as I would like. It’s all about the light and the brightness. So charcoal, ink wash, acrylic, so that we can go for the light effects. Leave the pencils out of these tonal studies.

Leon H Schneider died on November 7, 2020 [Obituary].

Read his adventures growing up during the Great Depression, his wartime service as a WWII-era Merchant Mariner, his travels as a ship’s officer, and finding love in LEON: A LIFE (Old Convincer Publishing, 2019).


“Brilliant!” (IVAN: Weeks 1-2)

Annotated collection of student works from the Faigin Atelier, 2020-2021

Artwork and commentary by Ivan Schneider

Week 1

BLAT & FT. Marker and crayon on 18″x24″ sketch paper.

My travel kit has a seven PITT artist pens, primary and secondary colors plus black. I used those plus some kind of crayon at the top showing the worn-out carpet. It’s a top-down view of my lunch and newspaper atop a glass table.

GF: “This would be almost impossible to paint. To make it legible as a painting would be a nightmare. It’s also not a particularly strong composition. If you have too many random shapes, you can’t have a strong composition.”

I don’t know, I like impossible. The shape has kind of a doorway feel, like the entrance to a cathedral. And I’m a fan of the rabbit-duck illusion (see below), the single image that switches between alternate interpretations as you look at it.

I also had the idea to keep everything loose except for the image in the newspaper, which would be super-tight and realistic. What’s not clear in the image that it’s a photo of refugees living in makeshift tents. And in a fit of pique, I destroyed the original drawing.

File:Kaninchen und Ente.png
Source: Wikipedia

Week 2

Week 2, response to Word of the Week “VOID”


A statement on the futility of voting in a system rife with election tampering, voter registration purges, post office interference, “hanging chad” ballots, and opaque electronic voting systems with demonstrated vulnerabilities to hacking and fraud.

The button shows the shredding of the social fabric that results when voters have their ballots voided through no fault of their own.

Alternate idea considered with the same title: Depiction of someone voiding the bowels in the voting booth.

GF: “It’s a little too prosaic. Too dependent on language. The idea is to be poetic and visually striking and original. It looks too much like thousands of buttons we’ve seen. We’re oversaturated with the image, and unless it’s a brilliantly different take, it’s the same old thing.” “The idea is to be poetic and visually striking and original.” See Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer.

If the election had come down to voided ballots, this would have been prescient [in late September 2020]. I’m glad it wasn’t.

The Picnic (2020). Oil on canvas, 18″x24″

The Picnic

Assignment: “The first still life project that everyone does is the Picnic.  The composition can be anything you like, but it needs to include a loaf of bread, and piece of cheese, a knife, a wine bottle and glass, and a piece of fabric.”

This was the first painting that I did in the garage, a crowded storage area in which I carved out a studio using a ping-pong table and some cardboard boxes to reduce the external light.

It’s a homage to the fraternity party, the remains of an afternoon that nobody was in any hurry to clean. Raw umber background for the cardboard, study in red with Solo cups, ketchup bottle, red knife. Ping-pong table green. Cheese board with hamburger bun. Wine bottle, vodka bottle, bong.

My approach was to mix on the brush, to try to pick up a clump of paint with minimal contamination of the paint blob on the palette, and then work toward the desired shade on the canvas. It’s a fast and loose approach but it worked.

GF: (Initial discussion about Soutine: “chromatic, thick paint, energy in putting paint down…topsy-turvy and turbulent.”) “You’re brilliant. I’m in awe of your talent and originality. Nobody has ever responded to the picnic still-life like this. I’m super impressed. You’ve got so much knowledge and guts and imagination and originality.” “It’s an awfully good painting. Cool composition, fun to look at, the colors are neat.” “The composition is what carries the piece.” “It’s better to have a good painting where you can’t read the narrative than a good narrative when the painting’s no good.”

This was my best work, and best critique, of the entire year.



Faigin’s Law: If it looks right, it is right.

Corollary: If it doesn’t look right, it’s wrong.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail) (1510-1515)
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)

Still life makes us reexamine our surroundings, things we took for granted.

I have a confession to make – I’ve never had a studio where I can use natural light. But I like artificial light, being able to control the direction, the intensity. You don’t get that with daylight, it’s always changing. You want to be in control of the light. Artificial light is fine.

Viewers are attentive to ellipses and conforming to eye level – but they’re not attentive to light. They just want it done skillfully enough that they accept your version of reality. That gives you more creative freedom.

You have a ton of slack to do things you know couldn’t have looked that way.

Find painters you like. Then find galleries that sell their work.

Some artists have visual recall, they can draw out of their head. Most artists can’t.

If composition and design are working well, it trumps other stuff. There’s a rightness to design that we can relate to. Sometimes it’s just intuitive. The design just feels right.

People are conscious of ellipses. They can sense if an ellipse is off. The downside is that when you get it right, nobody notices. Nobody says, “Oh, such great ellipses.” It just bugs them when it’s wrong. I really like to analyze it to make sure ellipses are horizontally stable. Everyone just takes for granted artists can draw all this stuff. It takes a lot of work to learn all this.

One of the Art Student League “rules” – when you put down paint, leave it alone or scrape it off and put on another. But don’t put one on top of another. Mix the paint, put it down, and don’t touch it again. I could never paint that way. I‘m much more indecisive. I want to change my mind.

An outline is training wheels, the enemy of spontaneity and energy, and it leads to tight-assed paintings. If you have an outline, you tend to respect it. If there’s no outline, it gives you more freedom.

With Maya (3-D software), you choose the light, how bright, what color, and you can move them around anywhere you want, any number of lights. It’s very much like a physical setup, except it’s all digital. What’s interesting to me is that it can produce near-photographic realism, all using math, optics, and projective geometry. Light is very mathematical. It’s incredibly realistic. It’s a fascinating world.

Masking tape is really easy to paint trompe l’oeil. But people look at it and that’s all they care about. They ignore the rest of the painting.

Every choice you make in terms of value is super-influenced by your background. The background touches nearly every object in your picture, and you’re constantly comparing stuff with that background in terms of making your value decisions.

It’s fine to have two different modalities for the foreground and the background with no connection between them. You can have totally different qualities of light.

Two of the most common pitfalls: One is to think that the content is so interesting that you forget that you’ve got to make it work as a picture. The other is to rely on bright colors to make a picture work without thinking about value shapes. Both of these are just huge traps for artists just starting out.

Sometimes we out-subtle ourselves. I go back and forth between hitting people over the head with an idea and being subtle – and usually hitting works better.

How important is it for a piece to be understood? It’s important for the viewer to develop a story based on what they’re seeing.

Look at Van Gogh – the adulation, the crowds. People respond to his intense engagement and love for his subjects, how emotionally he reacted to the flowers, the postman, the cypress trees. He put all that into the pictures, and people get it out of the pictures. How, I’m not sure. But people connect with something very visceral in his work.

Most paintings are of objects around their real size. Larger than life makes a statement.

Small and large paintings can take about the same time. It has more to do with brush size, painting style, and subject matter. It doesn’t take twice the time for a painting twice the size.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is the size of a garage door. It’s big. It had to be. He’s got so much little stuff that’s beautifully painted. He couldn’t have done it 20×24, or 30×60.

– Gary Faigin, quoted during the Faigin Still-Life Atelier 2020-2021, Gage Academy of Art. Notes collected and edited by Ivan Schneider.



Don’t let it out of your studio without photographing it.

Image courtesy of Gary Faigin

You need professional quality photos of your artwork.

With oil paint, dark areas reflect glare. To get rid of it, you need light stands with polarized light and a polarizing filter for your camera. The filter rotates and the glare just disappears. It’s about $400 for the kit, and once you have it set up, it’s an assembly line. Or pay $20 per picture if you take it to a lab.

Working from photos

When doing copies of internet photos, I’m not using my brain in an active way. I can be thinking about something completely different. It’s not the same process as drawing from life, not even close. The photo just hands it all to you, cut into bitesize chunks. You don’t need to do all that analysis, changing from 3-D to 2-D. You’re not participating in that. In digital painting, you can set up a string and put them on your brush to paint a portrait. I don’t take it seriously, but it’s fun to do.

With a photo reference, the camera gives us too much information, and it’s very unmodulated and mechanical. So if you take a photograph of a stove, the camera figures out the perspective and the highlights and color scheme – which may or may not be details in the color scheme that you want.

It kills me when people paint a pear from a photo, with ultrarenderings that look like photos with all this detail and finesse. These overachievers want to make their skill level so obvious. It’s nuts. A pear is one of the things you can do from life, it’s not moving around. You don’t need a photo.


One good reason to use Photoshop is to make the image look like the finished painting.

Another is to try out things that you can apply to the painting. Make changes in Photoshop, print it out, and use that to tweak the actual painting.

You can also do a histogram to see the balance of lights and darks.

I love to look at the painting flopped along the vertical axis. It’s very different and I may see things I wouldn’t have seen the other way. And it’s a good sign if you like the way it looks flopped as well.

– Gary Faigin, quoted during the Faigin Still-Life Atelier 2020-2021, Gage Academy of Art. Notes collected and edited by Ivan Schneider.


Figure drawing

When you include people in a painting, it raises the stakes.

Study for Adam (1509), Uffizi Gallery
Raphael (1483-1520)

Figure drawing is the art of relating the parts to the whole. The easy part is drawing an arm or a leg. The hard part is to accurately express the relationship they have to all the other objects in your picture.

When I first started figure drawing, the instructor would have the model pose – but we weren’t allowed to draw the model while the model was posing. Then the model would sit in the back of the room, and we’d have to draw the pose from memory. Without the model. It made sense as an exercise. I hated it.

Knowing anatomy is an X-ray power. You know when you’re looking at the ribcage, you know when you’re looking at this interesting muscle group. I don’t know how anyone would be able to interpret figures without studying anatomy. It allows you to see things you would not see otherwise, and it helps with things like proportion. Once it’s in your unconscious, you can draw it out of your head.

– Gary Faigin, quoted during the Faigin Still-Life Atelier 2020-2021, Gage Academy of Art. Notes collected and edited by Ivan Schneider.