This Boston acrylic painter teaches art the way a life coach helps a client achieve life goals.
by Bob Bahr
|Rolli advised students to
keep their still life arrangement
simple so the emphasis is on
painting rather than drawing.
Students come to Ellen Rolli to loosen up. Perhaps they want their paintings to show freer brushstrokes; maybe they see more expressive marks in the work of some of the painters they admire; or they could just be trying to put fun back into the painting process. Although Rolli can’t guarantee that workshop participants will leave her five-hour class with the ability to lay down a seemingly spontaneous stroke with the mastery of Sargent, they will have fun. “I want them to enjoy the thrill of painting for a day,” said the artist. “I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Don’t be so careful. If you start nitpicking, you’ll get caught up in details. If it’s too right, it’s wrong.’”
Painting is hard work but it is also often exhilarating, and Rolli sought to reinforce this in multiple ways during a recent workshop, especially through her painting demonstration. “Through the years I’ve been to lots of demos, and a couple of them made me very sleepy,” she said. “I decided that if I were ever going to give demonstrations, they were going to be engaging. And so in demos I ask questions, share stories, and explain everything that I’m doing, right down to what colors I am using for a particular mixture. It’s performance, in a sense, and I want it to be exciting for people. I want to make them excited to paint.” Rolli didn’t ask the students to wait too long to put paint on the canvas—even after going around the room to learn everyone’s background and completing a half-hour demo, less than an hour had passed. The rest of the workshop consisted of the students exploring variations on the themes Rolli established in that first 60 minutes. The introductions created a comfortable feeling in the group and allowed her to discover each person’s skill level. Then she spent time explaining her setup.
|Rolli explains in her workshops
that blocking in the background
late in the painting process
lets an artist chisel out
shapes an adjust edges.
Rolli’s workshops focus on still lifes, and although she arranged her setup of objects in advance, she explained the decision behind each piece so participants could understand how to set up their own still life. The artist favors simple setups of less than five asymmetrically arranged items—usually bottles, vessels, vases, and flowers. “What you paint isn’t as important as how you paint it,” said Rolli. “But you need some sort of reference—it helps to have something in front of you.” Simple still life arrangements keep students from concentrating on drawing. “This workshop is about what you are going to do with the paint—we are going to push paint around,” she told students. The instructor encouraged them to draw two or three thumbnail images in charcoal on a sketchpad, and she walked around the studio checking these preliminary designs—especially those of the beginners. Her own drawing was done right on her canvas and consisted of simple geometrical shapes—mere suggestions of the forms in the still life setup. “If you draw something intricate, you will be tempted to just fill in the drawing with the paint, and that will keep you from being free and loose,” she told the participants. Rolli told students who were getting too detailed in their drawing to use the side of the charcoal stick instead of the point to force them to loosen up.
|Ellen Rolli helped a participant
in on of the five-hour
acrylic painting workshops she
conducted in her Boston studio.
Rolli made a point of preparing her palette in front of the class, squeezing out her limited number of colors with a fair amount of abandon. “Look, you are going to be using a lot of paint today,” she said, relating the story of how Charles Hawthorne once reacted to the miserly amounts of paint on one student’s palette by squeezing out all the contents of all his tubes onto his board. “Paint like a millionaire,” Rolli said, paraphrasing Hawthorne. In her materials list, she recommended seven colors but stressed that she was flexible. “These are recommended supplies,” she explained. “If you see another cool red that you think you want to try, for example, go for it. As long as you have the basic primary colors you will be OK.” Her workshops are in acrylic, but she will accept oil painters—she just warns them that she isn’t an authority on oils. Rolli finds that most oil painters welcome the chance to experiment with acrylic, and many fall in love with the medium and continue to use it after the workshop.
Once the teacher felt her drawing for her demo was satisfactory, she took off her glasses and looked at the setup. “This always gets a reaction,” she said. The artist explained that making the subject matter look fuzzier helped her see things more simply and stay away from the details. The next surprise came when Rolli grabbed a size 14 filbert brush to paint on a 6"-x-8" canvas. She picked up a big slab of green paint and put it down on the canvas to immediately establish a green vase. This was partially for effect—the artist generally starts with thinner, more watery layers of paint and then builds up the pigment, working wet-in-wet. “If you start with really thick paint, you have nowhere to go,” she told students. “Just get the big, broad shapes first—it doesn’t matter if the paint goes outside of the form’s edge.”
2007, acrylic, 8 x 10.
Rolli began by painting in the darks of the objects, moving from one dark to the next. “Say it with as few strokes as possible,” she said. “I can do a flower with this brush in two strokes.” The instructor talked at length while painting, explaining her thought process as she worked, and she didn’t attempt to complete her painting—the demo was strictly for illustrating her ideas. After the objects were painted in, Rolli added the background. “This is my chance to go in with the background color and chisel around the shapes, work the edges so some of them blend into one another or into the background,” she explained. “Build up and use more paint as you go along—you can always go back in later and clean up shapes.
“When you are looking at the still life, don’t take it so literally,” she continued. “Manipulate things. Use the other end of your brush and scratch in a line. Use your finger. Change the color of something. Do what’s best for the painting. The painting is more important than what you are looking at.” Rolli stops the demonstration when she feels the workshop participants understand her approach and are armed with enough information to start out on their own. She finds that two areas students often find difficult are sufficiently loading up their brushes with paint and holding their brushes so that expressive marks are easier. “Don’t hold your brush like a pencil,” she told one student, loud enough for all to hear. “Then you are writing; that’s detail. Hold it like a tennis racket—you’ll make direct, bolder marks.” Rolli often threatens to confiscate the small brushes students bring to her workshops.
|Figure With Pale Teal Sky
2007, acrylic, 10 x 8.
Courtesy Gallery E, Boston,
Her classes are limited to eight people, and she usually gets six. The small class size allows her to teach everyone at the same time and allows Rolli to hold the workshop in her studio. “The students like working in a real working studio,” Rolli explained. “I think that’s a real attraction for some of them.”
She walked the room, encouraging the participants to load their brushes and showing how to mix colors on a palette so the mixture has lots of life. “I take some of each color and mix it just a little bit so both colors are on the brush, so there are pieces of color and half-mixed paint on there,” explained Rolli. “You can really beat a color to death if you overmix it. This way, the colors blend on the canvas and make a more exciting mixture.” Occasionally the instructor pointed out a problem area on a student’s canvas, but she never picked up a brush and painted on it. In fact, she avoided telling him or her how to fix it. “I like to get them to figure it out on their own,” she said. “I feel like that’s more valuable. I will give them specific answers if I’m asked, but allowing students to determine what is wrong with a painting and how to fix it allows their artistic vision to emerge. They all know more than they think they know. I just advise them, guide them.”
Students filled five or six canvases during the five-hour workshop, much to their amazement. Some changed their still life setups for new paintings, but many chose to explore a different approach to the same arrangement of objects, taking advantage of their familiarity with the composition to explore a vertical or horizontal format, a larger composition, or a different palette of colors. Rolli timed them for one painting—giving the students just 15 minutes to complete a piece—to force them to paint quickly, which further promoted loose and free strokes.
2008, acrylic, 16 x 12.
Courtesy Gallery E, Boston,
As the day wound down, Rolli told the workshop participants they had 15 minutes to finish up their paintings and clean up. The last half hour of the workshop was a group critique. Students propped up their paintings chronologically along the walls of the studio, and all gathered to talk about them. Each student talked about every one of his or her paintings, and the piece deemed strongest by the group and the student’s favorite piece were chosen. Not surprisingly, this was usually the same painting.
Rolli said the critique session is her favorite part of the workshop, and the final part of a student’s evaluation may be the reason why. “I’m always amazed at what was produced. But the icing on the cake is when I pick the painting that I think is strongest, put it in one of the frames I have laying around, and put it up on the wall,” said Rolli. “To see the way their faces light up when they see the painting in that frame—I can’t put a price on that. I do it with each student, and I say, ‘Go ahead, smile! It’s OK to be proud.’ Often, the student will say, “I may go home and frame that,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, you can!’”
Rolli said she started teaching workshops to help with her rent, but it quickly became a labor of love. “It’s so rewarding for me—I’m not sure what I expected,” explained the artist. “Every workshop I realize why I do this. It’s such a rush. It really is, to be able to share what I do, what I’m good at and have a passion for, to have it trickle down to them ... to have a beginner student be so thrilled, proud, and excited about what he or she has accomplished in such a short period of time is a wonderful feeling. I get great thank-you notes from people that say they have decided to keep painting, to set up a studio area in their home. It’s very touching, and I get emotional about it.”
Upcoming Rolli Workshops
|Still Life With Rectangular Vase
2007, acrylic, 12 x 9.
Courtesy Left Bank Gallery,
Ellen Rolli has several of her five-hour workshops planned for the next few months. They are held in her Boston studio. For more information, visit www.ellenrolli.com.
Saturday, June 21
Wednesday, June 25
Saturday, July 5
Wednesday, July 30
Saturday, August 9
Rolli will also be teaching a two-day workshop in Massachusetts through the North Shore Art Association of Gloucester July 9 and 10.
About the Artist
Ellen Rolli was encouraged from a young age to pursue her artistic endeavors. She graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, in Boston, with a B.F.A. in art education and a minor in painting. She worked as an art educator, graphic designer, muralist, and assistant manager of an art gallery before deciding to paint full time. The Boston artist is a member of several art associations including the Copley Society of Art, and her work hangs in numerous private collections. She is represented by several galleries in Massachusetts, including Left Bank Gallery, in Orleans; Kevin Butler Gallery, in Edgartown; Leslane Gallery & Design, in Rowley; Alpers Fine Art, in Andover; Hourglass Art & Gift Gallery, in Melrose, and the gallery at the artist’s studio, Gallery E, in Boston. For more information on Rolli, visit her website at www.ellenrolli.com.
Bob Bahr is the managing editor of Workshop.