Tony Curanaj's Workshop: Knowledge and Structure Allow Freer Painting

11 Sep 2008

0809cur1_402x600This New York City artist has found that the more he understands the science of the elements in his still life scene, and the more carefully he executes his drawing and underpainting, the freer he can interpret the subject matter in the final stages to achieve a subtle, effective oil painting.

by Bob Bahr


Curanaj painted on a student’s canvas to show her how he would use a value string to model the form.

Tony Curanaj spent part of the first morning of his still life workshop at New York City’s Grand Central Academy of Art discussing the Kelvin units of various light sources, demonstrating a surefire mechanical way of drawing a perfect ellipse, and screwing platforms for still life setups into the wall at the exact height for each individual artist.

Curanaj carefully adjusted every platform with a bubble level to ensure its perfect placement and helped the students adjust spotlights to precisely create the desired light effect on their canvases and setups. Over the following 10 day-long sessions, the artist-instructor shared an immense amount of knowledge about painting, but these opening hours perfectly communicated the underlying messages of this workshop: Take your time when you need to, push hard for accuracy, learn the scientific reasons for what you are seeing, and eliminate as many possibilities for error as you can so you’re free to paint a beautiful picture.

Curanaj’s point is that although it’s crucial to look at two areas of a form, for instance, and be able to detect which area is lighter or warmer, it’s even better to understand why the area is lighter or warmer. With this knowledge, one can more accurately mix colors to match it—and even predict a color before “seeing” it by identifying the physical factors at work in the scene. For instance, is that particular part in the shadow area lighter because of reflected light, or is it the angle of the plane on which it sits? Is it warmer because of bounce light from a red wall, or because the ambient light is warm while the strong light source is comparatively cool? When Curanaj has a question about why things look a certain way in a still life or out in the world, he researches it-thoroughly. The various ways different light bulbs perform led him to call representatives at Philips to get precise technical information. The result was a homemade light box holding four fluorescent bulbs that illuminated both his easel and his setup at an exact color temperature that the artist could then count on when figuring out how to paint the scene. (He prefers to paint from natural light whenever possible, however.) “If you understand the science behind it, you will draw it better and you will paint it better,” says Curanaj. “You will understand the setup better.”


The instructor created a value string on one student’s palette that matched the colors in a plaster cast in her set-up. Near the thumb hole is Curanaj’s demonstration of how to incorporate a fill color into the string.

The artist’s approach is as rigorous as his research methods. Curanaj considers wearing the same pair of shoes for every painting session to ensure that the exact viewpoint from which he’s painting is preserved—thicker soles would make Curanaj look down at elements at a different angle. During the drawing phase of the painting, he puts tape down to mark exactly where to stand and where to situate his easel. He jokes about literally nailing down the elements of the still life so they couldn’t get knocked out of position. In short, all is tightly controlled. “This is like plotting murders,” Curanaj told the students as they set up their still lifes. “You want everything to be systematic, devious.”

Once the workshop participants had their setups arranged, the instructor asked them to sketch several thumbnails to look for compositional problems and explore adjustments to strengthen their subject matter. He pointed out that if someone ran into a problem with a composition further along in the process, much work would be lost, and tough decisions would be needed to save the painting. Curanaj showed the class two tools he sometimes uses to help him judge the 2-D reality of a scene: a black cardboard frame with four adjustable black threads across it to help see how the setup would look when composed with the Golden Mean in mind (cutting the scene both horizontally and vertically into thirds and placing points of interest at the intersections), and a similar black frame with additional black threads stretched across it to create a grid that flattens the scene, allowing the mind’s eye to see the setup as flat shapes instead of specific objects.


Curanaj taught at the Grand Central Academy of Art, which has access to plaster casts of Renaissance architectural elements and sculptures.

Once the setup is finalized and thumbnails have produced the best viewpoint and cropping of the scene, Curanaj’s next prescribed step is an extremely accurate drawing. In the recent workshop at The Grand Central Academy of Art, Curanaj pulled everyone together around an easel holding a large pad of paper and drew several involved demonstrations of various types of perspective, exploring the topic to a depth rarely plumbed in workshops, or even in some art schools. “I wasn’t taught much in college—I had to struggle for so long,” he said. “The sad thing about art school is that I had to figure out all this stuff myself, from sources outside of school.” Lessons explained, he sent them to their easels. Once again, he advocated a scientific approach and stressed extreme exactness. “Here’s where you work out all the issues of perspective and proportions,” he told them. “Make these drawings very accurate. Modeling the forms would be nice but isn’t needed; this could be a linear drawing. ... This may take you 10 minutes or two weeks, but take the time that is needed. ... Measure areas against other areas. ... Think of curves in terms of angles and tilts.” Curanaj recommends that workshop participants situate themselves so they have to move their head as little as possible when looking back and forth from the setup to the surface.

A “super-accurate” drawing, as Curanaj describes it, is crucial because the artist traces this linear drawing and transfers it to his canvas by smearing powdered graphite on the back of the tracing paper and going over his lines with a pencil—and because he believes in keeping the finished drawing on hand during the painting process to act as a fail-safe map should the piece go astray and the paint obscure the guiding lines from his drawing. Curanaj sometimes traces over these graphite lines with ink using a dip pen to ensure the permanence of the line drawing. Next comes the stage he calls the ébauche, which is an underpainting of local color. Curanaj can finish a relatively small ébauche in an afternoon, and the result would be on par with some artists’ completed work.


Nom de Plume
by Tony Curanaj, 2007, oil, 39 x 24. Courtesy John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, California.

Each student was expected to finish one still life painting over the course of the two-week workshop, and the instructor stayed late several nights to keep pace on his own painting. Curanaj’s project for this workshop was a simple setup of two old red books and a red Chinese tea basket placed in front of a buff cloth sheet. His ébauche for this painting was enviable; Curanaj just called it a “nice foundation.” Consider the source: This artist fervently favors tight realism. “If you only get used to painting loose, you’ll find it harder to take it further when you want to,” he explained. “But if you know how to do both and have a system in place, you will be able to take it as far as you like.” Curanaj usually takes it to the point where an image could serve as trompe-l’oeil. For him, the difference is in the details, which support the impact of the large idea. “It’s more than a super-realistic thing,” he asserts. “I try to make it realistic, but still change it—so subtly that you can’t tell. I’m controlling how you see it.” The change may be subtle—just a bit more chroma in one area of an object, or the dampening of values in another area so it is unconsciously seen as less important. “Some people think a lot of contemporary art is conceptual, but it has to be explained,” says Curanaj. “What is going on? What is the concept? The artist has to say it in an artist’s statement. In the realism method I embrace, the conceptual element of the art is completely thought out and methodical, but the impact is unconscious and foolproof. It’s right there.”

For this approach to work, there can be no distracting errors in the depictions. The accurate drawing ensures the right proportions and placement. For Curanaj, the next hurdle is color. The instructor invited participants to paint a grisaille instead of a color underpainting if they felt more comfortable doing so, but nearly all the students tackled value as part of their initial entree into color. The reason was obvious: If the right color was chosen, it would by default be the right value, which is 80 percent of a successful painting. Curanaj spent at least three hours discussing color theory with the class, and he said the conversation could easily fill two weeks, if they had it to spare. He discussed the color spectrum at length, describing it not as a wheel, but as a three-dimensional, lumpy grapefruit, with rods of colors extruding from a perfectly neutral center. He referred to a Munsell color book, a book of graduated color swatches used by art professionals in many industries, to show the ranges and limitations of various color families, and illustrated how knocking down the chroma (saturation) of a color in the scene will push it back, and how compressing the value range in an area will do the same. In other words, on his composition, for example, the tea basket’s form could be more pronounced if the chroma were bumped up a bit beyond what is seen on the actual object. And if the values are compressed a bit in the background cloth—just a slight exaggeration—the cloth would be pushed back farther.


by Tony Curanaj, 2007, oil, 44 x 30. Courtesy John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, California.

Curanaj, if it isn’t clear by now, is intent on accuracy in all things, so his approach to color mixing is single-minded: find exactly the right color as efficiently as possible. For him, this doesn’t mean mixing yellowish green by starting with ultramarine and lemon yellow. It means starting with cadmium green and mixing it with a yellow that is closest to the desired result. And most important, it means developing a color string to deal with the varying tints in one object. So, for his Chinese tea basket, Curanaj mixed a string of reds that ranged in value from dark to light. He mixed enough paint for each pile so that he could alter the five or six tints where necessary, either by adding a different color for an area with, say, bounce light, or by bumping up the chroma for a given area. Carefully developing and judiciously modifying this string will guarantee a unified and accurate depiction of an object. “By finding the local color and developing a value string, I have an organized foundation of the parts to be painted and a better feel for my direction,” explains Curanaj. “I’m free to really observe and conceptualize what is happening with the light and shadow areas, how shadow and light fall across the form, and how this impacts the object’s appearance and the appearance of other elements surrounding it. It seems more controlled, but I really feel this frees me up to take more risks—educated risks.” The value-string approach was particularly useful to those who were struggling to turn the form on objects. Also helpful was Curanaj’s analogy to a character in the movie Hellraiser that had pins stuck all over his head, perfectly perpendicular, showing the planes of the surface. “Most of my analogies involve death and destruction,” the artist said with a laugh. The participants enjoyed Curanaj’s offbeat approach—especially because it was backed up by an avalanche of painting knowledge.

Curanaj walked around the studio, checking on people’s progress and occasionally painting on their pieces. These visits were likely to veer into painting or art discussions of almost any nature. To one workshop participant, who was working on a still life with a graduated background, the artist explained how Renaissance artists enhanced or exaggerated the effect of a background moving from dark to light, left to right, to make the viewer feel enveloped in the scene, cupped by it. To another, Curanaj explained the value of flipping back and forth from looking at a scene two dimensionally to seeing it three dimensionally. He asserted that 2-D was for seeing shapes, proportions, and patterns, and 3-D was for conceptualizing the piece—moving beyond the simple sight of the objects. The students seemed to react well to Curanaj’s method, and the pieces on the easels on the last morning of the workshop were solid paintings of convincing realism. The last day was for final touches.


Sante Fe Hopper
by Tony Curanaj, 2007, oil on panel, 6 x 16. Collection the artist.

This last layer is what Curanaj considers the payoff for all the previous work. He calls it “the fun part,” even though it constitutes just 10 percent of the paint on the canvas. “The truth is what’s in front of you in the setup, but you can bump up the color or make other adjustments in the late stages—while always remaining conscious of the right values,” said Curanaj. “You may manipulate the chroma really subtly, and guide the viewer. That is what makes some paintings really cool.”

About the Artist
Tony Curanaj was born in New York City, and at a young age explored the creative limits of graffiti, eventually earning an international reputation for his carefully conceived and executed wall paintings. He earned a B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts and continued his education at the National Academy of Design, and the Water Street Atelier, all in New York City. The artist has been the subject of solo exhibitions at John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco, and Grenning Gallery, in Sag Harbor, New York, and his work is in the collections of the Groeninge Museum, in Bruges, Belgium, and Forbes Galleries, in New York City. Curanaj, who has been featured in a number of national and international magazines, is represented by John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco. For more information on the artist, visit

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of Workshop. 

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Irene Christensen wrote
on 10 Sep 2008 4:38 PM
Love your art work! Great to see you are teaching, too. Irene
Dean Bocskay wrote
on 24 Sep 2008 12:17 AM
you've come a long way from sneaking out of the house with krylon cans to deface MTA property. i'm so proud. love you bro...your work is amazing. -earbo