Max Ginsburg's Workshop: Seeing Forms, Not Formulas

11 Sep 2008

During a recent workshop, New York artist Max Ginsburg showed students how to respond to the specific lighting effects they observed rather than to use premixed colors and repetitive procedures.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Ginsburg Art Students League workshop
Ginsburg made adjustments to
the balance of dark and light
shapes on a student's painting.

“Big painters use big brushes,” Max Ginsburg’s father once told him, and he recently offered the same amusing comment to students attending a five-day workshop at the historic Art Students League of New York (ASL), in Manhattan. It was one of many ways he helped the artists understand and record their observations of a model posing in front of the class. Through a series of demonstrations, lectures, and personal critiques, Ginsburg described the most important considerations in painting a figure in response to the specific pose and lighting. “We’re trying to get better at recording what we see rather than what we know,” he explained. “We have to avoid the tendency to automatically act on our preconceived notions or the formulas that worked for us in the past.”

The standard prescriptions Ginsburg refers to are the automatic responses artists have to their memory of what a face, hand, leg, or shoulder looks like. “For example, we know a head is covered with thousands of individual strands of hair—at least when we are young,” the instructor said with a chuckle. “But when we paint a head we have to see the pattern of shapes, each of which is a different value depending on the color, form, and texture of the hair as revealed by the light. We start with the biggest of those shapes and then break them down into progressively smaller shapes, but not thin lines. Similarly, if someone taught us how to mix a standard flesh color, we have to be willing to adjust it if a face is in shadow, if it’s illuminated by a warm or cool light, or if another color is being reflected onto the face from a scarf, blouse, or jacket. The challenge is to respond to what we actually see, not what we think we might be seeing.”

Ginsburg Art Students League workshop
Max Ginsburg offered a painting
demonstration for students
attending his workshop at the
Art Students League of New
York, in Manhattan.

Ginsburg’s workshop, “Seeing Form—Painting a Head From Life in Oil,” was held in Studio 6 on the fourth floor of the ASL building on 57th Street. For more than 130 years, the ASL has attracted some of the most gifted art students and teachers, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Frank Riley, Robert Brackman, Jackson Pollock, and John Sloan. Some current instructors and students are likely to become just as revered and influential over time. Certainly Ginsburg has already earned that kind of reputation through his decades of work as a figure painter, illustrator, and teacher. That’s one of the reasons his recent workshop filled quickly with artists who wanted the opportunity to watch him paint, listen to him lecture, and receive his advice about improving their skills.

Ginsburg provided students with a list of recommended supplies and an outline of the five morning sessions (see sidebar). He began with a 90-minute demonstration and then talked individually with the students as they painted the model in the same pose. In order to put the instruction into a larger context, Ginsburg explained that although he would be talking specifically about painting a head, the point was to learn an approach to oil painting that could be used later to paint portraits or figure compositions. “In the limited time we have over the next five mornings, the most we can accomplish is to paint two studies of heads,” he explained. “In this instance you shouldn’t even be concerned about painting a portrait likeness of the model, although the more accurately you record what you observe the more likely it will be that one could recognize the model. The point really is to learn an approach to developing the form of her head by concentrating on relative value and color temperature as indicated by the light. If you can grasp that, then you can later apply the same principles to painting the entire figure.”

Ginsburg Lynn oil
2007, oil, 16 x 12.
Collection the artist.

To further illustrate what he intended for the class, Ginsburg brought a dozen small painted head studies he developed in demonstrations for other classes and workshops. He invited the students to examine how he adjusted his palette of colors and his procedures depending on whether the model’s face was illuminated by a warm or cool light, and whether his or her face was in direct light or in shadow. “I use the same array of colors each time I paint, but I never premix the colors because I don’t want to fall into the trap of following a formula,” he explained. “For the first demonstration I won’t use any artificial lights or special props so I can show you a simple process of painting a model sitting under the cool north light coming through the skylights. For the second demonstration we’ll start on Wednesday, I’m going to shine a warm light on the model’s face but pose her in such a way that part of her face will be in shadow. I want you to see how the values and color mixtures can be adjusted in order to convey that sense of light in a painting.”

Ginsburg showed the students photographs of some of the large figure compositions he created over the past 30 years and explained that in each case he used studies of individual models and photographs of groups of people in order to establish the compositions of these multifigure arrangements. “Like most realist painters, I use photographs to supplement the drawings and paintings I create from life,” he said. “In the case of these large paintings, I needed to determine how to put together large groups of figures with a variety of poses and a believable scale for each of the people in the crowd. However, if you saw the photographs I took on the streets of New York you would understand that random photographs have only limited use in putting people together in a painting. Although they do help in choreographing the figures into believable positions, and they provide the kind of information about lighting, textures, and backgrounds that is hard to imagine, photographs tend to be flat and generalized. I had to use them to suggest poses for the models I hired to come to my studio.”

Ginsburg Art Students League workshop
Ginsburg at work on his second
demonstration of the model
wearing a hat.

Ginsburg pointed out that for a number of years he worked as an illustrator creating paintings for books and magazine, and in those situations he selected figures and settings based on his clients’ concepts. “I was obviously told what the action had to be in order to convey a story or sell a book,” the artist said. “I would then hire attractive models to take poses, photograph them, and create the painting using the same techniques I’m going to be showing you.”

Among the oil sketches that Ginsburg brought to show the students were several head studies painted by his father, Abraham Ginsburg, who studied with Charles Hawthorne at the National Academy of Design, in New York City, when the art school was located on 110th Street. “I never studied with my father in a formal way, but obviously I was influenced by him from an early age,” Max explained. “Unfortunately he was working during the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement and didn’t have many opportunities to exhibit and sell his paintings. He was a portrait painter and accepted a lot of commissions.”

Ginsburg War Pieta oil
War Pieta
2007, oil, 50 x 60.
Collection the artist.

As with most ASL classes and workshops, an art student served as Ginsburg’s monitor and helped him and the students with such logistical issues as the arrangement of the easels and the placement of the model stand and spotlights. Read Lockhart provided those services and participated in the workshop. Although he has only been in New York about five years, Lockhart has studied with some of the top realist painters and helped several of them as a studio assistant. Currently he is setting up workshops for Steven Assael, and previously he worked with Michael Grimaldi, Jacob Collins, and Christopher Pugliese.

Ginsburg began his first demonstration by blocking in the major shapes that defined the model’s head using a thin mixture of oil color on a panel toned with a neutral-gray wash. “I don’t draw the model with charcoal or graphite because I want to define the total form, not the outlines of the features or details,” he explained. “I’ll refer to this as ‘drawing,’ but I don’t mean a linear definition of the forms. Also, although I will try to be as observant as possible in indicating the structure of the head and the individual features within that structure, I won’t worry about getting complete accuracy right away. I will be checking and adjusting the drawing throughout the painting process.

“My technique is to paint wet-in-wet, by which I mean that I build up the paint from thin to thick and try to complete as much of the painting as I can while the oil colors are still wet,” the instructor continued. “That will allow for a more fluid manipulation of colors, values, and edges than would be possible if I were to work on a dry surface. In all likelihood the painting will still be wet enough tomorrow that I can continue blending one stroke into the others, and if it isn’t I may repaint an entire section rather than drag a wet brush over a completely dry surface.

“Be careful not to overwork the wet paint or the colors will become dull and gray,” Ginsburg cautioned the artists. “Lay the strokes of paint on the panel and leave them alone until you determine where you need to blend and soften edges. The paint will gel better when it’s wet and fresh. If you manipulate it too much with a soft brush, the paint will start to look flat, dull, and spotty. This is one of the techniques you will need to practice after the workshop is over because it will take some time to develop a solid wet-in-wet painting technique.”

Students asked Ginsburg if he ever used oil of cloves or linseed oil to slow the drying time of the oil colors, and he explained that he seldom uses anything but linseed oil to keep the painting wet and fluid. Clove oil takes too long to dry whereas linseed oil keeps the paint wet while still drying quickly enough to allow for glazing. He did explain that when working on large, multifigure compositions he develops one section at a time in order to maintain the flexibility of a wet-in-wet application.

Ginsburg Broadway and 79th Street oil
Broadway and 79th Street
1979, oil, 38 x 62.
Private collection.

Ginsburg left his easel setup and demonstration painting as an instructional visual aid. He could return to work on the demonstration paintings when he wanted to show students a particular painting technique or further development. However, he spent more time working individually with each of the workshop participants, often painting directly on their panels when he thought words would be inadequate to explain the changes he recommended. “In most cases I was correcting problems with the drawing or adjusting the composition of values,” he commented. “It’s always hard to see our own work objectively enough to know when the drawing of shapes and edges is not accurate or when we aren’t seeing the balance of light and dark shapes correctly. We have to step back and think about the abstract relationships between forms rather than the representation of literal facial features. It’s the old problem of making ourselves see forms, not features.”

About the Artist
Max Ginsburg earned a B.F.A. from Syracuse University, in New York, and an M.F.A. from the City College of New York, in New York City. He taught for more than 40 years at the High School of Art and Design, the School of Visual Arts, and the Art Students League of New York; and he created illustrations for The New York Times, New York magazine, Fortune magazine, Harper Collins Publications, and other book-publishing companies. His paintings have been included in group and solo exhibitions organized by the Society of Illustrators, Allied Artists of America, the National Academy of Design, the Museum of the City of New York, the Butler Institute of American Art; the New Britain Museum of American Art; the Art Renewal Center; the New-York Historical Society, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He also received a Christopher Award for humanitarian work in the arts. For more information on Ginsburg, visit the artist’s website at or

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Workshop.

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