What I learned from Ilja Repin
Every time I draw or paint I try to learn something I didn’t know before or I re-learn one part of the many, many concerns and insights you have to deal with as a visual artist. For example, a few months ago I allowed myself the (time-consuming) exercise of making a master copy of the painting by the 19th century Russian painter Ilya Repin (He is also called the Rembrandt of Russia).
Drawing is crucial in the early stages of a painting – for my first study, I set up most of the lines smoothly and thought I had a correct basic shape to work with, but as the painting progressed, I saw that some lines were far from correct. From that point on I had to correct 50-60% of the entire scene. A nightmare and not very stimulating. It became clear to me once again how crucial the initial drawing work is.
A master of nuances of tone
That Repin was a master at finding the right tones I realize more and more as I go along. What an eye and feeling for the different tonal values (color nuances between the lightest and darkest part) and forms this man has, unprecedented. Besides tone, color and variation are very important for a realistic and natural image, especially in this painting of Repin’s daughter, Nadia. The mastery of correct determination of tone, color and variation in touch really makes a realistic portrait come alive. It is unprecedented how Repin’s secure eye is interspersed with spontaneous rough brushstrokes of thick layers of paint.
Love at first sight
I saw this painting years ago in the Groninger museum and the staring gaze of Nadia in her pink gown had a kind of hypnotic effect on me. I don’t know how long I stood there looking at her to take in the painting. Despite her passive posture, daughterly appears to be just breathing quietly, so lifelike. Repin’s work has put portraiture in a whole new light for me.
Result master copy
My version of Nadia is less spectacular and masterful than Repin’s original but I was surprised to put down a nice master copy because it took endless patience (and patience is not among my core qualities). For days I have been wrestling with my color palette and brushes for this girl. Every stroke of paint on the canvas has been a conscious, well-considered choice which adds value to the overall design of the scene.
My master copy may not be perfect, but my goal was not perfection. It wasn’t about copying every brushstroke on a microscopic level. I wanted to discover the extent to which I was able to continue to paint accurately and choose my strokes as consciously as possible from beginning to end of the painting process.
Exhibition at the Drents Museum
Currently there is a wonderful exhibition at the Drents Museum (Until April 2016) of Repin and his Russian contemporaries of the Peredvizhniki. A group of painters united in 1870 in response to the artistic principles and production of the Imperial Art Academy of St. Petersburg. These artists collectively sought independence from the state. The painters wanted to be free in the work they produced and where they exhibited it. They called themselves “Peredvizhniki,” the wanderers or trekkers, also called the “Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions. Its members included great painters like Ilya Repin, Vladimir Makovsky and Valentin Serov.
An absolute must-see if you ask me. So often you don’t get the chance to admire his work close to home.