Painting in Volochok

Our first two weeks in Volochok we spent painting – in the morning, midday and evening, which during summer lasts until eleven when the sun finally sets. Our focus was on short etudes in oil – from life. For the most part we painted landscapes – in fields, on river banks and in the woods surrounding the dacha. As a general introduction to what’s involved in a typical day out painting, here’s a short list of essential Russian art vocabulary:

етудник – an easel. The soviet etudnik is well known for being nearly indestructible. It’s a hinged box with three telescoping steel legs, which you set at different heights to keep your canvas level on uneven ground. There are two legs on the back, hinged side of the box, and one on the front. The back of the box when open is upright, that’s where you stand your canvas, and inside the box you have your paints and easel, which is all secured so that you can lug it around without paint smearing everywhere.

скипидар/ масло – turpentine/ oil, used to thin paint. The only thing unique about Russian turpentine is the abundance of strange substitutes for real turpentine which have such an intensely bad chemical smell that you have to keep them outside.

краска – paint. Russian paints have declined in quality recently, but are still much higher quality than most oils available in America. What accounts for the poor quality of some paints is the addition of fillers which dilute pigment and cause paints to grey as you mix them. I saw one example of the quality of soviet era paint – a 40 year old tube of green, not dried out at all, with pigment so intense that I could barely add it to any color I mixed without turning the whole mixture green.

картон – Stiff peices of paperboard coated with gelatin or animal skin glue – typically rabbit. The glue seals the paper so that it can be painted on without deteriorating.

темныи/ светлыи – dark/ light.
Of course it sounds very straightforward, but even the most experienced artists struggle to understand tone. Short etudes – as brief as 5 minutes – are one of the best ways to train your mind to see tone. Even in very long paintings, the basic tonal structure often changes little after the first few minutes of work. If the basic tonal structure is good, it can continue to be developed with more and more subtlety. If the basic tonal structure isn’t working, it can also continue to be developed, but rarely improved, with more subtle variation. So the goal of short sketches is to train yourself to be increasingly sensitive to tone, even when you are dealing with it in the broadest possible way.

облако – cloud

небо – sky/ heavens

земля – ground. Thick with edible mushrooms and frogs. Walking through tall grass there were almost always one or two frogs hopping ahead of my feet.

теплыи/ холодно – warm/ cool. In reference to color, warm refers to colors containing more red than blue, cool to those containing more blue than red, basically. I was told by my teachers in Russia that tone is the first step in finding a color, and warm/cool the second. Doing some research, I found support for that claim. A book called “Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution” by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay suggests that cultures with three color terms will always have the same three color terms; those with four, four and so on. This suggests that there are certain color distinctions which are universally more important. The most important color distinction, the one that a culture having only two color terms will invariably describe first, is that between dark/cool colors and light/warm colors.
In order to help keep the scale of warm/ cool in mind, we arranged our paints on our palates in order from warmest to coolest – with several different warm and cool yellows, warm blues, cool reds, etc.

комар – mosquito. During our first two weeks in Volochok the drought that hit Russia this summer hadn’t set in and there were incredible numbers of mosquitos. We always wore nets, and even then came away with bites on our faces, wherever skin had come too close to the netting. It wasn’t just the numbers of mosquitos, but a kind of reckless attitude Russian mosquitos seem to have – never in America have I had a mosquito go for my eyes, or been bitten on my lips, for example, but this was commonplace in Russia.

мух – fly. Unaffected by drought. Bites.

береза – birch. There are a lot of paintings of birch trees in the history of Russian Realism. It’s still possible, of course, to do it well, but there are some ‘types’ of birch painting at this point. Maybe the most popular is to paint them so that their white trunks, in full sun, and the budding red tips of their branches stand out against a startlingly blue sky.

сонса – pine. Like birch, a staple of Russian Realist landscapes.

акварель – watercolor. Russians take watercolor very seriously. Often students will be restricted to watercolor if their oil painting is getting sloppy. Because you can’t change the placement of any brushstroke once you put it down, and because you can’t make things lighter, only darker, it requires a lot of forethought and is considered good training for that reason.

бумага – paper

карандаш – Pencil. The Russians sharpen their pencils with razor blades so that the lead is long and tapered. The reason for this is to make it easy to see the point of your pencil in your peripheral vision. That way you can draw without taking your eyes off of the subject.

точно –

The degree to which the Russian realists value sensitivity to the subject is something I haven’t encountered in America. The best example of this I can think of to illustrate this point comes from after we left Vishny Volochok – during the final two weeks of our stay in Russia when we were living and working with the painter Ilya Yatsenko. Often, when he was looking through my work from a day he would comment that it was “basically correct.” Initially, I took this to be a positive comment, but soon I learned to read a different subtext – it’s basically correct, and therefore, incorrect. The highest praise my work could receive was to be, “точно” or “just so.”
This might just seem to illustrate that Russians are sticklers – that they’re caught up in inconsequential details. At a time when artists are concerned with decisions much broader than tone, like whether to construct an installation of rags or a 40 foot tall stainless steel balloon dog, it’s difficult to see anything but “nit pickiness” in the Russian Realist’s concern for these subtleties. But I think that I can take a stab at justifying it as my mentors would hope to justify themselves.
If we consider that art and its value is a product of a special state of awareness the artist enters into in order to create, then it is possible for two pieces of art which superficially resemble each other to have little in common. Two landscapes, painted at the same time, in the same place by different artists, for example, are almost guaranteed to have some superficial similarities. Between the smallest differences in color, tone, and drawing, however, a dramatic difference in perception could exist. By the same logic, a 40 foot stainless steel ballon dog and an installation of rags, which superficially are much more dramatically different, could be produced with very similar goals in mind.
I doubt that this perspective would gain much support among art historians and theorists today. A contemporary, anti-essentialist, perspective on painting probably wouldn’t so readily discount the visible, superficial qualities of a painting to speculate on it’s transcendent qualities as a manifestation of some artistic genius’ heightened awareness. And yet, I think an argument can be made that art history clearly demonstrates that nothing less than transcendental qualities can explain the brilliance of some painters and the mediocrity of others.
Looking to the tradition of Chinese brush painting, for example, there are thousands of years of painters whose work is superficially very similar to the work of other painters. Yet there are widely acknowledged masters of the various genres of the art form. There are similar examples in Russia’s tradition of religious iconography. Artists were expected to follow the traditions of the form as closely as possible – resigning any desire to distinguish their work from that of other painters. The humility and restraint of an icon painter were seen as his greatest assets. Even within a form that actively discourages innovation and difference, however, there are painters whose work rises above the rest.
I believe that the tradition of Russian Realism, while heavily influenced by western painting traditions, shares a common mentality with Orthodox iconography and Chinese brush painting. Innovation is not highly valued. Often the homogeneity of Soviet Realism is viewed in the west as stagnation resulting from oppressive government control. While the Soviet government certainly played a role in dictating the course of Russia’s artistic development, I think it’s incorrect to view the “stagnation” of art as a symptom of autocratic power. Rather, I think autocratic power and the continuity of artistic style in Russia are both symptoms of a larger cultural disregard for individualism.
In both iconography and Russian realist painting, the artist is expected to put aside their own aspirations and pay humble attention to some divine source. Whether that source is nature or the gospel, they are supposed to allow it to speak through them. Sensitivity to a subject is what brings a realist painter closer to that source. And so for a drawing of mine to be “точно,” means for my teachers not only that I managed to pay attention for a moment, but that maybe in doing so I captured some element of divine wisdom.

So from the minutiae of art supplies and pests to the most nebulous speculation about art and art-history, there are the basic components of a day in the field.

Below is a photo of my brother in a marshy spot we often painted.


  1. I’m still very excited for you Barry.

    -Are you going to post some paintings?

    -Did you have to trek to locations such as the marsh in the photo, or were you living by them?

    -I’m very excited by the reasoning for tapering the graphite.