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5 Things I learned from Steven Assael's Workshop

In the spring I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from esteemed artist, Steven Assael, at the Armory Art Center. Coming into the workshop I was clearly intimidated by his immense talent but was pleasantly surprised to learn how approachable and encouraging he was as an instructor. Steven made an indelible impression on me as an artist which truly affected the quality of my work. Months later I am still ruminating on major takeaways from the experience. Here are five things I learned from the Steven Assael workshop and how it made me a better artist.

1. Invest in yourself (both monetarily and with your time)

Workshops and seminars are pricey. I get it. In many cases they require us to take off work, arrange childcare and the like. In my case, I was teaching a drawing course at FAU, in the midst of preparing a body of work for my MFA thesis, and writing the supporting documentation, which was eerily looming overhead. I could've used all those responsibilities as proof positive that I couldn't attend the workshop. However, I reminded myself that one of my goals while in grad school was to work with a figure painter and this was my last shot. Simultaneously, I'd been reading a lot of articles from art biz guru's like Maria Brophy, who reminded me, when you invest in yourself your business grows. I was ready to grow.

Steven Assael painting during Armory Art Center workshop

Steven Assael has a studio practice in which he invests time in his work. Assael works from observation and showed us examples of paintings in which the model sat 8-10 times, yet he was still working on the small 8" x 10" panel. He works a drawing and painting until full completion. This takes sacrifice and dedication. Gratification isn't instant. It is a difficult practice in an age in which the average person has an attention span shorter than a goldfish. Don't believe me? Check it out here.

example of a painting in progress by Steven Assael after two sessions,

of our model, Lauren.


"When you are making an eye - you aren't making an eye. It's forms and temperatures. Details aren't added until later." - Steven Assael

Assael is a master because he devotes his life to looking and seeing. He encouraged those in the class that wear glasses, to paint with them off. Squinting at your subject is the quickest and most effective way to simplify information, deducting form and value. With hi-def EVERYTHING, blurring the edges, softening the focus, and bringing clarity to particular moments in a drawing or painting is important. It's also especially helpful when identifying color values and temperatures.

I used this method teaching in my own class after working with Steven because it was so important to start instilling this practice with beginning students. I am constantly reminding myself SQUINT! I encourage you to try it too, if you aren't already.

Steven Assael's method of direct painting was new for me, but great for working quickly from observation. He primes all of his paintings with a red/brown, which is a practice I personally use. Steven utilizes palette and painting surface as one. After a session, he will scrape his palette and paint over it. You can see these beautiful textures in his finished works.

Far left: set up of palette and painting. Middle: added some new hues in my palette. Far right: His initial demo in the upper left of the canvas board. My painting of Lauren is in the bottom right.

3. Watch other artist's paint in real time - not time lapsed!

Steven Assael demoing at the Armory Art Center

We've all seen them, been enchanted by them, shared them on social media with "omg, look at this", but time-lapsed videos of artist drawing or painting don't teach you anything. Personally I find them disparaging, giving the illusion that creating is easy and instantaneous. It's not.

Our group huddled behind Assael's easel and watched him look, study, flick paint, soften edges, clean his brushes, glob them up, swish them in the air, and clear his throat in all the uncomfortable silence that comes from turning off the streaming music and the tv and JUST LOOKING.

And guess what? I learned more in watching those slow two hours then I did from a million time-lapsed videos. In real life you make mistakes when you create, you adjust, you get messy, you just sit and look.

4. Learning to see is a lifetime job!

"Make bad drawings and bad paintings all the time. Making a bad drawing is always better than a good photograph because it adds to your visual dictionary." - Steven Assael

On the first day of our week long workshop, Steven admonished how important it is to develop a visual dictionary. Developing a way of seeing is like building a visual dictionary. It requires a lot of time, training, and persistence. It's a lifelong dictionary. Steven carries a sketchbook everywhere and is constantly practicing what he preaches. He admonished us to steal. Everything is open to take, he said. Studying artists that we really love is valuable. We learn from them, adding more pages to our visual My extensive note scribbles from the workshop. dictionary.

5. Color isn't really color.

In the workshop we only used Cold Pressed Linseed Oil and occasionally Stand Oil with our paints. This was difficult for me to get used to as I depended on cleaning my brushes with Turpenoid throughout a painting session. It proved useful for me now as I have eliminated Turpenoid and Mineral Spirits in my studio while I'm pregnant. This is an example of my progress within our last full figure pose.

Assael encouraged us to visualize an empty room with four walls and a window. Each wall is white. Imagine warm light is streaming in from the window, what does the temperature of the wall closest to the window look like? Is the wall furthest from the window darker in value, or lighter? Now imagine a cloud has covered the sun and the light is now cool. What color are the white walls now?

He used this visual aid to remind us that color isn't really color. White is not really white. Yes, the walls are white but what is white? Think of color as value and temperature. Color is only perceived due to its surrounding color. Josef Albers studied this immensely in the Interaction of Color. While I knew all of these things intellectually, actually executing them is much harder.

Here are a couple thoughts to consider when identifying color:

1. Is the light cool or warm? Steven uses a red light and a green light to dramatize his sitters. If a face is illuminated by a warm light (red) than the shadows will be it's complimentary cool (green). If a face is illuminate by a cool light (green) then the shadows will it's complimentary warm (red).

Steven Assael's demo examples. Left: cool green light - notice the shadows along the cheek are subsequently warm. Right: warm red light - notice the cool blue shadow along the based of the left nose.

2. Consider the background - in any demo Steven quickly masks in the background that surrounds the subject as this alters the way we view color. Is the background a violet? How is the flesh next to the purple read? Still with me? Color is extraordinary, right?!

Finally, I mentioned that the quality of my work improved after my workshop. I took a gamble, as changes so late in my MFA show, could have potentially been a disaster. Ultimately the investment was worth it. I leave you with a few examples of how my work benefited for time spent the invaluable, Steven Assael.

I introduced textural marks with more ease and identified subtle tonal shifts (a greenish highlight versus a warm shadow). (c) Ashley Cassens

Before + After: My flesh tones were extremely warm in the in progress pic (TOP). The introduction of green complimentaries balanced the flesh tones (BOTTOM). (c) Ashley Cassens

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