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Abstractly Real

Abstractly Real

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According to Sharon Sprung, convincing realism is actually good abstraction.
By Louise B. Hafesh

A double life is what Sharon Sprung admits to when it comes to her art. “There’s a beautiful freedom in the mergence of the two that allows me to speak visually to more people,” she says over coffee in a cafe near her teaching gig at the Art Students League in New York City. “I’ve grown to dislike the hard edges and flat planes of the photorealist. I strive to give my paintings the life and energy of modern work, yet suggest the depth and craft inherited from the great tradition of realist painters.”

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As she synthesizes realism and abstraction, she claims there aren’t any rules except what works visually. In her recent paintings that focus on the sensuality of the female nude, she uses strong, contemporary colors and plays up the element of contrast, as in her striking depiction of a young woman, wearing only a multicolored hat (see P), set against a brilliant blue background. “For me, that portrait exposes the strength and ruggedness of this young woman,” asserts Sprung as she explains how the painting serendipitously found its way into being. “P was posing for a class I was instructing. Walking away from the model stand, she put on her wool hat of many colors. Her pale, nude body measured against that intricate hat was startling! I couldn’t wait to commit the image to canvas.”

Sprung feels that the best realistic painting is actually good abstraction. For her painting P, she consciously played areas of detail against large areas of mass. “My love of juxtapositions is evident in the contrasts: the abstract and realistic qualities, the undressed and overdressed nature of her pose, the subtleties of flesh coloring with the highly chromatic hat and background.” She favors working with familiar subjects and enthusiastically relates her good fortune at having access to a multiplicity of interesting models. “When I’m teaching my classes, I get to see how the models’ bodies move, what they do, who they are. Consequently, way before they pose for me in my own studio, I have an idea of how I want to paint them.”

For her highly acclaimed series on single mothers, she found inspiration close to home. “After I gave birth to my son,” she explains, “I suddenly became aware of these 15- and 16-year-old girls with children in my Brooklyn neighborhood. It was overwhelming to me that, while we faced similar issues, they were without the support system and many of the resources that I had.” Challenged to give visibility to their plight, Sprung invited her subjects (mothers and children) to pose at her studio, or painted them in their homes. “Part of the street thing is getting to know your subject over time, sensing their character and how they relate to the world.” says Sprung. “Feeling deeply and expressing that interaction are what I consider most important to the process of making art. These young women spoke to and for me. I like to hope that the paintings are thought-provoking and that, because they transcend literal interpretation, they temporarily capture the observer within a world I try to create.” (To see examples from this series, visit Sprung’s website at

A gifted and generous teacher whose classes typically have a long waiting list, Sprung gets high praise for her ingenious approach to the class demo, which involves her completing a portrait in sequence during a typical semester. “Rather than cut into valuable student studio time, on the first day of a new course, I ask for a volunteer who will commit to pose during the regular model’s long breaks,” she explains. ”In that way, the class gets to see me develop a painting from start to finish—including tackling any challenges along the way.”

There are two lessons she repeats, in teaching 60 students a week: “First, spend more time looking at the model than painting the model. Study the subject without putting paint on the canvas; analyze the subject visually so that you know it. Second, don’t be self-critical while you’re working or, to put it in athletic terms, you’ll choke. For example, if you name elements, like ‘nose,’ ‘ear,’ ‘lip,’ and so on, while you’re painting them, preconceived notions will trap you in the idea of a nose when your job is to record the visual reality in front of you. As Arthur Koestler said, ‘Every creative act involves a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted belief.’”

Oil is Sprung’s preferred medium. “It’s forgiving and it has a life of its own,” she says. “The colors are rich and they reflect light beautifully. There are many variables and possibilities: opaque, semitransparent, transparent. With one brush and one color, there are so many effects—not even considering what happens when you use more or combine colors!” Sprung works on wood panels; her brushes are bristle and sable filberts, mongoose fans, hake brushes, plus palette knives.

“Spend more time looking at the model than painting her. Don’t be self-critical while you’re painting or, to put it in athletic terms, you’ll choke.” ~Sharon Sprung

She uses turpentine and Liquin, and among her tools is a mahlstick. She uses only handcrafted Vasari paints, which she claims are beautiful, pure and retain their full strength and color.

Sprung, who studied at the institutions where she now teaches (the Art Students League and the National Academy School and the Museum of Fine Arts, New York), took classes with Daniel E. Greene and Harvey Dinnerstein and also attended Cornell University. “Even as a beginner, I wanted to study realism,” she declares. “I wrote a letter to Harvey Dinnerstein, whose work I admired. To my surprise, he wrote back and invited me to join his art classes.” Sprung’s mother was against art as a career choice, but the young artist managed to win an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant for emerging realist painters in 1975 and, scary as it seemed at the time, successfully struck out on her own. “We live in a society that speaks more to the individual than to certain movements,” she contends. “What abstraction did for the art world is introduce us to a surface of paint and color. When I paint now, I think of it as sculpting—but using colors that are challenging, not just browns and grays.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge in the act of painting is to walk away at the right moment. “Finishing a painting is the hardest,” she says. “You can murder a painting by mindlessly cleaning up and polishing rather than letting the painting finish itself. You have to maintain the open-ended energy and possibility that created the painting; you have to let that energy continue to flow. At the end, I want to feel that the portrait still breathes the way it breathed to me when I started.”

Among her influences, “the gods” she has looked to in art, are Velázquez, Caravaggio, Egon Schiele and Diane Arbus, who are “masters at grasping and expressing a profound appreciation of another while at the same time reflecting who they are through their very particular vision. These artists speak to the nature of being human, of the uniqueness of the ordinary and the ordinariness of the unique—and to the alienation within and between them both.” Although Sprung also paints landscapes, she is most drawn to the figure, especially the female figure. “My subject matter might be considered feminine,” admits Sprung, who won the coveted commision to paint Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress (Below: Portrait of a Pioneer). “As a female,” says Sprung, “I’m sensitive to male/female differences but, as society becomes more homogenized, I believe that androgyny is the higher goal. Bringing everything and everyone together—there’s power in that theory!”

Portrait of a pioneer

In 1917, three years before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973) became the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. A social worker by profession and a pacifist by conviction, she was one of only 50 members to vote against the United States’ entry into World War I and the only member of Congress to vote against the United States’ entry into World War II. “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said then. Her opposition to WWII ended her political career. Devoting herself to social justice for women and children and to the causes of equality and peace, she traveled to India to study Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence. During the ’60s, she joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for racial equality. An octogenarian by then, she also protested America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 2004, Congress commissioned Sharon Sprung to paint Rankin’s portrait. In order to prepare for this commission, Sprung “needed to find out what Rankin wore on that first day in Congress.” Sprung accordingly “rented a period costume that approximated Rankin’s garb, selected a model who had a similar style and searched to find the front page of the newspaper she holds in her hand.” At the portrait’s unveiling in the U.S. Capitol, Sprung was deeply affected by the tributes of several Congresswomen who felt that her painting, Portrait of Jeannette Rankin (Above; oil, 50×40), “reflected Rankin’s courage on that first, historic day she entered the Capitol building.”

Palette of Vasari paints

Sprung on painting

By Ruth O’Callaghan

  • “If you paint with confidence, your work will reflect that confidence.”
  • “Make each brushstroke mean something. It’s OK to make a lot of strokes, because one is bound to be correct.”
  • “Change colors when the planes of a face change. Don’t use ivory black by itself, as it tends to crack; always mix it with another color. Sometimes a color may seem wrong; let it be and correct it the next time you paint.”
  • “Always paint as if you’re preparing the canvas for the next day.”

Ruth O’Callaghan, a student in Sprung’s class at the Art Students League, contributed these notes.

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Louise B. Hafesh is an award-winning writer and artist. You can see examples of her work at

Meet Sharon Sprung

“Because I’m a realist, my pet peeve is a painting that tries to be a photograph,” says Sprung, who studied at Cornell University, and at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, taking classes with Harvey Dinnerstein and Daniel E. Greene. Her work is part of the collections of Bell Laboratories, Princeton University, Chase Manhattan Bank and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2006 her Folding Chairs won first place in the Portrait/Figure category in the 23rd Annual Artist’s Magazine Competition. The artist can be reached through her website at


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