Egon Schile (100 years ago): Great Art invites to dream

Egon Schiele - Two women embracing
Egon Schiele – Two women embracing

Egon Schiele, who died exactly 100 years ago, is famous for his simple but stirring artworks of women and men. He worked on the edge of drawing and painting and captures his subjects with an authentic, unretouched and spontaneous quality that is seldom seen. His works are truer than reality.

His figurative works show, how we can bend the rules without breaking them. If we look closely we will find that he stretches the anatomy of his figures.

For example the left upper arm of the woman facing away from us is drawn very long. Maybe too long, but the length fits to the overall proportion of the figure.

So we accept that, even don’t really recognize it. But he reinforces the expression that he wants to give to his characters and creates his own style.

It’s a balancing act between “How much manipulation does the viewer believe me?” and “How can I express my idea?”.

As I am writing that i am reminded of a scene in “Inception” by Christopher Nolan. There is a scene where Copp and Ariadne are in a dream for the first time and he teaches her, that she should not manipulate the dream too much, because it then will collapse and the dreamer awakes.  

This is what great art can do for us. Invite us in a dream with its own rules and oddities and let us escape for a while. 


Recommended book on Egon Schiele:

Egon Schiele – The complete Paintings

It is not cheap, but a worth investment if you admire the work of Schiele and want to get a closer look on the work, that made him the great artist he is. This book it massive and heavy so do not let it fall on your feet.

Working without obstacles

John Singer Sargent - An Artist in his Studio
John Singer Sargent – An Artist in his Studio

Rolling out of the bed and standing (or lying) in front of the easel is not such a bad idea. It means that their are no obstacles on the way to the activity we love.


This is the way I personally like to organize my process:

1. Distance

I live 6 km or 3,7 miles away from my studio where I do my main work. This is already a pretty fast ride with a car and bike but I want to reduce this route to a walk distance of 1 or 2 km in the near future. If I go to work a day more often in the quarter, then it was worth the move. 


2. Preparation (Cleaning)

Another thing I’ve gotten used to (without raging about it) is cleaning all the brushes, tools and palette used in the last session. So painting does not start with a cleaning session and kills the momentum that I built up on my way to work. 


3. In reach

Also all paint tubes and tools are within reach. Standing in front of the easel I don’t have to do one step to get the stuff I need. Also I have enough drinking water in place.


Personally I think that the creative process is fragile and should be handled with care. Everything what could possibly prevent or delay that I start or continue to work has to get out of the way.


Why are gesture drawings great?

Rodin Sketch

When I learned how to draw the human figure one of the very first exercises i did was gesture drawing. It is a great starting point because it warms up the hands and prevent from stiff and tight drawing through long and fluid lines.

Gesture drawings are a practical exercise that can be done as a preparation for a longer life drawing session, while waiting at the train station, watching a movie or flipping through a magazine.

Rembrandt - Hendrickje sleeping

The main goal is to find the gesture (or the essence) of the figure in front of us.

What are the basic proportions and forms of the figure? What is the pose and action? Where sits the weight of the figure?

These questions can be answered with a few simple lines which build the foundation for a more complex articulation of the figure with bones, muscles and facial details.

There are a few really good books on this topic:

  • Force by Mike Mattesi
  • Figure Drawing for Artists  by Steve Huston
  • Figure It Out by Umakanth Thumrugoti


FRAGMENTS, late 2017

resistance to decay
mixed media collage on board – 9,45″ x 11,81″ / 24cm x 30cm – 2017 – collection of the artist

Following the path of BIRCHES I experimented further by starting to rip out parts from a wide range of magazines and blending them together using glue, pastel, fire and water. Inspired by classical portraiture I focused on the face (or the rest of it) as the indispensable feature showing human emotion.

Seeing these works is like looking into a dusty broken mirror: we see cracks like lighting in the sky and the reflection is distorted, but we still recognize ourselves in the remaining fragments. They are functioning in their own little cosmos but we don’t get a clear understanding of the whole.

Since FRAGMENTS was created, there have been a few events that have brought me closer to family and friends. After a long period of encapsulation the series opened me up for new connections and for giving new chances. Defragmentation started.

Why do you do master studies? - Masterstudy Nicolai Fechin - Portrait of a Girl
Master Study of a Fechin

If you read my post on Finding yourself artisticly you know that I like the thought, that we are (or could be) a combination of the artists we admire.

But just knowing which masters I appreciate is not enough for me. I want their best qualities to be in my paintings. Thus I have to study them intensively not by watching them, but by thinking, deciding and painting the way they did.

If the goal would be to have an equal exciting brushwork as Nicolai Fechin, it is a good idea to do copies of his work with the focus on understanding how he applied and layered paint onto the canvas.

After I understand how his brushwork works I would take my own references/subjects and apply the knowledge from the previous exercise. And piece by piece this knowledge will become intuitive and accessible for future work.

I highly recommend to study multiple masters (ideally dead ones), if you don’t want to be a pure copyist of someone else.

How to think beyond the frame?

Arthur Melville - The Procession.jpg

What I really like about this painting is that one of the main characters is not in the scene, but has a major influence on the whole piece anyway.

It is like a crime movie where you feel the presence of the killer, but you do not see him. 

It is a giant tree on the right side of the frame (you see a few green leafs there) that casts this big shadow onto the scene. The shadow gives the piece it’s mid value range and therefore lowers the really hard contrast between the shadow under the gate and the bright sunlit areas.

Because the tree is not visible, we don’t know if the shadow is casted “right”. So Melville could fully control its appearance and use it for compositional purposes.

So it is a great idea to think about the light source and objects (that maybe cast shadows) beyond the picture frame. 

Another thing i wonder about is the bright triangular shape behind the procession. I think it shows curtains pulled aside so that the procession can walk through. Because of the sharp edges and the highest value contrast in the whole painting it grabs our attention even more than the flag bearer. This gives us a hint that painting is not about the procession only, but where the people come from too.

Here I did another post on “invisible characters” and how they influence the realism of a painting.

How do you know when a work is finished?

Rembrandt van Rijn - The Artist in his studio
Rembrandt van Rijn – The Artist in his studio

Usually I finish a work when the conversation with the next painting gets to loud. When I start a new painting, at least the next one is roughly planned. The dialogue with it starts to become more intensive as i move forward in the actual painting and I understand what each piece will do for the series. So I finish the painting to 90-95% and put it away to start the next one. When all paintings of the series are at the nearly finished level I go through all of them and apply what I learned throughout the series.

I am not afraid of stopping a work as soon as I have made my point, even though large pieces of unpainted canvas still show through. One reason for that is the “concept” of non finito.

Can mistakes make my style?

The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt von Rijn – The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

What if you’re practicing wrong? Then you get very good at doing something wrong.

George Leonard in his book ‘Mastery’

Therefore it is a good idea to learn from someone who is better at this skill than we are. Especially when trying to learn a skill in areas that work with categories like right and wrong, for example perspective or anatomy.

Later, these rules can then be consciously broken by stylistic decisions, out of which a style can evolve over time. 

Errors that we do not even understand should not be called a style.

Can Art have a practical purpose?

Black in Deep Red, 1957
Mark Rothko – Black in Deep Red

Often artists try not to talk or think about, what is their art for? Some people will admit, that art can’t even have a purpose. Art for art’s sake.

But I like things that have a practical use case. And so did Mark Rothko thinks about his work as well:

You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me – and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet, and therefore both of us need to feel less sad.

– Mark Rothko

Art as place where you can go, if you feel sad. That is practical and shows that art can have purpose. We should have this in mind when we create or look at a work of art. This purpose can be totally individual and against the intent of the creator, but all art, if we like or do not like it, tells us something about and can be used by us.

Non finito – the unfinished finish

Michelangelo - Atlas Slave
Michelangelo – Atlas Slave

“Non finito” is an Italian term for “not finished”. It is mainly used in sculpture, but can also be applied to any other form of work.

Especially Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin are known for their non finito sculptures. They leave parts of the work completely or slightly unfinished while they work out others like they normally would. Thus they create great expressiveness.

And we ask us: “Why did he work out this part and emphasize it so clearly? Why was this important to him?”

A comparable method is used in photography or film, when details are taken in focus and other parts sinking in softness.

In contrast to completely finished sculptures (or other works), the artist allows us to experience a part of their creative process. We see Michelangelo dug into the stone with his tools. I am a big fan of artists with personal mark making and presence in their work. That makes the work more accessible, reduces the viewer’s distance and creates trust.

The artist also introduces a new dimension to his work: time. We do not get the “finished work” as a perfectly described moment, but a work in its different phases of creation. The work as a timeline of his own development.