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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Stefan Pabst

Click the white triangle above.
There was a time, probably centuries ago now, when drawing was a respected art form. I'm not sure just when it happened, perhaps it was so gradual as to have gone all but unnoticed by artists and everyone else, but in any case, all that has changed. Drawing today is all too often perceived, even by artists, as simply something you paint over. Perhaps it's because sketching and drawing has largely been replace as a conceptual step by photogra-phy...especially digital photography. Although I've done hundreds of pencil portraits, except for those which I paint over, drawing is but a small part of the creative effort that goes into my work. Moreover, few artists today draw with a brush. I almost never do. Yet some of the best drawing I've ever seen involve little or no pencil work. That's certainly the case with the Russian-born, Stefan Pabst. Maybe you've seen his video on YouTube (above). You wouldn't be alone. Over 1,648,587 others have too.
Which is the drawing, the mouse or the tarantula?
Stephan Pabst's work blurs the line between drawing and painting. Even though most of the great painting masters of the distant past were expert draughtsmen, it has only been in the past couple hundred years that artists took pencils to primed canvas to outline their images. Before that, some used charcoal, but most simply laid in their preliminary compositions with a brush loaded with paint. I suppose the overall art market may have a lot to do with the fact that few artists draw and sell drawings. Art in color has become the norm. Anything rendered in black and white is seen as...well, second rate. Play the video again and notice how little of Pabst's work is done in pencil. The secret to the three-dimensional super realism seen in the artist's work is that he uses oil paints and a dry-brush drawing/painting technique. What appear to be drawings are, in fact, really paintings.

From Vladamir Lenin to Harry Potter.
Though most commonly
rendered in black and
white, dry-brush also
works with color.
Pabst began learning dry-brush painting tech-niques while still a teenager in Russia. According to Pabst, this method of painting developed during the early days of the Communist regime almost ninety years ago as the party sought to develop a cult following of its leaders through the use of gigantic public posters up to twenty feet (6 meters) tall. Photographic and other means of printing were quite limited in size at the time so the government began recruiting artists to create photo-realistic portraits of leaders such a Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin. Traditional painting methods proved to be too costly in terms of paint and canvas as well as too time consuming. They were also too technically demanding, considering the number of such works required. Instead, Russian artists developed a technique using soft brushes (what we'd call watercolor brushes) and oil paints without thinning to a liquid state. Hence the term, "dry-brush" (something like watercolor without the water). Using this method, propaganda images could be rendered on paper or cardboard (in sections) on virtually any scale, providing there was a solid surface for their mounting. Even after the Soviet printing industry belatedly caught up with the West, large scale dry-brush portraits continued to be produced inasmuch as artist had little choice but to work dirt cheap. Today, most Russian street artists use a dry-brush technique, which has now started to spread around the world.

Pabst, using oil paints as a dry medium.
Stefan Pabst is young, born in 1980. He's now only thirty-six years old. He's been painting professionally for about ten years. Pabst was born in western Siberia where he spent his formative years before his parents moved to Germany around 1995. Except for high school art classes and some art instruction through a community youth group in his hometown of Minden (Northwest Germany), Pabst is self-taught. It wasn't until he decided to draw a portrait for a friend's birthday party that Pabst's career initially began. There was broad encouragement for his art as guests asked why he had not made his hobby his profession. Over the next week, the young artist began advertising his work online and immediately started receiving commissions. Since then he has created his own business and currently works at it full-time. He now receives orders from clients all over the world and has drawn a number of singers, actors, football player, and politicians. His videos are used by art schools in the U.S. which present images of his dry-brush paintings as learning material.

Most Pabst's paintings take less than a day.
Dry-brush painting is nothing like traditional oil painting. Brushes vary in size, though the smallest ones often used by hyper-realistic artist lack sufficient body for detailed work, given the pasty consistency of high-quality professional grade oils. (Student grade oils usually have too much oily vehicle for dry-brush painting.) As might be expected by most painters, it's the shading technique that is most difficult to master. The brush must be soft, the paint, as dry as possible, should be evenly distributed (no globs whatsoever). This is painting transparently using only the whiteness of the paper (yes, paper) to mitigate the dark values of the paint. The idea is to shade the paper, not stain it, building up dark values slowly as if shading with a pencil. As with watercolor, which uses a similarly, transparent mindset, this technique is almost totally unforgiving of even minor errors. I should also note that, as with all 3-D drawings (such as sidewalk art) each piece has only one optimal viewing angle. Consequently, they  photograph well, but the illusional qualities are often lost when seen in real life. Pabst's three-dimensional dry-brush drawings should be thought of as an advanced painting technique.

Quite often Pabst crops the edges of his painting surface
to heighten the three-dimensionality of his images.
Quite apart from getting his start by using the Internet (sort of a painting Justin Bieber), in response to the many artists who contacted him with questions about his painting technique, Pabst uploaded as series of homemade videos of his work to YouTube. Pabst's three-dimensional drawings are so striking it’s hard to imagine how he’s been able to master this technique while making it look so simple. Yet, the technique is complicated with imagination playing as large a part as technique. His videos have been exceptionally well received by viewers, which he often finds surprising. Pabst notes that, "For great art, you have to perceive the object, the situation, and watch the everyday lighting. You have to see something like you did the very first time you saw it, with a completely open mind, like a child. That’s what I try to do with my 3-D drawings."

Notice how the three-dimensional qualities are enhanced
by the artist's choice of surface material and the tail extending
"off the surface."

Not all of Pabst's subjects are
quite so cuddly.


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