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A Flamewar


Rob Howard

by Miles Mathis

Someone told me that I was the only clear defeat Rob Howard ever suffered in his web trolling, and I thought the simplest thing to do would be to publish the exchange and let each person decide for himself.  These are the minutes of the fight, taken by me directly from Goodart (before I was denied further admission there).  

     Rob Howard is the owner/moderator of the Cennini website and forum.  Soon after I first arrived at Goodart back in 2002, Rob got into a spat with Virgil Elliott, Fred Ross, and Paul deLorenzo, a spat that I believe is still going on.  I recently heard from Virgil and he is apparently still on high alert at Cowdisley.   Anyway, knowing nothing of Howard, I decided to take a look at Cennini and see what the fuss was about.   The rest is pretty much self-explanatory.


The bait is set

MM:  FYI at Goodart, I went to the Cennini forum, thinking to "duke it out" with Howard. But I looked at his work first and decided it wasn't really worth it. He doesn't appear to me to have a leg to stand on, in critiquing anyone.  The posted work is not impressive.  Beyond that his method of painting a portrait is absurdly pointless. There is more life in the photo he painted from, and I would sooner hang the photo on my wall than such a mechanically reproduced "painting." He just wants to be a bigshot, as was clear from his photo—looking  all constipated.  He should have been a modern instead of an illustrator, then he could be REALLY famous for nothing—like  Hockney.


MM:  I think I do have a right to judge Howard based on that video. A great artist would not waste his time trying to sell videos teaching people how to project and trace images, paint fast, and basically become hacks. Nor would he have developed the method in the first place. I say great artist, because only a great artist would possibly have the footing to criticize Virgil or Paul, or act like an expert to the extent Howard does. An artist's opinions are grounded in his work, and cannot possibly transcend it. That is, an artist only truly KNOWS to the extent he can DO. All the rest is an abstraction. I would never take advice from someone who could not paint better than I do. And neither would you. 


MM:  If someone wants to give me a URL where I can see more of Howard's work, I would be glad to see it. I searched the Cennini site, but found only the portrait demo, which I have already commented on, and a few illustrations from the gouache book. There was no link to his personal site, that I could find. I agree that he is a competent illustrator. And his offering of materials seems to be useful. Although it is one thing to be a salesman of materials and another to be an artist. It just seems to me from what I have seen and heard that his opinions far overreach his oeuvre.  Even if he is a talented painter, that doesn't give him the right to be nasty.  Some balanced criticism would be one thing; character assassination and bullying is another. That is my gripe about the critics. Many of them seem quite intelligent. But they have not earned their place in the argument. Howard may or may not be right about any number of things. But until he becomes a great painter, I don't see that he has any right to be such a bully, or a self-appointed critic. Criticism only makes sense from a better painter to a worse painter. It makes no sense for non-painters to criticize painters, or for illustrators to criticize painters, no matter how many copies of a book they have sold.  And that whole spraying of oil thing is a technical trainwreck, on many levels. The last thing you want to do is spray oil on a painting. You should be keeping as much oil out of the painting as possible. Everybody knows that. Much of Howard's technical advice is suspect, at best.


The Bride is much more appealing than the demo, but I don't see that it is in any way superior to the paintings Howard likes to diss [the Classical Realists]. Its precision undercuts its expression. It shows competence but no virtuosity. If he is using big brushes it is only as a time saver. Nor does it have the otherworldly charm of a tight Bouguereau. Bouguereau is not actually very real at all, either like life or a photo. It is Bouguereau's little world, fairly sharply focused, yes, but more subtle, more beautiful, more innocent than life, where the light is always soft and the faces always full of emotion and charm. And where the composition has been simplified and stripped, with nothing extraneous, nothing hard. This painting (The Bride) looks TOO MUCH like life. We already have life, we do not need exact copies of it, anymore than we need slice-of-life sculptures littering our public places or modern installations throwing in our faces what we flee from in the newspapers and on TV. The moderns are right in this, at least—art is more than just mirroring. It was more than that for Raphael and Rembrandt, Sargent and Bouguereau. And if we can't achieve more than that, I think we have failed to be fully creative.


James Morton wrote:  Rob has sent me a comment on this thread regarding his errant teaching methods using photographs. He wishes to let this forum know that he would be happy to have you take this debate to where he can match wits with all his detractors:


MM:  He can come here if he is such a tough guy. I don't give a damn how fast he is, or how clever, or how many out-of-print books he has. Painting is not a performance art. And I am not impressed with his jokey style, and hot-air quips. I got past that sort of stuff in high-school. Anyone who sits around talking about how he has "perfect taste," over and over, when nobody asked in the first place, has got problems. Does he honestly think his paintings will survive him? I'd never even heard of the guy before this. Kinkaid has made a lot of money, too. That is hardly an argument for his quality. Howard wants us to come to his site, where, as the moderator, he can attach snide subtext to everything we say. I hardly see that as matching wits. If he wants to test his perfect taste, he can go to my site, look at the triptych, and then go open another bottle of bourbon.


MM:  I have no problem with Rob using photos to create or teach. But projection or tracing is a different thing. I don't think a drawing can ever have any expression if the hand is not free to move as it wants. Not every deviation from "reality" is a mistake. A drawing can be so correct it is lifeless. A student can never learn to draw if he or she does not do so freehand—either from photos or from life, and preferably from life. As for the speed thing, I too draw and paint very quickly, but I do not think it matters. I have a student who paints much slower, but he may eat us all alive before it is all said and done. The work of art is all that matters—it is literally all that will be left in a few years. No one will know how long it took, or how many elves shared in its making.


The bait is taken

RH:  Good grief. With all of this talk about me not knowing what I'm doing, you'd think that you'd be good enough to find out about what you are criticizing. In the online illustrated description of the spray method, I stated, in simple declarative sentences, that the projected image was HELD NEXT TO THE CANVAS!!! In other words. it was no more than hanging a same-size photo near the canvas...or a still life, human being, whatever. Also (and you don't have to buy the video for this because the info is supplied free, online) the projected image never touches the canvas. The reason for rear projection is to have the same size image next to the canvas. This is classical sight-size drawing.  Even more to the point is that, not only does this method eschew don't even lay down a preliminary drawing. No crutches like drawing or a tentative underpainting. It's working the high wire without a net and it takes a degree of confidence until you've mastered one or two. The method simply uses electricity and optics to do what any classically trained painter has been taught—throw the image out of focus and block it in. If you had taken time to read the short article all the way through, you would understand how far off base your comments are. Had you seen the instructional video (you appear to have a problem with people making books and videos to share their knowledge...or is it a problem you have with others making money?) you would see that this is a very sensible method based in proven classical methods—block in, keep the underlying edges soft, lightly lubricate the canvas, save the detail for last. Combine it with classically-approved sight-size and the only thing left to object to is either the medium used or the electricity.  As for projecting images, the bulb on my opaque projector burned out three years ago and I keep meaning to replace it. As for the application of lots of oil, again you are speaking from a vacuum of knowledge. The spray medium has very little oil in it. The oil it uses is in the paint itself. It is a volatile lubricant that evaporates, neither biting into the underlying layers not leaving much a footprint of its own. All tests have shown that it is benign, neither strengthening the paint film nor weakening it. It is very different from 'oiling out' a canvas. Because of its nature it does not yellow or crack.  You might want to investigate these matters further before commenting upon the rumor you heard of a rumor. The spray method is described in some detail in the demonstration section of the website. It seems to have been clear to a number of readers and I hope, that once you read it, the method will be clear to you. There is nothing about it that goes against any precepts of classical tracing and certainly no dangerous alkyd mediums...


MM:  I read it. I stand by my comments.  [It is clear as day that all the student has to do is move the projected image over another foot, to where it is on the canvas, in which case he has completely obviated the need for that "crutch" drawing].  And what sort of person gives himself the moniker "swellman." A swollen man, I suppose.


RH [to Paul Delorenzo] My objection to Gammell was that, although he was a good scholar, he was so far outside the mainstream of normal human life and operated from an incomplete knowledge, that his methods were less than workable in a wide range of situations. Like C.G.Jung's demonstration of the increasing abstraction of the emperor's face as the coins were minted further and further from Rome, the incomplete teachings of Gerome, through Laparre and Royer, then through Gamell and then through Lack et al have been so far removed from the seminal source that they are abstractions of a method that is now taking on the aspect of myth.

    If one is willing to devote some time to learning to read French, there are some books and manuscripts one can locate that describe the method of Gerome and the academicians in detail. There were also some spotty transcriptions of those methods written by American and British students who had studied at those 19th century ateliers and academies. Learning from them would sweep away much of the myth that currently swirls around the search for neo-neo-neo classical painting method. 


RH:  Ah, but Miles. I can paint better than you. Much, much better than you can. And I have done it for decades. But before you think that I'm crowing, do know that it's a gift from God and, as we all know, He is not equal in bestowing his blessings. Perhaps in a another life you will be the painter you wish to be. For now, just accept what few gifts He has granted you and be thankful for them. Evidently you have difficulty with anyone writing books or, quelle horreurs, using an electrically-powered video tape to disseminate information. It is obvious that you have never seen the tapes yet you feel competent to comment upon them. That doesn't lend much credence to the rest of your comments. However, I am pleased that you adhere to the methods you espouse because, frankly, I don't need the competition. If you want to swim with weights tied to your ankles, be my guest. We see that mentality in people who strap explosives to their bodies in order to be martyrs to a lost cause. All they actually do is become an abstraction on the sidewalk that needs to be hosed down


MM:  "swellmanr"  wrote:  No crutches like drawing...

Interesting technique, where drawing is now a crutch, and not drawing is "a highwire act." I hear the tittle-tattle of a thousand old masters.

As for projecting images, the bulb on my opaque projector burned out three years ago...

It appears that your bulb burned out long before that.

As for the application of lots of oil, The spray medium has very little oil in it. All tests have shown that it is benign. 

Yes, I'm sure your tests were extensive. Sort of like the tests Firestone did on its own tires.

See how fun that is? I love being a "moderator".


MM:  Swollenman, you must not have been able to pull yourself away from the mirror long enough to use the browser, but my url again is www.mileswmathis. I recommend you go with your anti-depressants in hand.  And hide the sharp knives.   Note that I also write better, that I am better looking, younger, have a higher IQ, and lots more friends. That last is because I only browbeat bullies like you. But I really don't have time for much more of this, amusing as it is—I can't afford to spend every waking hour jerking my own chain.

P.S. Enjoy your money. Maybe a new car will help you get through this.


The hook is swallowed

RH:  ...In this case, I had a great deal to work from because I knew the sitter so well, for you see, the bride was my bride, Andrée. The background is that both of us are artists and had become quite successful through our art. We enjoy showing up the destructive myth of the starving artist and that the field of art is not lucrative (after all, one thing most old masters had in common was being able to afford a comfortable life). In a sense our wedding was to both a lasting sacrament and another opportunity to put our stamp on the way things were done.  Most people send out engraved invitations, and Andrée did too, except here's were engraved metal plates wrapped in silk moiré covers...nothing exceeds like excess. She had the gown designed by Kenzo, the ceremony was at the Old North Church and we hired out a hall at the Ritz-Carlton for the reception. In short, it would have been a vulgar display of wealth by a couple of nouveau riches if it were not for how elegant and pretty everything was.  ...But what's under the surface are two humans...two artists...perhaps workaholic artists who are driven.  ...The initial conception was for a large painting with a full-size figure on a small couch, surrounded by all of the stuff Andrée, rugs, vases, tapestries and other clutter. I looked forward to doing it because it would give me a chance to paint different materials and use lots of flashy bravura strokes (after all, I could use it to get more portrait work). ...A manufacturer gave me some alkyd primer and I used that, to my later chagrin. The painting became even more complex and had a tapestry behind the figure, a couple of dogs on the couch and more junk. It was becoming a farrago, stuffed with more junk than a Christmas goose. Then the first crack appeared.  Soon, the alkyd ground was delaminating from the linen and I was watching all of that work go for naught. ...If you believe that you are the source of your artistry, you'll not agree with my thinking, but I believe that I am merely a conduit for an art that is born somewhere else. God? Divine afflatus? Kharma? Universal consciousness? Whatever it is, I am very aware of ideas coming in on little feet that don't announce themselves...and flee quickly (that's why I emphasize speed. You can't capture fleet-moving ideas if you are too deliberate) ...I come from a family of mariners, true men of the sea, and one thing that stays with me was the "thousand-yard-stare" of the women when they looked out the windows—always looking for a ship to come into port. That's the look I chose to depict. ...Far from being picky little detailed strokes, The Bride is typical of my very painterly and loose style. Over a greenish underpainting (purple under the dress) the dress is laid in with house painting brushes between 2" to 3". The strokes are carefully placed but appear to be applied quickly. Some of the little details, such as the buttons, are applied with smaller brushes, but nothing smaller than a #12. BTW the painting is approximately 30" x 40".The Values are kept to a minimum and almost no blending is done. You can really see the strokes. I never use round brushes except to sign a painting (which I rarely do).  ...I do work from photos...and I also work from sketches. None of my paintings look like the photos and, as has been said about a visit to Sargent's studio...if you sit for me, you're taking your face in your hands!


RH:  I've just returned from your website. Very interesting. Have you done anything since art school (I assume that these standard art school poses were done as school assignments). Also, what sort of altar does the "triptych" go onto? Somehow, the thought of people worshipping at that Mons Veneris strikes me as positively satanic. Also, when painting a triptych, it's always wise to paint THREE pictures. What you have is a folding screen with a nude in the middle.  As for the money...have you got a problem with artists making money? Would you rather artists keep that a secret so that your penury is a little easier to swallow?  As for the car...yes, I did get my wife a new Range Rover for Christmas, but I haven't bought any since then (although I have my eye on a Cobra). Miles, once you develop your taste and put a bit more effort into your work, you too will be in a position to compete with professionals and earn the fine living that the art field provides to serious artists who are willing to put aside their schoolboy notions and bend their talents to something beyond disembodied portrait studies and the typical nude on a rumpled art school cot.  Stick with it.


MM:  After reading his first post this week, I had thought that the Swollen One was properly chastened. Here he was, polite and calm and bileless, answering questions, soothing frayed nerves. But we knew he had not hired someone to be politic for him—no, his stamp remained—the asides to "God's divine inspiration" and such—always a big friend-maker among the well-read. And he did not stop with wrapping himself in unctuous pseudo-theology; no, we were treated to a thorough wrapping in the sanctimonies of marriage, too—as  if to say, have pity upon me, a married man who paints his lovely wife, do not attack such a virtuous man (hoping we would so soon forget the virtuous man attacking without scruple everyone we know). Then he strung together every sort of apology for his mediocrity that one could well imagine, but still he did not show it to us—with the excuse that we are not likely buyers, and so are wasting his time. 

      All fine and good, but when he comes to me, the gloves are removed, as befits the presence of threat. He lapses into the predictable invective—though none of it seems really inspired. I had expected better fun, honestly. No one believes that the Swollenman is a great painter, but some have worshipped him as a cutting polemicist, and I had been honing my repartee. All for nought. It is only the old attacking the young, and the rich miser resenting the man who does not need money and other shiny things to make him look good. Swollenman builds a wall of coinage to add to his list of feints, and he only lacks the flag to make his fortress complete. But we imagine he will have that on the bumper of his Cobra. In his mind that is the most stinging of replies—that Cobra—and I must admit that I consider it a telling hit. Oh, that I should have to share a common grave with Mozart and van Gogh and Thoreau and the other impecunious ones!

      But I thank Swollenman for his public reply and his complete airing of his perfect taste, both in regards to me and in regards to Yuqi Wang. The impecunious ones of the future will enjoy it immensely. It will rank up there with Tom Taylor's commentary on Whistler and Sickert's opinion of Sargent. Many will say Sickert? Taylor? Precisely.

      P.S. If the mons veneris scares you, maybe you should stick to painting men.


RH:  Miles, you have avoided answering my simple question...are those things examples of your student work or are they what you consider examples of your mature work. Simple question. We do not need your character assassinations, just a clear answer. If they are your student works, one wonders why you'd publish them. If they are your mature works, well... one can hope that positive changes will occur when you mature.  What one suspects is that you really cannot see them for what they are.


MM:  No, one is only certain that you can't. Or won't, because it would bring down your whole fragile house of cards, propped up only by coinage and cobras. And do not complain of character assassination, from one assassin to a lesser one.  I am not complaining—of  course, I haven't taken a hit yet. Critiquing a triptych altarpiece with painting, sculpture, poetry, woodwork, etc. based on the pubic hair is not exactly incisive. It is not even witty. It is simply a piece of your own psychological transparency. I had thought I could get you over here to self-destruct. I just thought it would take a bit longer.

    P.S. I am just practicing for higher stakes arguments with really nasty people—the avant garde.  I hope you don't mind if I use you as a sort of mannequin.


RH:  Perhaps English is your second language because you failed to understand the thrust of the sentence. It had to do with a triptych that had only one painted panel. Every other triptych I've seen had THREE painted panels. That's why they call it a TRI-ptych, you know, like TRI-plets, TRI-cycle and TRI-again with another lame excuse.  Again, are those student works or are those your mature output? You seem to have great difficulty in giving a straight answer.


MM:  (To Ricardo—a pawn of RH)  If you are better than any of the artists on ARC, show us your work.  Unless you also would like to take the Swollenman dodge, and inform us that it is all in storage or in a vault for posterity. Or maybe the bulb on the scanner is burned out. Or maybe the dog ate it.


The fish swims away, leaving his stomach behind

RH:  Ricardo, my mindless pawn, I am off to Cennini Forum to erase all of the disagreements you have had with me in order to keep one more of Mathis' fantasies alive.


MM:  Leaving so soon? To lick your wounds, I guess. Too bad, just when you were really beginning to implode, repeating yourself, searching for a new arrow and coming up empty. Most likely you need time to figure out how to boast about your sculpture and your poetry and your grand thematic work, without actually showing us any. Tell us in French, then you can imagine we don't understand.


MM:  [after RH had been booted by the moderator of Goodart for attacks on other members] What few seem to understand is that Swollenman didn't need to be booted or "Gandhied". He was playing Wilde to my Whistler—he was standing in a pool of his own blood. He lost every exchange, and was on the point of full collapse. I suppose we will just have to hear of his convalescence in the papers.


[Final point of fact: a triptych is so named because it has three panels, not because it has three paintings.  In the middle ages it was common to have triptychs with biblical quotes on the two side panels.  As just one example, I recommend Rob to the Memling Museum in Bruges, where there is a Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, anon., 1545, with quotes from Matthew on the side panels. There is also a copy of a similar triptych at the Metropolitan in New York, which you can see for yourself here.]

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