Excerpts from Sergei Bongart
by Mary N. Balcomb

Chapter 5, pp. 88-92
Learning to paint is learning to see
Ron Lukas remembers being told that painting was all about seeing. “Learning to paint is learning to see,” Sergei kept repeating. “And I did not have natural color sense, but [Sergei] taught me how to see colors in nature. First, he said you have to put the right spot of color in the right place! And, the best exercise for training the eye was to exaggerate or overstate the color and then work from there, always comparing the relationships of one color to another, one value to another—how light or dark—how warm or how cool.” Sergei emphasized: More contrast. More contrast. To create, you must think: cool, warm, related co-lor, reflected co-lor, dark, light, thick, thin, dissimilar spaces, opposite contrasting movements—like in music, fast, slow, soft, loud; but all must relate to create symphony both on canvas or in music hall. Every painting needs active and quiet areas and feeling of poetry and drama. If painting gray day, make it gray. Use gray and silver. If painting sunny day, use oranges, red, yellows, greens—make it happy. Every element of painting must tie together, must have unity, must express mood.

“Relationships of color were fundamental in Sergei’s teaching. No one else in the 70’s was talking or teaching in this way.” Ron continued to say that Sergei’s “teaching activities were important to him and this is something he would have liked to be recognized for.” It is interesting to note that in the late 1890’s Augustus John, a student at the Slade school in London, complained about not having a natural sense of tone and not knowing how to paint because he had not been taught the relation of one color to another.

Bongart’s own seeing ability was beyond the extraordinary: trees were not simply trees, mountains and clouds were not the mere phenomena of nature; to Bongart they were shapes and forms, symphonies of color, frequently enhanced with brilliant haloes of the sun’s back lighting. He saw and felt the exquisite sensations of living poems. One autumn, Vladimir Shatalow visited Sergei in Idaho and they decided on a painting excursion to Wyoming and Montana; enroute they stopped to admire the Grand Tetons. “I was so hypnotized by the color of the lake and mountains, such a grand view, I immediately set-up my easel and started painting. After awhile I started looking around for Sergei and found him some distance away with his back to the Tetons! Painting tiny old aspen trees in yellows and reds. I had to laugh!” Most people look for the magnificent, the obvious, but Sergei found beauty in everything, even the ordinary, the mundane. “We are surrounded by interesting subject matter,” he admonished. “There are no bad subjects, only lousy artists. Everything can be forgiven in art, but boring art.” If the view, the subject, was too perfect—the perfect picture postcard—he avoided it.

Chapter 6, p. 111
Painting Demonstrations
Painting demonstrations were part of Bongart’s teaching methods given to his regular students, to workshop participants, or on occasion to the friends and patrons of the arts. Because he wanted to educate anyone who wanted to learn about art, the audiences were filled with hungry minds eagerly awaiting the master painter’s appearance.

Flamboyant in early years, his dress became more conservative as time progressed—a natty business suit with complementary tie (except in Idaho where the look was casual: open shirt, rolled-up sleeves, and cotton trousers with legs fitted into knee-high boots). Whatever the attire, he was always well groomed and polished, complete with after-shave lotion, and was ever graciously charming.

Patricia LeGrande remembered: Students scurried to secure the best seats before the demonstration began. There was a nervous rustle of anticipation. Soon the Master made his usual dramatic entrance and the atmosphere of the room changed noticeably—everyone could feel the charge of electric energy in the hushed silence. As he walked through the studio to his easel, he nodded to one or another in recognition. Then, picking up a brush, he began to ‘massage’ it. Bongart appeared to be deep in thought, as if alone in a silent realm of his own. Next, he slowly, methodically squeezed out his paints. Suddenly in a dramatic gesture he whirled around, brush in hand, extremely animated, and very charming, he said with a strong basso voice, ‘Hello effrybody’—the eff-r-ry-baw-dy was drawn out in more of a caress than salutation. ‘Today I will paint for you,’ and the lecture began.

He generally had a still life set up with background accoutrements when demon-strating for his classes or workshops; but at public demonstrations especially, for sake of expediency, he used drawings from his sketchbooks or photographs as a guide, a point of departure. However, he cautioned against the use of photographs until one has years of experience painting from life, and then to use a photograph only as a reference, not something to copy. Bongart refused to demonstrate portrait painting because he felt students would be too concerned about the achievement of a likeness rather than concentrating on the basic principles of painting.

Chapter 7, pp. 138-139
Continuation of Painting from a Model
Bongart talked of painting the clothed figure and looking for folds in the cloth which would best suggest the correct gesture and the importance of overstating it for drama, not paying too much attention in the less important areas.

On another day when the students had positioned themselves in the field absorbed in landscape painting, a sudden storm appeared, creating fast-moving skies. Awed by the wonders of nature, they hesitated, wondering whether to continue working or run for shelter. To their astonishment, seemingly more swift than the storm, Sergei came running from his studio, snatched the paint tubes from one student, squeezed more paint onto her palette, grabbed a brush, and feverishly began to slash paint on her partially finished canvas. Completely stunned, the others watched as he continued in a fury, covering the canvas while the heavens burst. The speechless young woman had already had doubts about being at the workshop: Her ideas about painting were more about photo realism, meticulously applied paint with highly controlled techniques—totally different from the workshop’s philosophies. In fact she had thought of dropping out after the first day. Now, her fellow classmates thought her departure was a certainty. She was dumbstruck at first, but this magical phenomenon opened her eyes to the real talents of a Master painter and the masterpiece he had just created. She was wise enough to realize that she had just been given a gift, an invaluable lesson in art and learning. She stayed on to complete her course with new appreciation and respect.

Of the stormy event, Lois McFarland, a student who witnessed it all, said, “That’s the way he was, that’s how he painted—with emotion.” Sergei saw nature at work and without second thought knew what he had to do. He seized the moment and performed his miracle on canvas, giving the astonished students a unique many-faceted experience. “The result was a wondrously exciting painting.”

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