The Art of Charles Sovek


Paint Like a Master Impressionist: The Art of Edward Potthast
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - December, 1988 (Cover Story)

Find out how Edward Potthast used light, color, reflections and other techniques.

Cover - The Artist's MagazineAs a teacher, I'll frequently paint from other artists' works. It's a great technique for showing various principles such as color mixtures, tonal organization, patterns and the other finely tuned components that make a great painting tick. My aim is not to do a fool-the-eye fake, but to put myself in the shoes of the artist I'm copying and imagine the procedure he used. Questions I'll ask myself might include: Was the canvas toned prior to the painting, and if so, what color? Was the preliminary drawing sharp and detailed or a broadly brushed-in sketch? What was the lay-in like? How did the artist develop the picture? Was the paint applied evenly or in thin-to-thick layers? And so on.

The ideal condition for making a copy is to go to a museum, set up your easel in front of a painting and go to work. This was a common practice of art students in past centuries. Although this method is less popular today, some museums still keep up the tradition by providing an easel and drop cloth for artists' use. For those unnerved by curious onlookers or who don't live near a museum, good reproductions in the form of prints and art books can offer a suitable alternative. Many libraries now have framed, quality reproductions of popular paintings available on a monthly lending or rental program.

It's best to work small when doing a copy. I find 8x10 or 9x12 inches to be ideal sizes. The reason for working small is that most attempts at a full size copy can easily turn into an unthinking rendering project with little or no attempt at analysis. It's not important that you end up with an exact replica. What is important is that you learn something about how the artist worked and what he was trying to accomplish. So instead of spending these days attempting a stroke-for-stroke facsimile, loosen up, work small, and try to have some fun.

I've chosen Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927) for this first article on learning from the masters, and in the following months I'll be analyzing other artists' works and talking about the many methods, principles and techniques to be learned from these great painters.

"A Holiday"

Seaside Sights - Crisp brushwork and vital, lifelike color activate this deceptively simple composition. Note how Potthast encircled the three passive children in the center of A Holiday (30 1/2 x 40 1/2) with the more active, playful gestures of the surrounding figures. The boy trotting through the water, for example, perfectly sums up the hustle and hustle of childhood beach fun. Also study the small background figures and dog, which contribute to the animation of the scene and imply distance.


What makes Edward Potthast's paintings so fresh and vital? How did he capture the feeling of light on his idyllic beaches, and what gives his loosely brushed-in figures so much life and animation? To answer these questions we first need to know something about Potthast's background.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1857, Edward Potthast succumbed to the lure felt by other Midwestern painters of his day and went to Europe to study. After working in Munich with Ludwig Loefftz, he was off to France, painting at Barbizon and nearby Grez-home of the popular Barbizon artists, and where Monet and Sisley first began completing entire compositions on location. Potthast returned to Cincinnati and, along with his other European trained friends (including Robert Blum, Frank Duveneck, Joseph De Camp and John Twachtman), began to apply the lessons learned abroad. in 1896 he moved to New York City where he remained for the rest of his career.

Interestingly, Potthast was one of the few American Impressionists to shake off the European influence and favor a style which, like Winslow Homer who also went abroad, had a uniquely American flavor. Aside from Homer, with whom Potthast apprenticed while both were illustrators, the artist's influences included William Glackens, Childe Hassam, and the French beach painters Boudin and Jonkind. But the most important artist to influence Edward Potthast was the Spanish Impressionist, Joaquin Sorolla, whose mastery of light Potthast successfully emulated. Although his early work reflected the dark tonalities of the Munich school, Potthast developed a much brighter palette and higher key, elements which later became trademarks in his popular paintings of New York beach scenes.

Step 1: A Simple Scheme - By covering the canvas with a thin wash of warm color, Potthast was able not only to subdue the stark white of the canvas, but also set up a warm-toned base on which to paint his basically cool color schemes. He avoided a detailed drawing in order to move figures or change proportions without fussy reworking He also kept it simple because he drew as he painted, and any linear hindrances would only hamper his spontaneous technique.   Step 2: A Tonal Guide - Still working with thin paint, Potthast would have indicated the key elements of his tonal plan. Although these first two stages will be covered with opaque paint they're an important guide for the placement of forms and overall patterning of the composition. Notice how the spotting of darks and deepening of the sky and water values give a preview to the painting's final tonal organization.
Author's sketches - "A Holiday"
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Step 3: Thick, Simple Strokes - This is a critical stage for any painting, and Potthast handled it beautifully executing the poster like patterns with deceptive simplicity Rather than building colors from thin to thick, he developed this stage with thick, opaque paint. There are only 14 pieces of color on my canvas, yet from a distance, the whole composition begins to unfold.   Step 4: Refine and Highlight - In this stage, forms are refined. Notice how warmer yellow blues are introduced near the horizon to imply distance, and dark accents are added beneath waves and in the small background figures. Potthast saved his lightest lights for the white bathing dresses, which look even crisper beside the rich accents of hair, bathing trunks and background figures. The jewel-like touches of hair ribbons complete the colorful orchestration of patterns and shapes.


Potthast liked to work small, with 12x16 inches being his favorite size. His choice of surface included both canvas and wooden board. On-location works were even smaller, usually 8x10 inches, and were used as a basis for his more elaborate compositions, which were probably done in his studio. After toning his surface with a thin, light wash of what appears to be raw sienna or sometimes burnt umber, he drew in his composition with a brush, simply indicating the basic forms of figures and general proportions of water, beach and props. He probably massed in a thin overall light and shadow pattern with the same earth color to lock up the tonal organization of the composition. Next came the big 'mosaic" of colors and values in light and shadow, applying the paint thickly now, to capture the light-struck effect of the subject.

Taking the painting to completion in the final stages is where Potthast's mastery is most evident. Working freely into thick, wet paint, he then modeled his forms, adding just enough detail to make the subject convincing. While Potthast's brushwork is playful, the drawing remains intact and the forms solid. His technique is full of bravura, without a hint of self-consciousness.


Sunlight preoccupied Potthast, and in his best works you feel the salty, seaside air and warm, late afternoon light enveloping the subject. One device Potthast used to capture the dazzling light of the shore was to pitch his values high up on the value scale-painting brightly clad figures, sand and waves high-keyed, and then contrasting them with the sharp, dark accents of an occasional bathing suit or patch of blue water. Another device was keeping the tonal difference between light and shadow very close in value. Study the figures in my sketch above and notice the subtle difference between the and shadow tones. This is an area where many students get confused when working from photographs because, invariably, shadows photograph darker than they really are-particularly on white surfaces-and the student unthinkingly copies what he assumes to be correct.

"Midsummer, Far Rockaway"

Boldly Brushed - Midsummer, Far Rockaway (oil, 8x10) shows Poffhast at the top of his form. Figures are boldly brushed in with warm and cool color spots and no attempt at detail. Notice how the simplified treatment of the sky, umbrellas and sand keeps the beehive of figure gestures from overpowering the composition. The clean shapes of the sky and sand also form an abstract base into which Polthast nestles the busy horizontal of people and umbrellas.

Potthast's play of warm against cool color also deserves study. By choosing to paint when the sun is low in the sky, the artist was able to fill his shadows with cool, reflected lights from the sky and water. By emphasizing this coolness-adding blue and bluepurple into his shadow mixtures-he then warms up the sun-filled lights by adding orange-yellow to the passages, setting up a complementary effect that perfectly captures the mood and time of day.

There's no record of Potthast's palette. Being the Impressionist that he was, however, it's safe to assume he didn't use earth colors except to tone his canvas or sketch in the composition. In fact, when copying a number of good Potthast works, I found I could closely match his color without using earth colors. When I did substitute earth colors for spectrum colors, the mixtures lost their brilliance. Since Potthast's paintings closely parallel those of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley - whose palettes are recorded - his choice of colors probably included cobalt violet, alizarin crimson, vermilion red, cadmium orange, cadmium light, medium and deep, chrome green, viridian, emerald green, cobalt blue and ultramarine blue.


Potthast knew the figure well but chose to use it more as a compositional device than a depiction of particular character. By choosing this approach, he was able to imply more than he actually showed, and by so doing let the viewer's imagination fill in the details of character. Using little more than a , halftone and shadow value, the artist was able to ingeniously capture the essence of a figure's gesture and form. A debt is owed to Winslow Homer here-both Homer and Potthast painted people nearly generic in form, using variations of the same basic body structure for all their figures, even though they clothed them in different attire or turned them into men, women or children.

Potthast's success in painting people was also enhanced by his ability to organize clusters of people, either close up or in the distance. This was accomplished by patterning these groups with inventive combinations of colors and tones. Study A Holiday (page 31) and notice the almost musical juxtaposition from the figure in the rose-colored dress in the left foreground, through the crisp whites of the middleground group (nicely accented with the rusty red notes of hair), and culminating with the playful boy in the green top, tan hat and purple-black trunks, who conveniently takes our eye back into the center of the composition. Observe also the nice echo of green in the small background figure at the top left. What makes the whole ensemble look so fresh and sparkling is the contrasting dark strip of ocean at the top of the picture, which provides a stabilizing horizontal. Like Degas, Potthast liked to use his figures toned grouping against a light background, or a light group against a dark background.

Similar Treatment - It's instructive to compare Potthast's location paintings with his larger studio compositions. Breezy Beach (right, 9x12), completed on site, is less concerned with detail and focuses more on color, light and shapes. But the studio painting Bathing Beach, Low Tide (below, 30x40) is more detailed and has a tighter organization of shapes and forms. Although the studio work is more narrative and lacks the immediacy of the smaller piece, it still captures the bracing freshness of a day at the beach. "Breezy Beach"

"Bathing Beach, Low Tide"


Another distinctive element in Potthast's work involves the use of small tidal pools or puddles which reflect his multicolored figures. Potthast used a principle well known to marine painters, which consists of showing the reflection of a dark object slightly lighter in value, the reflection of a light object slightly darker, and a middlevalued object about the same. By also lowering the intensity of reflected color, the water takes on an identity of its own, instead of appearing mirror like and false. Happily, however, Potthast wasn't literal about the accuracy of his reflections - he simplified or even eliminated a reflection if it hampered the painting's basic design.

Although the water in the beach paintings seldom takes up more than a quarter of the composition, its presence is felt throughout the picture by the use of cool reflected lights. The sky, too, imparts a bluepurple cast to the composition. Waves, like reflections, are painted with an eye for design, yet still remain conventional enough to indicate space and distance.


Like all great painters, Potthast had the ability to make brushstrokes magically turn into an illusion of reality. Consistent with most of the French and American Impressionists, his pigment is applied thickly and opaquely with no attempt to utilize washes or glazes. While we feel the grittiness of sand, the softness of flesh, and the wetness of water, Potthast didn't go overboard on texture. At most, he employed a few scratchy drybrush strokes to show sand, which nicely complements his usual wet-in-wet handling of other forms. His brushstrokes look as though he used the same size brushprobably a medium-sized bristle, with a few detail touches added with a smaller brush. What results is a unified fabric of similar-sized brushstrokes that unites the entire painting and enables it to hold its own as a surface design, while presenting a convincing interpretation of reality.

It's difficult to believe that so much knowledge went into these small paintings, yet without it the pictures would cease to be masterpieces. When I first began copying Edward Potthast's work, I discovered how much can be learned from this, or any, great painter. After making studies of your favorite artist, the next step is to choose a similar motif from real life and incorporate what you learned from your copies.

You may choose the artist's preference for cool, ultramarine charged shadows or his use of flat patterns of bright colors for clusters of figures. Don't worry about losing your identity; instead think of it as a learning experience. By doing a number of these exercises from different artists you'll soon see your work evolving into new and excitingly different directions. Potthast began that way, and so can you!

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