When working on the figure, Ted Seth Jacobs instructs the students in a progression of increasingly complex concepts, introducing one at a time beginning with the envelope, the block-in, and contours; moving on to a tonal study and a color wash; and finally, the piece-by-piece development of a completed work. He starts each exercise with a step-by-step demonstration. The students watch intently, occasionally questioning, taking notes, and even videotaping for later reference. For the next week or two, they paint or draw based on the new lesson while Jacobs offers individual critiques. They need to achieve a degree of skill with each idea before proceeding to the next level, and the amount of time involved varies. Jacobs moves on only when the students have an adequate understanding. “I don’t start with a fixed agenda, a fixed schedule,” he remarks. “I respond to the students’ needs at any given moment and follow what they seem to need. My feeling about teaching is that the process doesn’t take place unless there is a transfer of knowledge from the teacher’s mind to the student’s.”
This idea is a contrast to what Jacobs calls the “cassette method” of teaching. “That is what I think of as the university style,” he says, “when the teacher gives the information at a certain rate of speed over the course of the term, as if a cassette were playing. It is up to the students to get it or not–the teacher just keeps going. Whereas in my method, I do my utmost to make sure that the information goes into the person’s mind. My objective is making the student capable of teaching him- or herself.”
By creating teachers as well as artists, Jacobs hopes to breathe new life into the classical art instruction that he thinks is fading away. The artist elaborates, “My teachers at the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan all were basically trained in Europe or in that tradition that goes back hundreds or thousands of years. I had the benefit of getting that traditional knowledge, but around a hundred years ago, there was a break. Late in the 19th century, artists got the idea that the painted image need no longer be connected to the visual image. As a result, the teachers who were trained in the old ways died off, and most of the younger people went into some abstract style, so there was a break in that evolutionary chain. I feel it is my duty to try and pass on what I have learned so that body of knowledge won’t be lost to the next generations.”
That is not to say that Jacobs advocates blind acceptance of tradition. In fact, he thinks that unquestioning adherence to the past produces weak art. “It doesn’t have the vitality of fresh discovery,” he claims. “Hopefully, my students will take what I teach them and develop it and push it further. I would look at what my teachers said to do, but if the subject didn’t look like that to me, I’d try to figure out what it did look like. I like to think I discarded the parts of what I was taught that didn’t agree with what I saw in nature.”
This reinterpretation developed into the personal style that Jacobs calls “restructured realism.” “It is looking very intensively at my own perceptions and trying to find out what I am seeing rather than trying to squeeze my seen world into some sort of norm,” he comments. “I learn what nature looks like by looking at it and trying to match up what I am doing on the canvas to what I see before me. The restructured realism style is trying to strip away my preconceptions of the world as much as humanly possible in order to see only what remains, what I am actually perceiving.”
Through this continual process of comparing what he saw on the canvas to what he saw before him, Jacobs eventually noticed consistencies, and from those he codified his approach to painting. “If over and over you see something happening in an unexpected way, you realize this is the way it works, and through a process of observation and synthesis, you can find principles,” he says. Principles is a magic word for this artist. It encompasses both the manner of his painting as well as a more fundamental purpose for his art. Jacobs’ principles identify specifics of how he thinks a painting should be crafted, and the proper application of those techniques is equivalent to a successfully completed work, one that he describes as “when a nonartist sees it, his or her jaw drops in wonder at the exquisite quality of it.”
Jacobs’ basic principles deal with light, the actions of light, how the form is put together, and how a body is structured. “They are simple ideas, really, in simple language, but,” he chuckles, “their manifestation in nature is fiendishly complex.” The first necessity is to instill in his students the ability to register and recognize the actions of light. “There is no survival need to think about light,” he says. “If you look at my smock, it is a blue smock, but if you want to paint it, it breaks down into an infinite number of variations. The process of sight requires light and form because light by itself is invisible, and form without light is invisible. You can’t see light unless it hits something. So in order for vision to take place, you need both, light and something for light to strike.”
Comprehension of this symbiotic relationship between light and form is crucial to Jacobs’ style because without it his system of observation and analysis of nature compared to the canvas is moot. He explains, “All light comes from some energy source. It arrives with a direction, coming from that source, and travels, basically for our purposes, in straight rays. Traveling through space, the light loses intensity, and since it comes from one direction, and for our purposes all human forms are to some degree curved, that means that every millimeter, every atom of that form, is turned toward that straight beam at a different angle. Since all parts are turned at a different angle, the values, the intensities, of light, have to change constantly to make the form go round. If you model forms by making the center lightest and gradually darker toward the edge, that will make forms go round, but it has nothing to do with light or the direction of light. It is not a visually perceived form, it is a tactile approach. My style is purely based on the visual–form as shown to us by the effects of light. One is as important as the other.”
In addition to a form’s connection to light, an understanding of the structure of the form itself is also essential. “Many students say they need to learn anatomy as one of the most important skills for painting the figure, and in fact,” Jacobs says, “I think it is one of the least important.” Instead, he teaches structure. “That is how a form grows, how it is put together on the body, how it moves, and so on, which is entirely different from anatomy,” he states. “You can know anatomy as well as a surgeon, but if you don’t know structure, you won’t be able to draw. If you don’t know any anatomy but you do know structure, you can draw like Michelangelo.” Structure, Jacobs goes on to say, is not limited to the human shape; rather it applies to all organic forms, be they flowers, animals, vegetables, or humans.
To paint this variety of the physical world, Jacobs uses the many pigments available. Unlike other instructors who suggest students use a limited palette and slowly build in more color, he advocates an extended palette right from the start, although not quite the 60 or so colors that Jacobs himself uses. “The problem with a limited palette is that you just can’t suggest the variety of nature if you don’t have certain tube colors,” he notes. “The painting will look like your collection of tubes instead of the tonalities of nature.” Jacobs makes the point that he changes value by adding color, and whenever he changes value, he also adjusts the hue and chroma. Altering these three elements in tandem, the artist contends, is the only way to avoid a monochromatic effect. “For example,” he says, “Dali is an artist who painted basically in black and white. He used colors, but he didn’t change the hue and chroma. He only changed the value.”
As a supplement to hue, value, and chroma, Jacobs includes another monitor, a legacy from the more abstract styles he experimented with in his youth, that he calls “field effect.” “A field effect is the effect of contiguous tones upon one another and the eye’s receptors,” he shares. “A field effect is a living process in the eyes in the sense that none of the tones we see is invariable. All are influenced by everything that is around, even by our emotional state. Nothing is fixed.” For Jacobs, the field effect represents what the eye actually transmits, what he describes as “the flashes, the sparks of consciousness, that happen when we look at something.” Although the artist admits it would be impossible to replicate with paint something that takes place in the mind, that is the situation he wants the field effects to convey in his paintings, in a similar manner to the Impressionists forcing optical mixing to the canvas itself. “I am trying to suggest not only what passes through the lens of the eye but more what actually is perceived in the mind,” he says. “To suggest field effects is another reason why I have to change all three tones–value, hue, and chroma–at once because otherwise I wouldn’t get the same field effects. Elements of the work wouldn’t vibrate against one another sufficiently.
“I am interested in the reflections and vibrations that are thrown back and forth between the objects,” he continues. “I think what people should see in my paintings is something shining, dynamic. The world is a marvelous-looking place, and I want my paintings to uplift the heart with the beauty of light and color, the beauty of the form, and vibrating colors. Art is primarily a sensory message. It should, perhaps, indirectly reinforce the idea of the sacredness of the human being.”