“I had not done oil painting ever, before starting,” Olenka Wellisz said before diving into the details of her independent study, an extensive art project she’s worked on all year, “and I really wanted to learn how.”
Since September, Wellisz, a member of the class of 2017 at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, has spent 80 minutes every other day in the school’s airy art room, working through a curriculum all of her own, with individual instruction from upper school art teacher Lee Newman. This May, while most of the senior class excitedly and a bit nervously clammers into the world of careers with three-week internships, Wellisz’s 80 minutes of painting every other day will morph into seven-hour days of daily painting, hopefully allowing her to finish the oil-paint masterpiece she’s constructed an independent study around.
Wellisz admitted that she’s “often been struck” by how whenever she’s tried to experiment with oil paints, it’s never come out looking the way she wants it to. She added, “So I wanted to do a study on how exactly to do an oil painting the way an old master would’ve done it, because I’ve often thought that those were the best kinds of oil paintings.”
The Stone Ridge student decided to emulate Rembrandt’s work because he is “my favorite Dutch painter,” and the value for her in picking this specific artist to copy is that it makes her independent study a process of “learn[ing] the technique from him, almost as though I was in his workshop.”
She explained that Newman is helping her build up a painting from scratch the way Rembrandt would’ve done in his studio. They stretched linen over canvas, prepared it with rabbit-skin glue to make it taut, and then Wellisz ground up pigment to make the oil paints she’d use.
“That took me a really long time,” she said. She explained that Newman brought in pigment, and then she ground it up herself, using a mortar, a hard bowl, and pestle, a club-shaped tool, to grind the pigment in with the oil, taking care to squelch any particles. After this process was complete, Wellisz had to put the paint in tubes herself.
After the paint had been grounded and while several preparatory layers dried over the canvas, her next step involved making a preliminary sketch, which Wellisz said took her about a month. “Only then did I actually start painting,” within the chalk lines of the transferred-to-canvas sketch, she said.
Wellisz’s painting is more than based off of the artist’s “Lucretia” in the National Gallery; she intends to fully replicate Rembrandt’s piece down to the dimensions, which she made only slightly smaller so that she would be able to recreate the piece at school.
When asked if she’s almost finished, she exhaled and said, “Oh my gosh, no, I’m not finished; I started painting in January, which is really late. The first semester was all preparatory things.”
Now she has several more layers to do. She began with “dead coloring”, a process that consists of painting in neutrals to build up the light and shadow in the painting. She just completed this for the face and hands, and is now on to painting these parts in color.
On a visit to a museum in California, which included some unfinished works by Rembrandt, Wellisz said she observed “his painting process,”, specifically that “he leaves his clothes until the last minute; he does the face and the hands really detailed until he starts painting the garments.” So Wellisz has done the same.
During her three-week senior internship period, she hopes to complete the painting.
When asked if she had any fears about missing out on a traditional internship, Wellisz said, “No… If I had an internship, I’d feel like I was taking time away from what I really wanted to do.” She said the 12 days will allow her to “do stuff I’ve wanted to do all year,” including the painting and other drawing projects “I’ve had lying by for a while.”
The most valuable thing for Wellisz about this process is that “it’s taught me how to do oil painting.” She described this learning journey as “basically being taught by the best,” and ruminated that this kind of personal project “shows you everything that you can do and allows you to explore things to your fullest potential.”
Wellisz hopes to continue doing similar compositions in college, now that she knows “exactly how to get to that end product.” To her, the “whole point” of what she refers to as a “master study” is to learn how to do oil painting and to be able to apply the techniques she’s studied for so long to her own art.
What she’ll miss most about Stone Ridge is “the artistic community here,” she said. Though she’s excited about the communities she’ll find next year at the University of Chicago, she will miss her Stone Ridge community, which includes her friends and art teachers. Even if she finds another artistic community she loves, she said “it won’t be the same one that I had in high school, and it won’t be the same art room.” She then laughed as she said, “I think I’ll just miss the combined aesthetic!”
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