Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin (Russian: Николай Иванович Фешин; 26 November 1881 (Kazan, Russia) – 5 October 1955 (Santa Monica, California) was a Russian-American painter known for his portraits and works featuring Native Americans. After graduating with the highest marks from the Imperial Academy of Arts and traveling in Europe under a Prix de Rome, he returned to his native Kazan, where he taught and painted. He exhibited his first work in the United States in 1910 in an international exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After immigrating with his family to New York in 1923 and working there for a few years, Fechin developed tuberculosis and moved West for a drier climate. He and his family settled in Taos, New Mexico, where he became fascinated by Native Americans and the landscape. His best work while in the United States was of these elements. The adobe house which he renovated in Taos is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is used as the Taos Art Museum. After leaving Taos in 1933, Fechin eventually settled in southern California.
Nicolai Fechin was highly influential student of Russian master Ilya Repin. Fechin, along with John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Anders Zorn are the perhaps the most frequently cited influences on contemporary impressionists. But it is Fechin’s techniqueand approach that made his paintings stand out. Masterful with color and palette knife, Fechin used whatever he could, including saliva and his thumb, to achieve the effects he was seeking.
Fechin would start with an abstract and bring it back to realism in select areas such as the face and hands, but his compositions, especially anything other than the center of interest, were generally abstract.
Began paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers which he had made. He generally prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches.
His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This was the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings.
Fechin typically used stiff bristle brushes, painting knives and often even his fingers. Sometimes using the brush in one direction, and then blending it with a contrasting palette knife stroke. Fechin typically used bold, wide brush strokes and tended to avoid the use of the zinc white, as it ruined transparency and made his colors look chalky.
Reduced Oil Content
He would place pigment on an absorbent surface to remove much of its oil content. While the oil content was being reduced, he would block in the basic values in casein tempera, using a brilliant white, gesso-type porous ground. He often remarked that it was a shame to spoil such a beautiful surface. The ground was first prepared with cottage cheese, rabbit’s skin glue, or other ingredients, and then with Merck casein ground. This further absorbed oil so the end result had a true matte finish. After the ground and the casein had set sufficiently, he would apply oil colors.
Occasional Disastrous Results
At times he became impatient to begin work; did not allow for the adequate drying of the ground and would be greatly annoyed with his own impatience. The ground dried at one speed, the casein at another, the oil at still another; thus, considerable chipping and cracking occurred and the results were sometimes disastrous.
Technique While in Taos
While in Taos, Fechin generally used of two types of paint, one more plastic than the other, the dry brush technique, the juxtapositioning and layering of colors, and the purposeful omission of color to expose the white ground. He applied his color with brush, palette knife, and thumb. Once he developed lead poisoning after repeated moistening of the palette knife on his tongue; however, this moistening was the added touch which gave a special sheen to the skin tones.
In his own words:
On the primaries “As a matter of fact an artist has to deal with only three basic colors: red, blue, yellow (all the rest are combinations of these fundamental colors). Everyone knows this, but few pay attention to the fact. Thus the first step for the artist to learn to see these primary colors and to distinguish them separately one from the other.”
On maintaining intensity "To avoid murky results, it is necessary to learn how to use the three basic colors and to apply them, layer upon layer, in such a way that the underlying color shows through the next application. For instance, one can use blue paint, apply over it some red in such a manner that the blue and the red are seen simultaneously and thus produce the impression of a violet vibration. If, in the same careful manner, one puts upon his first combination a yellow color, a complete harmonization is reached - the colors are not mixed, but built one upon the other, retaining the full intensity of their vibrations."
On harmony and balance “He would begin by looking at an empty canvas. He would look at it and say, ‘This is a beautiful space and the only job of the artist is to fill that space in with harmony and balance.’ And if it was truly in harmony and balance you could put it upside down and it should still be in harmony and balance; and if it wasn’t he would chuck it and start again.” – (Eya Fechin, interview with Amy Scott in Nicolai Fechin: Across Two Continents)
On technique “... a high degree of expertise in technique has always had, and always will have, a predominant place in art. The subject, in itself, has value only according to the mode of the day. Tomorrow it will be superseded by a new fashion or fad. With the passing of time, the subject loses much of its meaning. But the fine execution of that subject retains its value...”
“To me, technique should be unlimited... [with] constant growth in ability and understanding. It must never be mere virtuosity but an endless accumulation of qualities and wisdom... First comes the initial idea for a work - what the artist desires to portray, to bring into concrete manifestation. In order to fulfill this task, he must begin to build, to organize."
On fine workmanship “Concept or rendition: which is more important? That is a basic question in art. In the first case it is frequently said: “Not badly conceived but poorly executed!” Such evaluation is no credit to an artist. On the contrary, fine workmanship makes one forgive even triviality. In such cases it is said: “Stupid, but devilishly well executed!” This is a common rule. A high degree of expertise in technique has always had, and always will have, a predominate place in art. The subject, in itself, has value only according to the mode of the day. Tomorrow it will be superseded by a new fashion or fad. With the passing of time, the subject loses much of its meaning. But the fine execution of that subject retains its value.”
"The appearance of a truly new idea in art is always valuable, but only when it aims at fulfilling itself in an accomplished piece of work."
On independence from subject “The more consummate his technique, the easier the artist will find it to free himself from all dependence upon a subject. What he uses to fill his canvas with is not so vital. What is vital is how he does it. It is sad if an artist becomes a slave to the object he seeks to portray. The portrayed object must serve as nothing more than an excuse to fill a canvas. Only when the subject passes through the filter of his creative faculty does his work acquire value for an artist...”
On fine painting “Fine painting is simply a matter of putting the right colors in the right places on canvas.”
On learning to paint and draw “No one can teach you how to paint and how to draw except you yourself. You cannot learn how to paint by watching a well-trained master painting, until you yourself, have learned how to paint with some understanding first. Only by the path of much practice and experience can mature results be reached.”
“As soon as an original idea is formed – what the artist wants to portray and by what concrete means – he must begin to structure, to organize. A method for learning the creation of "form" lies in the creation process itself. In my opinion, creation of form cannot be based on distribution of light and shadow alone, as light is constantly changing and it is only an impression of form, but not form itself.”
On line “As we begin to draw we become aware of "line." A line is nothing more than a boundary between space and form. It is meaningless by itself, until it brings about the construction of form, which he envisions and seeks to project. Once a form is established, the lines which helped in its gradual building cease to exist or have meaning as "line"; they simply participate in the reality of the form."
On making the canvas an organic whole “The artist must never forget that he is dealing with the entire canvas, and not with any one section of it. Regardless of what he sets out to paint, the problem remains one and the same. With his own creative originality, he must fill in his canvas and make of it an organic whole. There must not be any particularly favored spot in the painting...”
On making each painting special “If conventional shades and colors are used, the ability to see them in reality is lost. It is essential that the artist should regard every new painting as an entirely special world of color, light, form and line.”
On medium "Also for myself, I do not like to use medium. This dissolves the paints too much. The pigments mix up together, do not retain their individual distinctness and thus again lose much of their fresh intensity."
A warning “My way of drawing and painting can be taught only through direct visual perception and it is almost impossible to describe it. An attitude toward painting and a few technical fundamentals can be discussed, however - but always with a warning not to take my observations in an overly literal or rigidly set manner...”
On art "Art, like the whole of life, submits to the eternal law of change, and any attempts to stop it at one particular level are like vain efforts to stop time itself."
Matthew D. Innis - Color Palettes: Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin (1881-1955)
Mary Balcomb and Eya Fechin - Nicolai Fechin
Artists Revealing Their "Secrets"
John Singer Sargent's Painting Techniques
Sergei Bongart on Art and Painting