In this series, noted painter Joseph McGurl discusses plein air paintings by past masters that he finds instructive or inspiring. This week: an unknown Provincetown artist’s “Mudhead Study.” 

It is unfortunate that we don’t know who painted this classic example of a “Mudhead Study.” It is quite well done, and it illustrates the purpose and method of painting mudheads beautifully. 

This exercise was developed on Cape Cod by Charles Hawthorne as a way to help his art students see color. The term “mudhead” comes from the varying tones of brown seen in the faces in these paintings. The procedure was to position the model so he was backlit and in bright sunlight. A brightly lit beach on Cape Cod was the perfect setting for Hawthorne’s students to practice this exercise. Seeing reflected light and color in the shadow areas was one of the challenges the students faced. They applied the paint using only a putty knife so that they were forced to focus on shapes of color rather than lines and details. Turning the form by a color change rather than a value change was stressed. As the students were looking into the light, they would naturally squint so they could easily see masses of color rather than details. Look at how many different colors can be seen in this mudhead’s face and “white” shirt. While squinting at this painting, the forms fall into place, giving the impression of a figure sitting in bright sunlight. No details are necessary.



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