Dominic Vignola would like to know what's wrong with painting exactly what you see. "Anyone can make up something. The public prizes imagination over 'copying,' but it's not easy to paint what's there," he says. "No one has a problem with nonfiction writing."
By his own definition a "nonfiction painter," Vignola is also a much-beloved teacher of oil painting. Just ask his students, who gathered with friends and family on a Friday evening a few weeks ago to celebrate the opening of an exhibit of their work at Frame Warehouse. The place was so packed the crowds spilled out onto the sidewalk.
"He's a wonderful, amazing teacher," enthuses Janine Andrys, who's been attending Vignola's class at the River Forest Community Center for six years. "He taught me how to see things differently." She had several paintings on display, and had already sold one in the first hour of the exhibit.
Andrys was an art major and a commercial artist before "life intervened," she says. But plenty of other students come to Vignola with no experience at all.
"I'd never done anything. No drawing, nothing," admits Judy Parro, who travels from Roselle to study with Vignola. She's been at it for five months, and had two paintings in the show. "Pears" was listed at $200.
"Friends of mine took the class and talked me into it. I was a nervous wreck, but now I love it. Anybody can succeed at this. My husband's building me a room to paint in," she says.
Vignola, a soft-spoken, engaging guy, is equally proud of his charges. "Their level of work is a lot higher than in most student shows. I believe this is the first time a commercial gallery has allowed a student collection. Teachers can't always be proud, but the method I use gives great results," he says.
The method, "tonal impressionism," is all about painting tones and shapes. Not only is drawing unnecessary, it's strictly forbidden.
"I'm not anti-drawing. I'm anti-drawing on canvas. If you want to draw, fine. But if you want to paint, paint," he says.
And a pear should look exactly like a pear. Abstract painting? "It doesn't take the same skill, just happy and unhappy accidents," he insists.
Van Gogh? "Insane, a bad painter."
Jackson Pollack? A monkey could do it.
"If you want reality filtered through opinion, that's fine. Most people put a lot of fiction in their work. But we paint the truth," he says.
There's no negotiating here. If you take a Vignola class (he also teaches at the Oak Park Art League), you'd better be ready to follow the rules.
Becoming a painter
Vignola didn't start out to be a painter. He grew up in a blue-collar family in Franklin Park. His fatherâ€""a darn good painter who wanted to paint but was sidetracked by life," recalls Vignolaâ€"supported his family by painting houses instead of pictures. There weren't any fancy art classes for the kids, although Vignola was interested and dabbled on his own.
A modern foreign languages major at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, he planned to be a high school Spanish and Italian teacher. But after one year teaching kids at East Leyden High School who were less-than-enthusiastically fulfilling their language requirement, he changed his mind.
"I decided to save up and go to art school," he says.
By age 26, Vignola was oil painting on his own. He'd taken a class at the American Academy of Art but didn't like it much, and worked at teaching himself until "I'd built up my skills, but I hit a wall," he recalls.
So since the Internet hadn't been invented yet, Vignola did what people did in 1978â€"he went to the Yellow Pages. Under "Fine Arts," the first name listed was Joseph Allworthy, so that's who he called. After they'd chatted a while, Vignola asked Allworthy when he went to art school.
"When he said '1907,' I realized how old he was [86 at the time]. But he said, 'Bring your work, come over, and I'll tell you if you're wasting your time.' When I saw his work, I realized that's the way I wanted to go. And he said, 'You've got skills. Come over on the weekends, and I'll teach you.'"
They began a relationship that lasted until Allworthy died, 13 years later, at the age of 99. Allworthy, it turned out, had studied with the founder of tonal impressionism, Max Meldrum (1875-1955), an Australian painter and teacher. Vignola says Meldrum didn't invent the methodsâ€"he studied masters like Rembrandt and Velazquez and "was merely the first to organize these visual and painting techniques into a coherent system."
Allworthy, who became more a mentor than a teacher to Vignola, passed the method to him. Vignola, in turn, has adhered faithfully to it, in his own work and his teaching. Along with holding classes here and workshops around the country, Vignola does portraits by commission and sells other pieces. He's been able to make his living as an artist for the past 20-some years.
Tonal impressionism is based on "the effects of light and dark," explains Vignola. "Realists work with tones, with gradations of light and dark. That's the tonal part." And like the French Impressionists, "we get gradations without drawing. We do it by building up large shapes of light and dark. You look at the light and dark pattern first. It almost doesn't matter what it is."
Finding words a weak substitute for the real thing, Vignola has prepared examples of how it's done. In his Oak Park dining room, where paintings by Vignola, his
longtime girlfriend (and former student) Charlene Engler, and other students fill the walls, the corners and the spare floor space, Vignola props up a series of five small paintings.
All portraits of the same young girl, they range from very blurry and undefined (the first) to totally focused and detailed (the last). It's how you do one painting, letting each of the five stages dry before going on to the next, explains Vignola. He uses these to demonstrate the technique.
Start by looking at your subject. "Squint down. Almost close your eyes. Or take your glasses off, if you're nearsighted," he says. What you see (try it) are tones: skin tone, hair tone, shirt tone, background, like "looking from a distant point." Recreate the blurry shapes and colors on the canvas.
Each step adds more detail, although you'll continue squinting through step four. At step two, add shadows in the face, darker tones in the hair. By step three you should be able to tell who the girl is. In step four, she'll appear to be about 10 feet away; by step five, she should seem about 5 feet away and as realistic as if you were looking at her face in a mirror.
But students are well along when they get to this point. Since color can be tricky, Vignola starts beginners with black and white, or rather, five shades of gray. In the first class, they copy an abstract, black-and-white painting.
"I want them to see shapes, tones, lights, darks. It's harder to do than you'd think," he says.
Once that's mastered, students are given a black-and-white portrait by Velasquez to copy, but with a twist. "It's a painting with high contrast, and I have them do it upside down," explains Vignola. "It's still an abstract in a sense. If they get the shapes in the right degree of dark and light tones and in the right place and configuration on the canvas, when they turn it over, it will look like the painting."
In the next exercise, he introduces painting with one color (raw umber, a dark brown). And then it's on to the Vignola Tonal Color Chart and Mixing Guide, a palette with rows of colors, each moving in stages from dark to light. It's based, he explains for those aware of such things, on the Albert Munsell color system. Each
student creates his own palette. Covered with Plexiglass, students can mix right
Getting the tone and then the color right is crucial to good oil painting, he says. "The hardest work is done on the palette. The more time you spend looking and mixing, the less time at the canvas correcting."
The goal, he emphasizes, is "to capture reality as it is, not as [you] want it to be. Don't take my class if you don't want to paint what's really there."
No talent required
If you have enough dexterity to hold a pencil and write legibly, you can paint, insists Vignola. Unlike drawing, which requires a fair amount of eye-hand coordination, "painting is more mental than people think. It's eye-mind-hand, a record of how clearly you think and see," he says.
Vignola estimates that only about 1 percent of the 500 students he's taught didn't do well, mostly because they were "so linear in their thought processes that they couldn't get beyond drawing."
The rest of us, he insists, can learn to paint pretty well. "Talent is something people say you have when you develop your skills. There are no 6-year-old proteges in art, no Mozarts. It takes a long apprenticeship."
That said, though, Vignola admits that trained painters don't all end up in the same place. "It's like driving," he says. "We all, or most of us, have the skill to learn how to drive without cracking up the car. There are very few Mario Andrettis. But almost everyone can become a competent painter, so if you're doing a portrait, it looks like reality."
Vignola prefers oils because he believes they "mimic reality the best." And the commonly-held belief that they're hard to work with is unfounded.
"This is a craft you can learn, like carpentry," he says. "And like carpentry, you have to follow the rules. Otherwise, the house will fall down on your head."
Vignola's classes at the River Forest Community Center and the Oak Park Art League run for two-month sessions. Prospective students are welcome to observe a class before signing up. Call Vignola at 524-3380 for details. The student exhibit at the Frame Warehouse, 346 Harrison St., runs through June 1.