Friday, April 28, 2017

Digital Delving

These past weeks of trying out various digital sketch programs as well as more full-featured ones has been a great chance to work on all kinds of images and ideas. The programs in question are mostly easy to use even for a non-techie, with results ranging from passable to excellent. These are some of them.

The first image turned out to be a cartoon. I began with a simple sketch of two people visiting a museum, but it changed. The New Yorker has carried this style of cartoon for decades. For some reason while I was doing a sketch of a museum using Sketchbook and a Wacom tablet the idea of money as abstract art popped up. Maybe it was simply the way the image evolved that made me think of this style of cartoon. That, and the thought that in real terms, abstract art these days is money.

The next image is a drawing of the sculptor Camille Claudel based on a well-known photograph of her, taken when she was twenty. Ms. Claudel's story is a tragic one. She showed signs of being a talented sculptor while still a child, and received encouragement from her father. Eventually she went to Paris at an early age and became involved with Rodin, the world-famous sculptor. Ms. Claudel lived with him openly (though he was nearly twenty years older, and married), for which she was condemned and shunned by her family, even a beloved brother. She parted from Rodin, struggled with mental illness and was at last confined involuntarily until the end of her life and mostly forgotten. Yet she was a truly gifted sculptor whose work is now in the collections of a number of museums, including a newly-opened one in her home town in France. This drawing was done using Sketchbook and a Wacom tablet.

And here are two studies, "painted" using ArtRage5. The yellow one is the official bird of the state of Iowa, a goldfinch. The other is completely imaginary but based on the American robin.

The more I use these programs, the more I like them. They provide flexibility. It's possible to revise or rearrange much of an image without the problems with tangible media like graphite or paint. No erasing, or painting over. For me, simple and quick manipulation makes study easier. Digital works of these kinds are becoming more and more useful for me as I approach paintings in the real world.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Thank Goodness for Spring

The dark cold season has turned, at long last, out here in flyover land. The grass has gone through that early, intense green, narcissi are still in full flower, and so are at least a few flowering trees. Spring color is all the more beautiful following a dull, grey-brown winter season. We had perhaps the least snowfall within memory, so the dry grasses and decaying leaves were more obvious. For those who don't do much outdoor work, the warming sun and popping buds are a real temptation. The great weather has even lured me out of the studio.

In celebration of spring, here are a few outdoor images from the past couple of weeks, showing not only the progression of the season but the progression of a completed painting from sketchbook to signature.

The first is a watercolor sketch showing the emergence of honeysuckle in the woods across the creek.
The old fallen tree that has been a subject in the past--a winter casein painting some weeks ago--has drooped a bit more as new green erupts around it. The sketchbook is about 3x5 when closed, so this image is around 3x8.
Here is the same subject from a lightly different viewpoint about a week later, showing how much new foliage has emerged. The first image is on a plain white page, but the second page was toned initially with a light violet, the way at least some of the Impressionists did. Unlike the first image, this sketch was finished with casein. I laid in the drawing with a watercolor pencil, placed the basic color scheme using watercolor, then painted over it, taking advantage of the opacity of casein. In effect it's rather like laying in an oil wash and then painting over it with full-bodied paint, or perhaps like using a thin acrylic underpainting to begin an oil. The watercolor can still be incorporated into the casein layer above it, adding complexity.

Finally, after making several other studies, I did the final casein painting. "Druid Hill Spring"
"Druid Hill Spring," casein, 9x12, 2017
is 9x12 on 300 pound, cold-press watercolor paper. I used a watercolor block, so stretching the paper wasn't necessary. I toned the paper with light violet to reduce the white of the paper and to provide a complement to the generally yellow-green colors of spring. The paint is an "acrylic gouache" which stays in place when overpainted. I drew the basic shapes and indicated levels of depth using a burnt sienna watercolor pencil, which is mostly obliterated by the opacity of the casein. From those steps I completed the picture in several overlapping layers, trying throughout to be mostly loose and painterly, adding sharper detail toward the center of interest. The violet under-painting added sparkle.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Nulla dies sine linea

The quote above is a well-known aphorism that comes to us from antiquity. Pliny the Elder attributed the phrase to Apelles, the renowned painter of Greek Antiquity, who worked around the time of Hippocrates. Perhaps the quote is accurate, although Pliny was writing about five centuries after Apelles lived. The literal translation is "no day without a line," but of course the line in question could easily be either drawn or written. In any event the quote has been used for over two millennia by many artists and writers. In a blog post a few months ago, James Gurney mentioned that Adolph Menzel, the 19th century German artist, used the phrase as his own personal motto. One of my mentors often cited the same saying regarding how to progress in art. Others have done so too.

The Latin phrase is only one of many bits of advice, mottoes, sayings and the like that have influenced my own art, but it's been an important one. It helps me to continue the habit of daily drawing. Sometimes the drawings are digital but more often I work in traditional media. Some drawings are mere sketches just for study, like those of facial expressions I posted some weeks ago, some are preliminary studies for paintings, and some are stand-alone drawings in various mediums from ink to metalpoint. But the common denominator is always the continuation on a daily basis.

Here are a few graphite images from the past six months.

This began as a study of my model Brooke, intended as a study for a head and shoulders portrait, though it could stand alone as a finished drawing, too, despite the lack of detail in her hair. She's a lovely model who is not only attractive but easy to work with. Although I've drawn and painted her from life numerous times, this particular drawing was done from a reference photo. (The eye just below her head is actually a study of another model.)

For a finished portrait drawing, a mid-tone paper is usually preferable because the artist can then employ light and dark values to suggest structure more readily. This one of Brooke is actually on white paper.

The next image is a quick sketch of a deranged man who shot two dark-skinned foreign men in a bar in Kansas a month or so ago. The victims, who didn't know the attacker, were computer engineers from India, but the shooter somehow believed they were Muslims. One of the men died. The story was even more affecting when I saw the shooter's expression in his mug shot, which was widely published. Mug shots are taken at a time of significant inner turmoil for most of the subjects, many of whom have committed a serious offense. Seeing photographs like the mug shot that served as a reference make me wonder what on earth is happening behind those eyes. What emotions, forces, outside stresses and other unknown or unspeakable influences lead us to commit some of the dreadful offenses we humans are capable of? What happened to these individuals that led them to the behaviors or events that prompted the photo? The idea was to capture the intensity of his gaze and to suggest the unexplored depths they could reveal.

One of the most important parts of daily drawing is the chance to practice. Musicians practice constantly and so should a visual artist, in my opinion. Sometimes practice involves repeating past exercises  and sometimes it involves learning or re-learning. Lately I've begun  drawing cats and dogs as a morning exercise. Here are a couple of those drawings.

The first is a drawing of a mama cat descending stairs with a kitten in her mouth. This is about 5x7 on toned paper, done from a small sketch I saw in a textbook, considerably modified. The muscles and movement of animals is an important part of any artist's mental dictionary. A lot of animals have very similar musculoskeletal structure, particularly mammals. Dogs and cats are part of everyday life nearly everywhere and deserve particular study.

The second is a head of a rather statuesque dog, copied from a book of drawing lessons. It's probably a Doberman, but could be another breed--great Dane for example. The head and ears were all that I was actually interested in working on with this particular drawing. This breed has a relatively long nose, but not longer that the length of head from eyes to its the back of the head is roughly equal to the length of the snout. This sketch was done on an 11x14 pad but the actual drawing is not larger than 10x8. This is graphite done using a 2B graphite stick. The size of the pad means using a standing easel, which is useful practice. Many times I draw while sitting, but it's good to keep standing so you can back up a look at the result from a distance. My old friend Bill Whitaker calls it "the painter's dance."

Finally, here is a figure study boiled down to a few lines. It was originally to be a straightforward study--just an attempt to hone skill--but then the challenge of using minimal lines came to mind, and this small drawing (about 5x7) on toned paper was the result. Although it could perhaps stand as a gesture drawing from a studio session, it's actually from an underwear advertisement I saw online. Still, the basic idea is similar to gesture: to capture the essence of the figure, and the motion, but in this case to use the least number of marks as effectively as possible. I used a 2B pencil.

Drawing in the Morning (previous post in the series)

Friday, April 07, 2017

ArtRage5--A Test-Drive

Digital art has progressed far from the days of ASCII-based images produced by repeating printed letters to CGI images and computerized movie effects, to completely digital movies. Computer programs for desktop machines and tablets have become very sophisticated. Photoshop, from Adobe, originally released in the 1990s, became the best-known program and has spawned a number of Photoshop spin-offs. Another Adobe program called Illustrator is widely used. And there has been a profusion of new programs and applications during this century. Sketchbook (a product of Autodesk) is a program/app that I've used with pleasure over the past few years both on desktop machines and on a tablet.

One particular program that has been a standout for me since its initial release is ArtRage, from Ambient Design. Like older versions, the new ArtRage emulates the appearance and production of real-world drawings and paintings. You can make a drawing that looks like graphite or charcoal on paper, or a "painting" that has the appearance of watermedia--whether transparent or opaque--on a variety of textures similar to real world counterparts like canvas or sketching paper. Moreover, ArtRage not only allows you to make a digital image that resembles traditional ones but also (at least in part) reproduces the physical qualities of the medium. That is, watercolors can be laid down transparently in ArtRage, on absorbent "paper"that allows the color to bleed into the background. Or "oil paint" can be mixed and blended very similarly to the real tubed counterpart. 

The ArtRage interface is simple enough to use, with a toolbar at the top, a set of tools in one corner and a color-picker in the other, although both can be hidden to reduce clutter. Popups for layers, orientation and color samples can be left open constantly or kept closed to reduce clutter. One outstanding feature of ArtRage is a small widget that lets the artist pin a reference image to the computer screen while drawing or painting, just as you would on a traditional drawing board. Another widget, called Tracing, functions the way that a light box and tracing paper did in pre-computer days--you can upload and trace an image for easy transfer.

The newest version, ArtRage5, was released in February, and I've had an opportunity work with a reviewer copy this past month or so. The interface remains the same as in previous releases. As always, you can draw and paint on quite a number of surfaces and textures. The drawing to the right was done from an image I encountered online. The unusual perspective interested me in particular. This was done on an iPad Pro using the Apple Pencil and the ArtRage pencil tool on a simulated paper surface. The image, to my eye, emulates the appearance of actual graphite on paper quite well.

Here is another drawing using a similar digital surface--what the ArtRage interface calls sketch paper. In this case I used a pastel tool and narrowed and expanded its width as needed, with dead black as the selected color. The reference image was another encountered online and modified in the sketch. The drawing has some features that are similar to charcoal or perhaps Conte crayon. In some ways there is a resemblance to ink drawing as well.

Besides traditional surfaces  ArtRage lets you choose a wide range of colored and textured backgrounds. The drawing at right is based on an online story about a Bangladesh beauty contest featuring women who had been attacked with acid. Unbelievably there are hundreds of such images online, suggesting that this particular brutality toward women is more common than we think.

This image is posted larger to show the "paper"--the swirly digital surface resembles actual handmade paper. When you draw it seems to catch and darken certain media (graphite, charcoal) the way a real surface might. The idea here was to emulate the dark, twisted ridges of scars on her face. The result was gratifying, if horrible to contemplate.

This is a sort of graphic illustration done on a background of shiny, crumpled gold, part of the ArtRage library of surfaces and backgrounds. The idea for this sprang to mind when I saw the pebbly gold. This particular drawn image is a composite of a number of photo references from various sources, and seemed a natural result of the connection of gilt and glitter to the subject. The tools I used varied from pencil tool to the paintbrush, using color complements of gold, or darker values of the base color. The background was overpainted and blurred to help establish depth.
Besides clearly graphic images like those above, you can produce "paintings" like the one at right. Using only watercolor tools and presets in the program, I made this image based on a photo by the famous Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. The Evans photograph was of a dapper man on a city subway, shot in black and white. I adapted the image to color using muted colors as a reflection of the original. This was done in two or three layers, the background chosen as a warm yellow-gray. To my eye this looks quite a lot like a gouache or casein painting.

Although I have not tried, it's no doubt possible to make an image to resemble oil paint as well. I one suspect it would take considerably longer and involve several layers.

For me, that remains another challenge.

Nonetheless, ArtRage5 extends the line of useful, versatile, artist-friendly art apps available at a reasonable cost. You can download it for tablets, laptops and desktops from various sources online, including of course the  official ArtRage site.
Previous post: Digital Sketching

Friday, March 31, 2017

Casein Coffee Sign

Although most of my spring work has been drawing and other pursuits, I've also spent continued time working in casein. The more I use the medium, the more I appreciate the versatility and speed that casein provides. Casein offers a wide range of compatibility with supports--illustration board, canvas, hardboard or whatever--which is also convenient and useful. Casein has considerably more opacity than watercolor, so you can paint over your mistakes and alter the image readily. The paint layer dries matte, giving good photo reproduction. Casein, like acrylic and unlike watercolor and gouache, is impervious to water once the layer dries.

Here is a small new painting of a neon coffee shop sign in Des Moines. The bright primaries, simple shapes, and a variety of transparent objects made it a challenge and great fun to complete.

I began with a fairly detailed drawing using a burnt umber watercolor pencil, then laid in a watercolor underpainting in the approximate colors. Once I had the colors in place and the painting was dry I began laying in richer and brighter colors taking advantage of casein's opacity. It seemed best to paint from back to front, so the printed letters and red and blue parts of the sign came first. I reserved certain spots for the rather yellow incandescent bulbs, which came next. The outline of the neon tubes was laid in using a blue watercolor pencil--the idea was to give the tubes a bluish cast. Finally I painted the tubes with titanium white. "Coffee" is 6x8 on watercolor paper.

This one may evolve into a larger work, perhaps even a studio oil painting. We'll see. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Visitors and a Violin

A pocket sketchbook can provide all sorts of opportunities for drawing or painting, provide material for larger studio works, and at minimum gives the artist something to do when not otherwise occupied. In effect the sketchbook is a portable studio, memory device and practice environment.

Here are a couple of quick watercolor and ink sketches from the last month or so.

A pair of deer--one a full-grown doe, the other a yearling--bedded down across my creek a few days back, sunning themselves and taking turns sleeping. I live only a few minutes from the center of our downtown, but my creek and woods make it seem more like wilderness. These deer range through here and in an arboretum/flood plain less than a mile away. They travel along a number of small watercourses like ours that feed into a small lake next to the Racoon River, so we see them quite often. They pause in their constant migration along the trees and water to bed down for a quick rest or nap. Sometimes one will tuck her head down onto a shoulder while the others remain vigilant. The majority of our deer are does, only rarely does a buck come along. I don't know if these two have been here before, but they certainly seemed at home as they rested and napped next to a couple of spruces across the creek from the studio.

What produces the ineffable sound of a fine stringed instrument? Why does a Stradivarius sound so outstanding when a similar violin of a similar age might only be adequate? Many have tried to distill the essence of a Strad, but none have duplicated it. Some say that Guarneri and Amati produced comparable or superior instruments--Paganini supposedly played a Guarneri--but none have exceeded the sound quality.

Pondering the differences among instruments built by those famous luthiers sent me searching for photos of outstanding examples, and from there came the drawing (left) "Not a Strad," which is the literal truth. The instrument in my photo reference was a Guarneri. I doubt that most of us could tell the difference between this violin or a more common one simply by looking, or probably even by holding it. Stringed instruments, large or small, have such graceful curves and scrollwork that they always draw me in. Never having drawn or painted a violin, I concentrated hard on angles, relationships, and big shapes to make a fairly detailed drawing across two pages. Next I painted the big shapes in full color, then smaller and smaller patches as well as markings, and finally a few lines here and there with a technical pen.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Digital Sketching

As processors become faster and and memory chips increase in capacity, some have begun to claim that sketching with a tablet is now easier, simpler, and considerably more like sketching with a pencil or charcoal. It's been a decade or so of progress.

Over the past few years I've experimented with an iPad for sketching, using various "dumb" styluses, most with blunt, spongy tips. The original idea with tablets was to use a finger as a marking device but the results were only okay at best, and many artists want to hold something--a stick of charcoal or a pencil or pastel stick, or a stylus with the right balance and feel. The styluses I tried in the past always felt clumsy. There was a lack of nuance and fine control. Furthermore, the iPad initially seemed intended to display content and make written notes, mostly, so the stylus wasn't all that important. The first iPad wasn't a very useful sketch device, at least in my hands, nor was an iPad Air. Part of the reason was that without pressure sensitivity in the tablet many effects available in traditional media could not be employed. You couldn't press harder with a brush tool, for example, and get a bigger spread of color into the image, nor could you readily vary line thickness when drawing. And the results looked far too artificial.

The problem of sensitivity has been solved during these past years with the emergence of pressure-sensitive styluses that transmit to the tablet via Bluetooth. Pressure changes are sensed and instantaneously transmitted. Not long ago I changed my tablet to an iPad Pro and added the Apple Pencil, which is a very smart stylus. The Apple Pencil is responsive and quick, with a narrow tip like a graphite pencil. With the apps I've tried so far the results have been gratifying to say the least. The iPad Pro/Pencil combo works very much like my desktop Wacom tablet. And like those devices, the pressure feedback in the pairing results in precisely the sorts of effects that were missing.

To try the new setup I took it to a figure drawing class that I direct at the Des Moines Art Center studios. Sessions traditionally begin with gesture drawings, which the students do with charcoal on big pads of newsprint. I made a few sketches during the quick poses using ArtRage5 (more on that program in another post) and the new iPad/Pencil duo.

The great thing about this setup for me was how quickly it became unobtrusive--that is, how fast I was able to forget that I was using a computer tablet and simply sketch. The Pencil has the feel of a wooden pencil but with more heft, and its pressure sensitivity makes it easy to vary strokes from thin to thick to edged shading. And the ability to quickly shift to another screen made it possible to keep up with very quick poses--some as short as 20 seconds--without losing a step--no frantic flipping of pages, fumbling with charcoal, etc. The lines go down smoothly, with variation in darkness and thickness as pressure is applied, similar to traditional media. I set the program to have a middle value "sketch paper" surface and used a setting comparable to a 2B graphite stick. You could choose a "pastel" tool set to black and reproduce the appearance of charcoal very nicely as well. These are a couple of two minute poses I sketched during class.

 During that same figure class, while the students worked in charcoal I tried out other programs for sketching. One had used before on iPads was Paper, from Fifty Three which is designed to emulate notebooks and sketch paper, allowing the user to write notes plus add sketches, diagrams, and so on. For an artist it can function as a digital sketchbook, allowing you to set up separate notebooks for different topics, or particular time periods. The company markets a proprietary Bluetooth stylus (called simply The Pencil) which predated the Apple Pencil by several years but has a rather clunky shape like a flat carpenter's pencil.

With my new tablet and stylus, Paper functioned really well. I had used it with my previous incarnations of iPad, but even though it gives a good emulation of various media, from pencil to flexible-nib pen to watercolor, etc. it has never felt like a go-to app for me. Still, its simple interface makes for quick sketching, which is a real advantage when there is a need, as in gesture drawings. I did some gestures and other quick drawings with added color using a tool to emulate watercolor and a dip pen using India ink. Here are two.

The student stands at her drawing board, bent forward and studying the model intensely. She was intent and focused but only held the position for a few seconds at a time. Luckily, she continued to concentrate and returned to the spot enough times to allow a quick sketch.

 My next foray with tablet and stylus will probably be to try sketching outdoors, either cityscapes or perhaps various landscape objects like trees, etc. For now, the two I've mentioned above are the programs I've most experience with. There are quite a few sketching applications available for both the Android and Apple operating systems that I've either never used or only now discovered. Some of them are Procreate, ASketch, Adobe Sketch, and Inkist. None is particularly expensive and some are free, so I will try out each and post an image or two as time goes by.