Friday, February 17, 2017

More Watercolor Sketching

A few posts back I mentioned watercolor as a great sketch medium owing to its simplicity an portability. In years past it wasn't quite so easy but with the invention of the waterbrush, quite a few issues are solved. Waterbrushes are made with a refillable reservoir in the handle that feeds water to the brush tip. Waterbrushes are inexpensive and widely available in art supply shops and online. They come in several sizes and with several different kinds of brush tips--flat, round, etc.

I take mine almost everywhere these days which allows me to sketch at my university office, in coffee shops, and the like. And of course I can always step outside the studio to capture some of the local color. The small watercolor sketches posted were all done in 2016 in one of my pocket sketchbooks. The ones I like best measure about 3x5 and are made by Moleskine.

These are a few pages from one of my sketchbooks. All of these date from last year. All of these were sketched in pencil and then painted. Hard lines were finished with ink but sometimes I used watercolor pencil.

The two-page image to the right is about a year old, showing a red amaryllis in full flower. Although it doesn't show in the painting, there was perhaps six or seven inches of snow on the ground, and it was quite cold. The bright blooms cheered me up.

This little painting was done of a male goldfinch who was feeding on coneflower seeds outside my studio window. When the seed heads mature, goldfinches clamor for them avidly, sometimes as many as four or five at a time. They always chase one another, assertive of territory perhaps, but eventually settle down. The page had been toned with violet so this one is in shadow.
Last November (like the whole year) was very warm. As the notation on the sketchbook page indicates, the day I sketched this quick image of my back woods it was over 70 degrees. The trees and undergrowth remained mostly green but one small tree near the back had changed abruptly to autumn color.

Finally, a fall image of our back woods. This wider view shows one of the blue spruces that mark the edge of the woods. Beyond, where the bird is flying over the copses of trees, stands a large apartment building that I left out in order to emphasize the woods. There is a creek between the coneflowers in the foreground the the woods, too, but that will be a subject for some other time.

Sketching on the spot hasn't been my forte, but with the ease use and improved portability, anybody can do outdoor sketching.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Homage to R Crumb

Robert Crumb is a true elder statesman of cartooning and one of those who made graphic works that turned sharply away from the comic books of the early 20th century. By the 1960s, underground "comix" became what popular comic books were not--bawdy, witty, variously artful or artless, and often very short-lived. In 1960s and '70s Mr. Crumb created the characters Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and Angelfood McSpade, among numerous others, producing images that are icons to several generations. Unfortunately for Mr. Crumb, some of his work was literally stolen and some was stolen and altered without consent over the decades, resulting in substantial financial losses.

R. Crumb, as he has always signed himself, began as an underground cartoonist and has remained generally outside the mainstream. His provocative, unrestrained, bawdy--often pornographic--work takes on everything from women and men to race. There is something deeply cynical and knowing about R. Crumb's work. His hilarious holy man/philosopher, Mr. Natural, turns out to be precisely what we might expect out of such a guy. He's a fraud and an opportunist. It's not that he isn't in on what the world is about--he clearly may be--but he's not the all-knowing wise man people in his universe seem to believe in.

Over the decades, Mr. Crumb has produced any number of comic books, including acting as illustrator for others--notably Harvey Pekar's well-known American Splendor series. Mr. Crumb has gathered and sold collections of works, including women, portraits of old-time musicians, and a cartoon version of the book of Genesis from the Bible. He relocated to France many years ago, where he still lives and works.  

G.Hoff, "Doc homage to Crumb," pen and ink, 2008
One of Mr. Crumb's creations that was stolen so much that a judge ruled it had fallen into the public domain is his cartoon from his early days called "Keep on Truckin'." The image was pirated by everyone from tee shirt manufacturers to poster makers to people making all sorts of other marketables and tchotchkes. Mr. Crumb sued but lost his infringement suit because the copyright symbol had not been included on the image itself, despite the fact that cover of the issue displayed the symbol. In any event, the image is now considered public domain.

Because I was interested in Mr. Crumb's technique, I drew a parody of that particular cartoon using ink and a dip pen, substituting myself in a lab coat for the leading figure, brandishing a stethoscope. My university is visible in the distance. The idea was to encourage our medical students in their clinical work. (My apologies to Mr. Crumb for my pretension.) Doing the parody not only allowed me to learn something of Mr. Crumb's methods and imagination; it gave me an opportunity to practice with the less-familiar medium. 

R.Crumb, "A Short History of America," 1980, Snoid Comics
Another of my favorites by Mr. Crumb are the series of images that originally appeared in the 1970s called "A Short History of America." The set begins with wilderness America, rolling hills and trees, supplanted first by railroads, then a road and a few houses and then a small town segues into a big town, trees disappear, buildings spring up and age into disrepair. Automobiles choke the now-wider streets that are festooned with electric wires. In the end, our own era with big ugly cars, ubiquitous wires and sterile buildings provides the final panel, labelled, "What Next?" 

Those original ink drawings have been colorized, reprinted, parodied and copied. They have even been turned into a short video. featuring the colorized version of the cartoons. A number of people have speculated on message of the final image, "What Next?" 

G.Hoff, "What Else? (homage to R. Crumb)" 2016
Predicting the future is always difficult, but here's my own prediction based on Mr. Crumb's final image. The multiplicity of satellite dishes is based on the idea some have predicted that we'll be get electric power via microwave from various satellite sources, wirelessly. So perhaps even street lights will be powered that way. and in the future transportation may be so inexpensive that nobody will walk at all. Instead there could be identical, tidy, self-driving little electric autos running all about, symmetric front-to-back and as purposeful as columns of ant workers. And actually of course, nobody really knows what may be in our future. There may be nothing but the desolation some others have drawn as the final image.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Nocturne in Casein

Casein paint dries so quickly you can get certain kinds of effects, similar to glazing with oil paint, but much much faster. There are quite a few people who say that casein is opaque, but in my admittedly limited experience over the past few months, casein paint behaves rather like a mix between watercolor and oil. Some colors, such as the phthalo blue that Richeson markets as "Shiva Blue," is relatively transparent. The earth colors I've used have been in between, yellow ochre medium opaque for example, and titanium white is dead opaque, as you would expect. I don't find any other whites--no lead or zinc--so opaque white is the order of the day with casein unless you make your own. Making casein paint is likely to be simple enough since you can buy pigment (one good source is Sinopia) and mix it with casein emulsion, available from Sinopia or Richeson. I have yet to try that and only have tubed or commercially-prepared paints in the studio.

Casein seems to be useful for almost any kind of painting. Reportedly it was widely used by illustrators over a half-century ago, primarily for its quick drying and matte finish. Since the medium was used in advertising work, there is little doubt that it was used for all manner of figure work, narrative illustration, probably poster art, and others. While I haven't done still life with casein paint, it has been useful to try a few landscapes, a couple of which I posted not long ago. My primary work is figures and cities, so traditional landscape is a challenge, but it gives me a chance to continue working out the properties of this kind of paint. This time the landscape is a nocturne, a night scene. 

James Whistler, "Nocturne in Blue and Gold,"ca 1873
Naming paintings after musical forms--etudes, symphonies, etc.) was one of James Whistler's most interesting ideas. According to history, Mr. Whistler got the concept from a patron of his. Regardless of the source, Mr. Whistler's paintings, done contemporaneously with Monet and others, are sometimes impressionistic, sometimes tonal, and but idiosyncratically his own. The painting to the right, "Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge," painted in London in the early 1870s, is typical. Painted in a Tonalist style, it shows an old bridge in London. This picture has a relatively unconventional composition, with the bridge looming high above our viewpoint and the river stretching into a vague, distant city. Details are blurred or absent, but the distant shore sparkles with tiny points of light. Clearly Mr. Whistler was intent on producing the experience of night vision without denying the reality of his paint. And of course, the transparency and brilliance of oil paint was in part responsible for his effects.

Frederic Remington, "Old Stagecoach of the Plains."
Another of my favorite painters, Frederic Remington, also painted nocturnes and mostly used oils, but his paintings were uniformly western American scenes--native Americans, cavalry troopers, trappers, and so on. He painted an acclaimed series of nocturnes at the beginning of the 20th century that remain standards of the form. They were so successful that Mr. Remington, an illustrator, wrote to a friend that these paintings "landed me among the painters." Indeed they did. Here's one of my favorites, painted in 1901. Mr. Remington not only puts us out on the rolling prairie, but gives us a stagecoach outlined against a darkening sky, descending a steep incline. The lamps in the coach provide the only flares of warmth and are offset by the cool blue blazes on the horses' foreheads, which lead the eye to the coach in perspective. The driver sits left while the guard is poised, looking back, wary or alarmed by something. The sense of mystery and foreboding is  palpable. There is a mysterious narrative that invites the viewer to contemplation. This is real mastery.

Although I've done a few nocturnes myself, none can match Whistler or Remington. Still, it's an enjoyable discipline to produce a near-monochromatic work, taking advantage of indistinct forms and a narrower range of values. As part of continuing investigation of casein paint, I did the landscape below in casein using my back woods as a motif, altering the palette to make a monochromatic, nocturnal view. An old panel with an oil sketch made an interesting support. I was curious to see if casein would stick since it is said to stick to almost anything. I scuffed the surface with a scrub pad and then wiped it clean before painting. Casein laid down smoothly with no problem on the scuffed surface, so long as the paint was full-bodied (not thinned too much with water). Full-bodied paint is easier to use.

The cool and warmer blues of the paint--cobalt blue and "Shiva blue"--marry pretty well with titanium white, and the fallen trunk made a nice counterpoint to the bare-limbed trees. The casein's quick drying lets me layer paint rapidly to make more- and less-distinct details, taking advantage of transparency and opacity. Unlike the examples above, though, this work is utterly monochromatic since the woods--these woods at least--have no warm spots of light. "Mourning," is imagined as after a snowfall, at the bluest moments of day, just as darkness falls.
"Mourning," 2017
The fallen tree above was previously seen in this post

Friday, January 27, 2017

Travel Sketching with Watercolor

Casein has been my primary water medium these past several months, but when I travel I revert to sketching with watercolors. The thing about watercolor is how simple it is. You can carry a small set of half-pan colors, a pocket-size sketchbook and a pen or pencil and you're set. Sometimes on vacation I take along a block of watercolor postcards (you can buy them easily in art stores and online) and use them as notes to mail to friends and family from wherever I am.They like getting a little artwork in the mail.
Not long ago we were in the Seattle area, visiting family. Predictably, winter weather in the Pacific Northwest is gray, cool to cold, and damp. You can't really do much outdoors because of the rain, and the light is quite dim sometimes. We did right the Bremerton ferry one cold rainy day, but otherwise spent much of the time indoors. Nonetheless, I managed to continue my morning sketching regimen with watercolor and my tablet. The landscape there is so different from home in Iowa that the trees and even the skies are more challenging.

For watercolor I used a 3x5 Moleskine sketchbook with smoothly finished pages. The finish stands up to watercolor without bleeding, and you can use ink with it as well. As I sometimes do, the pages were toned with various colors beforehand.

Here's a view of forested land near Redmond one dark winter morning. The bare deciduous trees made tracery against the evergreens and dark sky.

There are rhododendrons everywhere in the region, and they grow to enormous size--more than 6 feet in some places. This second watercolor is of those gigantic shrubs. Rhododendrons don't drop their leaves in winter, so they make great property screens and boundary plantings. One morning these giants were slick with rain and dark, which called for a different treatment. The colors in the sketch aren't the actual colors, of course. It was cool shrubbery against the warmer deciduous trees behind the fence that originally attracted me to this scene. The opened sketchbook invites much wider compositional options.

Finally, after a few days in Seattle, the sky cleared and we had two delightful sunny days. The return of light was exceptionally welcome, almost joyful. That morning I sketched distant trees against the flood of sunshine. The light was warm as caramel against the branches. I caught an airliner, high above besides.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Drawing in the Morning

da Vinci, "Study for Battle of Anghiari" black chalk, ca 1504
"Be always drawing," is a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, although a cursory search didn't show me a source, so perhaps it's apocryphal. Regardless, drawing constantly is awfully good advice for an artist to follow. Drawing sharpens the vision, makes me see things more accurately and in a way, more deeply. Deep concentration on the subject at hand brings such focus. He didn't finish many paintings, but Leonardo produced many drawings that show how magnificently he was able to focus. His study for the lost painting, "The Battle of Anghiari," is typical of his astonishing facility.

"Draw, Antonio" 1522
Like his rival, Michelangelo Buonarotti believed in drawing constantly. He scolded a slow student by writing "Draw, Antonio; draw, Antonio; draw and don't waste time." at the bottom of a clumsy drawing (left). Although not much writing about Michelangelo's teaching remains, those words have echoed down the centuries as excellent advice for almost any artist.

For many, a period of drawing to begin every studio day serves as a way of loosening the "muscles" of the mind, gives the eyes a chance to see and the mind an opportunity to translate the perception. Drawings help sharpen skills with whatever medium is being used. A mentor of mine used to talk about his own practice of drawing for half an hour every morning, the stated point not being to make a masterpiece or even a finished drawing in the classical sense, but instead to work out, in a sense; to train the eyes, mind and hand(s); to introduce the chance to enter that creative state some have called "flow." Most of the results will never see the light of day, and should not. They are only practice, no matter how accomplished the results.  I doubt that either of the masters whose sketches are posted here ever expected anyone except an interested student or artist to see them.

Many mornings--not enough!--I spend time drawing with graphite in any of a half-dozen sketchbooks of various sizes scattered around the studio. Many times the subject is an online image of a memorable individual, or an expression, but sometimes it's a studio still life, or even from memory. The point is just to draw.

Here are a couple of drawings that resurfaced somehow after a couple of years. Each is graphite on a small sketch page of about 5"x7" or so. Neither was intended as more than a study; neither has been shown anywhere. Both were more than likely drawn from a reference either in a book or perhaps a newspaper. When I drew these, possibly in 2012 or 2013, I was most likely using a 2B pencil on this slightly tan and rougher paper.

The expressions were clearly what attracted me about each of these images, and the implied narrative behind them. Formal portraiture these days produces relatively bland expressions, but that's certainly not the usual human condition. We grow angry and scream, or we grumble and scowl--the possibilities in human facial expression are endless. Drawing a subject with a wide-open mouth isn't something that many of us attempt, it seems to me, and I'm no exception. So this one was good practice for the open mouth but also because I worked hard at coherence of strokes, variation of line weight and appropriate use of value. The glowering young man came from a very small image I found in a newspaper. He was terribly angry or disappointed but there is no context beyond that. The deep shadows over the eyes and under the upper lip made this a more brooding and menacing image.

Practice drawing doesn't have to employ tangible media any longer, of course. Digital drawing is the order of the day for more and more artists of this century, and for me too. I use my Cintiq when I'm in the studio, but I can do it very easily on my tablet. As mentioned in earlier posts, a computer tablet like the iPad or Surface can be a really useful and portable tool. In my own practice it's often easier and less obtrusive in public to grab my tablet and draw using Sketchbook. Since I use the tablet instead of paper in many academic meetings, I can sketch sometimes, too.

The image to the right is a quick digital sketch of a woman dressed for the Iowa winter weather. She had just come inside from the cold still wearing her jacket and an enormous scarf, which was what attracted me to sketching her in the first place. In Sketchbook I used the pencil tool for the finer lines and the airbrush tool for the broader ones.

Practice is a foundation of creativity. In all of the arts, whether it's dance, music, visual art, drama, or the written word, experimentation and repetition make practicing effective. Practice gives me the chance to hone skills and try new materials and media. In particular, drawing practice is the foundation of everything I do.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Multiheaded Monster

Anthony van Dyck, "Triple Portrait of Charles I," ca  1635
Painting a multi-subject portrait is complicated. For one thing, unlike a single portrait, several subjects offer many opportunities to go wrong, from individual likeness to relative sizes of heads and so on. Nonetheless, there are wonderful examples of such multiple portraits. One of my favorites is by Anthony van Dyck and though admittedly only one sitter it deserves mention. The portrait is three views of Charles I of England (the one who lost his head). It was intended as a guide for Lorenzo Bernini, the Italian sculptor, to serve as a guide for a marble bust. The bust was lost in the Whitehall fire at the end of the 17th century, but the portrait is in the British Royal Collection. But these images are of a single person and most multi-sitter portraits are of families or groups and therefore require a serviceable and different likeness of each.

John Sargent, "The Pailleron Children," 1881
One of the most famous portraitists of all time was John Sargent,  who did a number of family portraits, some of them truly memorable. His portraits of the Wyndham sisters and of Mr. & Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes are well-known favorites. Mr. Sargent eventually and famously became so bored with what he called "paughtraits" that he eventually quit painting them. Yet it is for his portraits that he is best remembered.

Mr. Sargent's first double portrait was the children of his friend Edouard Pailleron. The painting is in the Des Moines Art Center permanent collection, where I've seen it scores of times. According to a memoir the little girl wrote much later, the artist and children equally loathed the entire experience, and it certainly shows on their faces. Mr. Sargent had a knack for likeness and expression. Some have said that despite the obvious sibling relationship this is more like two separate portraits stitched together. One of the beauties of seeing a work up close is the opportunity to really study how the painter laid down his strokes. Close examination of this one reveals really thrilling brushwork, almost like Franz Hals, in the satin dress and other passages, even down to the hands and fingernails. Mr. Sargent was never an impressionist, but neither was he an academician. The parents seem to have liked it, and it was reportedly a sensation at the Salon of 1881.
"Mr & Mrs I.N. Phelps Stokes," 1897
On the other hand, Mr. Sargent's 1897 portrait of the Stokes couple is quite conventional. They are painted standing full-length and life-size almost as if facing a mirror. His brushwork is vigorous, and her expression is lively and engaging. The likeness seems accurate, but there is something odd about the figures and heads. When I've seen this work in person, its sheer size at about three by seven feet, not counting the frame is almost overwhelming, the figures being life-size. But Edith Stokes' head always seems too small so that the figures overwhelm the faces, and Isaac's face is in shadow besides. It's clearly in the Sargent lineage of unconventional portraits, like the Boit sisters, but less successful. Incidentally, a photo exists of the Stokes couple in which Edith's head looks larger and her face is fuller. Perhaps by the time Mr. Sargent did this one he was already unhappy doing portraits.

My thoughts turned to these and other multiple portraits because these last several weeks I've been working on a family portrait myself. It's not the first multiple-sitter portrait I've done but it's the first in a long while, and it takes some getting used to. The proportions, positioning, skin tones and the like have to be accurate and the likeness ought to be there as well.

This is another foster child portrait, and like other portraits of foster children that I posted last fall, intended for a Heart Gallery. The children in this image are orphaned siblings who are living in foster care, hoping for a permanent home. As is clear in the painting these are somewhat older children. The oldest is probably in his middle teens and the little sister is perhaps 8 or 9 years old at most. Painting this image was tricky because of the three different ages of the kids, the obvious differences in sizes and differences in skin tones. The boys were a bit more ruddy than their sister. Further, with only a single photographic reference in hand making them appear solid and dimensional was another challenge. This piece is 20x24 on stretched canvas.

Triple Portrait of Charles I
John Singer Sargent Complete Works

Friday, January 06, 2017

Favorite Art Books Part 7

Last fall when I was working on emotional faces I spent a good deal of time dipping into Gary Faigin's "Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression," which has been in my library nearly 20 years. In spite of its age, this book continues to be a really useful tool. When I first read the book perhaps 20 years ago, the depth and erudition involved in producing such a volume surprised me. As someone who knows anatomy in a systematic, scientific way, having an artist outline the actual functions of facial muscles I had learned was eye-opening. Mr. Faigin clearly did enormous amounts of study and work in order to produce this book, and it has deservedly remained a classic since its first publication in the late 20th century.

Besides delineating the anatomy of facial musculature and bones, he provides his own drawings as examples of the function of each. Faigin's drawings are exceptional in providing precise examples of various expressions and muscle movements. Once he has gone through the muscles and their anatomy, he brings the information together in the latter chapters to discuss the six basic human expressions and how they are formed by the various muscles.

Mr. Faigin has considerable talent with charcoal, which seems to be his favorite drawing medium. The book is thorough and clearly written, the accompanying drawings well-executed and useful as references as well as illustration. I've kept this book handy while studying expressions. Highly recommended.

Gary Faigin, Six Basic Expressions (from Guide to Facial Expression)
Gary Faigin, "Self Portrait," charcoal, 2014

I have the first edition (1990) but there is a newer one available from online sources and probably in bookstores that I've no information about. Incidentally, Gary Faigin has also made videos that are available variously either free on YouTube or for a fee online.