Friday, August 26, 2016

Pages from a Sketchbook 2

When I start to think about a new painting, one of the things I often do is review my sketchbooks.

Sketchbooks didn't interest me when I began to make paintings. Instead it seemed important to look at things intensely and paint them. Drawing seemed like a wasted step. It seemed too time-consuming because time for art was at a premium. Besides, my very first training was in technical drawing, where accuracy and detail and finish are critical. So no doubt that beginning influenced my view of sketching for a long time. Drawings and sketches both had to have a fairly high degree of finish. Quick sketching went against all of my training. And most of the time I wanted to do a painting, not a finished drawing, of whatever subject was at hand. And sketching seemed decidedly inferior to actual careful drawing. Sketches seemed too incomplete, too "scribbly," to ever be useful. Encouragement from teachers to "fill your sketchbooks" fell on my deaf ears. For years, the most sketching I did was to doodle during meetings that bored me.

Gradually though, sketching has become an essential part of my work. For me, sketching is a way of  visual thinking, a way of organizing things--values, shapes, movement, color, and so on. And sketchbooks are records of visual experiences too. The old advice to always carry a sketchbook and a few pencils is important. Even if you don't use them constantly, as you should, the opportunity is there. Visual memories are useful, but a tangible notation is better. And as many have said before, photos aren't as valuable. Reviewing my sketchbooks jogs my memory and sometimes sends me down interesting pathways toward unexpected paintings.
This is a page from a recent sketchbook. I was musing about various streets here in Des Moines, including Salisbury House, a local mansion turned museum (upper right), the county courthouse (lower right) and other subjects. These sketches are useful for a lot of reasons--practice, memory, later compositions. They may be a useful end in themselves--perhaps the guy in the ball cap will find his way into a painting.
Here's another page from the same book, still thinking about street life and potential full-scale cityscapes. Sketches on both pages were made from a combination of photos and on the spot observation. The sketchbook pages are 9x12, incidentally. All of the images are considerably different from the actual milieu but based on the actual streets and buildings.
 Previous Sketchbook Posts:
Pages from a Sketchbook

Friday, August 19, 2016

Thinking in Pictures

There's a body of information today that suggests there are several ways of thinking. Some people think in words, some in pictures, some in both, if the science is accurate. There seems to be some disagreement about the percentages of people involved. Some say only 30% think in images alone while others say the same about verbal thinking. Temple Grandin, the famous writer and professor, who is autistic, wrote that she originally could only think in images and that verbal communication is a second language, in a sense. But beyond verbal and visual thought there are reportedly other kinds of thought, namely musical, kinesthetic, and mathematical. One supposes that Beethoven was a musical thinker and Newton a mathematical one, but perhaps not.

"Five Lincolns from memory," charcoal & sanguin 2010
For most people it's likely quite difficult to imagine oneself thinking in a different way. I can't imagine, for example, my mind as a thicket of numbers and numerical relationships or musical notes rather than as a silent stream of words in my head. Nor can I imagine thinking purely in images. Maybe there really are some pure visual thinkers (not necessarily autistic) who can't hear words in their mind at all.

My thoughts are almost completely verbal. Even so, I can remember broad aspects of many images that are seen repeatedly, like a plume of smoke from a tower of the World Trade Center, or Abraham Lincoln (probably one of the world's most commonly seen faces), and for many of them I can manage a fair representation. But most of the thought involved is verbal, in my case.

A useful trait for an artist is owning a lot of mental images in a kind of visual library or vocabulary. That kind of visual memory has to be cultivated by most people, seems to me. For me to remember images even sketchily at a later date, the best way is to fix as many details in memory as possible at the time. Even then I forget a lot. Sketching is one of the most useful tools we have to fix a scene or a face in visual memory. Sketching allows the mind to regard the object in space, it's defining characteristics, it's tangible reality at that moment and somehow convert the whole into a nonverbal memory. But even then details are blurry or lost eventually. It's an excellent reason to take reference photos. Memory also provides emotional content so photos are endlessly useful to trigger those, at least in my hands.

"Rosa Mae," 6x8, 2015
Sometimes an old photo, any kind from the 19th century or early 20th, says in memory until it's resurrected years later. Most of these works are small and sketchy, of course.

It's intriguing to ponder the way that some of the great artists of the past thought as they did their work. Were they visual, or verbal? Did Michelangelo think only in pictures? Or did Hiroshige, the great Japanese, wander in personal mental landscapes? What of van Gogh? Are those coarsely-painted images what he actually saw in his mind's eye, or was his mental vision--as thoughts--distorted? And what, if anything, about the thought processes of abstractionists of the past century? Do they see patches of color or maybe incomprehensible nests of lines, or perhaps simply distorted images or sur-reality? Perhaps we'll know some day, but most likely not.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Urban Sketching

Many artists, me included, tend to avoid outdoor sketching or painting. In my own case I have made any number of excuses for not painting on location outdoors. It's too hard to haul equipment to a painting spot. Or it takes too much time to scout out a place and then sketch. Some people are shy or introverted and don't want to expose themselves to the public eye. There are dozens more.

Nevertheless, on-the-spot sketching of nearly any subject can be fundamental to making realist art. For one thing, photos don't provide enough accurate visual information. It's possible to paint believably solely from photos, of course, but not unless you have an enormous visual library in your head. And while the old masters probably didn't paint outdoors very often, if at all, they very likely made drawings outdoors while observing their subjects. Whether the subject was a house, or a city street, animals or farm life artists of the past must have spent time with each, building visual familiarity, drawing either entire specimens or their parts. Leonardo was keen on horses, for example, and his drawn images are clearly made from life. J.M.W. Turner was well-known for his outdoor watercolors. Many began to paint outdoors in the 19th century, of course. And even if you aren't going to do a painting start to finish outdoors, like Pete the Street, who was featured here not long ago, sketching on the spot allows notations of everything from shape and size of objects and buildings to value and color. Photography supplies such information too but sketching forces the artist to actually see and record in the mind and on a surface.

Besides being a useful painter's tool, sketching is enjoyable in it's own right. Sketching is not only a way of recording the look of something but also a way of enhanced remembering and telling the story of where one was at the time. In the hustle-hustle internet world of today, opportunities to sit, be quiet, and concentrate deeply as one must when making a picture, seem fewer and fewer. Luckily, the pleasures of sketching, whatever the medium, are becoming more well-known. Organizations that promote outdoor sketching have proliferated. One prominent organization is Urban Sketchers, which actually began less than a decade ago. Although fairly new, Urban Sketchers has become perhaps the largest and best-known sketch site online. They take a practical and down-to-earth approach to drawing or painting their surroundings. Here are their stated purposes, from their website:

  1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.
  2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.
  3. Our drawings are a record of time and place.
  4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness.
  5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.
  6. We support each other and draw together.
  7. We share our drawings online.
  8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

Although in years past I've been a reluctant outdoor sketcher, these days I find drawing outdoors more engaging. I've begun doing more and more outdoor drawing and painting, particularly on city locations but also in the back garden. As do many sketchers I usually draw the scene with graphite or ink and finish with watercolor. Sometimes the underdrawing is fairly detailed but sometimes I paint first and accent with ink. If I'm going to make an ink drawing I make certain to use waterproof ink. Over the last several months I've made a number of pictures. Here are a few.
"Coneflowers in Sunshine," watercolor & ink, 3x5
As you can see, these were done using ink and watercolor. The coneflowers were done on a 3x5 page in a watercolor sketchbook that was toned with a thin acrylic wash. The flowers are actually in my back garden, not a city street.
"Taco Loco," watercolor & ink, 2016, 5x7

Des Moines passed an ordinance a year or two ago that allows gypsy food trucks to park and sell on the street in various parts of town. One of them is a taco vendor who parks near the downtown sculpture garden every Friday. I went down there a couple of weeks back for tacos, then sketched the truck. The owner was very cordial and even gave me a cold drink in exchange for a picture of the small ink and watercolor.

"Food Trucks Downtown,"watercolor & ink, 2016, 3.5x11
This is another sketch done from almost the same spot near the sculpture garden. No cold drink this time.
"Florida Fan Palm," watercolor & ink, 2016, 3x5

The last image here was done last January in central Florida while visiting family. There are palms all over the place--maybe even more than the number of alligators--and this giant specimen borders a greenbelt that runs through the subdivision where we stayed. For a guy like me from the upper Midwest, painting a palm tree is a significant challenge since I have so few visual memories of them. 

 Urban Sketchers website

Friday, August 05, 2016

Working on the Railroad

Some years back I worked up a portfolio of ink drawings of historical railroad engines. The drawings were never published, unfortunately, but here are a few. I used various photographic resources for these, mostly obtained online from the historical society involved. These drawings were made using a traditional dip pen and bottled ink. I used Higgins Eternal ink for a lot of them but I did several using iron gall ink, an ancient form of ink used for centuries and still available. The iron gall ink has a rather sepia tint, as you can see in some of these images. The drawings were done on 2-ply Bristol trimmed to about 7x11.
"Big Diesel"

"Standing in the Station"

"Days of Steam"

"Highballing Streamliner"

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pete the Street

Outdoor painting--"en "plein air" if you happen to be French--has gained considerable momentum in recent decades. Like their predecessors, painters flock to the countryside and city streets to capture the fleeting light and transient landscape.

An artist I admire these days is an English painter I came across online, Peter Brown, a.k.a. "Pete the Street," as he is known at home in Bath, England. Brown paints practically every day, in all seasons and all weathers. No fair weather painter, Pete the Street. His works may feature rain, snow, overcast skies, or bright sunny meadows as a consequence. He travels all over the United Kingdom from Bath and to other places as well, painting cityscapes and landscapes in cities as diverse as London, Edinburgh, Paris, Bath, Varanasi and Barcelona. In all, his website offers paintings executed in at least a dozen cities in various countries.

Although he is primarily an outdoor painter, his site does list an occasional interior view or other works. Besides his outdoor habit, Brown is incredibly prolific, with dozens of works listed on his website as either already sold or still available. Over the past 15 years he's had at least one show annually, in Britain. I find his work his fresh, vivid, and engaging. I like it a lot. Here are a handful of examples.

"Piccadilly Circus, Toward Shaftesbury Avenue," 2014

"Observatory Hill, Greenwich," 2013

"Coyde Bay, Low Tide and Moving Weather," 2012

"End of the Day of the Pageant," 2012

"Rain, Lower Regency Street," 2012

Pete the Street in All Weathers
Interview of Peter Brown by Lisa Takahashi
Peter Brown website

Friday, July 22, 2016

Watercolor Postcards

One of the things I often do when traveling is carry along a deck of postcards made of heavy watercolor paper. I use them to do pen and wash pictures of various portions of the trip, write a few words of greeting on the other side and drop them in the mail. My family and friends love to get a painting from somewhere like France, complete with foreign stamps. At first the idea was simply a way to keep working while away from the studio, but I find that it's also invigorating and challenging, especially if time is limited, as it sometimes is during a "leisurely" vacation. Another nice thing is that you don't have to take much along--a small set of pan watercolors, waterproof pen, and a block of watercolor postcards doesn't take much space. And these little paintings provide a dose of discipline. That is, they're a chance to quicken my pace, choose emphasis carefully, and (I hope) economize with the brush.

A few of these I did on the spot, but often made only the drawing (or part of one) and a reference photo as time permitted, then finished them later when I was able.

Here are a few.
Arch of Tiberius, Pompeii, 2001

Pantheon Afternoon, Rome, 2001
Rainy Day, Passau (Germany), 2013
Street in Buda (Hungary), 2013
Paris Streetlamps, 2012

Avignon from the Rhone, 2012
The Chain Bridge, Budapest, 2013

Friday, July 15, 2016

Greeny's Hundred

Over the years I've had a number of teachers and mentors who have made a big impact on my work. Their kindness, funds of knowledge, and helpfulness are beyond price. Although I didn't know him, Irwin Greenberg was well-known to thousands who studied with him over the years at the High School of Art & Design and the Art Students League of New York. I had the pleasure of meeting his best friend, Max Ginsburg, a few years ago at a workshop in upstate New York, hosted by Garin Baker at his Carriage House Studio. During the workshop, Max reminisced about his years teaching with "Greeny" at both institutions. Although he passed away in 2009, he remains a formidable presence in the lives of his myriad students.

Irwin Greenberg (image downloaded from
During one of our conversations at the workshop Max mentioned a collection of sayings Mr. Greenberg posted in his teaching studio and had given to many of their students. Garin (who studied under both men) kindly unearthed his copy. They've likely been posted elsewhere on the Internet, but they're worth putting up again. Here they are.

Greeny’s Hundred
Irwin Greenberg’s Sayings about Art
1. Paint every day.
2. Paint until you feel physical strain--take a break and then paint some more.
3. Suggest.
4. When at an impasse, look at the work of masters.
5. Buy the best materials you can afford.
6. Let your enthusiasm show.
7. Find the way to support yourself.
8. Be your own toughest critic.
9. Develop a sense of humor about yourself
10. Develop the habit of work. Start early every day. When you take a break, don't eat. Instead, drink a glass of water.
11. Don't settle for yourself at your mediocre level
12. Don't allow yourself to be crushed by failure. Rembrandt had failures. Success grows from failure.
13. Be a brother (or sister) to all struggling artists.
14. Keep it simple.
15. Know your art equipment and take care of it.
16. Have a set of materials ready wherever you go.
17. Always be on time for work, class and appointments.
18. Meet deadlines. Be better than your word.
19. Find a mate who is really a mate.
20. Don't be envious of anyone who is more talented than you. Be the best you can be.
21. Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with your performance yesterday.
22. Give yourself room to fail and fight like hell to achieve.
23. Go to sleep thinking about what you're going to do first thing tomorrow.
24. Analyze the work of great painters. Study how they emphasize and subordinate.
25. Find out the fewest material things you need to live.
26. Remember: Michelangelo was once a helpless baby. Great works are the result of heroic struggle.
27. There are no worthwhile tricks in art; find the answer.
28. Throw yourself into each painting heart and soul.
29. Commit yourself to a life in art.
30. No struggle, no progress.
31. Do rather than don't
32. Don't say "I haven't the time." You have as much time everyday as the great masters.
33. Read. Be conversant with the great ideas.
34. No matter what you do for a living, nurture your art.
35. Ask. Be hungry to learn.
36. You are always the student in a one-person art school. You are also the teacher of that class.
37. Find the artists who are on your wavelength and constantly increase that list.
38. Take pride in your work.
39. Take pride in yourself.
40. No one is a better authority on your feelings than you are.
41. When painting, always keep in mind what your picture is about.
42. Be organized.
43. When you're in trouble, study the lives of those who've done great things.
44. "Poor me" is no help at all.
45. Look for what you can learn from the great painters, not what's wrong with them.
46. Look. Really look.
47. Overcome errors in observing by exaggerating the opposite.
48. Critics are painters who flunked out.
49. Stay away from put-down artists.
50. If you're at a loss for what to do next, do a self-portrait.
51. Never say "I can't." It closes the door to potential development.
52. Be ingenious. Howard Pyle got his start in illustrating by illustrating his own stories.
53. All doors open to a hard push.
54. If art is hard, it is because you're struggling to go beyond what you know you can do.
55. Draw everywhere and all the time. An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached.
56. There is art in any endeavor done well.
57. If you've been able to put a personal response into your work, others will feel it and they will be your audience.
58. Money is OK, but it isn't what life is about.
59. Spend less than you earn.
60. Be modest; be self-critical, but aim for the highest.
61. Don't hoard your knowledge, share it.
62. Try things against your grain to find out just what your grain really is.
63. Inspiration doesn't come when you are idle. It comes when you have steeped yourself in work.
64. Habit is more powerful than will. If you get in the habit of painting every day, nothing will keep you from painting.
65. There are three ways to learn art: Study life, people and nature. Study the great painters. Paint.
66. Remember, Rembrandt wasn't perfect. He had to fight mediocrity.
67. Don't call yourself an artist. Let others name you that. "Artist" is a title of great weight.
68. Be humble; learn from everybody.
69. Paintings that you work hardest at are the ones you learn the most from, and are often your favorites.
70. Read values relatively. Find the lightest light and compare all other light values to it. Do the same with the darks.
71. Grit and guts are the magic ingredients to your success.
72. Let your picture welcome the viewer.
73. Add new painters to your list of favorites all the time.
74. Study artists who are dealing with the same problems that you're trying to solve.
75. Have a positive mind-set when showing your work to galleries.
76. Don't look for gimmicks to give your work style. You might be stuck with them for life. Or, worse yet, you might have to change your style every few years.
77. If what you have to say is from your deepest feelings, you'll find an audience that responds.
78. Try to end a day's work on a picture knowing how to proceed the next day.
79. Don't envy others success. Be generous-spirited and congratulate whole-heartedly.
80. Your own standards have to be higher and more scrupulous than those of critics.
81. Pyle said, "Throw your heart into a picture and jump in after it."
82. Vermeer found a life's work in the corner of a room.
83. Rembrandt is always clear about what is most important in a picture.
84. If, after study, the work of an artist remains obscure, the fault may not be yours.
85. Critics don't matter. Who cares about Michelangelo's critics?
86. Structure your day so you have time for painting, reading, exercising and resting.
87. Aim high, beyond your capacity.
88. Try not to finish too fast.
89. The theory of the '€œlast inch'€ holds that as you approach the end of a painting, you must gather all your resources for the finish.
90. Build your painting solidly, working from big planes to small.
91. See the planes of light as shapes, the planes of shadows as shapes. Squint your eyes and find the big, fluent shapes.
92. Notice how, in a portrait, Rembrandt reduces the modeling of clothes to the essentials, emphasizing the head and the hands.
93. For all his artistic skills, what's most important about Rembrandt is his deep compassion.
94. To emphasize something means that the other parts of a picture must be muted.
95. When painting outdoors, sit on your hands and look before starting.
96. Composing a picture, do many thumbnails, rejecting the obvious ones.
97. Study how Rembrandt creates flow of tone.
98. If you teach, teach the individual. Find out when he or she is having trouble and help at that point.
99. Painting is a practical art, using real materials--paints, brushes, canvas, paper. Part of the practicality of it is earning a living in art.
100. Finally, don't be an art snob. Most painters I know teach, do illustrations, or work in an art-related field. Survival is the game.