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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

President, Governor, and Ambassador

The appointment of the present Governor of Iowa, Hon. Terry Branstad, to become Ambassador to China reminded me that I had the privilege of painting his portrait about ten years ago when he was President of Des Moines University.

Mr. Branstad seems a natural for the ambassadorial position given that he has known the current leader of China, Xi Jinping, for more than 30 years. In 1985, Mr. Xi was a member of a trade delegation that spent quite some time in Iowa, studying American agriculture. While here Mr. Xi and Mr. Branstad (who was a young governor at the time) became friends. Their relationship prospered over the years as they met in China several times to discuss trade. Not long ago, Mr. Xi expressed his pleasure at Mr. Branstad's appointment, referring to him as "an old friend" several times. Governor Branstad eventually retired from the governorship in 1998 after an unprecedented 16 years in office. In 2003 he became president of DMU. At the time and for several years afterward Mr. Branstad seemed content to be out of politics, but in 2009 Mr. Branstad was lured back to the arena to run for governor, despite his highly-successful tenure as university president. He won that election, and was re-elected four years later, making him the longest-serving state governor in United States history. When the confirmation process by the U.S. Senate is completed he will become the new ambassador to China.

During Mr. Branstad's tenure as DMU president, the University wanted an official portrait, and I was fortunate enough to receive the commission. Mr. Branstad sat for the portrait twice and for reference photos several times during late 2006, and the painting was finished and unveiled (left) in 2007, about a year before his second foray into the political arena.
My usual practice in making portraits is to do preliminary structural sketches plus a full-color oil sketch to study skin tones and so forth. A 9x12 oil sketch from that session (left) was eventually given to Governor Branstad and his wife, Chris.

In order to show his previous gubernatorial service as well has his tenure as University President, I included the golden dome of the Iowa Capitol and the ten-story University Clinic. The portrait is displayed in the University Library's Rare Books Room.

Terry Branstad, President of DMU 2003-2009

Friday, March 03, 2017

Favorite Art Books Part 8

Books for Beginners

There are art books that provide solid reference information for the studio--like Mayer and others. There are books that give the interested artist a handle on things like composition or color or other ideas like poetry of form. But there aren't very many books out there for beginners that give solid information clearly and concisely. Here are a few favorites of mine.

The author's battered oil-stained copy of Gasser's Guide
Henry Gasser's Guide to Painting
This now-ancient book by an now-unknown artist and teacher is still one of the best introductory books about painting for the interested beginner. Although the book is out of print, the edition shown at left can still be obtained online. As the cover indicates, this book was written before acrylic paint became common (the 1950s), and deals with oil, watercolor, and casein.

Mr. Gasser writes in clear prose with simple step-by-step illustrations of his techniques in each of the three painting media. A native of Newark, Mr. Gasser, who died in the early 1980s, was a follower of John Sloan and others of the New York Ashcan School of painters. That influence is clear in his studio work and in the examples in this little book. But once you get past the rather dated look of the images, it's clear that the methods presented are solid. Discussions of each of the three mediums are well-written and clear. Mr. Gasser shows how to lay in a drawing and then complete the painting in each medium. He spends considerable space on colors and ranges of colors as well. If the beginning painter can draw reasonably well, Mr. Gasser's book provides a concise introduction to useful methods. Highly recommended for an absolutely beginning painter.

For those who want a more comprehensive introduction to artist materials and methods, Gasser's earlier book How to Draw and Paint reportedly contains the same material on painting as the smaller book mentioned above plus introductions to pen and ink, pastels, and drawing in general. I have not read or even seen that particular edition, but you can get it by following the link.

For at least some, learning to draw accurately and well is a formidable stumbling block that ought to be a goal, instead. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, many people believe that drawing is simply innate; you "got it" or you don't. But that's not true. Drawing is a skill that can be taught or learned on one's own. Drawing accurately and well was a key skill in the decades before photography, videos, and the like, if you wanted to show someone what a thing or place looked like. In those days almost everyone could draw, even a little.

Drawing for the Absolute Beginner by Mark and Mary Willenbrink gives hope to the reluctant neophyte. The Willenbrinks have written an entire series of instructional art books in the same vein, The Absolute Beginner Series which includes oil painting, water color, drawing, working from nature, and several more. The only one of their series that I have personally read is the one linked above.

As is customary with how-to art books, this one also contains introductory material regarding pencils, paper, erasers, and other drawing tools. The authors spend several pages on graphite drawing materials, but necessarily in a very basic book they omit pen and ink, pastel, charcoal, and other more esoteric materials. In the first of the chapters that follow they show "sight-size" drawing, how to hold one's pencil for better results, and delve into line and value sketching and drawing, contour sketching, and how to combine these methods. In the next they give the most useful information for beginners: basic shapes, angles and measurements, and perspective in its several variants. The third chapter covers value, contrast, and shadows. After those basic chapters the authors give opportunities and examples for practice, discuss basic composition, and then provide more examples and ideas. Overall, this is highly recommended for absolute beginners. For established artists, it may be a bit basic.
Previously in this series:

Favorite Art Books Part 7
Favorite Art Books Part 6
Favorite Art Books Part 5
Favorite Art Books Part 4
Favorite Art Books Part 3
Favorite Art Books Part 2
Favorite Art Books Part 1

Friday, February 24, 2017


There is an old tradition in painting, the "vanitas." Particularly among Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, vanitas paintings were quite common. The term derives from a phrase in the book of Ecclesiates in the King James bible that says "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." But the phrase actually isn't about narcissism or pride. The Latin it derives from is "vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas," though it is a mistake to translate it as our contemporary "vanity" because the meaning of vanitas in those times was futility, or meaninglessness. So a vanitas painting was a way to emphasize that life ends whether early or late, and earthly life is futile. A vanitas painting is full of symbols reminding us of the evanescence of life. Most vanitas paintings contain one or several of various items: a skull symbolizes death; rotting fruit tells us of decay; bubbles show the suddenness of mortality; the brevity of life was often symbolized by smoke, or timepieces.

A particular favorite of mine is by Pieter Claesz, painted about 1630. Like many paintings of the time, it has a mellow, nearly monochromatic brown tone and depicts a skull and femur on a closed book (perhaps the accounting of one's life?). An overturned cup symbolizes life leaving the body. And there is an ornate watch on the table as well.

Claesz was a well-known still life painter who lived in Haarlem most of his life. He painted many images of tables over-laden with food and other objects.

Another favorite of mine is "Young Man with a Skull," by Franz Hals, painted about 1627. Although others have occasionally interpreted this as a trony of Hamlet, perhaps, in reality it is also a vanitas. The composition is particularly striking. Hals directs us to see the skull, perhaps even before we notice how young the subject seems to be. Perhaps Hals meant the viewer to recognize the fragility of life, even in the young. Certainly in that era the average lifespan was quite short, and there was very high mortality even among the young.

In spite of smile, it is clear that the picture of the young man is a warning.

"Risk Factors," oil, 2013
In part because I enjoy a challenge (skulls have quite intricate anatomy) and partly to come up with a modern take on a vanitas painting, I did this in oil, incorporating symbols of mortality but also including images of various items that increase the risk of heart attack: a pack of cigarettes, a stick of butter (indicating a high fat diet), a doughnut, and a shaker of salt (high salt diets increase high blood pressure, a risk for heart disease). The cover over the doughnut is a bubble. Some have asked why the ball cap is reversed, and I've always answered that it symbolizes the foolishness that allows us to consume too much sugar, fat, and salt.

This painting was featured a couple of years back in the Des Moines Register in an article about a local art exhibition.

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.