Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How to Draw

For some, even in today's e-reader world, books remain an addiction. An addiction to physical books has been a problem for me my entire life. Books cling to me the way sticker-burrs cling to socks. Like many, I've made a wary transition to reading novels and newspapers on my tablet. I use another e-reader occasionally, and I feel fully assimilated into the digital world of literature.

Nevertheless, a Kindle or Nook is not the answer when it comes to books of art reproductions or books of art methods. I can't see the art or diagrams well enough. You just have to have the physical book. So I have quite a few.

As time goes on, I'll mention books occasionally, as they rouse my interest.

For the past few months I've been reading and re-reading "How to Draw" by Scott Robertson and Thomas Bertling. This is perhaps one of the most useful how-to art books I've seen in a long while. Although a beginner might be a bit out of his depth in using this book, the authors do attend a bit to selection of materials, the craft of drawing, and the like before diving into more technical drawing. Robertson's background is in industrial design, and the emphasis of this book is on mechanical objects like vehicles, airplanes, and boats.

This is not a book for those who want to make still life, or landscape drawings, nor is it a book that emphasizes sketching on the spot. This is a book for those who are interested in making drawings of environments and vehicles as well as people, in proper perspective and proportion, including rather complicated perspective drawing techniques with one, two, and more vanishing points. It will really be useful to budding video game artists and animators. Still, it really looks to
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be helpful in sharpening drawing skills for literally anybody.

The writing is clear and to the point, and the accompanying diagrams are especially useful. In particular, the attention to cone of vision, curves and ellipses in perspective, and a number of other matters should be helpful. I've been through the first seven chapters a couple of times, and found that repetition helped assimilate some of the material. Overall, this is an exceptionally useful book. The final three chapters deal with drawing aircraft and wheeled vehicles, which is interesting but less useful to me personally, so I've spent more time on the initial chapters. Finally, there is a great final chapter showing various sketching styles, combining materials I wasn't familiar with. In particular, they discuss and show the use of Copic markers, of which I was completely ignorant.

A bonus in this book is a series of symbols strung throughout that are keyed to a tablet app. That is, you use a tablet app (downloadable and free) to "see" a code on the book page that tells the app to find and show a video demonstration of the technique or drawing that you're reading about. So in effect, by buying the book you also get several hours of demonstration videos that show Scott Robertson making the drawings included on the pages. Very impressive use of technology, and the videos are clear and well done. Bravo.

You can see a number of Robertson's videos on YouTube, including a number included in the book.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Digital Art

Technology advances. Inexorably, science informs and spurs the invention of new technology which in its own turn changes life for everyone. In a single lifetime we've seen how the personal computer and now the Internet changed retail marketing, has nearly obliterated bookstores, altered music recording, sharing, and sales forever; intensified and sped communication (and miscommunication, alas). At least some kinds of art have made the transition to the new tech reality, though. Quite a few programs available now can produce excellent images digitally, and of course movies and videos routinely employ computer generated images.

Many artists work using computer programs. Perhaps the best-known art program today is Photoshop, and there are other top of the line programs like Corel Painter being used, too. But simpler, more inutitive (and cheaper) programs now exist (Sketchbook Pro, ArtRage) that allow an individual to explore the digital world. Cartoonists, illustrators, book designers, and other graphic artists make images digitally, but "fine artists" generally do not.

Something like the old and artificial division between fine art and commercial art, there is a division between digital art and traditional art. Some digital artists or graphic designers learned traditional methods in school, but in recent years many did not, prompting at least some critics to decry the trend, suggesting that without exposure to traditional methods and techniques, graphic artists are handicapped unnecessarily. Still, digital methods continue to flourish in commercial applications and settings. In contrast, the traditional art world has had little to say about or to do with digital art. Maybe that's because these works haven't much value as investments.

In the past few years, the "art world" has begun to notice digital art, sort of. David Hockney is a traditional painter and printmaker whose images made on smartphones or tablets prompted a rather large, traveling exhibition. The pictures began as scribbled images emailed to various friends. In interviews, Mr. Hockney has noted that in a short few months he had sent several hundred pictures. At that point, someone decided to exhibit them. They were printed in very large formats and displayed like proper paintings, or shown on iPads or on large monitors hung on gallery walls, achieving great acclaim.
Here are some examples of his digital works:
Examples of David Hockney's digital images

Although it's a great thing that digital work has begun to merit attention from "serious" art critics and writers, in this case their attention is misplaced, in my opinion. Someone without Mr. Hockney's fame would have been hard-pressed to have digital pictures of this quality shown at all, even to family. This isn't to denigrate Mr. Hockney as an artist. His works in tangible paint are interesting for content, style, narrative, and considerably more. The best one can say about his digital work is "interesting." At its best the level of accomplishment here approximates that of a beginning art student who is learning to draw and paint. At worst it looks like the finger paintings of a 10 year old. The pictures are composed well, as one would expect of a good artist but his use of the program(s) in question suggest that a great deal remains to be learned. Still, kudos to Mr. Hockney for his exhibition.

"Sky Kings" by Derek Zabrocki, 2015 (from Deviant Art)
"Study" by Elena Berezina, 2015 (from Deviant Art)
The "art world" may have just noticed digital works in the last few years, but digital painting is hardly new. The computer has been used for a long while to produce images (video and stills) commercially. Drawings and paintings in periodicals and advertising are now mostly made using computers. A few are made the old fashioned way with paint or graphite, but digital pictures are faster to make, easier to edit, and quick to transmit. The old field of commercial art has become graphic design, encompassing everything from digital illustration to website layouts.
"Standing Guard" by Pascal Campion 2015 (from Deviant Art)
Digital painters produce compelling and beautiful pieces, many for reproduction. Here are a few I found in just a few minutes' time, on Deviant Art, an online community of artists of every kind. These first three were in the Digital Art section of the website, under the subcategory of Painting and Drawing. These come close to emulating real paint and in that sense they succeed very well. Further, the pictures have wonderful conceptual and compositional strength. In particular, I enjoy the concepts in "Sky Kings," with its allusion to an old western song as well as an old television series, within the genre of western art. In the second, the artist has produced a digital image that could very easily pass for paint, with the exception that the lightning stroke could only have been made electronically, seems to me. The bottom painting, "Standing Guard" is beautifully composed and executed, showing a man as sentinel while a female (his girlfriend? wife? maybe daughter?) sleeps peacefully. The colors are well done and the image is affecting.

Finally, at the bottom, I've shamelessly included a digital image of my own, done to emulate the technique of ink and wash, which is what I often do at art festivals and sometimes as watercolor postcards to friends and family while I'm on vacation. In this case, I did "Bacchus" for practice while learning to use a program called Sketchbook Pro combined with a pressure-sensitive tablet. Digital sketching is fun because you can change things literally at will while still preserving the best ideas. And it's convenient, quick, and easily used, if you have a tablet or a smartphone. These past couple of years Sketchbook Pro has been my main program, although I've dabbled in a couple others, including Brushes, Art Studio, Gimp, and ArtRage.
"Bacchus," by Gary Hoff 2013

Friday, September 11, 2015

Waiting for food

Like him or not, Robert Crumb is considered by many an indisputable master of cartooning. His fame rests in large part on his underground comics from nearly 50 years ago, Zapp Comix and others as well as his characters Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, et al.  His famous cartoon "Keep on Truckin'" is an icon of the 1960s, having been copied endlessly by nearly everyone, although Crumb himself saw almost nothing from it. Regardless,his singular style of drawing and his even more singular subject matter made him one of the more interesting cartoonists of all time. Like many artists, one of his important characteristics is perseverance. Seen in the bio "Crumb" and obvious from the sheer volume of his work over the years is that Crumb is always, always drawing. About 20 years ago he even published a book of drawings he made while waiting for his restaurant orders to be served. "Waiting for Food" remains great fun and Crumb has published a number of sequels too.
Margarita Monday
To give credit where due, Crumb inspired me to try my hand at making a few small ink and watercolor pictures in restaurants. This one was done in a 3x5 watercolor sketchbook while waiting for my hamburger to arrive. We were visiting in Seattle last week and enjoyed lunch overlooking scenic Lake Union, which is always dotted with sailboats. I knew there was no way to do anything much with such a glorious and complicated landscape, so I decided to look indoors and concentrate my view. These shakers seemed to fit the bill, and I particularly like how the round tops of the shakes contrast with the straight lines everywhere else.

I laid the painting in using an earth red watercolor pencil on watercolor paper toned with ochre gouache. The paper is bound in a small, 3x5 sketchbook that's handy to use, easy to carry, and relatively inconspicuous. Using a waterbrush and a small set of colors I washed in the darks. Next came watercolor pencils for the menu lettering and to darken spots on the salt and pepper shakers. After strengthening the transparent washes and adding more points of color here and there plus a few highlights in gouache I used a waterproof pen to add a few strengthening lines and it was done. Took about 20 minutes, and as I looked up our burgers arrived with perfect timing and I could sit back and savor the great view of Lake Union on a sunny summer day.


Sunday, September 06, 2015

Portraiture at The Players

In the great scheme of art, portrait painting has long held a place of high esteem. During past centuries, the hierarchy of genres in art was topped by history painting, then portraiture. Other disciplines like landscape and still life painting were relegated to the bottom of the list. Today, history painting is a relatively uncommon pursuit but portraiture is still going strong. People who might never buy a landscape painting will commission a family portrait. For many, especially former illustrators, portrait painting is one of the ways to keep practicing art. An excellent example is Raymond Kinstler.

Mr. Kinstler began his illustration career in the 1940s, starting with comic books and later paperback covers, and then book and magazine illustrations. Kinstler broke into illustration during the golden age, drawing literally thousands of comic book panels and hundreds of magazine illustrations and book covers. But the heyday of illustration ended, necessitating a career shift during the 1950s. Mr. Kinstler has been very successful in ensuing half-century, painting well over 1000 portraits plus many other works. He has painted nearly everyone in public life, or so it seems, including people in politics, the arts, education, and other pursuits. Examples include Gene Hackman, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg In total, he has painted a half-dozen governors, even more U.S. presidents, and a number of other public officials. Although he's now past 80, Kinstler continues working.

Tony Bennett by Raymond Kinstler, 2006

Here is his portrait of Tony Bennett from 2006 showing his deft brush strokes and well-considered draftsmanship. There's a hint of drama and wisdom in the face and in the composition too. Mr. Kinstler has said that he tries very hard to see something of the psychology of the sitter, and here he succeeds admirably.

On a trip to Manhattan a few years ago, my wife and I took advantage of my membership in the Salmagundi Club of New York to have dinner at The Players, a private club in Gramercy Park. The Salmagundi Club began as an artists' sketch club in the 1870s and has continued as a club for artists of all kinds for a century and a half. Over the decades, the club has included numerous artists, including such well-knowns as N.C. Wyeth, Thomas Moran, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Salmagundi, like many other private clubs, has reciprocity agreements, one of which is with The Players.

We wanted to visit The Players because they hold a wonderful art collection that includes work by Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, James Montgomery Flagg, Norman Rockwell, and others. In particular, The Players has a large number of works by a contemporary portraitist, Raymond Kinstler, most of which are actors. Mr. Kinstler, a member of The Players himself, maintains a  studio just next door in the National Arts Club. I had heard about the Kinstlers at the Players club and was eager to see them. Dinner seemed a reasonable beginning, so we went with our friend Beth Kurtz.

The Players is a venerable club dating to 1888 when Edwin Booth, the American actor, deeded the building (his home), its contents, his collection of art and theatrical memorabilia and his extensive personal library to The Players. The idea was to provide a convivial atmosphere in which gentlemen of the theater could mingle. It remained gentlemen only until the 1960s, when Helen Hays, then known as the first lady of theater, was inducted. Interestingly, two of its founders were Mark Twain, who lived nearby, and William Tecumseh Sherman the famous Civil War general. Since then it has served as a club for actors and theater folk. We had an excellent dinner in the downstairs Grill Room, a convivial space also lined with original art. One of the features of the room is Mark Twain's pool cue, hung in honor over the fireplace.

Christopher Plummer as Prospero by Raymond Kinstler
After dinner we wandered the upper rooms of the club, since we were told that Kinstler's works could be found in any number of them. While that was in fact true, The Players' gems of the Players' portraits by Kinstler are housed in the Kinstler Room, a large room next to the Great Hall. In this room are his paintings of Katharine Hepburn, Christopher Plummer, and James Cagney. Like so much of his work, the brushwork and approach to paint give these pictures great energy, real life. His painting of Christopher Plummer in the Shakesperean role of Prospero is striking and solid. 

There are portraits by Kinstler of  Jose Ferrer as Cyrano, a mustached Jason Robards, Alfred Drake (a well-known theater actor in the 20th century), and numerous others. One of the more important functions of portraits is to show the viewer something of the psychologic makeup of the sitter. Think of works by Rembrandt or Hals and you'll have an idea of what I mean. In many cases, portraits by the masters look as if the artist had looked into the soul of the subject. I think the picture of James Cagney, done near the end of the actor's life, does something similar, plumbing the aging process and how the man had changed from the Yankee Doodle Dandy so many remember from one of his movies.  
James Cagney by Raymond Kinstler, 1980

Overall, our visit to The Players was a memorable opportunity to see, up close, the work of an artist of enormous talent, polished skills, and  a decidedly vigorous approach to portraits. The Cagney portrait retains the freshness and vigor because it was made as a sketch for a lithograph produced to benefit the club.

There is a fascinating six-part series of videos on YouTube wherein Mr. Kinstler provided a tour:



Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Drawing Practice

There are a lot of painters who don't draw. Some have even claimed they couldn't draw at all (the British painter Francis Bacon, for example). But drawing is still a fundamental skill for artists. Increasingly these past few weeks I've been drawing and then drawing more. It isn't only metalpoint that prompted me to draw more. Actually, doing a drawing or two every day grew out of my daily routine. Now each morning after a cup of coffee and the morning news I draw for an hour or so. The subject doesn't matter, nor does the method. It's the practice that's important. As the great illustrator Albert Dorne said, "You learn to draw by drawing."

Some drawings are warm ups, some become continuing studies, and some are for trying out new materials or methods. Once in a while I do draw just for fun. Whatever the reason, drawing is an integral part of life in my studio. For years most of my drawing efforts were either graphite or charcoal. About 10 years ago I went through a period of investigation of pastels, but eventually returned to older, simpler materials.

"Gettin' Funky"(graphite)
Lately I've practiced with graphite, ink, Copic markers, and pixels. Mostly these drawings stay in sketchbooks, although the silverpoint posted at the bottom has been exhibited. One of the most interesting things about drawing in several different media is how many if not all of the skills needed to draw carry across all of the different ways to make marks. Naturally there are many differences and peculiarities, but drawing is drawing whether done with a pencil or a computer.

Here are a few from the past year or two. The first is graphite on a 9x12 gray-toned sheet. I was struck by the rather stiff, uncomfortable posture of the older man dancing, whom I paired with a younger woman. This one was originally intended as a study for a painting, but the painting has yet to materialize. Even so, "Gettin' Funky" is a light-hearted celebration of the game, if clumsy, middle-aged male dancer.

Pen and ink study of narcissi, from a photo
The next is an ink drawing I did to test a new dip pen. The name "dip pen"  tells you exactly how these pens work. They're actually sold as metal nibs that fit into a holder and are dipped into a bottle of ink. These pens are made of spring steel that will deform and return to its original shape, which facilitates line work. These are the implements of illustrators of the late 19th century and the poison pens of umpteen newspaper political cartoonists. Today the dip pen is a true anachronism. This is about 6x8, on paper intended for ink work. I was interested in varying line weights using a traditional dip pen. If you use a mechanical pen like, say Rapidograph or others, you can't vary line weights except by doubling. Varying line weights using a dip pen is dependent on the amount of pressure applied. Heavier pressure means thicker, weightier lines. Pen and ink is still a wonderful way to draw.

The Dying Woman (silverpoint)
The silverpoint drawing to the left was done using a photograph of my own for reference. The woman in the drawing was in the final months of cancer. Like many of my silverpoint drawings, this one is on a gessoed panel, 6x8. Silverpoint is a difficult medium, but it captures the essence of gray scale values very well. Over decades the silver will tarnish to a warm, dark gray, just as silver table ware or tea sets tarnish.

Finally, here is a really scary clown, done digitally. I've been learning a drawing and painting program called Sketchbook Pro, a full-featured program that allows the artist to produce all kinds of variety of line, color, and the like. There are many digital art programs out there, of course, so I've been trying a number of them. This happens to be one of my more successful works, developed using a Mardi Gras float for inspiration. A lot of people are scared of clowns, I'm told, but I've been calling this guy "Loki" after the trickster in Scandanavian mythology.

"Loki" or "The Scary Clown" (digital)