Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Computer Art Programs

Computer art programs have become important, and not just to professional artists. Digital drawing is a useful way to improve artistic skills, even for beginners. Computer art programs have significant advantages, not the least of which is convenience and (my favorite) no cleanup. No brush washing, preserving or disposing of paint, rags, used paper or canvas. However, on the negative side of the ledger many will add that learning computer programs is too hard, or the programs are too expensive. Or they may feel that using a computer to make images puts the artist to far away from the art--the tool is too intrusive--and besides, some artists really love having dirty hands and paint-spattered jeans. And of course, artists who have established useful and solid methods and know their materials inside and out don't want to change, saying "if it ain't broke..."

Nevertheless, I'd like to gently suggest giving digital art-making a try.

My experience is probably like that of many others. For a long time, although I owned Photoshop, digital art was something I had no interest in or time for. It occurred to me that perhaps the computer expertise needed was mostly beyond me, so the program languished. But a few years ago, a program called Art Rage changed my mind about digital drawing and painting. I saw a demonstration of the program by an oil painter who had only used it a short time. Unlike the more expensive and impressively digital Photoshop, Art Rage emulated what an artist does with graphite or paint, and seemed to be quicker to learn. You can pick a "brush" with defined properties that allow the artist to make a display mark very similar to
Portrait of Woody 2014 "graphite" drawing done in Art Rage
a mark made with graphite or charcoal or watercolor or oil paint. You can blend strokes and colors, just like real paint or charcoal. And importantly, Art Rage and other digital programs let you work in layers. In this portrait of Woody Guthrie, done from a photograph, you can see how well Art Rage simulates the look of graphite pencils.

There are newer digital art programs that are immediately available by download from the various online providers for all of operating systems (you can get Art Rage online too), although some are specific to one platform or another. Even better, you can get started with a free app or program and advance to the more expensive ones if or when you feel the need. Even the expensive programs like the Photoshop line from Adobe and its companion program Illustrator can be gotten quickly online. Today those and similar professional programs from other companies (Sketchbook, from Autodesk for example) are still relatively expensive but the cost is spread over time. You can download Photoshop online and pay about $20 per month while you use it and participate in Adobe's Creative Cloud. You will pay almost $250 per year so if you use it for a couple of years, well, you've paid a great deal.

Beginning in digital art making can be very inexpensive, though. In fact several very good entry level digital art programs can be downloaded for free. If you have a smartphone (who doesn't?) you can download a free program now called Brushes Redux from iTunes. David Hockney famously used the original Brushes app for quite a lot of the digital images he has been exhibiting, if the press is accurate. Today there are thousands using the program and uploading their images online. Besides being free, it's fairly simple to learn because you can just draw the image with a finger on the screen of your smartphone or iPad. The pictures you can produce on a telephone screen with such a blunt tool as a fingertip are necessarily rather rudimentary, of course, but with the larger tablet screens and the use of various kinds of styluses the pictures can be striking. There are other programs that are free or sell for a nominal charge online that can provide very good images, excellent convenience, and aren't that hard to learn.

Another iPhone and iPad app is Art Studio, again available from the iTunes store. This program is significantly more sophisticated than Brushes Redux. It sells for $4.99. Like Art Rage, Art Studio emulates the experience of painting or drawing. You can make it produce images similar to graphite, ink, or charcoal drawing. Or you can "paint" like watercolor or like oils.
Imaginary Character 2014 done with Art Studio
There is an additional add-on that you can buy from within the app, a Brush Pack that supplies more varied "brushes," but it's not necessary if you just want to try it out. The painting to the right was done in several layers using Art Studio while checking out how different brushes laid down color.

And finally, follow the link below to see uploads of Brushes-based images from all over.

Artworks created using Brushes

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Being mentioned in a piece in Forbes online a while back got me thinking about publicity. It was Lee Marvin who said something like, "I don't care what you write about me, just spell my name right." The implication of course is that there is no bad publicity. Well, perhaps. Marvin was in the midst of his famous "palimony" suit brought by an ex-lover who wanted alimony. In his case, he seems to have been right because nothing detrimental to his movie career ever happened. On the other hand, regular people--like me--want to be recognized favorably. Notoriety isn't for me.

So as I began thinking of other public mentions of my artwork, I remembered that I've been interviewed for newspaper and television in the past few years. The Des Moines Register has run a couple of articles about my work and a local television station broadcast an interview conducted in my studio in 2012.

"Rene Descartes (after Hals)" 2012
At the time I was doing a copy of a portrait of Rene Descartes, the famous natural philosopher, painted originally by Franz Hals in the 17th century, and the camera caught me at it. I do these kinds of copies to study the technique of the masters. Hals is a particular favorite of mine for his bravura brushwork. Of all of the Dutch masters of the 17th century, he's my all-time favorite. In particular, I enjoy his "tronies" or paintings of heads of various "types" of people, from his smirking gypsy girl to all of those tipsy revelers with ruddy cheeks and noses. 

So here is the link to that interview, conducted by long-time newscaster Mollie Cooney of KCCI television. Mollie and I met at ArtfestMidwest here in Des Moines a couple of years back and she asked to do the interview.

In the Artists Studio with Gary Hoff

Friday, October 16, 2015

Society of Illustrators

One of the great places to visit in New York is the Society of Illustrators. The Society was founded over a century ago to promote the "art of illustration" as they put it, and to hold exhibitions. And they've done so for the entire history of the organization. Further, the Society has always had renowned artists as members. During its early history, the club counted Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parish, N.C. Wyeth, Charles Dana Gibson, Frederic Remington, James Montgomery Flagg as attendee at monthly dinners. And our old friend Mark Twain (a founder of The Players) figures in some of those early events at the Society as well.

"Dover Coach," Norman Rockwell, 1935
An interesting side note is that during  World War I years, Society members worked with the government to produce original poster designs, one of which was the famous James M. Flagg recruiting poster of Uncle Sam. Several members also received commissions and were sent to France to sketch the war.

Today its venerable club building on 63rd houses the Museum of American Illustration, society offices, a wonderful dining facility and gallery spaces.

A few years ago we visited the Society for lunch. The Salmagundi Club and the Society are reciprocal organizations that welcome one another's visits, so Pat and I and our friend Beth Kurtz dropped in for lunch. What a treat! The food was good but the art was better. The dining room is known as the Hall of Fame Gallery and has quite a few pieces by the well-known and famous selected from the Society's permanent collection. Norman Rockwell's Christmas painting, "The Dover Coach," has pride of place over the bar in the dining room, but there are works by many others in the halls and stairwells. After a sumptuous lunch, we spent an delightful hour studying as many of them as we could.

Society of Illustrators

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Forbes Magazine online

A few weeks ago I received an email from Jason Borbet, a contributor to Forbes. He had been in my booth at the Uptown Art Fair in Minneapolis last summer and asked if he could include me in a piece showcasing contemporary artists on the Forbes online site. Jason is an artist himself as well as a writer, and has published several showcases of contemporary artists (about 70 artists so far) in the recent past.He regularly conducts interviews with artists as well, as you'll see if you follow the link below.


Besides his Forbes connection, Jason has a blog and gallery (linked below) where he shows and sells his own work. His latest is his take on Jeff Bridges' character of The Dude from the Coen brothers' hilarious cult classic "The Big Lebowski."


Thanks, Jason.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What is it worth?

The question of the worth of things--more properly, value-- recurs again and again in our culture. In the world of art collecting, the prices paid for works by famous artists have spiraled into the outer stratosphere, far above other perceived value.

By other perceived value I mean aesthetic value, mostly. Does the picture or sculpture provide the viewer with something besides an experience of beauty, or prettiness. Does the piece provoke thoughts of something new or new thoughts about something we've already been through? Does the work rouse admiration in us for its virtuosity of form or for its evocation of moment or emotion? Is there a story we see in the work? Does it provide us with fertile ground for our own narrative inventions? Is the image challenging or commonplace? And on and on. It might be said that some works transcend financial value. The Mona Lisa.
"When Will You Marry Me?" Paul Gauguin
On the other hand, in all other pursuits the price of a thing for sale is set by how much someone will pay. The value of the object is simply the market price. Forget aesthetics. Value is set by the dollar amount somebody will pay. In the last few years, quite paintings have sold for truly enormous sums--over $100 million. One by Gauguin called "When Will You Marry Me?" (original title Tahitian) sold a few months ago for $300 million, for example, eclipsing the record of $250 million set by the sale of Cezanne's 1893 "Card Players," to the Qatari family.

Both of these paintings are undeniably interesting works, and the Gauguin at least is attractive and pleasing. The Gauguin, unlike a lot of his work, has real depth of composition and expression while using relatively flat fields of color. It has real aesthetic value. The Cezanne is hardly his best work. A cursory look at this painting shows Cezanne's shortcomings as a draftsman very clearly (look at the arms). And no matter what his apologists say about his genius, his palette is drab enough to make us wonder if he was chronically depressed. There is a sort of helplessness in the card players, and a gut-deep feeling of unhappiness comes out of the work. In that sense, Cezanne succeeds if arousing such thoughts was his purpose. Nonetheless it is clumsy, dark, poorly composed and altogether forgettable.

Obviously neither of these pictures is worth what was paid. There are many other works, obscure and famous, that have more human content. Certainly there are thousands that are more visually arresting, better drawn or painted, or simply provide the viewer with a more transcendent experience. And neither of these is ground-breaking, neither is startling, neither makes us want more, in all honesty. The purchasers bought the painter's names and their historical and critical reputations regardless of what the image actually contains. They purchased an investment, regardless of how the acquisition was described. And stay tuned, of course, because auctions and private sales continue to push art prices beyond the stratosphere, where there is only vacuum.
"Card Players," 1893 Paul Cezanne

The Ten Most Expensive Paintings in the World

Most Expensive Paintings--Wikipedia

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Big Draw

Drawing is a fundamental human activity--perhaps even a prehuman one. Drawing could easily predate speech in the evolution of human behavior. It's that basic. The old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words contains real truth. The best artists over the millennia have communicated with us what they saw, from the cave paintings in Europe to drawings and frescoes in antiquity and forward into the contemporary era. Besides being a communication tool, though, drawing helps those who practice it to expand their minds.

Drawing requires us to actually see what we're looking at. Drawing is about looking hard at the object before us, translating that looking into a mental image, and then transmitting that image into neural impulses that drive our muscles and reproduce an image. The connections in our minds and nervous system are complex and still being worked out. Nonetheless, it appears clear that drawing alters one's perception of space, objects, light and dark, and a myriad of other properties. 

In contemporary times Kandinsky, then an avalanche of others freed themselves from imaging the real object and began to produce abstractions in both drawing and painting. And our late 20th century and early 21st perceptions have changed as well. We've strayed from strict depiction of reality into individual interpretation. Regardless of how one parses the history of art, though, drawing has been the foundation. 

Drawing was once widely taught, and it makes sense as a skill since drawing a map or a tree or an animal would obviously make it much easier for others to understand. Before photography, drawing would have been almost a universal skill, at some level. Through much of the last century, art in various forms was taught in public schools. At least through the pre-high school level, art was a required portion of the American public school curriculum. But money concerns and changing priorities have produced reductions in art education, inevitably including drawing.

Given that this is an entry about drawing, here are a few of my recent ink drawings. These were done for practice or because the image caught my interest. The first is about 5x8 on bristol, done with a waterbrush charged with black ink. It gives a freer line and a chance to fill large dark areas quickly. The other was done using an old-fashioned dip pen and black ink. One was done from a snap I made of narcissi last spring, and the other is a quick drawing I made of an English painter's  plein-aire streetscape. Drawing provides the opportunity to better understand a subject, whether it's the cups of flowers or the curve and slope of a street.

One of the greatest things about the Internet is the opportunity to discover how wide and unknown the world of creating is. Just this week I learned that October is the month of The Big Draw. According to their website, The Big Draw is an international celebration of drawing  that began as a day of drawing in the UK at the beginning of this century and has turned into an annual month-long festival of drawing worldwide. The first Big Draw in 2000 attracted 180 partner organizations. This year the festival worldwide will involve at least 1800 events. And anyone can participate, either by making drawings or by running a drawing event. The links below give a much better explanation and history than I can.

How the big draw festival helped me see

The Big Draw

The Campaign for Drawing