Friday, December 25, 2015

Ho Ho Ho

And Merry Christmas to us, each and every one! In this era of conflict, let us all remember our shared humanity and our common goodness.

This is Thomas Nast's 1881 Santa Claus, published in Harpers Weekly. Nast, a political cartoonist and satirist, is considered the inventor of our contemporary old St. Nick, although credit goes to several others as well (Clement Moore wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the 1820s). Nast was born in Germany in 1840 but came to the United States as a child. He was reportedly an indifferent student though his artistic talent was evident early in life. He was taught by individual artists and at the National Academy of Design (founded by Samuel F.B. Morse and Thomas Cole, among others).
Merry Old Santa Claus, Harper's Weekly, January 1, 1881

During his career, Nast was mostly a political commentator whose cartoons were featured prominently in Harpers Weekly and other periodicals of the day. He became famous during the Civil War but is still best remembered for his campaigns against Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed and the Democratic machine of the day. Nast not only invented much of our image of Santa, he also invented or expanded on some of our well-known political cartoon symbols--notably the Republican elephant.

Nast produced numerous woodcuts and drawings of Santa Claus, and it is his renderings of the jolly old elf that produced our modern images of Santa. Clement Moore's poem "A Night Before Christmas," was obviously known to Nast and probably assisted in his imagings of St. Nick as well.

There are numerous other Nast images of Santa Claus that you can easily find on the Internet.

So Merry Christmas to all and a happy and prosperous New Year.

Wikipedia entry for Thomas Nast
Brief Bio of Thomas Nast

Friday, December 18, 2015

Archibald Motley

During a recent visit to the new Whitney Museum in lower Manhattan, I had the chance to see the show titled Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist. Although I admit to never having heard of this artist before seeing the show, all I can say is I'm happy I know him now. This is a show of real interest and power. Motley was the real deal.

Motley was one of the important visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, in spite of the fact that he never lived there. He was a lifelong Chicagoan who did his best observing and his best work in that city. Nevertheless, Motley was the first black artist to have a one man show in Manhattan, which he believed prejudiced New York black artists against him ever after. True or not, it's clear from the show at the Whitney that Archibald Motley is a memorable artist whether based in New York or elsewhere. He was very talented.
Archibald Motley "Self Portrait" ~1920

Archibald Motley would probably have been called "creole" in his day since he was of mixed race and was born in New Orleans in 1891. His family moved to Chicago when he was very young. He grew up in a south Chicago neighborhood that was mostly Italian, where he attended mostly white schools and lived in a mixed neighborhood. From a very young age he was recognized as being gifted in art. He once spoke of how he spent most of his time in class drawing in the empty margins of his textbooks. Classically trained at the Chicago Art Institute School, he later studied in Europe. As his self portrait above shows, he was a talented painter whose gods were the masters of the European tradition. But he was also fascinated by the black experience in all sorts of settings--pool rooms, churches, barbecues--any place people of color gathered. As a youth he spent time in black poolrooms and dance clubs as well as churches and other large gatherings of blacks. And that's what he painted for much of his career.
Archibald Motley "Saturday Night" 1935
The pictures we saw in the Whitney show were fascinating. The early work is included in the first few spaces, clearly showing his schooling in figure, portraiture, and composition. From there you move into areas full of his "jazz age" paintings. These are the works that really have something to say. There are pictures of black church events, barbecues, nightclubs, pool rooms, and even the bustling street life of Chicago's black south side. And he makes them speak to us in many ways. First, he distills the emotion of the environment, the action and bustle, so much so you can sometimes hear jazz wafting just behind the images. Motley's work is deceptively primitive and sometimes seems to rely on caricature and stereotype, perhaps more than we find comfortable today, but even when the faces echo minstrel blackface the pictures are very thoughtful--carefully composed and colored, conveying a constellation of emotion. The stereotyping is deliberate. Motley was, after all, classically trained.

In one example, the painting above, "Saturday Night," painted in his prime, Motley shows us people in a jazz club, moving and dancing with what appears to be joy. The dancer is shaking her breasts in time to the music. But there are somber counterpoints to the joyful-looking dancer. Just to the left of her sit two downcast men with their faces turned away. The barman behind them simply looks bored. And only one person we see is apparently smiling, in the distance by the bandstand. The two waiters set at right angles, the man downing his martini, whose motion is given to us by the dancer's arm, and the piano keyboard in the distant background take us on zig-zagging happy-dance journey into the depths of the barroom while subtly evoking the dancing itself. The nearly monocolor palette sets the tone of a garish, loud nightclub with significant patches of darkness here and there, as is usual in such establishments. Overall, Motely evokes the real, red-blooded life of a black club of his day. It's a major achievement on several levels.The other works in this show bear similar levels of meaning and and will reward the viewer more than once.

If you're in the New York area, do yourself a favor and go to this exhibition.

Motley at the Whitney

Friday, December 11, 2015

Brushes Part 1

This is the first in a short series about artists brushes. These pieces are in regard to brushes used for oil painting. Acrylic and watercolor brushes are different and being used with water media means the care is different as well.

For a serious painter, choosing brushes can be vexing. When I began to paint, I mostly used brushes that were made of animal hairs--hog bristles and others. There are quite a few different kinds, including true sable hair (from an Asian marten), "red sable" (from the kolinsky, or Siberian weasel and other red-haired animals), fitch (an animal related to ferrets), mongoose, even squirrel and camel. Artificial hair brushes were available then but were relatively expensive in comparison. In the subsequent decades, synthetic fibers have become a significant part of the artist's tool kit as well. Synthetic brushes have been produced from nylon, polyester, acrylic and other compounds, and today they are often less expensive than natural hair. Over the years, my experience is that information about brushes for artists has been spotty, contradictory, and therefore confusing. This post is intended to set down what I know about how to choose, use, and maintain brushes and to discover the most accurate information available.
Hog bristle brushes

Artist brushes may be manufactured by machine or by hand. Several companies employ master brushmakers who make their top-of-the-line brushes by hand, using a process called cupping (or stacking, which is slightly different). Depending on the intended final size and shape of the brush, a metal cup is selected that will hold a tuft of hair or fiber. The fibers are placed in the cup, tapped into place, and then transferred to the ferrule which will hold them and glued together from inside. When dry, the hair and ferrule assembly is matched to a handle, with or without glue to strengthen the bond, and then the ferrule is crimped to the handle.

Natural fiber brushes are still the most favored kind by many painters. In general, oil painters use hog bristle brushes and red sable brushes; watercolorists may use true sable brushes (expensive) red sable (less money), mongoose, or squirrel for their soft yet springy action. Acrylic painters are probably best served by synthetic brushes, although I have personally used natural hog bristle brushes with acrylic paint without difficulty.

Natural Brushes
Hog bristle brushes are naturally quite stiff and resilient--new brushes spring back into shape nicely after being deformed--and are used mostly for oil painting. Hog bristles are naturally colored but are bleached white when used in brushes. These are best quality when their tips are "flagged," meaning they have naturally split ends that help the brush to hold more paint, so one of the critical steps in evaluating hog brushes is to check to see if the tips are split (use a magnifying glass); if they are trimmed square across the ends, as some cheap brands may be, the quality is considered poor. These brushes require significant care to maintain their spring and cleanliness.

Sable brushes, as noted above, are derived from true sables and other, usually related animals. They are prized because these natural hairs taper from a thicker center to a fine point, which makes it possible for them to hold more paint and release it easily and with control. Red sable brushes, which are common, are not made from sable hairs but from red animal hairs of various kinds of related animals, particularly weasels. Note that the best red sables are actually from a species known as a kolinsky, or Asian weasel. Even so, it's also important to know that if you see a brush listed as "red sable" it isn't likely to be from kolinskys because many other kinds of red hair might be used. Brushes advertised as kolinsky are likely to be genuine though, and also likely to cost more.

Mongoose brushes are made from hair obtained in India and Europe, predominantly. Mongoose hair is soft and has good paint holding and releasing qualities and is less expensive than sable, kolinsky, or red sable for brushes. They can be good substitutes for the more expensive brushes you might encounter.

Badger brushes are most often used by oil painters to blend passages of paint. The hairs are tapered, like other natural filaments, but the fatter part of the shaft is near the tip rather than in the central part so these brushes look bushier than others. I've used badger blenders for a long while and find them very useful as one softens and blends various strokes. Synthetic badger brushes are sometimes sold but are reportedly inferior to the natural ones (I have never used them). These can also substituted for sables, but don't receive much use that way.

Synthetic brushes
Nylon or polyamide fibers were the original synthetics, as you'd imagine, since nylon was among the first polymers developed. Nylon fibers were produced in the mid-20th century in diameters comparable to hog bristles, but had no taper nor flagging. Eventually tapering fibers were developed, as well as finer diameters, which led to nylon being used for artist brushes. Nylon remains a favorite synthetic and is sold under many names. Nylon fibers can be made very thin (and therefore soft) or very thick and stiff to imitate bristles. They're sold for all sorts of uses besides art, as well.

Today synthetic brushes are also made from a number of materials besides nylon. In some cases it's not clear to me what the actual fiber may be, even if the name evokes nylon. At least one company markets a fiber named Interlon (Aquatec ) but that name is also claimed by another company (Silver Brush) for their own Ruby Satin line, which their materials says is a new fiber.

Taklon is a polyester fiber originally developed by DuPont but now owned by Toray, a Japanese company. Taklon is widely used by a number of companies to produce good quality artist brushes. Taklon fibers are reportedly smooth and reasonably resilient, but said to be somewhat less sturdy than others. Taklon brushes are often substituted for red sables, and are available in standard shapes. 
Golden Taklon

Some companies list "Toray fibers" in their synthetic brushes. I suspect that these are probably very like Taklon. Like Taklon, Toray fibers seem to come in white or gold colors. For example, Escoda in Barcelona promotes White Toray and Gold Toray and says they are " of the softest [fibers] and typically used in watercolor," which sounds a lot like Taklon to me. Toray manufactures other fibers, including nylon and acrylic types, but I can't seem to find any actual polymer names. Proprietary fiber names abound though. Silver Brush, for example, mentions Mightlon, Bristlon, and Interlon as new fibers developed for them, but do not name the polymer involved. The final three letters might suggest nylon, but my hunch is they're a different polymer or maybe the same molecule with different wrinkles--sizes, split ends, etc.

A lot of painters don't pay all that much attention to brushes and alternatively there are those who refuse to let anyone touch their brushes. Certainly, top end brushes are expensive and require care in use and cleaning to get the most out of one's investment. But top quality brushes will perform better by holding more paint, releasing paint with more control and finesse, and retain their desirable qualities--stiffness, softness, etc.--longer. The problem is to get what one pays for. For me, the best course has been to try brushes from various companies, after taking time to look into what others I've respected have to say. Below are a few companies that have excellent reputations among professionals.

Brush shapes and their uses.

Silver Brush
Escoda Brushes