Friday, January 29, 2016

More Drawing Practice

A while ago I wrote that drawing practice is fundamental to the work of artists. The importance of drawing was known as far back as Greek Antiquity, if Pliny the Elder, writing several hundred years later was right. "Never a day without a line," (nulla dies sine linea) was how he quoted Apelles, the most famous painter of Antiquity. Leonardo recommended always carrying a sketchbook, as does probably every art teacher today. Drawing is so important to me that I could never paint without drawing. Drawing is in some ways a manner of thought, a nonverbal process of ideas coalescing into images or maybe into patterns of values or colors. From there, ideas begin to grow, take shape. Most of the time my drawings are images of something real and tangible that I've seen--whether it's a person or a vase or a city street--and it's important to show the viewer exactly what I see.

You could say that drawings of that kind should be very accurate and certainly for realistic representation that's true. But drawings are commonly exaggerated into cartoons or caricatures. Some artists distort figures or faces to make a point or to reinforce emotion. So I'm not saying that all drawing should be rigidly representative and be absolutely realist. On the other hand, being able to draw a face, or figure, or an object, giving it not only a recognizable appearance but also providing the illusion of weight and the appearance of occupying three dimensions is an exceptionally useful set of skills.

Most mornings I begin studio work with a few graphite drawings, usually on toned paper. Sometimes while surfing the net for morning news I pause a story or a video and sketch one of the faces or some of the figures in the story. But more often I draw from memory or from other materials, or life. Lately, I've been drawing both in the mornings as my warm up and later in the day as a learning tool. Off and on I've been copying drawings by the great Al Dorne as well as others that were published in the Famous Artists School course from the mid-20th century. Here are a couple of pages from my sketchbook.
After Dorne, Two Figues

Seven Heads
These heads were drawn using principles in the text of the FAS course. I copied these drawings from the book, about the same size as they were printed. The seated man in the top drawing was originally one of a series of studies Al Dorne did in the 1950s in preparation for an illustration. What I've done as I've gone through the Famous Artists School book is review the text, sometimes in detail, sometimes not, and then copy as many of the drawings as I can. As one way to continue drawing and potentially hone my skills, it's been exceptionally useful.

Drawing Practice

Friday, January 22, 2016

What, Exactly, Is Impressionism?

Impressionism, as an art movement, is probably pre-eminent through much of the world. Impressionist art is often bright, cheerful, realistic, and easily understood. The viewpoint on the world is one of wide-eyed wonder at the variety of life and light. Surprising that these paintings were initially derided as crude, unfinished, or worse because for a century they've had wide appeal that seems to be steadily increasing.

One indicator of the the pre-eminence of Impressionism is how it's marketed these days. Museums hold exhibitions of Impressionism seemingly at the drop of a hat, comparing one painter of the group to another, or focusing on a location where they painted or lived, or perhaps holding an entire one-person "block buster" show. Incidentally, those shows invariably come with a gift shop selling everything from catalog books to image-laden coffee cups. We love the images. Impressionism is box office; we continue to love the pictures. Another measure of the movement's vitality is how many contemporary representational painters market their work as impressionist. And no mistake, many of them actually do paint like the original masters of the form. The movement is very much alive and well.

The popularity of Impressionism has resulted in confusion on the part of the the public about how representational works made in other traditions fit in. Impressionism is so popular and well-known that other representational art as well much of the avant garde of the same era has been neglected, like the work of Bouguereau, vilified by critics, the way traditional academic painting has been, or simply lumped together with Impressionism. That's been the case for contemporary realism as well, from artists whose specialties are craggy mountains to others who paint city streets, or the ocean or the beach. Even when the works in discussion are clearly of a different school or movement, such as having a more academic (i.e. "finished") look, or employing false colors, some continue to be labelled as impressionist.

My own paintings are sometimes called impressionist. Yet a much of my current work depends on layering--glazing and scumbling--besides direct techniques, commonly using darker colors or underpaintings. Sometimes my images are more finished, but often not as much as other realist works. Glazing and scumbling means working in layers, although as mentioned in a previous post I sometimes work as the impressionists did--alla prima or premier coup. Impressionists painted directly, for the most part, didn't use dark colors much, and discarded black. They were interested in landscape and figures and the effects of light from the sun. They weren't interested making shadowy works like those painted by earlier masters, especially their most immediate predecessors, whose palettes were considerably darker. In my paintings I'm interested in nocturnal but lighted figures, street scenes and rainy days. I like to study how light is refracted and reflected and bounces around in glass containers. I enjoy studying shapes and how they look in slanting light. Some of my work is false-colored, and doesn't show the actuality of the world, even if the paintings themselves are realistic. And none of that is Impressionism at all. For example, a fairly recent painting of mine is "Midtown Food Carts" (below) which has areas of flat, false color, particularly in the background and in large sections of the food carts. It's bright and realistic but it's not Impressionism. It could be called post-impressionist I suppose, but I prefer to call my work contemporary realism. And contemporary realism is not Impressionism.
Gary Hoff, "Midtown Food Carts," 2013

So then what exactly is "Impressionism," and for that matter who were those painters? Impressionism has come to encompass a number of ideas, seems to me. Here they are, so far as I can determine.
  • representation of light in paint, especially outdoor light
  • use of full-bodied paint, laid down in generally visible strokes of various weights and widths
  • direct painting, rather than glazing in layers
  • outdoor ("plein-air") painting to capture fleeting moments of light
  • focus on everyday subjects--landscape and figures--rather than history painting or portraiture
  • elimination of black from the palette
Doubtless someone will make a case for other characteristics of these artists' work, and I certainly make no claim of expertise. Still, there are other features of impressionist work that are often mentioned. One commonly cited concept is the idea of visual color mixing. That is, placing two pure colors--say, a blue and a yellow--side by side to produce a retinal image of a mixture of the two--green in this example. Certainly that was the effect of some of their efforts, but if that was an actual intent of the artists at the beginning of the movement it isn't clear to me. It's true that post-impressionist works relied on that phenomenon, particularly pointillism.  For another example, some have pointed to the new and brighter pigments available to Monet and his colleagues, which made higher key paintings possible. You could say that new pigments were the most important advance leading to Impressionism but that could be argued, given that not all Impressionist paintings are high key. Even the work that led to the name for the movement is mostly a series of beautifully muted (see below) greys. Technology certainly facilitated the process of outdoor painting, though, particularly in the form of metal paint tubes.
Claude Monet, "Impression, Sunrise," 1872
Who were the Impressionists? The paradigmatic member is Claude Monet. He was the leading painter of the movement, so much so that it was his work "Impression, soleil levant" or "Impression, Sunrise,"  that actually provided the movement it's name. He exhibited the painting, a view of  the harbor at Le Havre, his hometown, in the original group exhibition in 1874 that included his work and that of several of his colleagues, most of whom had received scant attention from the art world of the day. That famous show included works by Degas, Renoir, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley, and a number of others. Because the manner of painting was so different, sketchier, seemingly unfinished at times, it prompted jeering and scathing criticism in the Paris news papers. One journalist whose enormous distaste for the painting made his criticism particularly intense inadvertently provided the name for the movement by his ironic use of the term. Impressionism it was, and so it has remained.. Over the next dozen years or so, with many additions and subtractions, this group of artists exhibited together as the nucleus of the movement.

Surprisingly many artists have been called impressionist, over the decades, although none were truly part of the Impressionist movement. Edouard Manet for example knew Monet and the others--even painted with them--yet he painted in a considerably more finished style and was already well-known before Impressionism. People today call van Gogh an Impressionist, and he was indeed influenced by them, but his style is his own--direct, forceful, graphic, even manic toward the end--but  he's really a Post-impressionist, as is Cezanne, although he was briefly part of the group. Gustave Caillebotte (famous for his huge painting of a rainy street, below) has also been lumped with the Impressionists, but his work, while contemporaneous with theirs is dissimilar in many ways, considerably more urban, angular, and tonal.
Gustave Caillebotte,"Paris Street, Rainy Day," 1877
Georges Seurat, who came along at bit closer to the end of the 19th century and is justly famous, was also influenced by Impressionism, but his work is pointillist (or reductionist) and he again is best called Post-impressionist.
Georges Seurat, "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," 1884

Alfred Sisley, "The Seine at Bougival," 1872
On the other hand, the purest works of Impressionism--those most similar to Monet's original statement--are probably those of Alfred Sisley, who was actually English but lived in France. His works closely resemble those of Monet, particularly during the 1870s. But in truth, Pissarro, Cassat, Morisot, and Renoir all worked in a clearly similar style to Monet for a long while, although each diverged at various career points. The more I consider it, the more it seems to me that the truth is that Impressionism is in general a synonym for "Monet."

Again, not all representational art is impressionist either in subject or in execution. Here are a few contemporary realists, none impressionists.

The works of Wayne Thiebaud, for example, often feature common objects, and he uses full-bodied strokes, and a lot of color. But in no way can you call them impressionist.

Wayne Thiebaud, "Pies, Pies, Pies," 1961
In some people's book, Thiebaud's work is Pop Art, as suggested by his early "Pies, Pies, Pies," below, as well as others of gumball machines, cakes, and various Pop Art objects. But his oeuvre has gone way past that.

You might think that a realist of the 20th century like Thomas Hart Benton wouldn't be considered Impressionist, either. Although he used a relatively bright palette and painted figures and landscapes among his other motifs, Benton painted in broader areas of color and tended to a style of somewhat exaggerated and repetitive figures and shapes. His "Poker Night," in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows how he distorted and simplified shapes, used repetitive angles and forms, as well as rather severe perspective to achieve the effects he wanted. But obviously, again, not Impressionist. (This is actually a painting of the cast of the Tennessee Williams play, "A Streetcar Named Desire." Notice Karl Malden and Marlon Brando, two of the original cast members.)
Thomas Hart Benton, "Poker Night," 1947

The point, of course remains that not all realism is Impressionism. In fact, some art historians have argued that the movement ("Impressionism") was really a short-lived burst of work by about a half-dozen mostly French painters in the 1870s and 1880s. It's true that there were others in other places working in similar ways, though none exactly fits the particularities of Impressionism. Also, by the mid-1890s other ideas and movements had supplanted Impressionism and almost no one in Europe besides Monet continued to paint in that way after 1900. There was of course the later movement of American Impressionists (Childe Hassam, Twachtman) of which another called California or West Coast Impressionism was a minor echo.

In the end, it must be difficult for 21st century realists to have their work called Impressionism. That is, unless that's the effect and image they were aiming for.

Here are a few sites dealing with the subject:
Wikipedia on Impressionism 
Impressionism and Modernity

Friday, January 15, 2016

Brushes Part 2 - Shapes and Uses

This is Part 2 of a series of posts on brushes used for oil painting.

For a beginner, the idea that a specific brush shape can facilitate art-making is hard to grasp. At least it was for me--I came to the concept much later than many. It's an interesting and useful piece of information that takes a while to learn but knowing brush shapes and purposes should become second nature after a time. And having that information helps in making effective and useful paint strokes. When I began painting, all I knew was the kind of brushes you see in the hands of artists in cartoons--those small, soft, pointed brushes with long handles. That shape is called a "round," named for obvious reasons, but it's hardly the only brush shape an artist needs to understand.

Brush size is another topic that took me a long time to grasp. Most beginners simply paint with one size brush, usually small. Even if the shape is right, though, most people don't use a big enough brush. When it comes to what size is best it's as simple as the old saying that one should begin a painting with a broom and finish with a needle (attributed to Delacroix). That is, it makes no sense try to paint large acreages of canvas using a small soft brush. By the same standard, you can't drop a catchlight into an eye with a square 4 inch paintbrush. For me it has been important to push myself to use the largest brush that I can for the size of my canvas. That way I'm forced to be less picky and more blocky, more shape-oriented when beginning, refining as the size of the shapes decreases and as edges refine. At some point of course, one has to use even smaller brushes to facilitate detail, but that too depends on the kind of stroke, thickness of paint, and other considerations.

So here is a bit about sizes and shapes of brushes.

Brushes are made in sizes ranging from less than 1/16 inch to several inches in breadth. There are probably even people who make brushes with a single hair for very very fine work. Brushes are sold in a numerical sequences by size, but it's hard to figure out just what those numbers mean. For most purposes, brushes about 3/4 inch to 1 inch across have been most useful to me. In the line of bristle brushes I've used that translates into #8, 10, and #12 brushes (by the number on the handle) which roughly translates to 1/2, 3/4, and one inch, but those may vary by manufacturer. I generally paint smaller than 20 by 24 inches, but if I were painting larger works I'd obviously need larger brushes, certainly at the beginning. I don't know what brush numbers mean in different regions of the world although they're always ascending--larger size bigger number. Furthermore, there is no standard for brush sizes and numbers that I know of. So the best I can do is provide measurements. Check those against the manufacturer's listings. It's best to look in art supply stores, so you can actually handle the brushes. It's tougher to check sizes against online images. 

The commonest shapes that artists use are flats, brights, and rounds. These shapes are produced using any number of natural and synthetic fibers. Anybody interested should look at Brushes Part 1 for details. Certainly the fiber type can influence the shape chosen. For example, bristle brushes are more often sold in flat and brights shapes.
Flat and Brights 
Brush Shapes, from Turner
These shapes are likely the two most commonly used by most painters. They are generally flattened with a rectangular shape and square tips. Brights are about half the length of the flat shape, but some flats are quite long and some brights are shorter. In general, flats allow for unctuous, flowing strokes. The brights shape allows more control of shorter and more deliberate strokes as well as thicker paint. While some of my teachers have said that brights are better for darker colors, I've not found that to be useful personally. Instead it seems more reasonable to decide the kind of stroke one is going to be laying down. Painting darker passages often requires a scrubby stroke, which the brights shape allows better than a flat. Flat and brights shapes also allow for sharper edges when using thicker paint and allow one to place lines and long thin strokes with ease. When buying these shapes in bristle brushes be certain to check the tips to see if they have been trimmed--if so, toss the brush back in the bin because without flags they won't be as useful.

So to summarize, for scrubby strokes, the brights shape offers more control, as it does for short, choppy strokes and brights also allow for use of thicker paint. The flat shape allows long, sinuous stroking with medium to liquid paint. 

These brushes are flattened similarly to those above but the tips are rounded (shapes shown in far right of the chart on the right). They come in various shapes from short to extra long. (The extra long filbert shape is sometimes called an "egbert" but I don't know why.) Filberts can be used to lay in a painting because the round contour allows you to turn the brush sideways to draw thin lines or turn it ninety degrees and lay in long, wide strokes. A filbert can help put in long curving strokes such as shadows on rounded surfaces. These shapes are often found not only in bristle brushes but also in the softer natural fiber and synthetic fiber types as well.

This shape is used infrequently, in my experience (middle, top row of chart) but was originally intended to blend oil paint on the support surface. Fan brushes can be gotten in bristles or other fibers of all kinds. Today their use seems to be in decline, but many painters still swear by them for blending.

This shape is made by cupping a tuft of fibers, whether bristle, sable, or artificial, so that there is a round shape and a pointed tip. Brushes with this shape were commonly used for centuries, but often tied or fixed in other ways to a handle or even a big quill, whereas today they are glued inside a metal ferrule. Round brushes, particularly when made of softer fibers, allow for a variety of strokes, particularly when using thinner paint such as watercolor. These brushes often hold a great deal of paint. Variations on rounds can be made with longer hairs and/or more pointed tips.
For me, brushes remain a continuing education. Although I'm now using mostly synthetics, natural hair brushes are still a part of my studio practice. Mostly I use synthetics because they're easier to clean, more forgiving if you forget them for a day or so, and maintain their shape longer. More on that in the next installment, Brush Care and Maintenance.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Favorite Art Books, Part 2

The Student's Guide to Painting by Jack Faragasso
This book has been out of print for many years but if you can find a copy (Amazon lists it used sometimes) it can provide a path through the formal planning and execution of oil paintings. Faragasso has been an instructor at the Art Students League for nearly half a century and continues to teach there even now, this book dates to the 1970s. So far as I know it's been out of print since at least the 1980s.

In his intro to the book, Faragasso notes that it is "based largely on the teachings of my instructor, the late Frank Reilly." The general ideas that Faragasso (and Reilly) espouse is that creativity comes after craft and that to learn to paint you have to learn each small step thoroughly before racing ahead to make a picture. Faragsso takes you through the steps he believes are critical to learn in the order that he and Reilly believed they should be mastered. He begins not with drawing or materials, but with color.

The initial chapter on color is very useful, particularly the color images showing how sunlight affects chroma and value. The basic discussion of hue, chroma, and value is based in the color ideas taught by Reilly. Faragasso also takes the student through the mixing of color and how to make neutral greys. In the short but very informative chapters that follow Faragasso takes you through value patterns, lighting, shade, and more before arriving at the entire palette of colors. In the chapter named The Palette he takes you through comparisons of masters' palettes, particularly Holbein, and then the "Reilly palette" and shows a color print of a variety of standard human complexions. In the following chapter, he covers mixing of color tones. Succeeding chapters deal with how to begin, continue and finish oil paintings. He covers both figurative work and portraiture, showing how to lay in the painting and mass the various colors and values.

For me, this was a no nonsense work that added a lot to my working knowledge as I began to be more serious about the craft of painting, and in particular about color.
Faragasso is still painting and teaching. His website is linked below.

 Fun With a Pencil by Andrew Loomis
While many hail the author's justly famous Creative Illustration, this little book is still my favorite by Loomis. This book is easily accessible for anyone from a diligent 10 year old to an adult who wants to learn to draw a little. The original was published in 1939 and subsequently reprinted numerous times. There is a current edition (available on Amazon) that dates from the early part of this century, perhaps based on the old Loomis editions, but I don't know if the contents are the same, although the covers are identical. I have the 1944 edition, and suggest you try to get one of the early printings too, if you can.

Fun With a Pencil, p. 12 (detail)

This book is wonderfully simple and builds on the basics. Loomis starts with the circle and adds to that, building cartoon heads, then realistic heads. He moves on to expression and poses, then how to put the head on a body, how the figure is constructed and how it moves in space, and then on to more advanced material like clothing, shoes, and how to put figures together in space. Whew. A lot in less than 100 pages. The third part is even more compressed, yet full of useful diagrams showing how to place a figure in perspective, how to build realistic drawings of interiors, and considerably more. Although it is a beginner's book it's one you can use yourself or with younger students. I still noodle around with my copy once in a while to reinforce ideas and techniques.
Fun With a Pencil, p. 12 (detail)

The other Loomis classic, Creative Illustration, is certainly worth the time, but in my opinion, this one is more widely useful, considerably more basic, and I recommend it highly.

Favorite Art Books Part 1

Friday, January 01, 2016

Happy New Year

Leyendecker study for New Year Baby 1915
Happy New Year 2016!

There is a tradition in illustration wherein a small baby--the New Year--is depicted to show us something of either the year just passing or the year to come. In any number of those images the baby is welcomed (usually) by the wizened Old Year. Typically the new baby is full of all the things we see in babies--smooth and pink skin, freshness and hope, unspoiled optimism, and a kind of joy that plays well against the wise and tired visage of the old old man. 

Perhaps the best-known illustrator of New Year's babies was Joseph Christian Leyendecker, who was active in the first half of the 20th century. J.C Leyendecker was born in 1874 in Germany though his family came to the United States when he was about 8 years old. He grew up in Chicago and first studied art at the Art Institute and later the Academie Julian in Paris. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, Leyendecker was back in the States and established in as a successful illustrator, first in Chicago and later in New York. His cover illustrations for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post assured him of a handsome income for half a century, and an enviable artistic reputation. Besides his personal success, Leyendecker inevitably became the hero of quite a few younger painters, notably Norman Rockwell, who considered Leyendecker a true master. 

Leyendecker painted hundreds of covers for the Post in particular as well as quite a number of indelible advertising images such as the Arrow Shirt Man. 

Leyendecker died on July 25, 1951 in New Rochelle.

Leyendecker's New Years Babies