Friday, March 25, 2016

Pages from a sketchbook

A few days ago while rearranging and consolidating files these sketchbook pages came to light. The first is a page of drawings of couples that I did to study walking and the interpersonal postures. You can tell a lot by watching body language, which is part of what these drawings were about. Cityscapes and street scenes are fascinating to me, especially when there are figures in action in a specific setting--people
on a Paris street, for example, or walking in almost any American city.

This first page shows a few couples, mostly cribbed from advertisements or online sources, but significantly modified. In particular, these are aimed at romantic involvement, the entrancement, more or less, between two people. This is graphite on toned paper, about 8x10.
The drawing below is one of several on the page (this one is about a quarter page) but the only one devoted to the same subject as the study above. It's an invented scene of a couple in a rain storm.

The main medium is graphite, with white charcoal highlights. The city is New York, but I invented the couple. This drawing is around 4x5, on grey-toned paper.

I still like the concept of the man looking back at us while the woman with her mass of dark hair doesn't notice. Perhaps one of these days it will turn into a painting.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Windowsill Works 2

I posted a few of these Windowsill Works a month or so ago. They're the result of a period of daily painting and practice a couple of years back. My purpose was to work hard on observation, spending more time looking than painting, and then laying down the right color and value in the fewest strokes possible. It's not easy to do all of those things, every time, at least it wasn't for me. These are all 6x8 on gessoed hardboard.
The first is a setup that I put into a three-sided still life box I painted matte black on the inside. I illuminated the box from my studio window (indirect northern light). I sat the small empty wine glass and the bottle on a blue-white cloth. This exercise took about 30-45 minutes and I tried to spend a lot of that time looking and not so much putting down paint. In some places you can see deliberate, long strokes, particularly in the background. Now that I look at it again, I see some fussiness here and there, but mostly this one is true to the purpose of my exercise.

2-5-2012 #2
This is the same setup from a slightly different viewing station--same time of day and lighting. In this case my brushwork looks more strained and uncertain, it seems to me now, and my drawing of the bottle and the glass are both a bit off, if  not jarringly so. In general, this one seems less well-done (read: less thought-out) than the first one, though it was still a useful attempt.

Look for more Windowsill Works in future posts. I've added a link to the original, below.
Windowsill Works

Friday, March 11, 2016

Brushes Part 4--Specialized Shapes and Uses

This is number four in a series of occasional posts about brushes. For this post, I've asked my friend Richard Bingham to add his expertise as guest-poster. Richard is a fine artist whose professional life for many years included sign painting of all kinds. Rich has years of experience wielding most of the more specialized brushes he discusses below. Here are his photos and descriptions of a number of potentially useful brushes.

Special Brush Shapes for Fine Art
by Richard Bingham 

Lettering Flats, Quills, and Daggers

Brushes of these kinds are most commonly associated with commercial work such as sign lettering and embellishing automotive paint jobs. Nonetheless, they may have some limited utility for the fine artist who needs to render fine detail. To be successful using all three of these brush types you need the paint to be loose and fluid, and the surface to be dry, smooth and "fast". A fast surface is typically dead flat and smooth. For example, an "egg shell" surface that results when a painted surface has been leveled with fine sandpaper, or a slick surface such as an automotive finish (or glass) would be considered fast..
A lettering flat
The lettering flat is made from a medium-soft hair, usually a blend of grey camel and ox hair. Their composition is the reason these brushes are commonly referred to as "camox strokes." They come in sizes from 1/4" to 1".  When charged or “loaded” with paint at a proper workable consistency, lettering flats allow clean, square strokes of considerable length in one "pull." The stroke can be varied from thick to thin by twirling the handle in one's fingers while pulling the stroke. Unlike bristle flats, or even sable flats, lettering strokes, quills, riggers or the dagger cannot be "back stroked" or pushed. This is because as they are loaded with paint they become too soft, limp, and heavy. They must be pulled.

Lettering quills. Note the ferrules.

Quills gained their name because the hairs are hafted in goose quill rather than a metal ferrule. Lettering quills are made in numbered sizes from #2 to # 20. Less flexible than a flat for producing strokes with varied width, thick to thin, they are more maneuverable for makiing curving strokes of the same width. The slightly stiffer gray hair may tend to skip and "rag" the edge of the stroke. Quills come in "gray" and "brown.” The gray hairs, having a bit more "snap" than brown hairs, are easier to control, but brown hair is preferred for use over extremely "fast" surfaces, such as glass, providing a smooth, sharp-edged stroke.
Dagger striper, well-used
Dagger stripers are highly specialized brushes with two requisites that may make them impractical for easel painting: first, they requires a considerable amount of practice to master, and second, to use them successfully requires the painter to control both the path of the stroke and its width by dragging one's ring or middle finger along the work surface when drawing the line. A unique feature of dagger stripers is the capability to draw out clean painted lines of unparalleled length without re-charging, compared to riggers, strokes or quills, which hold less paint.

Riggers, Ovals, Sash Brushes, and Cutters 

Riggers should probably be included with the lettering brushes above, but my experience with them is limited. No doubt they would have been useful for fine, mostly straight lines if I hadn't already been comfortable with lettering quills for the same purpose. In my hands they seem too unwieldy, given the proportion of diameter to hair length (long and narrow), and the paucity of hair which doesn't hold much paint.

Grey China oval
House painters' ovals are another special shape that can be useful for easel painting, These can be hard to find in shops but can be had online for reasonable prices.  The one shown is approximately 1 3/8" across the long oval. Ovals are made with gray hog bristle and are very full with hair, which makes them the perfect brush for stippling a blend of colors that have been laid on with a flat. Holding the short handle of the oval near its end, one "bounces" the bristles over the previously applied wet paint working from light to dark. The technique, properly executed, results in a seamless transition of color and/or value without brush strokes. Depending on the nature of the paint and the medium the paint may flow out smooth, or remain lightly "pebbled" and non-reflective. The oval can also be used to "distress" certain kinds of final varnish applications at the point of tack, also to minimize or eliminate the reflectiveness of the coating.

Typical cutter
White hog bristle cutters are available in sizes from 3/4" to 3". These brushes are called cutters because their main purpose is to make a "cut" (a clean-edged line) with paint or varnish. An inch and a half cutter is excellent for applying a final picture varnish, considering that the proper method for varnishing a painting is to apply the varnish to the framed picture, being careful to "cut" the varnish line right at the edge of the frame's rebate. It's not a good idea to apply varnish to surfaces which will come in contact with the frame because the varnish can adhere to the frame's rebate.

Sash brush

A sash brush carries a slight angle, which may be useful at the easel when control of the brush requires that one's hand not obscure the view of the work-piece. Sash brushes are used in painting or varnishing. The brush illustrated is black China hog bristle.

These brush shapes have generally been employed by sign painters, auto detail painters, and other craftsmen. While many are made with natural hair--hog bristle, camel, etc--they are also available in various synthetic fibers. They can be obtained via a number of online sources as well as in paint supply shops.

(Photo credit: Richard Bingham)


Brushes Part 1
Brushes Part 2 
Brushes Part 3 

Friday, March 04, 2016

Favorite Art Books Part 3

Part three of a continuing series about favorite art books. Most of these books are about materials and methods, but occasionally I may throw in a book of art criticism, or an artist biography, perhaps.

One of my favorite kinds of art book is the personal one--a "first person" book--they not only cover anything from methods to materials or techniques; they also give us an inkling of the real individual behind the paintbrush. That kind of book can tell us everything from details about the artist's studio practices and working methods to how they conceive, study, and realize their ideas and aesthetics. Sometimes the personal book is about unique or idiosyncratic ideas and views. For example, Salvador Dali wrote a book called "50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship" (published in 1948, available as a Dover reprint) an odd book that mixes solid technical information with other, clearly surreal ideas. In effect the Dali book is itself a work of surrealism, and actually great fun, even where it leaves the beaten track of proven methods. But that sort of book isn't what this post is about. The kind of personal art books I'm most interested in are those that tell us precisely how the artist did what they did. Some of these books are useful and straightforward. Richard Schmid's "Alla Prima II" subititled "Everything I Know About Painting, and More" is an excellent example.

In that useful vein of "how to,"Thomas Buechner (1926-2010) published one of my own favorite books, "How I Paint," subtitled "Secrets of a Sunday Painter," in 2000. "How I Paint" is an informative, straightforward description of how he made his paintings. Although Buechner made his living partly as a museum director, he was also a classically-trained lifelong painter and illustrator. He was born in New York City in 1926 and attended Princeton University and later the Art Student’s League and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He kept a foot in two disciplines by working both as an illustrator and as a museum director. He did illustrations for the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, among other commercial work, but he also served as founding director of the Corning Museum of Glass and later as director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But it is in this exceptionally useful and concrete book that he has made his greatest contribution, in my opinion. "How I Paint" remains in print, and is widely available online. And no mistake about it, Buechner was much more than a Sunday painter, and it clearly shows. In truth, like every professional in almost every walk of life, he likely did his work every day.
Thomas Buechner, Self Portrait, ca. 1995

Among the things I enjoy about Buechner are his straightforward writer's voice and his no-nonsense approach to art. He spends about 30 pages discussing why he painted and what. What to paint is a topic for an entire book, but Buechner spends some time on his own particular motivation, He covers exploration, imagination, and more via his own consciousness and experience, which I found valuable.

Like many others before and after him, Buechner devotes a chapter to materials and tools, but by the time he wrote this book he had little time for the old-school methods that he had learned early in his career. Although he had tried many of the "old master" mediums and techniques, mixed hundreds of color swatches, and studied the properties of many paints, Buechner had transitioned to alkyd paints and Liquin as a medium using a traditional palette of ochre, cad yellow, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson and titanium white.  
Cover of "How I Paint" featuring "Fletcher in Fur," 1998

The same chapter contains a section on methods, including such issues as drawing, composing, perspective, and reference material. Unlike many realist painters who decry the use of the camera,. Buechner calls his an "idea machine," meaning his point-and-shoot was never far away. Nonetheless he does say that if you copy a photo that's what you get: a copy of a photo. Truth is, many fine painters and draftsmen have used photo references, probably most famously Norman Rockwell. Still, Buechner advocates painting from life as much as you can. Throughout the chapter he provides full-page high resolution images of many of his works, using them as examples of the various aesthetic and mechanical issues discussed.

The last half or so of the book concerns how Buechner painted various genres, from still life to landscape to people. One part gives extensive background for each painting, wherein he discusses what thought process he followed as a painting developed. For example for a deceptively simple picture of three pears, he mentions that to his way of thinking the grouping represented a struggle among the three shapes, with one pushing, another resisting, and the third already beaten. He discusses why the pears are placed as they are, what surface he used, how he developed the drawing and the final painting, in a series of large and small shots showing much detail. These tiny details are the ones that many writers don't show or sometimes even mention, yet they're crucial to versimilitude.

The final chapter of the book seems a bit out of place to me. In it Buechner details how to make various kinds of brush strokes. The chapter is called "Delivering Paint" and it's definitely all about that--what brush shapes and types are best for what kinds of strokes. He also details how to handle the brushes, which is another area that many neglect. 

All in all, "How I Paint" is likely to be one of those classic art books that survive long after the author has passed on. I certainly value my copy and highly recommend that any artist consult it and put a copy on your studio shelves. 

Favorite Art Books Part 1
Favorite Art Books Part 2