Friday, August 26, 2016

Pages from a Sketchbook 2

When I start to think about a new painting, one of the things I often do is review my sketchbooks.

Sketchbooks didn't interest me when I began to make paintings. Instead it seemed important to look at things intensely and paint them. Drawing seemed like a wasted step. It seemed too time-consuming because time for art was at a premium. Besides, my very first training was in technical drawing, where accuracy and detail and finish are critical. So no doubt that beginning influenced my view of sketching for a long time. Drawings and sketches both had to have a fairly high degree of finish. Quick sketching went against all of my training. And most of the time I wanted to do a painting, not a finished drawing, of whatever subject was at hand. And sketching seemed decidedly inferior to actual careful drawing. Sketches seemed too incomplete, too "scribbly," to ever be useful. Encouragement from teachers to "fill your sketchbooks" fell on my deaf ears. For years, the most sketching I did was to doodle during meetings that bored me.

Gradually though, sketching has become an essential part of my work. For me, sketching is a way of  visual thinking, a way of organizing things--values, shapes, movement, color, and so on. And sketchbooks are records of visual experiences too. The old advice to always carry a sketchbook and a few pencils is important. Even if you don't use them constantly, as you should, the opportunity is there. Visual memories are useful, but a tangible notation is better. And as many have said before, photos aren't as valuable. Reviewing my sketchbooks jogs my memory and sometimes sends me down interesting pathways toward unexpected paintings.
This is a page from a recent sketchbook. I was musing about various streets here in Des Moines, including Salisbury House, a local mansion turned museum (upper right), the county courthouse (lower right) and other subjects. These sketches are useful for a lot of reasons--practice, memory, later compositions. They may be a useful end in themselves--perhaps the guy in the ball cap will find his way into a painting.
Here's another page from the same book, still thinking about street life and potential full-scale cityscapes. Sketches on both pages were made from a combination of photos and on the spot observation. The sketchbook pages are 9x12, incidentally. All of the images are considerably different from the actual milieu but based on the actual streets and buildings.
 Previous Sketchbook Posts:
Pages from a Sketchbook

Friday, August 19, 2016

Thinking in Pictures

There's a body of information today that suggests there are several ways of thinking. Some people think in words, some in pictures, some in both, if the science is accurate. There seems to be some disagreement about the percentages of people involved. Some say only 30% think in images alone while others say the same about verbal thinking. Temple Grandin, the famous writer and professor, who is autistic, wrote that she originally could only think in images and that verbal communication is a second language, in a sense. But beyond verbal and visual thought there are reportedly other kinds of thought, namely musical, kinesthetic, and mathematical. One supposes that Beethoven was a musical thinker and Newton a mathematical one, but perhaps not.

"Five Lincolns from memory," charcoal & sanguin 2010
For most people it's likely quite difficult to imagine oneself thinking in a different way. I can't imagine, for example, my mind as a thicket of numbers and numerical relationships or musical notes rather than as a silent stream of words in my head. Nor can I imagine thinking purely in images. Maybe there really are some pure visual thinkers (not necessarily autistic) who can't hear words in their mind at all.

My thoughts are almost completely verbal. Even so, I can remember broad aspects of many images that are seen repeatedly, like a plume of smoke from a tower of the World Trade Center, or Abraham Lincoln (probably one of the world's most commonly seen faces), and for many of them I can manage a fair representation. But most of the thought involved is verbal, in my case.

A useful trait for an artist is owning a lot of mental images in a kind of visual library or vocabulary. That kind of visual memory has to be cultivated by most people, seems to me. For me to remember images even sketchily at a later date, the best way is to fix as many details in memory as possible at the time. Even then I forget a lot. Sketching is one of the most useful tools we have to fix a scene or a face in visual memory. Sketching allows the mind to regard the object in space, it's defining characteristics, it's tangible reality at that moment and somehow convert the whole into a nonverbal memory. But even then details are blurry or lost eventually. It's an excellent reason to take reference photos. Memory also provides emotional content so photos are endlessly useful to trigger those, at least in my hands.

"Rosa Mae," oil, 6x8, 2015
Sometimes an old photo, any kind from the 19th century or early 20th, stays in my memory until it's resurrected years later. Most of these works are small and sketchy, of course.

It's intriguing to ponder the way that some of the great artists of the past thought as they did their work. Were they visual, or verbal? Did Michelangelo think only in pictures? Or did Hiroshige, the great Japanese, wander in personal mental landscapes? What of van Gogh? Are those coarsely-painted images what he actually saw in his mind's eye, or was his mental vision--as thoughts--distorted? And what, if anything, about the thought processes of abstractionists of the past century? Do they see patches of color or maybe incomprehensible nests of lines, or perhaps simply distorted images or sur-reality? Perhaps we'll know some day, but most likely not.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Urban Sketching

Many artists, me included, tend to avoid outdoor sketching or painting. In my own case I have made any number of excuses for not painting on location outdoors. It's too hard to haul equipment to a painting spot. Or it takes too much time to scout out a place and then sketch. Some people are shy or introverted and don't want to expose themselves to the public eye. There are dozens more.

Nevertheless, on-the-spot sketching of nearly any subject can be fundamental to making realist art. For one thing, photos don't provide enough accurate visual information. It's possible to paint believably solely from photos, of course, but not unless you have an enormous visual library in your head. And while the old masters probably didn't paint outdoors very often, if at all, they very likely made drawings outdoors while observing their subjects. Whether the subject was a house, or a city street, animals or farm life artists of the past must have spent time with each, building visual familiarity, drawing either entire specimens or their parts. Leonardo was keen on horses, for example, and his drawn images are clearly made from life. J.M.W. Turner was well-known for his outdoor watercolors. Many began to paint outdoors in the 19th century, of course. And even if you aren't going to do a painting start to finish outdoors, like Pete the Street, who was featured here not long ago, sketching on the spot allows notations of everything from shape and size of objects and buildings to value and color. Photography supplies such information too but sketching forces the artist to actually see and record in the mind and on a surface.

Besides being a useful painter's tool, sketching is enjoyable in it's own right. Sketching is not only a way of recording the look of something but also a way of enhanced remembering and telling the story of where one was at the time. In the hustle-hustle internet world of today, opportunities to sit, be quiet, and concentrate deeply as one must when making a picture, seem fewer and fewer. Luckily, the pleasures of sketching, whatever the medium, are becoming more well-known. Organizations that promote outdoor sketching have proliferated. One prominent organization is Urban Sketchers, which actually began less than a decade ago. Although fairly new, Urban Sketchers has become perhaps the largest and best-known sketch site online. They take a practical and down-to-earth approach to drawing or painting their surroundings. Here are their stated purposes, from their website:

  1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.
  2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.
  3. Our drawings are a record of time and place.
  4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness.
  5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.
  6. We support each other and draw together.
  7. We share our drawings online.
  8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

Although in years past I've been a reluctant outdoor sketcher, these days I find drawing outdoors more engaging. I've begun doing more and more outdoor drawing and painting, particularly on city locations but also in the back garden. As do many sketchers I usually draw the scene with graphite or ink and finish with watercolor. Sometimes the underdrawing is fairly detailed but sometimes I paint first and accent with ink. If I'm going to make an ink drawing I make certain to use waterproof ink. Over the last several months I've made a number of pictures. Here are a few.
"Coneflowers in Sunshine," watercolor & ink, 3x5
As you can see, these were done using ink and watercolor. The coneflowers were done on a 3x5 page in a watercolor sketchbook that was toned with a thin acrylic wash. The flowers are actually in my back garden, not a city street.
"Taco Loco," watercolor & ink, 2016, 5x7

Des Moines passed an ordinance a year or two ago that allows gypsy food trucks to park and sell on the street in various parts of town. One of them is a taco vendor who parks near the downtown sculpture garden every Friday. I went down there a couple of weeks back for tacos, then sketched the truck. The owner was very cordial and even gave me a cold drink in exchange for a picture of the small ink and watercolor.

"Food Trucks Downtown,"watercolor & ink, 2016, 3.5x11
This is another sketch done from almost the same spot near the sculpture garden. No cold drink this time.
"Florida Fan Palm," watercolor & ink, 2016, 3x5

The last image here was done last January in central Florida while visiting family. There are palms all over the place--maybe even more than the number of alligators--and this giant specimen borders a greenbelt that runs through the subdivision where we stayed. For a guy like me from the upper Midwest, painting a palm tree is a significant challenge since I have so few visual memories of them. 

 Urban Sketchers website

Friday, August 05, 2016

Working on the Railroad

Some years back I worked up a portfolio of ink drawings of historical railroad engines. The drawings were never published, unfortunately, but here are a few. I used various photographic resources for these, mostly obtained online from the historical society involved. These drawings were made using a traditional dip pen and bottled ink. I used Higgins Eternal ink for a lot of them but I did several using iron gall ink, an ancient form of ink used for centuries and still available. The iron gall ink has a rather sepia tint, as you can see in some of these images. The drawings were done on 2-ply Bristol trimmed to about 7x11.
"Big Diesel"

"Standing in the Station"

"Days of Steam"

"Highballing Streamliner"