Friday, December 30, 2016

Leyendecker's New Year Babies

Happy New Year, one and all.

Each New Year reminds me of J.C. Leyendecker and his Saturday Evening Post covers of New Year babies. Mr. Leyendecker was a master illustrator of the 20th century whose work was published widely on magazine covers and in advertising, appearing in such profusion that even if someone didn't know his name, his work was instantly recognizable. Talented and well-trained, he was a role model for later illustrators, notably Norman Rockwell.

Mr. Leyendecker was well-known for the Arrow Collar Man images he produced for Arrow Shirts. He was equally known for his New Year babies that appeared on the cover of the Saturday
Evening Post.

Mr. Leyendecker began his series of New Year babies in December 1907, showing an innocent babe being delivered to the world by a rather elegant-looking stork. In future years the New Year baby would often reflect past and looming world events and so reflects cultural history. One early example appeared in 1912, a scant four years after the first cover and featured a campaign sign for women's suffrage.

During the 1920s and 1930s Post New Year covers featured the Leyendecker baby in an image reflecting or commenting on the various political hopes and ideas that were current. The cover for 1928 for example featured the baby on a rainy wet day, under an umbrella, a veiled reference to the election year, perhaps. Certainly the symbols of the two political parties plus the baby aboard an ark suggest that some believed that an enormous flood was coming. An alternative proposal is that the wet weather might symbolize the hope for repeal of the dry time of Prohibition, which had plunged the country into all sorts of difficulties during the 1920s.
Mr. Leyendecker did more than 300 covers for the Post, and his last is memorable. It's the New Year cover for 1943, showing the baby in an Army helmet, swinging a rifle complete with bayonet. He's breaking apart the symbols of the Axis powers--the Nazi swastika, Japanese rising sun, and Italian fasces. The image could be considered hopeful rather than factual, given that when the cover was published the outcome of World War II was still in doubt.

Mr. Leyendecker did no more covers for the Post after that, but he did New Year babies as posters for the Amoco Oil Company during the remainder of the war, though the last two were basically the same image. He died in 1951.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Original Santa

A year ago at Christmas I posted an image by Thomas Nast of Santa Claus, published in the 1880s, that seemed to be the earliest image of St. Nick to be found. Turns out, someone beat him to it by several decades.

Thomas Nast, Harpers Weekly, 1881
Nast is famous for depicting the jolly old elf in nearly the form we know him today. That is, jolly and fat, bearded, clothed all in fur and smoking a pipe. To make him even more festive, he's wearing holly on his hat and carrying toys for all the good little girls and boys.

As I mentioned in that post, Nast certainly deserves credit for crystallizing the image of Santa Claus (or St. Nicholas--try saying that name very fast) set down in the famous poem of a few decades earlier by Clement Moore.

There are others who deserve credit for the Santa image we have today, probably most prominently Haddon Sundblom. Mr. Sundblom's illustrations of Santa graced Coca Cola ads for decades, and it's his obviously jolly, fat, and red-clad image that continues as one of the universal memes of the Christmas season. One interesting detail to notice is that none of the Coca Cola Santas seems to smoke a pipe.

Haddon Sundblom, 1954 Coca Cola Santa
Mr. Sundblom seems to have used himself as a model fairly often, to good effect. But in the 1954 version of his classic he painted Santa with his wide belt on backwards, having forgotten to reverse his mirror image. Apparently the mistake provoked a real blizzard of responses, not all of which were polite and understanding. Nonetheless, Mr. Sundblom continued to paint images of Santa for another decade or so. Much later he even painted a self-referential Playboy magazine cover.

But as I mentioned, it turns out that someone before Nast actually published an image rather like our own vision of St. Nick. The periodical was Dollar Magazine, a new publication in 1841 that cost exactly one dollar for a year's subscription, which published an image of Santa Claus in its very first edition in January 1841. The image is an engraving, signed "R. Roberts," and features much of what we see in Nast's picture forty years later, and more. A younger-looking Santa is going down the chimney, bearing gifts for the good little girls and boys, his sleigh and reindeer on the rooftop.

Oddly enough, although he seems to have been the first to use Clement Moore's description of Santa on the night before Christmas, the artist or the magazine itself somehow--amazingly--got the holiday wrong!

Regardless of all that, my wish for everyone in these times of trial and conflict and division in the world is a happy Christmas holiday (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or perhaps Las Posadas in Mexico) and a prosperous and peaceful new year. Lets all try to love one another, just a little, at least for now.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Casein investigations

It's only by experimenting with paint, or a new drawing material, or brushes or whatever that I begin to understand them. Casein paint is a particular example. There aren't many instructional resources out there, excepting James Gurney's useful instructional video "Casein in the Wild," available on Gumroad and his short free videos on YouTube and as various snippets in his blog and elsewhere. There definitely are no experts in casein providing instruction in Iowa. But I have a few tubes of Richeson's Shiva casein paint, so I'm doing studies and paintings with them as I learn. Here are some recent ones.

"Leonard" was a quick study done on an 8x10 panel. I used an online photo reference and limited my palette to ivory black mixed with a touch of phthalo blue plus white to make this monochrome study in casein.
"Leonard," casein 2016
Although casein ivory black tends to be very thick, almost gelled as it comes out of the tube, but casein stays wet and usable quite a while when squeezed out on a piece of wet paper towel. (This is a nice trick for gouache, too.) Despite its nearly gelled consistency it thins nicely with water and mixes well with white to make a full range of grays. I tried to make at least 5-6 values of gray in this one to show subtle differences in skin tones. Here I was practicing with the paint itself--trying to learn its physical properties.

"Erin," milk paint on panel
This small sketch was a quick grisaille study of a portrait subject, "Erin," whose portrait I posted some weeks ago. Although you might think this was a preparatory work for the oil portrait in fact this was done later, as a way to do more work with milk paint.

Sinopia milk paint comes in a considerably more liquid form than Shiva casein, although it dries equally fast. The thinner consistency took some getting used to when mixing, but the result was a satisfying range of grays. These colors are Sinopia's Charcoal Black and Milk White only.

This is 5x8, painted spontaneously over an old oil sketch I had laying around the studio. I used the same photo reference employed for the formal portrait because knowing the subject's face meant I could concentrate more on the paint itself. There is no blue in the darks in this limited-value sketch. The old failure underneath was in mostly warm tones (the blue on the side of her face is under painting). The idea here was to paint a limited range of values as well.
"Erin," casein on cold-press watercolor paper
Finally I did a full-color portrait in casein, my first in the medium. Again it's Erin, the foster child in my previous portrait. This work is 12x16 on heavy watercolor paper, but no doubt it would be better on a more rigid support like a plywood panel prepped with gesso. Furthermore, watercolor paper can be quite absorbent, which speeds the drying time even more, altering the handling rather significantly at first.

The casein delivered a full range of values and allowed good modelling of the volumes of the head, and the paint holds its chroma after drying. I have a hunch that it will look better when varnished. While I'm not sure that casein is ready for widespread use in portraits, it's certain to be useful in my practice in a number of ways. It's a fine medium for quick studies since it dries so quickly. And it may be useful as preliminary under painting for oils too. More investigations coming.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Curiosity and Creativity

Lately I've been wondering about the concept of creativity. Where does the urge to make things come from? What is the spark that kindles the fire? For that matter, what do we even mean by "creativity?"

For many, "creativity" means something like, "an ability to make new things or think of new ideas." Perhaps that statement works as a reasonable and broad definition, but actually making something totally new (a new kind of vehicle like the airplane, or a completely new art form like conceptual art) is very rare. Seems to me that we humans actually remake things constantly--we've made statues and sculptures
Three Bison, Le Tuc d'Audoubert cave, France ca. 12,000 BC
since we've been human, for example--just in different ways and with different materials. There are prehistoric cave sculptures that can startle in their realism. Looked at that way, being "creative" also means adapting and shaping old forms into new. New writing is necessarily based on previously encountered words and writing. New pictures are based on old images, regardless of the mode of their recording, and so on. So to me, the definition of creativity ought to include a few  qualifications.

Saying that creativity means making "a new thing" is entirely too vague to me--every handmade copy of a Rembrandt, however bad or excellent, is by definition new, for example. So, too every identical copy of a Michelangelo sculpture produced in a 3-D printer is a new thing. And of course creativity isn't actually part of making either item. There is more than newness to creative production, too. You re-purpose old things as new ones. Picasso did that with his sculptures using discarded objects. Creating (to me) is finding new ways to do old things, and for that a person needs a curious mind. 

Human curiosity, in the view of many, has fueled our species' remarkable history. The innate human
Pablo Picasso, "Bull Head," 1942, found items
desire to learn something--curiosity--is perhaps our most distinctive feature as a species. In various human endeavors, curiosity fuels the furnace. Sometimes it's a need to see, sometimes it's a need to make. The desire to see what is in the forest or over the sea drove us to explore the planet. Our forebears simply needed to know. The urge to learn makes the scientist look into the nature of things. Artists need to make things. A sculptor searches for universality of form, creating images in space, regardless of materials. A painter looks at the world and tries to place what she sees or express what she feels onto a surface. In part it's the artist's curiosity about how to make a piece--the craft of it, or the materials--and often it's curiosity about a particular effect, or shape. There are certainly other motives for making art, but curiosity is a common thread.

Besides making pictures, the work of painters (other artists too) involves questioning and investigating our materials, our methods, even our forms of expression. Part of my studio time involves trying out new materials. Even though my main work is oil paintings, other media continue to intrigue me. New mediums of expression within the broad existing formats of painting and drawing. Over the years, in no particular order, and with varying degrees of success, I've used watercolor, acrylic, pastel, oil, graphite, metalpoint, charcoal, ink, gouache, casein, and computer programs. Here are a few examples.
"Music," graphite, 2016

 A simple sketch of a friend listening to music. This is about a quarter page of an 11x14 sketchbook. Most of us, me included, learned to draw with graphite before anything else except maybe wax crayons. Over the decades graphite continues to be one of my most preferred mediums, and surprisingly to me, one that I still have much to learn about. Finding out how to make actual finished graphite pictures is a strong goal of my art. For many years rapid sketching has been the sum of my efforts with this medium, but in my maturity I'm hoping for much more.

"Coneflowers," watercolor, 2016

This is a watercolor sketch of a clump of purple coneflowers in my back garden. I did this one afternoon last summer, painting on a previously-tone page of a 5x5 watercolor sketchbook. Watercolor sketching outdoors in simple and pretty easy if you use a small book, small set of colors, and a waterbrush. This sort of picture is certainly a simple and satisfying way to record one's days, and something I intend to continue and expand in my practice.
The image to the left is a digital study of a man's head, done from an online reference using Sketchbook Pro in conjunction with a Wacom tablet. Sketchbook Pro is my favorite, go-to digital drawing method. The shape of his head, including those massive jaw muscles, was the trigger for the sketch. I do use ArtRage at times but find SBP answers all of my needs and is simple to use.

"Warrior, after daVinci," silverpoint

The final image is a small silverpoint, 5x8, on gesso panel. It's a detail copy of the well-known silverpoint by daVinci in the British Museum. When I began doing metalpoint drawings, it was simply out of curiosity. Gradually, as I experimented and learned, these small drawings began to be ways to practice patience and care in making line drawings. That discipline, in turn, has translated into more thoughtful application of marks when drawing with almost any medium from charcoal to pixels.

In my opinion, curiosity is what keeps me learning. And it's the pleasure of learning that keeps me making pictures.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Casein In the Wild

As I've written in earlier posts, casein paint has begun to interest me during the past few weeks. Casein has been on my radar for quite a while, because I read James Gurney's well-written blog, Gurney Journey.
The thing about James Gurney is that he actually posts every day (which is a considerable discipline) and he has vast experience in art and a curiosity seemingly as vast. Further, his posts are thoughtful, professional, humorous, and generally packed with information. He is the author of the Dinotopia series of books as well as Color and Light, a book for artists containing considerable wisdom, put together from posts on his blog. Besides his blog and books he has produced instructional videos too. Over the past several years his art videos have dealt with watercolor, gouache, and now casein, as well as portraiture and fantasy art.

A number of Mr. Gurney's blog posts have chronicled his use of less common materials, including gouache and casein. It was his blog in fact that reminded me about casein, a kind of paint that has almost died out, and then stumbling onto milk paint by Sinopia in turn propelled my interest and experimentation. There is little available about methods and techniques in casein, since very few people have used casein much since it was replaced by acrylics in the 1960s, so experimentation is essential. Hands-on use helps to learn the physical properties of the paint, from it's relatively thick body to lightning-fast drying and so on, but learning from an expert would be better. There are probably art teachers who can teach and demonstrate with casein, but they're likely to be few.

Casein In the Wild, this new video from Mr. Gurney, helps to fill the teaching bill. He shows the paint, his colors, how he lays his palette, his various field outfits for painting (used with all water-based media), and gives a series of demonstrations of methods and techniques in casein. His discussions of how to use the unique properties of casein in constructing a picture are very valuable.

As is the case in his shorter, free videos on YouTube (several of which are actual segments from the commercial video) Mr. Gurney shows how casein can be handled at all consistencies of the paint mixes, from thin to quite thick, how it differs from similar materials (gouache, acrylic), and displays his almost casual mastery of brushwork and composition. Always engaging, often humorous, and clearly kind, he provides encouragement to the viewer with his clear instructional style and also in the form of aphorisms. My favorite deals with beginning a painting in casein: "Start thin, start wet, start soft, start loose..." a phrase he used while laying in a juicy wet layer of much-thinned casein over his under drawing before subsequent thicker and more opaque applications. Mr. Gurney most often begins with a more or less detailed drawing in watercolor pencil although one demo begins with a graphite lay in. He follows his own advice to the letter, beginning these works with thin washes to reduce the white of the paper in his sketchbook. He adds after a bit, "worry about hard, small, crisp details later," then shows how casein can be used in thicker consistencies to provide detail and eye appeal. He also demonstrates a casein painting executed without reference to drawing, rather like a plein air oil.

Casein, like gouache, shifts to a lighter more matte color as it dries because of the change in reflectance of the paint. A matte finish is an advantage to an illustrator whose work is to be photographed. But for fine art, a deeper and richer look is usually more desirable. Mr. Gurney gives a brief and dazzling example of a casein painting of a flower spike which he overlays with varnish, immediately enriching the image by transforming the depth and color. It's clear that casein can be used for more than sketching "in the wild," and in fact may be a wonderful alternative for painters wanting the effects of oil paint without exposure to solvents, or as an alternative to acrylics. Mr. Gurney uses watercolor sketchbooks in this video, and mentions appropriately that in thin applications casein can be used on paper, but if thicker application is desired, a more rigid support like panel or illustration board is preferable.

The casein video can be downloaded at Gumroad as well as his videos of gouache, watercolor, portraiture (using those materials) and more. Highly recommended.

By coincidence, Gurney Journey posted a link to another blog entry about casein posted December 1 on Lines and Colors an informative and useful blog by Charley Parker. His post there discusses casein better and more fully than I have.