Friday, January 27, 2017

Travel Sketching with Watercolor

Casein has been my primary water medium these past several months, but when I travel I revert to sketching with watercolors. The thing about watercolor is how simple it is. You can carry a small set of half-pan colors, a pocket-size sketchbook and a pen or pencil and you're set. Sometimes on vacation I take along a block of watercolor postcards (you can buy them easily in art stores and online) and use them as notes to mail to friends and family from wherever I am.They like getting a little artwork in the mail.
Not long ago we were in the Seattle area, visiting family. Predictably, winter weather in the Pacific Northwest is gray, cool to cold, and damp. You can't really do much outdoors because of the rain, and the light is quite dim sometimes. We did right the Bremerton ferry one cold rainy day, but otherwise spent much of the time indoors. Nonetheless, I managed to continue my morning sketching regimen with watercolor and my tablet. The landscape there is so different from home in Iowa that the trees and even the skies are more challenging.

For watercolor I used a 3x5 Moleskine sketchbook with smoothly finished pages. The finish stands up to watercolor without bleeding, and you can use ink with it as well. As I sometimes do, the pages were toned with various colors beforehand.

Here's a view of forested land near Redmond one dark winter morning. The bare deciduous trees made tracery against the evergreens and dark sky.

There are rhododendrons everywhere in the region, and they grow to enormous size--more than 6 feet in some places. This second watercolor is of those gigantic shrubs. Rhododendrons don't drop their leaves in winter, so they make great property screens and boundary plantings. One morning these giants were slick with rain and dark, which called for a different treatment. The colors in the sketch aren't the actual colors, of course. It was cool shrubbery against the warmer deciduous trees behind the fence that originally attracted me to this scene. The opened sketchbook invites much wider compositional options.

Finally, after a few days in Seattle, the sky cleared and we had two delightful sunny days. The return of light was exceptionally welcome, almost joyful. That morning I sketched distant trees against the flood of sunshine. The light was warm as caramel against the branches. I caught an airliner, high above besides.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Drawing in the Morning

da Vinci, "Study for Battle of Anghiari" black chalk, ca 1504
"Be always drawing," is a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, although a cursory search didn't show me a source, so perhaps it's apocryphal. Regardless, drawing constantly is awfully good advice for an artist to follow. Drawing sharpens the vision, makes me see things more accurately and in a way, more deeply. Deep concentration on the subject at hand brings such focus. He didn't finish many paintings, but Leonardo produced many drawings that show how magnificently he was able to focus. His study for the lost painting, "The Battle of Anghiari," is typical of his astonishing facility.

"Draw, Antonio" 1522
Like his rival, Michelangelo Buonarotti believed in drawing constantly. He scolded a slow student by writing "Draw, Antonio; draw, Antonio; draw and don't waste time." at the bottom of a clumsy drawing (left). Although not much writing about Michelangelo's teaching remains, those words have echoed down the centuries as excellent advice for almost any artist.

For many, a period of drawing to begin every studio day serves as a way of loosening the "muscles" of the mind, gives the eyes a chance to see and the mind an opportunity to translate the perception. Drawings help sharpen skills with whatever medium is being used. A mentor of mine used to talk about his own practice of drawing for half an hour every morning, the stated point not being to make a masterpiece or even a finished drawing in the classical sense, but instead to work out, in a sense; to train the eyes, mind and hand(s); to introduce the chance to enter that creative state some have called "flow." Most of the results will never see the light of day, and should not. They are only practice, no matter how accomplished the results.  I doubt that either of the masters whose sketches are posted here ever expected anyone except an interested student or artist to see them.

Many mornings--not enough!--I spend time drawing with graphite in any of a half-dozen sketchbooks of various sizes scattered around the studio. Many times the subject is an online image of a memorable individual, or an expression, but sometimes it's a studio still life, or even from memory. The point is just to draw.

Here are a couple of drawings that resurfaced somehow after a couple of years. Each is graphite on a small sketch page of about 5"x7" or so. Neither was intended as more than a study; neither has been shown anywhere. Both were more than likely drawn from a reference either in a book or perhaps a newspaper. When I drew these, possibly in 2012 or 2013, I was most likely using a 2B pencil on this slightly tan and rougher paper.

The expressions were clearly what attracted me about each of these images, and the implied narrative behind them. Formal portraiture these days produces relatively bland expressions, but that's certainly not the usual human condition. We grow angry and scream, or we grumble and scowl--the possibilities in human facial expression are endless. Drawing a subject with a wide-open mouth isn't something that many of us attempt, it seems to me, and I'm no exception. So this one was good practice for the open mouth but also because I worked hard at coherence of strokes, variation of line weight and appropriate use of value. The glowering young man came from a very small image I found in a newspaper. He was terribly angry or disappointed but there is no context beyond that. The deep shadows over the eyes and under the upper lip made this a more brooding and menacing image.

Practice drawing doesn't have to employ tangible media any longer, of course. Digital drawing is the order of the day for more and more artists of this century, and for me too. I use my Cintiq when I'm in the studio, but I can do it very easily on my tablet. As mentioned in earlier posts, a computer tablet like the iPad or Surface can be a really useful and portable tool. In my own practice it's often easier and less obtrusive in public to grab my tablet and draw using Sketchbook. Since I use the tablet instead of paper in many academic meetings, I can sketch sometimes, too.

The image to the right is a quick digital sketch of a woman dressed for the Iowa winter weather. She had just come inside from the cold still wearing her jacket and an enormous scarf, which was what attracted me to sketching her in the first place. In Sketchbook I used the pencil tool for the finer lines and the airbrush tool for the broader ones.

Practice is a foundation of creativity. In all of the arts, whether it's dance, music, visual art, drama, or the written word, experimentation and repetition make practicing effective. Practice gives me the chance to hone skills and try new materials and media. In particular, drawing practice is the foundation of everything I do.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Multiheaded Monster

Anthony van Dyck, "Triple Portrait of Charles I," ca  1635
Painting a multi-subject portrait is complicated. For one thing, unlike a single portrait, several subjects offer many opportunities to go wrong, from individual likeness to relative sizes of heads and so on. Nonetheless, there are wonderful examples of such multiple portraits. One of my favorites is by Anthony van Dyck and though admittedly only one sitter it deserves mention. The portrait is three views of Charles I of England (the one who lost his head). It was intended as a guide for Lorenzo Bernini, the Italian sculptor, to serve as a guide for a marble bust. The bust was lost in the Whitehall fire at the end of the 17th century, but the portrait is in the British Royal Collection. But these images are of a single person and most multi-sitter portraits are of families or groups and therefore require a serviceable and different likeness of each.

John Sargent, "The Pailleron Children," 1881
One of the most famous portraitists of all time was John Sargent,  who did a number of family portraits, some of them truly memorable. His portraits of the Wyndham sisters and of Mr. & Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes are well-known favorites. Mr. Sargent eventually and famously became so bored with what he called "paughtraits" that he eventually quit painting them. Yet it is for his portraits that he is best remembered.

Mr. Sargent's first double portrait was the children of his friend Edouard Pailleron. The painting is in the Des Moines Art Center permanent collection, where I've seen it scores of times. According to a memoir the little girl wrote much later, the artist and children equally loathed the entire experience, and it certainly shows on their faces. Mr. Sargent had a knack for likeness and expression. Some have said that despite the obvious sibling relationship this is more like two separate portraits stitched together. One of the beauties of seeing a work up close is the opportunity to really study how the painter laid down his strokes. Close examination of this one reveals really thrilling brushwork, almost like Franz Hals, in the satin dress and other passages, even down to the hands and fingernails. Mr. Sargent was never an impressionist, but neither was he an academician. The parents seem to have liked it, and it was reportedly a sensation at the Salon of 1881.
"Mr & Mrs I.N. Phelps Stokes," 1897
On the other hand, Mr. Sargent's 1897 portrait of the Stokes couple is quite conventional. They are painted standing full-length and life-size almost as if facing a mirror. His brushwork is vigorous, and her expression is lively and engaging. The likeness seems accurate, but there is something odd about the figures and heads. When I've seen this work in person, its sheer size at about three by seven feet, not counting the frame is almost overwhelming, the figures being life-size. But Edith Stokes' head always seems too small so that the figures overwhelm the faces, and Isaac's face is in shadow besides. It's clearly in the Sargent lineage of unconventional portraits, like the Boit sisters, but less successful. Incidentally, a photo exists of the Stokes couple in which Edith's head looks larger and her face is fuller. Perhaps by the time Mr. Sargent did this one he was already unhappy doing portraits.

My thoughts turned to these and other multiple portraits because these last several weeks I've been working on a family portrait myself. It's not the first multiple-sitter portrait I've done but it's the first in a long while, and it takes some getting used to. The proportions, positioning, skin tones and the like have to be accurate and the likeness ought to be there as well.

This is another foster child portrait, and like other portraits of foster children that I posted last fall, intended for a Heart Gallery. The children in this image are orphaned siblings who are living in foster care, hoping for a permanent home. As is clear in the painting these are somewhat older children. The oldest is probably in his middle teens and the little sister is perhaps 8 or 9 years old at most. Painting this image was tricky because of the three different ages of the kids, the obvious differences in sizes and differences in skin tones. The boys were a bit more ruddy than their sister. Further, with only a single photographic reference in hand making them appear solid and dimensional was another challenge. This piece is 20x24 on stretched canvas.

Triple Portrait of Charles I
John Singer Sargent Complete Works

Friday, January 06, 2017

Favorite Art Books Part 7

Last fall when I was working on emotional faces I spent a good deal of time dipping into Gary Faigin's "Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression," which has been in my library nearly 20 years. In spite of its age, this book continues to be a really useful tool. When I first read the book perhaps 20 years ago, the depth and erudition involved in producing such a volume surprised me. As someone who knows anatomy in a systematic, scientific way, having an artist outline the actual functions of facial muscles I had learned was eye-opening. Mr. Faigin clearly did enormous amounts of study and work in order to produce this book, and it has deservedly remained a classic since its first publication in the late 20th century.

Besides delineating the anatomy of facial musculature and bones, he provides his own drawings as examples of the function of each. Faigin's drawings are exceptional in providing precise examples of various expressions and muscle movements. Once he has gone through the muscles and their anatomy, he brings the information together in the latter chapters to discuss the six basic human expressions and how they are formed by the various muscles.

Mr. Faigin has considerable talent with charcoal, which seems to be his favorite drawing medium. The book is thorough and clearly written, the accompanying drawings well-executed and useful as references as well as illustration. I've kept this book handy while studying expressions. Highly recommended.

Gary Faigin, Six Basic Expressions (from Guide to Facial Expression)
Gary Faigin, "Self Portrait," charcoal, 2014

I have the first edition (1990) but there is a newer one available from online sources and probably in bookstores that I've no information about. Incidentally, Gary Faigin has also made videos that are available variously either free on YouTube or for a fee online.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Landscape in casein

Here in the upper Midwest the winter has been fairly mild and dry. No white Christmas and not much
ice or sleet either. But one of the giant old trees behind the studio has fallen, broken just above the ground. It lies there forming an arch over the dry and sparse remains of the summer's undergrowth. By spring it may be even more decrepit; perhaps I'll paint it again. This was done in morning light in about an hour on 140 pound cold-press watercolor paper in a 9x12 block. Using lighter weight paper is only possible for me if it's in a block so there is little or no cockling when using wetter mixes. Also, I find that if I paint on watercolor paper the texture contributes mightily to the image, as it does here with the foreground foliage, indicated by dry strokes over previously painted passages. The very fine lines in this painting were added at the end using a technique I stole from James Gurney--water soluble pencil.