Friday, February 24, 2017


There is an old tradition in painting, the "vanitas." Particularly among Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, vanitas paintings were quite common. The term derives from a phrase in the book of Ecclesiates in the King James bible that says "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." But the phrase actually isn't about narcissism or pride. The Latin it derives from is "vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas," though it is a mistake to translate it as our contemporary "vanity" because the meaning of vanitas in those times was futility, or meaninglessness. So a vanitas painting was a way to emphasize that life ends whether early or late, and earthly life is futile. A vanitas painting is full of symbols reminding us of the evanescence of life. Most vanitas paintings contain one or several of various items: a skull symbolizes death; rotting fruit tells us of decay; bubbles show the suddenness of mortality; the brevity of life was often symbolized by smoke, or timepieces.

A particular favorite of mine is by Pieter Claesz, painted about 1630. Like many paintings of the time, it has a mellow, nearly monochromatic brown tone and depicts a skull and femur on a closed book (perhaps the accounting of one's life?). An overturned cup symbolizes life leaving the body. And there is an ornate watch on the table as well.

Claesz was a well-known still life painter who lived in Haarlem most of his life. He painted many images of tables over-laden with food and other objects.

Another favorite of mine is "Young Man with a Skull," by Franz Hals, painted about 1627. Although others have occasionally interpreted this as a trony of Hamlet, perhaps, in reality it is also a vanitas. The composition is particularly striking. Hals directs us to see the skull, perhaps even before we notice how young the subject seems to be. Perhaps Hals meant the viewer to recognize the fragility of life, even in the young. Certainly in that era the average lifespan was quite short, and there was very high mortality even among the young.

In spite of smile, it is clear that the picture of the young man is a warning.

"Risk Factors," oil, 2013
In part because I enjoy a challenge (skulls have quite intricate anatomy) and partly to come up with a modern take on a vanitas painting, I did this in oil, incorporating symbols of mortality but also including images of various items that increase the risk of heart attack: a pack of cigarettes, a stick of butter (indicating a high fat diet), a doughnut, and a shaker of salt (high salt diets increase high blood pressure, a risk for heart disease). The cover over the doughnut is a bubble. Some have asked why the ball cap is reversed, and I've always answered that it symbolizes the foolishness that allows us to consume too much sugar, fat, and salt.

This painting was featured a couple of years back in the Des Moines Register in an article about a local art exhibition.

Friday, February 17, 2017

More Watercolor Sketching

A few posts back I mentioned watercolor as a great sketch medium owing to its simplicity an portability. In years past it wasn't quite so easy but with the invention of the waterbrush, quite a few issues are solved. Waterbrushes are made with a refillable reservoir in the handle that feeds water to the brush tip. Waterbrushes are inexpensive and widely available in art supply shops and online. They come in several sizes and with several different kinds of brush tips--flat, round, etc.

I take mine almost everywhere these days which allows me to sketch at my university office, in coffee shops, and the like. And of course I can always step outside the studio to capture some of the local color. The small watercolor sketches posted were all done in 2016 in one of my pocket sketchbooks. The ones I like best measure about 3x5 and are made by Moleskine.

These are a few pages from one of my sketchbooks. All of these date from last year. All of these were sketched in pencil and then painted. Hard lines were finished with ink but sometimes I used watercolor pencil.

The two-page image to the right is about a year old, showing a red amaryllis in full flower. Although it doesn't show in the painting, there was perhaps six or seven inches of snow on the ground, and it was quite cold. The bright blooms cheered me up.

This little painting was done of a male goldfinch who was feeding on coneflower seeds outside my studio window. When the seed heads mature, goldfinches clamor for them avidly, sometimes as many as four or five at a time. They always chase one another, assertive of territory perhaps, but eventually settle down. The page had been toned with violet so this one is in shadow.
Last November (like the whole year) was very warm. As the notation on the sketchbook page indicates, the day I sketched this quick image of my back woods it was over 70 degrees. The trees and undergrowth remained mostly green but one small tree near the back had changed abruptly to autumn color.

Finally, a fall image of our back woods. This wider view shows one of the blue spruces that mark the edge of the woods. Beyond, where the bird is flying over the copses of trees, stands a large apartment building that I left out in order to emphasize the woods. There is a creek between the coneflowers in the foreground the the woods, too, but that will be a subject for some other time.

Sketching on the spot hasn't been my forte, but with the ease use and improved portability, anybody can do outdoor sketching.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Homage to R Crumb

Robert Crumb is a true elder statesman of cartooning and one of those who made graphic works that turned sharply away from the comic books of the early 20th century. By the 1960s, underground "comix" became what popular comic books were not--bawdy, witty, variously artful or artless, and often very short-lived. In 1960s and '70s Mr. Crumb created the characters Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and Angelfood McSpade, among numerous others, producing images that are icons to several generations. Unfortunately for Mr. Crumb, some of his work was literally stolen and some was stolen and altered without consent over the decades, resulting in substantial financial losses.

R. Crumb, as he has always signed himself, began as an underground cartoonist and has remained generally outside the mainstream. His provocative, unrestrained, bawdy--often pornographic--work takes on everything from women and men to race. There is something deeply cynical and knowing about R. Crumb's work. His hilarious holy man/philosopher, Mr. Natural, turns out to be precisely what we might expect out of such a guy. He's a fraud and an opportunist. It's not that he isn't in on what the world is about--he clearly may be--but he's not the all-knowing wise man people in his universe seem to believe in.

Over the decades, Mr. Crumb has produced any number of comic books, including acting as illustrator for others--notably Harvey Pekar's well-known American Splendor series. Mr. Crumb has gathered and sold collections of works, including women, portraits of old-time musicians, and a cartoon version of the book of Genesis from the Bible. He relocated to France many years ago, where he still lives and works.  

G.Hoff, "Doc homage to Crumb," pen and ink, 2008
One of Mr. Crumb's creations that was stolen so much that a judge ruled it had fallen into the public domain is his cartoon from his early days called "Keep on Truckin'." The image was pirated by everyone from tee shirt manufacturers to poster makers to people making all sorts of other marketables and tchotchkes. Mr. Crumb sued but lost his infringement suit because the copyright symbol had not been included on the image itself, despite the fact that cover of the issue displayed the symbol. In any event, the image is now considered public domain.

Because I was interested in Mr. Crumb's technique, I drew a parody of that particular cartoon using ink and a dip pen, substituting myself in a lab coat for the leading figure, brandishing a stethoscope. My university is visible in the distance. The idea was to encourage our medical students in their clinical work. (My apologies to Mr. Crumb for my pretension.) Doing the parody not only allowed me to learn something of Mr. Crumb's methods and imagination; it gave me an opportunity to practice with the less-familiar medium. 

R.Crumb, "A Short History of America," 1980, Snoid Comics
Another of my favorites by Mr. Crumb are the series of images that originally appeared in the 1970s called "A Short History of America." The set begins with wilderness America, rolling hills and trees, supplanted first by railroads, then a road and a few houses and then a small town segues into a big town, trees disappear, buildings spring up and age into disrepair. Automobiles choke the now-wider streets that are festooned with electric wires. In the end, our own era with big ugly cars, ubiquitous wires and sterile buildings provides the final panel, labelled, "What Next?" 

Those original ink drawings have been colorized, reprinted, parodied and copied. They have even been turned into a short video. featuring the colorized version of the cartoons. A number of people have speculated on message of the final image, "What Next?" 

G.Hoff, "What Else? (homage to R. Crumb)" 2016
Predicting the future is always difficult, but here's my own prediction based on Mr. Crumb's final image. The multiplicity of satellite dishes is based on the idea some have predicted that we'll be get electric power via microwave from various satellite sources, wirelessly. So perhaps even street lights will be powered that way. and in the future transportation may be so inexpensive that nobody will walk at all. Instead there could be identical, tidy, self-driving little electric autos running all about, symmetric front-to-back and as purposeful as columns of ant workers. And actually of course, nobody really knows what may be in our future. There may be nothing but the desolation some others have drawn as the final image.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Nocturne in Casein

Casein paint dries so quickly you can get certain kinds of effects, similar to glazing with oil paint, but much much faster. There are quite a few people who say that casein is opaque, but in my admittedly limited experience over the past few months, casein paint behaves rather like a mix between watercolor and oil. Some colors, such as the phthalo blue that Richeson markets as "Shiva Blue," is relatively transparent. The earth colors I've used have been in between, yellow ochre medium opaque for example, and titanium white is dead opaque, as you would expect. I don't find any other whites--no lead or zinc--so opaque white is the order of the day with casein unless you make your own. Making casein paint is likely to be simple enough since you can buy pigment (one good source is Sinopia) and mix it with casein emulsion, available from Sinopia or Richeson. I have yet to try that and only have tubed or commercially-prepared paints in the studio.

Casein seems to be useful for almost any kind of painting. Reportedly it was widely used by illustrators over a half-century ago, primarily for its quick drying and matte finish. Since the medium was used in advertising work, there is little doubt that it was used for all manner of figure work, narrative illustration, probably poster art, and others. While I haven't done still life with casein paint, it has been useful to try a few landscapes, a couple of which I posted not long ago. My primary work is figures and cities, so traditional landscape is a challenge, but it gives me a chance to continue working out the properties of this kind of paint. This time the landscape is a nocturne, a night scene. 

James Whistler, "Nocturne in Blue and Gold,"ca 1873
Naming paintings after musical forms--etudes, symphonies, etc.) was one of James Whistler's most interesting ideas. According to history, Mr. Whistler got the concept from a patron of his. Regardless of the source, Mr. Whistler's paintings, done contemporaneously with Monet and others, are sometimes impressionistic, sometimes tonal, and but idiosyncratically his own. The painting to the right, "Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge," painted in London in the early 1870s, is typical. Painted in a Tonalist style, it shows an old bridge in London. This picture has a relatively unconventional composition, with the bridge looming high above our viewpoint and the river stretching into a vague, distant city. Details are blurred or absent, but the distant shore sparkles with tiny points of light. Clearly Mr. Whistler was intent on producing the experience of night vision without denying the reality of his paint. And of course, the transparency and brilliance of oil paint was in part responsible for his effects.

Frederic Remington, "Old Stagecoach of the Plains."
Another of my favorite painters, Frederic Remington, also painted nocturnes and mostly used oils, but his paintings were uniformly western American scenes--native Americans, cavalry troopers, trappers, and so on. He painted an acclaimed series of nocturnes at the beginning of the 20th century that remain standards of the form. They were so successful that Mr. Remington, an illustrator, wrote to a friend that these paintings "landed me among the painters." Indeed they did. Here's one of my favorites, painted in 1901. Mr. Remington not only puts us out on the rolling prairie, but gives us a stagecoach outlined against a darkening sky, descending a steep incline. The lamps in the coach provide the only flares of warmth and are offset by the cool blue blazes on the horses' foreheads, which lead the eye to the coach in perspective. The driver sits left while the guard is poised, looking back, wary or alarmed by something. The sense of mystery and foreboding is  palpable. There is a mysterious narrative that invites the viewer to contemplation. This is real mastery.

Although I've done a few nocturnes myself, none can match Whistler or Remington. Still, it's an enjoyable discipline to produce a near-monochromatic work, taking advantage of indistinct forms and a narrower range of values. As part of continuing investigation of casein paint, I did the landscape below in casein using my back woods as a motif, altering the palette to make a monochromatic, nocturnal view. An old panel with an oil sketch made an interesting support. I was curious to see if casein would stick since it is said to stick to almost anything. I scuffed the surface with a scrub pad and then wiped it clean before painting. Casein laid down smoothly with no problem on the scuffed surface, so long as the paint was full-bodied (not thinned too much with water). Full-bodied paint is easier to use.

The cool and warmer blues of the paint--cobalt blue and "Shiva blue"--marry pretty well with titanium white, and the fallen trunk made a nice counterpoint to the bare-limbed trees. The casein's quick drying lets me layer paint rapidly to make more- and less-distinct details, taking advantage of transparency and opacity. Unlike the examples above, though, this work is utterly monochromatic since the woods--these woods at least--have no warm spots of light. "Mourning," is imagined as after a snowfall, at the bluest moments of day, just as darkness falls.
"Mourning," 2017
The fallen tree above was previously seen in this post