Friday, September 22, 2017


Although oil painting is the most revered of the visual arts--well, mostly--drawing in all of its forms ought to be revered as much. Painting is about masses of color and value; drawing is about lines but also about value and shape. Drawing accurately isn't as difficult as many make it but accurate drawing is the cornerstone of much graphic art.

In my own practice, drawing takes a front seat much of time, as it probably does for others. That's because it's easy to draw; all you need is a surface and something to make marks. Painting is much more complicated. So when an artist sees something remarkable or memorable, drawing is usually the first thought.

Long ago, when I was beginning, I read an article about the virtues of sketching and drawing. I remember almost nothing about the piece except the exhortation to "fill your sketchbooks." At the time it seemed to me that filling even a single sketchbook would be the work of months if not years. But as time passed and images piled up, so did sketchbooks. Those sketchbooks are now useful resources for painting ideas, review of methods, and a look back at skills acquired or honed.

Here are a few drawings that have survived.

The first is a charcoal of a woman who was sitting for an oil portrait. The sitter was a vivacious woman who smiled often, and liked the really joyful
"Marjorie,"charcoal, 2008
image she presented in this sketch, but a more solemn, modern portrait won out. This is about 11x14 on toned paper.

"Gettin' Funky,"graphite, 2014
Graphite is another medium for sketching and it's considerably easier than even charcoal since all you need is pencil and paper. Graphite is the medium I nearly always use for initial sketching, laying in watecolors and other water media and just doodling. This particular image grew out of a photograph I saw online that made me think of the stereotypical older man with two left feet--the one who can't dance at all but is making a heroic effort. In this case I grabbed a pencil and sketched this on a piece of toned paper about 9x12.

"Reverie," silverpoint, 2016

Next is a silverpoint, done on a toned gesso panel. Silverpoint is a considerably more deliberate drawing medium than most others because it's nearly impossible to efface the marks once laid down. In this image I used memory and a photo reference to evoke a dreamy state of mind. This image is larger than usual to show the silver marks. 

"Biddy," brush and ink, 2015

The final image is a sketch I did using black ink and a round watercolor brush. Brush drawing with ink is a method that has entirely gone out of fashion since the middle of the 20th century. This is a copy of an image in one of the Famous Artists School textbooks. You can see the brush marks but there are no touches with a pen in this drawing. As an aside, those books are useful as guides to certain kinds of drawing and composition. The series I have are from the early 1950s.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Food Trucks

Across the nation these past few years, gypsy food trucks have become a real trend. In city after city, trucks selling tacos, pizza, sandwiches, ice cream, and all kinds of other goodies have become a common sight. In Des Moines, these vendors move from location to location through the week, so you have a chance to sample a lot of different kinds of food, and you get to watch all kinds of people.

"Tacos," oil, 8x10, 2017
Here's a taco truck, set up in a parking lot not far from a manufacturing plant. They've thoughtfully brought out a couple of tables. This is oil, 8x10 on panel.

"Two Food Vendors, Uptown Art Fair 2015," watercolor, 3.5x10
Besides their routine setups, a lot of these food trucks participate in special events like arts festivals. These two were parked not far from my booth during the Uptown Art Festival in the Twin Cities a couple of years back. Food trucks are probably my favorite part of arts festivals. Both of these sold yummy food. I drew them in pencil, painted with watercolor and then touched them up here and there with ink.

"Fiery," watercolor, 3.5x9, 2016
Finally, here's another watercolor and ink of a food vendor parked near our downtown sculpture garden. I was particularly attracted by the flames painted on their van.

Friday, September 15, 2017


If there is a ubiquitous item in still life painting, it is likely to be bottles--particularly wine bottles. That's interesting, given that bottles don't really appear in still life in any quantity until the 19th century. In the 20th, we've seen a proliferation of glassware of all kinds. How light behaves with glass--transmitted, reflected, refracted--has always been interesting to me. Lately too, casein paint has been more and more attractive.

These works are all small--most are 6x8 or 4x6--and all were done over a previous oil sketch. In these I've been exploring the properties of these bottles and what happens to light passing over and into them. In particular it's been interesting to use different values, chromas, and temperatures of green. Each of these was completed from about the same vantage point but at differing times of day.

The first is a 6x8 painting of a wine bottle I've had setting on my work table in the studio for a couple of months. I filled it with water and stuck a broken phildendron stem into it, and as philodendrons will do it has sprouted roots and more leaves. This was painted in the early morning, not long after sunrise but before direct light struck any of the foliage outside my studio window. I added an old clock with a square face, just to contrast with the cylindrical bottles.

The next three feature an empty Pellegrino water bottle that I've kept because I like the cool green tint of the glass, especially against the warmer greens of foliage and flowers. These are also casein paintings.

The time of day of the first is late afternoon, and I've painted in the wine bottle in the work above but left out the philodendron vine. I also changed the golden liquid to water and altered the shape of the bottle. The Pellegrino bottle was the focus, and I was afraid that golden liquid would be distracting.

In the next one I was more interested in bringing in some branches and foliar variety, but I also wanted to push the chroma in the bottle to slightly higher than the outdoors. The other bottles were barely indicated because the greens were my interest in doing that particular painting.

In this final picture I've added a blue water bottle to the bottle of golden shellac and the empty Pellegrino bottle. There is a round piece of tempered glass on the table top that I use for a mixing palette, and the bottles are variably reflected on its surface. It's late afternoon, and the sun is streaming in.

I suppose these should be called Windowsill Works, since they're small, done quickly and with a premier coup method.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

More on Expressions

Facial expression is something humans understand innately. One of the first expressions we see is the smile on our mothers' faces. We understand a frown before the reason is explained. But drawing or painting an expression can be very difficult. The difference between a smile and a grimace is tiny, for example.

Adriaen Brouwer, "The Bitter Draught,"ca. 1635
Genre painters in particular began exploring facial expressions and naturalistic expression in earnest in 17th century Europe. (There may be earlier examples in other cultures, of course.)  One of my favorites is Adriaen Brouwer, a Flemish painter  who who contributed to the development of a particularly enjoyable class of paintings called tronies, which were a kind of generalized portrait, usually a peasant, often wearing an exaggerated facial expression. In particular his painting "The Bitter Draught" is a gem that depicts a peasant who has just swallowed a medical  concoction of some kind. In those days, like now, if it tasted bad it was probably good for you.

Gustav Courbt, "The Desperate Man," 1843-5

A later artist who explored expressions was Gustav Courbet, who lived in the 19th century. Courbet was one of the French artists (along with Millet and others) whose work depicted more gritty real life than had been the case in the 18th century. His work,  along with that of several others, came to be called Realism. Courbet, like Brouwer, produced paintings that featured exaggerated expressions, like "The Desperate Man," which he painted in about 1844. The Desperate Man shows us a near-frantic young man with wild eyes and hair. It is a self-portrait, painted ostensibly to show his talents.

McClelland Barclay, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," ca 1942
In our own times, it has mostly been illustrators who have produced realistic expression in their work.  Unlike artists before the advent of photography, though, we've had the advantage of still photographic images instead of twitchy models for the last century and a half.  Capturing an expression is considerably simpler in the 21st century than it has ever been. Nonetheless, illustrators of the 20th century in particular didn't substitute photography for on the spot sketches and notes. Many of the most prominent illustrators of the last century used both, often carefully staging their models (Norman Rockwell, for example). The use of exaggerated expressions in advertising was particularly important during wartime, beginning with World War I.

One of my own interests has been to improve renderings of facial expression in my work. Some time back I mentioned Gary Faigin and his book about facial expression. For a long while I've worked on various kinds of looks and expressions, similar to the six basic ones Faigin lists in his book. But sometimes you come across a particular look or gesture that isn't one of those six. It might be a look like that in Barclay's illustration from World War II above or a strange look of madness and horror, as can be seen in Repin's famous painting of Ivan the Terrible.

"The Fury," ca. 2015
This is a drawing I did a while back showing a woman shouting, probably in fury, at someone. The basic structure of the head is exaggerated by the wide open mouth and lowered jaw. Whatever the reason for this woman's anger, I would not like to be on the receiving end. 

Friday, September 08, 2017

More Sketches from the Windowsill

Although the volume of my tiny sketches I call Windowsill Works has been down the past couple of years, they've begun to pile up once again, particularly now that I've more time. Over the past several months Windowsill Works has become a more eclectic body of work owing to my interest in casein paint. So I've done a number of casein works in the small, quick format, and it's somewhat easier since casein dries so quickly. Additionally, watercolor postcards or sketches can fit the format quite well.
"Late Tomatoes," casein, 2017
Casein is suited to quick studies because of it's opacity and quick drying. You can correct mistakes or cover an underlying image very easily, as in the 4x6 casein painting to the right

But I'd neglected oil painting for a while, so these were done in oil, generally 4x6 on panels. They're done over older, discarded works as well. Unlike casein, though, oil paint dries more slowly and can be more difficult to manipulate.
"Philodendron & Wine Bottle," oil on linen hardboard, 2017
Furthermore, depending on the pigment and compounding, oil paint can be quite transparent or very opaque, adding to the difficulty of it's use for quick sketches like these. I use paint that has aged on the palette--skinned over and somewhat thicker than tube paint--and thin it sparingly to paint thicker but smooth strokes. The last few days I've made a few Windowsill Works that way.

"Pellegrino Bottle," oil on linen hardboard, 2017
The painting above shows my studio work table, looking almost the same as a week ago, complete with wine bottle and philodendron, plus a jade plant, a squeeze bottle (I use alcohol to clean my glass palette), and that fluted bud vase I've painted a number of times. The surface was an old, dark failure done years ago, and you can see some of the old painting peeping through, particularly on the wine label and jade pot. It's linen on hardboard. "Jade, Philodendron, and Bottle."

To the right is another Windowsill Work in oil, this time a Pellegrino water bottle against the studio window and woods beyond. It's also 4x6 over an old failure, and the bud vase makes a cameo appearance.  In effect here my intent was to study transmitted light and the colors of the bottle and label. As in any sketch or painting I took many liberties with shape, color, and so on. As a sage of American painting used to say, "It's your little world and you can do what you want."


Previous posts on sketching with watercolor, casein, and oil
Media Madness
Windowsill Works Once More
Windowsill Works Too

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Two Tractors in Watercolor

The recent state fair gave me an opportunity to photograph and sketch a few antique tractors, and what with the coming harvest season, the subject of farms and farm equipment came to mind.

Here are a couple of new tractor paintings, both done on 140# watercolor paper. The first is in an 8x10 sketchbook and the second is 4x6 (postcard-size). In each case I drew the image lightly in graphite then completed the sketch with fine ink lines followed by transparent watercolor washes. After the washes dried I went back to emphasize lines and edges followed by reinforcing the darks and softening other edges.
"1949 John Deere," watercolor & ink

"Allis-Chalmers," watercolor & ink

Friday, September 01, 2017

More on Casein

The more I paint with casein, the more I love this form of paint. To summarize its virtues: it is a water-based medium, thinned with water; it is opaque and dries rapidly to a beautiful matte finish; it photographs well; it is made from a natural product--milk. Moreover, casein is an old kind of paint, perhaps tens of millennia old, and it survives very well. Finally, it adheres to almost any surface and therefore is useable on many kinds of supports.

More and more the medium appeals to me because of its immediacy and simplicity as well as the easy cleanup. Even better, the paint can be squeezed onto a wet paper towel and covered to keep it moist. Casein will last several days under a tight cover that prevents the water from evaporating.

Here are a few casein sketches from the past few weeks. None of these was done in less than thirty minutes, but not much more than an hour.

"Studio Windows 01," casein on panel, 6x8
A sketch of windows in the studio and the work table below them. Out the windows, a few dozen yards away, are trees and dense foliage that I kept unfocused to show depth of field. The clutter of bottles and jars in front of the windows have more definition and therefore look closer.

"Studio Windows 02," casein on panel, 8x6

In this painting the foliage outside the windows is a bit brighter because it was later in the day with more sun. The windows are exaggerated in height and more table top is visible, but the same clutter is still there, lighted by reflections from the trees and table top. The fun of this little sketch was catching how the light was reflected and transmitted by the various items on the table. Of particular interest were the golden liquids in some of the bottles of medium or oils.

"Silver Creamer,"casein on panel, 4x6
The image to the left even smaller than those above, only 4x6. It's also on a hardboard panel and was done on the windowsill above. I tried to capture the reflections dancing along it's handle and top in the short time I alloted to paint this little image.

"Philodendron in a Bottle," casein on panel, 8x6

In the final sketch, also 6x8, the subject is a wine bottle with a philodendron vine growing out of it. This was painted over an old, failed oil sketch without any priming or sanding, simply to see how well the casein paint would adhere. It does a remarkable job of adhering and covering, as can be noted. The opacity let me paint a lighter layer over much darker oil paint. It did take a couple of coats to adhere well to the more oil-rich but dried painting below.

(Note: This is not generally a good painting practice, but I did it this way only to check adherence of the paint.)
Recent posts on casein:
Windowsill Works Once More
Quick Sketching in Casein