Monday, December 31, 2018

A Happier New Year To All

The year that is rapidly ticking away has been a dreadful one for many if happy for some. There have been calamities and disasters and of course politics as fuel. Still, as the calendar turns we begin with hope.

No matter how you view the outgoing year, to everyone in the world here's wishing for a Happier New Year.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Here Comes the Sun

The solstice is past and the days are beginning to grow longer as the sun makes its path across the sky, promising spring and warmth though both are yet far away. An old friend used to celebrate the solstice by exclaiming, "Here comes the sun!" Even when the days are still cold, the sunshine warms the soul and promises change and growth. George Harrison had it right in his famous song by the same name.

Here a few works celebrating sunshine. The first is a small landscape showing the view from my home studio just as the winter sun hits the side of a house up the hill. The warm sunlight bathed the house and snow at the top of the hill while the valley of Druid Hill Creek below was still in blue shadow. This is oil on panel, 8x10, and was done alla prima one morning in about an hour.

The next is also an oil sketch of a snowy scene on a clear winter day. Ask most anyone and even if the temperatures are low they prefer the day to be sunny. One of the great things in winter is finding ways to render snow. It isn't white, after all, but takes its coloration from the light and shadow falling on it. Here the shadows are a cold blue while the sunlit snow is warm. The twisted shape of the mulberry tree in the foreground is completely in shadow while the opposite slope is sun-warmed. This is 9x12 on panel.

Oil sketching in winter is a bit problematic given the weather, but these two were done from the window of the studio.

In winter one embraces the sun, celebrates it and each small gain in warmth and day length. While oil paint is the preferred medium of many collectors, watercolor can provide real satisfaction. Here is a sketch of bright sun on new snow, looking downstream. The blue shadows fall across the frozen and snow-covered course of the creek. Like the two oils, I did this one standing in a studio window (the temperature outdoors was near zero). The transparency of watercolor and the bright white paper make this painting look considerably brighter than the oils above. This is about 5x9 inches in one of my sketchbooks.

So take heart, days are getting longer and the sun is bringing back our smiles.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Happy Christmas

A Happy Christmas. In the runup to the holiday, many news outlets have carried a photo taken from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve.

It is a half-century since Americans orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, broadcasting the image of our big blue marble rising over the gray, empty lunar surface. And there it was: the only place in the unknowable infinity of the cosmos that we can call home. The place of life, bright and hospitable.

That image stays with so many whom I hope remember and are moved once again; it was watched by about a billion people, live from space. The largest audience ever. The astronauts read the first few lines of the book of Genesis, from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Turn off the sound if you choose. For me it is the images that are most moving and thought-provoking anyway. What will happen to our "good Earth"?

Happy Holidays to all.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Anatomy and the Masters

Leonardo da Vinci, "Skull," ink, 1489
One of the areas of overlap between my current occupation as a realist painter and a previous one is human anatomy. A working knowledge of the intricacies of the human frame and form is essential for the figurative and portrait painter, of course, but it's also essential for people like cartoonists, game designers, storyboard artists, and animators of course. Art schools now teach courses in anatomy for artists, and there seem to be endless books for human anatomy for artists. But it wasn't always so, partly because anatomy wasn't well-known earlier than the beginning of the Renaissance, and partly owing to the difficult in diffusion of knowledge before the 15th century.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Arm bones," ink ca 1510
During those years of renewal and exploration, masters of sculpture and painting began to explore human anatomy personally. Two of the titans of the era were contemporaries: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti; and each studied anatomy seriously and in depth. Both men apprenticed with masters who were dedicated to the understanding of human structure.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Female Torso," ink, ca 1510
Leonardo began his investigations of anatomy in the late 1480s, and began a notebook he headed "On the Human Figure," though for a long while it only contained drawings of the skull (see above). In the winter of 1507 though, Leonardo wrote that a man of 100 died and he "made an anatomy" (dissected) him to see the cause of death. In the next half decade or so he did more dissections and studied anatomy very seriously, filling pages of his notebook, now in the Windsor Castle collection. In that famous book he collects drawings of muscles, bones, the respiratory and circulatory systems, even important structures of the reproductive tract. It is clear from looking at his drawings that Leonardo was informing himself of the latest findings in anatomy. Leonardo was actively pursuing his own experiences and information and intended to eventually publish those studies (a number were being published in those decades) but did not, nor did his heirs. The amazing thing about da Vinci is the quality of his drawing coupled with the quality of his questions and observations.

Michelangelo, "Leg muscles," rec chalk
Michelangelo, "Back and hip muscles," red chalk
In contrast, Michelangelo studied anatomy with the eye of an artist. Michelangelo began studying anatomy while apprenticed to Ghirlandao, in Florence. As a sculptor, he was vitally interested in the structure of the body, though his interest was focused not so much on internal organs as on muscles and structure. And unlike da Vinci, Michelangelo was not accumulating material for a treatise. He was intent on improving his artistic understanding. It is well-known from biographical sources that Michelangelo dissected cadavers with permission (as did Leonardo), and he is said later to have wanted to publish his anatomic findings but dissection was disgusting to him. (Recall that there was no embalming in the 16th century.) Michelangelo himself destroyed many of his drawings, particularly anatomic ones, and the ones that survive seem to be predominantly musculoskeletal drawings.

To be sure, the experience of these two masters is atypical. An artist certainly doesn't need to dissect a body to draw one accurately. On the other hand, if one is to draw and paint our fellow humans accurately, it's crucial to learn the anatomy of the body. Classical art education has traditionally included anatomy, and continues to do so.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Animals for Fun and Practice

Sketching people, landscapes, streets and buildings, and so on has occupied most of my drawing time until not long ago. But it occurred to me that although I've done quite a few sketches of people, when it comes to animals, not so much. In the last few months I've tried to correct that.

This is a quick sketch of our two schnauzer puppies, Tillie and Stella, sleeping on a cushion. They're both still little balls of fur at the time I sketched them on my iPad Pro using Sketchbook. Although I keep a sketchbook handy most of the time, more and more a quick digital sketch is pretty simple. Whether doing a digital sketch or something more traditional, when sketching animals it pays to try hard to capture the critical things first--body shape, gesture, and so on. With this one Tillie (the white one)moved after I started, necessitating a revision. I only briefly sketched in the cushion's outline and finished that later because I wanted to capture the head and ears and the bent leg as the near puppy slept. The shading and cushion details could and did wait.

Sometimes even having a sketchbook or iPad handy isn't good enough. This is a sketch of a red-tail hawk that I saw in Florida when we were visiting there last month. In this particular case, the hawk was as tame as I've ever seen--it came up and landed on the corner of the pool enclosure where we were staying, literally six feet away. Fearing no time at all for sketching I managed to grab a camera and snap a half dozen shots from that close vantage point, using an automatic point-and-shoot digital. After I returned home I did the quick sketch to the left, simply to catch the shape of the head and beak and study the neck markings. Although the lower body was in fair focus in my quick reference snapshot, I was satisfied with keeping those parts blurred and concentrating on the eye and beak.

Of course, sometimes the only way to draw certain animals is from reference materials. You'd have a very difficult time trying to sketch a fox in the wild, for example. But this drawing is actually from a news photo of a fox in Europe who has become tame enough to associate with humans. His name is Gaspard, and from the news story he seems like a fine fellow.
Finally, unless you visit a zoo, there are animals you simply won't see in nature here in North America. Not long ago I ran across a story about what sounds like the world's largest kangaroo, who had died of old age at 12 or so. He had been publicized (at least in Australia) as "Roger the Roo," and by the news photos of this big fellow he had a physique rather like professional wrestlers--"ripped" as bodybuilders say. Here he is, from an undated photo I saw in the obituary, published by the BBC.

The ability to draw animals is an important skill for many artists and will repay the work needed to gain competence.

Related Posts
More Animal Drawings

Friday, December 14, 2018

Renaissance Drawings

Michelangelo Buonarotti, "Study of a Mourning Woman, ca 1500
At the Getty Renaissance drawings are on display in an exhibition called Spectacular Mysteries: Renaissance Drawings Revealed (until April 29). The premise of the exhibit is that many many drawings made in during the period were and are difficult to attribute, given that they are generally unsigned, the question of authorship is quite often difficult. The Getty has brought together a group of drawings from the Italian Renaissance (16th century) from their own collection and from private hands and investigated. The show brings together "what we know, what we do not know, what we would like to know, and what we may never know," about these esteemed works.

Because these works are difficult to attribute, quite often the only evidence at hand to determine the why, who, how, when and so on is the actual drawing. This exhibit shows the visitor how these kinds of art are investigated, from working on attribution by stylistic comparisons. An excellent example is the drawing by Michelangelo (right) of a mourning woman. This particular drawing, though unsigned, is very much in the style of the master, and further analysis confirmed the impression of an auction house expert.

Lorenzo di Credi, "Head of a Boy Crowned with Laurel," ca 1500
The group of nearly forty drawings on display include works by Titian, Parmagianino, Credi, and others that have never been attributed. Each work has been investigated and evaluated by the Getty, but as is often the case, if the image does not relate to other known works either stylistically or as apparent preparatory work, the actual artist may never be known.

For me, the important thing is the drawings themselves. That is, if the drawing is effective and well made it is interesting. Study of these sorts of works gives the working artist an opportunity to speculate on how they were made, what the artist was thinking while laying down red or black chalk or ink lines. How did he  (or rarely, she) accomplish this feat of legerdemain, representing three dimensions in two? Attribution is important because it gives us a clue about where to look for more examples of the mastery we're seeing; for the "art world" of course, it allows assignment of financial value. But the actual art is considerably more interesting. Happily, there is a book from the Getty that includes many of these drawings (available on the museum website and also from Amazon) that provides many closeups and discussions.

My regret about this show is that like many it's not possible for me to visit. If you live in the area, take time to visit the Getty and see this show. After all, it's free.

Titian, "Pastoral Scene," ca 1565
Parmagianino, "Head of a Young Man," ca 1540
Pollauido (attrib), "Head of a Young Man," ca 1470

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

How to be an Artist

"Risk Factors," oil, 20x16, 2012
An article by Jerry Saltz that appeared on caught my eye not long ago. He wrote an ambitious piece, giving not just advice on being an artist but on becoming one and continuing to be a presumably successful one. Mr. Saltz is an art critic but has also been very candid in saying that he is a "failed artist" (his term), and wrote about what happened to his career as an artist and why a year or so ago. In his new piece he provides a list of 33 "lessons" to follow on the path to becoming a successful artist, despite his own lack of success. The list is certainly comprehensive, even detailed, containing six steps from "You Are a Total Amateur" to the final: "Attain Galactic Brain." Of course anyone can make lists, and a lot of people in various pursuits could write similar ones. Mine is quite a lot shorter.

Maybe you don't have to worry about any of this and simply start working and say you're an artist. Works for some. But if you long to be an artist, are a few ideas. This list applies to visual art, but you could probably substitute other art forms without much modification.

First Principles:
"Silver Creamer," casein on panel, 4x6, 2017
  1. Art is what you make of it. Whatever the art form, genuine work comes from the maker, even when copying someone else. Even conceptual art requires that someone make the art; even something as evanescent as an idea is created.
  2. Art is about the work. It's not about being a bohemian or bourgeois, if anyone still recognizes those terms. Instead, art is in the doing of a thing (dancing, playing the bagpipes, whatever) as well as one can, then doing it again and then again to make it better each time. Art is about the making, over and over again.
  3. Without a commitment to regularly making art there is less point in beginning. And truly, artists are makers. Without the focus on making regular work you can still be a gifted amateur, of course but you are unlikely to be more. Focusing on the work and advancing it is crucial.
"La Rambla, Barcelona," watercolor and ink, 5x9, 2017
How to Start:
  1.  Start simple, but start. In visual arts, drawing is fundamental and luckily easy to begin and to practice. A common #2 pencil and a stack of printer paper are all you need, and easily available for nearly anybody. Add other media and other methods as you go. Painting, sculpting, are more advanced. Save those for later. The basis of visual art is drawing.
  2. Get instruction. You can only teach yourself so much because by definition it is difficult to teach what you do not know. Happily, teaching comes in many forms these days--more now than ever before. Attend classes, watch videos, read books and articles, go to workshops, seek mentors. Whatever you do, learn your craft, from basics like materials through techniques and methods and best practices.
  3. Practice constantly. The masters through the centuries, whether painters or musicians or authors, worked diligently at their art. Michelangelo famously wrote to an assistant, "Draw, Antonio. Draw Antonio, and don't waste time!" In his article mentioned above Mr. Saltz advises carrying a sketchbook and using it constantly, which is excellent (and centuries-old) advice. Another variant is the famous maxim: "Nulla dies sine linea," that is: never a day without a line," a quote of Adolph Menzel, the great German artist.
  4. Show your work. If you want to improve, show your work. Show your work to other artists, then to the public. Show only your very best work. Be critical. Seek admission to juried (judged) shows. Exhibit widely, from local galleries to national competitions to online exhibits. Online shows are becoming more and more common and quite simple to enter.
Being an Artist
This one is tougher. So far as I know there are no uniform steps, no consensus of how to live as an artist or anything beyond doing the work. A writing teacher once said that if you want to be a writer, you must write. If you want to be a painter, you have to paint.

"Mugshot," digital drawing,2018
The life of an artist means different things to different people. Many are industrious, daily workers with regular hours, like William Bouguereau, the famous Frenchman. Some are dreamers; more or less slapdash, their unplanned peaks and troughs as surprising to the artist as anyone (insert any name you wish). Regardless, true artists produce whatever their art may be: images, statues or sculptures, stories, drama or comedic arts, written words, and on and on. The key is that an artist produces art. That is the life of an artist.
Art is making, and making is work. For most, the point is the work. Approval is a bonus, but the work is the goal.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Digital Drawing

As I've mentioned in previous posts, digital drawing is becoming more and more a part of my daily routine. Over the past few months I've done a number of digital drawings, from portraits to landscape, and thought this might be a good time to post a few.

"President Franklin Roosevelt," digital, 2018
This post is being released on December 7, the anniversary of the surprise attack on the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor, by the Japanese. Because I was thinking about the anniversary, I did a couple of fairly quick portraits of leaders of the time, using Sketchbook to emulate drawing on toned paper with white chalk enhancements. The beauty of digital programs is the ability to change backgrounds and textures at will. In both of these portraits, I chose a light tan and tried to emulate the appearance of chalk on laid paper.

The attack on Pearl Harbor is much less vivid in America's collective memory these days. It will probably pass without much discussion, but for some it remains an important part of history. 

"Prime Minister Winston Churchill," digital, 2018

"Closed for the Season," digital, 2018
Besides portraits in a style emulating drawings, I did a couple of landscapes using a similar technique. This is one of them, based on the view across a closed golf course one lead-grey November day. The tortured branches of the trees seemed to echo the mood of most people I met that day. This particular drawing was done using a textured pencil and a very dark red color.

"En Pointe," digital, 2018
Finally, digital is a great way to do figure studies, albeit it's easier to do these kinds of sketches from photos rather than life, for many. The newer tablets--iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro, among others--are making digital life sketching more common. Here are a couple of figures done on my Cintiq rather than a tablet.

Extreme poses like the ballerina balanced "en pointe"--at the extreme tip of her toe, are challenging to draw, particularly with clean lines. Digital programs let you either undo and redo a stroke, or clean up the line afterwards. It's considerably easier to efface a digital mark than one made by charcoal.

The second drawing here is of a well-known subject of Greek Antiquity, the Spear Carrier, or "Doryphoros." The figure would have been carrying a spear over his left shoulder, when originally carved. There have been a number of versions of the statue discovered over the past few centuries, providing many artists opportunities to copy a truly sublime figure. The pose is also important, known as "contraposto" wherein the figure bears weight on one foot, throwing the opposite hip outward and providing a sinuous, torquing effect to the pose. It's a useful way to study the figure for later reference, adding to the visual library.

"Doryphoros (after a Greek original)," digital, 2018
Digital Doodles
Drawing Digital Dailies

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Sketches of Florida

When the dark months begin to close in and the skies are pewter-grey during the daytime, its useful to think happy thoughts and look at some warmer places and times. This year we spent some time with family in the Tampa area, which (discounting hurricanes) has more congenial weather than the upper Midwest. As the temperatures fall and sleet comes slanting across the studio windows here in Iowa, I thought I'd share a few watercolor sketches from visits to Florida this year.

"Bradenton Palms"
May when we visited family in the Tampa Bay area, the weather was already summery and not very humid. My son's home is backed by a forested area that is kept relatively wild and hosts a lot of wildlife including white tail deer, sandhill cranes, and all sorts of small critters, even an occasional bobcat. The area is like jungle, with palms, vines, Spanish moss and a sandy, wet slough of water. Hawks cruise the sky, hunting, and the cranes stalk around as if they own the land. (Although there isn't enough water for big reptiles, there are bodies of water not far away that harbor alligators and plate-sized turtles.) The wall of jungle is perhaps thirty meters away, and endlessly changing, especially at dawn and dusk.

The first sketch is from that May visit, after a passing rain shower. The rain sharpened the colors, it seemed, and made the foliage glow more green than usual. Wild palms clustered along the walking path at the edge of the jungle. I drew the scene lightly in pencil in my 3.5x5 sketchbook, dropped in a variety of green hues, let it dry and inked the details. The quiet of the neighborhood is enhanced by the jungle barrier, so that all one hears most of the time is the wind, and this sketch always reminds me of those moments.

"Sandhill Crane"
The next day a group of five sandhill cranes made their rather majestic way across the lawn between the jungle and the house, ignoring me entirely as they walked between houses to the front yards. These big grey birds are perhaps a meter tall when standing, maybe more, and have about a two meter wingspan--formidable birds. My son had seen them come by many times as they walk from the jungle to a pond a block away. Too close to fly, one supposes, so they simply saunter on over, their golden eyes glowing beneath a red forehead. I did the sketch to the left from memory. I laid in the usual pencil sketch, but only as a few guidelines, then painted their feathers with a few strokes and made only a few details of background after they went by. I added ink lines here and there to finish it.

"Sun on the Jungle"
We returned to the Tampa area last month for the Thanksgiving holiday, a good decision since a big snowstorm struck Iowa during the weekend afterward. As it had been in May it was pleasant to study the jungle-like conservation area, which if anything was more lush than May. The undergrowth had deepened, and Spanish moss draped a lot of the broad leaf trees. Couples and singles walked, jogged, and cycled the path during the day and at dawn a herd of white tail deer ventured out to the grass for a few minutes of browsing, their big ears turning here and there as they listened for danger.

Sketching the conservation area was a significant challenge that I put off for several days, but eventually tackled (above) one afternoon as the sun slanted into the foliage. Attempting to capture the exceptionally tangled and varied trees and undergrowth was daunting because of the temptation to render nearly every leaf. It is more effective to treat trees and undergrowth as if composed of big irregular masses. I used a page in my 5.5x9 inch sketchpad previously toned with a pale red wash of acrylic gouache. Because of the acrylic vehicle watercolor tends to stick unevenly, beading up and giving a sparkling effect. Here I drew the jungle in pencil then painted several layers of watercolor over the gouache, leaving significant areas of the red ground to show through. The underpainting is roughly complementary to the overlying greenery, which adds depth. I added details here and there using paint and ink, sketched in the couple walking their dog and made them pop out with spots of red and blue. In spite of a big snowstorm in the north, it was about eighty degrees that day.

"Strutting With the Dog"
Walking the dog is one a common activity in Florida, it seems, at least in our son's neighborhood. Quite a few dog-walkers passed by as I sketched a street view (right), including a streetlight and an small palm tree planted as landscaping in the new subdivision. In the foreground was a bush with a variety of greens and reds coloring its leaves. ( I think it's a croton, which we grow as house plants here in Iowa.) In any event, so many people came by walking their dogs that I sketched one of them into the scene. I imaged a kind of spring in his step, trying to impart forward motion by the way the trailing arm is cocked. This one was also painted over an acrylic gouache underpainting, so the lamp post has a kind of sparkle owing to how the watercolor paint beaded up on the surface. The same for the palm tree. Otherwise both of these sketches were drawn lightly first with pencil, then painted then accented with ink.

Warm colors and sunny scenes can help light up these dreary days of December. They certainly help me.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Favorite Artists 6 - Wayne Thiebaud

For the sixth installment of my favorite artists, lets focus on Wayne Thiebaud (1920- ) a living American. Mr. Thiebaud is a well-known painter whose luscious color and simple shapes have found a wide audience. He became known six decades ago and has been active and working on the west coast throughout that time. As he has aged his work has been less noticed, it seems to me, but, he remains a real favorite of mine.

"Pies Pies Pies," 1961
My exposure to Mr. Thiebaud's work began with the earliest works, his delicious paintings of cakes and pies, which he began showing in the 1960s. Although his paintings of pastries, among other ordinary objects, predates Pop Art, inevitably he has been included as a member of that movement, and was exhibited initially with the likes of Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol among others. Subsequently he has often argued that he isn't one of them and even objected to being included with Andy Warhol. In any event, during his long career he has gone in several different directions, all of which have been visually and aesthetically satisfying.

Mr. Thiebaud spent his entire career (except brief interludes) in California, where he trained at San Jose State and Sacramento State, and later became a long-serving professor at the University of California, Davis. He has been working as an artist at least since high school, when he spent summers apprenticing at Disney Studios. He was even an artist during his World War II service. According to artist acquaintances who have met him, Mr. Thiebaud is a genuinely humble and warm individual whose work and teaching have influenced hundreds.

Early works like "Pies Pies Pies" (above) have a distinct resemblance to advertising, at first glance, complete with bright lighting and dark shadows. But the more one looks, the more interesting the pies become, the shadows varying widely from plate-to-plate, the pies and crusts vibrating with complements, slathered down with brush strokes as luscious as whipped cream. He was said to have been so delighted with this painting that he laughed out loud. One can see why. The repetitive, simple shapes, the deceptively similar slices of pie, the different shadow colors and hints simply make me smile every time I look at the work.

"Two Paint Cans," 1987
Another favorite of mine is the dazzling "Two Paint Cans," from 1987. In this one the colors are deliciously saturated, the reflective paint cans dripping complementary colors on opposite sides, one topless and the other yet to be opened. In this as in all of his work, the paint itself is a celebrated part of the work, applied in thick, delighted strokes. The shadows themselves show opposite color temperatures--the reflected shadows on the cans are a warm dark brown but the cast shadows behind the cans are a deep cold navy blue. Mr. Thiebaud's sense of color and brushwork has always been dazzling to me.

"24th Street Intersection," 1977
Around a decade earlier Mr. Thiebaud had begun painting cityscapes of the dizzying San Francisco Hills, first with "Potrero Street," and then "24th Street Intersection," (right) which always makes me feel as if I'm falling. He went on to paint quite a few others, each providing a vertiginous view of the hills of the city. He continued these cityscapes of San Francisco, along with still life, during the 1980s and 1990s, adding the occasional beach scene, with crowds, and a whole body of work with an airborne viewpoint.

"Farm Channel," 1996
The cityscapes are deceptive, it seems to me, because they're actually composed of simple shapes that come near to abstraction. They work on both a realist level and an abstract one, which is a delight to see. He manipulates our perception and gives the receptive viewer much to contemplate. In some of the early cityscapes like "24th Street Intersection," too, there seems to be a debt to Edward Hopper, but perhaps that's simply the Queen Anne architecture. Many times too when looking at these particular works by Mr. Thiebaud, one sees something of the work of Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series.

Besides paint itself and as itself, clearly simple shapes and their arrangements fascinated the artist, as they have kept me staring more than once. Although firmly in the representational camp of artists rather than abstractionists, Mr. Thiebaud's pleasure in paint and its application is very appealing and his dedication to simplicity and colors continue to make me smile.
Favorite Artists
Favorite Artists 2
Favorite Artists 3--Grant Wood
Favorite Artists 4--Diego Velazquez
Favorite Artists 5--Andrew Wyeth

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Caring for Artists' Brushes

When you read about caring for equipment, one of the most confusing seems to be what to do with those expensive brushes. Long ago I learned to wipe away excess paint, rinse carefully in mineral spirits and dry, wash in lukewarm water with gentle soap and then condition my natural fiber brushes with conditioning gel. Synthetic brushes require less--wipe, rinse, wash. One of the more controversial recommendations that one reads on social media is storing brushes in oil. Many swear by the use of an oil to not only store brushes but to clean them too. Brushes are quite varied, though, both in materials and in manufacture, which makes for serious confusion. (This post refers only to oil painting. Watercolor and water media brushes obviously shouldn't be cleaned with or stored in oil.) 

Hog Bristle Brushes (Four Shapes)
A quick review of brush types is in order. First, there are brushes made with natural hair or fibers. Among this enormous group are hog bristle brushes and natural hair brushes (sable, for example). While I've no data, one suspects that these are the kinds of brushes in widest use by serious painters. The second group of brushes are made with synthetic fibers like nylon (Golden Taklon is an example). Caring for these different kinds of hair and fibers is necessarily going to be different--one method doesn't necessarily fit all.

There has been wide discussion online about how best to care for oil painting brushes, with a loud contingent recommending cleaning them in an oil and then storing them in oil as well. This particular regime and habit grew out of sign painting and has been adapted by some to care for their oil brushes. However, it seems to me that at least some of those folks may not realize that the method may not be the best for all of their expensive brushes.

Several Sizes of Round Sable Brushes
Considering that cleaning and storing brushes is a critical skill for oil painters, it seemed reasonable to ask an experienced sign painter who is also an oil painter about the process. I interviewed my friend Richard Bingham, who operates Idaho Graphics for this post.

Q. Before we get to cleaning oil brushes, can you discuss the types of brushes used by sign painters and how they were kept?
RB: Sure. Hog-bristle cutters, flats, and strokes were segregated by color groups. So there were separate sets for red, yellow, blue, etc. Each was wrapped in brown paper in way to preserve the shape and kept in cans of mineral spirits between uses. They were never washed in solvents and soap and water. Soft hair brushes were kept with their fibers in a non-drying oil.

Q:  Why do sign painters use an oil to clean and store their brushes?
RB: Sign painters use (or used--many signs are no longer hand painted) primarily soft brushes for lettering, fitches, quills with brown or grey hair, camel, ox, and other natural hair, and of course they were using mostly alkyd enamels that dried rapidly, were of a consistent viscosity, and generally controlled it with "hot" solvents like turpentine, mineral spirits, automotive thinners, Penetrol, and other rather nasty stuff. Throw into the mix that brushes were used all day every day and cleaning brushes and keeping them soft in suitable oil made sense.

Q: How did they clean brushes?
RB: As is recommended for any brush, thorough cleaning well into the heel and hafting of hairs [i.e. the ferrule] is especially important. Using a light oil that can penetrate well can eliminate paint residues when properly worked into the heel of a brush. Of course, drying oils are "out" since they would ultimately be counterproductive if the brushes were put aside for any length of time.

Q. Okay, so if drying oils aren't good for brush storage, what oil can be used? 
RB: Sign painters have been known to use motor oil, which is a poor choice, castor oil (which, amazingly, behaves as a drying oil given enough time), lecithin (a generic term for a group of fatty compounds found in plants and animals and a component of many lettering enamels), and neatsfoot oil. Of course, the possibility of contaminating one's paint with a problematic oil is a consideration.

Q. You're both an oil painter and sign painter. What do you recommend for cleaning and storing oil painters' brushes?
RB: Soft hair brushes may profit from the sign shop method--storing in a non-drying oil--but hog bristle, being a hollow-shaft hair, eventually becomes oil-saturated and "logy," losing it's stiffer handling and defeating the purpose of the type of brush.

So in summary, if you're interested in reducing your use of solvents, perhaps storing some of your brushes in oil would be useful. However:
  • Do not store hog bristle brushes in oil unless you don't care if they become soft and feel rather mushy. Instead, wipe out excess paint, wash them in warm (not hot) water, rinse and store with the fibers upright. If you're careful, you can manage this without solvents.
  • Synthetic fiber brushes like nylon can be treated the same as bristle brushes--no solvents, mostly--and do not need an oil storage bath.
  • Storing soft brushes--sables, and so on--with the hairs in oil may be useful if you don't use inappropriate kinds of oils. 
Previous Posts on Brushes:
Brushes Part 3 Care and Maintenance
Brushes Part 2
Brushes Part 1

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Day After

Gone Shopping...

If you stumbled in here on Black Friday, sorry to say there isn't much going on. But okay, here's a self portrait:

"Selfie," 2018

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thanksgiving Art

Our American holiday of Thanksgiving is coming very soon. The holiday is interesting because many Americans aren't completely clear about its origins and traditions. We attribute the holiday to 17th century Pilgrims in funny clothes feasting with local natives, but its origin is more complex. Yes, Pilgrims did hold a harvest feast of thanksgiving with local natives but others in North America and elsewhere held similar festivities on various occasions. For many decades an autumn feast of Thanksgiving was very much a local or regional event rather than a national holiday. The national holiday of Thanksgiving that we celebrate now has its roots in the American Civil War. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving as a way to ask God to care for those who had become "...widows, mourners, orphans, or sufferers..." in that war, and as a way of asking for healing of the wounds of the nation. The holiday was to be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November, and it was except for a brief period when it was moved up a week. (It is also true that other proclamations of a day of thanksgiving were made, notably by George Washington, but it is the one by Lincoln that carried over into a U.S. holiday.)

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom From Want," 1943
For most of us now, Thanksgiving is the day in November when we get together, eat too much, watch football and nap. For many, it can commemorate a time of a completed harvest, of settling in for the darker months and of warmth and comfort, each in our own snuggery. Regardless, the American holiday is mostly secular. Our Thanksgiving art reflects those attitudes too, seems to me.

Probably the best-known and liked American Thanksgiving painting is by Norman Rockwell, but it wasn't painted for that holiday. It's part of a Rockwell's four painting series that was used during World War II to raise money for war bonds. The series by Mr. Rockwell was based on "The Four Freedoms," enumerated in President Franklin Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union speech. The freedoms enumerated were freedom from want and fear and freedom of speech and religion. The painting "Freedom From Want" did actually make a cover of the Saturday Evening Post during March 1943 rather than at Thanksgiving. But it's certainly appropriate for November.

J.C. Leyendecker, "Saturday Evening Post Cover" 1928
One of Norman Rockwell's own heroes was J.C. Leyendecker, who did covers for the Post himself, even before Mr. Rockwell. In the example here, Mr. Leyendecker gives homage to the Pilgrims and to to football, which even in 1928 was an American Thanksgiving event. Mr. Leyendecker continued doing the annual Thanksgiving cover for the magazine during much of the 1930s.

For me, perhaps the most poignant Thanksgiving painting is another by Norman Rockwell, this time the Thanksgiving cover for the Post in 1945. "Home for Thanksgiving," (left) shows a soldier home from the war, grinning and doing K.P. duty for his mother. He has survived the war and made it home, the wrinkles in his face a testament to what he's been through. He wears a military shirt but civilian shoes, no rank visible anywhere, and the patch on his shoulder suggesting he is an Air Force veteran. In his bravura way Mr. Rockwell places the fixings for a big dinner on the table behind the pair, a foretaste of a true feast of thanks.

The soldier's mother is of course the entire civilian nation, overjoyed at the return of their sons and husbands, yet grieving for the enormous loss; thankful for deliverance.        

This year, Lincoln's hope that the wounds of the nation can be bound up by a national day of thanksgiving is a more fervent wish than in many years. 


Friday, November 16, 2018

The Joy of Drawing

Thomas Fluharty has been one of my favorite contemporary artists for a long while. Mr. Fluharty is one of the more versatile artists working today. That is, he has worked in numerous media, from oil painting to digital illustration. His work has been on numerous magazine covers, including Mad magazine, Time, and others. His work has been featured in The Weekly Standard as well. Besides being a phenomenal draftsman and painter he teaches students via the online site Schoolism. Active online, Mr. Fluharty owns one of the most upbeat, positive and uplifting voices on social media.

This week I received my copies of  two of Mr. Fluharty's books, The Joy of Drawing and The Art of the Sketch. These two books are, quite simply, gems. The newer one, Joy of Drawing, was just published in October after a successful Kickstarter campaign. The book contains selections from Mr. Fluharty's Prismacolor Indigo Bleu 901 series, sketches made using a type of blue pencils by that name. The book is a result of a very successful Kickstarter campaign
and is now available on his website, linked above, as is the earlier Art of the Sketch.

For the past few years, Mr. Fluharty has done hundreds of drawings and sketches using the Prismacolor blue pencils mentioned. He says that these provide him with a wide range of opportunities to produce great lines and values but carry the challenge of erasability since they smudge rather than disappearing cleanly. Like other media that aren't readily erased, the artist must work carefully and slowly; a mark made will remain there. The benefit, on the other hand, is that such care and deliberateness is essential in making a successful drawing.

Thomas Fluharty, "Horse," Prismacolor Bleu pencil, 2018
As part of the campaign, the books supporters at various levels received not only one or two books but also a signed individual print. Each book also contains a unique sketch by Mr. Fluharty done on the inside cover. Mine are wonderful for a number of reasons. The first sketch (inside cover of The Joy of Drawing) is a horse's head, likely rooted in his interest in the American cowboy, done in Prismacolor blue. The horse looks rather cynical and tired, which I suppose many cowboys' horses might have felt, given how hard they were worked. Regardless, the sketch is a fine example of the entire body of work, and a worthy accompaniment to the contents.
Thomas Fluharty, "Ingres," ink, 2018
The other book (The Art of the Sketch) is a few years older, published as a retrospective look at the artist's sketching life. It contains establishing sketches in large formats, allowing the student to study his techniques and ideas as Mr. Fluharty developed them. Replete with caricatures of well-known politicians and celebrities, it's a dazzling collection of work cross various media, from graphite to digital. Inside the cover of my copy Mr. Fluharty made an ink drawing that is a take on the work of Ingres, the famous French artist of the early 19th century. It's clear from the drawing how much the artist reveres Ingres, but the sketch stands alone as great fun, in my opinion, the heavy-lidded woman showing us the hint of a smirk.

The greatest thing about these books and the artist himself is their display of his deep and fundamental love for humanity and for drawing. The beauty of these books is the size of the reproductions--many full-page--that give the reader important insights into the artist's thinking and methods. It's actually the stated goal to provide "...close-ups and insights as to how I think and create." But even if you're not an artist seeking instruction and inspiration (which are both present in abundance), you'll find these books will give you pleasure.

(As this is written, the world of art, illustration, and the world in general are mourning the passing of Stan Lee, 95, who is featured on the cover of The Art of the Sketch. The original is 40x24, exceptionally large for a drawing. Mr. Lee was a natural subject. More than three decades ago Mr. Fluharty worked with Ken Bald, an artist who was Stan Lee's best friend, and he knew Mr. Lee as well. Mr. Lee of course was the creative force behind the flourishing of Marvel Comics and the entire superhero genre during the mid-20th century.)

In sum, if you are someone who loves beautiful drawing, someone who wants to study technique, or someone who simply likes eye candy, each of these books has a great deal for you. In short, this pair of delightful books are certain to please. They are only available through his website, linked below.

Fluharty Books

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Vincent van Gogh, "Bridge in the Rain, (after Hiroshige), 1887
In the late 19th century, a passion for the art of Japan, particularly woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e swept through Europe. In France, quite a number of artists were significantly influenced, although others were also smitten. For example, Vincent van Gogh collected woodblock prints by various Japanese masters including Hiroshige who is now considered perhaps the last great master of ukiyo-e, and Hokusai, the great master of the common man, whose work I mentioned a few posts back. Moreover, a number of painters studied these works and spent time copying some of them, van Gogh being one.

The fascination with Japanese works was given the name Japonisme (in French), and refers to not only fine art but also architecture, music, performance, dance and decorative art. Japan had been isolated from the outside world for two hundred years, its cultural path mostly hidden from the West, and of course not exporting its own arts. Japanese goods and art were known, but only in minuscule quantities, while western arts were known and studied by Japanese masters. In any event, the widespread availability of inexpensive Japanese prints on paper was a revelation.

Mary Cassatt, "Woman Bathing," oil, 1890
Among others, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas. Gustav Klimt, and Vincent van Gogh were captivated by the Japanese use of bold color, in flat masses, asymmetric compositioin and reduced detail. Van Gogh in particular copied prints he admired, including one of figures crossing a bridge by Hiroshige, above. Others, like Mary Cassatt, the famous American ex-pat painter worked to give their paintings the same kind grace and impact in contemporary terms. In "Woman Bathing," 1890, right, she emulated the elegance she saw in Japanese works, for example.

Even now, more than a century later, we study the works of ukiyo-e masters like Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Kesai Eisen, who was a contemporary. As I mentioned before about Hokusai, I've found the study of these works to be very productive, particularly the Hokusai Manga, the great compendium of woodcuts of the common people of Japan. His use of line is a wonderful study, alone. But add in his compositions, coloring, and humanity too.

After Hokusai, "Saisoro," digital 2018
While I am not a printmaker, digital media are a malleable and worthwhile method of emulation. The image here is "Saisoro," or "Old man gathering mulberries," that appeared in the Manga. The image refers to a dance performed in Japan in the Imperial Court since the 9th century. The single dancer is dressed in white, carries a stick, and shows great decrepitude. The image has also been thought by some to represent how Hokusai saw himself in his advancing years. Regardless, it's impressive to see what can be done with a brush and a few tints. Hokusai was a true master.

Copying Hokusai

Friday, November 09, 2018

Further Into Fall

The clocks are set back, the evenings dark, and the trees are almost stripped of leaves, excepting the green patch of undergrowth here and there along Druid Hill Creek. An earlier post mentioned that our spate of heavy rain might result in dimmer autumn foliage. As it happened, the trees and shrubbery along our stretch of Druid Hill has been brilliant and has lasted longer than expected. Some large trees may have suffered during the dry days of summer and those leaves fell early and in abundance. But other mature relatives along the street and the creek supplied brilliance and a lot of it.

Fall is an especially fun time for sketching, and the past couple of weeks have been particularly so. The burning bush shrubs in many gardens went bright crimson, sometimes unbelievably bright. And maples have given us a lot of reds, rusts, bright oranges and even yellows.

The watercolor and ink painting above was actually the second of this particular group, but hasn't been posted before. There was a kind of parade of changing leaves, punctuated by others fully-fledged and still-green. The scene is near the studio, sketched on the street. The light was filtering through the foliage, making their colors even more brilliant. A sapling like a yellow lollipop stood out. Northern grasses like ours stay green longer into the cool months, but even the grass had begun to go to a dormant yellow. I laid in a rough drawing then painted the colors in several layers, being careful to let each dry before proceeding carefully to the next. When I was satisfied with the colors and shapes and values I added ink here and there to provide dark details. This particular painting is about 10x5 in a pocket sketchbook.

The next of these watercolors is about the same size as the first above. There was a sapling along the drive that had begun to yellow just the slightest, while in the middle ground an exceptionally brilliant maple and a very large burning bush competed for attention. I drew the bare outlines in graphite, painted the background and reserved places for the middle and foreground, then drew masses of foliage with waterproof ink. Painting took a couple of steps to secure a three-dimensional appearance for the tree and shrub. This is also about 10x5.

Only a couple of days later the colors began to show even more. Down the street was this array rusty reds and orange, greens going yellow, and This was sketched and painted similarly to the one above, in the same sketchbook.

Sometimes it's fun to try to produce a sketch from memory. The yellowed tree and sapling in this sketch were inspired by a patch of woods across Druid Hill Creek, but this isn't an exact record. In the case of this one I spent a lot of time observing and memorizing the masses of leaves still on the tree. The topmost twigs and branches had begun losing leaves, making them lacy and less mass-y, so I wanted to make certain to include that tracery of twigs as well as the weighty look of the rest. The small sapling in the lower right was closer to the main tree, and angled away from it; the mental trick as to reverse it in memory. The yellows of the leaves were more buttery but I wanted to punch the chroma more. The drawing and painting process was very similar to the others above, but here I used much less ink, preferring to blur the background much more.

In the very few days since these last sketches, the cold winds of the north and blustery rain have arrived. These leaf patterns and colors no longer exist, except spread below in fading puddles. The last sketch here (L) was actually done the day before the yellow trees above, but exemplifies what the weather became--cold, wet and bitter--that stripped most of the trees.

Sketching the fall is not only fun, it can add to the mental library of a painter, too. Using quick and portable media like watercolor (or other watermedia) one can sketch as a way of notation for other work. The colors, shapes, and light of the times can be translated to studio works, even when you don't reproduce the sketch but only use it for guidance.