Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Drawing Digital Dailies

Although my practice is primarily oil painting, it's important to me to draw. Drawing, for the representational artist, is fundamental. Without an ability to produce believable images, you can't produce good paintings, or sculptures for that matter. So most days begin for me with a practice drawing or two.

It used to be that I'd drag out a few pencils or charcoal sticks, a fair-sized sketch pad, and scribble down a few lines. But with computers at my disposal, most of my morning drawings are digital these days. I use Sketchpad, a multi-functional digital painting program, and a Wacom pressure-sensitive tablet with a stylus. That way I draw right on the tablet.

"Mr. McConnell," 2018
Most mornings my subject matter comes from the morning news. Given the political ferment of the past year, many of the heads and faces are political. Once in a while though, pictures of ordinary folks come through too. Sometimes the subjects are famous or wealthy, but sometimes they're just people whose faces happened to show up in the news. Some of the faces have striking features that interested me, as well. And sometimes the images are relatives whose faces have popped up on the Internet.

Here are a few digital doodles from my last few months.
"Benny," 2017
This is my four-year-old grandson Benny, done from a snapshot. And just below is his baby sister Della, who is two. Benny has a huge mop of black hair. His sister is one of the sweetest toddlers there is. (Woe betide the family that only pays attention to only one sibling!)

"Della," 2018

"Master Ai," 2017
Besides family and politicians, a few famous faces have cropped up as well. Here is Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist. Below Master Ai is another more fully-realized drawing, this time of Andrew Wyeth, one of my heroes in painting. In the case of Mr. Wyeth the drawing is almost all lines except for the piercing blue eyes.

Digital drawing is beginning to take the place of graphite and charcoal in this studio. I often do a preliminary sketch digitally, then print it out or display it on a tablet as a reference for further development. The convenience and speed of digital drawing makes it an enormously useful tool.

"Andy," 2017

Previous posts about digital drawing:
Digital Dailies

Friday, January 26, 2018


Franz Hals, "Peeckelhaering," 1630
Painters who are interested in making portraits should know about tronies, a 16th century Dutch term for a stock character (the word means face), often with an exaggerated gesture or expression and a recognizable costume. Rembrandt, Hals and numerous others produced memorable tronies. Hals in particular made us see all kinds of characters, from an inebriated celebrant in "Peeckelhaering," (pickled herring, or drunk) to "Gypsy Girl", showing us a seemingly jolly and lusty young woman.

Adriean Brouwer, "The Bitter Draught," ca 1635

Sometimes various kinds of genre paintings featured tronies--character types--in awkward, painful, or worse situations. One of my particular favorite genre painters is Adriaen Brouwer whose tronies are not only masterful but often humorous. Of Mr. Brouwer's works, "The Bitter Draught" is sublime both in his capture of the horrified facial expression and the memory of bitter-tasting medicine. (Even then, it was commonly believed that if it tasted bad a medicine must be very effective.)

Jean-Honore Fragonard, "The Actor," ca 1769

Although they aren't called tronies, Jean-Honore Fragonard's  fantasy portraits fall into a similar category. These portraits (recently on view in Washington DC) are energetic and suave, with vigorous, beautiful, confident brushwork. While the sitters have been subsequently identified based on studies the artist did, the paintings themselves were never intended as individual portraits but as "types" of people, analogous to the Dutch tronies.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, "Young Girl Reading," ca 1770
Probably the most famous of the fantasy portraits is the "Young Girl Reading" of about 1770, which Fragonard reworked into its present form. The luscious yellow dress with its myriad folds is an astonishing tour-de-force. His portrait of "The Actor" gives us a dramatic young man in costume, his gaze swept to one side. The gesture calls up memories of broad stage acting. Actually, the entire group of fantasy portraits are amazing, if they were indeed painted in less than an hour or two each, as is often said.

"J.C. Leyendecker, "Arrow Collar Man," oil, nd.
Tronies remain important in commercial and graphic applications even if they are no longer called by that name. During the golden days of illustration--roughly late 19th to mid-20th centuries--drawn and painted images of stock characters were common in magazines and advertising. The strong, mature, square-jawed male and the flouncy, feminine woman were common in publications like Saturday Evening Post or on advertising calendars. Illustrators such as Howard Pyle, J.C. Leyendecker, and others created images for publication that are still instantly recognizable. For example, Leyendecker's Arrow Collar Man appeared in advertising for several decades, intended as the epitome of male haberdashery but not as a specific person.

It seems to me that tronies in the Dutch tradition could be a fruitful area for study. Perhaps a few contemporary tronies would be a worthwhile project.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Pondering Pastels

Quite a long while ago I gave pastels a whirl. Pastels had long interested me, but given the considerable time and money required to take up a medium so different from oil painting, the effort stalled and the boxes of color sticks went into the closet. But a few weeks back a colleague challenged a group of us to do something new, or something different than our usual medium and subjects. Over the years and through all sorts of changes I had never reopened those boxes of pastels but decided this might be the time.

In discussing pastels it is important to differentiate them from chalk. Chalks are naturally-occurring and are composed entirely of mineral, colored or not. Some earth pigments used today could be called chalks when they are found in solid rather than powdered form. Sanguine, a natural red chalk, is an excellent example and has been used for millennia. On the other hand, pastels are manufactured in a combination analogous to paint: pigment plus a binder to hold it together. In the case of pastels the binder is often gum arabic or gum tragacanth added to pigment with small amounts of water. The resultant paste is then pressed or rolled into sticks and dried. (The name of the medium comes from "paste".) You see people calling pastel "chalk" all of the time, but the two are quite distinct.

Rosalba Carriera, "Self Portrait," pastel, ca 1745
Pastel is an older medium than many might think, dating to at least the 15th century, that actually gained wide usage in Europe by the 18th. Pastel had been used by artists from the time of da Vinci and into the late 17th century, but usually only for studies and insignificant work. It was Rosalba Carriera a Venetian, who popularized pastel as a portrait medium. Her art began as miniature portraits, a popular form of the time, often painted on ivory. She eventually transitioned to full-sized portraits but in the first decade of the 18th century began making portraits with pastel. As she aged (and after her sister died) she became despondent, more so as she lost her sight. Because of these travails she is said to have "lost her reason"during the final years of her life.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour, "Self Portrait,"pastel, ca 1751
The brilliance of color in a pastel portrait was dazzling compared to the familiar, relative dullness of oil paint. Since pastel binders don't yellow, the pure pigments in a pastel painting can retain initial color and brightness (unless the pigments are light sensitive). In France in particular, pastel gained wide popularity in the works of various artists, including Maurice Quentin de La Tour and others.

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, "Self Portrait," pastel, 1771
One of my own heroes, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, began as an oil painter and achieved fame in his own lifetime but in his old age turned to pastels. He produced a number of self portraits and other portraits that today are justly famous. Another well-known pastelist, Jean-Etienne Liotard (Swiss, despite his French name), traveled extensively--Vienna, Holland, England--and probably contributed mightily to the pastel trend in various places. He left many very accomplished portraits.

Since the early centuries of pastel the medium has continued and flourished. In the 19th century it was probably James McNeill Whistler who made the biggest initial impact 
in the medium with his pastels of Venice. But it was Edgar Degas with his innumerable ballet dancers, bathing women and so on who influence was widest. And Mary Cassatt, the American Impressionist, was important as well, particularly with her subject matter of women and small children.

In any event, over the past several weeks my own work in pastel has been tiny baby steps. Relearning and refining one's approach to a medium is an important step in growth of skills, seems to me, but much of that kind of sketching and exploration doesn't deserve a wide audience. Accordingly, over the next few weeks I'll continue exploring. Something worth showing may yet result.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Dreaming of Summer

"Across the Pasture," watercolor, 4x6, 2017
If you're like me and feeling the winter in your bones--and few in this country have escaped--you're either caught in the grip of another blast of Arctic cold or recovering from it. It's not too early to start thinking--no, yearning is a better word--for summer. Certainly here in the frozen Midwest the memory of a sunny day in July, though bittersweet, can be warming and cheerful. So I dug out a few summer sketches to warm up.

The sketch above was done on the spot along the Cowpasture River in Virginia where we vacationed last summer. The red barn against all that green cried out to be painted.

"Susans and Lilies," watercolor, 4x6, 2016
Another sketchbook page, this one showing a stand of Turk's cap lilies in our front garden. There is a stand of trees and wild undergrowth behind them, along the creek. I sat in the garden and sketched the scene in ink and watercolor a couple of years back.

"Taco Loco," watercolor, 8x10, 2016
In Des Moines we have the great convenience and fun of food trucks parked in many of the public spaces. One of my favorites is this one, Taco Loco, that parks near the downtown Sculpture Garden once in a while. I had great fun sketching this one hot day in July. To my surprise, the owner spotted me and sent over a cold drink. Later on I showed him the sketch and sent him a e-copy.

All of these sketches encompass great memories of warm summer days, clear skies, and fine surroundings. And they're all the result of outdoor sketching. Drawing and painting on the spot is an activity I'm resolved to pursue through 2018, but not until the temperature manage to rise above freezing.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sketching from Ancient Art

In the old atelier system for training artists, drawing from casts and statuary was a customary way to begin. Although I don't come from an atelier background, it's easy for me to see the benefits of drawing from the master sculptors of antiquity. These works, beginning certainly in Greek Antiquity and continuing throughout the Roman era provide many opportunities.

One of my favorite drawing exercises is to pick an ancient sculpture--often a bust--and draw it. What sculpture doesn't really matter, the point is the drawing practice. A particularly interesting source of drawings for me are Roman portrait busts. Many such sculptures exist, commonly a portrait of an emperor, but just as easily a faithful image of an upper class Roman. Here is a page of one of my sketchbooks, showing three emperors and a bearded man who was likely not of the elite. These were done from photos of the busts, drawn in graphite on toned paper and accented with white chalk.

Here is an 8x10 sketch from a Roman portrait bust of an unknown gentleman. He looked like a fiery
fellow, and the expression the ancient sculptor caught was fascinating. Obviously the pitiless gaze is invented but somehow seemed perfect for the sort of person many upper class Romans were known to be.

Another fascinating group of ancient images are frescoes and encaustics. You can find a lot of fresco images of Romans that are work study and copying. Particularly useful are the so-called Fayyum portraits, done in encaustic in Egypt during the Roman era. Those were done as mummy images, mostly. Here's one of a boy named Eutyches, possibly Roman, from an encaustic. In the portrait he wears a toga and the purple stripe of the upper class. I took liberties with the image, but had fun translating the ancient painter's strokes into a drawing. His name is included in the ancient painting.

Although I haven't done so, it might be instructive to attempt a detailed drawing of one of the classical pieces known since the Renaissance. The Laocoon Group, the huge statuary group found in the early 16th century for example, would pose an enormous challenge; or perhaps the Apollo Belvedere, a full-length classical sculpture might be a better place to begin.

Friday, January 12, 2018


Art movements are shape-shifters. The chiaroscuro of Caravaggio with its wide value differences and relatively crisp edges and details blurs and becomes more vague in the hands of Rembrandt a half century and a half continent later, for example. Or perhaps the canted perspective and drab color in much of Cezanne indeed morphed into abstraction and cubism and the movement known as Modernism.

Antoni Gaudi, "La Sagrada Familia, west facade"
It was a recent trip to Barcelona that brought a sub-set of Modernism to mind again. In Catalonia the term is Modernisme, and refers to the particularly Catalonian incarnation. Modernisme is definitely related to Modernism although it has a distinct and tangy flavor of Barcelona in particular and Catalonia in general. The movement is typified by the well-known architect Antoni Gaudi whose footprints are everywhere, from the justly famous church, La Sagrada Familia to La Pedrera (the quarry) and numerous other structures. In the mind of many, the church is in the Art Nouveau style that flourished around the turn of the 20th century, but the building is truly unique and reflects the flamboyant and utterly personal view of Mr. Gaudi. Unfinished but nearing completion, it was begun in 1882 with Mr. Gaudi as the principal (but not only) architect. The building merits an entire entry of its own, given the design departures, but it's hardly the only example of Modernisme in Barcelona.

Antoni Gaudi, "La Pedrera"
We also saw, from the outside, the famous La Pedrera (also known as La Casa Mila), originally designed as a residential building with an owner apartment and others to rent or lease. Again designed by Mr. Gaudi, this building is reputed to have no ninety degree angles anywhere. We didn't want to brave the lines for admission, having other things to do, and so didn't see the inside. Nevertheless, the exterior alone was worth seeing. The stonework flows like water around each floor with its rounded windows and exotic wrought iron. The structure is an absolute joy to see from the outside, and we regretted not being able to visit.

Ramon Casas i Carbo, "Self Portrait," 1908
The average visitor to Barcelona will have seen these two buildings and acquired a very sketchy overview of Modernisme. In fact, there were writers, painters, architects, and others whose work can be placed into the same Catalonian movement. Months before we visited Barcelona, I had become aware of a Catalonian painter named Ramon Casas i Carbo who was active at the same time as Mr. Gaudi. Although an enormous retrospective of his work was mounted in 2017, it had moved on from Barcelona by the time we visited. A number of his works stand with any painting by a European of his time.

There is a small private museum, Museu del Modernisme (which we found a bit difficult to find), displaying not only paintings, drawings, posters, and sculpture by various artists, but also clocks, furniture, stained glass and art objects.
Ramon Casas i Carbo, "Interior,"nd
There are quite a few paintings by Mr. Casas, including my particular favorite, simply called "Interior," an undated bedroom scene with an ornate brass bed that simply glows. The light in the room seems to be an incandescent electric light, something very new for the day. There are other artists and designers featured in the Museu as well, but none so memorable.

Ramon Casas i Carbo, "Anti-TB poster" nd

In his later career, Mr. Casas did a great deal of illustration, making posters and other graphic art, a number of which the Museu had on display. In particular, he worked hard on the anti-tuberculosis campaign of the day. In those pre-antibiotic days, infectious disease was the scourge of humanity and prevention was still the best treatment.

Modernisme is probably best identified as an architectural movement, but in fact had adherents in Catalonia across the spectrum of art. My visit to Barcelona was too brief--only a few days--to sample much more than the usual big things like Sagrada Familia, but the city and Modernisme continue to beckon.


Thumb Box Show Update
The Salmagundi Thumb Box Show this year was again quite successful. I mentioned in a previous post that three of my pieces (two watercolor, one casein) were accepted, and ran an image of the casein piece, with a link to a previous post of the watercolors. Happily, the casein, a 6x8 still life on panel, sold during the show. Thanks to Salmagundi and best wishes to the new owner.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

City Streets

Last spring in a post about painting cities I mentioned that something around 80 percent of the United States population lives in urban centers. Actually, it's "cities and suburbs" that comprise that percent of the population. So it makes sense for artists to think about making pictures of the places where most of us live. Photographers have known for years how vivid and evocative city images can be. Painters do too. It's interesting to view city scenes by others over the centuries.

Vermeer painted his "Little Street" in 1657 or so. This quiet little street in Delft still exists. Although there has been some dispute as to the exact location of this house, it seems clear now that it belonged to a relative of Vermeer. This is in fact a representation of a real city street. Vermeer captures the facade, windows and doors with a wonderful accuracy, so much so you feel as if you can step into the street and hail the woman in the side entry.

Less than a century later, Giovanni Canal, better known as Canaletto, made a handsome living selling his cityscapes (or veduta)--vistas of Venice and later London. During the 18th century, many Europeans made a Grand Tour, which almost always included Venice. Like tourists today, they brought home images of their travels, cheerfully painted and hawked by Canaletto and his colleague Francesco Guardi in Venice. This example, a view of the Piazza San Marco painted in 1735, is in the Fogg Museum at Harvard. This sort of proto-photorealism was and is understandably very popular.

In the 19th century, as urbanization and the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, city subjects became more and more common in painting. Perhaps the quintessential city painter was Gustav Caillebotte, who knew and painted with the group known as Impressionists, but whose style was considerably more finished and academic. Caillebotte was often concerned with the linear perspective of city streets and the machine-like repetition of things like bridges and rooftops. His best known cityscape is the enormous "Paris Street, Rainy Day," completed in 1877, around the time when Monet's soft-focus Impressionism began. 

Cityscapes continue to fascinate me, too. My most recent foray into the subject is a 9x12 oil on panel,
"Snow, The Village," oil on panel, 2018
completed for a show in New York. "Snow, The Village," shows a blowing snowstorm along a Greenwich Village street. Two pedestrians huddle beneath an umbrella, no doubt ruefully eyeing the warmth projected from the old windows. It was fun working in the various color combinations and complements. The umbrella was just a coincidence and wasn't influenced by Caillebotte.

Similar posts:

Friday, January 05, 2018

Sketchbook Stuff

A while back, musing on ideas and searching for something to paint, I spent some time rummaging through old sketchbooks. It was an interesting journey through mediocre scribbles, a number of outright failures (too many), and a few worthwhile sketches.

"City Street," graphite, 4x5. 2014
Part of my new year plan has been to clear the detritus from my workspaces. Accordingly, during the most recent cold snap I've been shuffling stacks of papers and boards and sketchbooks, and once again have discovered a few sketches that might actually bear fruit. To my surprise one small 4x5 blank book from 2014 yielded more than any other. Some of these sketches have more finish than others of course, but even these small ones have enough information for use in painting larger versions.

"Diner Study," graphite, 4x5, 2014
One of my interests has been diners and the kind of interiors and characters you see there. Diners used to be ubiquitous. I can remember a diner in the tiny town of 400 in western Oklahoma where I spent my boyhood. Every big city had many such eateries. Today they're nearly gone, but for one reason and another I find them endlessly fascinating. The study here represents a musing about some larger paintings of that sort. I'm still musing.

"Celebrity," graphite, 4x6, 2015

 Mostly I use toned paper when drawing, often with a mid-value gray. Here's a small value study (about 4x6) in one of my other sketchbooks from 2015. In this case I think I was simply interested in how the light falls over the features and sunglasses. In all honesty until I was leafing through the sketchbook I had entirely forgotten this little drawing. The mid-value of the paper allows you to put in lighter lights and darker dark values to better emulate volume and mass. The woman is imaginary, though her heart-shaped face and elfin/pouty look could be any number of young female celebrities.

"Shoe study," graphite, 4x6, 2015
One final drawing, from the same sketchbook as the female study above, rose from an interest in realistic figures. The idea is to find as many different realistic poses as possible, sketch them in various places from life, from photos (online and print), and sometimes from other artworks (for example the Spinario). To that end many pages of my sketchbooks contain them. This particular one is probably based on an online image of a young man tying his shoe. The figure may show up in a street scene some day.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Happy New Year 2018

The tradition of seeing in a new calendar year with an image of a baby is a time-honored one, maybe dating as far back as Greek Antiquity. Certainly the metaphor of a new year as a baby is apt and the same can be said for the "old year"--the ending one--being represented as an old man, or Father Time perhaps.

J.C. Leyendecker, "New Year, 1933," oil.
The New Year Baby tradition came in graphic form many times in the 20th century, but the most memorable images came from the brush of J.C. Leyendecker. In Mr. Leyendecker's magazine covers, the baby (always a toddler) engages in an activity representing the new year. For example, the Saturday Evening Post cover for 1933 shows a hopeful New Year Baby pushing the stock market average higher and higher, an optimistic view in the depths of the Great Depression. These covers were a tradition for several decades, and Mr. Leyendecker painted the last of his babies only a few years before he died in 1951.

J.C. Leyendecker, "New Year Baby 1950"

2015 editorial cartoon by Bob Englehart
Although Father Time is often used as a familiar representation of the old year passing away, that particular tradition was mostly in editorial cartoons and on the comics pages. Editorial cartoonists still juxtapose the baby and the old man often meeting as the year changes. There is ample political subject matter for many of the cartoons; the old man is quite the worse for wear much of the time. Sometimes he might appear in tatters (during a recession for example) or perhaps wounded or lame. In contrast the baby almost always looks plump and fresh, free of blemish or fear. In 2015 though, one cartoonist thought up a new wrinkle: the new year looked worse than the old. Prescient, one could say.
This year, my own take on 2017 evolved out of a digital attempt to draw Father Time as a symbol of the year just past. Although he isn't beaten up, bandaged, or wounded, his expression was intended as a reflection of the dreadful times we've just lived through. The caption was spontaneous.

Happy (and better) New Year.