Friday, March 30, 2018

Studio Hints

Finding easy ways to do things is human nature. We want to do things the easy (and painless) way if we can. In the studio there are many little tricks and hints that can help an artist in practicing their craft. Over the years quite a few have come along; here are a few, organized by category.

Paint is expensive, particularly the high quality professional grades, so many people strive to use as little as possible and preserve paint in between painting sessions. When you're on a budget, it's understandable, and so is the impulse to buy less expensive brands. Fact is, buying a limited palette of high grade paint is preferable because higher quality paint mixes more accurately and behaves more appropriately on a support. Buying six small tubes--white, black, cadmium red, yellow ochre, raw umber and cobalt blue--is a good way to begin, and earth colors are relatively inexpensive. In such a way a beginner can slowly build a good collection of colors. Once a collection of paint is established, here are some useful tips for the studio.
  • Keep paint tubes crimped flat from the bottom and exclude air when you cap them. This keeps oxygen away the paint within. Properly protected from reacting with oxygen, well formulated paint will last years in a well-made tube . Many artists also store their tubes with the caps pointed down to assist in excluding air.
  • Conserving paint, particularly to preserve specific mixes for a painting in progress, is a common need. Keeping oil paint on the palette from day to day is possible by trying several different methods:
    • clove oil retards drying of oil paint, particularly when the entire palette is kept under an airtight cover to allow the vapor to permeate the enclosure and will retard drying for several days. Use too much at your peril because the paint may take considerably longer to dry. 
    • a simple covered palette may allow oil paint to last several days, even without clove oil
    • refrigerating the palette may be helpful, but storing in below-freezing temperatures is said to be harmful to oil paint 
Brush care
Brushes can be even more expensive than paint, so it's important to make sure you've gotten the best for your money. Not only that, careful and serious care of brushes can mean years, even decades, of usefulness. The broad topic has been dealt with elsewhere but a few tips for cleaning may be useful.
  • Clean brushes after each painting session. Leaving paint to dry in a brush can easily ruin it overnight, especially if paint dries inside the ferrule
  • High quality synthetic brushes may be preferable (especially if you tend to forget to wash them) because slicker synthetic fibers shed paint more easily and so can occasionally be rescued after forgotten. Even so, never let paint dry in brushes.
  • If paint has dried in a brush it may be possible to remove a lot of it by using solvent and a nail brush (the same kind you use to clean your fingernails). The stiff bristles of a nail brush can help dislodge dried paint in the paint brush but must be stroked along the length of the fibers, not across. The taper of synthetic fibers helps shed the paint too.
Oil paint can be used without any solvent at all by simply adding a drying oil bit by bit to the paint as each layer is built. For those who have problems with solvents, that procedure alone could mean not giving up on the medium.
For those who do use solvents, use the smallest amount you can and keep solvent containers covered. Although individual painters' practices vary, many use too much solvent in their relatively closed studio spaces. Again, use the least solvent possible. Keep the studio well-ventilated and solvent containers closed.
  • Don't be misled that certain solvents are more natural or "organic" and are therefore preferable.
  • Respect solvents and use them for specific purposes--mediums, e.g.--and for clean-ups. 
  • Most oil paint these days is formulated in a fairly soft and "buttery" consistency that doesn't need much thinning during painting and should be thinned sparingly.
  • Ventilate the studio adequately to prevent accumulation of vapors. A fan in the studio, or even sometimes an air scrubber (depending on the volatiles being used) is an excellent idea.
As time goes by and if I think of it I'll post other studio hints and tricks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Paint What You Know

Many times beginning writers are told "Write about what you know." The premise of course, is that you can't really write believably about something not experienced--combat, for example--because your words would sound false without the experience of the terror involved. Life experiences inform one's art. 

Andrew Wyeth, "Evening at Kuerners," drybrush 1970
Visual art is similar to writing. You must see and experience the world to draw or paint it realistically. Imaginative art is common these days, but to depict a scene or individual realistically, however it is imagined you must have studied the real world. You can't paint a real ocean if you've never even seen one. Of course you can copy photos these days but getting a believable result is still elusive. On the other hand if  you're not a world traveler or an energetic plein aire painter, your immediate environment can still provide useful practice. Think of Andrew Wyeth, for example, who spent decades painting the area within walking distance of his studio. Again and again he returned to the same settings--the nearby Kuerner farm in Pennsylvania and the Olson's unpainted house in Maine--turning them into memorable art. For Wyeth the surrounding landscape became an entire world that he seemed to record faithfully but which was instead reinvented over and over. Wyeth edited relentlessly.

Andrew Wyeth, "Wolf Moon," watercolor, 1975
The blocky Kuerner house was an artistic touchstone for Wyeth. He painted that house in various versions from different angles over many years, varying his ,  the anatomy of the actual house to suit his artistic purpose. There is often a quietude and contemplation his work, especially on the first encounter. But there is a also a despairing, unhappy but stubborn streak beneath the methodical draftsmanship. The Wyeth world is turbulent under its calm surface. Although the works depict Wyeth's outer world they're the terrain of his own mind, murky with suppressed emotion. Whether he painted the Olson house ("Christina's World") or the hills of Pennsylvania, the works are particular and very personal.

In my own works a small patch of woods outside the studio has become a repetitive motif. Over several years I've drawn and painted the creek side landscape outside my studio window many times. Most days I can simply stand at my work table and look outside for subject matter. Constant variety make the creek and woods a continual motif. Seasonal change, weather, and even wildlife are endlessly fascinating. Despite being in the center of the city, less that five minutes from downtown, the creek and woods provide shelter and water for many kinds animals, once even a few beavers. Ours is an old stand of woods, probably old growth along the creek. The creek was here when the land was platted and hasn't ever been developed so far as I know.

So the environment outside my studio is part of what I know, and what I've been painting off and on for years. I've sketched the woods in oil, casein, and watercolor without thinking much beyond the making of the picture and how to work with whatever medium employed. Sometimes a sketch might be a bit of idle speculation and sometimes a true finished artwork results. Regardless, the subject is easily at hand an useful.

Not long ago while reviewing some previous works it occurred to me while these works were intended as ways to study nature, or light, or kind of paint or other medium they're also an unintended record of the woods and the seasons, edited through one person's sensibility. The great thing is that all of these have been done either from inside or just outside my home studio. I've been painting what I know as I learned more and more about it. Wyeth's work provided an excellent example.

There is a particular fallen tree--an old, old giant that snapped off near its base--that has occupied me number of times and shows up in various works, although there are quite a few other fallen trees out there.
Here are a few paintings of the Druid Hill woods in several media.
"Winter Sunrise," oil on panel, 6x8, 2018

The first (above) is a small oil sketch done in perhaps an hour or two one winter morning. The sun had just begun to light the tops of trees in the far distance, beyond my woods. In the foreground in my fallen ancient. The second painting is the same woods, painted in casein. In this image you can see the same tree, newly-fallen more than a year ago. Done in January, the picture is a snowy nocturne with a nod to Picasso's blue period. At 12x16 it's one of my larger casein works. Below is the same subject a few months later, again in casein. The season has advanced and all along the creek wild honeysuckle has begun to burst into leaf. The cold blue has gone and the woods are coming to life again.

In retrospect these pictures filled a number of roles fr me. For one thing they're a record of what I saw at that particular time of day and year. For another they were useful exercises in using each particular paint medium--how to prepare, mix, and employ each. Third, I used them to explore how certain palettes and colors can provide emotional emphasis or narrative.
"Mourning," casein on illustration board, 12x16, 2017

"Druid Hill Spring," casein on board, 12x16, 2017
Other painters have made very successful series of paintings of the same object(s) or scenes, so it has occurred to me more than once that instead of going farther away with all of the preparation, travel, outdoor work and so on, perhaps I could make a series of my own. A number of my recent works include the fallen tree in these three but the compositions were otherwise altered significantly (for example, there are houses up the slope, most commonly omitted).

In the coming warm months my plan is to spend some time doing water-based paintings outdoors. Close to home is a small lake surrounded by trails, bordered by the Raccoon River and overlooking the city skyline. And I won't exclude Druid Hill Creek.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Digital Doodles

Many mornings as I click through several online newsfeeds and newspapers a face or figure catches my eye. Given the ferment in politics, world affairs, and the personal lives of many people the expression on a face or the gesture of a figure strikes my interest. It might be someone at the center of a quirky news story or a politician in the midst of yet another political battle. Regardless, human expressions are fascinating.

Because digital methods for drawing are so fast, easily accessible, and require no cleanup, digital sketching is a natural way to quickly capture an impression of a face or body. These are a few digital drawings or sketches from the past few months. The majority of these were made using a Wacom tablet and Sketchbook.

The first is a drawing of a young man with a rather disgusted look. Although I can't remember the specific reference, it struck me that like many in his generation, he might believe that the baby boomers he might believe have made a lot of mistakes, perhaps retreated from principles stated with such conviction during youth. He might even believe that Boomers made things worse for the country. Hence the caption.

The next was from one of a blizzard of news stories about the U.S. Congress. Mr. Ryan, the Speaker of the House, has had a difficult time in that position and has faced enormous criticism from both sides of the aisle. This particular sketch was done during one of the fights over repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act ("Obamacare") that failed. Unfortunately for Mr. Ryan and his party, the elections that loom this fall seem likely to be a similarly bloody dog fight.

The third sketch is Ms. Huckabee-Sanders, the current Press Secretary to the White House. Over these past months it has seemed to me that she has been in an unenviable position, forced to defend or defuse statements that may or may not be accurate. She has the requisite mental toughness to be in the daily political news arena, however distasteful that may be. Her expression speaks to me of haughtiness tempered with impatience and irritation. She has certainly been at the forefront of criticism during the past year or so. One wonders how prevaricating on a daily basis must wear on somebody.

The final drawing shows a study done for a possible oil painting. This study was done from a news
photo but with substantial changes. The figures were posed almost as in the drawing, but the rest of the image--background and so on--are invented. The idea was to depict a loving relationship in what might be dire circumstances. Without facial expression the posture and relation of the figures is crucial.

Posts about digital drawing
Digital Art
Digital Doodles
Digital Sketching
Digital Delving
More Digital Doodles
Digital Head Sketches
Digital Dailies
Drawing Digital Dailies

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek Part 3

There is an old saying about March coming in like a lion and out like a lamb--or maybe vice-versa. Anyway, this month began very pleasantly. That may not be a good sign.

As the seasons rotate, the creek changes. Early this month as the soil began to warm and ice was less frequent hints that spring will actually come began to appear. Along the banks you see a spot or two of green. Trees have warmer tones in their bark. And the leafless branches behind the
trunks begin to glow, just a bit. I blocked in the big shapes and then painted the sky first, using two blues and a warm grey, then washed warm greys into distant masses, leaving a few sky holes. I was careful to reserve an area or two for trees in the foreground. The creek looked almost black but in reality was a very dark and warm brown. The yellow foreground is mostly ochres as is the redder right bank. Using a technical pen I added distant and near detail, trying hard not to render too much. The trunks came last, and here and there I used a touch of opaque paint as contrasts. That sequence is my usual in these sketches.
The creek is surprising because the changes that now seem obvious, painted on paper, sometimes went unnoticed until studied more critically. The water looked as dark as coffee that early morning, even though the woods had warm colors in many spots. The banks were dry and yellow but looked warmer, and even the sky looked better through patchy clouds. The next day was almost the same though the sky was more grey than blue. Here and there the trunks of some trees were even warmer looking. The sky in the creek even turned a fine blue-green in the sunshine but still was like coffee, in the shadows.

Despite the early March chill, it seems to me as if the trees and undergrowth--the whole woods really--were about to burst into growth and flower. Even on the day the sketch above was made the cold air couldn't chase the yellowing sunlight out of the trees downstream. Two scraps of snow shone in the shadows along the right bank. The notation on the facing page mentions that even though the painting looks like wilderness there is a street on one side and buildings on the other, edited out.
Winter wasn't through with us those first two weeks of this month. Even though the light was still warm(ish) the days were gloomy with clouds and only a couple of days after the glowing branches downstream the entire distance turned a slate grey and the creek ran steel blue. In retrospect it was as if a dark curtain fell across the woods, and there were more grey days to follow. At the end of a long winter season time slows and the cold seems unending. Grey days in March are a kind of setback, especially when preceded by milder ones. I stood in the studio window and shivered a little as flurries of snow began to fall.

Druid Hill Creek Part 1
Part 2

Friday, March 16, 2018


Several years ago as I was searching for reference materials for practice in painting heads it occurred to me that there are tens of thousands of fascinating public domain photos taken by law enforcement and easily available online. Police photos (mugshots) are common, easy to find, carry no copyright issues, and very commonly provide a window into the personality of the accused. Looking at photographs of these individuals always causes me to wonder what really goes on behind those eyes.

So for a year or two mugshots of truly infamous law breakers was one of my favorite ways to practice painting heads. As is almost always the case with studies and practice works, many of the paintings that resulted were useful as studies but little else. A few might stand as tronies of a kind, although in each case the identity of the individual is obviously well-know. In any event, many of that body of work are long discarded, though a few have survived. These were part of a group resurrected from a storage closet not long ago.

Charles Starkweather, oil on panel, 2004
The first portrait is from a photo of  an infamous serial killer named Charles Starkweather. In the late 1950s he and his girlfriend terrorized rural Nebraska, killing about a dozen people, including her family. Their crimes electrified the nation with daily screaming headlines about each killing until they were eventually captured. Starkweather was convicted as the killer and executed in 1959. His girlfriend was convicted as an accessory and imprisoned for almost two decades before being paroled. Like many in similar situations Starkweather was a loner/outsider who had been bullied by many until his rage eventually boiled over. In this image, taken from a photo online, my take on him was how vague and unfocused he seemed. There seemed to me to be emptiness behind a false facade. Although he was apparently not psychotic, some sources say he was convinced that he was immune to any law or authority. Perhaps.

Aileen Wuornos, oil on panel, 2004
Another infamous criminal was Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer in Florida. She shot and killed seven men around 1990 while working as a prostitute. When arrested she claimed rape in each case, either committed or threatened, although she later recanted. Her mugshot, which I used for source material, seemed to show an unrepentant and actually rather amused woman with dead-looking eyes. She was eventually convicted of six murders and executed in 2002. Female serial killers are rare, and Wuornos' crimes were particularly brutal; she shot each victim multiple times. Considering the level of violence in her crimes, it's clear that her rage and mental imbalance were both enormous. To my eyes she looked almost demonic, yet ordinary. (Her life was adapted into the movie, Monster.)

Mary Kay, oil on panel, 2004
Although not a violent criminal like the two above, the woman in the painting to the right is Mary Kay Letourneau, who was certainly notorious n her own right. In the late 1990s she was a teacher who was convicted of having sex with a 12 year old student in one of her classes. While in jail, compounding matters, she gave birth to the boy's child. When released and under a no-contact order she was caught with the boy again and imprisoned for rape of a child. Upon her release in 2004, she and the student (who had reached majority) actually married and seem now to be living out happy lives. This image of her was primarily an exploration of her complex expression, which spoke to me of sadness, weariness, resignation perhaps. She seems to know that we will never understand her, never accept her behavior, and yet she is somehow defiant. A challenging face.

These portraits were not prompted by the sensational nature of the crimes or the strangeness of the individuals. The reason for these and a number of others was simply availability of the images, horrifying yet fascinating stories, and the faces themselves. Although these people are not physically grotesque, their lives and behaviors definitely were, by almost any definition. Goya made pictures of grotesque people, da Vinci too. So it has always seemed to me that even the most grotesque, repellent, or ugly humans still have the ability to fascinate.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Continuing With Casein

Over the past couple of years, time permitting, I've been working with casein paint. The reasons are many. For one thing, it's important to me to continue investigating media that aren't my usual, and casein certainly wasn't, given how uncommonly it's used these days. For another, once I began working with the paint I was surprised at how pleasing it is to use--smooth, matte, quick-drying but forgiving, opaque and richly pigmented. On the other hand, deep darks have been tough for me to achieve and casein penalizes overworking with muddiness even more than other paint. Nonetheless, some of the results have been great fun, which is what keeps me coming back to it.

"Cotton Candy," casein, 12x16, 2018
Over the last couple of weeks I've been working on one of the biggest casein paintings I've attempted--12x16--on illustration board. It's a painting based on a few sketches and personal reference photos taken at the Iowa State Fair last fall. The three food booths were in front of one of the show pavilions on the fairgrounds, and there were even more people in the photo than there are in the final painting.

I drew the complicated image first in graphite, taking care over proportions and perspective. When I was satisfied with the composition and the number of figures I started laying in casein paint, beginning at the top left and working across to the top right, painting in the top third. Then I went back to the middle left, painting across the middle third in broad patches while adding detail here and there in the top third. Eventually I moved to the bottom third and repeated the process. When the whole board was covered I spent more time on details like lettering, various figures and fixtures.

Casein paint continues to fascinate me and no question I'll keep making casein paintings. 
Previous posts
Milk Paint
Casein Investigations
Quick Sketching in Casein
More on Casein
Acrylic or Casein?

Friday, March 09, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek, Part 2

Someone once condemned April as "the cruelest month," but seems to me in our latitudes February or March would be better candidates. Last month we began with bitter cold and then continued with snow and ice and gray days. Happily, there was no need to brave the elements. I sketched from the studio window. These are a few more images from last month.

The first shows the creek completely frozen and deep in snow. The sky had cleared to a deep, crystalline blue. And as the note says, a thaw was eagerly anticipated by everyone here in flyover land. A day or two later, the air itself began to feel as if spring was lurking somewhere nearby. The snow melted, or perhaps some even evaporated, and the creek began to flow once again. 

The watercolor on the right shows the creek and a pair of houses downstream. The day was more gray than usual, but warmer, and gray open water ran downstream. The trees seemed gloomier than usual, too. I included a couple of houses in this one, though I generally leave them out. These sketches don't show identical scenery mostly because as I do them I'm picking and choosing what to leave in and what to leave out. The choices don't always work as well as I'd like, but the point of sketching isn't to diddle and fiddle but to capture the idea and the image as best one can, with minimal revisions.

This sketch from a day or two later gives a good idea of how the light began to change toward the end of the month. The warmer temperatures seemed reflected as warmer light on parts of bare trees along the banks of Druid Hill Creek. This image is from mid-February, and despite snow on the banks and continued cold weather, even the dead grasses began to look more cheerful.

The last February sketch, from a week and a half later. Here I was most interested in the flattened and dry grasses along the bank. The day was gloomy but the grass and the far banks seem to promise that it won't be long until spring. One can only hope.

The season advances this month as the sun climbs higher and the earth begins to warm. The creek continues to change and the change has accelerated. Tiny hints of green peek out of a dense litter of leaves and twigs on the floor of the woods. Meanwhile a pair of cardinals forages for nesting materials and the local squirrels have emerged to play tag. The creek flows smooth as the sky it mirrors. It won't be long until foliage bursts out. More sketches to come.

Sketching Druid Hill Creek

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Old Sketches

Probably everyone who keeps sketchbooks has used the contents as a mine for subject matter. For some a sketchbook is a visual diary of the day or week; for others it's a way to meditate on potential subject matter, and of course for some sketchbooks are simply a pastime, and a great one. For me they serve all of those functions. In the studio I have stacks of sketchbooks, big and small, full and in progress. Sketching becomes part of the practice of the artist, if pursued.

So, as this week begins and the seasons are starting to rotate, it's a good time to rummage through old files and reconsider forgotten ideas. This morning, searching for subject matter in old digital files these sketches came to light. Of course I could leaf through all of these books, and have done so a number of times, but today I raided my old computer files. If you're like me you find something--a page of watercolor thumbnails, perhaps, or a long-forgotten gouache, even--to fire up the creative juices.

Near Gunnison, gouache, 2015
Speaking of forgotten images, this forgotten gouache of a road near Gunnison Colorado, in fall, showed up in a folder of watercolor images. The original idea for this one was to see how gouache behaves and to assess its opacity. I had purchased a few tubes of gouache because opacity in water media is useful and because acrylic paint isn't all that appealing to me. And you can reactivate gouache but not acrylic. When I ran across this image I remembered it because of the notation alongside. Sometimes sketchbook notes can help a lot. Besides noting the day and year they remind about me what I was actually interested in. This picture was painted from an online image over a violet-colored ground.

Thumbnails of the Sea, watercolor, 8x10, 2015
Here is that page of watercolor thumbnails mentioned above. When I ran across this page it surprised me. I had completely forgotten it. Seascapes haven't been a large part of my body of work, but the seas are constantly interesting to me. The waves and light and sky all are so enormously changeable, even moment to moment, that it's a challenge to capture even a bare suggestion of reality. These are ranged on an 8x10 sketch page. The pages were fairly lightweight and actually intended for ink drawing so adding watercolor caused some cockling. Each of these has a predominant color, which no doubt was one of the ideas I was mulling.

Hollyhocks, watercolor, 3.5x5.5, 2009
For the painting to the left I reached far back into some rescued files from nearly a decade ago. This particular watercolor was done one late summer day when I was searching for something to paint. The actual sketchbook has disappeared but the jpeg has survived. Sometimes these little sketches carry enough information to make a studio work in oil. This one still could translate to a bigger one, or perhaps to a background.

Nifty Fifty, watercolor, 4x6, ca2001

And last, here's a postcard sketch done nearly 20 years ago, for a collaborative project. The project involved mailing postcard-sized sketches to each participant in the group and in return the artist would receive one from each of the others. This was mailed to someone in one of those groups, if memory serves, and was done from a photo. The image here is a scan of the postcard. The most interesting part of this painting was rendering the beautifully reflective chrome.

Searching through old sketchbooks (or in this case digital files of them) is useful for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it may be reassuring to see progressing skills from beginning to the present. For another, review of old sketches can provide inspiration or even change the direction of an art practice. Finally, once in a very great while you might actually discover a picture that will stand on its own.

For me, then, old files can be a gold mine.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek

This watercolor sketch project began a few weeks back, and I posted a couple of them already. The thing is, the creek has become a continuing subject. One morning around sunup the creek that runs past my studio caught a gleam from the sky, a silvery thread that lightened and opened as the light penetrated the surrounding woods. As a subject, the creek is ideal for me. It's just outside my window and always available. It has woods and stones and all sorts of undergrowth. The wild honeysuckle along the banks turn yellow-green in spring as their drooping canes leaf out.

So because it's such a close motif, simple yet changeable, seasonal but eternal, this spring will partly involve sketching the creek as the seasons change. Here are several early sketches.

This is the first of the project, done in about an hour or so on February 4, just before a predicted snowstorm. The grasses and some of the distant trees either catch sunlight or are the usual dry yellow-brown of late winter. The creek catches the color of the sky.

The next day was bitterly cold after a cold front passage that left several inches of snow on the ground. The sky changed color somewhat, and everything got very pale. The creek froze and filled with the powdery snow that falls when the air is so cold. This sketch ran across the fold of my sketchbook as I tried to catch the blue shadows.

The snow settled in for a few days but at least there was sunshine. And in the sun you could see (somehow) that spring must be inevitable. The light became more yellow and the shadows turned a darker blue. The snow remained, though already shed by branches and twigs. The cold seemed to enter the bones, but spring was at least a promise.

Over the next several weeks I'm going to continue sketching the creek, which I've named Druid Hill Creek since that's the street name of the studio. As the seasons progress my plan is to capture the changes in the pages of a dedicated sketchbook. When it's filled, I'll stop.

Similar posts
Winter and Painting