Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Attacking Art

Ilya Repin, "Ivan and His Son Ivan" 1885
This week, besides politics, a big news story was an attack on a painting. A famous painting by the 19th century Russian master, Ilya Repin, was seriously damaged by a drunken man a few days ago. According to the story, the man had come to Moscow and visited the State Tretyakov gallery, drank too much vodka in the bar and then smashed the painting, it's glass cover and frame. 

Artwork has been attacked many times, and for many reasons. In this case it was intoxication, but people have slashed masterpieces with knives, thrown acid, overpainted them with thrown or sprayed paint, stuck chewing gum on them, and even completely erased them. Crazed men with hammers have attacked the Michelangelo "Pieta" in Rome and the "David" in Florence.

Rembrandt, "Danae," 1636 (restored)
It's an interesting catalog of artworks that have been defaced, destroyed or otherwise altered. Even the Mona Lisa has suffered damage (once with acid) and is now behind bulletproof glass.
Danae after acid attack
Rembrandt has come in for plenty of attention too. His 1636 painting "Danae," (in the Hermitage) was splashed with sulfuric acid and slashed almost into oblivion, though it has been expertly restored. And besides that, Rembrandt's "Night Watch" has also been attacked several times, the worst in the 1970s when a madman slashed it several dozen times because he had been turned away after closing time the day before.

Attacking art seems motivated most commonly by derangement--most of the culprits have been somehow insane--but other motives have been cited. A woman slashed the Rokeby Venus, the only known nude by Velazquez--in 1914 to protest the arrest of a sister suffragette the day before. A fellow who later made a great deal of money as an art dealer painted "KILL LIES" in foot-high red letters across Picasso's "Guernica" and then proclaimed, "I am an artist," and claimed to be collaborating with Picasso. Luckily, the paint was removed and the "artist" was not charged. 

It isn't feasible to separate the public from artworks except in rare cases. The Mona Lisa is certainly an exception as is Michelangelo's Pieta (now behind glass and farther away from visitors). But others like Night Watch remain on public display and even when protected by glass are still vulnerable. 

Art must be approachable, available for concentrated study, for deep consideration; that's not possible when it's boxed in and protected. Preservation from the public may be mandatory for certain of our cultural heritage, but let's hope the rest remains open to us.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Drawing? Or Sketching?

The words "drawing" and "sketching" are commonly used as synonyms. Yet they actually do denote different things. A visual sketch is usually meant to be a quickly-made image intended as a visual notation or impression and may comprise only a few shapes or lines; a drawing is a considerably more finished and detailed. Drawings are in general more tightly rendered; sketches are more loosey-goosey.

A drawing in the strictest sense is a picture of something that gives formal and accurate representation of the object being viewed. A completed drawing takes considerable time. In contrast, a sketch provides a looser image and more general idea of the object. One way to think of the difference is to look at a machine drawing or an electronic schematic then study an amusement park caricature. The machine drawing probably took hours to days at least, even using computer assistance, but is an accurate graphic description of a machine. The caricature took only a few minutes to show prominent (recognizable but exaggerated) features of a person.

Al Hirschfeld, "Jerry Garcia," ink, 1995
Drawings are not sketches, but sketches can be called drawings, the latter the more general term. Drawings are made with all kinds of media and in all kinds of ways. Although "drawing" implies detail and a formal approach, it may as easily be broadened to define all kinds of image-making, detailed or not.

Although most caricatures are sketches, they can be drawings instead. The caricatures of Al Hirschfeld are prime examples of masterfully-drawn caricatures, each compact, inimitable drawing carefully considered and executed. Mr. Hirschfeld (who died in 2003 at 100) claimed not to know how his drawings developed and said they simply happened somehow looking more like the individual than the person did. Regardless, these are fully drawings, complete in themselves, and not quick loose impressions.

"Head of a Warrior, after da Vinci," silverpoint, 2011
On the other hand, a drawing is most commonly not a sketch. This copy of a famous silverpoint by Leonardo is a finished drawing, complete to nearly the most minute detail, especially in the helmet and face. This copy was drawn in silverpoint as well but limited to the head and helmet; the original is a bust. Nonetheless, note the detailing of helmet, hair, and head. This is a completed drawing and clearly not a sketch.

Attributed to da Vinci, "St. Sebastian," ink on paper
Sometimes, the experts can confuse us. Here is a pen and ink sketch of St. Sebastian, the one who is commonly shown pierced by many arrows. This image figured in a recent item about its discovery. This has been called a drawing in many of the articles written about it, and attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. It was certainly done by a left-handed artist so the attribution could be accurate. On the other hand it is is clearly a sketch--fast (study the pen strokes), loose (ditto) and incomplete--not a finished drawing. This is a sketch study for a larger work and not, strictly speaking, a drawing.

Does any of this matter, in the end? My take is probably not. The representation of this sketch, Leonardo or not, as a drawing has more to do with marketing and less to do with description of the art. Is it worth less if you call it a sketch? I suspect not, since most of the value in the piece is its authorship.

In my own case much of what I do in watermedia is sketching. Sometimes I make a finished work in watercolor or casein, intended to stand alone. Most of my drawing is actually sketching too, though sometimes a portrait sketch happens in whatever medium I happen to have at hand, including pixels. Paradoxically, I always think of those as drawings.

Here is a drawing of Della, my granddaughter, done from a reference photo and personal observations. The drawing was made using Sketchbook and a Wacom Cintiq tablet. Despite visible construction marks and other features that could classify this as a sketch, I think of this as a focused drawing. It eliminates unneeded details to concentrate on her central features and expression.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Florida Sketches

We've just returned from a few days visiting family in central Florida. For those not familiar with spring weather patterns there, lets just say "rainy." The temperatures weren't bad--highs in the middle 80s--but the humidity was almost never below 90 percent and rain came daily and often. Showers, thundershowers, lightning, and dark skies were the general rule, punctuated by occasional sunny moments.

Bradenton, watercolor, 3x6
Outdoor sketching was difficult at best, despite the bordering conservation area that boasted all sorts of wildlife as well as flora that seemed very exotic to this midwesterner. Although in the week or so of our visit I managed a walk or two, there was little time for drawing. Nonetheless the view from what Floridians call the lanai and we would call a screened patio encompassed the jungle (you can't call it woods). And in fact it rewarded us with several sightings of various species. A small group of a half-dozen white-tail deer came out to browse one afternoon during a rain shower.

I had no chance to sketch the deer--too far away in the misty aftermath of the rain--but the jungle was an easy subject. Full of all sorts of palm varieties, low-growing and upper scaffolding of non-palms as well as infinite sheltering branches, vines, decaying vegetation and the like, the shades and tints of green seemed infinite and challenging. I did manage this small sketch, accentuated by ink.

Sand hill crane, watercolor, 3x5
More remarkably four nonchalant sand hill cranes, which are non-migratory there, once came walking across the open green space and passed slowly between houses, bound for a small lake across the street. These big birds (something like ten pounds each and over two feet tall) stalk around the heavily forested conservation area, hunting, but are completely unconcerned about humans. I sketched one adult on a different occasion as he or she stood silently near a small puddle, almost a statue, probably hunting. Their eyes have a yellow-gold color beneath their red foreheads. I added a very few light touches of ink with a fine-tipped technical pen.

In the end my sketching was confined to the screened patio and the occasional restaurant visit. Alas the outdoors had to wait for our return to Iowa.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek 7

The month of May has been considerably gentler (and less cruel) than April. May began with more warmth and sunshine as the honeysuckle undergrowth along the creek exploded into leaf. The first few days were fair and gentle and as the warm weather really took hold the trees and brush turned lush. My view of Druid Hill Creek from the studio is downstream and north but later this month my plan is move the sketching station outside and make a few sketches upstream too.

The first May sketch of the creek shows one of the river willows outside my studio. It came up voluntarily several years ago and I've left it there, watching as it gains size and height. Behind it, on the opposite bank, the honeysuckle and other undergrowth had gotten noticeably larger by early in the month. I laid this in with a mixture of raw umber and ivory black reserving white paper here and there. Over that the leaves and plants were indicated with various mixes of green and yellow. To finish the sketch I used a technical pen to outline and indicate branches and the trunk.

Although most of the time I haven't added the enormous cottonwoods and other old trees that line the upper banks of the creek because I was more interested in the creek and water. Sometimes I simply indicated the presence of these old behemoths, but mostly edited them out. On day early in the month, though, I sketched one of them, a fifty-foot monster cottonwood with giant branches. Using the same procedure I laid in the initial drawing lightly then painted over with a dark mix of umber and black. The tree was nearly leafed out as were the rest of its neighbors. Druid Hill Creek is a fairly mature area of triple canopy woods consisting of a high canopy, middle growth of smaller trees, undergrowth and then the banks. Since this was a quick morning sketch I concentrated on the trunk and closest canopy of leaves, merely indicated the other layers.

May progresses much faster than other months of Spring, owing to warmth and rain. By the end of the first week of this month, the view downstream from the studio looks very much like wilderness even though people have lived along the creek for more than 150 years. The morning that I did this watercolor and ink painting I had more time.

One of the great things about a project of this kind is the opportunity to concentrate on a single motif, but time and other work will probably limit these sketches for a while, especially with the newly glorious spring weather.

Druid Hill Creek Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


"Pan," digital, 2018
The ability to draw a variety of different subjects is indispensable for a realist. It isn't enough to capture a human likeness or figure. If you're going to be placing your human subject in a believable milieu you might need to draw furniture, or interiors, or buildings or cars. Or animals.

Drawing animals is a challenge for me. Some artists avoid drawing animals at all, or have no need to draw them given their particular subject matter. You don't usually see a giraffe in floral painting. On the other hand, learning the structure of animals and their movements could contribute mightily to history paintings, genre works, animal portraits, and so on. And at its most basic, learning to draw animals of any kind is a way to stretch my mental and artistic muscles. So I draw various animals, trying to understand structure and movement. Sometimes, as with the digital drawing here titled "Pan,"there is a spark of expression or a particular characteristic of interest, too. Of course, sometimes these are simply studies, done for information and practice.

This drawing was completed in graphite on a toned sheet. This dog was one of the Army's canine partners but has been retired and lives with it's previous master. I was taken by the dignity--real or only perceived--in the animal. It's about 5x6. As it is in drawing humans, understanding the skeletal underpinning of an animal, from skull to tail, is critical, so studies of all sorts of animals is useful. Happily, many animals share similar limb structures and so on. Dogs, horses, tigers, and even elephants share very similar bony arrangements. The same goes for the axial skeleton--the spinal column and skull. So studying one animal is in effect a way to study almost all.

In this drawing there's a narrative (as indicated by the title--"Moving Day"). For whatever reason, the mother cat is moving one of her kittens. The size of the kitten suggest it may only be a few days old. I did this from a reference photo but placed the cat descending a staircase. The actual reference was different. Again this was done in graphite on a toned sketchbook sheet, about 5.5x8.5 Here it's critical to draw the limb and axial anatomy solidly, so knowledge of the limbs is indispensable.

The final drawing in this group is a digital sketch of an imagined cat, based on a photo of a truly annoyed feline waiting to be let indoors. I added the rain and wet fur plus dripping and so on. Anyone who has ever lived with a cat knows this expression.

For a book that provides a tremendous amount of information about drawing animals in an inexpensive volume, try "How To Draw Animals," by Jack Hamm. Originally published almost 50 years ago, it remains an important reference in my studio library.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Sketching and Flow

Posts about the value of sketching get repetitive, but what that really means to me is how important regular sketching can be.

Sketching means doing quick but well-observed and considered drawing(s) whatever qualifier might be added. For example, some people want to define "quick" more precisely. Some people sketch with very limited tools--something to mark on and something to make marks. Sketching is something you can do with almost any medium, from oil paint to pastel to graphite. It isn't the medium that is important. The repeated activity itself, the mental and aesthetic gymnastics coupled with careful observation, is the secret. Humans learn best by repetition. Sketches are often more lively than studio works, too.

"La Rambla," 3x5 watercolor sketch done on the spot
Daily sketching, for me, has provided opportunities for "flow," that state of concentration and creation that focuses the artist or writer or athlete as they progress. The flow state excludes external stimuli somehow, so that the entire consciousness is involved in the immediate task. In that state, making images becomes nearly reflexive. That is, the images are not the result of conscious thought. In that state, each stroke of a brush or pen is not thought out, not reasoned, so much as felt. Since sketches aren't commonly even shown to others, the result, if pleasing, can be kept. If the image isn't what I want, it's only a sketch and out it goes. This little view of La Rambla, the famous pedestrian street in Barcelona, was done outdoors and quickly. While having some liquid refreshment at a sidewalk cafe I drew a view along broad, tree-lined street in my pocket sketchbook.

"La Rambla," 8x10 studio watercolor
Later on I made a larger watercolor painting using the ink and wash technique. It was important to make the trees and buildings lining La Rambla believable, but I wanted to show the people more coherently too and also to give a sense of place. Using the reference above plus other sketches and photos helped a great deal, but the experience of drawing the same motif earlier allowed modification of various elements plus a change in vanishing point and perspective.

"Be always drawing," is a quote I've seen attributed to da Vinci, but regardless it's excellent advice. The more you draw, the more accomplished you can become.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Memory Selfie

Not long ago, a friend mentioned an art challenge she had seen online. The challenge was to produce a self-portrait in 20 minutes, from memory. That is, without so much as resorting to a mirror. Although I didn't see the original post, nor any of the results, the idea of a memory self-portrait was intriguing, akin to the concept that we can't really see ourselves as others do.

In any event, here is my memory self-portrait. I did this drawing using Sketchbook and a Wacom Cintiq tablet. That meant saving considerable time--no materials preparations, etc.--and it felt more spontaneous as a result. And it was faster, too. This took less than 10 minutes, start to finish. Luckily, my beard and mustache make the mouth much simpler to draw.

In a previous entry about self portraits I posted an oil self portrait that you can use for comparison.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Drawing Aids and "Cheating"

Camera obscura, London Science Museum
Years ago, David Hockney caused quite a stir with his book Secret Knowledge, dealing with the idea that certain of the masters of centuries past must have used an optical aid (camera obscura) in order to produce their realistic drawings and paintings. Hockney argues that Hans Holbein, for example, could not have produced the anamorphic skull in his famous work The Ambassadors 
Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Ambassadors," 1533
without resorting such an aid. Perhaps so, but then again, maybe he used a different aid. Or none at all. The question is, "does it matter?" The answer is it matters to some people, though whether or not it should is a separate question.

Is using a visual aid, whether it's a camera obscura, camera lucida, film or digital camera, or a computer "cheating"? The idea of course is that if you don't make good drawing without aids then you're little more than someone who can trace an image. Or if you use a computer instead of putting down real paint on a real surface, you're not really an artist. Opinions like those do seem less common these days as the older generation of artists ages but they're certainly still around. My generation was taught all sorts of methods for drawing, perhaps the most accurate being the sight-size method, wherein the artist makes an accurately measured and drawn representation of what he sees. But we were also taught how to use visual grids, film references, and even a camera lucida. But most learned to draw without those things, too.

Whether or not Hockney is right about the camera obscura use by masters like Vermeer and Hals (and numerous others), their mastery of light and form and paint and all manner of the painter's art make the argument irrelevant, in my opinion. Masters of the past left us the beautiful and compelling images, regardless of how they were actually made. Their materials, methods and aids, work processes and a myriad of other information are interesting and even potentially useful today, of course. But regardless, they didn't "cheat" when making their art.
Albrecht Durer, Pictures for Geometry, 1532

A professional (in any field) uses any tool needed to produce the end result. Painters of great skill and renown through history always employed visual aids. As Hockney postulated, as scientific inquiry and lens technology advanced, aids like the camera obscura may have been used. The use of a camera obscura makes perfect sense, however frequently or infrequently the device may have actually been employed, given the intellectual ferment of the time and the exploration of optics that was taking hold in natural philosophy. Even without more sophisticated gear, though, artists used visual grids (e.g. Durer) to assist them in composition and perspective. A grid provides an artist with a way to visualize a possible final image, correct proportions, deal with perspective, and so on. Vincent van Gogh discovered how much such a simple device improved his awkward drawings, they remain in common use today.

Norman Rockwell, "The Runaway," 1958 (Norman Rockwell Museum)
Another example of course is film photography. Although it wasn't widely available until the late 19th century, once photography took hold, artists began to use it. Masters of that time--Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer, Alphonse Mucha, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, even Pablo Picasso--began to either actively employ film photography or use found photographs. Certain illustrators and painters in the early and mid-20th century (e.g. Norman Rockwell) made extensive use of photographs but were careful to hide the fact from the public. Rockwell was an excellent draftsman yet knew full well that the public wouldn't respond well to his use of photos. The Rockwell Museum holds a large collection of his reference photos, including those for famous works like The Runaway. As one can see from comparing the two images, Rockwell made substantial modifications and additions to each of his referenced cover paintings.
Photo reference for "The Runaway" (Rockwell Museum)

Regardless, visual aids of all kinds are pervasive in visual realism. Grids, frames, mirrors, cameras, and computers are simply tools to be used.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Sketching Druid Hill Creek 6

The month of April was a dichotomy of weather. The first couple of weeks were wet, grey, and cold while the last two weeks of this month have been balmy and perhaps as close to a traditional Spring as you could get. Those dreary days during the first couple of weeks became so similar to one another that sketching them seemed a waste of time. By April 17, even a tint of green along Druid Hill Creek was unbelievably welcome. I ran a sketch of that day a while back (right), when the coming season still seemed remote, even as the morning light began to turn more yellow. The faint green was hardly striking, but at least it was encouraging. But the weather refused to cooperate. In fact, if anything the world remained shrouded in shades of grey.

During the third week of April, when the days began to warm,  seasonal changes began in earnest. The undergrowth is wild honeysuckle, always the first to leaf out. In those last days of April the brushy understory of plants simply exploded into leaf--from a mere hint to nearly fully clad--in less than a week. The woods along Druid Hill Creek are mostly willows with a sprinkling of black walnuts, mulberries and other species, and they remained bare. Much of the mature sun emerged at last and grasses and other vegetation peeped out here and there along the creek. The faintest hint of honeysuckle was visible on April 23, and by the 27th most of them were going green, their light grey branches overarching the creekbed.

By the end of the month I was able to move outside to draw and paint without worrying about snow, rain, or aching cold. Green seemed to hover over everything as narcissi began to flower. The creek often flows dark as raw umber paint but with areas that glow like amber. My vantage point was considerably closer to the bank, allowing me to
render a fallen log I'd been omitting for weeks. The greening honeysuckle cheered me even though the air was still a little cold. The rocky bank at few yards farther upstream is starting to turn green too as vegetation and undergrowth begin to awaken. One of the fascinating things about our woods is how secluded the creek becomes once the undergrowth and trees are leafed-out. When looking in certain directions during summer, you could be someplace far from an urban setting, yet we're only five minutes from downtown Des Moines.

Previously in this series
Druid Hill Creek Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5