Friday, July 19, 2019

What They Said

Sometimes a quotation from another artist has resonance for me. Here a some great quotes from a few of the masters and a painting by each.

John Sargent:
John Sargent, "Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent," oil on canvas 1886
"A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."
"Make the best of an emergency." (speaking about watercolor)
"The thicker you paint the more it flows."
"Mine is the horny hand of toil."

Edward Hopper, "Early Sunday Morning," oil, 1930

 Edward Hopper:
"If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint."
"All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house."
"It's probably a reflection of my own, if I may say, loneliness. I don't know. It could be the whole human condition."

Andrew Wyeth, "The Crossing," tempera, 2002
Andrew Wyeth:
"I'm much more interested in the mood of a thing than in the truth of a thing."
"When you lose your simplicity you lose your drama."
"It's a moment that I'm after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment."

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Finding a Subject

Some painters see subject matter everywhere. John Sargent is supposed to have commented that wherever he turned there was a painting to be made. Many artists paint happily every day in a seemingly endless stream of subjects. Others, while motivated to draw or paint something--anything--find themselves stymied. What to draw? Finding one's subject, even for the day, isn't always simple or easy.
Hoff, "Roman Umbrella Pine," watercolor, 4x6
In my own painting practice there have been pauses, cessations and complete halts over the years. The gaps were mostly the result of outside events beyond the scope of discussion. Beginning to paint again has usually been simple enough. The impetus when re-starting has most often been the emotional necessity to paint a particular subject--the need arises without thought. Sometimes the adoption of a new medium has been the way to begin working again. For example, years ago, after a long hiatus from oil painting I started working again by making watercolors instead. The experience of learning and using simpler (but less forgiving) water-based paint was stimulating, invigorating even. The new medium provided opportunities to explore and grow that had gone stale when I was using oils. Watercolor painting has the virtues of simple and portable equipment and ease of cleanup which gave me opportunities to work on site or outdoors. Furthermore, traveling with watercolor was simple so sketching opportunities were more available.

Hoff, "Banana," oil on panel, 6x8
But what about escaping from other fallow times? For me, a day inevitably comes when large works are finished or so preliminary there's little else to do on the large project. Then what? One way I use to keep working is doing small dailies. For a few years I did an oil sketch in my studio every day, usually 6x8 or so, mostly still life. The subject was often one or two objects placed near the studio window. Those "windowsill works" kept me looking, thinking, mixing and applying paint even if any larger works were temporarily stalled. Applying a time limit of less than an hour to finish one forced me to work to place strokes of paint deliberately and not waste time overworking.

Dailies provided me opportunities to study different aspects of painting technique or brush handling. In nearly every case, the subject was chosen at random.
Hoff, "Creamer," oil on panel, 5x7
Reasons for sketching a particular thing could have been interest in the object itself (like a banana with its peculiar yellows), or in how the subject looked in strong light (like a shiny coffee creamer), or in how to render water in a glass. So in my case there were several motives for each work. Some call the randomness of this approach "just paint something," which is a perfect description. The immediacy of choosing a subject and painting it in a short time frame provides a challenge and an opportunity for significant observation and concentration. Those short, timed yet spontaneous oil sketches provided wide learning opportunities and made the work a daily habit. I still do morning oil sketches occasionally, but these days I mostly warm up for the day with a digital drawing or two every morning.

Hoff, "1958 VW Bug," digital drawing
As to finding one's overarching subject, it seems to me that the best thing an artist can do is to recognize that true art is deeply personal. For the artist now, subject matter begins in the experiences, ideas, loves, hates, and more that populate an individual personality. It's probably not a conscious process for many, but nonetheless many artists' work clearly shows what passion(s) drove their work. As an example, consider Claude Monet--his passion was light and seeing the world, which for him meant gardens and countryside; he didn't paint cities much, nor figures. On the other hand, Lucian Freud was interested in the landscape of the human form and regardless of medium (he also etched), that was his subject for much of his career.

For me, cities and their people are endlessly fascinating--shapes, colors, shadows and lights, overlapping and intermingling--buildings, hurrying figures, signs, and vehicles too. The play of light over the city is always interesting and challenging. An abstractionist might say something similar about only the shapes, or maybe only light and color. For me, the subject is cities.

Choosing a subject means considerably more than looking for something to draw and paint.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Art and Air Travel

Hoff, "Lisbon Trolley," wc in sketchbook, 2017
For a long while, when traveling for more than a day or two I've carried along art supplies and made pictures. At first it was simply a sketchbook and pencil, then a watercolor set and paper (postcard sized and bigger). Eventually other art materials have come along too, but mostly I opt for portability. For an artist, sketching is a non-stop discipline.

But besides pencil or small water media outfits like those mentioned, can an artist take other supplies along on an airline flight? Some worry that their oil paint can't be brought onto airliners but the rules aren't so restrictive as they imagine.

Hoff, "Plum Point," oil on panel, 2019
Certainly since the rules regarding carry-ons have been changed, bringing oil paint and related supplies aboard--particularly liquids--has become a bit different. Inflammables can't be brought aboard any airliner (and were always banned), so solvents including mineral spirits, turpentine, alcohols, and so on are forbidden. But painters' oils--linseed, walnut, etc.--are not inflammable and are therefore allowed both in checked bags and carry-ons as is tubed oil paint, according to the Federal Aviation Administration rules available online. So for an oil painter it's simple enough to leave solvents in the studio and buy a small container on arrival. That said, in years past sometimes less-informed members of Transportation Security actually confiscated tubed oil paint in once in a while--it happened to a friend--but not so much today.

My own experiences traveling with oil paint have been uneventful. During the early part of this century when there was more apprehension about paint on aircraft I shipped my oil paint and materials ahead of time and shipped them back. Since the beginning of this decade I've packed my oils and supplies in a checked bag without incident. In general I do not travel with oils unless participating in a specific oil painting event.

For me travel supplies will continue to be a sketchbook or two, a few graphite pencils and a kneaded eraser, a few disposable technical pens, a waterbrush or two, and a small watercolor set. Besides that, these days a computer tablet and stylus round out my kit. All will fit into a single compartment or two of my carry-on bag and any part of the kit except the tablet slips into a convenient pocket. For me, travel should be light.

For a complete list of banned and allowed items for airline travel see the FAA website.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Kinds of Paint

In the past one kind of paint predominated for artistic purposes, even if other kinds of paint were available. For example, very ancient paintings were made with encaustic, if the famous Egyptian burial portraits of two millennia ago are any indication. But egg tempera (water-based), was the main paint of classical antiquity, another half-millennium later. But it seems that paintings were very occasionally made made with oil-based (nut oil) paint during those times too. Nonetheless, tempera's ubiquity lasted into the 15th century or so. Tempera was then superseded by oil painting and became almost unknown. Watercolor did become the sketcher's friend from the 18th century on but wasn't predominant. And so art stood until the mid-20th century. The list of paint types has lengthened in the ensuing seventy years to include traditional watercolor, gouache, casein, egg tempera, acrylic, and water-mixable oils. Other media now are considered painting, too, including pastel and (for some anyway) colored pencil.

Hoff, "Portrait of Bill," oil on canvas. Private collection
Nevertheless, oil painting is still considered the queen of mediums. Oil paint remains the art medium of choice mostly because oil paintings are desired by the market. Oil paintings are considered more durable. Oil paintings age well, when constructed well. Oil paintings can and do become heirlooms, particularly family portraits. Oil paintings command higher prices and investor interest. Oil paintings are a centuries-old tradition. Because of the amount of time needed to master a new kind of paint, plus the work and time involved, and potentially reduced income afterward, why explore and use any of the alternatives to oil? Why, indeed. There are a lot of good reasons.

For me, and probably for many, it's useful to learn all sorts of paint. Using different kinds besides oils has improved my knowledge of the behavior of paint of all kinds. Each kind of paint has different properties--more or less opacity, differing drying speeds, and so on. Some paints have similarities too. For example, gouache, casein, and acrylic all dry very quickly. But gouache can be rewetted while acrylic and casein form a permanent film that is unresponsive to water. Another example: watercolor and acrylic behave similarly, if the acrylic paint is thinned sufficiently, but watercolor can be rewetted and acrylic can't. In contrast, oil paint remains "open" (wet) for days unless driers are added.
Hoff, "Taco Loco," watercolor on paper, sketched on site

Although the time and effort spent may seem enormous, working with newer mediums hasn't seemed onerous to me. Instead,  devoting a few hours a week outside my usual milieu provides continued practice in everything in painting--vision, composition, drawing, values, and so on--just with a different type of paint. It means continued practice on fundamentals while learning a new paint. In any event, it works for me.

So what kind of paint do I prefer? Well, it depends. My preference for studio paintings is oils, which is where my training and experience are. Oil paint remains workable for a longer period, makes more luminous images when used effectively, and has the advantages outlined above.

What about sketching?
Again, it depends. When doing a color sketch of a studio subject oil paint is preferable because the colors and paint can be matched as can the paint handling, drying and opacity. On the other hand, sketching outdoors is more convenient with watercolor than with oils, mostly owing to portability of watercolors. A pocket watercolor set and sketchbook are wonderful, lightweight tools that fit a jacket or jeans. I carry a small watercolor kit in my car too, and use it as often as possible. Watercolor sketches provide fodder for studio oils. You could use other water media--even acrylic--to sketch too.

What about acrylic, casein, and all those others?
They've been good learning tools and I use them from time to time for fun and experience. Here are a few thoughts.

Casein dries quickly, handles nicely, and dries to a nice matte finish. In many ways it feels like oil paint on the brush. (Gouache does the same things but can be altered with water.) Casein paint is useful if you have a covered palette to help keep the paint moist, because it dries so quickly. Casein is great for sketching--you can paint over mistakes in only a few moments. Casein has been most useful to me when making small, quick sketches. Other artists are making beautiful paintings in the studio and outdoors as well using casein.
Hoff, "Silver Creamer," casein on panel
Gouache or acrylic can be used for sketching more closely emulate oil paint at least in some artists' hands, so they are common substitutes in the studio, particularly. Illustrators used gouache long before acrylics were developed, mostly because the matte finish of gouache photographs well.

In short, learning the behavior and handling of as many different kinds of paint as possible has been a valuable pursuit in expanding my horizons. 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Independence Day

Today is the anniversary of our nation's Declaration of Independence. The fundamental statement of that document is the concept that "all men are created equal." That statement of principle became a real beacon in the centuries that followed. The world is so very different now that one wonders what those who founded the United States would think. Would they approve?

Here is a 20x16 oil on panel of Uncle Sam, the symbol of the country, after an original by the great J.C. Leyendecker.
Hoff, "Uncle Sam in the 21st Century," (after Leyendecker) oil on panel, 20x16

Independence Day
July 4th

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Past Favorites in Reproduction

Many artists offer reproductions of their works. After all, an original oil painting can only be sold once, but a print of that painting can be sold many times. If an artist pays attention,to the volume of prints sold it might be a rough insight into popularity of a particular work. Although there is no statistical significance to a simple insight it may provide an interesting set of images to review.

Hoff, "NYC Spring," oil on panel
The most popular image I have made, based on the number of prints sold, is "NYC Spring," an image of a woman in a red dress emerging from an underground stair into a city street. The original was an 11x14 oil painting that sold four or five years ago, but since I've also sold a number of prints in various sizes. In fact, a print of this particular work sold an an arts festival last week and remains one that visitors to the studio mention favorably.

Another city subject has sold in reproduction nearly as often. This one is a view of the Chrysler Building at dusk and carries the title "Invictus," which is Latin for unconquered. It was originally intended as a comment on how the attack on New York was being overcome. This image in print reproduction continues to sell in the original size and larger. It was originally an 8x10 oil painting.

Although print reproductions haven't been a focus of my commercial efforts these past few years it's probably time to start offering more prints of these and other favorites. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Keepin' On

A lot of artists work until they simply can't any longer. They work well into what is certainly "old age"--Lucien Freud died in his late eighties, still painting in top form. He worked every day. Perhaps he was like me and feared not being able to start again. Some artists are literally afraid they'll never do more work. Isaac Asimov, the famous writer was so afraid to stop for anything that he typed away while riding in taxis. Something like Asimov, habit keeps me going. I wonder if it is what kept Freud at his easel.

Head of a Woman, graphite and chalk, 2016
For years, a part of my daily routine has involved drawing. I spend perhaps an hour drawing, nearly every morning. Subject matter isn't all that important. What is most important is the act of taking marker in hand and making marks. The marker doesn't matter either. It can be a school pencil and printer paper or a Wacom tablet and stylus. It could be an iPad and a finger (although that's an awkward way to draw.) The quality of the work doesn't matter at all. Many of my drawings never survive--they hit the wastebasket or I hit the delete button. Sometimes drawings serve as practice, sometimes as learning devices, and sometimes they serve as a way of loosening the creative "muscles," in a way analogous to a musician practicing scales or a dancer stretching.

Sometimes a morning drawing morphs into a more finished work, as happened with this study of a woman's head. I saw this expression in a dramatic video and tried to translate it into a study of my own. The young actress was exceptionally beautiful.

Thumbnail Sketches, graphite, 2016
It may be, though, that the creative well is fine--an idea that seems sure-fire comes to mind and off we go. Except that sometimes the idea comes but how to state it, how to fulfill the vision, doesn't. Or sometimes an idea comes with no time to do more than capture the essence of the subject. Or it may simply be that the idea isn't well-formed and needs more thought.

When testing ideas or compositions, a few thumbnail sketches, no larger than 4x5 or so, may help. Here I was working on a picture of coneflowers in a garden, trying to establish where to place any figure(s). Working out every detail of a picture is a time-tested way to further the work. Norman Rockwell made his familiar work seem effortless, but behind those masterful images was hours of thumbnail sketches, color sketches, full-scale charcoal renderings, and only then if he was satisfied did he produce an oil for his client. So an important consideration is that by doing the "busy work" first I not only keep the momentum going, I'm also trying to solve whatever problems the idea has posed.

Dredge, Newburgh, graphite and ink, 2019
Here is a graphite and ink sketch done on the spot along the Hudson River a month or so ago. There was a flat-bottomed barge--a dredge--pulled ashore along Newburgh Bay that caught my eye but I lacked time to paint it, having already begun on different subject. My intent was to get an impression of the subject and to chart the various colors and so on, although I did take a couple of quite phone snaps too. This sketch plus those snapshots gave me enough information to paint a full sized oil, shown below. 

The Dredge, Newburgh, oil on panel, 20x16, 2019
So for me it's mostly habit that brings me into the studio in the morning, but it's also planning and careful study of a subject before diving into a larger studio work.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Character Heads

Messerschmidt, "The Intentional Wag"
Although his work shows up now and then, the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1786-1783) isn't a very well-known name here in the United States, which is too bad. Although his life was vexed, his art will last a long while. He produced a series of character heads during the last years of his life that demonstrate his mastery of expression. Mr. Messerschmidt was a classically trained sculptor born in Bavaria whose initial success was blunted when he suddenly left Vienna despite his reputation as a master. He devoted the final years of his career to sculpting nearly 70 heads showing extreme expressions. These weren't exhibited in his lifetime and were only popularized after his death by a friend who wrote an account of his numerous visits. The friend related beliefs and behaviors that have marked Mr. Messerschmidt as someone with obsessions, superstitions, and other quirks, which purport to explain the busts. According to the account, he was trying to capture what he believed to be humankind's 64 basic grimaces. Regardless of the artist's mental state, the expressions he left carved in stone are humorous, inspiring, and somehow upsetting. They also serve as excellent examples for study.

The Vomiter
Some of the character heads seem quite similar to one another--other heads resemble The Intentional Wag in several ways, for example. But there are also heads that are quite singular and feature wide open mouths, a rarity in sculpture, even today. One in particular is titled The Vomiter, and indeed is quite graphic. 

Hoff, "A Hypochondriac," (after Messerschmidt)
Here's a digital study of one of Mr. Messerschmidt's characters--"A Hypochondriac" which dates from after 1770. This is in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Mr. Messerschmidt didn't give these characters names but after he died, they were exhibited at a Vienna hospital and seem to have received their titles that way. Regardless of title, the expressions are real, human, and varied. These characters aren't portraits (though some resemble the sculptor) but might best be termed tronies, in the Dutch master tradition.

Hoff, "Rescued after Drowning," (after Messerschmidt)
And here is a looser sketch, based on another of Mr. Messerschmidt's character heads. The title given the sculpture is "Just Rescued from Drowning." In this case I chose an ochre background, which echoes the alabaster of the original. Like the image above, this is digital, done on a Wacom tablet using Sketchbook.

Photos of these sculptures are available, often with three or four different angles included, in a catalog from an exhibit a few years ago. The book is in a relatively large format but is now out of print and expensive. Still, using these remarkable sculptures as models for drawing has been profitable for me.

Friday, June 21, 2019


The past two weeks have been partly involved practice in mixing greens--oil colors of course. If you're going to paint outside in summer, understanding and mixing green is an obvious necessity. Green in it's thousands of tints and shades, cools and warms, and differing base values is incredibly varied, in nature. When I was a beginner, it seemed to me that you ought to be able to buy a few tubes of green paint and then lighten them with white and darken them with black and that would suffice when painting the countryside. Of course I was wrong. That strategy produces lighter and darker values but there is considerably more to green than dark and light. Hence the need to practice color mixing.

Claude Monet, "Highway Bridge, Argenteuil," 1874
Although blue is the most popular color, green is second most popular among men in the United States and much of the rest of the world, too. For U.S. women, purple is second, but green is third. In short, we love green almost as much as blue. Green is restful, symbolic of youth, fertility, life, hope, and wealth. The color green not surprisingly nourishes many of us. Considering the popularity of blue and green, some speculate that we like those colors so much because they appeal to deeply primitive memories of clear skies, lush vegetation and blue water. Perhaps so. Certainly landscape painters benefit from the popularity of both colors. In his plein air painting of the Highway Bridge at Argenteuil (above) Claude Monet clearly understood the value of both colors, plus that single bright red at the far end of the bridge, made brighter by the dullness of the tree foliage on the far bank.

On the painter's color wheel green is between blue and yellow (orange is between yellow and red, and violet between red and blue), and results from mixes of blues and yellows. But greens aren't all mixed colors. Green pigments have been available to artists for centuries in minerals containing copper (malachite, verdigris) and chromium (viridian), and as various green earths, among many others. Ancient Egypt used malachite green but Ancient Greece didn't use greens at all, relying on only four basic colors of yellow, red, black, white. Romans, on the other hand, revered green as symbolic of Venus and fecundity and used a kind of green earth for their pigment. Today we have quite a few earth greens but also synthetic pigments--cadmium green for example.

Green in all its variety has become more common in paintings since the early 19th
John Constable, "The Hay Wain," oil, 1821
century. Looking at landscapes from the turn of the 19th century shows that the greens in use were dull and often relatively dark since most colors were earths. People like John Constable (1776-1837) did produce beautiful landscapes while painting outdoors, though greens were dull. More vivid greens arrived in the last few decades of the 19th century, making possible the brighter colors of impressionist works, but also were important in the post-impressionist oeuvre. It is hard to imagine van Gogh without bright greens.
van Gogh, "Self Portrait Dedicated to Gauguin," 1888

Hoff, "Outside at Last," oil, 2019
In my own practice you could say I show an aversion to green--most of my landscape work is actually cityscapes, for example. But actually, a recent foray into outdoor painting has awakened my interest in green. My first outdoor work after being away was, strictly speaking, a still life and not a landscape. But in my defense, the painting was done outdoors and the subject was living plants. I painted two house plants that had been moved out to a shady spot only a few days earlier. The interesting thing about this painting was the greens and yellows. The greens range from bright yellow-greens to dark and cool blue-greens banding the house plant leaves, with color temperatures and values ranging widely between the two extremes. Mixing all of those different greens was the biggest challenge of the work. Notably, there is almost no red in the painting, which is dominated by green and blue.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Faking It

Etienne Terrus ca.1910
A few days ago, an article in the Guardian Arts section told of a small museum in Elne, a small town in southwest France, dedicated to a local artist named √Čtienne Terrus (1857-1922). Although virtually unknown now, M. Terrus was a relatively skilled and moderately well known painter during his lifetime. He was often seen painting en plein air in the region where he lived. M. Terrus was friends with Henri Matisse and others of his generation as well. The Terrus museum was championed in the 1990s by a local woman who rallied locals to raise tens of thousands of euros to purchase a large body of M. Terrus' works. Alas for the town, more than half of the museum's collection have been discovered to be fakes.

Etienne Terrus, "Untitled," oil, 1890
The story got me thinking about art forgery. These days it is probably much easier to forge the works of a minor, lesser-known artist. Famous painters' works are catalogued and (for the most part) well documented. Their styles, materials, methods and more are very difficult to imitate convincingly. Further, works by famous artists command high prices, which command unwanted attention. But a minor painter's work can be faked and sold for a few hundred or few thousand dollars with considerably more ease. Variations in quality and style are easily explained by artistic growth and improving skills.

Some also believe that forging relatively unknown artists' work is quite lucrative since small works, drawings, and watercolors can be produced in higher volumes with less worry about each passing muster as top quality. And given that scholarship of the oeuvre of a minor artist is unlikely, passing counterfeit work could be quite safe. A forgery of the work of a  master, like Franz Hals would be much harder to pass for authentic.

Perhaps the old rumor is true--a high percentage of art in museums may well be fake.
Art Forgery

Friday, June 14, 2019

More Thoughts on Outdoor Painting

Since returning from an outdoor painting workshop a few weeks back my work has continued outdoors. While most of my art practice and career has been based in the studio, going out into the world with paint has been an elevating experience. There have been a number of downsides--spilled turpentine, lost painting knives, cumbersome equipment, the weather, and insects to name only a few. But all of those challenges and issues can be avoided by experience, preparation, careful attention to good equipment, and insect repellent.

Winslow Homer, "Artists Sketching in the White Mountains," oil, 1868
Equipment for outdoor painting varies. The venerable French easel (sometimes called a "field easel") is still in use, for example, but dates to the mid-19th century. The French easel setup does provide a good sturdy palette and work holder, with ample storage for needed items like brushes and paint tubes. The weight prompted another sort of field easel with a box half the size of the original, but each case holds paint tubes, brushes, medium cups, rags and the like, so either size is heavy and cumbersome to
Typical French easel
transport and set up. Today we have other paint boxes dedicated to open air painting that vary in design. One kind of portable paint setup is a
Pochade box mounted on a tripod
pochade box (or sketch box), a lighter and legless version of the field easel. Pochade boxes are often built to accommodate a folding tripod so that the painter can stand or sit when working. Pochade boxes commonly do not feature space for paint storage or even for brushes. Artists whom I know that use this sort of setup load the included palette surface with blobs of paint before going outside. In addition there's generally not much space in the box for anything but panels so artist often bring their brushes rolled into a canvas brush carrier. Covered medium cups allow one to bring along enough oil and/or solvent for a single painting session, and of course any additional equipment must be carried separately. Even so the weight is at least reduced. So for the daily outdoor painter a pochade box is probably preferable.

(Although this post deals with oil painting, other kinds of painting are often done outdoors. Watermedia in particular are amenable to outdoor painting, including watercolor, gouache, casein, and even acrylics. With water-based paints the drying time is much reduced, no solvents are needed, and cleanup is easy. And the setups are often lightweight. A portable watercolor set (widely available with standard colors) a water brush or two, and sketchbooks of various sizes manufactured to accept water-based paint are easy to slip into a pocket or two--no need to lug heavy equipment.)

After struggling with an unmounted pochade box during my recent workshop and because my heavy French easel is so cumbersome, my next piece of equipment is a considerably more sophisticated setup. My new pochade box is made to be lightweight, portable, and compatible with a folding tripod. The product comes with a detachable shelf (similar to the photo above) with panel mounts on the lid. The design provides stability on the tripod, will stand up to wind and weather., and terrain.

Hoff, "The Dredge, Newburgh," oil on panel, 2019
The first two posts in this series showed outdoor oils from the my recent outdoor workshop plus a couple done since my return. Many painters work outdoors to study a subject more intensely, intending to translate the subject in question during later studio sessions. Others work directly, outdoors, and produce work that stands as fully realized. Either way is useful. The painting posted here is a larger studio work based on graphite and watercolor sketches done on the spot during Garin Baker's recent plein air workshop.

More to come.

Thoughts on Painting Outdoors
More About Plein Air

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Thousand Yard Stare

Tom Lea, "The Two Thousand Yard Stare," 1944
The anniversary of D-Day on June 6 last week brought up memories of the thousand yard stare, a look that is common in combat soldiers who have witnessed the horror of warfare. The look is blank, unfocused, and haggard. The origin of the term seems to be from a painting done for Life magazine at the end of World War II called "Marines Call it That Two Thousand Yard Stare." But it has changed to one thousand yards, unaccountably

To be clear, that vacant, shocked expression is seen in survivors of all sorts of emotional and physical trauma--fires, automobile accidents, and so on. But unlike those, which are isolated incidents affecting a handful of people, what we call the thousand yard stare is common in combat soldiers.

Hoff, "Charles Durning," 2019
During the recent celebrations of the anniversary of D-Day, several veterans spoke or were remembered. Notably, Charles Durning, the well-known character actor, spoke of his personal experience during one event. As he spoke, his expression changed. In the beginning of his talk he was somber and composed, his gaze focused on the attendees. But then as he began to recount the landing, his face gradually became an unmoving, horrified mask--the thousand yard stare returned. His story, briefly, was of being one of the first soldiers to land. The enemy was firing steadily at the boats as they approached the beach, sounding almost like hail. The ramp fell and the soldier ahead of Mr. Durning was first out. He was killed immediately, and his body fell. Mr. Durning attempted to leap over him, tripped, and went into the ocean. The man just behind him was killed by enemy fire, too. In other words, he was saved completely by chance as thousands of his comrades in arms died storming Omaha Beach.

The stare is always there, it seems, lurking somewhere in the background. For many combat veterans, it's no wonder they've never discussed their combat experiences.

Perhaps those whose lives are safer and more tranquil should always remember what those who went to war for them did, and what they lost.

1000 Yards with Sketchbook

Friday, June 07, 2019

Will All Artists Be Women?

Not long ago I attended an outdoor workshop in New York state. As seems common, the majority of the attendees were women, a constant circumstance. As it happens, I received an email newsletter from Robert Genn, a Canadian painter who passed on a few years ago, discussing that very topic. (although Mr. Genn passed on a few years ago, his daughter writes and republishes from the site, The Painters Keys). In one of his newsletts, written a decade ago and republished this week, Mr. Genn noted the preponderance of women who attended art conferences, workshops, and the like. His newsletter subscribers at the time were 2/3 female, he said, and he had always noticed a female-male ratio of perhaps 80-20 in art organizations too. He mused that perhaps in future all artists would be women. Certainly women are pursuing arts and letters in higher numbers than men and the majority of university students are now women too. Men these days show less interest art, education, and aesthetics, than women, too.

Although we're generally less familiar with them and their work, women through history have contributed mightily to our human heritage. From the earliest days women have drawn, painted, etched, sculpted and made all kinds of art across the cultures of the world. My knowledge of female artists outside the historically western cultures is scant, but I intend to correct that failing. Meanwhile, here is a highly personal list of great artists from the past who also happened to be women, in no particular order of importance or enjoyment.

Vigee leBrun, "Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, oil, 1782
Louise Elisabeth Vigee leBrun (1755-1842) was a famous painter even in her own day. Her father was a painter before her, and gave her some rudimentary training before he died when she was twelve. She received training from several prominent painters while in her teens and began painting portraits professionally before she was twenty. Obviously an enormously talented and dedicated worker, she went on to produce around 800 paintings, most of them portraits. She was patronized by Marie Antoinette and so had to flee France when the royals were arrested. She lived and worked in numerous places in Europe but eventually returned. Although less known today, she was as accomplished and successful a portraitist as anyone, before or after her time.
Vigee leBrun, "Emma Hamilton," oil, 1792

Kathe Kollwitz, "Self Portrait in Blue Shawl," lithograph 1903

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) who lived through the horror of the early and mid-twentieth century was not primarily a painter but a graphic artist. Her drawings, lithographs and etchings dealt with injustice and oppression and especially the suffering of the working classes. Her own agony at the loss of her son in World War I and a grandson in World War II fueled her work powerfully. Perhaps most telling are the several dozen penetrating and honest self portraits she made, which constitute a big part of her overall output. Today she is occasionally grouped with the Expressionists because of her deeply emotional work. Regardless of grouping, her art has depth, power, and much to say about the emotions of loss, grief, depression, and fear. She deserves wider recognition. A particular favorite of mine is her lithograph self portrait of 1903 (below).
Gentileschi, "Self Portrait as Allegory of Painting," 1638

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) worked and painted in Italy during the Baroque Period (17th century), was the first woman admitted to the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. She was quite successful in her lifetime and enjoyed a wide international following. For many years she was something of a curiosity, given that there were few women painting professionally at that time. Her work has echoes of Caravaggio, as might be expected, but she produced strong, evocative works of historical and biblical subjects as well as portraits. In particular her female figures, substantial and moving through space, are my favorite passages of her works.

Mary Cassatt, "Lydia at the Opera," 1879
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American expatriate painter and graphic artist who worked most of her career in France. She studied at home in Pennsylvania for several years but became frustrated with the lack of teaching and decamped for Paris in 1866 where she studied with Gerome and Thomas Couture among others. By 1868 she had work accepted into the annual Salon, one of the first American women whose work was selected. She stayed a few more years but when the Franco-Prussian War broke out she returned home. It was not long until she returned to Paris, with her sister, where she opened her own studio and began having success as a realist painter. Through the ensuing decade she was regularly accepted into the Salon and began to succeed as a painter. In 1877 she was unsuccessful entering the Salon after being an annual exhibitor for a number of years. Her friend Edgar Degas invited her to show with the loose group of painters known as independents who would be the nucleus of the Impressionist movement. From then she was
Mary Cassatt, "Boating Party," 1894
closely associated with the Impressionists through the remainder of her career. Her images of mother and child, or woman and child, are striking reminders of the tenderness of childhood. Her subject matter varied little but her approach to painting did. As did many of her male colleagues, she became interested in simplified arrangements of flatter colors, inspired by Japanese prints. After a century and a half, her works still have resonance.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a painter whose power came from an unflinching eye and an injured
Frida Kahlo, "Self Portrait," oil, 1926
heart. Her life story is familiar to many, owing to a famous movie and to her growing international fame. But for most of the 20th century she was known as the "wife of Diego Rivera," who also painted. Nonetheless, Rivera (an internationally famous muralist) often insisted that she was the greater artist. She had suffered polio plus horrendous injuries in a streetcar accident (1925) that left her with continuous pain and disability that were lifelong. During her long convalescences she drew and painted many self portraits, nearly all featuring her famous unibrow. In those self studies she consciously explored her feelings
about her illnesses, about herself and others. She did gain recognition from the Surrealists and exhibited in New York and Europe, yet still remained obscure here until the 1970s. Since then, with numerous books, exhibitions, a movie, and sundry other events, she has become an international icon. 
Perhaps in the future, all artists will be women, given the current trend in art schools but I doubt it. Instead there will always be these and many others.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Ernie Pyle and D-Day

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy--D-Day. On June 6, 1944 hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors and aircrews participated in the largest combat assault in history. The odds were narrow, the cost would be enormous, but the prize was even more enormous. The beginning of the end of the blood and battle of World War II. We know the landings and the battles today in near-minute detail, and we know much of that history because of the journalists who covered the Normandy campaign. Writers like Ernie Pyle.

Hoff, "Ernie Pyle, 1944," digital, 2019
Although Ernie Pyle didn't land on D-Day but on the day after, his description of Omaha Beach filed on June 12 is classic journalism and would become classic Pyle. Mr. Pyle was the most famous war-correspondent of World War II, and had been a popular columnist even before the war. His brand of journalism was similar in tone to the writings of people like Will Rogers, a near-contemporary, and Mark Twain. His folksy, sunny, down to earth approach plus his identification with the common soldier made him enormously popular. Like everyone who witnessed the unspeakable carnage and death, war changed him. His words from the front in Europe and later from Asia grew darker if still richly informative. Mr. Pyle died during the Okinawa campaign, shot by a sniper in April, 1945.

Thanks, Mr. Pyle, for helping us remember the price paid three-fourths of a century ago. 

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Figures in Motion

Pablo Picasso, "Girl Before a Mirror," oil, 1932
Drawing a moving figure is one of the more difficult tasks facing an artist. Drawing the figure is difficult enough, drawing a figure in motion with correction proportions and perspective plus expressive gesture and line is a supreme task. In the golden years of illustration, a century ago, such skills were passed on and honed in magazines and advertising while modernists like Picasso were making cubist abstractions. Abstract art diverged sharply from realistic representation, so much so that for a time it seemed as if representing a figure in a real way would be lost. Perhaps without illustrators it may have been.

But today figure drawing is still an essential skill for much art. Animators and game designers still must be able to draw the face and figure believably. Moreover, giving faces expression and bodies believable and expressive postures is also useful in traditional arts like oil painting. Like any learned skill, fluency comes with continued, extended practice. While the 10,000 hour theory may or may not be the explanation, there is little doubt that directed practice improves skills, whether the pursuit is golf, piloting an airplane, or painting. Here I include drawing as part and parcel of realism.

Andrew Loomis, Male Proportions
When one begins drawing the figure, like the head there is a framework that provides a way to begin. There are many diagrams of the "ideal" figure, but of course human physiognomy varies widely. For anyone interested, an Internet search will turn up many diagrams and photos. Basically, using the head height as a ruler reveals that the average male figure is about 8 heads in height while the female figure is somewhat less. The nipples are at the second head height downward (two head heights below the top), the belly button is the third, the crotch the fourth. The kneecaps are about 5.5 heads down from the top of the head, and the bottoms of the feet 7.5 to 8 heads down, depending on body type (see Andrew Loomis drawing, left).

Hoff, "The Hurler," graphite on paper, 2015
My own work has featured much practice with figures, ranging from live models, filmed references such as dancing, or still photographic images. While I've spent a lot of time trying to isolate motion using photographic images, a great deal of my work has included sketching from life in various public settings. Events like concerts, athletic competitions, state fairs and animal shows and many more have given me the chance to practice. Games like baseball provide opportunities to sketch because many movements are repetitive. In the sketch to the right, I began by trying to get the gesture (leg kick, body turn) first, then added details with each succeeding windup and delivery. Alas, the lad was pulled after only two innings so I finished this from memory and snapshots.

Hoff, "Dancer," digital, 2017
Movements can also be drawn from sources like video stills. Sometimes I stop an online video, intrigued, and sketch. In the digital drawing of a dancer I stopped a tangoing female in mid-shimmy, interested in the gesture of her legs as she danced and the folds of her frothy dress. This was done by sight using a digital tablet, but I exaggerated the less a bit. Most challenging was drawing the right leg despite the covered knee joint. The trick is to sketch the legs first then draw the clothing in an over layer. I kept the drawing basic and didn't attempt adding highlights or darker background, choosing instead to work on dimensionality of the dress and body.

Hoff, "Windblown," digital, 2019
Sometimes a still image is an inspiration. The famous paparazzi image of Jacqueline Onassis was the trigger for a digital interpretation, "Windblown." The original shot was made by Ron Galella who was an intrusive (some say worse) presence in the life of Ms. Onassis after she moved to Manhattan. Here my interest was her striding gesture and windblown mane of hair. I didn't try to get a likeness, but inevitably the face is familiar. Here the added highlights give more substance and form to the figure, but the approach is more graphic than pictorial.

Moving figures require practice. But then again, so does almost every worthwhile skill.

Similar posts
Digital Drawing
Expressive Figures