Friday, January 18, 2019

Cakes or Tubes?

"La Rambla," watercolor, 2017
Watercolor artists have a lot of options when it comes to materials. Although the average person probably thinks of watercolors as those little solid cakes of color in a small tin box that are used in grade school, there are other forms too. The beautiful thing about watercolor is in its name: the color is thinned with water; there is no other medium. That makes the medium eminently portable and easy to use with minimal equipment.

Watercolor paint is made in a similar way to all paint. That is, it comprises a pigment and a binder, variably with other additives, all dissolve able in water. Most sold today uses gum arabic as the binder. Additives can include all sorts of water-soluble materials intended to alter the performance of the paint--honey, for example. Watercolor paint is now made with the same kinds of newer organic pigments encountered in other media as well as the old standby earth colors like ochres.

Tubed watercolors in plastic palette box
Tubes of watercolor paint in the "professional" grade is available from a number of manufacturers as are dry cakes in full pan and half-pan sizes. Paint sold as student grades contains extenders--unpigmented additions--diluting the pigment, or substitute pigments that mix or perform less well. So using somewhat more expensive professional grade is recommended.

Tubed watercolors can be had in very small, portable tubes of 5ml or so (left) or in larger sizes. Some companies sell an assortment in boxes that double as a palette and fits in a pocket, so all one has to do is carry a sketchbook or pad. On the other hand, small boxes of cakes that fit into a pocket are also available from a number of companies.

So the question arises, which is best, tubes or cakes? For me, it's the dry solid cakes in a small box. Mine holds the smaller half-pans, which are available in all of the standard colors. I can put one of these tiny boxes in my pocket or into a carry-on bag along with a small sketchbook and water pen and I'm ready to go. Tubes might be as handy put they also could leak and be altered by cabin pressure on airplanes or lower temperatures in cargo compartments.

In the studio I do use tubed watercolors and I always take both a pocket-sized box as well as a larger metal watercolor box that holds more colors in full-sized pans. Those sorts of watercolor boxes have more room for a waterbrush, a pen or two, and even perhaps a scrap or two of paper towelling.

"Waiting for food, Anna Marie Is," 2018

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sketching the Snowstorm

The big news this past week has been the monster winter storm that swept across the Midwest and into the East bringing deep blowing snow and dreadful conditions. Luckily we had no place to go and nothing to miss, and the storm left only 5 inches or so at Druid Hill Creek.

I spent an hour or so after the big snow sketching the wood in watercolor and gouache. I used a 5x9 sketchbook that I had toned with acrylic gouache. That makes the page a bit more slick so that gouache and watercolor sometimes bead up, giving unusual textures. The first page was toned with a rose color. I painted the snow pillows with titanium white gouache then painted watercolor over that. The pink tone became distant woods just catching the sun. I used a mixture of cool blue and sepia for some of the darks and added touches of ink here and there at the finish.

The next day I did this sketch in the same size. Unlike the day before, there was no sunshine. The grey day meant paying close attention to every detail since there were few shadows to establish forms. In particular the challenge was to portray the dark but ice-covered water. The page had been toned with a grey-geen acrylic wash, over which I painted the snowy patches and the tree trunks and saplings. I then went back with drybrush and suggested the distant woods and snow beyond and left the sky white. Using a very small round brush I tipped in branches and twigs then added dollops of titanium white to show the remaining snow here and there.

Sketching winter scenes takes special care with darks and with suggestion. More winter scenes are in the offing--Spring is still weeks and weeks away.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Paintings in Standard Sizes

"Sarge's," oil on panel, 20x16 (a standard size)
Long ago a teacher recommended that whatever we did, painters should use standard-sized supports for our work. That's because standard-sized canvas or panels fit into standard-sized frames, which in turn are less expensive than having a frame made to fit. Standard sizes are generally pretty obvious. Frame makers typical produce and stock 5x7, 8x10, 11x14, 16x20,18x24, 20x24, 24x30 and 24x36 (all in inches), along with a few square sizes. For convenience sake, I was taught, use those.

On the other hand, sometimes effective compositions require dimensions that differ from standard. For example, a panoramic view of the Grand Canyon might require a much wider support, or conversely a view of a skyscraper could mean a support much taller than wide. Either way, you'll need a custom built frame.To my mind composition clearly takes precedence over framing convenience.

"MacDougal Street," oil on canvas 36x18
Late last year I finished a new addition to a series of cityscapes that needed an unusual support size. My idea was to try to include a view of a city street from pavement level to quite high on the surrounding buildings. I tried to keep the field of view narrow enough (looking upward) to avoid distortions. After doing several preliminary digital sketches to work out a very vertical composition and a bright palette, I chose a canvas support measuring 36x18. The idea was to convey how a city street falls into dusk and the lights in buildings come up. The sky changes to rose, buildings go blue-gray. Most lights are still warm yellow (some of those cold blue ones are found here and there). But the interior warmth is what beckons, and we want to hurry in for the warmth and a round or two of cheer.

After a lot of thought and editing the result was "MacDougal Street," a famous venue in Manhattan's West Village. The Minetta Tavern and Cafe Wha are famous hangouts of the Beats and other intellectuals, artists, and writers over the decades. But they aren't actually next door but across the street from one another. In order to compress the scene I eliminated Minetta Street itself, which should actually intersect MacDougal behind the foreground figure. But of course, artistic license is always present in compositions. That's why you need custom-sized canvases and frames.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Favorite Art Books 15: The Eye of the Artist

These days, much can be learned from online sources. No matter what you want to know, there's a site for that, and painting is no different. It may be that online resources will replace books and magazines as sources of self-improvement in painting and drawing, but I doubt it. That's because there are useful printed materials that provide factual and easily-understood that have gone out of print or aren't easily found. The books of Andrew Loomis come to mind. Mr. Loomis wrote wonderful and amusing books about drawing and illustration, published in the 1940s that eventually went out of print. Yet the books became treasures in many studios, so much so that after a long while they've found their way back into print. Alas, not all useful books do.

A few years ago I ran across "The Eye of the Artist" by Jack Clifton. Like many similar books, this particular title is aimed at the beginning artist. But unlike many others it provides solid assistance to those whose skills are more advanced. The main reason that Mr. Clifton's book is worthwhile is because it addresses a concept that is commonly mentioned but not often explored--the idea of seeing. By "seeing," the author means realistic visual analysis of the artist's subject. Because sight--seeing--is actually the business of the mind we tend to see what we expect to see and miss the actual.

After beginning with a discussion of visual awareness and the visual world of the artist, the author demonstrates his approach to visual analysis and drawing by starting with the silhouette. Some call the outline of an object or group of objects as the envelope. Regardless, Mr. Clifton emphasizes that if the outline of something is sufficiently descriptive, the picture is already successful. From that basic step he covers how to analyze an object's basic shapes how to block-in a drawing or painting by thinking in grids, negative space and backgrounds, and thinking in cross-sections.

Building on shapes and form, he delves into the concept he terms "thinking through," also sometimes called drawing through. As he says, this simply means understanding the opposite side of any particular object. If you've ever drawn a cube and dotted in the hidden edges, you've thought through the shape and drawn through the object (see page scan, right), but not many emphasize the concept as a visual aid to eventual realistic drawings.

Although he spends time on tones (values), form, edges, perspective, and foreshortening, it is his emphasis on how one sees a particular setting or object as an artist and how that applies--for example,how the concept of perspective and its use aids in tricking the eye into a belief in reality.The author contends (rightly) that perspective is one of the most difficult concepts for beginners to grasp, but he gives solid advice about how to look at art, and the world, with an understanding of the subject. He discusses one point and two point perspective in some detail, and provides good examples as well as showing examples where accomplished artists were lacking. He also discusses foreshortening in detail, showing how horizontal relationships matter in establishing positions in space.

Mr. Clifton's clear prose and good graphics (albeit mostly in black and white), provide the reader with a good overview of the problem of representing three dimensions in two. In one outstanding example he takes the famous painting by Manet "Mme Victorine in the costume of an espada" to show how size matters in perspective. In the painting, Mr. Manet has made the picador and horse entirely too small for the image if one considers the figures in the upper right corner correctly sized. Even the masters make mistakes, but learning to see with the eye of an artist helps. 

In the last portions of the book he spends time on more advanced topics, dealing with what seems a hodge-podge of chapters. Nonetheless, chapters on values, reflection, refraction, monochrome and color, among others, are worthwhile. Throughout, the illustrations are in black and white, except the short section on color. Still, the graphics are good and the text is clear. Recommended, but with the caution that some sections are more advanced than others. This book was originally published in 1973 and is out of print, though available from Amazon and other sellers online.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Art and Anatomy

Michelangelo Buonarotti, "Leg muscles," red chalk
Studying drawings by past masters not long ago led me to studying a few particular artists, among them daVinci and Michelangelo, both of whom studied human anatomy by use of personal dissections. Quite a few early masters investigated anatomy via dissection but Leonardo and Michelangelo also made drawings of their anatomic studies that deserve serious artistic study. These drawings are remarkable works that still delight the viewer and provide great material for the developing artist to copy. Of course, their drawings are sometimes anatomically inaccurate but that is to be expected of the earliest anatomizers.

Because artists of the 16th and 17th centuries were exploring the unknown--the interior of the body--and were primarily doing their drawings for personal study they inevitably made errors. The goal of most of these early artists was personal information only, with the exception of daVinci, whose anatomic work he intended to publish as an anatomy treatise. Anyway, it would be instructive some day to compare early artists' drawings with contemporary images. Regardless of the artists' purposes many early drawings retain the ability to excite the eye and mind.

Leonardo daVinci, "The heart," ink ca 1511
The practice of art and the science of anatomy have had interlocking paths. That is, as representational art progressed so did anatomy, which underpins the science of human structure. Until photography the study of anatomy was either first-hand or came from drawings and paintings. Early students generally had no choice but to rely on accurate renderings of the structures discovered and studied and the artists who did them honed their skills in the doing. By the middle of the 16th century, strict accuracy and true images became the norm.

There were important differences among early artists and anatomists. Some of them like daVinci were studying anatomy for its own sake rather than to advance their artistic skills. On the other hand, for many artists the study of anatomy was no doubt partly from curiosity but it was an artistic curiosity. Many Leonardo's anatomy drawings are integral to his notes on the subject. Michelangelo's fewer remaining drawings (he destroyed many) deal with surface anatomy and superficial muscles and stand alone without notes or captions. Simple comparison shows the vastly different focus of the two artists' anatomic drawings.

Andreas Vesalius, "Tabulae anatomica sex" 1538
Following daVinci and Michelangelo came others nearly as gifted either artistically or scientifically. One of those was Andreas Vesalius, an Italian physician and anatomist. Vesalius was a native of Brussels but spent the majority of his career in Italy.  As a master physician it is likely that he knew the art and science of the times, including daVinci. Although he wasn't an artist, Vesalius himself was a good draftsman.

His 1543 book "De humani corporis fabrica," or The Structure of the Human Body is perhaps the most famous example of the melding of art and anatomic study. Vesalius personally drew early anatomic charts (his "Tabulae anatomic sex" or Six Anatomic Tables of 1538) even before the publication of his famous Fabrica a few years later.

Andreas Vesalius, "Fabrica p.174," woodcut 1543
Being in Italy provided Vesalius with access to highly skilled artists and craftsmen in his own town and nearby Florence and Venice. His Fabrica featured beautifully made woodcuts of the body systems from surface to deep internal anatomy to bones. Printed in folios, the Fabrica is a large book (roughly 20x12 or so) so the images are very large and needed to be quite sharp, which was made possible in woodcut. The images display partly dissected cadavers in various positions and attitudes to provide the student with good structural information. The artist is said to have been Jan van Calcar who was a student of Titian, though his biographic information is scanty at best.

The images in the Fabrica are strictly accurate, based on the lectures Vesalius gave to his medical students at Padua and his many personal dissections. (He believed that in order to actually understand the structure of the body a student should dissect instead of relying on demonstrations, a practice that continues in medical schools today.) Accuracy aside, though, the images are beautiful and deftly made, unlike other anatomic books of the time, showing the influence of the masters. Perhaps that is the training received by Calcar but also reflects on the personality of Vesalius.

"Right arm," digital drawn copy from the Fabrica
For a contemporary realist, anatomy is a crucial information set. That is, if you want to draw and paint figures that make sense, understanding structure is critical. Luckily, there are now a lot of online resources and references, now often in high-definition. And digital drawing and painting now make it possible to copy the masters with considerably less difficulty.

One of my personal disciplines lately has been copying various anatomic drawings of muscles using digital drawing. In all of these cases my program was Sketchbook. Here is an example, copied from one of the full figure dissections in the Fabrica. Anatomic works of others (in particular daVinci) will follow, and I will very likely add some copies of other masters to the mix.

Renaissance Drawing
Anatomy and the Masters
United Kingdom Royal Collection 
Historical Anatomies on the Web

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

A Look Back

The numbers on the calendar have changed. It's a time for retrospection and a time to change perspective. Most of us review the year, consider the future, make resolutions so it occurred to me to do the same. Here's a look back at the year just past on this blog for favorite images and posts. These are my favorites.

"An Old Roman (from a 100 CE portrait bust)" graphite
Sketches done from ancient Roman and Greek examples. A way to sharpen skills. Sketching From Ancient Art

Test driving the iPad Pro with several different digital drawing and painting programs. Digital Drawing on the iPad Pro

The beginning of a multi-post series of watercolors of Druid Hill Creek as spring overtakes the last of winter. Sketching Druid Hill Creek

"Druid Hill Creek 2-10-18" watercolor
Several sketches made with watercolor and digital programs. A Daily Doodle or Two

Sketches of animals in various media. Animals

Drawings of old pickup trucks, a favorite subject of mine. Old Pickup Trucks

A watercolor painting of an old pickup truck used as a service station truck. Painted with Texaco colors and logo. A Texaco Star

"World's Largest Agricultural Tires. Iowa State Fair 2018" watercolor
Much of the month was taken by several posts of on the spot watercolor/ink sketches done at the Iowa State Fair. The Iowa State Fair
Studies for possible future paintings. Studies for Tronies

About using the figure to depict emotion. Expressive Figures

Watercolor sketches made in Florida during late November. Sketches of Florida

Drawings done using the Sketchbook digital program and a Wacom tablet. Digital Drawings

Reviewing the work for the year and the ideas, events, and work behind it, the value has been clear to me.

Wishing you a happy and productive year.