Thursday, February 2, 2023

Archaeology and Art Style

Oil painting of Central American artifacts for a Nat Geo map supplement

Pranab Thomas asks
"How has the study of Archaeological and Anthropological aspects influenced the style of Imaginative Realism in [your] Artworks?"

When I was very young I fell in love with archaeology as a result of reading in National Geographic Magazine about the discoveries of lost cities like Machu PIcchu in 1911. I majored in Anthropology (which included Archaeology) in college at University of California at Berkeley. This was a subject that interested me intellectually, but while I was studying it, I had no idea how I would connect it to my even more consuming interest in art.

After graduating college, I went briefly to art school and subsequently learned to paint and draw by reading old instructional books and getting some professional experience in the paperback field. Eventually I got an opportunity to work for National Geographic as a freelance illustrator.

When I started there, National Geographic still sent its artists and art directors to meet the archaeologists on location. On some of my first assignments I had a chance to see Rome, Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Norchia, and Populonia for an article on the Etruscans. We visited some newly discovered tombs with an archaeologist named Rick Bronson.

I wasn't thinking about a style as such. The goal in my mind was to eradicate style as much as possible and to visualize what I believed to be the vision of the archaeologist. I was inspired by the previous National Geographic illustrators such as Tom Lovell, who I later met and corresponded with.

My method was modeled after his. I would start by reading as much as I could about the history then sketch up dozens of small thumbnail sketches. After the basic direction was worked out, we would travel to the location and go over all the details. The archaeologists and paleontologists were always incredibly helpful, as was the National Geographic staff, which includes full-time art researchers.

I had to get used to the fact that most of the work would never be seen. National Geographic is a photo magazine, not an art or illustration magazine, so the art never had a secure place, unless there was no other way to solve the problem. That meant working up full comprehensive layouts for editorial meetings to try to steal layout space away from the hundreds of dazzling photographs that had already been taken.

It was routine for entire stories to be cut after a lot of work was done. I did dozens of comprehensive studies for a story on the Roman empire in the Holy Land, but the whole story was canceled because the editor questioned the scholarship of the author. But I didn’t mind too much. It was like taking a college course and getting paid for it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Venice Beach

Venice Beach, plein-air oil, 9x 12 inches.

I had fun with this one putting most of the detail way up in the upper right, and letting the rest be open spaces.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Cats Juggling Balls

Cats Juggling Balls by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

According to the Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, "Kuniyoshi was an ukiyo-e artist who was active in the late Edo period. Kuniyoshi made his debut as an ukiyo-e artist in his late teens. After an unsuccessful period, he made a big breakthrough in his early thirties with the series “One Hundred and Eight Heroes from Tales of the Water Margin.” 

"Since then, he worked energetically on all kinds of genres of ukiyo-e including “musha-e (warrior pictures)” of heroes, “giga (caricatures)”, landscapes, “bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women)”, “yakusha-e (portraits of kabuki actors)”, and pictures for children."

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Botanical Art or Plein-Air Painting?

Is there a difference between botanical art and plein-air painting? 

While both may result in attractive images of plants, the botanical artist is more concerned with portraying individual specimens with a scientist’s perspective, removing a plant from its context to understand the structure and exploring the beauty in that way. 

The plein-air artist pays attention to the whole living ensemble as influenced by light, air, atmosphere, spatial depth. It’s possible to combine the two visual approaches—and the thought process behind them—to see both the forest and the trees.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Manu Forti

The Mackays of Scotland have a clan badge that says "Manu Forti," which means "with a strong hand." When I was just 13 years old, I realized I had Mackay ancestors, so I drew this bookplate on scratchboard and printed it out as a bookplate for my graphic arts class. 

Thirteen years old is the age when I started to figure out who the heck I was. I discovered it was possible to make a living with my hands in graphic arts, calligraphy, animation, or illustration. 

All my heroes—Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Preston Blair—had their heyday between 1900 and 1940. They were long gone before I got started. But that didn't matter to me. They were all people in books, anyway. I just saw the glimmer of a path out of the thicket of teenager-hood into the possibility of an adult life.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Black Umbrellas

Susan asks: "Do you recommend black umbrellas for plein-air artists?"

No, I really don't. Here's why I don't think a black or silver umbrella is useful. The goal of any sun-modifying system should be to transform direct sunlight into soft (indirect) light. The amount of light on the artwork—and the color of that light—should be as similar as possible to the amount and color of the light on the subject. 

The problem with blocking the light entirely with black or silver material is that the level of illumination will be too low on the work, making the eye have to adjust from one to another. Worse yet, the only light shining on the work is whatever bounces up from the ground. This light is often highly colored, especially if it’s grass, bricks or dirt, making accurate color judgments almost impossible. 

All that doesn't even take into account another issue that all umbrellas face: wind! They're wind traps, and lead to blowdowns.


Instead I recommend you make your own white diffuser system. They give good soft diffused light, they're easy to use, and they don't lead to blowdowns. I've made several variations and I demonstrate them on YouTube and my Gumroad video about sketch easels.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Alice in Larvaeland

No, it's not AI art—not digital either. I painted it for fun in acrylic during lunch break while I was a 22-year-old working as a background painter on the animated movie "Fire and Ice."

I suppose I was tapping into some weird corners of my subconscious mind, trying to figure out how to adapt H.R. Giger's biomorphism to landscape painting, and tossing some story possibilities out there for Ralph Bakshi's team to play with.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Shadow Letters

Sign painters and show-card artists in the golden age of penmanship had a variety of styles of applying shadows to make letters stand out.

According to Atkinson, "All letters must be shaded on the same angle, and every characteristic must be indicated.

"On letters A, Y, V, W, M, the shade is narrower in width on the diagonal "letter strokes" that are affected by the shade at a forty-five degree angle.

"On ordinary work and Card Writing, the relief shade is most commonly used, as it permits of quick execution, and in most cases is rendered in single stroke, using a brush that will accommodate itself to the width of the shade desired.

"Where extremities of letters are close together, the stroke can be left disconnected, which liberty is legitimate and permissible, especially on card work.

"On the relief shade leave "relief space" quite wide—i. e., the space between the edge of letter and inner edge of shade; it gives the letter better emphasis and is more professional."

From A Show at Sho'-Cards by Atkinson 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Developing Neural Pathways

Learning to paint requires developing two different sets of neural pathways. One is the cognitive / perceptual skill of strategic observation, where you learn to see what you need to see at each stage of the process, no more, no less.

The other is a cognitive / perceptual / motor pathway that allows you to plan a move of the hand to pick a brush, lift the right amount of paint of the right color and consistency, and apply it in a way that gets you closer to the interpretation you visualized.

Much of this neural architecture takes place outside the cranial vault and requires that you develop new skills of hand/eye coordination, head movement, and even breathing.

Read more:

Neuroscience News: The Link Between Drawing and Seeing in the Brain

Science Direct: Digest of Motor Learning Articles

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Rhinecliff Hotel

The Rhinecliff Hotel overlooks the Hudson River alongside the railroad tracks. For many years it was the scene of lively Irish music sessions. 

You'd pay your five bucks, walk past the pinball machines and the pool table, and find a folding chair near the back of the room, where a single light bulb illuminated the scene.

In the shadows it was rotting a bit, but no one minded, as long as your chair didn't fall through the soft floor at the edges. 

There was a hole in the tin ceiling where the resident squirrel (or was it a rat?) stuck his head through when the music really got going. Sometimes a train would thunder by right in the middle of a melancholy slow air. 

Other times the "phantom pay phone" would ring. There had once been a payphone, but someone removed the phone, leaving the ringer intact behind the wall. When it would go off, you'd just have to wait for it to quit ringing, because no one could answer it.

Someone bought the hotel and rebuilt it at great expense, but the business fell through, and it sits vacant now.