Friday, August 31, 2007

An Inconvenient Technique

In addition to the usual bookstore signings, I’ll be visiting eight of the top art schools in the U.S.A. during the upcoming book tour for Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara.

At each school, I’ll meet with students and faculty to find out about their various programs for teaching painting, illustration, and comic art. At each one I’ll give a presentation showing my own method for making realistic pictures of imaginary scenes. The name of the presentation is “An Inconvenient Technique.”

The art schools include:
Hartford Art School—October 9
Ringling College of Art and Design—Oct. 17
Rhode Island School of Design—Oct. 25
SUNY Fredonia—Nov. 12
Syracuse University—Nov. 14
Art Center College of Design—Nov. 28
Academy of Art University—December 4
San Jose State University School of Art and Design—Dec. 6

Unfortunately, most of these events can’t be open to the public. But don’t worry: over the next couple of weeks on this blog I’ll preview some of the material from my presentation. If you’re a working artist, perhaps you might find a few tips that you can use, and I hope you’ll add a comment describing methods you’ve developed.

And if you stay tuned to this blog, you’ll get an inside look at each of these famous art schools. If you’re a young artist thinking of going to art school, you’ll get an idea of what the institutions have in common—and how they’re different.

If you’re not an artist at all, but just enjoy the Dinotopia books, you’ll get a better idea of what the cooks are doing in the kitchen.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Using Dinosaur Models

The key to making a painting of a dinosaur look three-dimensional is to look at actual models. By setting up a variety of models in actual sunlight, you can see what happens with the textures and the reflected light.

This painting called "Chasing Shadows" shows a Brachiosaurus walking on a beach. He's lit from behind by a late morning sun, and the light is bouncing up from the warm sand onto his belly. Surrounding the painting are digital photos of a variety of dinosaur sculptures. The ones on the bottom are by Kaiyodo, a Japanese company. The ones in the upper right are by David Krentz, a very talented sculptor who has worked for all the movie companies. The little head just to the right of the figures is from Jurassic Park.

It's a good idea to work from the inspiration of a lot of different models, so you're not basing the painting on just one. Each model has unique little nuances. It also helps to paint the models a flat, neutral gray tone, so that they photograph well, and you can see the form more clearly.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Ninety Degree Rule

Sometimes I start a plein air painting and it just doesn’t click. Either the drawing doesn’t work out, or the light changes, or a big truck parks smack in front of me. That’s when I apply the Ninety Degree Rule.

Rather than wasting time searching around for another motif, I just turn 90 degrees to the side and paint whatever is there. In the case of this painting, Jeanette was standing at my side, so I just painted her.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Copies from the Masters, Part 2

As an exercise before a day of composing, Chopin would spend an hour or two playing music from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. When he played Bach’s music he felt he absorbed the master through the pores in his fingertips.

Why don’t we do the same thing as artists? Maybe it’s because we’re taught that it’s bad to copy someone else’s work. And we’re justifiably concerned about becoming an imitator of someone else’s style.

But there’s nothing at all wrong with copying as a way to practice and learn. It’s the shortest path to understanding. The safeguard against becoming derivative is to copy several different artists side by side to see how many ways there are to solve a painting problem.

The goal of these copies was to compare how four classic illustrators painted a head. You may recognize, clockwise from the upper left: Haddon Sundblom, Dean Cornwell, J.C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell. By trying to replicate a little detail from each one, I could get a better feel for what kind of brushes and mediums they used and what sequence of steps they had to follow to get their results.

Leyendecker, for example, must have spent time in the early stages working out soft transitions within the form. Only at the end would he cut in the background with big light strokes using a smooth, slippery medium.

Each of these great illustrators developed his own way of painting by absorbing earlier masters. There’s a bit of Zorn in Sundblom, Brangwyn in Cornwell, Bouguereau in Leyendecker, and Rembrandt in Rockwell. We stand on each other’s shoulders, and we see through each other’s eyeballs.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Copies from the Masters, Part 1

From what I’ve read about 19th Century art training, students used to spend a good deal of time making copies of the old masters. I don’t know how many art schools these days are encouraging the practice, but I think it’s a great idea. It forces you to appreciate in a much deeper way what your heroes were actually doing.

I made these copies from reproductions of some of my favorite academic painters, Hudson River School artists, and golden age illustrators. They’re all in oil, mostly about 6 or 8 inches across. I’ve never had the nerve to set up and do a copy in a museum, but I salute those who have.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Juice: Shishkin and Cather

This is the first of a little feature called “Juice,” where I pair up an artist with a quote. Each has inspired me in some way or stimulated a new pathway of thinking. Please post a comment and share your thoughts.

“Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness.”

Quote by Willa Cather
Art by Ivan Shishkin

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Don't Wake the Rooster

If you’re going to sketch an animal, it had better be either sleeping or hypnotized.

I went to the chicken house yesterday at the Dutchess County Fair looking for a sleeping rooster. I’ll need some practice painting feathers if I’m going to make those feathered dinosaurs look right.

The chicken house has long rows of cages stacked on top of each other. The air smells like guano, and most of the birds are preening and fussing or crowing like maniacs. But there’s this one gorgeous Buff Japanese Cock blissfully asleep. I get right to work.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a kid come in the door holding a giant inflatable blue dolphin that he won at the midway. He’s whacking all the cages one by one, saying “Look at ‘em jump!”

“Please don’t,” I beg helplessly as the kid gets closer. My little rooster rouses and hops up in alarm. The kid moves on, snorting with laughter.

Fortunately a 4-H kid comes up to me and says “Don’t worry, mister, I can hypnotize him.” He opens the cage and says, “He belongs to my sister, and here’s what she does.” With that he cradles the rooster, rubs him under the chin for a while, and puts him back. The little rooster stands stock-still in a philosopical daze for another seven or eight minutes, long enough for me to work up a little watercolor study.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Fire Engine, Part 5 of 5

Finally, I set up a little diorama of the dinosaur with its modular cab, and placed some figures along the ground. What I'm looking for is the quality of light and shadow.

For the final painting in oil I changed a lot of the details, but having seen an actual model it was easier for me to imagine the real scene.

To thank my friend Ernesto Bradford for his contribution to the design of the fire equipment, I asked him to pose for the fire chief. He sent a roll of photos of himself in various poses and lightings. If you study the photo and the painting together you'll notice a lot of little adjustments to develop the character of Igneus Vinco, which means "conqueror of fire."

Dinotopian Fire Engine
Fire Engine, Part 1
Fire Engine, Part 2
Fire Engine, Part 3
Fire Engine, Part 4
Fire Engine, Part 5

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Fire Engine, Part 4 of 5

To make a painting look three dimensional, I have to start with something real in front of me. That way I can light it with a real light and see where the shadows go. I had sculpted a little brachiosaur head and saddle years ago from Sculpey and leather. On top of that I added hoses and attachments from modeling clay and used an action figure for the firefighter.

Based on that model, I worked up the painting (about six inches tall) of the head gear.

For the modular cab, I used a piece of old mat board and hot glue. The warm light from the right suggests a fire is happening nearby.
Here's the painting of the cab with riders. I put lots of hand grips around the cab because of the amount of swinging that would happen on the way to the fire.

An here I am, my own cheapest model, posing with a Russian hat. Since there was no one around in the studio, I shot the reference using a self-timer.

Check again tomorrow for the full dinosaur and the fire chief.

Dinotopian Fire Engine
Fire Engine, Part 1
Fire Engine, Part 2
Fire Engine, Part 3
Fire Engine, Part 4
Fire Engine, Part 5

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fire Engine, Part 3 of 5

Ernesto Bradford of the E-1 Company designs fire engines for a living. He's a talented artist as well as an engineer. He can draw anything. His designs look cool, but they also work because of his knowledge of materials and physics.

In this ballpoint pen sketch, he has worked out the idea of the brachiosaur pumping the water. The weight of the water line is supported on the dinosaur armor.

The helmet of the dinosaur has a swivel mount for the water cannon, and a breathing filter, so the dinosaur doesn't choke from smoke.

And a modular cab is designed to fit on the back of the dinosaur, just like blog reader K.Tigress was thinking.

Now, how do you go from these drawings to an oil painting that looks three dimensional? Check back tomorrow!

All of these designs are copyright 2006 Ernesto Bradford.

Dinotopian Fire Engine
Fire Engine, Part 1
Fire Engine, Part 2
Fire Engine, Part 3
Fire Engine, Part 4
Fire Engine, Part 5

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fire Engine, Part 2 of 5

Thanks to those of you who posted comments on the last entry.

Ljay, Cat, and Colin, you’re right that there would be serious pressure losses caused by the hose reel. And K. Tigress, I love the mammoth idea, and your thought of putting the firefighters on seats mounted on the back of the brachiosaur. Donna’s point is right on the mark, too: the “little guy” is supposed to be a self-contained walking machine or 'strutter,' carrying a steam-powered pumper—all very complicated and prone to failure.

My consultant Ernesto Bradford was also concerned with the hose pressure losses. He wondered how the whole thing could be accomplished more simply. Here are some of the things he pointed out.

1. The extended ladder was unsecured, and would toss the fire fighter off the top whenever the dinosaur moved its head.
2. The volume of water inside the hose at that extension would weigh several hundred pounds. When it was spraying, it would be impossible to control.
3. The dinosaur needs a breathing apparatus so he doesn’t suffocate from smoke, and he needs some heat protection on the front of his neck.
4. The pump is unnecessarily complex, and doesn’t take advantage of the strength of the dinosaur. Why not have the dinosaur use its front legs to pump the water?

Ernesto then offered to sketch up some ideas. I’ll show you his drawings in tomorrow’s post.

Dinotopian Fire Engine
Fire Engine, Part 1
Fire Engine, Part 2
Fire Engine, Part 3
Fire Engine, Part 4
Fire Engine, Part 5

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Fire Engine, Part 1 of 5 Postings

What would a Dinotopian fire engine look like?

While I was working on Journey to Chandara my friend Ernesto Bradford asked me that question. Ernesto Bradford happens to be the senior product specialist for E-1, the top firm that designs and builds modern fire engines. Here he is beside the brand new "Quest" model, which he helped create.

I told Ernesto that I had done a little marker sketch a while ago. I dug it out of an old file folder and showed it to him. He looked at it very carefully and rubbed his chin. “Very nice,” he said politely, “but it would never work.”Please post a comment and list the reasons why you think my design wouldn’t work. Have all your comments in by Tuesday morning and then I’ll tell you what Ernesto said.

Dinotopian Fire Engine
Fire Engine, Part 1
Fire Engine, Part 2
Fire Engine, Part 3
Fire Engine, Part 4
Fire Engine, Part 5

Friday, August 17, 2007

Face Book

I collect faces the way a stamp collector collects stamps.

We just returned from a college orientation session. There were meetings and lectures and panel discussions, but I was never bored because I had my “face book.” That’s what I call my little pocket sketchbook, which is only 4 x 6 inches, small enough to be fairly inconspicuous. Above are two sample pages, with a 25 cent coin for scale.

At that size, all you can capture is the basic shape of the hair, the shape of the head, and the placement of dashes or dots for the features. But that’s all you need. In fact those simple elements are the foundation of what makes each person a unique and distinctive character. Can you tell which is the police captain and which is the chemical engineering professor?

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Here’s a pen-and-ink drawing of the Cabin at Platte Clove that I made while sitting on the weeds along the trail. Since the cabin dates from the 1860s, I was trying to channel Arthur Denison. The experience of living and working in the wilderness definitely influenced my vision of Dinotopia in Journey to Chandara.

If there are professional artists or writers among you who are interested in learning more about the summer artist residency program at the cabin, check out

Each artist or writer gets to stay a week for free, supported by the generosity of the members of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Slaves to Nature

Today, on my last day in the Catskills, I’m painting an ordinary view of a typical Catskill stream. This will be reference material for a future Dinotopia painting. I’m trying to paint exactly what I see without relying conventional landscape formulas. The T-shirt I’m wearing is from a very small, semi-secret organization of plein air aficionados. We call ourselves the “Slaves to Nature.” The group arose in response to the notion that painting in this way is somehow slavish copying. (It also arose from the desire to have cool t-shirts.)

Of course Nature makes a slave of nobody who loves her. But she does punish us in other ways. Take the sunlight-diffusing umbrella, for instance. Over the years, sudden gusts of wind have blown it over and buckled the delicate wires. This was the last time I used it before it died.

The final painting is in oil, 8x16 inches. In the photo you can see the real scene directly behind it for comparison. The weakest part of the painting is the area on the lower right where I tried to improve on what I saw by compressing the forms. Whistler once said “Nature is nearly always wrong.” The Slaves to Nature disagree. We hold with the Russian philosopher Chernyshevsky, who said, “Art is fine, but Nature is always better.”

Monday, August 13, 2007

Dibble's Quarry

I find inspiration for future Dinotopia books in the most unlikely places.

The bluestone quarries above Platte Clove were once the source for the slate sidewalks of New York City in the Nineteenth century. Huge piles of broken stones and rubble remain along sections of the mountain trails. Over the decades, nameless people have fashioned strange structures from the stones, kind of a “wiki-vernacular-architecture.”

Along the Pecoy Notch Trail, about a mile away from the nearest road, is Dibble’s Quarry, the most extensive of its type. It commands a fine view of the valley of the Platte Clove, a good spot to munch granola bars and speak in elvish.

There are many stone slab chairs, notably the “Druid’s Throne,” with several Mini-me side thrones nearby. Rattlesnakes commonly sun themselves on these rocks, so you have to look carefully into the cracks and sit down gingerly. What if there were a whole village like this in Dinotopia?

Curious Spectators

I set up to paint on a bridge over Schoharie Creek, and a father and his two sons came along to watch. The boys were each holding a slice of bread and they tore off little pieces to feed the fish. They wanted to know why I hadn’t included the fish in the painting. The father wanted to know how I made my living as an artist. The delicious aroma of frying latkes drifted over to us from the nearby Orthodox Jewish community. Then the boys ran home, their father warning them to watch out for cars.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Into the Woods

I left the little red cabin for a day of painting in the Catskill wilderness. All the plein air gear fits into a black backpack so I can take it on the trail. The “Barbie-go” wheels on the pack might take away a few style points among hard-core trekkers, but they make the rig handy in airports.

Here I am in the woods “up a stump” and starting to paint. I use (and recommend) the Open Box M pochade box ( The paint palette and adjustable panel holder mounts onto a camera tripod (Velbon CX 444). The advantage over the traditional French easel is that you can turn, tilt, raise, and lower your work very easily. I added a side panel with graduated holes for holding brushes and Nalgene palette cups containing Gamsol solvent and Liquin alkyd medium. On the mixing palette is disposable white freezer paper.

Here’s the finished painting, Trail to the Beaver Dam, which I did in two consecutive three-hour sessions. It’s very tiny, only 6 by 12 inches. I was attracted to the glimpse of distance through the trees on the right, and the profound darkness on the trail ahead on the left. The illumination in the foreground comes from the trees that were cut down.

For more information about plein air work, have a look at the Web site

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Jimmy Morton

On Monday morning we stopped by to visit Jimmy Morton, who lives alone in a little house near the headwaters of Schoharie Creek. He has spent all his 94 years within five miles of Platte Clove.

As I sketched his portrait in his kitchen, he told me about the horses that used to haul the bluestone down from the mountain, and how he used to walk to school in 30-below weather.

When he was younger he brought his pet crow Jip on his milk delivery route. “Jip was the nicest pet I ever had,” he said. “He’d sit up in a tree and then—‘caw, caw’—he’d come down and set on my shoulder. But he’d steal things from people around here—watches and keys and whatnot—and stick them all in a hollow tree. I had to climb the tree and fetch them all back to their owners.”

One time he was coming down from Roundtop Mountain through the deep forest when he heard a strange sound coming from above. “I looked up and I’ll be darned if there wasn’t a cowbell up in the tree ringing. The only thing I could figure, a raccoon hauled it up there and was ringin’ it when he seen me go by.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Platte Clove Community

On Sunday some friends from the Platte Clove Community came by for a visit. They live just up the road in a converted summer camp at the base of Roundtop Mountain. Formerly known as the Hutterian Brethren or the Bruderhof, the Platte Clove Community is a faith-based group of about two hundred people who work, play, and sing in harmony. Even though they’ve chosen to do without a lot of modern technology, they have the largest hot-water solar collector in the Northeast.

Two of their kids posed making funny faces for a scene in the new Dinotopia book Journey to Chandara. I had just received an advance bound copy from the publisher, so I brought it along to show them. Here they are holding the book and this time not making faces.

We had a potluck picnic supper on the porch, with sweet corn, potato salad, and grilled burgers made from beef they raised.
Later we made s’mores, ate watermelon, and sang songs around the campfire.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Boring Old Cabin

“This is going to be BORING,” declared Franklin as we started up the Platte Clove Road. “Stuck in this old cabin with nothing to do.”

As if in answer, the sky darkened as we reached the top of the clove and pulled the car into the space beside the cabin. The minute after we went inside a thunderstorm commenced its performance. Kuky clung to the wires of his cage in terror. The downpour sent muddy rivers pouring down the stone steps.

We are now living up in the clouds where the thunder is manufactured. Each new clap sounds like a huge plate of metal suspended a foot above your head being hit by a baseball bat.

Later, as Jeanette and I settled down to our books and Franklin to his DVDs, the mice commenced a ballet performance, scampering out from spaces in the wall. And then the moths found their way through the windows and circled around the single light bulb. I flailed at them to no effect.

When I went to use the wastebasket a scampering sound told me that a mouse had fallen in and was trapped inside. I carried him across the old kingpost bridge, a few hundred yards away on the other side of the stream and let him go. Time will tell if he finds his way back.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Cabin in the Catskills

Platte Clove is a V-shaped valley that slices into the western face of the Catskill Mountains in New York State. Some wildlife biologists consider it the wildest tract of land in the Northeast. Because of the sheer cliffs and plunging cascades, the DEC has decided to cut no official trails into the gorge. Cars can reach the top only by a single-lane road that is so treacherous that it is open only from May to November.

At the top of the clove, nestled above a 100-foot cascade called Plattekill Falls, is a little red cabin built in 1840. It has been granted the modern blessing of four or five electric light bulbs and a socket or two, but it is innocent of plumbing. The cabin is owned by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (, which has established an artist-in-residence program. Painters, writers, and others haunted by the muse can work in the magic spell of the clove, the very spot where Washington Irving reportedly received his inspiration for Rip Van Winkle.

I was thrilled to have been chosen for a week-long residency. Today, along with Jeanette, Franklin, and my parakeet Kuky, I’m on my way up the mountain in our old family van named Trusty Rusty.
(The painting was done outdoors at twilight during my last stay at the cabin in 2005.)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Diner Still Life

My sketchbooks have quite a few drawings like this, which I call the “Diner Still Life.” It usually consists of the chrome napkin holder, sugar dispenser, ketchup bottle, and salt-and-pepper shakers.

If the service is a little slow, I might have about twenty minutes to work on all the wonderful reflections and transparencies. You could try all you want to arrange a nice still life at home in the studio, but you can never beat the chance arrangements that you find in real life.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Meet Jeanette

Here’s my wife Jeanette doing what she loves most: sitting outdoors with a sketchbook. We met as sketching buddies at Art Center College of Design. For our perspective class we had to go outside to draw from life, so we spent many hours side by side on street corners trying to capture a scene or a character. We’d treat ourselves afterward with a coffee and muffin at a diner. We haven’t changed one bit since then.