Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Movie Poster Clichés

Jackomatic has catalogued a set 15 Hollywood movie poster clichés, including the Giant Eye, which usually signals horror.

...and the dramatic back-view silhouette, which suggests the lonely vigilante.

Book Review: The Art of the Salon

A recently published book called the The Art of the Salon: The Triumph of 19th-Century Painting is a lavish and visually impressive production which fills a long-neglected gap on the art history bookshelf. 

The book is a very large slipcased hardcover featuring the painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (above) by Lawrence Alma Tadema on the cover. The book is 288 pages and measures 14 x 12 inches, weighing in at more than 7.5 pounds, making it the ultimate coffee table book. It's so big it will hardly fit on a regular bookshelf.

The scope of the book is ambitious, too. It not only includes the French Salon tradition, but also samples of Victorian painting, works from the American Hudson River School, and some pieces from Eastern Europe.

The introduction discusses the causes of the recent revival of interest in Salon painting and compares the spectacle of many 19th century epic history paintings to the popular appetite for extravagant Hollywood movies.

Carl Theodor von Piloty - Seni at the Dead Body of Wallenstein
The 230 color reproductions include masterpieces not only by acknowledged masters such as Bouguereau, Gerome, Waterhouse, Leighton, but also by many other deserving but lesser-known painters, such as Morelli, Cormon, and Makart. The size of the reproductions ranges from generous double page spreads to small images the size of postcards or even business cards, but on balance, compared to many other recent books, the pictures are ample in scale. There's so much more detail in a good printed reproduction than most internet images.

The book examines Paris as a cultural capital, the business of the Salon exhibitions, and the spread of academic training around the world. Most of the second half of the book is organized thematically, with subjects such as national history, the "West-Eastern Divan," and "Between Sensuality and Prudery."

Unfortunately, the writing style is difficult to understand. This may have been partly the consequence of the translation from the original German. For example, here's a sample sentence, pulled out at random: "The description of the everyday, indeed of the trivial, and not seldom also the grotesque and satirical, the ugly and the lowly does not tolerate stylization (for example an antiquizing body position, dramatic gestures, selected accessories as expressions of dignity) or formal and compositional idealizing (for example a classical, friezelike arrangement of figures, a hierarchical frontality and so on)." 

Compared to more readable and informative accounts of salon painting by people like Barbara Weinberg the book misses an opportunity to lay out the simple facts and stories about Salon painting in straightforward language. Nevertheless, the book is a welcome addition to the library of any fan of academic painting, and browsing it is a rich visual feast.
Norbert Wolf: The Art of the Salon: The Triumph of 19th-Century Painting by Prestel Publishing
Two other excellent books on the subject:
Barbara Weinberg: The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Atmospheric distance and value

Plein-air study painted on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, looking west.

Blog reader Rockhopper asked about how tones get lighter in the distance as a result of atmospheric perspective:

"How do you define value as the image recedes? I know it gets lighter and I know it goes bluer. Is there a rule in place to define distance with the value? So for example a mountain is 10 miles away, is the mountain at 20 miles way half the value of the 10 mile mountain?"

Here’s a preliminary answer. As you can see, I'm still trying to figure this one out:

I've always assumed it's a linear progression. In other words, if a dark tree near you is a #8 value (with white=0), and the farthest hill twelve miles away is a #2, then dark objects will shift one step lighter in value for every two miles of distance. But the more I think about it, I have a hunch that this assumption may be wrong. I have a feeling there's more to it.

Let’s begin by supposing that the air is evenly distributed with dust and moisture and that the volume of air is equally illuminated throughout.

Would it be reasonable to suppose that looking through atmosphere is like looking through an evenly spaced series of wedding veils? Each parcel of air introduces a fixed amount of additional scattered light.

By this way of thinking, the tonal shift relative to distance would be geometric rather than linear. In other words, let's suppose you suspend wedding veils 20 feet apart from each other in an infinite progression away from the observer. To test the lightening effect, you can have a person with a black velvet coat stand behind the first veil, then run back a little farther and stand behind next, thereby being obscured by two veils. The process continues as the subject goes back in space. Now let's suppose each layer of wedding veil makes the black 50% lighter. The resulting value progression would be #10 @ 20 feet, #5 @ 40 feet,  #2.5 @ 60 feet, #1.25 # 80 feet, etc, continuing toward pure white.

I have a hunch, too, that our perception of steps in value is influenced by features in our visual system just as much as it is by external reality, and that the whole problem is beyond any easy math.

I remember reading that the perceptually based value scale that we know from art school is not as simple as it seems. The change in the actual amount of light coming to the eye at each step in the value series is not a linear progression of constant units, like the markings on a water beaker. Instead, it's a non-linear relationship, with each step representing a much greater volume of light than the last. As David Briggs puts it in his excellent website HueValueChroma, "value has a nonlinear relationship to luminance - a surface that looks visually halfway between black and white reflects only about 18% of the light energy reflected by a white surface."

Perhaps there’s a photographer, meteorologist, mathematician or a vision scientist who can help cut through the confusion here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Museum works with living artist to replicate old master techniques

(Video link) To help get the word out about its recent watercolor exhibition, the Tate Museum in London enlisted contemporary artist Mike Chaplin to replicate some of the techniques of J.M.W. Turner from 200 years ago. 

There are three films in the "How to Paint Like Turner" series from the Tate.

Thanks, Marney Morris 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Miniature figures

If you ever need small figures to populate a reference miniature or architectural maquette, you can find these sets of unpainted plastic figures from a model railroad supplier. They're shown here next to a raccoon skull and a mouse skull and an inch ruler for comparison. Typically the poses are standing and sitting.

They generally come in white unpainted plastic or painted. You can get them in sets, where the cost averages about a dollar each. They are scaled to all the standard model railroad sizes, such as HO, S, O, etc.

I found the unpainted ones in Great Britain, but you can also get them on Amazon: HO People

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Your sketchbook covers

A couple weeks ago, I did a post about decorating sketchbooks covers, and asked you to send in some of yours. Check out the awesome responses:

Gilead, who used to be a sign painter, says "I've kind of fallen out of the habit, but here's a couple from a few years ago. They're cloth covered 9 X 12" books. I did an under coat in flat white house paint and then used pens, charcoal and acrylics on top of that."

Steve Gilzow kept an illustrated journal when he had a residency in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. He did the lettering with Sanford paint/gel pens, which he said did not stand up well to repeated handling.

Emma B explains how she did these numbered sketchbooks (VII, 8, 9, X):

"My process was to get a black and white drawing prepared, make a print of it at just above sketchbook size, then paint the back of the paper with rubber cement. After that, I'd cut most of the big parts with an Exact-o knive and put it on the cover of the sketchbook, where because of the rubber cement it adhered readily. Once the smaller parts were cut out and all parts to be painted were removed and rubber cement cleared off, I painted the stencils with a durable white primer spray paint...."
"...Remove the stencil, clear remaining rubber cement and they were ready to go. The only issue I had with this technique was that it was time consuming to do all the cutting, and that the bright white of the spray paint would tend to get a little dirty with heavy usage and daily handling. I started making loose outer covers of paper to throw away once the sketchbook was fully sketched in order to keep the cover designs clean." She says the "9INE" design was by Cody Tilson and the "10" design was by Chad Paulin.

Finally, Joyce Durkin writes: "I use different sketchbooks for different subjects. I always had the notion to paint or decorate the covers and a few years ago I finally tried one. This sketchbook has a cloth cover, so I was able to use oil paints on it. I used masking tape around the edges, applied a few coats of gesso, painted a scene, and then varnished it. I used a metallic pen for the title."
Previously: Titles on Sketchbook Covers
One of my first lettered covers for group sketching games, done with a gold paint pen.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Google's research on machine perception

Google is making huge strides in artificial (or machine) vision. Until now, most machine vision systems have been used on robotic assembly lines and other highly controlled environments.

One of Google's goals is to bring machine vision into the real world and see how well it does recognizing objects. Above are images of both specific and general objects gathered into sets based on features that the computer is trained to look for. Extracting these features from a digital image—or from a live video capture— can be immensely complex and subjective, especially when an object is seen in various angles and lightings.

As it improves, machine perception will help with driverless cars, so that the car can read street signs, look for garage sales, or distinguish black ice from a wet street. It will also be valuable for Google Street View to be able to know what it's looking at, and Google Glass to aid users in recognizing things at superhuman levels of ability: for example, to know the make, model and year of every car in your visual field.

It won't be long before machine vision surpasses ours in certain respects, and it already does so in many ways. One recent study demonstrated a machine system that could extract 100,000 features from a scene, while a comparable human could extract only 10,000. Part of the computer's advantage comes from GPS location-based information that gives it context to make such observations.

To make progress in this field, Google has been supporting scientific research in visual perception, and hosting experts in the field to give lectures, which you can watch online. This one (video link), by Dennis Proffitt brings out the point that non-human creatures definitely don't see the way we humans see. The frog, for example, is predisposed to see moving edges, moving dots (read insects), and changes in illumination.

Later in the talk (at 20:00) Proffitt describes a study that demonstrates that a right-handed person perceives their right arm to be longer than their left arm, and at 36:00, he shows that a person's estimate of walking distance to visible objects is directly correlated to their physiological health. At around 48:00, he suggests that our perceptual systems compresses vertical dimensions depending on the size and position of the screen or canvas.
A list of Google's online resources about machine perception

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What can a painting tell us about an artist?

Something I’ve always wondered: how much can you guess about the personality of an unknown artist just by looking at one of their paintings? Can you guess the century or the decade or the country in which it was created? Can you tell anything about the artist's temperament? Does each painting contain all of of an artists's personal and cultural DNA?

This painting dates from 1985 1885 and is by the Russian painter Konstantin Kryzhitsky (1858-1911). I don't know anything about him—if you do, tell us in the comments. But if this painting is any evidence, he must have had a deep soul, a love of mystery, melancholy, and music, and a keen sense of nature's moods that must have come from long walks through the countryside. This painting couldn't have been done by a flippant, urbane, or shallow person.

The great composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff once wrote, “Music should, in the final analysis, be the expression of a complex personality…A composer’s music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books that have influenced him, the pictures he loves. It should be the product of the sum total of a composer’s experiences.” 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Color movement

I was looking for street scenes to sketch in a little Catskill mountain town. Nothing at eye level inspired me. So I looked up and noticed this false-fronted old building with a utility pole beside it. 

It was a cloudy day, and I wanted it to look bleak, so I used a very limited palette of watercolors and water-soluble colored pencils, just blues and browns. 

In order to balance the detail areas of the wires and the texture of the storefront, I kept other areas simple, such as the side of the building and the far trees.

But simple doesn't have to mean flat. Even in a limited palette like this, it's a good idea to look for color movement—the gradual shift from one color to another within an area. In watercolor, that meant wetting an area, preparing burnt sienna and ultramarine puddles on the palette, and then dropping more cool on one side and more warm on the other and letting them blend.
90 Degree Rule
Color Gradations

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sculpting the older face

Aging affects the face in far more fundamental ways than just superficial wrinkles. In this video, Sculptor Philippe Faraut makes the changes in soft clay to represent the journey of a typical male face from youth to old age.

When drawing older faces, American illustrator Andrew Loomis advises eliminating surface wrinkles and stating only the main lines and forms: "The impression of age is maintained without the incidental and insignificant wrinkles."

Monday, July 22, 2013

New microscope allows close views of living coral

A new visual tool called a laser scanning confocal microscope allows unprecedented close-up views of the complexity of life in the coral community. (Video link)

Video with "graphic novel" look

Is it possible for a computer to process a video so that it looks like a comic book?

Friday Lunch from Tinrocket, LLC on Vimeo.
This video by Tinrocket (Direct link to video) demonstrates a beta version of a "graphic novel filter" that can be applied to video images. The software has a few tricks that go beyond a normal Photoshop filter, and those tricks are part of a patent application that's currently in the works.

The magnified visual "noise," the low frame rate, and the stark simplicity of the black and white imparts an artistic effect. This happens not only because the images superficially remind us of the appearance of human-created drawings, but because the computer software simulates some of the organic processes of human visual perception.

In the coming years, with advances in computer processing and progress in our understanding of human vision, we will see additional automated filter apps that can alter timing, proportion, color, and detail so that video footage can be morphed into various artistic altered realities.

Thanks, John Balestrieri

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sean Andrew Murray

Breakfast with Sean Andrew Murray, concept artist, teacher, illustrator, and author of Gateway: The Book of Wizards.

Joshua Dukes, Musician

On Friday night at a pub in East Durham, New York I painted Josh "Papa" Dukes as he played traditional Irish music with the band called "The Yanks.

In his other life, Joshua Dukes is also a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army and a drum major in the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the official escort to the President. (He's at the center of this video)

 My perspective was pretty close up, since my seat was right beside him. My sketchbook, watercolor paints, water cup, rag, and casein paints are all in my lap. That's my son Dan playing accordion on the far left.

I had one failed start, which you can see below in the center of Step 1. This is a lay-in of someone else that didn't work out because my subject moved to another pose. No problem--I just shifted gears, wetted out the lines, and dove into the new portrait, painting over the other one.

When Josh switched from flute to bouzouki, I started a second sketch, since the pose was so different.

I was using watercolor and water-soluble colored pencils for the warm colors, and casein for the white and black. Most of this painting is transparent, but casein gave me opacity where I needed it. Most of the painting was done with a very large sable watercolor brush. The whole study took about 45 minutes.
Bio of Joshua Dukes
Fife and Drum Corps
The Yanks Band
Previously: Dan, Accordion

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Show Card Writing, Part 3

Before leaving the topic of show card writing, let's take a look at some alphabets. These were created by the show card writer William Hugh Gordon for his classic 1918 book Lettering for Commercial Purposes.

Each alphabet takes on the character of the tool that constructed it. These calligraphic letterforms were made with a broad, flat tipped tool held at a 45 degree angle. Such letters have been made by a reed pen, a quill pen, or a steel nib. But in this case he's using a rigger brush held at a 45 degrees.

Gordon classifies such an alphabet under the broad category "text" by which he means the old-style or thick-and-thin letters made through the centuries by normal writing instruments.

By rotating the rigger brush in the fingers, a writer can achieve a constant-width or "gothic" alphabet using single strokes. Note the fully open counters on the "o's," the high and low crossbars on the "F" and "A," and the narrow vertical letters, such as "H" and "N." These eccentricities were popular throughout the teens and '20s.

It takes multiple strokes of the brush to construct blocky letters, but in Gordon's hands, it's fast and even.

With a blunt-tipped brush or one of the Speedball oval nibs, you can get this fun poster style. This look is often associated with commercial graphics of the 1920s, such as that of F.G. Cooper.

Finally, I would like to thank blog readers Rise of the Molecule and John Berkeley for letting me know about the following related videos.

(Direct link to video) Factory tour of the Speedball pen nibs.

..and John told me about this video about the traditional fairground lettering and decoration of Joby Carter.

Related links
Amazon book:The Lettering and Graphic Design of F.G. Cooper (Thanks, Bill P.)
Free book: Lettering for Commercial Purposes, William Hugh Gordon, 1918

Read the whole series:
Show Card Writing, Part 1
Show Card Writing, Part 2 
Show Card Writing, Part 3

Friday, July 19, 2013

Show Card Writing: Part 2

Show card writing can be done with pens. In fact the Speedball line of pens was invented for show card work.

If you're not familiar with them, Speedball pen nibs are still being made. They are detachable nibs made with a variety of flat, square, round, and oval tips of various sizes for lettering. They fit into a pen holder and dip into black or colored ink. In high school, I lettered a lot of wedding invitations and menus for print shops, so I practically had these nibs attached to my fingertips.

But most of the professional show card writers of the golden age used rigger brushes. These are long sable brushes with round ferrules. Their tips can be flattened out to make a stroke of even width in the pull direction, and a thin stroke when moved sideways. Used properly, this tool can make most of the letterforms with a single stroke. As far as I'm aware, modern rigger brushes aren't the same as the old show card riggers; most of the modern riggers are intended more for painting thin lines.

In show card work, the letters were not outlined and filled in. That would be too slow. Even a hundred years ago, a writer had to produce a lot of work at very low pay rates. "Quantity first," said William Hugh Gordon (though his quality was the best, too).

A rigger is held between the thumb and first finger in such a way that the brush could be rotated during a stroke. That turn of the brush is necessary to make the "Gothic" and "Block" letterforms shown earlier. You can wrap the ferrule with waxed string to improve the grip. The fingertips should be held far down the ferrule—some held it even closer to the brush tip than the example above.

The brush is pulled toward the writer with a movement of the fingers, as Charles Strong demonstrated above in his book. Strong uses a bridge, but other writers balanced their hand on their last two fingers and did away with the hand rest.

Here's a student setup, from Blair.

The paint was water-based and often prepared from dry pigments by the artist. The best white came by grinding white lead—a potentially toxic practice. The binder was mucilage, a plant glue also used as a wallpaper paste, a paper glue, and a gum for envelopes. You can still get that too, but I haven't experimented with it as a paint binder. You can substitute tube gouache and get good results.

There are many vintage books on the subject, and you can get downloads for free from Google Books and Here are some of the titles and authors I would recommend:

Lettering for Commercial Purposes, William Hugh Gordon, 1918
A Show at Sho' Cards, by Atkinson, 1879
Principles and Practice of Show-Card Writing by Blair, 1922.
Druggists' and Dispensers' Practical Show Card Instructor, by W. A. Thompson, 1909
Effective Show-Cards by August Reupke, 1898.
100 Alphabets for the Show Card Writer, 1909.
Sign & Show Card Writing, Chas. Butterworth, 1899.
Modern Show Card Lettering and Design, by Thompson, 1903.
The Art of Show Card Writing by Charles Strong, 1907.
Instructions on Modern Show Card Writing, by J.G. Bissell, 1913
The Practical Phrases of Show Card Writing, St. Louis, 1922.
Fairchild's Rapid Letterer and Show Card Maker, Sidney Hackes, 1910.
How to Write Show CardsA by DeWild, 1922.
A Textbook on Show-Card Writing, International Correspondence

Tomorrow I'll finish up with a little introduction to some of the alphabets
Resources on Amazon:
Speedball 10 Pen Nib Assorted Set
Speedball pen holder
Wallpaper mucilage