Saturday, May 25, 2019

Karl Blossfeldt's Plant Photographs

Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs of plants inspired a generation of designers.

He began as a sculptor, working in an iron foundry. 

He wasn't trained as a photographer. He made his photos of plants with a home-made camera that was able to magnify leaves and buds, revealing symmetry and order in an apparently objective manner.

He became a professor of applied arts, and his photos were used mainly as teaching tools.

At age 63, he became a success overnight when his photos were published as Urformen der Kunst (sometimes translated as Art Forms in The Plant World), which is still in print.


Friday, May 24, 2019

Wapping Group of Artists

The Wapping Group of Artists is a companionable group who paint together outdoors in Britain.

They were featured (with their various cigars, pipes, and cigarettes) in this 1956 Pathé video. Link to YouTube

The group got its start in the late 1930s as a means of bringing together plein-air painters who liked to sketch dockside scenes along the Thames.

HILDER, Rowland, OBE, PPRI, RSMA Member 1950 - 1972
The Wapping Group is still active and the membership remains limited to 25. They meet every Wednesday between April and September.

These days it's harder to find those classic maritime views along the Thames, so they meet at parks and other places. Here's a book collecting sixty years of their best images: The Wapping Group of Artists: Sixty Years of Painting by the Thames

Are you a member of a group that meets regularly to paint from life? What rules does your group adhere to? What are the upsides, downsides, payoffs, pitfalls, or challenges of running such a group?
Wapping Group website

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Painting with Spots and Dots

To paint this portrait of Smooth, I use watercolor and gouache. 

I decide on a pose where he's laying down. I know he's going to move a lot during the hour and a half session. 

I start loosely, placing spots and dots with big brushes, knowing I can correct errors as I go.

The video shows the process of the painting — (Link to video)

Here are the 12 tips for painting a moving subject, including:

1. Keep the easel, brushes and palette near the line of sight
2. Use a limited palette of colors
3. If you don't like the start, start over
4. Use the corner of a large flat brush
5. Be vigilant for errors, and fix them as you go
6. Look for other places to use each color that you mix
7. Use a different brush for each main color
8. Use water-soluble colored pencils for small lines and textures
9. To modify a passage of dry gouache, wet it quickly (one touch!) and paint into it
10. Pick a pose your subject is likely return to
11. Try priming with casein or tinted gesso
12. Start loose in watercolor — just spots and dots

Pentalic watercolor sketchbook
M. Graham (watercolor)
M. Graham (gouache)
Connoisseur Travel brush 9467
Connoisseur Cat's tongue brush (Squirrel Hair Risslon)
Richeson Travel brush set
Water cup
Homemade easel
You can also use Caran d'Ache gouache in pan set
Fountain pen

Canon M6 (time lapse, video, and stills)
Canon PowerShot Elph (point-and-shoot)
Zoom H2N digital audio recorder
Rode Video Mic GO (microphone)

"Gouache in the Wild" (Download on Gumroad)
"Gouache in the Wild" on (DVD)
“How to Make a Sketch Easel” (DVD)
“Watercolor in the Wild” (Download)

Gouache Materials List
Watercolor Materials

Color and Light: A Guide for Realist Painters
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time

Facebook group "Sketch Easel Builders"

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Portrait of the Year Competition

(Link to YouTube) TV producer Sky Arts has taken a reality-TV-show approach to a portrait competition, pitting 21 painters against each other in an elimination round. The finalists were drawn from nearly 2000 applicants from all over the U.K., based on a preliminary stage where entrants sent in a self-portrait.

The judges, who are artists, art historians, museum curators, and gallery dealers, verbalize their reactions to the paintings as they progress.

The structure of the video is almost identical to the Great British Bake Off, with brief backstory excursions, commentary from the models, tense music, a ticking clock, and a moment where the finalists face the judges with their four-hour paintings.

Such artificial constraints may seem anathema to making a good painting, but it makes good TV entertainment. It's an expensive and ambitious undertaking to produce a show like this, and it would be great if they expanded the competition to entrants from beyond the U.K.

They also have a Landscape Artist of the Year competition (link to YouTube).
Website for: Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 
Previously: Portrait Society Competition
Portrait Society Conference

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Siggraph Previews Photo-Real Computer Graphics

Every summer when computer graphics experts gather at Siggraph, they reveal new technical breakthroughs. (Link to video on YouTube)

This year's preview video reveals realistic simulations of goopy frosting, ferrofluids, and human anatomy. It will be possible to change the lighting in photos, graft an art style onto a captured video, and seamlessly change what a talking head is saying by editing a text transcript.

Silly Rubber, viscoelastic and elastoplastic material
by Fang, Li, Gao, Jiang
These technical innovations will find their way into the visual effects that you will see in TV commercials, movies, and eventually consumer graphics programs.
Siggraph 2019 will 28 July - 1 August in Los Angeles

Monday, May 20, 2019

Podcast about Sketching Irish Music

If you like sketching Irish traditional music, this podcast is for you. Boston-based musician Shannon Heaton talks to Brian Vallely, Vincent CrottyCatharine Kingcome, and me. Topics covered include about traveling pipers, a dilapidated hotel in the Hudson Valley, Dudley Street dance hall in post WWII America, and a country home in County Clare.
Trad on Canvas by Shannon Heaton

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Shortcomings of American Art Education

In the following essay, a famous artist discusses the shortcomings of art education in America, and proposes some remedies. At the end of the post, I'll let you know who wrote the essay.  

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Portrait Class, 1901
"It seems to me that no one could seriously dispute the fact that a great school of art in America is needed, or that such a school would have the very greatest influence in the development both of the spirit and the practice of art. As art is now taught in this country, it is too fragmentary. The pupils are not thoroughly grounded. Any one who wants to study art here can do so. The examinations are too easy. In the foreign schools the examinations are very difficult. The student must know a good deal to pass them. There should be an American school with equally high requirements. 

If a young man [or young woman] wants to enter Harvard or Yale, his preparation must be thorough. That is the way it should be with the school of art, for the school of art should really be like a university. The student, before being admitted to the university, should have passed beyond the elemental stage of study which properly belongs to the grammar-school grade. As it is now in America there is no place where parents who think their son is a genius can send that son to find out that he isn’t a genius. There are very few people who can’t be taught to draw more or less well, but the mere ability to draw does not make an artist. 

"There seems to be a desire on the part of a very large number of persons either to become professional artists, sculptors, and painters or to acquire some of the principles of decoration. But there is also widespread ignorance that a thorough grounding in certain facts is absolutely essential to the serious student before he is prepared to avail himself of the experience of others. 

Those who wish to study art here are admitted to classes far too leniently. In the schools abroad the entrance examinations are very severe, and by a succession of examinations, the less talented are eliminated. This refers, of course, to the great schools — not to the irresponsible studios, where a model or two is hired and a few painters with a present reputation are engaged to call in occasionally to give advice; to such schools anybody, with no experience whatever, can, by paying a small fee, be admitted. 

It has been immensely to the advantage of America that there is nothing for architects abroad which corresponds with the irresponsible painting ateliers referred to. The student of architecture going to Paris, for instance — although my remarks do not apply to Paris alone — can only study his profession by going into the “Beaux Arts.” The entrance examination is very severe, of course, and should be so, but the effect upon the American student is everywhere apparent here, and has given the architects of the United States the great position they occupy to-day. 

If the money is provided — and one of the things which surprises me on coming back to America is the amount of money there seems to be — there would seem to be no reason why a great American school of art should not be established and be put in working order within a reasonably short time. A building should be furnished, among other things, with copies of the best examples of art in foreign countries in sculpture, painting, and architecture. There would be little difficulty in acquiring these, although it would take time. 

The American Art Federation would be the institution which would most naturally father the work of establishing an American school. And the question of a location for the school would have to be answered by circumstances. It should be in a center, some place where it would be to the advantage of both pupils and instructors to live. The location might be a problem. One would name New York as the obvious place for the school, as the National Academy is there, and the various art societies to which most American artists contribute hold their exhibitions there. 

The art ability of Americans is not to be belittled. The best American artists can hold their own anywhere. American art as a whole, however, has the tendency to be preoccupied with problems of a technical nature, such as how to put on paint, and things of that sort. The painting of individual pictures is not art in its highest form. Pictures are only fragments. The great things are works which carry an idea through to completion. 

I do not think that the great problems of adapting one subject or composition to its environment is sufficiently studied, if it is studied at all. The three great branches of art — painting, sculpture, and architecture — should be independent. Without a knowledge of the other two, each is incomplete. The restraining influence the study of each one has upon the others is of the greatest importance and of the greatest service. 

A school should have, first of all, the great artists of the country as overseers. That is the method pursued in Munich, where the great artists are given studios in the school, and the students are allowed, several days in the week, to consult them about ideas. In addition to the influence of American artists of first rank, the American school might also make arrangements to receive the benefit and advice of prominent foreign artists who are visiting this country from time to time. As to the instructors, there should be many of them, and there is no reason why they should not be drawn from the ranks of American artists. 

The curriculum of the school should embrace sculpture, painting, and architecture, and every student should be made to learn something about all three branches of art. There are many Americans who are quite competent to act as instructors, under the supervision of artists of first rank. And the great thing is that the school should have one inspiring head. The advantage of having great artists on the staff, to whom students can have access, lies in the fact that one can learn much more by working with a man than by simply being told what to do, or what not to do. The establishment of the school would mean, primarily, the sifting out of the incapable. It would push forward those who had real talent, and would discourage those without talent. 

An art atmosphere is hardly to be spoken of as something which is created; it is rather something which happens. It is a matter of tradition. A whole country grows up to art, and the atmosphere comes gradually into being, one can hardly explain when or how. And a people who have once developed an art atmosphere may degenerate. Take Italy, for example. The Italy of the past was a paradise of art. Rome is an eternal city because of the handiwork which immortal artists have left there, if for no other reason. But take the Italy of to-day—where is its art atmosphere? The average modern Italian likes the worst pictures and loves noise. It would seem as if all the art air had been breathed over there. An art atmosphere is not generated entirely by pictures. The kind of houses men build, and what they put into them; the decorations of public buildings; the beautifying of public parks; the care of the streets, all these things play important parts. In this day, it is not so much the love of pictures as care for vital things which needs to be encouraged. 

The generating of an art atmosphere requires a great deal of money, as well as a great deal of good taste on the part of a great many people. Public building decorations of the highest order are so expensive as frequently to make them impossible. The artist who does the work, too, must inevitably make sacrifices. But the man who takes up the profession of art must have higher aims than financial considerations. The painting of an important and thoroughly careful work is much more expensive than most people realize.

Edwin Austin Abbey King Lear, Act I, Scene I The Metropolitan Museum of Art.jpg
King Lear, Act I, Scene I (1897-98) By Edwin Austin Abbey -
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, Link
The essay was written by the American illustrator and painter Edwin Austin Abbey, and it appeared in Brush and Pencil magazine. Abbey was an illustrator and painter, trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was a good friend of John Singer Sargent, and alongside Sargent, he painted murals for the Boston Public Library. He lived and worked for most of his career in Great Britain, and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. The essay was published in the March, 1902 edition of Brush and Pencil magazine.

Questions for discussion:
1. Abbey argues for maintaining high standards and weeding out those of lesser abilities. Is that position tenable in our time, and in today's art world?
2. Should an art school have a shared set of standards or values, and what should those standards be?
3. Why does our contemporary artistic culture allow for these standards in music conservatories, such as Julliard, Bard, or Eastman, but not in art schools?
4. He says "American art as a whole has the tendency to be preoccupied with problems of a technical nature, such as how to put on paint, and things of that sort." Is it still true that Americans are preoccupied with tools and technique? 
5. Abbey argues that the curriculum should embrace painting, sculpture, and architecture. For those of you who have studied sculpture or architecture, what has that study given you as a painter?

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dean Cornwell Panoramic Sketch

Up for auction right now is an unusual preliminary sketch by Dean Cornwell.

The panoramic gouache painting is 6" x 83", matted and framed. Cornwell painted it in preparation for the mural "Telephone Men and Women at Work" in Boston in 1951.

The 190-foot mural circles the lobby, with 197 life-size portraits telling the story of the history of the telephone.

Such a monumental mural requires a lot of planning. Cornwell produced a series of small sketches, first to get hired for the project, and then to plan the figure groupings.

Cornwell gave the original gouache sketch to teacher and painter Jack Faragasso, who turned 90 recently and has preserved the sketch all these years. 
Online Auction: Christies Dean Cornwell Sketch through May 22
Book by: Jack Faragasso: The Student's Guide to Painting

Friday, May 17, 2019

Unusual Uses of the Palette Knife

(Video link to YouTube)
Most people associate "palette knife painting" with the look of thick impasto and broad handling.

But it's a tool that can also deliver fine lines, smooth gradations, and delicate textures. 

What is a palette knife? It's a metal blade attached to the end of a wooden handle. In older-style palette knives, the blade is made of a long flexible steel strip lined up with the handle. But the majority nowadays are offset to keep your knuckles out of the paint.

I prefer to use triangular designs, both for mixing paint on the palette (where it's known as a "palette knife") and for applying it to the canvas (where it becomes a "painting knife").

Because it doesn't hold onto paint the way a brush does, it has unique value as a tool for applying paint. It can be completely cleaned off quickly with a rag, letting you change colors quickly. 

The palette knife works especially well for blending colors. With a little practice, you can get a smoother gradation than you can get with a brush.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) used a painting knife to achieve his enamel-like surfaces. He would rough in a passage with a brush and then smooth the paint with the painting knife.

Camille-Felix Bellanger (1853-1923) described Bouguereau's paint application:
"His lay-ins were broad and thickly-painted ... He never left them in this state: as soon as the piece — which to anyone else would have seemed completed — started to solidify, he took up his palette knife and, with incredible skill, would go over the whole, in all directions, evening out, stripping, until the surface had acquired the desired finish and transparency."
There are a lot of palette knives to choose from, but the ones I like best are the ones with the triangular shape, with fairly straight sides.

Source for the quote: Bouguereau at Work by Mark Walker

More info in the new tutorial: Unconventional Oil Techniques: Fast-Drying Methods for Realistic Painting
Digital download at Gumroad
Digital download at Sellfy
DVD from manufacturer
DVD on Amazon: DVD on Amazon

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Pen Sketching is a Confidence Builder

Pen Sketches by Édouard Detaille, 1848-1912
Sketching directly from life in pen with no pencil lay-in is a good thing to do once in a while. It builds confidence and sharpens your accuracy.

Because pen sketches preserve every touch—every boldness and hesitancy—they're like an indelible record of thought itself.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

On the Way to Dog Park

Smooth, the husky, wants to get out and play with other dogs. So we drive to the dog park. I'm sitting in the back seat with my sketchbook open.

I start painting Smooth with his mouth closed. But once he opens it, I change my mind and want to capture that doggy smile, with the tongue draped over his teeth and the red color on the underside. 

I'm using watercolor with casein white on a casein underpainting. It's a fairly non-absorbent surface that makes the paint float on the surface. But it's nice for getting fur textures. (Link to video on Facebook)
Video tutorial: "Painting Animals from Life"

Digital download:
69 minutes Widescreen, MP4 video. 
at Sellfy
at Gumroad 
at Cubebrush 


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

How Do I Make a Posable Maquette?

Robert Post asks: "James, I need to build a maquette that is flexible to pose as a model for paintings. What material do you recommend? "

Robert, it depends how much flexibility you want. If you just need your maquette to flex a little, there's a kind of flexible Sculpey that bends a bit after curing.

If you really need a model that you can pose, you can use the build-up technique, using soft foam and latex, as shown in the video above.

The easiest way to make a skeleton is to use an aluminum armature, and you can bulk out the forms with foam, as with the simple robot maquette above.

That's more or less how I made the poseable skybax maquette (right).

Or if you want an exact shape with a smooth outer surface, you can sculpt, mold, and cast latex or silicon, but those processes are a lot more involved. Stop Mo Nick has some pretty good videos on this.

Bill Wiist asks: I am planning to build posable human maquettes. Have you done a blog on articulation, best materials to use, etc.

Bill, I haven't done a blog post about articulated joints yet. The simplest solution is to build your person or creature over an existing action figure by grinding away material and then adding what you want to add with Magic Sculpt.

If you want to build a posable figure from scratch, you can get a metal stop-motion armature or use the cheaper one made of plastic called a Modibot. (above, right)

Finally, the small artist manikins have gotten a lot better since the old "jointed wooden doll" era. For example, the Color LILIJ male and female manikins shown at right are quite realistic, and not as expensive as they used to be.

Monday, May 13, 2019

A Gannam Sketch

Following up on yesterday's post, here's a preliminary sketch in gouache and ink by John Gannam of  polo players.

The book Forty Illustrators and How They Worked describes how tireless he was with these sketches, which were created quickly out of his imagination from the moment he read the story he was asked to illustrate:

"At the outset we find John engrossed in his manuscripts, a pad and pencil handy for notations of illustrative possibilities. Then comes the graphic struggle with countless pencil and brush sketches. First ideas are as likely as later ones to be the best, but he won't be satisfied until he has worked all around the problem. He says he spends far more time in preparatory study and gets more fun out of it than in the execution of the finished painting."

There's no Wikipedia page on John Gannam. Would someone out there like to start one?
Flickr setcollected by Leif Peng
Online bioHe was honored in Society of Illustrator's Hall of Fame.
BookForty Illustrators and How They Worked
MagazineIllustrators 51 with article on John Gannam (free digital preview with option to pay for download)
Previous posts which mention John Gannam
My book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist  covers the sketch process.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

John Gannam's Watercolors of Motherhood

John Gannam, watercolor and gouache on board, 13 x 11.5 in. 
(33 x 29.2 cm.), illustration for Pacific Mills, 1945

John Gannam (American, 1907–1965) painted images of mothers and children for American magazines after WWII.

The Society of Illustrators writes: "John Gannam was the ultimate illustrator’s artist. A funny looking, baldheaded little guy, he painted beautiful women with a love and flow of sensitivity."

According to Walt Reed, "Gannam worked at his paintings almost vertically, very freely, his brush loaded with water."

"He was after the broad, but exact, effect. He was little concerned with details or with corrections that could be made later, if needed, with opaque."

"Light—that's what fascinates Gannam; light, color, values." observed Ernest Watson. "He talks about values more than anything else, declaring that 'in watercolor, values practically do the trick.'"
There's no Wikipedia page on John Gannam. Would someone out there like to start one?
Flickr setcollected by Leif Peng
Online bioHe was honored in Society of Illustrator's Hall of Fame.
Book: Forty Illustrators and How They Worked
Magazine: Illustrators 51 with article on John Gannam (free digital preview with option to pay for download)
Previous posts which mention John Gannam

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Plants and Ornament

Design teacher Eugène Grasset published a portfolio called Plants and Their Application to Ornament in 1896. In the book he chooses 24 common plant types and interprets them in various decorative schemes.

He starts by drawing them fairly literally and increasingly abstracts them to explore their design possibilities.

Here's how he suggests that an art student should proceed:
1. Learn how to draw accurately.
2. Gain experience with the properties of the drawing and painting media.
3. Study and absorb the specific forms of the natural world.
4. Apply all that knowledge to pictorial or decorative work.

Grasset says:
"The draughtsman who fails to apprehend the laws which tell him when to go forward and when to use restraint in representing the object as he sees it, is as great a blunderer as he who mis-draws a tree branch or the features and limbs of his model, or he who confuses his perspective. The art of drawing is not the art of observing forms and objects alone, it is not mere mimicry of these objects; it is the art of knowing how far and wherein, and with what just limitations, those forms and objects can be reproduced in a picture, or in a decorative work."
Grasset was part of a larger artistic movement. He owed a debt to the design instincts of William Morris, who came before him, and his publication influenced Alphonse Mucha and other artists of the Art Nouveau movement who came after. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Using black and white as a learning tool

When I'm experimenting with a painting medium, I like to reduce the variables to the zen of just black and white.

By ignoring color at first, I can concentrate on the basic mechanics of paint mixing and application.

And if I'm tentatively exploring a new medium, I don't have to invest in a big set of colors.

Here's an extended YouTube video of my new tutorial Unconventional Oil Techniques. The video officially premieres publicly at noon, New York time, so join in then on YouTube and we'll try a Q and A chat.

In this 22-minute sample, I demonstrate a variety of methods of paint application, and then I apply those techniques to three paintings of T.rex that I produced for Ranger Rick Magazine.  Some are time-honored painting techniques, such as glazing, scumbling, and oiling up. Others are more unusual, including pre-texturing, side-dragging, and palette-knife blending.
For those who have purchased the video, thanks! Please ask any questions you might have in the comments, either here on the blog, or in the comment section of the YouTube video.

And if you don't have it yet, here's where you can get your hands on the full video and the supplies to do your own experiments with oil paint:

Available as a DVD

Available on Gumroad


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Have you tried the 'paint along' format?

The Regular, gouache, 5 x 8"
Jim is a regular at the diner. He tells us that he has been taking painting classes. He had one art teacher who made him buy a bunch of supplies and just lectured the whole time. He likes his new art teacher better because the class paints the same image all together. He says he’s learning a lot that way.

Question for adults who are learning to paint: Have you tried the "paint along" or "paint and sip" formats? If so, have you found them to be an effective way to learn and/or a fun way to socialize? 

If you have taken workshops with more traditional formats (lecture / demo / practice / critique), could you offer advice to teachers who lead workshops on how they can be more effective? 

By the way, my newest article for International Artist Magazine is about a day at the historic village diner, as seen through my sketchbook.