Thursday, October 30, 2008

Eye Level, Part 3

In a scene that takes place on flat ground, the eye level (EL) usually intersects everything at about five feet above the ground. That’s because most of us of average standing height look out at the world from that elevation, and most photos are taken from that height as well. You can imply that the viewer is seated or that the viewer is a child by placing your eye level at a lower height.

Since the eye level line cuts through every figure at the same relative point, you can sort of “hang” the figures on the eye level line, just making sure the line runs through everyone at the same height. In the throne room scene here, for instance, the EL is exactly at the height of the top of the dais, or platform. If you carry that line across the scene, it will intersect every standing figure just below the shoulder.

I could have chosen to place the EL at ankle height, but then it would have intersected every figure at the ankle.

On this drawing, by the way, the vanishing point for the edges of all the carpets is just visible on the shoulder of the figure standing just to the left of the leftmost lion.

The drawing above was not drawn as a separate charcoal comprehensive. It is a pencil drawing made directly on the illustration board prior to painting. What you're looking at is a photocopy of that early stage of the painting, with the EL accentuated.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Eye Level, Part 2

If architecture appears in your scene, all the major vanishing points (things like eaves and sidewalks) are pegged on the eye level line. Each vanishing point should be marked with a little “X” surrounded by a circle.

In the line drawing of the archway, the vanishing point is marked on the EL just beneath the circular window of the domed building. All the lines in the ceiling inside the arch and along the waterline inside the arch vanish to this point.

If you look again at the same scene, the arch is flanked by two circular columns. At the EL, the circular cross section of the columns is seen edge-on, so the bases of the columns don’t appear as ellipses. But as you go up the columns, the ellipses become slightly fuller.

So in a sense, every part of the scene is drawn with a consciousness of the eye level, even though in this scene you don’t really see a horizon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Eye Level, Part 1

The eye level is the height of the viewer’s eye above the ground, usually represented by a horizontal line running across the picture, even if the horizon itself is not visible in the scene.

The drawing to the above is a compositional sketch for a scene in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. I drew grid lines on it so that it could be enlarged to the 24x30 inch final painting.

“Eye level” is basically synonymous with “horizon.” They’re one and the same thing in the preliminary line drawing above, where the ocean is in view. But in most scenes, you don’t have such a far vista. Either you’re in a forest, or inside a room, or the view is hemmed in with buildings. But you still have to draw the imaginary line in the same place it would have been if you could see all the way to infinity.

The eye level is the very first line you put into your drawing—even a figure drawing at a sketch group. I mark it with the letters “EL” to remind me what it is. If your scene is more of an upshot, the EL is toward the bottom of the scene. Everything that you draw above the line is something you’re looking up at. In a view that’s more of a downshot, the EL is high in the composition because almost everything in the scene is below your level gaze.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Mirror Trick for Kid Portraits

The hard part about painting a kid from life is getting him to hold still for more than ten minutes. Here’s a trick. Set up a full-length mirror behind you so that your subject can watch you work. They will be captivated for at least two hours if you’re lucky. That’s how I painted this picture of my son Franklin when he was seven years old.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Square Brushes

Painters of the Newlyn School, a group of 19th century plein-air painters in southwestern England, were known for their “consistent squareness of touch.”

“A Street in Brittany” by Stanhope Forbes shows the characteristic look achieved by brushes that we would call brights or flats. Forbes once wrote home to his mother asking her to bring a “flat sable brush” when she came to visit.

Sir George Clausen (1852-1944) was also known for his square brush technique, which the British critics identified with French juste-milieu painters like Bastien-Lepage, with whom some of the Newlyn artists studied.

The purpose of the method was not just to get that chunky feeling, but to blur outlines and capture an atmospheric envelope. The critic Garstin wrote: “We seek to represent not only the man but, as it were, his very atmosphere, and not only his surroundings, but his surroundings under certain specific conditions.”

Other artists indentified with a square touch are Arthur Streeton, Frank Brangwyn, and Dean Cornwell.
Reference for quotes: Artists of the Newlyn School, 1880-1900, by Caroline Fox, 1979, link.
Images from FreeParking's Flickr stream, link.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Shearing Day

Yesterday Scott Balfe (left) joined me for a day of painting at the Dancing Lamb Farm . It was shearing day for over 100 of the Icelandic sheep.

I set up near the barn to paint the sheep waiting their turn. What attracted me was the contre jour lighting, the mistiness of the atmosphere, the frost on the ground and the turn in the road in the distance.

The sheep didn't really pose; I had to construct composite poses based on a variety of individuals milling around.

Jeanette helped out with skirting (top), the step where the fleece is laid out on a mesh table and impurities are picked out. It was windy and cold in the barn, so we were grateful for the warm meal of farm-raised chicken soup and homemade cheese.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tone Paper Studies

This scene shows captured prisoners from the Moche culture of ancient Peru, painted for National Geographic.

It was developed entirely from studies from the model, not from photography. (Photography is a useful tool, too, but I'll cover that in other posts.) If you’re doing a reference study of yourself or a model taking the pose, you can capture all the reference information you’ll need by working on tone paper.

In most art schools, the tradition of drawing posed figures on tone paper tends to be regarded as an end in itself, or else purely as a timed practice exercise for training the eye and hand for observational drawing.

But for most of the last five centuries, tone paper drawings were merely a means to an end, and the drawings themselves were not highly valued.

A light gray or tan paper works best for figure studies. The tone of the paper should be approximately equal to the darker halftone—the point where the form turns away from the light just before it enters the shadow.

You can begin either with vine charcoal or with a soft charcoal pencil and draw the pose lightly in line, noting the dividing line of the shadow and the boundary of the cast shadow. Once you’ve got the pose where you want it, reserve the charcoal for the shadows and accents.

The light side of the form can be defined with just a few careful touches of white chalk or white charcoal pencil. Where the form turns more to the light in the brightly illuminated halftones, you can scumble a light tone overall, saving your strongest touches of pure white for the highlights and accents.

As you work on your studies from life, don’t just draw what you see. As Howard Pyle said, “Don’t copy the model, but make a picture.” Accentuate the muscles and tendons that are important in telling the story. Describe to your your model the character you want them to act out. Better yet, act out the part yourself, and ham it up a little. Your model will feel less inhibited if you make a fool of yourself.

Let your imagination guide your eye. This mindset leads to better drawings than ones where you are just copying what you see. The drawings you produce as preliminary studies for a finished work will have more urgency and confidence than the standard 20 minute studies that are done without feeling or imagination.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mass Drawing

Many art students find the transition from drawing to painting a bit daunting, because there are so many variables to contend with.

One of the best painting teachers was Harold Speed (1872-1957). A sample of work is shown above. His books on both drawing and painting are among the finest sources of classic art instruction. Speed uses the term “mass drawing” to distinguish it from “outline drawing.”

Mass drawing in monochrome oil paint is one of the transitional steps from drawing to painting. The purpose of mass drawing is to bring students “from simple outlines to approach the full realization of form in all the complexity of light and shade.”

In this demonstration, Speed follows four logical steps:

Step 1. The blocking in of various areas in charcoal.
Step 2. Middletone block-in with lights painted into it
Step 3. Shadows added with dark paint.
Step 4. Refinement and completion.

The Practice and Science of Drawing (still in print), link.
The Science and Practice of Oil Painting, link.
Selection of Speed's Portraits in the National Gallery, link. (thanks, Art4Marc)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Paul Warhola

“You gotta have a little humor in your life,” Paul Warhola told me.

Mr. Warhola is the older brother of Andy Warhol. In the early 1990s he took time away from his junkyard business for a series of chicken feet paintings. As I sketched him at his son's house in Tivoli, New York, I wrote down word-for-word the story of his life as he told it to me.

“I got Andy started. We put wax over the funny papers and rubbed over it with a spoon. I got him his first camera. We dug out the basement and put in a red light.

“Shirley Temple sent him a photo, and it said ‘to Andy Warhola from Shirley Temple.’

“I had 150 chickens, and I don’t like to pen ‘em up. One day the chickens got into my paint. They got me started. They did my first painting. Time Magazine called me and she said ‘I understand you’re doing product paintings and copying your brother.’

“I says ‘No, I’m gonna let my chickens do my paintings.

“I’m getting tired of interviews. I go down to the dog track and I have fun. I break even. I don’t get carried away. It’s a form of entertainment.”

If you want to know more about Mr. Warhola, his junk business, and his relationship with Andy Warhol, don’t miss the illustrated memoir “Uncle Andy’s” by Paul Warhola’s son James.
For more about Andy Warhol and the Warhola family, visit

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Romantic Dream

“I mean by a picture, a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be—in a better light than any light that ever shone—in a land no one can define or remember, only desire—and the forms are divinely beautiful.”
The quote is from Sir Edward Burne-Jones. His painting "Love Among the Ruins" (1894) is in the collection of the Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, link.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Enveloping Tone

Here's a pencil portrait of the Irish fiddler Larry Reynolds, drawn while he was performing with Seamus Connelly in 2003.

What I was trying to accomplish was a principle that I call "enveloping tone." It's related to the concept of "sfumato," the smoky atmospherics made famous by Da Vinci in works like the Mona Lisa.

Whatever you call it, the idea is to make the a strong tonal contrast between the illuminated area and the shadowy areas. At the same time, the transition from light into shadow should be fairly gradual.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to try to keep the light areas unified, without being interrupted by too many dark accents. And the dark regions should be mysterious, like an ink cloud from an octopus, swallowing up light accents into its enveloping shadow.

The early Daguerrotype photographs had this quality of enveloping tone. They're like a bathtub into which someone has poured condensed milk in one area and India ink in another, with the two principalities blending and merging into each other.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rhinebeck Paint Out

Yesterday was the Seventh Annual Great Rhinebeck Paint Out. It was a crisp sunny day, a little past peak fall color, with a temperature around 40 degrees F. I'm a wimp, so I had full long underwear. I'm using an Open Box M pochade box.

One of you asked for a step-by-step, so on this post you can follow along.

First, here's a photo of the motif: a view to the east of the village of Rhinebeck. It's a very busy subject, but I like the strong leading lines of the road and the soft gray mass of trees in the center.

I started on an 11x14 sky panel, oil primed with a blue gradation. The blue color helped in two ways. First I had an approximation of the sky color already established with dry paint, so I could work delicate detail over it. Also, the blue was a nice complementary color to lay beneath the warm autumn-colors.

The first step was to draw in the main lines and shapes with a bristle brush and burnt sienna oil pigment. Note the horizontal eye level line, even though I can't see the actual horizon. The brown dot in the middle of the road at right center is the vanishing point for the sloping street lines of the foreground.

I oiled up the sky with Liquin to make it more receptive to overpainting. I put in some light feathery cirrus clouds, and a pale glow along the horizon. Then I started softly stating the dry branches. and other details against the sky.

At this stage I needed to figure out the overall light statement. At first I planned to put the foreground in shadow, but that left the middle ground too busy with competing interest. So I established an illuminated foreground, shadowed middle ground, and light distance. This gives a feeling of passing clouds and draws interest to the activity of the far intersection.
I carried the lines of the road to that vanishing point you saw earlier. For lines like this I used a mahl stick to balance my hand.
Here's the finished painting "Light at the Crossroads." The 3 o'clock deadline was looming, so I scrambled to resolve the unfinished areas. On the left side, the houses are stated fairly broadly, which in the end probably helps accentuate the confetti of the intersection.

By 4:00 it was hanging at the event space. It's behind the light, next to the painting of Vanderbilt I did with Erik Tiemens last summer, reworked on the spot last week with fall colors. A painting by Keith Gunderson is below mine.
Previous Gurney Journey posts: Sky panels, Sky blue, Illuminated foreground, Mahl stick, Confetti, Vanderbilt Vista, Complementary priming color.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mort Künstler in Illustration 24

The new Illustration Magazine features a special issue devoted to the work and career of Mort Künstler. The article by Stephen Doherty follows his career, ranging from paperbacks, pulps, adventure magazines, Aurora model kits, slicks, and his recent work illustrating events from the Civil War.
On the Illustration Magazine website, you can preview every page in thumbnail form to get a sense of the scope of the coverage, link.
You can find the magazine soon at your local bookseller or order it from Bud's Art Books, link.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Humor Book Launch Tonight

Tonight is a book launch party for "Some Delights of the Hudson Valley," an anthology of Hudson Valley humor, edited by New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan.
Delights of HV
At the event there will be appearances by stage and screen stars Denny Dillon ("Saturday Night Live"), Mary-Louise Wilson ("Grey Gardens"), Tom Davis (Franken and Davis) and Lou Trapani (The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck) and poets Robert Kelly and Mikhail Horowitz.. In addition to readings there will be a cartoon panel Q&A with New Yorker cartoonist team Shanahan, Maslin, Liza Donnelly and Michael Crawford and music by contributor and rock legend Graham Parker.

I have a cartoon in the book, so I'll be part of the festivities.

The event is tonight, Friday, Oct. 17th at 6:30pm Olin Hall, Bard Campus Annandale-on-Hudson.
For more information and driving directions, visit:
WKZE website, link
the Dutchess County Arts Council website, link.

Paint-Out Tomorrow

If you're in the New York State area tomorrow, please stop by the village of Rhinebeck in the Hudson Valley for the 7th Annual Plein-Air Paint-Out and Auction.

A paint-out is an event where professional artists gather on-site in the morning to create a painting, which is framed and auctioned in the afternoon. It's the closest thing to tightrope walking or improv theater in the painting business.

The autumn color is at peak and the weather promises to be sunny. Over fifty artists will be attending, including Jim Adair, Gary Fifer, Tarryl Gabel, Keith Gunderson, Betsy Jacaruso, Hae Suk Kim, Seth A. Nadel, Robert Schneider, and me.
For more information, and the complete list of artists, link.
For a listing of other plein air events, and a great site for the on-site painting information, visit

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Art or Nature?

In 1822, John Constable warned:
“Should there be a National Gallery (which is talked of), there will be an end of the art in poor old England. The reason is plain: the manufacturers of pictures are then made the criterions of perfection instead of Nature.”

Constable's complaint seems foolish, but it contains a grain of truth. There is a risk in loving art so much that we forget to look at Nature. Art based only on other art ends up being mannered and derivative. The great breakthroughs in art have come from the intense study of the real world through the artist’s own eyes.

Constable’s argument, however, should be taken as a caution, not a curriculum. The study of unfiltered Nature is a bewildering experience. Nature cannot in itself provide the artist with any “criterions of perfection.” Even the artist who paints every day from Nature may find himself fitted with blinders if he lacks a foundation in technique and tradition.

How do we begin to interpret the infinity of impressions that Nature provides? We need a compass, a guide, a map. Other artists who have gone before us can offer that guidance. Their work can blaze a pathway of possibility.

Artists should go to Nature, but they should check in to the art museum from time to time to sift through the harvest of the great souls of yore.

But one should never let the treasures of the museum pull harder at the heart than the living truth of the world around us. As Longfellow argued in his famous sonnet "Art and Nature," (translated from Francisco de Medrano), the “works of human artifice” are like a mere garden, tiresome in comparison to the eternal and infinite grandeur—the “free and wild magnificence”—of the river and the meadow.

We should not hesitate to quit the cloisters of tradition and to revel in the direct experience of Nature face-to-face. Perhaps we might discover something that has never been discovered before.
The photo is of Henry Ward Ranger. The painting is by Giuseppe Gabrielle, of Room 32 of the National Gallery in London.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Paint Texture

There's a variety of painting materials you can use to add impasto texture to your oil paintings. Generally, texture looks best in the areas of the painting that are brightly illuminated and light in value.

You can just add thicker oil paint, as I did on this detail of Waterfall City from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. In this case the paint is applied with a palette knife.

If the paint comes out too runny from the tube, you can squeeze it out on blotter paper or paper towel to draw out the oil. Thick paint takes weeks to dry, so a drop of cobalt drier mixed into the white will make it dry in a day or two. Just use a drop, because too much cobalt drier can affect the color of the mixtures.

In some previous posts noted below, I covered "prextexturing," where you add the texture first before final painting and then paint relatively thinly over that base texture, and glaze into the pits.

But what are your choices for this pretexturing? Here's a test with an assortment of materials. At the top is acrylic matte medium, modeling paste, and gesso, mixed together in various combinations. Acrylic paint is OK to use in the priming stage, before beginning the oil layers, but never add it over the oil, or there might be adhesion problems.

In the second row of test swatches I experimented with Wingel and Oleopasto, two Winsor and Newton products that are designed for quick drying impastos. In both cases I let the textures dry and glazed over the top. The white streaks on the test swatches are where I rubbed off the glazing layer, leaving some of it in the small pits.
Previous GurneyJourney posts on the topic of pretexturing:
Rembrandt Effect, link
Pretexturing, link

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Skeleton Pirate

A new edition of a classic fantasy horror novel by Tim Powers called “On Stranger Tides” is now available through the Dinotopia Store.

In this post I’ll tell you a little about how I did the painting. I originally bought this skeleton model as a general studio reference tool, just to be able to check what a person’s bones would look like from a particular angle.

When I received a cover assignment for a story that actually featured skeleton pirates I knew I could offer a starring role to my little actor.

The sketch above shows how I set up the skeleton, along with an actual human skull, next to my drawing table.

I tried various color sketches until I arrived at the muted color scheme. Then I found some photos of sailiing ships, treasure chests, and cannons to toss around on the deck.

A cannon shot has broken through the railing at right. His right leg is held together with a strip of cloth, and his missing left leg is replaced with the end of an oar, whittled into a simple hinge for his knee. He is a skeleton that refuses to die.

The new edition of the book, with this painting on the dustjacket, and signed by me on the title page, is available through the Dinotopia Store for $18.95 plus $3.50 shipping.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Back in New York

We're home again, and last night we drove into New York City to see our son Dan play accordion in Symphony Space as part of a fundraising concert.

Before the concert, we had supper at a Dominican restaurant along with our friend Barry Klugerman (above), who was kind enough to hold still for a few minutes while I sketched his mug. I always like talking to Barry because he's a real expert on early book illustration.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Side by Side

Here are two paintings by two friends, painting side by side from the same motif.

On the left is Arthur Streeton and on the right is Charles Conder, two Australian impressionists who painted together during the magical summer of 1890 in Heidelberg, Australia.

They chose a motif in full daylight, with the sun at their backs, and they both kept everything high-key, with the only dark accents under the log in the foreground.
Images courtesy Art Renewal and Wikipedia

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Daumier's Caricature Busts

Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) had a gift for the devastating type of caricature that lays bare the pompous and foolish.

He made a series of small busts or maquettes of "Les Célébrités du Juste milieu" to use as reference for his incisive and irreverent drawings. One polychromed set can be seen in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Another casting of the set, without color, is on display in the basement of the National Gallery in Washington.

When I sketched some of them, I was struck by Daumier's approach to caricature not as an assortment of distorted features, but rather as a foundation in the construction of the skull underneath. If you go for the structure of the skull, both the likeness and the expression comes off more powerfully.

Here's one of his finished lithographs made with the benefit of the maquette.
Daumier on Wikipedia, link.
The Orsay collection, link

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Postcards from Paris

Dinotopia: Un Voyage a Chandara, published by Editions Fleurus, was spotlighted by Jean-Philippe Lefèvre for the program called "Un Monde de Bulles," on the Public Senat channel. The makeup lady had to do a lot of work to cut down on the glare from my head.

The program was about fully illustrated fantasy stories in the context of "bande dessinees," the uniquely French version of comics, usually presented in oversize, full-color books. They're a huge market here, and hard to find in America. The program will air in November or December.

The program is hosted inside the magnificent Senate building, next to the Luxembourg gardens. Imagine an American national TV program on comics originating from inside the U.S. Capitol! Afterward Mr. Lefèvre toured us through the Senate chambers, including the inner sanctum where laws are made, surrounded by ornate sculpture and decoration.

We visited the purveyor of comics and fantasy art Galerie Daniel Maghen with our friend Olivier Souille, who works there. Olivier and his brother Laurent are also the authors of the recently published L' Univers of Dragons.

Two more average tourists on the Ponte des Arts.

We met Marc Bourgne creator and illustrator of Frank Lincoln, Voyageur, and Barbe Rouge.

I had fun at a booksigning at the science fiction specialty bookshop Labyrinthes in Rambouillet, outside of Paris. I also signed at the FNAC Les Halles. The French edition will be officially available on 10 October.