Saturday, June 30, 2012

Plein-air painting in New York City

Plein-air painting on the sidewalks of midtown Manhattan is a baptism by fire. You're jostled by the crowds, hustled by street people, choked by diesel fumes, and deafened by sirens. Shadows from the high rises sweep rapidly across any scene you choose.

(Link to video) On Thursday, Jeanette and I joined our friend Garin Baker to paint New York City's landmark Grand Central Terminal. Garin's summer intern, Sean Oswald, visiting from Ohio, accompanied us on the expedition.

Here is my oil painting (left) next to Garin's on the right. This is the second painting that Garin completed within the four hours that we allowed ourselves. The video finishes with a sketch that I did of a passenger on the train. More on that tomorrow. 
Garin Baker Fine Art
Sean Oswald teacher interview

Forest in Maya

Is it real or is it digital? This image was created in Maya, Mental Ray, Paint Effects, Onyx and Zbrush by Alex Alvarez. It will be part of an upcoming instructional DVD from Gnomon Workshop.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Hue discrimination color test

In this free online color test, you can slide around the little squares in each line to try to make a continuous gradation of hues. When you think you've got them right, you can score the test.

Online Color Challenge
Thanks, Paolo

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Backpack Blower

Here's the scene outside my window (sketched from life). 

A guy with a backpack leaf blower is blowing some dust and gravel around.

His buddy, a mower guy, goes past. The leaf-blow guy starts blowing his hair, and the mower guy doesn't seem to mind. He stands there and seems to enjoy it.

Then the mower guy leans over and lifts up his shirt a little.

The air velocity of a backpack blower is about 200 miles per hour, enough to put a rippling dent in the mower guy's butt.

Then they go back to work. And so do I. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chinese step-by-step portrait

A few weeks ago, blog reader Charles Valsechi asked for a step-by-step drawing sequence by an academically trained Chinese artist.

Let's start with the finished drawing by Xubucheng. (Edit) Blog reader ZS has generously translated the Chinese notes in the book, which I'll show in bold after each step, followed by my own observations about what he seems to be doing.

(Translation) "1A. Be sure of the position/alignment of the head, and get the block in right."
1B. Use simple straight lines to mark out the shape/contour of the head, locking in the basic positions of the eyes, nose and mouth and ears. 35 minutes."

(My observation) In the the first step he doesn't copy contours, nor does he place spots. His framework is built from nearly straight line segments bounding important lines at the edges of the form.

He's also looking within the form for big plane changes (brow, cheek, chin) and for feature placement. Since this is an upshot, the lines for the brow, eyes, bottom of the nose and mouth are parallel, slanting downward in perspective. The ear and nose are roughed out in a few simple lines. These lines are drawn with controlled sweeping movements of the arm. 

2. "Once the position of the features are determined, use shadow boundaries, projection lines, perspective lines and knowledge of head anatomy to further detail out the form of the features.
(35 minutes."
This kind of thinking—using arcs or gently curving line segments—is carried a lot further. Now he's more concerned with smaller plane changes. He's doing a lot of cross-checking at this stage to compare alignments. By the way, I believe each of these drawings was made separately for the purpose of the demo; I don't believe they're actually from the same sequence.

3. "Once the features have taken form, use shapes of light and shadow to delineate/differentiate the values, thereby achieving clear and accurate form and overall completion of the drawing. [ Trans. Note: I think he means overall coverage and composition of the picture, all that is left is detailing.] (45 minutes)."

In the penultimate stage, the planes are defined in terms of tone, drawn with parallel lines and a slight amount of smudging.

(Final stage--see first image in post) 4. "While in the process of drawing, always remember to compare the value relationship, structural relationship of the features, taking notes of the prominent/striking features on the face, and constant cross-checking and measurement until the portrait is complete."
(65 minutes)
(total time 3 hours)

With the structure of shape, line, tone, and form established, he can resolve the smaller nuances to arrive at the drawing you saw at the opening of the post.

So there you go, Charles, and thanks for translating, ZS. If there's anyone out there trained in this method, I'd welcome your help in the comments.

Edit: To address Keith's question: "James, you said that you think these drawings were made separately for the purpose of demonstration. Can you elaborate on this?"

 Keith, my impression was that the drawings didn't line up exactly. Rather than being a single drawing photographed in stages, my hunch was that it might rather be four separate drawings prepared in matched steps. They used to do it this way for art instruction books in the 1950s to save the hassle of having a professional copy camera setup in the studio. Below are two stages overlaid, so you can see for yourself.
In any event, you'd probably want to do the initial marks pretty light, and you'd probably have to partially erase the first construction lines as you resolve the drawings.

Previous post: Chinese-Russian drawing
Russian Art Academy (interview with Professor Sergey Chubirko)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A White Building in Shadow

Quick question: What color would you mix for the shadow side of a white building on a sunny day with a clear blue sky?

I probably would have answered "cool gray," but I would have been wrong. 

In fact, all the swatches above are from the shadow side of the same building from a single photo. They range from dark green to pink to gray. It's hard to imagine mixing those colors and making them look right.

Did any of you answer "It depends?" If so, you had the right answer.

So what does it depend on? For one thing, the shadow side depends on the color of the sky. It's bound to pick up some of the blue color from there. But the reflected light from adjacent surfaces can be a huge influence, too.

If the reflected light is powerful enough, it can be the dominant factor.

In the photo above, you can see where the four swatches came from. The first swatch came from the top of the near plane. It's greenish because it's getting blue skylight plus green reflected light from the grass. That pink swatch is getting red-orange reflected light combined with blue light. Swatch #3 is lightened considerably by the white reflected light. 

And area #4 is slightly more yellow-green than #1 because it's got a wider zone of grass reflecting into it. Here the limits of the camera's sensitivity fails us. The human eye is far more sensitive than the camera, and if you were observing and painting the scene, you'd see and paint these differences even more dramatically.
Read more about vertical surfaces in shadow in my book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter.

Previous posts: 
Downfacing planes
Vertical planes in shadow
A whitewashed wall in shadow

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Survival Guide for Art Students

I met with the editors of Dover Publishing a while ago. They publish a lot of classic books on art instruction from days of yore. I told them that most of what I know about drawing and painting comes from studying their books. They asked me for a list of the ten art instruction books that I thought were most useful, with a blurb about why I love each one.

They just put this recommended list in their catalog, so here it is: "James Gurney's Survival Guide for Art Students."


Bridgman's Life Drawing by George Bridgman

Bridgman's legendary figure drawing demonstrations at the Art Students League of New York have inspired generations of artists, from Norman Rockwell to Frank Frazetta. His dynamic, chunky form analysis reminds students of the big shapes and how they interlock with each other, which is easy to overlook when faced with the subtleties of the actual figure. 

John Vanderpoel, who studied in France at the Académie Julian, offers a classical approach to figure drawing, noteworthy for its timeless grace. His approach focuses on the important planes of the figure understood in terms of simple light and shade. Male and female models are analyzed in many detailed drawings of parts, such as the head, neck, torso, and limbs. The plates are so good that it would profit a student to systematically copy all of them.

Harold Speed's classic text bridges the often-difficult gap between drawing and painting. He starts with a tutorial on seeing, the foundation of accurate drawing. He distinguishes between line drawing and what he calls 'mass drawing'—essentially monochrome painting. Although his writing style might strike some modern readers as old fashioned and opinionated, he makes a good case and covers useful aesthetic territory.

Speed's book on painting builds on his drawing book, offering painting instruction as it was practiced in the Royal Academy. Although not everyone will agree with his views on modern art, his advice on tone, color, and edges is concise and inspiring, and his analysis of the old masters benefits from the insights of a skilled practitioner.

Perspective can be a daunting topic, like advanced mathematics, but in its most basic form, it is easy to grasp. Norling does a good job of emphasizing the most fundamental points, especially the all-important subject of eye level. He concentrates on the familiar problems faced by most artists, such as one-, two-, and three-point perspective.

This is a useful reference book, dominated by large and carefully drawn plates. The animal kingdom is represented by a small number of familiar domesticated mammals: horse, dog, cow, and goat, together with a lion. Each animal is shown in neutral poses in side, top, and front views, with skeletal and muscular dissections for comparison.

Disney animator Ken Hultgren shares an approach to drawing animals that emphasizes the unique characteristics of all the major types of mammals. His style features action poses ranging from straight to cartoony. His pen-and-ink drawings are usually accompanied by a skeletal analysis to help students see the hidden structure. He never loses sight of the lines of action flowing through a pose, something that both realist painters and cartoonists can benefit from.

This book is a good one to consult when one needs a reminder that not all trees look the same. Cole draws upon the Victorian tradition of close observation of nature, and he analyzes trees at the level of roots, branches, stems, blossoms, leaves, and foliage masses. The book transcends the limits of a botanical treatise by exploring artistic issues, such as the grouping of masses and the simplification of contours. The text is profusely illustrated with black-and-white explanatory drawings, as well as compositions by early masters.

John Carlson, himself a noted American Impressionist painter and teacher, addresses all the common elements faced by landscape painters, including design, light, perspective, color, clouds, trees, and composition. While the book was first published in 1929, Dover has reprinted the 1958 edition, so the language is a little more accessible to the modern reader without sacrificing Carlson's forthright style. Although the 58 diagrams are in black and white, the book's chief value is its practical principles and insights.

This classic text from an associate of Rodin guides the sculptor through the theory and practice needed to successfully interpret the figure in three dimensions. It covers basic technique, materials, and anatomy. Although the text is extensive and old fashioned, it provides a rare window into the working methods and thought processes that led to some of the greatest masterpieces of figural sculpture.

Here's the list again in no particular order. The titles are linked to Amazon pages:
I'd be interested in your experience with old books on art instruction (say, 50 years old or more). What do you like or dislike about them? Do you have some favorite old-time art instruction books that I overlooked? Let me know in the comments. Later in the week I'll do a poll and compile a crowd-sourced list.