Sunday, June 30, 2013

New chapter about diorama wizard James P. Wilson

Michael Anderson of Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History has published the latest chapter in his online book about the life and work of diorama backdrop artist James Perry Wilson.

The new chapter covers Wilson's work for the North American mammal corridor groups in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 1945-1954. 

Above is a detail of one of those dioramas. The coyote is a taxidermy specimen. The painted backdrop starts just above the bottommost fringe of tan pebbles just behind the animal. The line where reality becomes painting is called the "tie-in" and JPW was a master at disguising it.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dinotopia in Legos

Nice job, Daniel and Doug! They worked together to recreate the Dinosaur Parade in Lego. Note the wheels used as capitals, and the sauropod at left looking around at the small arch it just got through.

See me this weekend at the Bronx Zoo

If you live near New York City, please come by the Bronx Zoo today or tomorrow.

I'll be showing visitors how to draw a couple of dinosaurs, and I'll talk about my inspirations and methods behind Dinotopia. After each presentation, I'll be doing a book signing and meeting folks.

The event is part of the "Dinosaur Safari" theme going on all summer long at the Zoo. 

WHEN: Today and tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, June 29–30 at 1:00, 2:30, and 3:30p.m.
WHERE: Dancing Crane Plaza at the Bronx Zoo (also called the Wildlife Conservation Society)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Water Tower in Casein

(Video link) Here's a video of a 45-minute plein air painting boiled down to one minute so that you can see the entire process at a fast clip. I'm working in a watercolor sketchbook using casein paint in a limited palette of titanium white, ivory black, Venetian red, golden ochre, and cobalt blue. 

I start with a reddish brown watercolor pencil, to place the big shapes. Leaving the background white, I paint in the tower and the trees, knowing that I'll be painting over them with the sky, and then painting them again on a second pass. Casein painting involves boldly cutting across edges, rather than painting up to lines. 

Now the sky: warm white clouds and blue sky behind, all painted quickly together wet into wet. I build the painting forward: far mountains, near mountains, buildings, trees, and poles. I paint almost all the painting with one very old watercolor round, which I can use for large areas—or by squeezing the tip, I can use the edge of the brush for thin forms.

The casein surface dries to an eggshell matte surface that is receptive to delicate graphite pencil lines for the utility cables. I use a harder HB for the fine wires and a 2B for the darker wires. That's it: time was up, and I knew Jeanette would be waiting for me over at the supermarket.

Technical notes on the video: Time lapse is shot with a GoPro HD Hero2 set to 5 second intervals. The camera is mounted on a IKEA Kitchen Timer for the slow rotation in time lapse. I also use a Canon Rebel T3i and an intervalometer for the close-up time lapse at the end. The street ambiance is recorded with a Zoom ZH1 digital recorder. The music is by Kevin MacLeod. He describes it this way: "Snare line with quads and a bass line add marching flair for an electronic groove."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Part 3: Abbey, Sargent, and the big studio

 Portrait of E.A. Abbey by John Singer Sargent

Edwin Austin Abbey is an inspiration to late bloomers, because he didn't really start painting in oils until he was in his 40s. Of course he had a good teacher in his friend John Singer Sargent, with whom he shared a studio that was specially built next to Abbey's home, Morgan Hall in Fairford, England.

Together they had accepted a commission to paint mural decorations for the Boston Public Library, and they needed a big studio space to work in. Sargent influenced Abbey with his deft approach to painting from observation, and Abbey influenced Sargent with his profound knowledge of history, literature, and costume. That mutual influence and cross-fertilization made each artist grow in new directions, and dramatically altered the course of each of their careers.

John Sargent, Portrait of Mrs. Frederick Mead, Abbey's mother-in-law. From the collection of the Yale Art Gallery.

The following description of the Morgan Hall studio, which was the largest painting studio in England at the time, comes from M.H. Spielmann, who wrote about it in an article in Magazine of Art, also quoted in E.V. Lucas' biography:

"It is a workshop, not a showplace, but none the less picturesque for that—a place where great thoughts may be carried out on a fitting scale, and where many a lofty conception is in the course of concretion.

Abbey: 'Sir Galahad at the Castle of the Maidens.' Note changes in Galahad's silhouette, the removal of the circular candelabras, and other changes in the maidens, compared to the finished mural below. 

"Enormous easels, a dozen or more, laden with vast canvases in every stage of completion occupy but a fraction of the space; tapestries hang from heavy frames, not for decoration but for use, and carved oak doors and panels rest against the walls; studies and casts of curious architectural features and sculptures; arms and armour, lay figures and figurines; stacks of canvases, unused, half-used, and used, for sketches from Nature, or ideal compositions, or pictures'on the way'; chests of drawers full of specimens of superbly designed materials- velvets, brocades, and silks of various periods and special manufacture—with new fabrics of particular colour or design, mere bits, many of them, but sufficient to reveal the texture, or their secrets of light and shade; old chairs, musical instruments and' properties' of various kinds—all things, in this vast apartment, as accessories for the designer's craft and nothing more.

"On stands and in drawers, sketch-books and albums of studies are classified as to subject, arranged in groups according to the pictures for which they were produced. Trestlefuls of elaborate studies and half-finished drawings stand around; photographs are pinned about of pictures of the period with which the artist may for the moment be dealing—with a view to maintaining in his own mind the spirit rather than the art-standard of the time; a library crowded with the finest folios and books of art and archaeological reference stands ready, with a writing table close by, littered in orderly confusion, to remind the painter of the daily communication of the outside world. There is a built-up scene of the next great picture, devised for better realisation of proposed composition, with all the crowd of figures and dressed-up figurines: for thus the painter experiments with arrangements and with effects of light and shade. Not too much importance is attached to such artifices; for not long since a great model of a colonnade of extraordinary elaboration was constructed, with a view to determine the question of shadows thrown by the pillars when a light was introduced, and forthwith discarded on its failure to reveal with truth the sought for effects. But thoroughness and laborious conscientiousness are main qualities of Mr. Abbey's temperament: he seems to aim at that sort of truth of effect—the only sort—that can convince the spectator; and he neglects no means, whatever the cost in effort or expense, to secure the end which is his only aim.

"Regarded from this point of view the remaining feature of the studio takes peculiar significance. I refer to the amazing wardrobe —an interior building constructed at one end of the studio. Here, hung in due order, classified with such care, love, and pride as an entomologist might display in the arrangement of his specimens, is the vast collection of garments of all periods and styles which Mr. Abbey has collected or had devised, and to which additions are continuously being made. Here they hang, on right hand and on left, in diminishing perspective, until one might almost imagine one's self in the 'property shop' of some great theatre. Costumes original and special (men's and women's), hats and cloaks, boots and shoes and accessories—all but the furs and arms, which for greater care are stored elsewhere. Yet they are not by any means regarded by the painter in the light of theatrical 'properties'. . . they serve, as they ought, to give assistance as to cut, fall, character, light and shade, and composition of line—that is to say, as suggestions for invention and not model for imitation. In short, Mr. Abbey, as the practical architect of his pictures, does not despise anxious consideration and preparation of the scaffolding."

"Such was the room, then, in which, in 1891, in the heart of Gloucestershire , two American artists embarked upon their task of beautifying and ennobling a New England city."

It is hard to overestimate how important these murals were to America in the early 20th century. Sargent's mural with its biblical theme was often called "America's Sistine Ceiling." Abbey's mural of the Quest for the Holy Grail was often described as "the most popular mural cycle in America; at one time "no undergraduate room in Harvard, Yale, or Princeton was complete without large framed photographs of one or more of the details of the composition." (Homer Saint-Gaudens The American Artist and His Times, 1941).

Both Abbey's and Sargent's murals can still be seen today at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.

Read more:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Part 2: Abbey's Advice to a Young Artist

In 1892, Edwin Austin Abbey received a letter from a young artist traveling through England on his way across to Paris. He wanted advice from the famous illustrator. Here was Abbey's response:

"The great trouble," he wrote, "with the vast majority of our artists at home is that they cease to be students too soon. They spend a couple of years—even three or four years— in Paris, or some other place where students congregate, and, bored by the drudgery of the serious atelier and seeing certain easy-going pictures attracting a certain amount of attention and having also a certain amount of merit, they throw over the opportunity (which, mind you,never comes again) to make themselves as perfect as they may be with the aid of all the facilities a far-seeing body of eminent artists have, during many years, accumulated for their benefit, and dash into paint with a confidence bred entirely of ignorance and intolerance of the training that they, at that ill-informed and blind period of their lives, do not see the need of."

Abbey continued: "Go to the Louvre constantly (on Sunday mornings you will have the place to yourself, or nearly so). Look at the designs and drawings by the great masters and reflect that they thought it necessary to take all that pains before they began their painting, and that they did not rely upon genius or talent to carry them through. Remember that you are pretty blind at present. I don't remember ever before having seen an art student of your age absolutely without a sketch-book. You should be sketching always, always. Draw anything. Draw the dishes on the table while you are waiting for your breakfast. Draw the people in the station while you are waiting for your train. Look at everything. It is all part of your world. You are going to be one of a profession to which everything on this earth means something. Keep every faculty you have been blessed with wide awake. The older you get the more full your life will be getting." 

Hudson River Rats looking at one of Abbey's sketchbooks at the Yale Art Gallery.

E.V. Lucas, Abbey's biographer, said, "The sketch-books which Abbey himself filled, all of which are preserved, and with which I have spent delightful hours, are proof that he practised what he preached. But probably of no artist of any time can it more truly be said that he was always learning—always preparing to be ready to begin." 

Lucas continues: "The tendency of so many young artists to dispense with drudgery was much on Abbey's mind, and there are other references to it in his letters. Among various unfinished fragments of correspondence are the following remarks to the late Charles Eliot Norton. 'In the first place I am convinced that it should be impressed upon this amiable legion, that is to say, the unprepared and usually insufficiently endowed students sent by the charitably disposed to study art abroad, that for a long time the aesthetic part of art instruction should be held in abeyance, that the science of the profession, or calling, should be acquired as patiently and as thoroughly as possible. When I say as possible, I do not mean to place any limit of time or means. This science is taught in many continental schools and at the Royal Academy; perhaps in its highest form, aside from these aesthetic questions, at the' Ecole des Beaux Arts '-and after the hand has learned to obey the eye, then the aesthetic part of the education should begin—years of it, not months. . . . The majority return to their native land full of the latest fad in pictures; and I speak now of America—in the absence, as a rule, of the inspiration derived from American students in Paris the environment of great works of art, they feed for the balance of their days upon a fashion which may have become obsolete on this side of the ocean almost before they have set up their American studios.'"

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Part 1: E.A. Abbey, "Greatest living illustrator"

Many of you commented on my recent post about Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) that you'd like a bit more information about him. In a recent blog poll, Abbey was the second highest vote getter for deserving a big art book and wider recognition.

Like Ernest Meissonier, Jules Bastien-Lepage and Adolph Menzel, Abbey is one of those artists whose name was on everyone's lips during his time but is unjustly neglected today. I thought I'd do a four-part series about him to share some fun tidbits and to give you some sources for reading more.

A good place to start are two tributes from Abbey's creative contemporaries, starting with Joseph Pennell, in his book Pen Drawing and Pen Draughtsmanship (1889), called him not only "the greatest English-speaking illustrator, but the greatest living illustrator."

"His present position as an illustrator has been attained and maintained simply by treating illustration, as it should be treated, as seriously as any other branch of art. He is remarkable not so much for academic correctness—as is Menzel, for example—but rather for his truth, the beauty of his line and his power of expression."

"No illustrator has realised more beautiful women or finer swaggering gallants, and no one has placed them in more appropriate surroundings. He makes the figures real for us because all the backgrounds and accessories are taken directly from nature."

Pennell continues: "Menzel is the founder of modern illustration; [Mariano] Fortuny, [Martin] Rico, and [Daniel] Vierge have been its most powerful apostles, and among the cleverest men their influence will never grow less. But while Menzel's methods are obsolete, and Vierge's style can only be attempted by the most brilliant, anyone can see that a new school is arising, and this is the school of Abbey, who has at the present moment followers in every illustrating country in the world."

Abbey's praises were also sung by no less than Henry James:

"There is no paucity about Mr. Abbey as a virtuoso in black-and-white , and if one thing more than another sets the seal upon the quality of his work, it is the rare abundance in which it is produced. It is not a frequent thing to find combinations infinite as well as exquisite. Mr. Abbey has so many ideas, and the gates of composition have been opened so wide to him that we cultivate his company with a mixture of confidence and excitement. . . . None to-day is more charming, and none helps us more to take the large, joyous, observant, various view of the business of art. He has enlarged the idea of illustration, and he plays with it in a hundred spontaneous, ingenious ways."

More on Abbey is coming later this week. Meanwhile, enjoy these links:
Illustration magazine #40 with a feature on Abbey (preview the entire magazine online)
Previously on GJ: Richard III by Abbey

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Creamer in Casein

I threw a couple tubes of casein—black and white—into my kit this morning on the way to the diner.
While waiting for my scrambled eggs, I did this little study of the creamer. Casein is well suited to this kind of rendering because you can match tones and textures very closely. 

It's also fitting because I was painting the milk container using paint that uses milk as the binder.
For Anton on FB, here's more about the tools I was using:
I was using Richeson / Shiva casein
1/4 inch flat brush 
Moleskine watercolor notebook
Waterman Phileas red fountain pen 
Lots of info on casein at Richeson's FAQ about casein

Original Ronald McDonald

In the category of 'What were they thinking?' —Here is the original Ronald McDonald from 1963, played by comedian and clown Willard Scott, who created the character.

(Video link) This vintage TV ad shows Ronald slipping on his skates and handing out hamburgers to a kid, overcoming his objections: "Mom told me never to talk to strangers."

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Snow White at the Rockwell

When Walt Disney released the feature-length animated film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937, it was a big risk, both artistically and financially. The seven-minute shorts had been doing well, but he wanted to develop the art form further in terms of realism, drama, and an involved storyline.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the release of the groundbreaking film, original artwork from Snow White is now on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

The watercolor painting above is by Gustaf Tenggren, who was hired fairly late in the production. He did some of the movie poster art, and irked the Disney artists by going "off-model" in the character designs.

The Disney-curated show says, "many live animals were brought to the studio for the artists to study. The tortoise actually stayed on after the end of the production with a 'Traffic Department' sign on his back, a jab at the studio's slow messenger service." 

The show includes about 200 pieces, including character models, cel set-ups, original watercolor backgrounds, storyboards, layouts, and marketing artwork. The cel set-ups unfortunately are on reproduction backgrounds, and the labeling isn't as clear as it should be about what is original. 

There are character studies by Fred Moore, watercolor backgrounds by Samuel Armstrong, and ensemble animation of the dwarfs by Bil Tytla. Since Disney asked artists not to sign their work, the artist is not known in many cases, so the generic tag "Disney Animation Artist" is used.

Among my favorite pieces in the show were Ken O'Connor's thumbnail layout sketches to plan the dramatic final confrontation of the dwarfs and the evil queen.

In this video (link to YouTube), Walt pitches each of the characters using maquettes.

The exhibition Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic will remain on view through October 27. Also at the Rockwell Museum right now is an entire room of Norman Rockwell's charcoal preliminaries, something you don't often get to see.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Art Renewal Center Salon Article

The Art Renewal Center is accepting preorders for its annual catalog detailing the winners of the 2012/2013 ARC Salon. Kara Ross of the ARC also just published an article about the winning entries.

Swedish artist Nick Alm win first place in the figurative category for his painting "Two Lovers," showing a woman in the embrace of a statue of Poseidon.

About the painting Alm said, “It is said that in ancient times women had a different relationship to sculptures, as they perceived them as embodiments of real entities. With this phenomenon in mind I wanted to tell a story of a girl, starved of love and human contact, so desperate as to turn to a sculpture for intimacy: it’s tragic and beautiful at the same time."

Edgar Leeteg, Father of Black Velvet Painting

Edgar Leeteg was an American expatriate artist who lived and painted in Tahiti, where he popularized black velvet painting and became known as the "American Gauguin."

Although velvet painting dates back at least to the 14th century, (Marco Polo found velvet painting in Kashmir), the 20th century popularity of black velvet traces back to Leeteg, a native of Sacramento, California.

In California, Leeteg did odd jobs, including sign painting, but jobs were scarce in the Depression. He emigrated to Tahiti in 1933 with a few brushes and paint left over from his sign work. There he painted sensuous portraits of the local women and of orchids and started selling his paintings to tourists in bars.

He eventually found patrons in America and a dealer in Hawaii. Many of his customers were Navy personnel based in Hawaii who brought the paintings back to their base in San Diego. With Leeteg's originals under their arm, many of these sailors went to Tijuana to commission similar portraits of their girlfriends.

After that, black velvet painting developed into a small industry of handcrafted art for tourists which continues to this day. The Mexican subjects tended more to bullfights, señoritas, and celebrities.

Leeteg's originals have gone up and down in value with collectors. They have remained popular with fans of Tiki / Polynesian art of the 1940s, and with tastemakers who embrace kitsch culture.

Thanks, Christopher