Monday, March 31, 2014

How to Clean Out a Brush

Good brush care can extend the life of an oil painting brush tenfold, and save you hundreds of dollars in the long run.

In this two minute video, William Whitaker demonstrates how he cleans out an oil-painting brush.

1. Dip brush in odorless mineral spirits and wipe out solids in shop towel.
2. Wash out the brush in soap and water.
3. Using another brush, work up a lather of brush-washing soap in the palm of your hand.
4. Grasp the tips of the bristles and wiggle the lather into the bristles and work it into the area where the bristles meet the ferrule.
5. Add brush conditioner to restore the oils into the bristles, as soap and mineral spirits alone will dry out the brush.
6. Gently point the brush before putting it away.

There's a variety of brush cleaning soaps available. Some of the formulations have soap and conditioner together. If I've forgotten one that you like, let me know in the comments, and I'll add it in:
Da Vinci Brush Cleaning Soap
Trekell Coconut Oil Soap for watercolor

Don't miss the video of Bob Ross "beating the devil" out of his brush, where he whacks the odorless thinner out the brush on his easel, covering the studio with paint. "That's where you take out your hostilities and frustrations," he says. (Thanks, Daniel)

The Whitaker video is one of dozens of selected artist demo videos recently curated by the Art Renewal Center.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Archaeological dig reveals life and death in 14th century London

When the disease known as the Black Death or the Great Pestilence arrived in London in the mid- 1300s, it wiped out more than half of the population. As a result of excavation for a high speed rail project, archaeologists have recently discovered a mass grave of people that died of the plague. Using modern forensic techniques, they're able to learn more about what life was really like in the Middle Ages:

"• Many of the skeletons appear to suffer signs of malnutrition and 16% had rickets.
• There is a high rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.
• The later skeletons from the 1400s had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.
• 40% grew up outside London, possibly as far north as Scotland - showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today."
Read more on the BBC: Black Death Skeletons Unearthed by Crossrail Project
Image from Den of Geek

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kramskoy paints Yaroshenko

Left: Nikolai Yaroshenko by Ivan Kramskoy. Right: Kramskoy by Yaroshenko
After the last post about the watercolor portrait of Kramskoy by Yaroshenko, I suspected that Kramskoy must have been painting Yaroshenko in return. The giveaway was the pad of paper in his lap.

And sure enough, I found the other painting: Yaroshenko by Kramskoy (left). The two artists spent the summer of 1874 together in Kramskoy's country house near Siversky Station. (Link for more info)

Controlled Watercolor Portrait

Here's an example of a well controlled watercolor portrait from 1874 by Nikolai Yaroshenko. The portrait shows his friend and fellow artist Ivan Kramskoi.

A watercolor like this would begin with a careful pencil line outline drawing on fairly smooth paper or board. You can see the untouched pencil drawing of the leg in the lower part of the picture. Following that would be light, neutral washes of watercolor, such as what you see on the hand and on the flipped-back pages of Kramskoi's book. 

He tested one of his green mixtures on the right side of the picture. It's not a bad idea to have a test-swatch section of the sketch where you can fool around with the brush and try things out.

Once the big areas are lightly covered, and still using a big brush, Kramskoi adds smaller shapes to define the folds of the sleeve, varying the colors as he goes. The pencil drawing probably didn't define these folds in much detail, so he's finding them with the brush.

Yaroshenko probably spent three quarters of his time on the face, and I would guess this study took about two to three hours in all. To get the very controlled soft transitions, he might have painted some passages where he lightly wet the surface and dropped in colors a little at a time. 

He might have lifted out areas that got too dark. Lifting out means wetting already painted surfaces and dabbing out some of the pigment with a brush, sponge or rag. 

But you have to watch out with these techniques, because applications of water over painted passages can easily mess them up. It's like dancing on eggshells.

I can't tell from this repro whether he used any gouache, but I would guess probably not. The white stripes in the tie and the shirt seem to be white areas in the paper left untouched.

In the '70s when I was becoming an artist, everyone wanted to paint watercolor "bold and free." But from my perspective, boldness and freedom alone don't have much value without the grounding of deliberate consideration and careful observation. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Noble's Backgrounds in "What's Opera, Doc?"

One of the greatest classic short cartoons is "What's Opera, Doc?" a 1957 Warner Brothers Merrie Melodie directed by Chuck Jones.

The story features Elmer Fudd as the demi-god Siegfried chasing Bugs Bunny and singing "Kill the Wabbit!" In less than seven minutes, they manage to satirize Wagner, expressionist cinema, ballet, and Fantasia, all at once.

Maurice Nobel did the layouts and backgrounds, and they add immense scale, color, and drama to the piece.

Noble said: "Starting rough and not getting specific too early will allow you to keep your design ideas flexible…The more ideas and work you have, the more design possibilities you will have to choose from."

"I suggest putting all your research materials away once you start designing and never refer to them again. This may prove difficult at first. But I’ve found that if you are tied too closely to your reference, your designs will tend to look stiff. You will miss out on many fun design opportunities."
Quotes from Cartoon Brew
All images ©Warner Bros.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sketching Bohème

Last night we saw Puccini's La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. We had the privilege of sitting in the front row, with an unobstructed view into the orchestra pit. I sketched bass clarinetist James Ognibene mainly during the scene changes and intermission.

During the show itself there was so much to look at in Zeffirelli's magnificent staging that I couldn't tear my eyes away from the sets, with the cast of 240 extras, plus a donkey and a horse, in the streets of Paris during Act 2. Plus it was too dark on my sketchbook page to see much of what I was doing. 
But during Act 3 there was enough spill light from the stage to jot down quick silhouettes of Mimi, as performed by Romanian soprano Anita Hartig. 

The portrait of the cellist at the lower right was sketched in extremely dim light, so that I couldn't make out any details. I could only state basic planes of light and shadow, using water-soluble colored pencils and two water brushes, one filled with water, and the other with fountain pen ink.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blashfield and Tradition

Edwin H. Blashfield, Spring Scattering Stars

Mural painter Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936) defined tradition this way:

"Tradition is the tribute which the genuine artist pays to the wisdom of the finer souls in the art of all ages.” 

Blashfield studied at the Pennsylvania Academy, MIT, and in Paris with Bonnat. Read more in his classic book Mural painting in America.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Prix de Rome: Behind the Scenes

Andre Castaigne, from "Paris of To-day" by Richard Whiteing
This illustration from 1900 shows an art student using a lay figure as a model for a Prix de Rome competition painting. Prix de Rome paintings were based on an assigned subject from history, mythology, or the Bible. Richard Whiteing, an observer of the day, described how the competition worked:

"The first heat is a sketch in oils, and the result, of course, leaves many out of the race. The second is a figure in oils. For the third, the few left standing are sent to paint against one another for their lives on a subject given by the school."
"Now, there are all sorts of possibilities of unfair play in a competition of this sort, and against them authority has taken due precaution. A man may get outside help, and bring in a work that is only half his own; and even if he does every bit of it, he may still have fed his invention on the contraband of borrowed ideas. So, to prevent all that, they put him in a kind of monastic cell in the school itself, and there for three mortal months, until his task is done, he has to live and work, with no communication from the outer world. He is what is called en loge. He brings in his own traps, and he is as effectually under lock and key as any Chinese scholar competing for the prize of Peking. The moving-in day for the Prix de Rome is one of the sights of the Latin Quarter, with its baggage-trains of personal gear ranging from the easel of study to the fiddle of recreation."
"When it is all over, and the best man has won, he settles for four years in the capital of Italy to rummage at his ease in its treasure-houses of the art of all time. Of course he has to rummage on a plan. Paris requires of him a work every year, to show that he has been making good use of his time. If this is of unusual merit, it is bought by the government."

Free download from "Paris of To-Day" by Richard Whiting (1840-1928)
Previously on GurneyJourney:
En Loge Competition
Is competition a good thing in art education?
Artists' Lay Figures

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: Life in the Mouse House

I just finished reading Life in the Mouse House, a memoir by Disney story artist Homer Brightman. It's an unflinchingly honest look at the Disney Studios during the golden years of 1935-1950.

It's a lively read, full of anecdotes about pranks and office politics, and it gives an unsparing portrait of Walt Disney himself. Brightman acknowledges that Walt was a great pitchman and story man, a driven perfectionist who pushed the art of animation forward.

But he was also a difficult guy to work with. Brightman's anecdotes portray Walt as touchy, lonely, suspicious, and unforgiving, meting out underhanded punishments even to his loyal employees.

Disney Story Artist Homer Brightman (center) courtesy Disney History 
The memoirs explain the causes and consequences of the famous animator's strike in 1941. One of the sore points, Brightman explains, was that on the heels of the huge success of Snow White, Disney announced to the press that he would be sharing profits from the film with the employees. But instead of giving out bonuses or raises, he gave a party where he used the moment to chastise them and exhort them to work harder.

Brightman's recollections were lost for a long time, but they were recently rediscovered by his descendants. Other artists on the studio staff are mentioned by pseudonyms in the memoir, but historians have figured out who they are, and there's a key in the book so Disneyphiles can figure out who's who.
Photo courtesy Disney, ©Disney

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Carl Spitzweg, "The Bookworm," 1850
In theatrical illumination, the light is almost never completely uniform. Less important areas of the stage fall into shadow, while the spotlight rivets the attention of the audience on the most important part of the action.
Landscape painters use the natural spotlighting of a cloudy day to dramatize selected areas. This device was common in the Düsseldorf School, and among 17th century Dutch painters like Ruisdael.

Capturing these effects while painting en plein air requires tremendous concentration and commitment. Once you see an effect that you want to capture, you have to paint it from memory and ignore other effects that strike your eye later.

Using a special eye light to spotlight the center of the face was common in film noir lighting.

Spotlighting can have powerful storytelling implications. In Gerome's "Death of Caesar," the body of the slain Caesar has already fallen into shadow, as if the light of history has moved on to his murderers and successors. 

Gradating the edge of the spotlight effect makes it less obvious to the viewer, but it takes a careful organization of the palette if you want to paint it with opaques, because all of the colors of the scene must go through gradual transitions.

Alphonse Mucha, "Nero Watching the Fire of Rome," 1887
If you can group the values of all the figures in the light and make them a mass of light, in contrast to a mass of figures in shadow, the overall composition will be much simpler and more powerful. 

This also takes a lot of concentration: always to keep in mind the large statement, while you're fiddling with the details.
More about spotlighting in my book, Color and Light, available from Amazon (where it is still the #1 book on painting), and signed from my website (U.S. orders only).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Four Arts Ball

From the diligent work they produced, one might suppose that the academic artists in 19th century Paris were a quiet, monkish lot. Well, they worked hard, but they partied hard, too.

One of the wildest events was the annual Four Arts Ball (Ball Quat'Z'Arts). It was held every spring after the paintings were delivered to the Salon and before everyone went off to their summer vacations. It brought together all the students from the "four arts": painting, sculpture, architecture, and engraving. 

Everyone wore and outlandish costumes. Students from each of the ateliers competed to create extravagant floats. Gerome's students constructed a 15 foot high statue of the war goddess Bellona.

Popular models were carried aloft over the crowd, where they performed slow striptease dances in public.

The cavalcade converged on an indoor party at the Moulin Rouge, to which only accredited students were admitted, and if their costume wasn't impressive enough, they weren't let in. 

Once inside, "we entered a dazzling fairy-land, a dream of rich color and reckless abandon. From gorgeous kings and queens to wild savages, all were there; courtiers in silk, naked gladiators, nymphs with paint for clothing,—all were there; and the air was heavy with the perfume of roses." 

The students of Atelier Cormon had "a huge caravan of the prehistoric big-muscled men that appeal so strongly to Cormon; large skeletons of extinct animals, giant ferns, skins and stone implements were scattered about, while the students of Cormon's atelier, almost naked, with bushy hair and clothed in skins, completed the picture."

After a grand feast with soup, roasts, salads, cheeses, and cakes, the prize of fifty bottles of champagne was awarded to the atelier with the most extravagant presentation. Some of bottles of champagne were poured liberally over the bodies of the favorite models, who dazzled the crowd with the newly introduced belly dance.

As the April dawn broke, the revelers returned through the streets of Paris, climbing lampposts, turning over ash cans, capturing horse cabs, dumping out the sacks of the ragpickers, and showing off their costumes to the citizens.

Some of the art students dressed as Roman warriors even played the farce of ousting the bayonet-bearing guards of the Louvre. The officers, shocked at first, "could not resist the spirit of pure fun that filled the mob, and took their revenge by kissing the models and making them dance."

Friday, March 21, 2014

Frank Eats a Cantaloupe

Here's a page from my pencil sketchbook. It's a candid moment drawn from life, as my nine-year-old son Frank ate a cantaloupe.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ogden Pleissner Exhibition

Ogden Pleissner "Fighter Plane Returns from Kiska, 1943
One of the realist landscape painters that maintained high standards through the dark ages of mid-20th century America was Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983). Trained at the Art Students League under Frank Dumond, he enlisted in the military and painted firsthand scenes from World War II, and then painted hunting, fishing and travel scenes for the rest of his career.

Six of Pleissner's originals are currently on display in a small exhibition at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, New York, and we went to check out the show yesterday. His painting "Cold Day in January" is a large watercolor of a domestic scene in the rural American South.

The smoke from the cooking fire is beautifully handled in wet washes. As with Sargent's watercolors, there is some lifting out, some wax resist, and some gouache, such as in the laundry at the right.
Ogden Pleissner, oil, “Circus Comes to Rawlings, Wyoming,” (1939) 
There are three oils, too, all magnificent in design and execution. The circus painting shows the backs of six elephants, with a peek at the behind-the-scenes activity of a traveling circus glimpsed through the spaces.

Norman Rockwell, Arkell Museum, photo courtesy Times Union

If you go to the Arkell, don't miss the 1939 advertising art that Norman Rockwell painted for Beech Nut gum, plus the Arkell's small permanent collection, with samples of Sargent, Homer, Duveneck, Dewing, and Tarbell. 
The Arkell Museum's Ogden Pleissner exhibition: "Watercolors and Oil Paintings from the Arkell Collection" through June 1, 2014
Another place to see Pleissner paintings is at the Pleissner Gallery at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
The best book on Pleissner is Art of Ogden M. Pleissner, from 1984, and it's amazingly affordable.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Protection Against Midges.

After yesterday's post about the Pre-Raphaelite love triangle, Greg Shea, who works at the Yale Center for British Art, sent this intriguing sketch by John E. Millais.

It shows two sketchers, puffing on smokes, with bags over their heads, with eye and mouth holes cut out to keep out the biting flies. In the distance, a shocked family looks on.

It is titled "Awful protection against midges," and it illustrates a moment from the sketching trip to Scotland Millais took with Ruskin and his wife Effie.

According to the Leicester Art Galleries: 

"This drawing comes from a series of about twenty-five amusing records that Millais made as a visual diary of his stay in Scotland with John Ruskin and his wife Effie. It was on this holiday at Brig o’Turk, taken between July and October in 1853, that Millais painted his famous portrait of John Ruskin standing beside Glenfinlas Falls and became deeply infatuated with his wife, Effie. Millais was an avid fan of the humorous magazine Punch and on returning from Scotland he showed the results of the lighter side of his trip (his relations with Ruskin having become naturally somewhat strained) to his friend, the Punch cartoonist John Leech. Although Millais was delighted to see his sketches published he asked for them to be anonymous. The images “would never go with the serious position I occupy in regard to Art”.

"Awful Protection Against Midges was published on the 12th November 1853. It appeared with the title Ingenious protection against midges - a valuable hint to sketchers from nature. Simplified by Leech for the wood block engraving, the Punch illustration lacks the delicate detail of the original drawing. Millais had written to his friend Martha Combe from Brig o’Turk on the 6th September describing this well-known Scottish pest. “There is one drawback to this almost perfect happiness - the midges. They bite so dreadfully that it is beyond human endurance to sit quiet, therefore many a splendid day passes without being able to work”. Martha and Thomas Combe were important Pre-Raphaelite patrons.

"The kilted figure on the left is Millais’ pupil and friend, the artist Michael Halliday in his adopted native attire. On the right may well be Millais himself, however Millais usually portrayed himself with exaggerated gangly legs and arms. An alternative candidate is Millais’ brother William, who can be seen sketching in another of the drawings smoking a similar cheroot. William’s favoured pastime was trout fishing for breakfast."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pre-Raphaelite Love Triangle

Yesterday, the Delaware Art Museum announced the launch of its online collections website. Now, over 1000 examples of its trove of Golden Age Illustration and Pre-Raphaelite paintings is available for anyone in the world to view and study.

Each painting has a story. Let me tell you one.

"The Waterfall" by John Everett Millais, 1853, oil, 11x19 inches

John Everett Millais painted this careful study of a woman beside a stream during a painting trip to Scotland. The woman is Effie (Euphemia) Gray, the wife of John Ruskin. Ruskin was a famous art critic who championed the idea of painting nature in all of its abundant detail, and he was an artistic mentor to Millais. 

During the long days that it would have taken to paint this picture, one can imagine John and Effie getting to know each other. Effie was unhappy in her own marriage to Mr. Ruskin, in part because of a very awkward situation that unfolded on the Ruskin's wedding night. 

Until his marriage, Ruskin's idea of women's bodies had derived from his encounters with classical statues and paintings. Confronted by the reality of Effie's nude body on the wedding night, he was shocked and dismayed. 

No one knows for sure what exactly blew his mind: it might have been either the pubic hair or the menstrual blood. Some have argued recently that the sensual reality of woman's body conflicted with Ruskin's mental image of an idealized young female. The way Ruskin put it later at the annulment proceedings: "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."

Millais and Effie had fallen in love, but this led to a big problem, because the whole point of the Scotland trip was for Millais to paint a standing portrait of Ruskin in a natural setting. Having established the natural backdrop, Millais returned to London, where Ruskin posed for him in the studio. Millais called it "the most hateful task I have ever had to perform." 

After the portrait was completed, Ruskin and Millais broke off relations, and Ruskin's marriage was on the rocks. Effie, still a virgin, sued for annulment.

Ruskin may have been turned off by Effie, but Millais wasn't. They married in 1854 and had eight children together.

This spring, a film dramatization called "Effie" will be released. The script by Emma Thompson promises to explore the fraught relationship between Gray, Ruskin, and Millais. (Thanks, Dana)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Working in the Semi-Outdoors

Here's a painting in oil by Carl Larsson  correction: William Blair-Bruce from the National Museum in Stockholm Sweden.

"The Open Air Studio" by William Blair-Bruce, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm Sweden.

The woman is working under the diffused light of a large wooden frame covered with paper or fabric. The frame seems to be supported by thin ropes up to the edge of the awning.

This diffusing frame makes an ideal light source for close work because the light is bright and indirect. It evens out the light if the sun is going in and out of the clouds. For close work and accurate color discrimination, diffused south light can be preferable to studio north light because it's brighter and its spectrum is closer to the standard of pure white sunlight. The only problem with diffused south light is that cloudy conditions make it so variable.

The other benefit of the semi-outdoor studio, of course, is that it gets you out in the fresh air, especially good if you're dealing with toxic fumes. My friend William Stout has worked for many years on the front porch of his California home.

You can make your own frame out of 1x2 inch lumber or PVC pipe. I have found the best diffusing material is white rip stop nylon. The fabric can be thumbtacked to the wood, or sewn with a hem that goes around the frame.

I have several specialized homemade diffusers for plein air work and video lighting that I'll share in future posts.

Dagnan Bouveret's Greenhouse Studio
White Umbrellas

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Giant insect mech vs. T. rex

In this concept art study, a crab-like mech, surrounded by a cloud of drones, tackles a tyrannosaur, while two archers try to take it down. 
It's painted in gouache, using white and black, warmed with yellow ochre and raw umber. I chose monochrome to evoke the look of an old photo. The gouache gives me more precise control over the recession of values in the dense, backlit atmosphere. 

Detail of Tyrannosaur's head in "Grapple Hold" from Dinotopia: First Flight by James Gurney

I reserved the darkest values (though still not black) for the dinosaur's tail. The darks on the dinosaur's head are much lighter, closer to 50%. 

To give it a photographic look, I tried to paint each section with just three values: a light value, a dark value, and a much brighter edge light. Those values step back together as you go back in space, like paired notes in music.

This painting is part of the new backstory development for the Dover edition of Dinotopia: First Flight coming out next month. 

The new edition has more than 40 pages of new supplementary material: character sketches, vehicle designs, cinematic story treatments, and backstory notes--all of which is published for the first time. This material fleshes out the tumultuous ancient origins of Dinotopia, which predates its utopian recent history.

I also just wrote a special article about painting in monochrome for the April/May issue of International Artist magazine. The article is illustrated with six of these steampunk mech pieces.