Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Flagg Paints the Instrument Makers

In 1907, American illustrator James Montgomery Flagg found a newspaper clipping about a remote town in Germany called Markneukirchen, where they made some of the world's best musical instruments.

He decided to travel there to paint the craftsmen at work. It was a remote destination far from the train lines, requiring days of arduous travel. 

When he arrived, he didn't have an introduction, nor did he speak German, and they didn't know who he was. At first no one wanted to pose for this strange artist. 

But eventually he managed to meet the right people and get permission to set up his art supplies in the instrument makers' workshops. 

(Painting by Flagg, courtesy the Markneukirchen Musical Instrument Museum.)
He painted a portrait of Heinrich Theodor Heberlein Jr., known as the "Modern Stradivarius."

They made not only violins, cellos, and basses, but also brass instruments. The fumes in the brass shops were so overwhelming he had to sit outside under an umbrella. One model "held a six-foot iron ladle full of hot lead for a half hour, without resting it against anything!"

Everyone in the village, even older men in their 60s, stayed up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, talking and singing. Then they woke up at six the next morning to get to work. When they weren't making instruments they were playing them.
"The workmen in the town have numerous bands of their own, and the instruments they play on are those made by themselves. There is a young boys' band which marches quickly through the streets on certain occasions, followed by scores of children. They play one tune for miles, it seems—no sooner finishing it than they start over again, much to their own joy."

Learn more
• Flagg published his sketches and recollections in an article in Scribner's Magazine. You can read the article online at this link.

• There's also a more detailed summary of Flagg's sketching adventure at this instrument maker blog.

• Wikipedia on James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960)

• A profile of Flagg is included in Fred Taraba's book: Masters of American Illustration: 41 Illustrators and How They Worked...

• There's an illustrated monograph about James Montgomery Flagg.

• Markneukirchen is still a center for instrument making. See what the factories look like now on this YouTube video.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Inside the Brooder Box

Huddled under the warm light of the brooder box is a lively new clutch of guinea fowl keets.

(Link to Facebook video) I set up my stool and dive into the scene in watercolor.

The keets doze off most of the time in the back of the box, and they scramble around when they're startled.
Previously: Guinea Fowl and Donkeys

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Cult of the British Naturalists

A group of British artists of the nineteenth century hung out with the painters living in rural France. They were especially inspired by Jules Bastien-Lepage, who painted working people in real settings.

Painting by Stanhope Forbes
British painters Stanhope Forbes and Henry LaThangue (below) settled in the fishing community of Cornwall and formed what came to be known as the Newlyn School.

Photo of Henry LaThangue
A 1906 biography, quoting Forbes, describes the working principles of this group:

"To paint the picture entirely and absolutely out of doors, braving all difficulties, and relying in no way upon sketches or studies, with which, later on, the work could be comfortably finished within the walls of a studio—such was the creed to which they pledged themselves.

"Nature was to be respected and followed without question: to be blindly obeyed. Models might grumble and dislike having to sit in the street under the very eyes of the whole village, but the cult demanded it, and its exponents gave an example of self-sacrifice, for they spared themselves no trouble, and worked out their principles with admirable conscientiousness."

"'It may seem somewhat of a paradox, but I have often found the success of the picture to be in inverse ratio to the degree of comfort in which it has been produced. I scarcely like to advance the theory that painting is more successful when carried on in discomfort, and with everything conspiring to wreck it, for fear of rendering tenantless those comfortable studios the luxury of which my good friends in the Melbury Road and St. John’s Wood so much enjoy. At the same time, I do seriously think that there is a certain quality of deliberateness most valuable in painting, which is undoubtedly encouraged where the conditions of one's work are not over and above enjoyable.

Painting by Stanhope Forbes
"In his eagerness to get the work done, the painter is careful not to waste time or linger over the job, but to go straight at the mark and make every touch tell. I have never painted with such directness as on those fortunately rare occasions when I have worked at sea, and I have carried large pictures right through to the last touch in smithies, stable-sheds, and amid all sorts of queer surroundings under conditions which when starting seemed absolutely hopeless and prohibitive. It is much discussed whether it is better to work directly from Nature or to make innumerable studies or notes and paint the picture from them. I believe no rule can be laid down, and that it is entirely a matter of individual temperament.

"My own custom has always been to work as much as possible on the spot, and practice has taught me that this offers certain advantages over any other method. There is a quality of freshness most difficult of attainment by any other course, and which one is too apt to lose when the work is brought into the studio for completion."
Quotes from the 1906 book: Stanhope A. Forbes A.R.A., and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, A.R.W.S. by Mrs. Lionel Birch

More recent book with color reproductions: Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School

Online article: Henry Herbert La Thangue – the pictorial documenter of rural life

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Oil Painting with Textural Effects

Pre-texturing is a way to achieve textural impastos without having to use a lot of slow-drying oil paint. If you add texture first in a faster drying material, you can then use oil thinly over it and the whole passage will be dry within 24 hours. The above video (Link to YouTube) shows how it works.

I use two different kinds of pre-textured impasto. The first one is using acrylic modeling paste at the stage of the preliminary drawing. The second way is to use white or light oil paint with a couple drops of cobalt drier added in to accelerate drying. After letting that thoroughly dry, I can place
YouTube video: Oil Painting with Textural Effects
Check out the full tutorial video "Unconventional Oil Techniques", which is full of practical art instruction for all levels.
Download at Gumroad:
Download at Sellfy:
DVD from manufacturer:

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Peaceful Watercolors of J. J. Hilder

Jesse Jewhurst Hilder (1881-1916) was an Australian watercolorist who was adept at softness and simplicity. 

Here he groups together the dark values into a single interconnected shape. The boards of the structure that are in light are also grouped into a simple light shape without too much texture or definition.

These log-haulers are presented with an emphasis on atmospheric feeling. The far trees are rendered with a simple flat value, and the cool shadow in the foreground melts into the light. There appears to be some scrubbing out of the tone in the right area.

In addition to the softness and the lack of textural rendering, his palette is extremely restricted, with just a hint of warm and cool.

According to Wikipedia, "Hilder was modest, shy and affected by illness; this sometimes led to estrangement from his best friends. He was fortunate in his wife, in the admiration of his fellow artists, and in finding early buyers of his paintings. He was very critical of his own work and tore up much of it; sometimes the final result was the third or fourth effort to capture the subject. He was not afraid of empty spaces and everything in the drawing was beautifully placed. His colour was always excellent, though some of his later work is painted almost in monochrome washed in on very rough paper. The treatment generally is broad, yet full of refinement and poetical feeling."

He died of illness in 1916, as the world was being dislocated by WWI. Fellow artist Julian Ashton wrote in a memorial catalog of his work: "Often, in a disturbed mood, wrapt in black thoughts, I go to our National Gallery and sit in front of the Hilders, and by and by I come away filled with peace."
Jesse Jewhurst Hilder on Wikipedia
Related post: What is 'Poetic' in Art?
Book: The art of J. J. Hilder 1918
Thanks, David Webb

Thursday, June 13, 2019

First-Hand Gleanings from Sargent

In his memoir, painter and sculptor Emil Fuchs said he asked John Singer Sargent for permission to paint in the master's presence in order to learn from him.

John Singer Sargent, portrait of Edwin Booth, detail, 1890
Sargent wasn't particularly verbal about his painting philosophy or his technique, but Fuchs was able to glean some helpful insights anyway.
"He never said much, but what he did say, one might do well to engrave upon the tablets of one's mind. One of the great man's teachings was the dominant importance of values over color. 'Color,' he said, 'is an inborn gift, but appreciation of value is merely a training of the eye which everyone ought to be able to acquire.' "
"Value in art, as everyone knows, simply means the relation of light to shade. Sargent referred to this idea over and over, and it occurred to me that perhaps he meant value not in pictures alone, but fundamentally in all the realms of life. His work demonstrates his ingrained belief in this. I can think of nobody who can see and render values with such delicate distinction as does Sargent."  
"His palette was to me a marvel. His enormous wealth of color he produces with a few simple hues, mostly earth colors — white, yellow ocher, light red or vermilion, burnt sienna, cobalt blue, emerald green and black. His is a rare skill in using and combining them." 
"Some mornings he would come in and, without saying much, would help me in painting a difficult passage from the model. While the direct way of painting appealed to him, he fully appreciated the more subtle methods, especially that of grisailles and glazing, by which many masters obtain their effects of brilliancy. This method, perhaps I should add, consists in painting first in black and white, and then laying on a thin film of transparent color."   
"Sargent's veneration for the work of the old masters was profound. But Velasquez and Franz Hals were the gods of his Pantheon. He copied both freely. Of Velasquez he had in his studio a facsimile of the dwarf Don Antonio el Ingles, and of Franz Hals several groups from his large pictures at Haarlem copied by himself. If my recollections of our discussions about artists are correct, Van Dyck seemed to appeal to him the least."
"About technique it was always difficult to make him express himself in words. Rather than explain a serious problem, he would take a brush and paint that piece and the difficulties would vanish under his touch. When I worked at his studio he offered me the free use of his colors and even his palette and brushes which lay about in profusion. Few artists can bring themselves to lend these objects without feeling it to be sacrilege."
With Pencil, Brush, and Chisel by Emil Fuchs
Emil Fuchs on Wikipedia
John Singer Sargent on Wikipedia

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Joe De Mers, American Illustrator

Joe De Mers (1910-1984) was a style setter in the mid-20th century illustrated magazines.

He painted glamorous women in romantic situations, in a style reminiscent of Coby Whitmore, Tom Lovell, or Harry Anderson

He typically combined abstract areas of flat colors with carefully rendered faces and hands. Large heads in illustrations were an exciting innovation borrowed from the closeup in movies.

He painted often in gouache. Note the crop marks at the corners, the registration marks on the left, and the brown stain of rubber cement around the outside edges. The rubber cement probably held a presentation mat board on the front.

Illustrator Joe De Mers is the featured artist of the new Illustration Magazine #64. In over 38 color illustrations, some full page, the article chronicles his development from Hollywood concept artist to a star in the Charles Cooper Studios in New York, where top illustrators created advertising art for all the leading accounts.
"Illustration Art" blog posts: Joe De Mers and the "Big Head" School of Illustration
"Art Contrarion" Joe De Mers: Mainstream 1950s Illustrator

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Hsieh Ming Chang

Hsieh Ming Chang is a Taiwanese watercolorist born in 1955. 

This painting has an upshot angle of a doorway with carvings and decorations. The illuminated area bleaches out to white. The colors are muted versions of warm and cool colors except for that red accent, which is echoed in the lower right. 

The textures of rust and peeling paint are so loving reproduced. I haven't seen the original, but I'll bet it's looser than it appears.

There's a big variety of shapes and edges throughout the image. If you follow along the edge of that canopy from the top down, you can see how it goes from soft to crisp.

A limited palette gives a sense of permanence and age to this simple rendering.
More examples by Hsieh Ming Chang

Monday, June 10, 2019

Before and After Morphine

Spanish painter Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931) painted a young woman before and after taking morphine.
Santiago Rusiñol — Before Morphine, 1894
In the first painting she's sitting up in a bed, her head lost in the shadow. Her arm looks thin and emaciated.

Santiago Rusiñol — Morphine's Girl
After she falls under the influence of the drug, her head sinks back on the pillow, and her fingers clutch at the covers. Her change in mental state is expressed mainly with the pose of her arm and with her surroundings.

According to the Museu del Cau Ferrat, which includes one of the paintings: "The morphine addict in the painting is Stephanie Nantas, the painter’s favourite model during the months he was staying in the apartment in Quai Bourbon. She appears in nearly ten works that Rusiñol produced anonymously during that period."
Museu del Cau Ferrat
Santiago Rusiñol on Wikipedia

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Clebsch Maps

Clebsch Maps are a way of visualizing the pattern of dynamic movement within fluids, such as air or water.

They're particularly useful for creating images of what happens in the air around flapping wings.

Here is a hummingbird in flight with a Clebsch Map showing the air velocities around it.

Each flapping wing is surrounded by tube-like vortices of quickly spinning air. Here they're rendered to look like glistening plastic wrap or glass tubing.

This YouTube video shows Clebsch Maps in various applications. This research will have practical applications for understanding the flight of insects and drones, as well as for creating new CGI techniques in the visual effects industry.
Study by Ren. Y Dong, H. Deng, et al.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Friday, June 7, 2019

Beginner's Drawing Kits

Toy Collector Mel Birnkrant shares his copy of the Donald Duck Paint and Crayon Set (Skip to 2:45). It came with a paint brush, mixing cups, 8 wax crayons, a blackboard, chalk, die-cut figures that could stand up, an elaborate "parade of characters" and a set of premixed colors that included "sky blue," "sea blue" and "blazing red."  (Link to video on YouTube).

I didn't have access to anything like that as a kid, but my mom let me try out her oil painting kit, which always sat in a closet as a reminder that she once had painted. The idea that both my parents had at one time tried painting impressed me greatly, even though they didn't do it any more.

My mom's wooden box had some stiff brushes and little tubes of colors, some of which were dried up, and the labels were soaked in oil. Her kit didn't have bottles of oils and solvents, so I couldn't really use it, but the lingering smell of the linseed oil symbolized to me the life of an artist.

I also had a set of Crayola crayons. They had evocative names like "grass green" and "peach." I still think of those names when I think of those colors. I never liked crayons very much, even as a young kid because they seemed too crude and hard to control.

Jeanette says she had a Jon Gnagy "Learn to Draw" set, which came with everything you needed to draw like he did on TV.

Did you have a beginner's art kit when you were a kid? If so, share your memories in the comments.
Watch the video about Mel on YouTube by Eric Millen
Mel Birnkrant's website

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Painting in a Weird Forest

Let's hunt down the weird magic of the wild woods.

I carry my sketching gear far into the woods along an overgrown horse trail.  It's close to the spot that I painted in March, when it was still covered in snow.

I use a limited palette of gouache over a casein underpainting.  
Weird Forest, gouache over casein underpainting
Along the way I face several challenges: mud, ticks, centipedes, and rain, not to mention the complexity of the vines and branches. His companion is the husky dog "Smooth."

Here's how I express the feeling I'm trying to convey in the picture: "We're traveling toward light through a jungle of chaos...and I better get back before the rain starts."
Richeson Casein

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Can you use other artists' work as reference?

Painting by Louis Béroud depicting copyists in the Louvre
Joe asks: What is your take on illustrators using other painters' work as reference? What ethics stand behind a practice such as this?

A few thoughts:
Copying to learn 
Studying the work of other painters as a learning exercise is a time-honored practice. Copying is one of the best ways to absorb the influence of someone you admire. You can do anything from a quick thumbnail sketch to a full size replica copy done in the same medium. If you're doing a master copy, that's fine, but I think it's best not to post your copy online, because unless it's clearly identified as a copy, it might annoy or confuse people who are looking for the real thing. If you must post it, mark it very clearly as a copy or put it side by side with the original.

Satire or pastiche 
If you're copying another artist's style in order to do a pastiche or a satire, there's no ethical problem with that. Imitating another style is entirely appropriate, as when Rockwell aped Jackson Pollock's style for his painting in the background of the Art Critic, or when MAD magazine copied the look of the James Montgomery Flagg "I Want You" poster, or when a modern illustrator evokes the lurid style of a 1950s pulp paperback cover. If there's any doubt, or if you're being interviewed, always give credit to your inspiration, especially if you're inspired by one particular artist.

Reference for guidance or inspiration 
If you want to look at other artists for inspiration for how to approach a composition or how to handle a passage, I think it's best to do so in your free time at the end of the day or during a break, but not when you're in the heat of your own painting. You can do some thumbnail copies of your favorite artists when you're in sketch stage. But when you've got your painting going, it's time to close the art books. You don't want to be tempted to lift a passage from another artist's work into your own painting, or if you're working digitally to cut and paste elements from some other artist's painting. That has ethical problems, for sure.

Have multiple heroes
At any given time, always cultivate two or three artists that you admire and look at them side by side. Work your way around the buffet table. Also, I recommend looking at the work of artists who are deceased. You don't want to be seen as derivative of a living artist, nor do you want your work to be trailing a commonplace contemporary fashion. Try to understand not just the outward technique or brushwork, but also the thought process that your hero used. If you adopt similar philosophies and work habits, your work will develop naturally along its own track. And when you go back to nature with those inspirations in mind, try to apply them to your own interests and sensibilities, and eventually you'll make them your own.

Using real life for reference
If you're just doing your own original professional painting, it's best to reference real life / first hand observation as much as possible. If all you look at is other peoples' art, you might limit your own independent solutions. You'll never equal the artist you admire by drinking from their cup, because they have been getting their water from a deeper well.

George Clausen said: "The majority of people tune their eyes by pictures and not by nature, and only admire in nature that which is made manifest to them by their artistic prophet."

Cycles of inspiration
Painting, movies, and other art forms seem go through cycles. New movements seem to emerge from some combination of innovation from direct observation from nature together with reinterpretation or imitation of past styles or remote traditions. The Renaissance was fueled in part by the discovery of original Greek and Roman statues; Many Impressionists were fired up by Japanese prints; and many artists of the contemporary atelier movement are greatly inspired by academic studies by 19th century masters.

As they enter their later phases, art movements often take on a mannerist quality. Earlier ideas are mined over and over, often with a sense of ironic detachment and self-consciousness. This is a sign that the movement is on the decline. Superhero movies may have entered that stage, as westerns and noir films did in their turn. When an art movement becomes decadent or tired, it needs either a shot of direct, first-hand observation from life or a dose of fresh artistic influences.

There's no ethical issue here in any of this as long as you don't violate another's copyright.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

ZBS Audio Adventure of World Beneath

The audio adventure of Dinotopia: The World Beneath uses music, full-cast dialogue, and immersive effects to transport you to another world.
Produced by ZBS.
Available On CDs or as MP3 download 

Monday, June 3, 2019

Tyrannosaurus vs. Edmontosaurus

One more gouache prelim showing the T. rex attacking an Edmontosaurus. (Link to Facebook)

Here's the finished painting.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Gouache as a Preliminary Sketch Medium

Gouache prelims are a rehearsal for the final oil painting.

Gouache feels like oil set for fast forward.

Full YouTube video on gouache preliminary sketches.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Prepping for Color Thumbnails

If you have a line drawing of a composition that you want to try out in color, here's what you can do:
1. Scan it and print it at a small size.
2. Glue it down with acrylic matte medium.
3. Then you can paint multiple versions in water-based media.

(Short vid on Facebook)

New YouTube video about using gouache and watercolor for preliminary studies:

Friday, May 31, 2019

Using Gouache for Preliminary Sketches

For quick preliminary sketches, there's nothing like gouache, watercolor, and water-soluble colored pencils. 

I use them in combination to paint preliminary compositional studies before embarking on a final illustration. They're a fast, fun, and and low-risk medium that dries quickly, letting you experiment with endless variations.

In this video, (Link to YouTube), I paint one sample thumbnail sketch in real time using transparent watercolor, then film the creation two other layout concepts in time lapse.

I also demonstrate how to use scaled-down laser prints of the final line drawing glued down with acrylic matte medium in order to test ideas for color schemes.

The final paleo-art paintings were created in oil, and were used to illustrate an article on T.rex that appeared in the May, 2019 issue of Ranger Rick Magazine.

This is an extended sample from "Unconventional Oil Techniques"
Check out the full tutorial video, which is full of practical art instruction for all levels.
Download at Gumroad:
Download at Sellfy:
DVD from manufacturer: 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Complexity is a Hierarchy of Abstractions

Self portrait by František Kupka
One of the technologies that is rapidly emerging is neural networks, but scientists are just beginning to learn how they work.

"Neural networks aim to mimic the human brain — and one way to think about the brain is that it works by accreting smaller abstractions into larger ones. Complexity of thought, in this view, is then measured by the range of smaller abstractions you can draw on, and the number of times you can combine lower-level abstractions into higher-level abstractions — like the way we learn to distinguish dogs from birds."

This abstraction architecture is useful for training a computer network to recognize objects, such as differentiating one animal from another, or for reading handwriting.

Self portrait by Chuck Close
But the basic concept of complexity as a hierarchy of abstractions can be taken in another way by artists. Often a realistic painting is made up of abstract strokes at a micro level. They might be the little abstract pixel tiles of Chuck Close or the blobby dots of John Berkey.

We might also connect this idea with image processing in the human brain. As our visual system begins to interpret an image, it does so first by perceiving brightness differences across boundaries, and broadly abstract shapes and colors.

As the image is decoded from the occipital cortex to other cortical areas of the brain, those abstractions are assembled into a higher level interpretation of reality that takes into account such things as the passage of time, cause and effect, the relationships between objects, and the sense of story.
Previous post: Abstraction vs. Realism: Thoughts While Painting the Maine Coast
Quote from Quanta Essay "Foundations Built for a General Theory of Neural Networks"

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Do you need to be young to learn to paint?

Etchrlab published an interview with me, including this question:

Most artists think that if they don't start from a young age, then they won't be able to make a future in art. Yet, you committed to learning other areas first. Was that an easy decision to make?

No, it was a difficult decision, because I felt that I was too old to learn to paint. I had drawn a lot as a child, and was pretty good at it, but I was over 20 and didn't know much of anything about painting.

I was especially worried, as were my parents, when I dropped out of art school after two semesters. Since then I've come to realize that learning to paint isn't that difficult. It's thinking that's hard, and I learned to think at UC Berkeley.
Read the rest: Interview with James Gurney
Related post: Norman Mingo, Elder Mad Man

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Challenges of Garden Painters

Sitting in a garden painting a watercolor sounds like a pretty easy life, doesn't it?

One might think so, but two artists, Ernest Arthur Rowe (1863-1922) and George S. Elgood (1851-1943), show the kind of challenges these garden specialists faced.

Ernest Arthur Rowe, Holme Lacy, Herefordshire, 1902
Both of them traveled around Britain painting detailed watercolor portraits of estate gardens for rich clients.

Ernest Arthur Rowe - Revesby Abbey, Lincolnshire, The Fountain 1898
Ernest Arthur Rowe often had to contend with bad weather. In 1892 in Suffolk, he "worked in the garden under an umbrella in the morning and for an hour in the afternoon, then gave it up as a bad job. Rained all day." 

Later he said in his journal "a 24 x 20 drawing [was] blown into a fishpond."

Ernest Arthur Rowe - The Terrace, Gwydyr
He also faced financial challenges, even though he was one of the leading garden painters of his day. When he started out, he had a hard time getting commissions, so he would arrange permission from the head gardener to do a rendering, and then sweet-talk the owner into buying it.

In 1890 he only made £30. He gradually improved his fortunes enough to marry and build a house.

Ernest Arthur Rowe, Rose Garden
All his life he suffered from poor health. The First World War devastated the world that supported his profession, but he was able to revive his career a bit before his death in 1922. After that, for 50 years, he was virtually forgotten.

George Elgood
George S. Elgood was probably the best known garden painter and a gardener himself. He illustrated books by the renowned designer Gertrude Jekyll, and he was inspired by the gardens of Italy.

His paintings achieve a remarkable botanical truthfulness without sacrificing the atmospheric quality and the tonal unity of the distant areas.
George Elgood, Italian Garden
According to Christopher Wood, "as he grew older, Elgood grew increasingly crotchety, eccentric, and reclusive." His notes reveal "his great contempt for garden designers" and his disrespect for others in his profession. Apparently Elgood and Rowe didn't know each other and never spoke.

Elgood had a particular distaste for architects who designed gardens, and he wrote: "the architect who designed this porch ought to be whipped."
George Elgood
"In his own house," Wood continues, "Elgood resolutely eschewed all modern conveniences, refusing to install heating, electric light or even running water. He died a cantankerous, bearded old recluse, in 1943 at age 92, by which time the golden age of English gardens which he had so lovingly depicted, had long since passed away."
The quotes are from the art book Painted Gardens: English Watercolours, 1850-1914 by Christopher Wood