Thursday, December 31, 2020

Happy New Year


Alphonse Mucha's cover for Hearst's Magazine in 1922 showed his fair-haired son Jiří.



Wednesday, December 30, 2020

How Do I Find My Art Style?

Jo  says: I’m having trouble finding my art style. I do a lot of abstract pieces but I want to do more! I’m feeling overwhelmed with where to start.

(Link to YouTube) I would suggest pursuing your interest in abstraction, not with studio abstract paintings but by going outdoors and exploring the abstract forms of nature. Whatever kind of abstraction you're interested in—such as fractals, 2D patterns, fluid dynamics, or complex textures—you'll find it in the real world around you, both in the human-made world and in wild nature. 

When you paint from observation, don't worry too much about paint strokes or your personal interpretation. Instead, lose yourself in the subject and try to capture what you see as objectively as you can.

Let your sketchbook and your personal paintings be a place for learning, experimentation and selflessness. Doing this will help you forget about style. Your own unique voice, your way of interpreting the world will inevitably emerge.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Creating the Spitting Image Characters

Jethro Crabb is a sculptor who has made realistic heads for Madame Tussauds. Here's his Instagram top nine. 

He also has sculpted caricature heads for the British TV puppet series Spitting Image

I was curious what went into the design and operation of those caricature puppets, so I asked Jethro about the process.

Jethro says: "The process of making a puppet started with a set of caricature drawings. These drawings essentially designed the look of the caricature. I mainly worked from drawings by Adrian Teal." 
Drawing of Prince Charles and the Coronavirus by Adrian Teal

"He has an amazing ability to visualise caricatures from multiple points of view and make them seem convincing. It was an absolute dream to work from these drawings. There was plenty of leeway to interpret these designs in 3D and I felt that I was walking the line between staying faithful to the style of the original puppets and the design whilst adding my own sculpting style." 

Royal pair sculpted by Jethro Crabb for Spitting Image

"I admire simplicity in sculpture and am particularly drawn to the brutally simple abstracted forms of some traditional African wood carving. My caricature sculpture is influenced by this look. I try to make the large forms very simple and rely on large flat planes and simple shapes interacting together in a dynamic and interesting way. I have always admired the raw energy in the Spitting Image puppets, they do have a brutal, carved quality. They are not over detailed or polished. We only had about 4 days to sculpt each head so this helped with keeping them fresh and not overworked. It was also challenging at times, because if something started to go wrong with the sculpt there wasn’t much time to change it. Personally, I really enjoy working in this quick way as it is a change of pace from my portrait sculpture - a bit more exciting and dynamic."

Any special challenges in interpreting Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Prince Charles, or any of the others you've done?

"Interestingly, I found some of the most obviously caricaturable faces more difficult to do. I wrestled a lot with the Prince Charles sculpt. It just wasn’t working for me. Only near the end did I realise that his ears needed to be placed higher up on his head. So I cut off the clay ears and stuck them back on higher up. Suddenly, there he was- the future king!" 

"When sculpting Elon Musk I had in mind the Tesla truck design. Again, I really like the simplicity of it and wanted Musk’s head to reflect this severe angular design. I was really pleased with how it came out.

Jeff Bezos head sculpted by Jethro Crabb for Spitting Image, 
designed by Adrian Teal, coloured by Grace Cominsky 

I've heard caricaturists say that the bizarre personages in politics these days actually make the job of the caricaturist and impressionist harder because the real figures already are so exaggerated. Do you agree?

"I think with the larger-than-life personalities in politics and the public eye at the moment it can be harder for writers and impressionists to satirize them. I think for the caricaturist it doesn’t necessarily represent a greater challenge. We are just looking at the physical form of people and exaggerating or subverting existing characteristics. When sculpting a caricature or portrait of a famous person, I stop thinking of their personality quite quickly and instead enjoy getting lost in the experience of them as a collection of forms and shapes." 

Olly Taylor who worked on Spitting Image as a puppeteer shared some insights about the puppeteering technique. I wondered how are the hands are coordinated with the shoulders and head. The hands are able to coordinate interactive hand actions pretty effectively, which wasn't so possible for the Muppet way of doing things, where different performers worked the right and left hands. How were they performed?

Olly says: "There will be a lead performer on each character who will have their dominant hand in the head and then their other hand in the puppet’s hand. A second performer will perform the other hand. Sometimes the second puppeteer will perform both hands dependent on the action." 

Eye mechanism and latex skin of Spitting Image puppet, 

Many of the puppets can do eye blinks and / or eye turns. How is that accomplished? Do you have photos of the armature and mechanics inside? Is there radio control involved?

"With respect to the eyes the same mechanism from the 80s series was used again. A cable mechanism to move the eyes and a squeeze bulb to blink them. Often there would be a third puppeteer on the eye mechanism. However in busier scenes, [with] several characters, the second puppeteer who is performing a hand would use the eyes mechanisms in their spare hand. 

As you can see it’s a very collaborative way of performing. It’s requires great skill for those following the lead puppeteer on any character to make the performance of all the parts coherent and reflective of the character performance itself.”

How many major puppet characters are there? What considerations go into choosing which celebrities and politicians get built?

"I think there were around 100 puppets made for the new series. I don’t know how these characters were decided on."
Follow Spitting Image on Instagram

Monday, December 28, 2020

Terence Cuneo Paints The Old West

Christopher Heffernan asked how 19th century artists such as Édouard Detaille (1848-19120 were able to paint equestrian subjects.

Let's check out how Terence Cuneo (1907-1996) did it. He was a 20th century British artist known primarily for his paintings of railroads and of the Queen's coronation. But he painted cowboys and Indians, too. 

The video (Link to British Pathé on YouTube) shows how he posed a cavalry officer outdoors on horseback and then brought the model into the studio to finish the painting. 


This combined method for working from life on an equestrian pose is probably how some artists might have painted horseback riders in the 19th century, though of course photography became more readily available as the century progressed.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Dogs Have Heat Sensing Noses

Dogs' noses are famously sensitive to smells. But it turns out they can sense heat signatures, too.

Bulldog, 1927 (watercolor on paper) by Cecil Aldin, (1870-1935)

Scientists demonstrated the ability by testing for increased brain activity when the canine subjects were presented with objects that were warmer than their surroundings. 

The tips of dogs' noses are different from those of many other mammals. They're full of heat-sensing nerve endings, and the fact that they're kept wet and cold seems to be related to their ability to perceive thermal radiation. This sensory endowment gives dogs an added endowment in addition to their other senses—sight, hearing, and smell. 

Science Magazine: New sense discovered in dog noses: the ability to detect heat

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Do Birds Dream?

Do birds dream? Scientists at the University of Chicago observed that they exhibit REM sleep, with a burst of activity in a brain region called the robustus archistralis (RA), which is active when they're singing. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, "they played recordings of them singing while the birds were awake, asleep, and knocked out with anesthesia. The awake birds showed no response—just their normal, oscillating patterns. But the sleeping or unconscious birds showed strong bursts of activity from the RA. When they were awakened, the signals went back to normal. This is surprising because the same neurons that show no response during the day have these strong responses to the bird's own song when they are asleep."

They concluded that during their periods of sleep, these zebra finches must be processing the songs they learned during waking consciousness.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Socially-Distanced Christmas

Thornton Utz (1914-1999) — Late for the holiday party! Snowing.

Wishing you the best under the circumstances during this socially-distanced holiday. Let's hope we can gather in a big group next time around.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Will Bailey's Sketch Easel Video

Will J. Bailey produced this helpful YouTube video showing how to make a sketch easel (link to YouTube). 


On Gumroad: How to Make a Sketch Easel
Also available on Sellfy

"Weird Al's" Drawing of Patrice

Here's a story from the inimitable "Weird Al" Yankovic. 
Hint: it ends with a pretty amazing drawing:

Happy holidays, everyone!
 "Weird Al"on Twitter, Weird Al's website, and the CD The Essential Weird Al Yankovic

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Why Do You Paint Telephone Poles?

Scraytonify asks: "Why do you choose to paint the scenes you do with telephone poles and wires and fire hydrants?" 

Answer: I like the stuff we normally overlook. We tune them out of our ordinary habitual awareness, but we'll be nostalgic for them when they're gone.


Watch the painting being made on my Gumroad tutorial "Casein Painting in the Wild."

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Bob Ross Welcomes Ben Stahl

Bob Ross was legendary as an on-screen painter, but he was also generous enough to welcome a few guests and let them do their thing.

In this episode he welcomes (watch on YouTube) American illustrator Ben Stahl (1910-1987), one of the founding members of The Famous Artists School. 

Stahl paints differently than most folks you see these days on YouTube. He doesn't use references and places spots of color in an impressionistic way.  


The Famous Artists Course Binders 1-4

Thanks, Paulo

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Glowing Landscapes of Ludvig Munthe

Ludvig Munthe (1841-1896) was a Norwegian-born German painter who specialized in low-light snow scenes. 

Munthe studied in Düsseldorf, Germany. The school there emphasized landscape painting and theatrical lighting more than most art schools did at the time. 

Munthe was particularly attracted to twilight winter scenes. He loved a sky with a golden glow near the horizon. Figures scurry around outside, finishing their work before the day is done. 

Munthe "wanted to interpret nature through simple, quiet landscape motifs, preferably an open low landscape, cultivated land or a coastal strip."

"Munthe had the axiom that there should be as few and simple lines as possible in a picture, and that there should never be a color in the picture that is not in itself sympathetic." 

"In Düsseldorf, the simplicity of M's motifs was caricatured as a bare canvas with a tree, and on the tree one branch with one leaf."

Source of quote: Norwegian Artist Lexicon

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Generating a Flyover from a Single Image

Computer scientists have developed software that generates a drone-like flyover video based on a single input image. (Link to YouTube

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Peter Brown Paints a Street Scene

 Urban plein-air painter Pete "The Street" Brown shares his thoughts as he paints a London cityscape.

He talks about the difficulty of choosing a motif and his ideas about "mapping out" the shapes with a brush on a piece of toned MDF board or canvas.

The video shows how he builds up the image with blocks of tone rather than with lines defining boundaries.

MDF Board, (11 x 14 in,)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Achenbach's Snowy Forest

Andreas Achenbach (German, 1815 - 1910) painted this watercolor of a rune stone in a clearing of a northern pine forest in winter. 

Andreas Achenbach, Snowy Forest, watercolor, 1835, 
Google Art Project, Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf

Stones with carved runes date back to the times of the ancient shamans in Germany. 

According to Google Art project, the painting is huge: 14 x 20 feet (625cm x 423 cm). If that's true, perhaps it's not surprising, as the Düsseldorf painters often painted theatrical backdrops. 

The painting evokes romantic associations of the human touch in the wilds of nature.

Here's a detail showing a fallen tree and a young sapling. The original painting has a subtle balance of warm and cool colors and there are touches of opaque white gouache on the tips of the branches.

Wilhelm von Abbema, German, 1812 - 1889, based on the original 
by Andreas Achenbach. Published by Julius Buddeus, Düsseldorf.
Philadelphia Museum, Plate: 20 7/8 x 28 5/8 inches (53.1 x 72.7 cm) 
Sheet: 23 7/16 x 30 7/8 inches (59.6 x 78.5

The painting was made into an etching by Wilhelm von Abbema. 

Landscapes by Andreas Achenbach / Fritz von Wille

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Valuable Surrealist Painting Recovered from German Trash Bin

This painting by Yves Tanguy (French 1900-1955), was recovered by authorities from a trash bin at a German airport.

"An unnamed businessman forgot the canvas—an untitled and undated work by French painter Yves Tanguy—at a check-in counter when boarding a flight from Düsseldorf to Tel Aviv on November 27, according to a statement from the local police force. He soon realized that the 16- by 24-inch painting, which he’d stored in a flat cardboard box, had gone missing, and upon arriving in Israel, immediately contacted German authorities."
Smithsonian: $340,000 Surrealist Painting Found in Recycling Bin at German Airport
Thanks, Susan

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Supporting Players

What's striking right away about the composition here is the clustering of lambs and ewes at the center of interest.  

August Friedrich Schenck (1828-1901) Sheep in a Meadow, 1865

But take a look at how he handles the other areas of the picture. The watchful rams on the right are rendered in tones that are grouped very closely in dark values. Same with the plants in the lower right. There are textures, but they're played way down. And the sky has clouds and a little glimpse of blue, but it's all held in light values.

How you handle the supporting areas is crucial to the whole picture working effectively. It reminds me of supporting players in the theater. The famous test of a great actor is to watch what they do with their face, their hands, and their body when another actor is talking.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Hugh Thomson's Illustration

Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) was born in Ireland and traveled to London, where he illustrated William, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austin. He has been associated with the "Cranford School" of illustration, inspired "by the literature, art, costume or atmosphere of England in the eighteenth century." 

This "wig and powder" style of illustration, "specialized in the nostalgic recreation of a by-gone golden era before the ravages of industrialization."

More about Hugh Thomson on Wikipedia 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Vladimir Makovsky's "Before Explaining"

A young man and a young woman have taken a walk together in the forest, stopping at a moss covered rock. The title of the painting is "Before Explaining." 

Before Explaining by Vladimir Makovsky, 1900

The young man wears a military jacket and the woman is busy with something in her hands, perhaps knitting. The artist, Vladimir Makovsky (Russian, 1846-1920), doesn't tell us who is going to do the explaining or what is the unspoken matter between them. We're left to guess, based on a close examination of the evidence at hand.

How Makovsky chose to present this intriguing encounter reminds me of the American illustrator Howard Pyle, who was illustrating books during this same period. 

Pyle was also aware of choosing a moment just before a key event, or just after. In every story he looked for what he called the “supreme moment,” the phase of action that conveys the most suspense, often a fateful encounter or a moment of decision.

More in my essay "Pyle as a Picturemaker" at the Norman Rockwell Museum site.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Gerome: Truth and the Well

Jean Leon Gérôme (French 1824-1904) produced several paintings of Truth as a nude woman holding a whip as she emerges from a well. The idea is based on an aphorism by Democritus: "We know nothing of reality, for Truth is hidden in a well." 

Gérôme was thinking of photography in connection with this idea. The camera offered immediate access to a source of truth that was not previously available. It seemed to transcend subjectivity and it gave artists a valuable tool.

Gérôme was positive and progressive in his views on photography. 

He said: “Photography is an art. It forces artists to discard their old routine and forget their old formulas. It has opened our eyes and forced us to see that which previously we have not seen; a great and inexpressible service for Art. It is thanks to photography that Truth has finally come out of her well. She will never go back.”

Wikipedia on Truth and the Well
The Life and Work of Jean-Leon Gerome (Sotheby's English)

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Beholder's Share

The artist only does half of the work of a painting. The other half is done by the viewer.

Honore Daumier's sketch of the Salon: 
"THE VISITOR: – Just look at this senseless arrangement… and these colours!… hideous! 
THE ARTIST: – Cretin of a bourgeois… buzz off!

This idea is sometimes referred to as the "beholder's share," a term popularized by art historians Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) and Ernst Kris (1900-1957). 

The beholder is the partner of the creator and is deeply involved in the process of bringing an image to life. 

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead

Images that are more open-ended in their interpretation involve the viewer in a particularly strong way. Ernst Kris said 'Great works are great because they are ambiguous." 

Eric Kandel discusses the topic of the beholder's share in this episode of Big Think.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Three Stages of Vision

Vision doesn't occur passively. It's active, constructive, and largely unconscious.

And it doesn't happen all at once. Sometimes it takes a half second to process an image, and sometimes it takes a second or two. 

The light entering our eyes is translated and organized in stages, beginning with simple visual elements and proceeding to higher levels of interpretation. These stages of image processing start in the retina and continue in different parts of the brain.

For us to be able to see the flying white horses, our brain must segment the image and relegate the dark red shapes to the background, rather than vice versa. 

This kind of sorting normally happens unconsciously, but it's easy to intentionally flip the one set of horses from figure to ground and back again. 

Identifying the figure as a mythological flying horse and the whole pattern as a piece of art by M.C. Escher is the final and most sophisticated stage in image processing, involving several areas of the brain.

Eric R. Kandel et al., authors of a textbook on the Principles of Neural Science, describe the process this way:

"The brain analyzes a visual scene at three levels: low, intermediate, and high. At the lowest level, visual attributes such as local contrast, orientation, color, and movement are discriminated. The intermediate level involves analysis of the layout of scenes and of surface properties, parsing the visual image into surfaces and global contours, and distinguishing foreground from background. The highest level involves object recognition. Once a scene has been parsed by the brain and objects recognized, the objects can be matched with memories of shapes and their associated meanings."

Book: Principles of Neural Science by E.R. Kandel, et al.