Monday, March 30, 2020

'Nuns Fret Not'

We often hear voices from glowing screens saying that we're 'trapped at home' during this period of coronavirus lockdown.
Joseph DeCamp (1858-1923) The Seamstress
(1916), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington
This sonnet by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) expresses a different view of such limitations. His sonnet speaks to thriving within a self-imposed confinement. 

'Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels;
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.'

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Canyon Home

The cliff dwellings in Dinotopia's Great Canyon would be a good place to spend time cut off from the world. 

Few people and few saurians visit this remote place. There's plenty of grain stored from the monthly resupply from ceratopsian harvest caravans. 

At sunset the golden light washes the tops of the towers and people sing in harmony out their windows, echoing a welcome to the night.

We're starting to put some of the art prints back up in the online store. So far we have two favorites: Dream Canyon and Garden of Hope.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Portraits of Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone's portrait was painted, sculpted, and photographed many times, given that he was one of the most influential figures in British politics of the 19th century.

According Royal Academy chronicle: "[John Everett] Millais’s portrait showed the seventy-year-old statesman standing, in a three-quarter view. It was a sombre portrait, in colour and tone: black clothing, dark skin tones, and a dark umber background. Gladstone’s famous turned-up collar, a feature endlessly exploited in his caricatures, provided the only lightly coloured note in the picture. Millais captured the intensity of expression and fierce eyes of Gladstone, but he succeeded also to convey modesty and gravity, even kindness, through his clasped hands and averted gaze."

"Nine years later, [Frank] Holl attempted to equal and surpass Millais, taking inspiration from the latter in the standing, three-quarter pose of Gladstone and his sombre dress...Holl, again, like Millais, focused on Gladstone’s head, leaving the right side in dramatic shadows and rendering his eyes in a deep black, almost glossy charcoal colour, which evoked the statesman’s oft-cited demoniac expression. Holl’s Gladstone was a visibly older man, but a more energetic character than Millais’s: his incipient movement captured by his hands clasping a vivid red book. If in Millais’s portrait Gladstone seemed to be intent in listening, Holl’s picture appeared to have captured him in the instant just before speaking."

Commentators at the time said Gladstone was difficult to capture in a painting because his expressions were varied and dynamic, and his legacy meant many things to many people. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

'Telephones Bring Cheer and Encouragement'

A reminder from the 1918 pandemic, when telephones were the ultimate social medium (in fact they still are). Thanks, Roberto Q. and Brian S.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Chalk Talk #1: State Mottos and Bubble Lettering

I try out a new format for sharing lettering and drawing that I call a "Chalk Talk."

I'm drawing on glass with chalk markers, spelling the New York State motto "EXCELSIOR" and the Oklahoma State motto "LABOR OMNIA VINCIT" and the obsolete word "Chirk," which means cheerful—something we all need while we're isolating during the coronavirus pandemic.

Let me know whether you like this format and what topics you might like me to cover in future.
Free PDF with complete alphabets via Dropbox 
Thanks to Chalkola Markers (I'm using the sample 8 earth-color set they sent me to try out):

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Hideaway in Dinotopia

Here’s where you want to be safely ensconsed during the pandemic. There's plenty of food, board games, puppets, and musical instruments. From Dinotopia: Journey To Chandara.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

RIP Albert Uderzo (1927-2020)

Albert Uderzo, who co-created and drew the "Asterix" comic from 1959-2009, has died at age 92.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Meltzoff Paints Avati and Family Sharing the Studio

Today, some of us begin a new week of coronavirus confinement. Workers face the prospect of doing labor in their domestic settings (if they can), with kids underfoot as they try to get their schoolwork finished there, too. And let's not forget the work that has always happened in the home, such as cooking and cleaning. Somehow, we manage.

Stanley Meltzoff, James Avati in his Studio, oil on mounted canvas (21.5" x 26")
Picture-maker Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006) shared a studio with paperback cover artist James Avati in Red Bank, New Jersey. Deploying some gentle humor and a lot of art history savvy, Meltzoff painted his good friend at the easel. Avati is shown using his divine talent (notice his feet don't touch the ground), baby on floor illuminated by the cool foil-fringed light. On the far sofa, a visiting reverend lends spiritual guidance while a son crouches with his toy pistol. The Avati daughters are absorbed by their own inner worlds of art or dance. Outside the window of this chaotic little utopia, the world gleams with eerie purple light.

The Illustrated Press has just released a brand new edition of Stanley Meltzoff: Picture Maker, featuring both his illustrations and his paintings of wild ocean fish.

I've just received a copy and have taken a quick look at it. The quality of the art is excellent as always. One of the treasures of the book is that Meltzoff tells his own story and describes how he makes his pictures.

The text was published in a previous big art book on Melzoff (now out of print), so I asked publisher Dan Zimmer how this one is different. He said, "I really wanted to emphasize a lot of his earlier illustration work that wasn’t shown in the first book, or was shown in very small reproductions." 
Wikipedia: Stanley Meltzoff 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Saturday, March 21, 2020

How will these times affect your art?

Those of you who do art for a living have many different kinds of jobs, such as art teachers, animators, game designers, gallery painters, illustrators, comic artists, and plein-air painters.

Gallery opening, before the asteroid hit. Governor Cuomo's new rules eliminate (at least for the next few months)
all non-essential travel, non-essential business, and large gatherings, even if they used social distancing
I'm wondering if you can share in the comments how you expect these current conditions are going to change your art and how you make it, temporarily or permanently. For example,

  • Are there conventions, gatherings, group dinners, or other social encounters that you really need to do for your art business?
  • What can't you do any more (at least for the next weeks or months) that used to be routine?
  • If you work for a studio (such as animation, VFX, or game design), how has working remotely affected what you create? Does collaborating virtually makes some things harder and other things easier?
  • Teachers: what happens to your workshops, your classes, your students, and your school? 
  • If you've already been teaching online, how has your work volume changed?
  • What new skills will you rapidly need to acquire? Do you face losing a job or will you have to let someone go?
  • Is your access to subject matter affected by travel restrictions?  
  • Which markets will likely be closing for you, and which might be opening?
  • Lastly, there are surely some positives and opportunities here for some. I notice some popular musicians such as Chris Martin and John Legend have made up for cancelled concert shows by recording live YouTube videos with the #TogetherAtHome hashtag. Can anyone share their grounds for guarded optimism?

Friday, March 20, 2020

'What we need is here'

Writer and farmer Wendell Berry (born 1934) has advocated finding inspiration close to home. "What we need is here," he said. "I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own."

Artist Andrew Wyeth, above, created most of his work within walking distance of his home in Pennsylvania or in his tiny realm in Maine. He said, “Most artists look for something fresh to paint; frankly I find that quite boring. For me it is much more exciting to find fresh meaning in something familiar.”

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Mad Maestro

The 1930s was a time of economic depression, but it was also the decade when cartoon animation went through its greatest period of creative experimentation and audience enthusiasm.

(Link to video on YouTube) Today we read a lot about Disney and Warner Bros (Looney Tunes), but not as much about other studios, such as Fleischer, Screen Gems, Walter Lantz, Terry Toons, and MGM.

For example here's a short MGM film about a conductor trying to work with an uncooperative orchestra. Director Friz Freleng, started at Disney and Warner and left for a period to work at MGM, later returning to Warner Bros. He was always fond of tackling musical comedy, with unerring timing and an understanding of stage performance. His friend, animator Hugh Harman, gives the animation some fun character moments and over-the-top action.

The "rubber hose" style of animation makes the character feel fluid and dynamic. 

These drawings come from a 1941 book How to Make Animated Films by Nate Falk, which summarizes the state of the art and the business at the end of the decade. It's available as a free download on or as a physical book from Amazon.

Edit: The music is an overture written by Franz von Suppé (1819-1895) called "Ein Morgen, ein Mittag und ein Abend in Wien," (A morning, a noon and an evening in Vienna). Here's fiery version conducted by Zubin Mehta

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Looking for a project?

Are you looking for a project to do during home confinement?

How about building a sketch easel? I have an inexpensive and easy to follow tutorial download that shows you the materials you'll need and the workshop methods I used for making mine.

If you have already built one, you could also build a steering wheel attachment for painting from your car, or an improved light diffuser system. Links take you to free videos on YouTube that show how to make those accessories.

You can also compare notes with fellow makers by joining the free Facebook community "Sketch Easel Builders," which has over 2400 members and lots of mutual support for material sources, build methods, and custom variations.
Free Facebook Group Sketch Easel Builders
See previews of all my 13 inexpensive how-to videos on Gumroad
How to Make a Sketch Easel

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

What about Greens?

A blog reader asked: "Do you carry any greens with you and if so, what’s a decent green for landscape? I’ve been trying out sap green and Hooker green which I believe is a mixture of Prussian blue and gamboge. Or would you recommend mixing greens on the spot as a better general practice and to learn the extents of a limited palette?"

Foreground detail of Peder Mork Mønsted

Yes! I encourage you to experiment. As you may have noticed I have been bringing some greens from time to time, especially sap green, viridian and permanent green light. The last one can give you that powerful "vegetable green" that you see when light transmits through a young leaf.

But there's also an argument from mixing your greens, which you can do with many blue-yellow combinations, such as ultramarine blue and gamboge.

To keep your green colors looking like they belong, remember to vary the colors according to the four conditions of light on foliage, and it often looks good to vary greens with their complements, such as reds. Monsted does that very well in the above detail

Monday, March 16, 2020

Church's Palm Trees

Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826–1900, oil sketch showing the top of one palm tree, with a glorious crown of palm fronds, beside a pair of coarse, scaly trunks belonging to two different palm trees, June 1865, oil on paperboard
I'm guessing he painted this over a prepared gradation for the sky color. Click on the image to get the full study.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Portrait Sketch of Dan

Here's a quick portrait sketch of my son Dan. He lives in Dublin, Ireland now, doing app development for a software company, but luckily he's able to work from home.

Check me out on Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Can You Use Gouache for Finished Illustrations?

Gouache Preliminary Sketches: Fast, Fun,
and Low-Risk Painting Techniques

Comment on the video: Painting an Aspen Forest in Colorado
Welther47 "Is there a reason why all your big paintings are (almost) always in oil? I'm wondering if gouache is lacking something for professional work?

James Gurney Actually I've started doing some of my finished paintings in gouache. There's no reason gouache can't be used for big, detailed, or finished paintings. When I started my illustration career, I did several of my big paintings in a combination of gouache and acrylic.

Norm G "You know what is the biggest "secret" to an awesome painting that I was able to take away from all your videos? It it the way you paint a lot of your scenes back lit. That has opened a whole new world for me.. Thanks so much for your videos, you have really giving me a boost to get back into painting and my paintings now have much more life and depth to them! 👊😎"

James Gurney Yes, Norm, you're right. I'm crazy about "contre-jour" lighting or backlighting. It automatically creates a strong feeling of light and spatial depth. Here's a blog post with more information about contre jour lighting .

"Aside from composition, what are the differences between casein, acrylic gouache and regular gouache? Do they all reactivate with water after dry? Any opacity or sheen differences, etc?
YouTube video: Sketching an Old Firehouse
(Big Revisions to the Painting Halfway Through)

James Gurney All are relatively matte and opaque, especially when combined with white. I use the casein very thinly over the paper. If the casein layer is too thick, the gouache will bead up. Regular gouache will reactivate with water after dry. Acrylic gouache seals when dry, because it's really a form of acrylic. Casein is halfway in between gouache and acrylic gouache. It can reactivate after setting up if you scrub at it, but over time it becomes more sealed.

Stephen Halpin  Thank you! I would have thought that the casein underlayer would throw your judgment of color off, but it's such a pleasure to see how spot-on your colors are. Does the color in the underlayer make it more difficult to get those initial colors right, or does it somehow help?

James Gurney Yes, very perceptive question. I think I was fighting the underpainting a little, like riding a bicycle into a headwind. I like that feeling of resistance. I intended a relatively cool palette for this painting, so I was forced into opacity.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Setting up a Sketch Easel

I'm experimenting with embedding an Instagram post. Is this working for everyone?
You might also be interested in:
How to Make a Sketch Easel (Gumroad tutorial)
Sketch Easel Builders on Facebook (Free group, anyone can join)

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Questions about Gouache Painting Outdoors

People had some good questions about my recent YouTube video Sketching an Old Firehouse (Big Revisions to the Painting Halfway Through)

sofachange "I recently tried gouache for the first time (inspired by your videos). I am curious why you started the buildings transparently when I would have expected you to go straight to opaque, which you did with the sky. Is there a rule of thumb to follow?"
James Gurney: I never paint the same way twice, but there are some general principles about what I do first and what comes later: 
1. From wet application first to drybrush later
2. Big areas to small shapes
3. Large relationships of tones first, accents last.

Eyal Dror
"Timex weekender watch?"

James Gurney No, it's a $5 watch I picked up at a big box craft store. I wanted something with simple, clear numbers.

Chris Ma
"How you arrange the colour scheme of a painting? How do you design the colours so that the painting is more coherent?"

Gurney: I've found the best way to achieve a unified, coherent color scheme is to use fewer colors, either by premixing batches of colors (which works best in oil paints), or by limiting the number of colors you squeeze on the palette. The second thing is that I try to capture the colors I see. Nature's colors are nearly always interesting and coherent.

Welther47 "I have a question about casein and acrylic gouache; won't they ruin the brushes when they dry or do you have enough time to clean them? Also, is there an easy way to clean them. I imagine Acrylic gouache will create a layer of plastic on the brush that will never come off again."

James Gurney You're right. Acrylic gouache will wreck brushes if you let it dry in them. That's one of the reasons I don't like to paint with them on location. I can't always get to a place to wash them thoroughly. Casein is a little more forgiving if you wait a few hours to wash your brushes because the emulsion takes a while to set up. Either way, I generally just use them for underpainting or priming, which I do in the studio in advance of the outdoor painting session.

 "How do you paint reflection in water? I have seen you paint the ocean and rivers/creeks, but I am interested in knowing how do you paint objects reflected in water, such as in a pool or fountain, since it has been really challenging to try and recreate the effects of ripples and the movement of water while preserving the shapes or shadows of an object being reflected on it."
Gurney: I have a three part blog series on water reflections starting here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Making Revisions in Gouache

When you paint with gouache, you can work out the details as you go and even make big revisions late in the process.

When you cover over previous layers, you have to put down a stroke once and not fuss with it too much.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Lightbox Expo in September

Virus willing, I'll be enthusiastically taking part in Lightbox Expo, a first rate gathering of illustrators, concept artists, and others in the field of imaginative realism. It's six months from now, September 11-13 in Pasadena, CA.
LightBox Expo website

Monday, March 9, 2020


Cantastoria is an Italian word for a form of storytelling that uses pictures accompanied by song.

A story singer from Wikipedia
"Picture-story recitation in its earliest form involved the display of representational paintings accompanied by sung narration. Originating in 6th Century India, this religious and then increasingly secular practice evolved as it spread both east and west. The diverse versions of the practice which appeared in Indonesia, China, Japan, and across the Middle East and Europe came to include instrumental music, puppets, props, broadsheets and booklets, as well as the central printed, painted, embroidered, and/or otherwise decorated narrative images."

"Various forms of picture-story recitation continue to be practiced today in Iran, Turkey, India, and Indonesia. Recently there has been a revival of interest in picture-story performance among artists, puppeteers and activists in the West, who find that this ancient form has startlingly modern qualities and can easily be infused with fresh content."
Read more at the Museum of Everyday Life.
Cantastoria on Wikipedia

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Giuseppe Marastoni

Giuseppe Marastoni, (1834-1895)
Venice-born Giuseppe Marastoni painted the Piazza San Marco. He trained as an engraver, mainly produced portraits, and settled later in Vienna.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Imitation vs. Representation

Olina Chang asks: "I have a question [about the painting below]. When presenting these curvy overlapping shapes, [did you paint] "the idea" of what look like, like how the curvy, tangled way you "feel," or what [or did you try to paint] exactly you saw on site? (Maybe you saw 100 curvy tubes, but you draw 30 ones since they are so many ... ) Not sure how to express my question more precisely."

My answer: I think I understand what you're asking. With a very complicated subject like this glass sculpture, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between each and every one of the glass tendrils in the actual scene and the squiggly lines in my painting. It's just not humanly possible.

It's the same with any extremely complex subjects in nature, such as leaves on a tree. There's no way to draw or paint every single detail literally on location, though some have tried. So you have to recreate the character of the forms within the language that's possible in paint.

Asher B. Durand explored this idea in his 1855 essays called "Letters on Landscape Painting." He drew a distinction between imitation and representation. He conceded that a perfect copy of natural forms like flowing water or intricate foliage was impossible, but that the attempt to achieve it helped the artist develop methods that could be brought into service in recreating those forms back in the studio. So you don't want to fall back on standardized habits of painting leaves or other detailed forms, but instead to your best to capture the character of the subject as well as you can with your brushes and paint.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The White Rabbits

Sculpture of Columbus by Mary Lawrence
Sculptor Lorado Taft needed assistants to help him carry out the decorations for the Horticulture building at Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Horticulture building at the Columbia Exposition
Unfortunately all the qualified male sculptors were already occupied with other work. The deadline was approaching and he needed to complete the project in time.

Taft realized he had plenty of talented women among his students at the Chicago Art Institute.
Lorado Taft and his students at work, 1899
He asked Daniel Burnham, director of public works, if he could hire women to help him on the official project, a practice virtually unheard of at the time.

Burnham told Taft he could "hire anyone, even white rabbits, if they can get the work done." (Link to video)

The team of women promptly dubbed themselves "The White Rabbits," and successfully completed the work. They became some of the leading women sculptors in America, including Julia Bracken (1871–1942), Carol Brooks (1871–1944), Ellen Rankin Copp (1853-1901), Helen Farnsworth (1867–1916), Margaret Gerow, Mary Lawrence (1868–1945), Bessie Potter (1872–1954), Janet Scudder (1869–1940), Enid Yandell (1870–1934), and Zulime Taft.
White Rabbits on Wikipedia
Online article on the White Rabbits

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Why Choose a Pencil instead of a Paintbrush?

My next article in International Artist Magazine (Issue 132 April/May 2020) is about the pencil, the the universal tool for any artist or designer.
Caernarfon Harbor, pencil, 7 x 8"
A graphite pencil is the medium of choice when I’m interested more in form than I am in light or color. If I was painting this scene, I would be thinking about warm versus cool colors, atmospheric perspective and reflected light. With pencil I can concentrate on the bones of the scene, the simple overlap of light and dark shapes. If there’s a light mast or railing, I’ve got to be sure to draw around it. 

Since pencils can be used in a lot of different ways. I’ve taken some random sketchbook pages and grouped them into six categories: events, architecture, nature, imagination, vehicles, and people. For each group, I suggest some different techniques, and different attitudes or mindsets that I bring to the challenge.

Recommended pencils (Links to Amazon):
Kneaded eraser (can be shaped and won't leave crumbs)
Faber Castell 9000 (good basic graphite pencil)
Derwent Graphitint (water-soluble graphite look)
Chung Hwa Drawing 4B (from China)
Staedtler Mars Lumograph 4B (soft graphite art pencil)
Staedtler Mars Lumograph B (medium-soft graphite pencil)
Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth Triograph (triangular section)
Rembrandt Sketching 4B
There are also articles by Ricky Mujica and Nathan Fowkes in the next issue of IA.
International Artist Magazine (Issue 132)
Previous posts on pencil sketching (269 of them)

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Leonardo's Drawings: Materials and Methods

Conservator Alan Donnithorne of the Royal Collection Trust demonstrates the materials and methods used by Leonardo da Vinci for his silverpoint, charcoal, and pen-and-ink drawings, back in the day when artists had to make their own art supplies. (Link to YouTube).
The examples are from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Easels in the Sacristy

John Singer Sargent, Pavement of St. Mark's, 1898
In late-nineteenth-century Venice, worshippers and tourists had to share St. Mark's cathedral with painters. According to artist and ambassador Maitland Armstrong, the artists were given an honored place:
"In San Marco the artists were privileged; we could sit and paint wherever we pleased, no one ever interfering with us; we were allowed to store our easels and canvases in the sacristy—there were so many of them that it looked more like a studio than the robing-room of a church... Never was there a more delightful place to work in."
Quote from Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life by Maitland Armstrong, 1920