Friday, October 22, 2021

Sketching on the Subway

In 1980 Tom Kinkade (yes, that Kinkade) and I decided to take a summer off from art school to ride the freight trains across America from California to New York City.

Manhattan thrilled me, terrified me, and fascinated me. I desperately wanted to capture some of NYC's energy directly from life into my sketchbook using pens, and gray markers.

I never went back to art school because I was learning so much more from the real world. Tom and I wrote a book called The Artist's Guide to Sketching in 1982, and that was long before he became the "Painter of Light" and also before "urban sketching" and "plein-air painting" came along.

You can hear a vintage tape recording from that journey on this YouTube video. The quality isn't great, but it's a memory rescued from oblivion.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Branch Autonomy Theory

By thinking of a tree as an individual organism, we misunderstand it. It's better to think of a tree as a colony of branches.

According to the branch autonomy theory, "1) No branch imports carbohydrate from its parent tree after its first year, and 2) Each branch satisfies its own material and energy requirements before exporting any carbohydrate to the rest of the tree."

"The conclusion drawn from these postulates is that where light is the primary limiting factor, critical characteristics of the branch's carbohydrate economy such as photosynthesis, growth, and carbon export are largely independent of the tree to which it is attached." (from the abstract by Sprugel and Hinckley).

The theory is mentioned in a podcast interview with Chris Earle, curator of the Gymnosperm Database.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Graphene Protects Paintings from Fading

In Vincent van Gogh's sunflower paintings, some of the red lead pigments have turned white because of the reactions of paint impurities with light and carbon dioxide. 

But artwork like this can be protected from fading and discoloration by applying a thin layer of a material called graphene.

It's completely transparent and just one atom thick. 

According to Artnet: "Graphene is a two-dimensional carbon allotrope whose molecules bind together through a phenomenon called Van der Waals forces. It is invisible to the eye but forms a honeycomb pattern under a microscope, and can be extracted from the surface of graphite using a piece of tape. Hailed as a “wonder material” since its isolation in a single-layer form in 2004, graphene has many potential uses. China appears convinced of its military and aerospace promise, and it is being used to protect roads in the U.K."

Read more at Artnet: Can Graphene, a One-Atom Thick ‘Wonder Material,’ Keep Precious Artworks From Fading? Scientists Say It Shows Promise

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Pipeline of Meaning

Our eyes work with our brain to make sense of the world. 

At any given moment our conscious attention is fixated on one spot, but we're also guessing what's around it. This peripheral awareness cues the eyes where to jump next. That jumping or saltation happens about three times per second. 

By combining data from brain scans and eye-tracking, scientists at the University of Birmingham are trying to understand how we guess at what the next point of attention might be, and how different regions of the brain cooperate in this "pipeline of meaning" as "one object is established while another region of the brain is simultaneously deciding which next item is important."  

N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), The Studio, ca. 1913-1915, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 1/4 in.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Fowler. Photo Rick Rhodes

The scientists say: "Humans do not necessarily perceive objects simply one after another (in series), and nor do they perceive items simultaneously (in parallel). Instead, they establish a pipeline of observations, in which meaning from one object is established while another region of the brain is simultaneously deciding which next item is important."

A similar process happens when we read text. "The neuronal activity required to scan the next word in a sentence also increases according to the complexity of the word."

Monday, October 18, 2021

Thoughts about Bastien-Lepage from Breton

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Portrait of my Grandfather, 1874

In his autobiography, Jules Breton said: "[Jules] Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) will leave a lasting fame. This young artist, cut down in the flush of his promise, was a true investigator. How conscientious was his work! He made his debut with a masterpiece, the 'Portrait of my Grandfather.' Touching familiarity, simple and accurate drawing, admirable truth of tone, strong and fine harmony, just relation of the figure to the background—all are there."

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Races in Skybax Canyon

Will and Cirrus lead the skybax races around ancient demisaurian monuments near Ebulon in Dinotopia's great desert.

The painting is 3 x 6 inches, oil on board, published in my illustrated adventure Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara (signed copies available in my online store).

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Cornelius Varley's Watercolors

Watercolor can convey a lot of information with simple means.

Cornelius Varley

This looks like a practice sheet to try different ways of capturing those wind-blown shapes. Each sort of tree has a different silhouette shape and leafy character. 

The studies in this post are by Cornelius Varley (1781–1873), who was a scientific instrument maker by profession. In 1845 he wrote a Treatise on Optical Drawing Instruments.

He painted in watercolor for the pure love of it, creating many of his studies on trips to Wales. This sky study from 1803, making him a very early plein-air practitioner. 

Imagine the thrill of painting directly from Nature with very little precedent or tradition. 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Turner's Small Watercolor Kits

J.M.W. Turner's super-portable watercolor set consisted of a small set of cake colors in a leather pocket pouch.

He also had slightly larger sets with flasks. This is his paintbox, found in his studio after his death in 1851

(Tate Archive 7315.6)

To learn more about 19th century watercolor sets, check out the website or the Tate Archive

Thursday, October 14, 2021

How Sacrificing Detail Can Add Mood

In a new YouTube video I show how I painted this moody morning scene in gouache by sacrificing detail and emphasizing light effects.

My goal is to capture a fleeing light effect by using a warm priming color to achieve a "photographic" lens flare. Halfway through, I paint over the whole thing with a glaze to reduce detail. The glaze is risky because gouache reactivates when it's rewet, and to be honest, it's kind of a disaster for a while.

Here are some takeaway quotes about the theory of sacrifices: 

“Nature instills sentiments in the spectator through the selective sacrifice of details in order to improve the overall effect.” 
--The Theory and Practice of Water Colour Painting: Elucidated in a Series of Letters

“Painters without experience often weaken the effect they wish to produce by a prodigality which multiplies uselessly the figures and accessories of a picture. It will not be long before they learn that, the greater the conciseness and simplicity with which a thought is interpreted, the more it gains in expressive force.” 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Influential Landscape Painters

When the Artists Magazine asked "Who's a painter that changed the course of landscape painting?" the first name that popped into my mind first was Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898).

I said that I don’t know whether he changed the course of landscape painting outside of Russia, but he sure inspired me. He tackled one of the most difficult landscape subjects—the forest interior. 

The technical challenges include wildly fluctuating light levels and infinitely deep spatial layers of complex detail. Shishkin was an enthusiastic advocate of photography as a reference tool, but his paintings were anything but photographic or technical. He knew his botany and loved the wild lands. He managed to capture the deep mystery of the forest like no one else.

This Q and A is coming up in the November / December issue of The Artists Magazine.

Of course there are so many other great landscape painters who have affected the course of art history. Who would you choose and why?

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Outline vs. Tonal Shapes In Face Recognition

 Which is more important for face recognition: outline or tonal shapes?

Jim Carrey (left) and Kevin Costner.

According to vision scientists Pawan Sinha et al, "Images which contain exclusively contour information are very difficult to recognize, suggesting that high-spatial frequency information, by itself, is not an adequate cue for human face recognition processes." 

By contrast, the tonal shapes, even if they're out of focus, are relatively easy to recognize. The experts say: 
"Unlike current machine-based systems, human observers are able to handle significant degradations in face images." Shown here are Michael Jordan, Woody Allen, Elvis Presley, and Jay Leno.

That's why it's good to blur your eyes when you're capturing a likeness.
Source: Face Recognition by Humans: Nineteen Results All Computer Vision Researchers Should Know About, Pawan Sinha, Benjamin Balas, Yuri Ostrovsky, and Richard Russell,

Monday, October 11, 2021

Tête d'expression

Tête d'expression was a traditional art-school exercise involving "a study of the face intended to evoke a particular state of mind: melancholy, for instance, obstinacy, shock, or boredom." (Source)

(Expression of the face, young suppliant girl)

It was also the name for a competition held at the French Academy

Greek statues expressed emotion mainly with the pose of the body, but the officials of the Academy didn't want to neglect the expressive potential of the head itself. The exercise was carried out not only with drawings and engravings, but also with sculpture.

De 35 Têtes D'expression by Louis Leopold Boilly

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Vermeer Restoration Reveals Hidden Cupid

A Vermeer painting has restored to reveal a hidden painting within a painting. 

Cupid was painted over by another hand after Vermeer's death. Restorers revealed the underlayer in stages, and exhibited the painting half-restored to share the process with the public.

According to Smithsonian, "A recent bout of laboratory testing confirmed that a long-hidden Cupid found in the top right-hand corner of the canvas was painted over not by the Dutch Golden Age artist, but an unknown party who acted decades after Vermeer’s death."

The presence of Cupid adds meaning to the image, suggesting the letter may address matters of love.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Arthur Denison and the Sunstone

Arthur Denison powers up a strutter with a sunstone. On Instagram, Bo Thornchester (iheartboeboe) asks: "Was Arthur's design based on a real-life person?"

Arthur is not based on a single person, but he's got a little of my dad in him, and a bit from early explorers that I've read about, such as Sven Hedin and Heinrich Harrar. But it's hard to hold those diverse people in mind, so to define the specific character, I sculpted his head as a small maquette.

From Dinotopia: The World Beneath.


Friday, October 8, 2021

Abstracted Realism

Some call it "deconstructed realism," while others call it "disrupted realism" or "abstracted realism." 

Alex Kanevsky

The artwork suggests that the power of chaos rivals the power of order, or that the will to destroy equals the will to create.

John Wentz 

The painting contains both randomness and illusionism, signal and noise. 

Who are the inspiring progenitors of this movement? Beyond the abstract painters such as Franz Kline and Richard Diebenkorn, several realist painters can be identified as stylistic influencers: Andrew WyethRichard SchmidAntonio López García, and Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter

Richter, a painter with remarkable range and versatility, became known for taking a realistically painted face and smearing the oil paint with a squeegee.

Johanna Bath still II, Oil on Canvas, 19.7 W x 23.6 H x 0.8 D in

Gerhard Richter's influence can be felt in artists who use the rubbed out look, such as Johanna Bath.

Mia Bergeron
Seeing a painting created this way leaves no doubt that it's a painting, and it may remind the viewer of the struggle of creation or the fickleness of illusion.

Adam by Greg Manchess

When painters efface the surface of a portrait, they typically leave the eyes in a carefully finished state, both because of the psychological importance of the eyes, and to show that they're capable of painting realistically. 

But not always. Sometimes artists deliberately disrupt the mouth, eyes, or head. 

Artist Zack Zdrale says in the book Disrupted Realism, "I've taken passages of traditionally rendered figures and smashed them, breaking the illusion of form in space. I want to show the paint doing things that only paint can do."

Michelle Kohler

Michelle Kohler says: "Most of my years spent studying were focused on portraiture, as expressed through realism. As an artistic discipline, it has been a constant throughout my life. But it was only after a fortuitous departure into abstract painting that I was able to playfully and courageously combine two disciplines. Deconstructed Realism is my expression of artistic independence and creativity as it pertains to the depth and complexity of human portraiture."

(Link to YouTube) Mia Bergeron says that her approach to painting grew out of a frustration with the academic approaches to realism.

The deconstructive approach includes not just figural work, but also landscapes and cityscapes. 

Other artists that you've suggested to check out in the comments: Julie T. Chapman, Patrick Kramer, Jenny Saville,

More info:

Book: Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World

Thursday, October 7, 2021

How Netflix Creates Thumbnails

Netflix offers thousands of choices of shows to watch, but members make their choices based on a single image. Images drive the process. 

Netflix creates multiple images and tests them. Their research team has found that members will tend to click on the thumbnail that shows a the face of main character, especially if it shows a complex emotion.

For example, for the series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt above, the bottom right thumbnail was the "winner," meaning that it drove the most engagement.

Nick Nelson, Head of Product Creative for Netflix, says: "
"It's well known that humans are hardwired to respond to faces -- we have seen this to be consistent across all mediums. But it is important to note that faces with complex emotions outperform stoic or benign expressions -- seeing a range of emotions actually compels people to watch a story more. This is likely due to the fact that complex emotions convey a wealth of information to members regarding the tone or feel of the content, but it is interesting to see how much members actually respond this way in testing."
How does Netflix come up with a specific set of images that a given member will see? Here are some more takeaways:

• People usually spend less than 2 seconds on each image and 90 seconds overall.
• Instead of using the movie producers' marketing image, they come up with their own.
• Machine-learning algorithms decide which image to show you based on your viewing history.
• Each show has multiple thumbnails.
• Images shown for a give movie usually varies from one member to another. 

Watch the rest in this YouTube video: Why your Netflix thumbnails don’t look like mine

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Mario Caption Contest Winners

Here's a YouTube video showing how I painted that picture of Super Mario beyond the Hudson River. We had a "best caption" contest over on Instagram:

"Thirty-six years of mushrooms surely had its effect on good ol' Mario." —@siningnising (263+ likes) 
"Big leaks call for big plumbers." —@dougeeb -- (226+ likes)
"It’s a me, Climate Change." —@billclagett -- (171+ likes)

Congrats to Roberto, Doug, and Bill. Email me your mailing address and I'll send each of you a signed Color and Light poster.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Super Mario on the Hudson


Gouache painting of Super Mario on the far shore of the Hudson. I'm hosting a contest over on Instagram for the best comment, judged by the number of votes / likes.  Prize is a signed Color and Light poster.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Arrival of Schoolgirl to Blind Father

Vasily Perov (Russian, 1833 or 4-1882) painted Arrival of Schoolgirl to Blind Father in 1870. The painting is unfinished, and the unfinished parts give us insight into his picture-making process.

Vasily Perov, Arrival of Schoolgirl to Blind Father, 1870

Two figures in a doorway appear in the pencil line stage at the far left. Presumably the woman in the dress facing away from us is the girl's mother.

Is the man the husband, and is he holding a baby? If so, that would add a lot to the story of the schoolgirl returning to her father and it might explain her expression.

The young woman's hand is also in an unfinished state. It appears that Perov changed his mind about the hand after the first attempt to paint it, and he then removed the paint down to the canvas and redrew it, ready for repainting. 

Given that the pencil lines are stated simply without sketchiness, it's probable that he had a full size drawing on thin paper and that he transferred the drawing to the canvas with some sort of graphite coated paper.


Online: Vasily Perov on Wikipedia

Book: Vasily Perov: Paintings, Graphic Works

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Faldo Mustakka

Faldo Mustakka is a member of the dance troupe that visits Poseidos and introduces Gideon Altaire to the alliance with dinosaurs. He wears a costume honoring Ogthar, a legendary figure who is part human and part Triceratops. Faldo provides Gideon with the uniform of a Strutterworks guard in order to free the captive pterosaurs, as well as a conch shell to blow into in case he runs into danger.
From Dinotopia: First Flight.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Bridgeport Ferry

The ferry ride from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson takes an hour and 15 minutes, enough for a rapid impression in gouache.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Hokusai's Original Drawings

Original drawings by Hokusai (1760-1849) are rare, because most of them had to be destroyed in the process of making them into wood block prints.

This image shows the process of how they made prints by gluing the original drawings onto the block (far right), and cutting it away to make the relief block.

Fortunately there are a few surviving Hokusai drawings. He produced a collection of 103 hand-drawn works called The Great Picture Book of Everything. Those never-published drawings are normally kept in a precious box acquired recently the British Museum.

Virudhaka Struck by Lightning, by Hokusai, An illustration of the king 
Virudhaka from the series Banmotsu ehon daizen zu 

According to the British Museum, the set includes "wide-ranging subjects from depictions of religious, mythological, historical, and literary figures to animals, birds, flowers, and other natural phenomena, as well as landscapes. They are dominated by subjects that relate to ancient China and India, also Southeast and Central Asia. Many subjects found in the collection are not found in previous Hokusai works, including fascinating imaginings of the origin of human culture in ancient China."

The British Museum has released a YouTube video where curator Alfred Haft introduces the collection. The originals are now on view in a special exhibition in London through January 30, 2022.

Read more:
An illustrated catalog of Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything by the British Museum will be published on Nov. 30.
Hokusai on Wikipedia