Friday, April 30, 2021

Reconstructing an Etruscan Tomb

In 1987 I traveled on assignment with National Geographic to Italy to explore Etruscan archaeology. 

We descended a ladder into the recently discovered "Blue-Devil" tomb in Tarquinia, which unfortunately had been emptied by tomb robbers a little earlier. 

The Blue Devil is painted on the wall behind me. He's a blue-skinned dude holding a snake in each hand.

My painting takes us back to around 700BC to show a family departing the tomb, accompanied by musicians and dancers. 

The pencil sketch shows the figures as I first imagined them, still without reference to models. The sketch had to be comprehensive enough to sell the editor on setting aside a double page spread in the article layout.

Once we got approval, I asked my friend James Warhola to pose as a musician, holding a cardboard cutout of a lyre. I changed his appearance to look like the story's photographer, Lou Mazzatenta.

For the charcoal comprehensive, I drew each figure grouping on a separate layer of tracing paper. In this way I could experiment with overlapping without erasing or affecting the layers beneath. Of course you could do all this in Photoshop, but working in pencil or charcoal is deliciously tactile and just as fast.

There's more about these methods in my book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist, available signed from my web store or from Amazon.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Painting a Farm Road

(Link to YouTube video) Starting with transparent watercolor and finishing with a few touches of opaque gouache, I paint a farm road. The gravel road is lined with bare trees, vines, and grassy fields. 

To tell the story of traveling back in space, I include my bike parked against a rustic fence and a family walking along the road.

Art supplies listed in description below YouTube video

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Top 10 Books on Animal Drawing and Painting

It's rare to find "Animal Painting" or "Animal Anatomy" listed in any art school curriculum, because the models are notoriously difficult to bring into the classroom and very few art schools have taxidermy mounts.


Painting a goat and sheep in the barn as a draft horse looks on.

So if you want to draw and paint animals, you almost have to be a non-traditional learner. Here are some resources that can help you on your way, especially if you combine them with sketching at the natural history museum, zoo, or farm. 

We discussed these books a little in the Draftsmen podcast interview yesterday, but here's some more info on the topic.

    Animals, plants, insects are all covered by this uniquely knowledgeable artist.
2. How to Draw Animals by Jack Hamm
    Useful simplifications and mental models.
3. Animal Painting and Anatomy by Frank Calderon
    Calderon ran an art academy in England. Detailed anatomical analysis. 
4. Wildlife Artists at Work by Patricia van Gelder
    Studio visits with major 20th century wildlife artists, including Meltzoff,         Peterson, Carlson, and Bateman. Not useful for anatomy, but rather artistic approaches.
5. How to Draw Animals (Famous Artists School)
    Focused excerpts of a reliable mid-20th century teaching source.
6. Drawing and Painting Animals by Fritz Henning 
    Similar to the Famous Artists book above.
7. The Art of Animal Drawing by Ken Hultgren
    Disney animator shares examples of slight caricature of animal types.
8. Drawing Animals by Gary Geraths
    Instructor at Otis who draws from life.
    Artist who painted dinosaurs also knew his living mammals.
    Shows a variety of familiar animals in various levels of simplification, with lots of diagrams that are worth copying.

Marshall Vandruff has a good seminar on animal anatomy. 
Aaron Blaise is a former Disney animator with YouTube demos and courses

My Videos

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Teaching Yourself to Paint

In this YouTube interview, I chat with veteran art teachers Marshall Vandruff and Stan Prokopenko, founder of the online tutorial source

We talk about strategies for learning to draw and paint, both for students enrolled in art school and and people doing it on their own.

Here are some Amazon links to books that we mention.

The Human Figure by Vanderpoel
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
Previous posts: 

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Sublime in the Commonplace

Drawing by Adolph von Menzel, Road Along a Park Wall

Emile Chartier said of Balzac: "His genius consists in taking the commonplace as his subject and making it sublime without changing it."

Thanks Joe Paquet

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Where do our night dreams come from?

The German word Traumbild means "dream image." The source of the image might be a daydream, a nightmare, or a hallucination. 

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

Before Freud and Jung acknowledged the importance of the unconscious mind, dream images in the western world were mostly regarded through the filter of Christianity. 

Hieronymus Bosch (1450 - 1516) The Last Judgement, 
detail of a man being eaten by a monster (c.1504)

According to Jean-Claude Schmitt, "The medieval conception of dreams differs significantly from ours: dreaming was not the psychic activity of an individual, but his immediate getting in contact with the powers of the beyond, either positive or negative, during his sleep. Hence the distinction between 'true' dreams (of divine origin) and 'false' dreams (diabolic illusions) and the systematic suspicion towards dreams. (Source)"

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Rust Stains

An old car sketched in a 3.5 x 5.5 inch sketchbook. To suggest rust stains, I melt brown ink lines from a fountain pen with a water brush. The side of a water-soluble brown colored pencil makes the grainy ground texture.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Raccoon Warrior

Humanoid raccoon warriors populate the parallel reality of " The Architect of Sleep" by Steven R. Boyett.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Visual Form Agnosia

Visual form agnosia is the inability to recognize familiar objects. The problem isn't just being able to name something that you see; it's understanding the meaning of them, recognizing what they are.

Roses from my video Flower Painting in the Wild

A person with such a condition might look at a bunch of roses and say it's "a cluster of convoluted pink forms held up by vertical green attachments."

People with visual form agnosia typically have otherwise normal eyesight, intelligence, memory, attention, and language ability. 

Dorsal and ventral streams. Image from Slideshare

Scientists have studied patients with this condition, often caused by a brain injury. These studies have yielded insight about the localization of functions in the brain and the pathways followed by neural activity as images are decoded. Recognition of objects seems to happen in the sides of the brain, not along the top of the brain.

That led me to wonder if there's a resemblance between visual form agnosia and the particular mode an artist shifts into while doing a painting. That is, don't we have to shut off the "naming engine" or the "categorization machine" in order to really see what we're painting? 

Perhaps one day scientists will study what happens in an artist's brain at various stages of the process of drawing and painting. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Why Paint a Tiny Watercolor?

Here's a pocket vista of Baltimore in a tiny book (3.5 x 5.5 inches).
Why paint small?
1. More portable.
2. Less expensive.
3. Less obtrusive.
4. Faster, more convenient.
5. Overcome inhibitions.
6. Try new technique or subject.
7. In good company (Turner, Rembrandt)
Painting big is fun, too. It's nice to switch it up.
Moleskine Watercolor Album (3.5" x 5.5"), 60 Pages 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Triad Test Stencil

On our Facebook group "Color in Practice," Ryan Coker came up with a great solution for drawing the grids for the Triad Tests. 

He says: "I used my 3D printer/software to create/build a Triad Maker Stencil. Two are shown here in black and clear. And to the left (top), I connected the lines using the straight edge on the outside of the stencil."
You can also draw them with a 30/60/90 triangle, or just freehand them.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Options for Underpainting Paints

Ada Leenheer asks: Hi James I like your use of casein as an underpaint, but here in the Netherlands a casein paint in tubes is unavailable. Mixing pigments with powder or liquid casein base is not ideal. It needs a lot of rubbing. Therefore I use self mixed egg tempera = egg yolk, water and pigments. I use this as underpainting for oil. But when in use for putting gouache on top it tends to dilute again when working with a lot of water. Do you have a tip? Could use acrylic medium but thats maybe to smooth to keep the gouache stuck.

Ada, Don't worry if you can't find casein. You don't need it. One replacement solution is to use something like Holbein Acryla Gouache for your underpainting. It is water-based, dries matte, and will not reactivate when rewet. But if you're priming large surfaces it could get expensive. 

You could use artist's acrylic with a matte formulation. Or you could just mix a little acrylic medium with any other water-based paint such as watercolor or gouache, and that will keep your underpainting from reactivating. Sometimes I use a little dab of transparent acrylic with matte medium if I want to accentuate the texture of the unprimed surface.

Or if you want to save a lot of money, or you could even use latex house paint or latex primer, which is relatively cheap. 

A home store will even mix a supply of matte latex house paint to the exact color you want. You can get a liter of custom mix for the price of one small tube of artist-grade acrylic-gouache.

Look for paint that is relatively flexible, and that dries totally matte and not glossy. You don't want a glossy base later because, as you've suggested, your gouache will bead up. As always, if you want to experiment with non-traditional materials, try them out first on a separate scrap and you can head off problems.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

A Whiter White Paint

Scientists at Purdue University have developed a white pigment that they say is significantly whiter than existing pigments. A surface looks white because it reflects back a diffuse version of most of the the light hitting it. 

This new pigment reflects back up to 98% of the sunlight, while commercially available white pigments only reflect back between 80 and 90 percent.

Professor Xiulin Ruan with a sample of his "ultra-white" paint, courtesy BBC and Purdue

According to the BBC:

"The new paint contains a compound called barium sulfate, which is also used to make photo paper and cosmetics. 'We used a very high concentration of the compound particles,' explained Prof Ruan. 'And we use lots of different sizes of particles, because sunlight has different colours at the different wavelength.' How much each particle scatters light depends on its size, 'so we deliberately used different particle sizes to scatter each wavelength.'"

The new white pigment should be more reasonably affordable and available compared to the ultra black "Vantablack" or the new blue pigment that I mentioned in 2016.

It looks intriguing. I'd like to see how it looks next to Titanium or lead white. But I don't know how useful it would be to me as a painter because I almost always want to darken my lightest light and raise my darkest dark in a picture anyway. The challenge isn't pushing the absolute range of values but rather organizing the tones so that the picture makes sense.
Thanks, Joseph and Dan

Friday, April 16, 2021

"Paint an Abandoned House" Challenge

Andrew Wyeth, Open House

A while ago I asked which subject would interest you the most for the next plein-air painting challenge.

"Abandoned House" was a clear winner. So I invite you to paint an abandoned house from observation.

Old Mill by Vasily Polenov

• Free to enter. Anyone of any age can enter.

• The composition can include the scene around the abandoned house. It can also be an abandoned store, restaurant, or factory. It can be an exterior or an interior, but you might want to get permission before entering an abandoned building. 

• Five finalists will each receive a "Department of Art" patch and a free Gumroad art tutorial download.

• It must be painted on location, or at least started on location. You can finish it from photos.

• You can focus your post on the decadence or nostalgia, the sublime aspects, the technical insights, the beauty or the ugliness, or the human story. Just make sure your painting expresses what interested you.

• All painting media accepted, such as oil, watercolor, acrylic, gouache, acryla-gouache, alkyd, casein, or water-soluble colored pencils. The painting can be bound in a sketchbook or on a separate panel or canvas.

• Take a photo of the work in progress on location, and another photo of the finished painting.

• Please limit your palette of colors to three colors plus white, and tell us what colors you used.

• Please post your entries on the comments of this Facebook page. "Painting Challenge: Abandoned House" If you're not on Facebook, please ask for the assistance of someone else who is. You can also put the image on Instagram with the hashtag #paintanabandonedhouse 

• Enter just one piece. If you do two pieces, please upload your favorite one.

• You can enter as soon as you finish the piece, but no later than the deadline: sunset, Eastern Time, Friday, May 21, 2021. 

• Winners will be announced on this blog on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

If you haven't seen it yet, here's a video of a painting of an abandoned house with a surprising human encounter.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Humboldt Exhibition Moves Online

Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey had completed the years-long task of gathering the art and artifacts for her Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition about Alexander von Humboldt, which was scheduled to open in the spring of 2020.

Frederic Edwin Church, The Falls of Tequendama, Near Bogotá, New Grenada, 
1854, oil on canvas 60 7/16 x 48 1/16 in., Cincinnati Art Museum

Then the pandemic lockdown happened.

When the date was set for the staff to exit the building, she knew she might not be able to visit it again. So while she still had access, she had a brainstorm: why not document the show with a curator's tour? 

She found a videographer. Without time to prepare a script or dress up for the occasion, she did an off-the-cuff video walkthrough of the exhibition. 

It's an inspired presentation: coherent, eloquent, accurate, and concise, especially when you realize how spontaneous it was.   

The curators and education team produced videos and images for an online experience, which you can still see on their website.

One of them is a video focusing on Frederic Church's "Heart of the Andes." The video separates spatial layers and uses lateral parallax movements to create "an immersive journey."
• Another book by E.J. Harvey: 

Thanks, Ida

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Imitation vs. Representation


"Forsythia is pure joy. There is not an ounce, not a glimmer of sadness or even knowledge in forsythia. Pure, undiluted, untouched joy." —Anne Morrow Lindbergh

A plant like this forsythia is more than the sum of its flowers and branches. I have to invent a toolset of brush techniques for describing characteristics of the flowers, both in terms of the overall mass and the granular detail.

Complete imitation of every flower on a forsythia plant is probably not possible or even desirable. We have to recreate or represent the characteristic detail rather than imitate it.

Asher B. Durand, in his influential 1855 essays "Letters on Landscape Painting" draws this very distinction between imitation and representation. When painting something as complex as a tree, he says, “direct imitation is impossible." Instead the artist should strive to “represent this foliage in every essential characteristic, without defining the forms of individual leaves. To do this, some analysis of its structure is necessary.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Painting Forsythia Flowers

I paint the flowers of a forsythia shrub using a limited palette of watercolor and gouache. I show how to start by capturing the overall gesture and silhouette of the whole plant and then subdivide the mass into smaller shapes.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Combining Pencil and Oil


Our boat brought us to a settlement of crested hadrosaurs and their human assistants, where we spent a few days drying out in the smoky attics of their houses" 

The painting is done in oil wash over pencil on illustration board, which has been sealed first with some workable fixative spray and then with a thin layer of acrylic matte medium. 

Dinotopian flight instructor Oolu holds a lightweight skybax saddle. 

This technique is fast, direct, and reproduces well. 

handeyeoriginals asks: "What do you thin the oils with to make the wash?"

Answer: Liquin (a fast-drying alkyd medium) and Gamsol (a mineral solvent). Note that both of those are toxic, so you need good ventilation and protection for the skin of your hands.

    joeybruceartWhat’s the advantage of an oil wash instead of watercolour?
    Colour? Vibrancy?

    Answer: It's workable for a longer period and it blends well with opaques.

Illustrations from Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.

Sunday, April 11, 2021


Colexification refers to a method of mapping the meanings of words.

All languages have words for basic emotions like love and anger and shame, but the words may not convey the same meanings in different cultures. 

This way of mapping visualizes the proximity of related emotion words and the connections between them.

These maps are used by scientists to speculate about whether the emotion concepts are genetically coded or are culturally disseminated.

Read more about colexification in Science Magazine 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Text Driven Manipulation

Suppose an art director looked at one of your pieces and said "Great, but could you make it more goth?" 

You'd know what to do, right? How about taking a cat picture and making it more cute or changing a tiger into a lion?

Computers, using large data sets, can accomplish such manipulations. In the top row of each pair is the input image. Below that is the manipulation. The phrase is the text prompt used to drive the manipulation.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Clock in Bryan, Texas

Downtown Clock, Bryan, Texas, gouache 

For this 45 minute gouache sketch I used ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, burnt sienna, and white.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Lap Box

Eugen Dücker 1841-1916 painted this portrait—possibly a self portrait—in 1900, showing a portable lap box rig used frequently by plein-air painters at the time.  

The artist sits on a tripod chair with a wooden box open and the painting pinned or propped on the inside of the lid. There also seems to be a white umbrella folded up on the ground next to him.

The arrangement has several disadvantages: you can't easily stand up or back up from the work; the size of the painting is governed by the size of the lid, and unless you have slots cut into the top frame there's no easy way to store wet paintings.  
Read more about 19th-century plein-air painting methods in the book The Painted Sketch: American Impressions From Nature 1830-1880

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

How Do Our Brains Process Images—Decoding or Predicting?

For a long time, scientists believed that images were decoded in a bottom-up process.

It was thought that the image arrived on the retina and was sorted out in stages, starting with edges and shapes that were then assembled into recognizable objects, faces, or symbols by specialized areas of the brain.

You may recognize what this image represents just from the top of the picture; you may even guess who painted it.

Detail of portrait by John Singer Sargent

The alternate way of understanding visual perception is the top-down predictive model. This idea suggests that the brain contains a stockpile of representations of reality that it imposes on what you see. You don't really see reality directly; you see your brain's prediction of what's in front of you. 

According to neuroscientist Andy Clark, "the brain is essentially a prediction machine." 

Most scientists agree that these two systems interact at various stages. Bottom-up constructive image processing meets top-down prediction throughout the hierarchy of image decoding from the most basic to the most sophisticated. 

This process moves like greased lightning until you run across a prediction error or an ambiguity.

Green lines are equal. Source

Optical illusions present anomalies where the top down prediction comes into conflict with the bottom-up construction. Sometimes this conflict happens at relatively basic levels of processing, creating estimation errors of perspective, shape, or overlapping.

This skull illusion creates an ambiguity of interpretation at a higher level of interpretation. 

It's good for us as image makers to be aware of how our eyes and minds work as we decode the world around us and reconstruct it for the enjoyment of others.