Sunday, January 29, 2023

Cats Juggling Balls

Cats Juggling Balls by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

According to the Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, "Kuniyoshi was an ukiyo-e artist who was active in the late Edo period. Kuniyoshi made his debut as an ukiyo-e artist in his late teens. After an unsuccessful period, he made a big breakthrough in his early thirties with the series “One Hundred and Eight Heroes from Tales of the Water Margin.” 

"Since then, he worked energetically on all kinds of genres of ukiyo-e including “musha-e (warrior pictures)” of heroes, “giga (caricatures)”, landscapes, “bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women)”, “yakusha-e (portraits of kabuki actors)”, and pictures for children."

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Botanical Art or Plein-Air Painting?

Is there a difference between botanical art and plein-air painting? 

While both may result in attractive images of plants, the botanical artist is more concerned with portraying individual specimens with a scientist’s perspective, removing a plant from its context to understand the structure and exploring the beauty in that way. 

The plein-air artist pays attention to the whole living ensemble as influenced by light, air, atmosphere, spatial depth. It’s possible to combine the two visual approaches—and the thought process behind them—to see both the forest and the trees.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Manu Forti

The Mackays of Scotland have a clan badge that says "Manu Forti," which means "with a strong hand." When I was just 13 years old, I realized I had Mackay ancestors, so I drew this bookplate on scratchboard and printed it out as a bookplate for my graphic arts class. 

Thirteen years old is the age when I started to figure out who the heck I was. I discovered it was possible to make a living with my hands in graphic arts, calligraphy, animation, or illustration. 

All my heroes—Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Preston Blair—had their heyday between 1900 and 1940. They were long gone before I got started. But that didn't matter to me. They were all people in books, anyway. I just saw the glimmer of a path out of the thicket of teenager-hood into the possibility of an adult life.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Black Umbrellas

Susan asks: "Do you recommend black umbrellas for plein-air artists?"

No, I really don't. Here's why I don't think a black or silver umbrella is useful. The goal of any sun-modifying system should be to transform direct sunlight into soft (indirect) light. The amount of light on the artwork—and the color of that light—should be as similar as possible to the amount and color of the light on the subject. 

The problem with blocking the light entirely with black or silver material is that the level of illumination will be too low on the work, making the eye have to adjust from one to another. Worse yet, the only light shining on the work is whatever bounces up from the ground. This light is often highly colored, especially if it’s grass, bricks or dirt, making accurate color judgments almost impossible. 

All that doesn't even take into account another issue that all umbrellas face: wind! They're wind traps, and lead to blowdowns.


Instead I recommend you make your own white diffuser system. They give good soft diffused light, they're easy to use, and they don't lead to blowdowns. I've made several variations and I demonstrate them on YouTube and my Gumroad video about sketch easels.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Alice in Larvaeland

No, it's not AI art—not digital either. I painted it for fun in acrylic during lunch break while I was a 22-year-old working as a background painter on the animated movie "Fire and Ice."

I suppose I was tapping into some weird corners of my subconscious mind, trying to figure out how to adapt H.R. Giger's biomorphism to landscape painting, and tossing some story possibilities out there for Ralph Bakshi's team to play with.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Shadow Letters

Sign painters and show-card artists in the golden age of penmanship had a variety of styles of applying shadows to make letters stand out.

According to Atkinson, "All letters must be shaded on the same angle, and every characteristic must be indicated.

"On letters A, Y, V, W, M, the shade is narrower in width on the diagonal "letter strokes" that are affected by the shade at a forty-five degree angle.

"On ordinary work and Card Writing, the relief shade is most commonly used, as it permits of quick execution, and in most cases is rendered in single stroke, using a brush that will accommodate itself to the width of the shade desired.

"Where extremities of letters are close together, the stroke can be left disconnected, which liberty is legitimate and permissible, especially on card work.

"On the relief shade leave "relief space" quite wide—i. e., the space between the edge of letter and inner edge of shade; it gives the letter better emphasis and is more professional."

From A Show at Sho'-Cards by Atkinson 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Developing Neural Pathways

Learning to paint requires developing two different sets of neural pathways. One is the cognitive / perceptual skill of strategic observation, where you learn to see what you need to see at each stage of the process, no more, no less.

The other is a cognitive / perceptual / motor pathway that allows you to plan a move of the hand to pick a brush, lift the right amount of paint of the right color and consistency, and apply it in a way that gets you closer to the interpretation you visualized.

Much of this neural architecture takes place outside the cranial vault and requires that you develop new skills of hand/eye coordination, head movement, and even breathing.

Read more:

Neuroscience News: The Link Between Drawing and Seeing in the Brain

Science Direct: Digest of Motor Learning Articles

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Rhinecliff Hotel

The Rhinecliff Hotel overlooks the Hudson River alongside the railroad tracks. For many years it was the scene of lively Irish music sessions. 

You'd pay your five bucks, walk past the pinball machines and the pool table, and find a folding chair near the back of the room, where a single light bulb illuminated the scene.

In the shadows it was rotting a bit, but no one minded, as long as your chair didn't fall through the soft floor at the edges. 

There was a hole in the tin ceiling where the resident squirrel (or was it a rat?) stuck his head through when the music really got going. Sometimes a train would thunder by right in the middle of a melancholy slow air. 

Other times the "phantom pay phone" would ring. There had once been a payphone, but someone removed the phone, leaving the ringer intact behind the wall. When it would go off, you'd just have to wait for it to quit ringing, because no one could answer it.

Someone bought the hotel and rebuilt it at great expense, but the business fell through, and it sits vacant now. 

Friday, January 20, 2023

The Death King Louis II of Hungary

Louis II was a king of Hungary whose life was framed with drama. At his premature birth he was kept alive by court doctors who killed animals to wrap the baby in the warmth of their carcasses as a primitive incubator.

He died at age 20 during a battle against the Ottoman Turks. 

The Discovery of the Corpse of King Louis II by Bertalan Székely, 1860

His story was immortalized by Hungarian painter Bertalan Székely. According to Wikipedia, "Nearly the entire Hungarian Royal army was destroyed in nearly two hours on the battlefield. During the retreat, the twenty-year-old king died when he fell backwards off his horse while trying to ride up a steep ravine of the Csele stream. He fell into the stream and, due to the weight of his armor, he was unable to stand up and drowned."

Székely based the reconstruction on a letter by Ferenc Sárffy, who experienced the battle. The composition and arrangement of figures and lighting evoked feelings of national pride and independence.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Head Study in Watercolor

Head of a Woman (1893) by Julian Fałat (Polish:1853-1929), watercolor on paper, National Museum, Warsaw

Julian Falat studied in Kraków and Munich. He used to say: 

"Polish art ought to convey our history and our beliefs, our qualities as well as our defects; it must be the quintessence of our soil, our sky, and our ideals."

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Van Dyck's Study of Saint Jerome

In 2002, a collector named Albert Roberts paid $600 for a painting of St. Jerome at a small-town auction in New York State. He suspected it might be a Van Dyck, but a few years went by before he got it cleaned and authenticated. 

A study for Saint Jerome, Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641)
oil on canvas, laid on panel, 37½ by 23 in.; 95 by 58.5 cm.

"Though the artist was about eighteen years old when he painted it (400 years ago), he was a precocious talent and already a master,” said Van Dyck scholar Susan Barnes in a statement. “Van Dyck painted his sketch from a living model, carefully rendering his furrowed, sun-weathered brow and time-worn body."

Anthony van Dyck, Saint Jerome with an Angel (circa 1618–20). 
Courtesy of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

"His goal was to convey the sense of the saint as a real person—one with whom faithful viewers could identify and whom they could aspire to emulate.” Quoted from Artnet,

The study will be auction later this month on January 26 at the Sotheby's auction of master paintings. Previews of the show will be in New York, January 21-25, 2023

Monday, January 16, 2023

Painting a Parking Lot

 Today's post on Instagram about "non-motifs" seems to have struck a chord.

. Here are some of the responses:

How do you take such a Mundane looking place and make it look really cool? I need to train my eye better to respect the spaces that are right there in front of me. You Did a lovely job. Thank you I will review those tips every time I go to paint.!

Fantastic. Love watching your videos. Thank you 🙏 😍

I've been doing these 'boring scene' drawings for a while and am ALWAY shocked by how interesting they are in pen and ink... but of course, @jamesgurneyart takes it to eleven with his rock-solid ability. Gorgeous stuff.

Your work always amazes me. You capture the beauty of the most mundane scenes. 😍😍

Thank you!

Your underpaintings always sing, James. Bravo!

Excellent as always. And a great demo/reminder.
Love that Pentalic Field Book!👏👏

I need to watch this on YouTube and take notes!

Well said !

Beautiful 🙌🔥🙌👍🏼🎨💪

I’ve been loving painting non-motifs for the past few years, especially because it suddenly makes everyday life much more interesting!


❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️! Right on!!!

Wow, great piece!! And tips!

Suuuuuperbe cette lumière. Je dis un peu envieuse…😍

Thanks for exist Mr James

Question for you, I usually work in oils, they allowing me to blend colors. Between Gouache and Casein which is easier to blend?

@snowboundartstudios The main difference in blending is that Gouache can be rewet and blended after it dries.

Incredible, I wouldn’t have given a parking lot a second glance if you asked me to pick a place to paint but of course you show it can be as good as any 👏

I’m always amazed by the cool compositions of Highway, cars, and curves in my rearview mirror.

We need a video on how to paint backlit!

Saturday, January 14, 2023

What is a 'Non-Motif?'

What is a non-motif?
That's what I call a scene from our everyday world that is familiar but rarely interpreted by artists. I wrote an article about non-motifs in the February / March issue (#149) of International Artist Magazine.

Unlike a picturesque motif, a non-motif is unconventional, unexpected, but also commonplace and recognizable. If you try googling the term “plein-air painting” you probably won’t find a single car or fast-food restaurant or utility pole, despite the fact that those things are all around us. Why not? Is it because they are intrinsically ugly or because we haven’t yet found the beauty in them? 

Paintings can serve to awaken us to the mystery of the world we actually inhabit, such as parking lots, supermarket interiors, gas stations or back alleys. They have a weird luminous power over my imagination. When I begin to paint them, I feel as though I have set foot on an unexplored continent. 

Tips for Succeeding with Non-Motifs
1. Start out with an idea of the light, color or compositional effects you want to achieve, and plug the forms into that idea. For example, you might want to do a tight cropping on a colorful sign or you might want a warm, backlit scene with edge lighting.

2. Use a viewfinder, a mirror or a camera to give you a fresh eye on the scene. It’s often hard to recognize good subjects, even when you’re looking straight at them.

3. Do a thumbnail sketch in pencil or paint to visualize what choices you might need to make.

4. Try to key into an emotional reaction that you have about a place, something you love or hate about it, a juxtaposition that seems bizarre or somewhere that you enjoyed hanging out as a child.

5. Stay local. Paint the subject at different times of day, and if you can, different seasons of the year.

6. If you’re traveling, paint an ordinary street, not the Instagram spot.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Can We Really Know What Goes On in Our Brains?

Lars Ickenroth left a long and thoughtful comment after my last video, and I'll share it here, along with my response below:

"Probably the most important topic and video on painting. Question to Mr. Gurney: does language-based thinking versus visual thinking play a role in your processes? For me these are two identifiable modes when working: automatic (energetic) and analytic (rational). A lot of my process starts with this enthusiasm supported by a semi-automatic engine that has been cultivated over the years. But when there’s resistance - either from the mind not being focused or concrete visual problems that need solving - then I turn to asking active questions. 

"I recognize very much this idea of ‘visual information overload’, and that’s where active questions can help: it’s like the difference between eating the whole pie at once (anaconda-style), or cutting it into smaller slices through asking questions. And there are definitely neurological parallels, especially when looking at research on ‘saccades’ (eye movements) an the way they are steered by our thinking processes. Most of those actually correspond with they way we make marks with a brush or pencil, up to the point where both the eyes and brush marks start wandering at a certain point of effort. Exploring the inner world (painting from the subconscious, imagination and memory) is a whole other bag of tricks... 

"That being said: I love the automatic mode where it’s all flowing, and even though ‘rational mode’ often gets better quality results, it also feels kind of less mystical/warm and more cold. I’ve been painting for about 15 years now, and drawing since I was 3/4 (35 now). And the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time doing mural projects. Especially when painting at 130ft, time, resource and energy-management become serious aspects. But I can heartily recommend it: replacing the classic brush with a roller and stick on a huge wall. 

"Coming back to the process aspect, there is one thing I do struggle with a lot: when does the process end? This is why life-painting and working on walls is such a good challenge: the time constraints are often very much set. But when creating autonomous work in the studio, it is often less ‘rational’ and more ‘intuitive’, which feels indulgent and great, but always leads to an open ended process that is much less satisfying. Perhaps because without asking questions the mind can’t really decide when ‘enough is enough’?"

My answer:
Lars, you've raised some powerful ideas, and I'm just trying to imagine what it would be like to be high up on scaffolding with a paint roller figuring out a painting. But you're absolutely right: there's a verbal part of my brain that mostly shuts off when I'm painting, and when I sketch next to my wife Jeanette, an hour can go by without a word. While I'm in the moment on location, my thought process often feels scrambled, like the undifferentiated bits of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly during metamorphosis. The voiceover that you hear on my videos is an attempt to rationalize and verbalize the process. But inevitably I hit a philosophical wall: How accurately can I or anyone really know what really goes on inside my mind? According to Dan Dennett in his famous Ted talk, the idea that we can accurately understand our own conscious processes is largely an illusion. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Stepan Kolesnikoff's Gouache Landscapes

Stepan Kolesnikoff (Russian / Ukrainian / Serbian, 1879-1955) painted landscapes in oil, but he also worked in gouache.
Fishing in March, gouache on card, 4 1/2 x 6 1/8 in. (11.6 x 15.5 cm.)

, sometimes rather small.

Slush. 1917 gouache on cardboard. 53 × 67 cm. (21 x 26in.)

Sometimes they were larger, like this study of a wagon on a slushy road.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Simplification vs. Elaboration

Valentin Serov, Portrait of Maria Morozova, 1897

"The more one knows the more one simplifies," said Alfred Stevens, and the same thought was expressed by William M. Hunt, when he said, "Elaboration is not beauty and sandpaper never finished a bad piece of

Monday, January 9, 2023

Winston Churchill's Ideas About Painting

“Painting is complete as a distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body more entirely absorbs the mind.”

"This beginning with Audacity, or being thrown into the middle of it, is already a very great part of the art of painting."

"Painting a picture is like trying to fight a battle."

"Painting is the same kind of problem as unfolding a long, sustained interlocked argument... It is a proposition commanded by a single unity of conception."

“Go out into the sunlight and be happy with what you see.

“We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket.”

He was timid about painting until he saw a friend begin to “hurl slashes of paint on an absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it could not hit back.” 

More: "Painting as a Pastime" by Winston S. Churchill
Online source for Churchill audio
More thoughts in my new YouTube video.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Painting in the Winter Forest

A stream cutting through the snowy forest is the subject for my newest YouTube video.
As I paint it, I talk about brushes and paints, and also share my thoughts about: 
1. Strange revelations about the science of visual perception
2. Winston Churchill's philosophy of painting
3. And a more Taoist view of the painting mindset.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Video Release Tomorrow

Tomorrow at noon EST, I'll release a new 30 minute YouTube video: "Is Painting a Battle or a Meditation? | Thoughts on Churchill, Lao Tzu, and Neuroscience."

Friday, January 6, 2023

Painting People in Rural France

Ohio-born artist Elizabeth Nourse painted directly from models in rural France. She was often "in villages with no inns or accommodations and lived either with members of a religious community or with the peasants, to an innate sympathy with women and children of the peasantry and enabled her to gain their confidence and observe them closely while living among them."

"Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) had quite a different experience in Brittany. Writing about her unsuccessful efforts to get a Breton woman to pose for her, she observed, 'We found that the people, especially the country folk, did not really like les artistes.'"

Quotes from Elisabeth Nourse, 1859-1938, A Salon Career

Source: Wikipedia on Elizabeth Nourse and Cecilia Beaux

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Dino vs. Robot Battle

Confrontation on the brink of Waterfall City as humans and dinosaurs protect Dinotopia from an attack of a giant robot.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Classic Arcade Games

Which of these classic arcade video games have you played?

Armor Attack
Mouse Trap
Star Gate
Pac Man
Mega Race
Missile Command
Space Invaders
Astro Invader
Astro Fighter

Monday, January 2, 2023

Pío Collivadino

Pío Collivadino (1869-1945) was an Argentinian artist who studied in Italy.

His painting Lunch Break (1903) was exhibited at several international festivals. 

His paintings of the industrial scene use muted colors and large gradients to achieve a feeling of mood and delicate light.

His painting Usina, or Power Plant shows workers trudging through the dawn light past an industrial building with four tall smokestacks. 

With the political changes that swept through Argentina in the mid 20th century, his work and his style fell out of favor, and he was swept out of his place in the art school, but he has recently been making a comeback.

Pío Collivadino on Wikipedia

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Sargent and Spain

Sargent and Spain is an exhibition and catalog focusing on the artwork that John Singer Sargent produced in Spain over many decades of his career. 

In the late 19th century, Spain was a somewhat exotic country whose rail system had just begun to open up to European travelers.

Sargent's excursions to Spain were a welcome escape from his career as a portrait painter. He always brought his sketching supplies with him, and the works in the exhibition / catalog include everything from oil portraits and landscapes, watercolors, pencil drawings, pen and ink sketches, to even bas-relief sculptures.

He always had a goal or objective in mind for each of his seven excursions to Spain. The exhibition is organized according to these thematic studies. The first goal was to capture the spirit of the flamenco dance in the big Salon painting El Jaleo. 

The original painting, now at the Gardiner Art Museum in Boston, did not travel to Washington, DC for the show, but it appears prominently in the catalog.

Sargent managed to capture fleeting expressions of fast-moving figures in dim light.

Sargent would undertake some impressively difficult perspective challenges, or scenes with complex layers of details. His precise pencil preliminary drawings underlie even casual looking sketches.

Spanish Fountain, 1912, watercolor and gouache over pencil

It's interesting to see how Sargent wove white gouache into his watercolor practice. The sprays of water coming out of the fountain are a thin drybrush line over previously painted passages.

Also, the caustic reflections on the underside of the bowl of the fountain are accomplished with opaque passages of gouache.

The catalog is lavishly illustrated in color with all of the 120+ artworks, plus other related photos and paintings by other artists. The text explores what it was like to travel in Spain during Sargent's era, and how his interest in Velazquez informed his approach to painting, and how he incorporated church iconography into his Boston murals.

The exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington will be on view through tomorrow, and then it continues at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor (February 11–May 14, 2023)

If you visit the National Gallery, don't miss the eight additional Sargents in the American galleries, including several of his full size portraits.