10 September 2014

monarch butterfly

this painting was done to illustrate the invitation to a fundraiser for the Endangered Species Coalition. the monarch butterfly is one of the species they are advocating for protection.

arches watercolor block; background two very dilute washes of a green cerulean blue; the darks were painted with india ink, then coated with sepia; the minor wings are gold ochre, the major wings gold ochre with cadmium scarlet.



this was my fourth attempt, and my first painting in over four years. how life does take its twists and turns ... 


30 September 2010

not all tears and gnashing teeth

well, it's been a frenetic few weeks of astronomy out here at rancho jonive (see next post), but the art does continue at its charcoal and gum arabic pace.

friday mornings i head up to forestville where i am lucky to participate in a figure drawing group run by sandy frank, a hugely talented local sculptress and pastel artist. the group has about ten or so semiregular participants, a good selection of models, and a very collegial atmosphere. sandy is a great host and i tweaked her about her yahoo! t shirt ... i usually decline to wear my smithsonian quality collection of yahoo branded apparel, but i wear my yahoo! belt buckle to group ... to fly the flag for times long gone by.

speaking of ... i've also, as no one is interested, deleted my facebook account (which turns out to be rather hard to do) because, well, it's facebook. if you're selling, hustling, seeking, smearing, or just lonely -- a great service. but one of the basic achievements of old age is that you deal with the lonely thing, and move on. and real friends actually ring your doorbell.

as it happened my computer was down for over a week; it took a few days for apple to diagnose the problem (the monitor needed a new power transformer) and then took almost a week to get the right part. and for that i missed sandy's group the first couple of times i planned to attend. but since then it's been a great way to conclude the week.

yes, there is a point ... i'm getting to it: the first day i was late getting to group and in the frantic couldn't find my drawing materials ... so i grabbed a set of felt pens that i'd bought in london to use for sketching in the national portrait gallery (see post back in april) and a newsprint block. and i've been basically using those until i use them up.

the newsprint has a fast, absorbent texture, eager to drink, and the pens have little brushlike tips that flex easily and are always moist. this makes for quicker gestures and some wonderful line variety by varying the pressure.

i've gradually evolved a method where i first block out the form using the "light gray" pen, then anchor the outline with the "black" pen, then go in and do modeling with the "gray" pen. of the set of six there are actually two sets of three, one variations on a cool, greenish gray and the other a range of sepia. i haven't gotten to the point of using the contrasts consciously.

wisteria was our model one week, a pleasant woman but with a peculiarly loose knit figure, as if there was an extra inch in the big joints. this later drawing of her reclining was one of my better ones, but she has the odd feel of nicely piled laundry, heavy and inert.

wendell was our model the week after, a sharply chiseled male with a shaved head. i found his poses distracting rather than revealing primarily because they were overly strenuous and elaborate. i prefer models who show the body through its leisure and comfort. anyway, i got some good head drawings with him.

and so the weeks go by.

27 August 2010

emperor 1



today i finished the first color pattern in my "emperor waves" project. this is a photograph of the full sheet coverage. the image below shows the type of pattern that had to be copied.



i promptly discovered that i had to rule the sheet in a 1" grid in order to make any progress. that's 2430 square inches, if you're counting.

i also found that these forms, which are really fractal in structure, had a strongly stupefying effect on my hand eye skills. i had to break the shapes down into the outline landmark points, then connect these by landmark points, and so on down to the complete form. progress was very slow and incredibly fatiguing: my pace averaged about 3 of the 6" square blocks a day.

at that pace, i wouldn't finish the painting until next spring. but this red was difficult because it was laid on bare paper. the remaining colors are woven into and through the red, which acts as the trellis, so i'm expecting the work will go more quickly.

the insight i gleaned from this is that structures we are habituated to see as textures or patterns are extremely difficult to render as discrete forms. there is no dynamic gestalt, no holistic integration, the way there is to a tree or a human figure, nothing geometrical in the way of cezanne's cubes and cylinders and cones. instead there was an exasperating, nattering landscape of little turrets, boxes, squiggles and blotches, repeated over and over in different orientations, proportions, sizes, configurations. over and over and over.

not for the faint of hand.



this is the working setup. to protect the painting, the laptop with reference image rests on a large sheet of foam core, and i worked with my arms resting on a large piece of cardboard. the paint dishes are placed on a rimmed dish, to guard against accidental spills or drips. i learned not to work in a sweater, which left cashmere lint on the paper.

so ... next up is the pattern of gold figures, which will populate the bottom of the painting and thin out toward the top of the sheet, the spatial complement to the red. after that i lace in some dull yellow, and stitch together the reds with ultramarine violet. that fills out about half of the painting, and the remaining colors are largely ornamental.

01 August 2010

emperor waves 0

i've cleared my schedule for work on a new project, a watercolor of water waves, developed from photos shot during my recent europe vacation. this will be on an emperor sized (41" x 60") sheet of 600gsm Arches watercolor paper, and is the largest project i have yet attempted.

i will be posting photos and comments on the work as it progresses.



here's a thumbnail of the reference image. i won't go into the specific photo manipulation methods used to create it, as everyone has their own photoshopping procedures. in gist, the "curves" function was used to displace the photo value sequence, and various color adjustments were applied to develop the overall image appearance i was after. the file was saved in .gif mode (using the option "exact colors") to reduce the colors to a smaller number (14). finally the CIE Lab colors (shown in the color picker) were used to identify the color locations in a perceptual color space, and the pigment selection was developed from that information.



to begin the paint selection, i plotted the Lab location of the image colors in my artist's color wheel or CIELAB color map, in order to understand the basic color relationships and identify plausible pigment selections and paint mixtures. the colors grouped into muted blues, violets, reds and greens, many in complementary relationship, and in a repeated cycle through the spectrum.

in his watercolor tutorial (which i highly recommend), david dewey recommends the use of "color bars" to examine the color relationships within an image. my first color design step is usually to paint out the list of pigment selections as color bars, to get a first impression of how they interact. this also gives me an opportunity to adjust the colors, by glazing over the paints with other paints, and these changes are notated in the margin as mixture recipes.

although color bars fine for the broad impression, colors are often correlated or related within an image -- for example, if oranges cast violet shadows, then orange and violet are always contiguous in an image. this is hard to simulate with color bars. for that purpose, i used a grid of 3/4" squares, where the number of squares filled by a color approximately stands for its proportional area in the planned painting, and colors that go together in the painting can be painted next to each other in the grid.

the image below shows that the appearance of a paint selection is quite different when presented as color bars or as a color grid. (happily, the trex planks of my studio deck provide the perfect medium gray background for balanced color evaluation.)



as with the color bars, the color grid can be adjusted by glazing over certain colors, which suggests revised paint mixtures or pigment choices, which in turn can be used to create a new color grid ... and so on for as long as the color adjustments seem necessary. the color grid also lets me identify any problems that occur in edging the paints -- specifically one paint wicking or dissolving into another -- which affects both pigment choices and the sequence in which paints are applied.

the image below shows the initial color grid and a later version, and as you can see, the changes in the pigments made to eliminate granulation (a distraction in a complex image), whitening or blotching, and the adjustments in the paint mixtures, stand out nicely.



my procedure is to assign color locations freely in the first color grid, but in subsequent grids to copy this color allocation exactly, so that all visual changes in the pattern can be attributed solely to the colors, and not to the placement of the colors.

the final color grid can be used as standard color samples to match the mixture of paints, so that they can be applied at one pass to dry to the desired color. i want to avoid the chore of adjusting the paint colors after they have been applied!

next comes the underdrawing. in previous posts i've described my four preferred methods of developing the underdrawing for a painting: a freehand drawing of the subject, a freehand drawing corrected freehand (by photoshopping the image of the freehand drawing over a photograph of the subject); a rough charcoal outline drawn over a projected photo; and a graphite tracing of a projected photo.

all these methods seemed impractical given the size and complexity of the image. and printing out reference images, of 14 separate colors in 70 squares, would amount to 980 pages! so i've saved the reference image on a laptop computer, gridded to match the paper, with each color of paint as a separate image layer. this way i can paint the image freehand, color by color, square by square, using the laptop image as the reference.



by "blinking" each layer on and off, i could analyze how they fit together and identify the colors that follow the structural constraints or essential outlines in the image. these will be painted first. they define the crucial mapping from image to paper, and can be used as reference points to paint in the other colors.

finally, i measured the time it took me to copy the pattern for one color within one 6" area of the painting, then multiplied this by 70 (the number of six inch squares in an emperor sheet) and again by 14 (the number of different colors). this gave me an estimated time of 32 days, 5 hours a day, to complete the painting.

i decided this was doable.

i've ruled off the six inch squares on the sheet, chosen my paints and mixtures, and start work today.

28 July 2010

two boys

three commission paintings recently completed of two lively boys.


jared - watercolor on Arches CP 300gsm, 10" x 14"

the active one. always smiling and running about. i've cropped out the bicycle he was riding.


caleb - watercolor on Arches CP 300gsm, 10" x 14"

the thoughtful one. this is a characteristic expression, so i was careful not to give it a melancholy turn.


two boys - watercolor on Arches CP 300gsm, 14" x 10"

the two in a very simple, colorful portrait. nothing fancy, but perhaps a good sense of their spirit.

also started a large (41" x 60") painting of water, based on photographs i took during my venice trip. it's a large project and fairly complex, so i'll be posting images of the work in stages, to explain how it's going.

sunny day. time for some studio time, then maybe a movie later with my sister, in town for a locum. jan is off in viriginia at a biologist's conference.

06 July 2010

unpacking

jan and i recently returned from a week in jackson, wyoming, where we had spectacular weather and lovely hiking. we went to the national museum of wildlife art, which is somewhat as dreary and hackneyed as it sounds, but they had an enchanting display of maurice sendak's drawings and paintings, and a superb collection of paintings by carl rungius, whom i had not known. much to learn in rungius about color in light.

i spent the afternoon today unpacking the studio. i turntabled a selection of favorite guitarists -- metheny, mclaughlin, van eps, beck -- and sorted through my collection of books, boxing up a few dozen as discards, including a hefty and very reverent hagiography on picasso.

i unpacked paints and supplies, cleaned dishware, gathered up cobwebs, and watched birds scratching for seed in the fresh mowed meadow grass.

i sorted through photos, selecting a few as next projects.

tomorrow i begin work on a very large water painting (a painting of water, nothing else), and a new portrait of my wife and leah, our massage therapist.

i have been in a way digesting and ruminating.

17 May 2010

travelog II: craft and history

as my wife and i viewed uncounted paintings, sculptures, ceramics, carvings and precious objects in dozens of hallowed old piles -- in venice (accademia, ca' pesaro, ca' rezzonico, ca' d'oro, ca' mocenigo, pinault's palazzo grassi, santa maria della salute church, scuola grande di san rocco, scuola di san giorgio delgi schiavoni, doge's palace, santi giovanni e paolo church, san pantalon church, i frari church, santo mois church, san sebastiano church, querini stampalia foundation, jewish ghetto museum, naval museum, guggenheim museum, pinault's punta della dogana museum), verona (museo castelvecchio, palazzo forti, area archeologica del teatro romano), zurich (kunsthaus zürich), berlin (gemäldemuseum, kunstgewerbemuseum, neue nationalgalerie, german history museum, guggenheim gallery, pergamon museum, altes museum, the east side gallery), potsdam (sans souci palais, neues palais), amsterdam (rijksmuseum, van gogh museum, heritage amsterdam, rembrandt house) and london (national gallery, national portrait gallery, victoria & albert, hampton court house, tate modern, tate britain, british museum, kensington palace, windsor palace, foundling house museum, soane museum, royal art academy ["the real van gogh" exhibit and a fine exhibition of paul sandby watercolors], banquet hall, saatchi gallery) -- my sense of art broadened and ramified. the lockstep sequence of art history crumbled under the variety of regional schools, individual styles, personal talents and materials availability.

behind every item was a human life, a karmic path, a career. i discovered vigorous, superb, delicate, attentive talents completely unknown to me and omitted from the standard art indexes i consulted ... careers that spanned great style diversity or marched dutifully along a perfected path. art of high reputation that was awful, art of no reputation that was breathtaking. art in which the use of materials was alchemical and mystical, and art in which the use of materials was brutish and stupid.some of these items were flawlessly made and even after centuries were flawlessly preserved. others were not made to last, or had suffered neglect or damage that could not be repaired.

the effect of personal influence, via guilds, collections and museums, came into the foreground. copying and the study of individual artists by individual artists was rampant, from cranach copying bosch to rubens copying titian to lucien freud copying chardin. there was enormous variation in drawing skill, especially in portraits, and in coloring, especially in still lifes and landscapes: different artists emphasized different achievements. a whole rainbow of flesh harmonies, tokens of very different strategies for building and modeling paint color. "realist" styles that displayed an inventive mixture of realism, caricature, shadow drama, clinical light, decorative color or subdued palettes.

a hall of cast, sculpted, plated and handchased silver that extended along one entire side of the victoria and albert museum, and a museum of ceramics that brought together hundreds of items from the greeks to the modern britons in four large interconnected rooms -- each item a treasure in itself. a stone mason's clay pipe in a display case, dug out from a wall at hampton court that had collapsed in a fire and was rebuilt. a quilt composed entirely of alternating red and white, 3/4" hexagonal tiles of fabric, sown together in perfectly straight rows in all six directions, made as a convalescent diversion by a wounded soldier in a hospital in early 20th century england.

hundreds, thousands, millions of hours of labor, diligently completed for single clients in small communities, for large institutions, for famous collections ... all gradually handed down, consolidated and preserved as one more item in a display case or on a wall. hundreds of portraits of real people, real hearts and souls, now all dead. the sense weighed on me that time would eventually erase all things, and silence the praise of every excellence, and bring down the walls of every building.

i've mentioned the regrettable results of van gogh's negligent use of paint materials, but this is a theme that goes all the way back to leonardo's mummified "last supper" fresco in milan, which has been stripped of conservation additions and is now only bits of paint chips on a crumbling wall. frequent examples are the paintings by joshua reynolds completed after c.1790.



you might say, "wow, that's a crummy photograph. she's too yellow." but actually it's a pretty fair reproduction of the painting. reynolds was an extremely talented artist who was one of the first to get sucked into the materials experimentation that appears also in blake, in turner, and in many other english and french artists of the 19th century. (the germans, italians and spanish were more immune to the fads.) late in his career he adopted a carmine formulation that has disappeared entirely from dozens of his paintings. in london and berlin, you can spot a late reynolds portrait from across the room.

once i started looking for these mishaps, they turned out to be common. i found a large madonna and child by quentin massys (circa 1450), which at first glance was an extraordinarily cunning achievement in color realism -- the bread on a small table looked so real you could almost smell it. but beside the bread, some curiously pale and translucent cherries. again, the red (whatever it was) had faded over the centuries.

[detail, about 2 feet wide]

with a few clues like these, i began to see the "lateral craft" of individual painters -- not their "vertical craft" in the historical succession of styles, or career periods early and late, but in their use of materials and methods. some painters failed miserably across many paintings for many reasons (van gogh), some painters repeatedly failed in a single component (reynolds), and some painters in occasional details (massys). craquelure, varnishing, paint consistency, tonal balance (some paintings were inexplicably dark), edge control, pigment permanence; crude overpainting or painting in of objects and figures; the queer blueness of medieval distant mountains; the tint and depth of shadows; eyes that sat squarely in a man's skull or that seemed about to crawl out of their sockets. portraits by holbein that were crudely drawn and portraits that seemed traced in every detail from a photograph (yes, i believe hockney's thesis). i found dozens of ways in which painters could be distinguished from each other that had little to do with "art history" but a lot to do with personal innovation and skill, and the artist's economic resources within regional traditions of craft.

i recognized historical trends that i have not seen treated as a separate topic. the gradual coarsening of the brushstroke, accompanied by an incremental thickening of paint viscosity and density, was a kind of tectonic development across centuries. at first the transition from a flat picture surface to a fulsome impasto appears only occasionally, within the career evolution of painters like titian, tintoretto, rubens, hals and rembrandt; with hals the hasty brushstroke is more common in small works, with rembrandt it's more evident in his large works, such as his "jewish wedding". but it gradually becomes a pervasive feature of painting in the 19th century, and a hackneyed and limiting element of technique in the 20th century, coming to a disreputable terminus in the meretricious use of splatter and drip, and the concept that brushstrokes, by themselves and separate from representation and color, are a sufficient painted image.

oh cy twombly, how do you do what you do? [format: enormous]

many artists specialized in trademark challenges -- elegant fabrics, dewy flowers and reflective metals, stormy seascapes, twilight skies, animal portraits, estate portraits, political commentaries, dutch "guild" group portraits, full figure society portraits, children, domestic interiors, landscapes at night, cityscapes of specific cities, biblical stories, classical allegories, mythical scenes, social satire or sardonic commentary, the effect of candlelight in a dark room.

even after the late renaissance, when linear perspective was completely understood, it was not always used with good effect, but when it was, it often included a machinelike, manufactured quality. canaletto is astonishingly good at building a breathing, delicate and convincing illusion of aerial and optical perspective; but on close inspection one finds that he uses very simple, economical and efficient methods of delineation, coloring and simplification, applied systematically. by 1750, strategies of industrial manufacture intrude into the painting esthetic, not just as an optical image but as an assembled surface.

now the trend is the other way: in the venice punta della dogana and in the neues galerie in berlin, we saw several canvases by rudolph stingel that mimic on enormous scale what seem to be common, tiny amateur or tourist black and white photographs -- down to the scratches, fingerprints and creases. these were gradually built up of tiny blossoms of paint applied with a soft bristle brush, the reassertion of handicraft inducing an unexpected nostalgic, ominous and prophetic atmosphere.

[format: enormous]

at the other extreme, gerhard richter has recently turned to industrial paintings made by thickly and unevenly layering paint colors on a rigid surface and then scraping the paint down with a steel bar dragged back and forth, hundreds of times, over the painting. this parodies and automates the brushstroke, softening and partially compacting colors together, shearing down layers to the layers below, pulling color, "action" and representation from initially hidden variations in the density of successive paint layers.

[format: very large]

from canaletto to stingel, there is a long, complex and dynamic tension between handicraft and industrial esthetics, production methods and product applications. the workshop process too, just like the collaborative practices of printing and weaving, has been transformed behind the scenes -- from titian and rubens to dr. munro and ackermann to koons and murikami. many top drawer artists no longer produce their works entirely themselves: they delegate and administer the works as products of an organization.

the marvelous carved wood panels in the scuola san rocco, each representing a different theme, or iconic virtue or vice: who carved them? no one could tell me. yet there they are, full of life and humor, warm with centuries of careful polishing and refinishing by hands whose contribution was care and conservation rather than creation. astonishingly fluent and delicate carvings by grinling gibbons were sometimes placed high out of sight, tucked along the wainscoting of a pulpit, or sequestered in a private room.

the architectural interiors created an atmosphere that pulled some attributes into sharper view. the dim 18th century rooms in the querini stampalia, ca' rezzonico, ca' mocenigo or ca' d'oro, door jambs askew and creaky floors slightly tilted toward exterior walls, emphasized how difficult it must have been to make the diminutive sculptures and darkened paintings they had on display. the vast interior spaces of the punta della dogana, filled with artworks of huge scale or mind boggling repetition, felt desperately empty. the oppressive and dispiriting gloom of the "decadent" art on display in the berlin modern art gallery was amplified to an almost intolerable pitch by the arid and clinical museum building, designed by mies van der rohe. the same solid architectural craft that made the victoria & albert and british museums seemed to tame and scale down the wild perfection of the ceramic and silver galleries, and comfortably accommodate the huge exhibits of greek, egyptian and asian architecture. the rooms of the gemäldegalerie were color coded by art historical epoch -- a weird touch, since individual works (such as the van der weyden portrait in the previous post, some holbein portraits, a vermeer, and so on) seemed to float in a timeless space, fresh and immediate.

there is in humans an unrelenting urge to craft -- no matter that it's jeweling a silver chalice or or setting the stones in a church floor or pulling the last weed out of the garden or carving a flower out of cherry wood or making a madonna that seems to breathe or baking bread that scents a home -- craft is something we pursue almost without calculation of personal cost.

all those artists that we see from the outside, as a link in the chain of history ... they lived history from the inside just as we do, dimly aware of the past, unsure of everything far away, keeping close to routine, relying on family and friends, doing good work in spite of hardship, want and fatigue, and entirely ignorant of the future or the ultimate fate of their handiwork.

i had to discipline my cultural prejudice to "judge art" and instead see paintings from the individual and circumstantial point of view. these are not the products of movements or ideas, but of lives. i set myself to reconnect with the craft spirit, the joy of the hand, the cunning and patience instead of the reputation, and set aside the color codes and creaky floors of the critical and art historical rooms to which the artists have been ranked and consigned.

16 May 2010

travelog I: paintings and photos

now safely past the ire of iceland's volcano, and finally over the hideously lingering business class virus, i'm hankering to post some reflections on what i learned about art during my eleven weeks in venice, zurich, berlin, amsterdam and london.

i saw a tremendous lot of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, across a wide variety of institutional settings, with and without adequate curatorial attention and light engineering, in person and in catalog reproductions, at first impression and revisited, weary and fed, sketching or sauntering, sober and stoned. and the core of my experience is the profound, complex and disorienting perception of what it is to really look at art in situ, as opposed to merely recognizing and responding to an image.

i'll begin with the painting by charles guérin called out previously -- actually the digital image of the painting as it appears on the hermitage amsterdam web site.



now the first question you probably do not ask yourself is -- how big is this painting? my first insight was how far we're habituated by modern image reproduction media to disregard issues of scale in the encounter with an image.

i've posted on my web site a long examination of the relationship between a picture format and the pictorial impact the format asserts on the viewer -- both as an implied viewing distance in a public space and as a virtual claim about the relative physical scale between the objects in the image and the viewer -- which i call the display geometry. issues of display geometry were impressed on me repeatedly as i went through the dozens of museums along my itinerary.

to answer the question: the guérin painting is ... large. i can't find reliable documentation (and the museum catalog is infuriatingly unavailable from amazon.com) but my recall is that it is about 5 feet high by 4 feet wide. as the model's head would go out of the frame if she stood up where her left foot rests, this is clearly a "life size" or reproduction representation, which puts our encounter with the model on a human, literal and earthbound footing.

now dwell on that human and earthbound model. the perfectly understated sag in her upper arm, buttock and hip, the softness of her thigh against the edge of the chair, the intimations of coming middle age in her breasts and stomach ... i even see a little of lucian freud's trademark sitter boredom in her expression ... everything combines to convey a rembrandtlike quality of realism and vulnerability. (to better appreciate the pose, compare it first to my favorite rembrandt on the one hand, and then to something by the tediously vapid charles bouguereau or the snide gustave courbet on the other.) the large format projects that vulnerability as a living human presence, a life rather than a figure, but a life that is quite obscured by the digital image.

the hermitage "expert" commentary on this painting is quite amusing:

As a student of Gustave Moreau, Guérin learned to exploit the decorative effects of colour without obvious experimentation. He honed his skills by copying old masters in the Louvre. In his work he remained true to identifiable form and his palette was harmonious rather than bold, despite fauve influences. Shchukin was particularly enthusiastic about Guérin, who represented his models in attractive poses. This model poses serenely, apparently untroubled by the large, fashionable hat which forms a provocative contrast with her nude body.

Sergei Shchukin was a wealthy russian businessman turned art collector with an uncannily clear and unfaddish eye for art excellence -- many of his personal selections were in the amsterdam show -- so we have to ask what he found so precious in this work. my answer is ... its intoxicating color harmony and affirming light.

this is almost entirely lost in the digital image, because of what is called gamut mapping -- the compromises in lightness contrast, hue accuracy and chroma range created by forcing a fully dimensional pigment landscape into a trichromatic (RGB or CYM) color reproduction medium with a limited dynamic range.

the color keystone to the guérin painting is located, of all places, in the gilt frame behind the model's hat. this highly reflective surface signals to the viewer's eye both the intensity of the light falling on the painting and its color as well -- gilt goes steely under green light, or copperish under warm light. here the frame appears glinting with creamy warmth in the original (an effect lost in the digital image), and the eye, taking that as the anchor for white, spreads that effulgence throughout the canvas. under this warm light, her figure is expertly (subtly!) and realistically contrasted -- the legs sculpted with pale, soft touches of red and magenta in the original (they're just brownish in the image), her torso an iridescent analysis of green gold and warm tints in the original (drab yellow in the image). this contrast is handled so delicately that at first you don't notice it. and the color balance is assisted by the wall behind, which is not a scumbled gray but a mist of rose, teal, green and azure worthy of tiepolo; this intensifies into a shadow outline around the figure that is a dark blue green brightening almost to pure teal, which summarizes the chromatic bias of the "gray" wall, forces the green golds toward yellow, and draws more pink out of the magenta. it's a vision that shimmers.

we notice the green hat and orange seat cover. the studiously stupid "color theorist" might remark that this is the classic tension between red and green, introducing a fauvist dynamic conflict into the image ... van gogh would understand, oh yes! in fact its role is quite different, and the correct answer is clear in the presence of the painting. (again, the digital image fails us.)

the orange/red mixture is highly saturated (it appears very close to a pure cadmium scarlet red, which was newly available by 1910 when this painting was made). even more saturated is the ultramarine blue of the hat -- ultramarine being the most saturated single pigment of any hue available to a painter. and the green (probably viridian) has been mixed and lightened with yellow to boost its chroma as well. but the point of these colors -- these pigment selections -- is chroma. the eye cannot see intense chroma unless the light is both chromatically "broadband" and also sufficiently luminous to perk up the eye to its full chromatic response. (a reddish light would dull the green, a yellowish light would dull the blue, a greenish light would dull the red.) each color prevents the other from tipping the chromatic balance of the image, but all contribute to the sense of powerful, clear, creamy white light emerging from the canvas.

i had several encounters with the art holocaust of gamut mapping during my vagabonding. the most scrupulous was the rainy afternoon i bought an exhibition catalog at the ca' pesaro gallery (an exhibition that really rocked my art understanding ... more on that later), then spent hours going through its modern art exhibition work by work, comparing the painting to the printed image. over and over, not only was the printed image wildly, almost painfully inadequate, but specifically the effect or charm that i felt was the essence of the image was trampled on, distorted, or obliterated. grays were hugely wrong; warms were cools and crispenings were soggy. blacks went from depth to dirt. flesh tones were cheapened and thickened. chiaroscuro turned into quilting. (as if to cement the insight, the binding of the catalog fell apart, and the cover separated from the pages.)

a more familiar example is this famous vermeer painting, which i encountered in the amsterdam rijksmuseum:



especially in printed images, that girl's apron is a muted dark middle blue, often matching a prussian blue (or a phthalo blue GS, since printed images mean CYM mixtures). the shock was -- that apron is pure ultramarine! it has an almost electric brillance. it's nowhere purple (as it seems in the digital image), and it glows all the way into the deepest shadows, which in the image appear black. (it's so potent that i had reservations about the restoration that might have been inflicted on it.) but the point is, whether it's a restorer's blunder or the artist's intent, the image seriously distorts what the actual painting looks like. again, looking at the painting, the visual interpretation of the light is made more emphatic by the chromatic brilliance, a keynote that is amplified by the sparkling texture of the objects on the table and the brimming stream of pure white milk.

speaking of light, the third important insight i developed, across many museums using many different lighting strategies, is the light contrast put on the works. the standard gallery practice is to vignette the painting in a cone of light, as viewed inside a relatively dim room -- look at the gallery photos of the hermitage amsterdam exhibition at the bottom of this page, where the camera clearly brings out the lighting contrast. in that lighting arrangement, the eye adapts to the dim ambient light rather than the localized spot lights (which are partly dimmed for the eye by the dark and dull colors of a painting), so that a painting is pushed upwards in apparent brightness, and in the extreme can be made to appear almost to glow like a backlit transparency. this increases both the lightness and chroma contrasts, and in the guérin work, viewed overall, though the light contrast was more subdued, the effect was magical. the woman appears to be embodied in light.

my fourth and last learning takes me back to that critic's commentary quoted above. i can't read something like that without a weary feeling that many critics have been educated for too long (and perhaps write too many commentaries based on digital images). the subtext seems to be the hackneyed modernity myth: art is about "movements" and movements are inherently about -- well, you know, innovating, shocking, pushing limits, épatezing those bourgeoisie types and burning down the salon. poor plodding guérin, the "conventional" colorist, the provincial art professor who stuck to his prejudices! we'll let shchukin have a pass on this one ... with the lubricious innuendo that it must have been guérin's "attractive poses" and "provocative contrasts" that caught shchukin's eye.

my reply starts with a painting by rogier van der weyden in the berlin gemäldegallerie, something usually given (with modern agnosticism) the title "portrait of a young woman".



this is an iphone photo of the painting -- the germans encourage photography, and the iphone does a surprisingly fine job of catching the color balance correctly. but color is not why i kept coming back to this intimate portrait, just 19 inches high. in that format the head is a bit over 6 inches high, or smaller than life size, which has the magnetic (and for most viewers, probably unnoticed) effect of drawing the viewer closer to the painting. and at close distance what springs into view is the incredibly fresh, tender and exquisite mouth, which is curved in an implicit emotion and latent speech, dimpled with character and moist with breath.

it's clear from the overall that, despite the care lavished on every part -- the precise fabric textures of linen and wool, the beautifully judged value contrasts between background, skin and starch, the delicately managed emphasis of light on the face rather than the hands, the gorgeously modeled flesh tones -- it's the mouth that was the focus of patient effort for the painter; even the eyes look hasty in comparison. and the fascination of that mouth lies in a sensuality that the pleats curving over the woman's breasts only complements. it's a gratitude that can redeem every evil that life can put in your path.

i'd accept the conclusion that this is the artist's wife, or certainly his beloved, rather than a random commission or studio product. something was done here that, despite the very different means, is exactly the same as the light and life i saw in the guérin nude, and in many wonderful paintings besides -- most of them hardly famous. it was this something, call it joy or love or reverence or gratitude, that i learned to look for and feel pleasure to find in art.

it seems to me that one of the miracles of art is that this reverent illusion can be created in so many ways, as images of so many different events and objects painted with so many different styles and techniques. in the same way, we can feel whole, fulfilled, and spiritually thankful in all kinds of encounters -- a kind word, a warm meal, a breaking storm, a silent night, a child's eyes, a flood of music, a well placed soccer goal.

the fact that this pleasure and this sensuality has nothing to do with art movements and "art theory" is perhaps why it is missed in contemporary overintellectualized art criticism. there is no breakthrough, no revolution, no stylization here! just an intimate honesty that must have cost the painter a labor at his limits.

modern art criticism, the blather about movements, innovations and greatness, the pathetic nursery tale of breakthroughs and bigness, obscures the real craftsmanship in art. it also implies a uniformity of response to art that is completely out of whack with the supposed individuality of our characters, our perceptual quirks, our idiosyncratic readings, educations and life experiences. one of the greatest pleasures in art is to visit a museum with someone you love or treasure, especially a maturing child or established friendship, and share with them your individual enthusiasms.

what we inherit as a result of the modernity myth is an art that is deeply demoralizing in its capacity to trivialize and posture, to automate our esthetic response to manufactured stimuli, and to level all excellence in a stylistic plurality. murikami's "cowboy", a larger than life, industrial acrylic sculpture of a naked manchild making a lasso of his copious and treacly ejaculation, is for me the epitome. of course i get the irony and polish and manga exuberance and twitting of the sexually straightlaced. but it is still the kind of thing that, when i came upon it in the customs house museum in venice, anchored my eye with incredulity and contempt. if the weyden portrait is a star, then this is a black hole.



the point for an artist like murikami is the dollar revenue imperative, invitations to the right parties and clubs, lionizing media attention and a workshop production machine. it's the same art economy that the mass media reproduction of paintings, as postcards and art books and digital images, encourages and amplifes. it's the art economy that socializes us to think of paintings as intellectual tokens in a historical narrative in which the touchstones of merit are marketability and critical notice, and then habituates us to accept the image as the original -- a format detached image, a gamut stripped, luminance crushed and critically filtered image, now become an "idea", a "concept", an "icon", a "landmark". (would you like an audioguide with that concept?)

there is something lost that only the painting can preserve and reveal to us. yes, guérin was a minor painter with an income he had to supplement with advertising art. yes, van der weyden was a master painter who did something out of the way, off the narrative, with his singular little portrait. but the same light shines through both works. it's the light of patient craft, hard won skill, unrelenting labor, and the exchange of career pretense and the acclaim of posterity for -- a work that does justice to life.

07 April 2010

art preoccupations in europe

my main interest has been in learning how to take photos and videos using only the iphone camera, which turns out to be very handy, wide angled but capable of macro, color accurate and very responsive to changes in light.

i tried to paint watercolors plein air twice in venice, but was driven back before i could finish a painting by the extreme cold air and wind. on one day i soon could not feel the brush in my hands. rain and a very busy schedule have kept me from painting in london.

museums in london are receptive to sketchers, so i've been drawing in the national and portrait galleries, and in the victoria & albert. i bought some charcoal pencils and a set of black felt tip pens, but the felt tip pens have yielded fun results, such as this drawing from a very large painting of an irish female politician in the portrait gallery.



i've sharpened my sense of color by looking at art by many different hands from many different historical and national styles. my appreciation of kandinsky, klee, degas and many of the old masters such as titian, chardin and gainsborough has gone up, and my interest in surrealism has waned. the berlin modern exhibition of "degenerate" painters was painful to look at. there was a stark difference in all periods between the painters whose colors seem trustworthy and painters whose works have lost their original balance and appear quite dark or oddly imbalanced. the paintings by joshua reynolds, with their ghostly white faces (all the carmine pigment has faded) are especially easy to recognize.

i've had a great time with my wife. we share for a while, split up, get back together to exchange enthusiasms and observations, and so on, with many nice respites in the museum cafes. (the restaurants in the tate modern and national portrait gallery are especially fine.)

i've gotten a peculiar sense of the enormity and intricacy of historical time, through the large number of buildings and artifacts and historical items we've seen over the past eight weeks, including the domestic items in the science museum in london. a sense of how many lives have poured forth onto the planet and how long they have worked to dig, pile, scrape, fire and cultivate all these things preserved from dust.

and these items have a cumulative flavor that is very different from mass produced items that pile up everywhere in our contemporary environment. a reverent, almost mystic aura surrounds them, like the relic bones, teeth, hair and larger corpse parts of saints that are stored in the churches of venice, st. mark's in particular. against this dreary backdrop the paintings with a living force and honesty shine out miraculously.

is van gogh the most overrated painter -- ever?

i'm posting from europe, during a month long stay in london after a month long stay in venice separated by two weeks in amsterdam and berlin. i've seen a lot of art again during this trip, up close and leisurely, and many amazing paintings, including a figure nude by charles guérin that was a wonder of reverent, glowing color.

but having seen the van gogh museum in amsterdam and the latest show of paintings and letters at the royal academy, london ("the real van gogh"), i have to ask: is van gogh the most overrated painter -- ever?

set the critical propaganda aside, go through either of the exhibitions, and just look at what's on the wall. can anyone look at one of those works, pick any one you want, and seriously say that it contains an exemplary artistic effort?

the academy show had many of his drawings, and it is painfully obvious that they are done without "the joy of the hand". they consist almost entirely of an early period of clumsy figures and wispy, almost smeary graphite shading, followed by a period in which entire drawings are built up of emphatic dots and dashes that seem more intended to cover the page than create an image. the same dots and dashes serve for grass, bark, leaves and sky (easier and faster that way) ... indeed, he boasted to his brother of his slapdash technique ("done in ONE hour!"). after an early serious attempt to master figure drawing, van gogh seemed just to give up on the challenge; his later figures and portraits are crudely and ineptly drawn.

some of the paintings were so ghastly bad that they looked like an untalented high school student had painted them. his divisionist technique has none of the complexity or subtlety of signac or seurat, and his sense of visual color mixture and paint texture is far below what monet or gauguin put in play; his landscapes are spackled with paint the way wayne thiebauld paints desserts -- but this has a very different impact when used to represent clouds instead of pastries. his color poety is infantile compared to degas, and compared to manet or sargent he completely lacked any sense of darks and lights. (the amsterdam museum has a painting of potatoes that is almost entirely black. no, i don't mean it is dark. i mean the potatoes are black, the table is black, and the wall behind is black. the painting has been heavily photoshopped -- like a fashion magazine model -- in this image; the actual image is much darker and almost illegible.)

color poetry? brushwork mastery? artistic vision? -- really?

van gogh relied on a variety of artistic crutches, including a wired picture frame to help him see basic perspective, and a hobby horse conception of "color theory" which was far cruder than anything that talented painters would tolerate. little wonder that he retreated into a "japanese" perspective flatness, and his colors are generally garish and clangorous, regardless of the motif or light. to borrow a quip from picasso: on the vase above, the highlight is not light, it is merely paint.

and speaking of color ... van gogh's colors can't be trusted, or are known to have badly altered, because he used fugitive paints. both museums made explicit mention of this problem with his paintings; the amsterdam van gogh museum has a full wall display on the issue. it's even a badge of sophistication among art connoisseurs to know that the white background in the new york met's iris painting was originally pink, not white. a color that has long ago flown home to baby jesus.

the saving twist for posterity is that he wrote such a long epistolary narrative about his great efforts and wide experiments to make himself into an artist -- those letters! all those heartwarming, earnest, utterly humorless but highly quotable letters about the holy mission of art and his devout penitent efforts to make himself spiritually worthy!

the nub of van gogh was that he had the persistence, diligence and self presentation of the adult combined with the artistic outlook and talent of a child. That manchild chemistry, atavistic and yearning, makes him easy to market to the modern ethos ... and mass marketing was in full flow at both museums, which put on sale a great variety of van gogh merchandising, prints, postcards and publications.

will that be cash, or card?

indeed, van gogh's entire fame seems to rest on his marketability, both in the auction art market and in museum exhibition attendance. (sort of because it was something one expects to do on vacation in london, i stood in line for three hours to get into the academy show -- i, my wife and a visiting friend took turns at the queue.) somewhere between the lonely suicide who couldn't sell his paintings and the bloated myth romanticized by irving stone and fleshed out in film by kirk douglas, the art marketing juggernaut of the van gogh myth was born. and it's been rolling over gullible, conforming eyes ever since.

look at the stupefying length of this line! look at how huge is the van gogh museum in amsterdam! look at all those authoritative, lavish books! listen to the reverent blandishments of the audioguide! how could he not be great? no, greater than great -- immortal!

the royal academy show is the last van gogh exhibition i will ever see. i realized this when i admitted to myself that there are perhaps only two van gogh paintings i would look forward to seeing again, ever (neither was in the london show). but there are many paintings i hope to see again many times, or that i regret probably never seeing again ... such as that fabulous guérin figure nude, perky pink in a green hat, which will go back to the hermitage in leningrad.

17 September 2009

naked ladies

watercolor on velke losiny moldau CP 300gsm, 20"x30".

i bought these flowers at bill's market and set them in a vase for two days. i drew a foundation in watercolor pencil, then in charcoal or carbon pencil over that. finally the drawing was washed or filled in with watercolor paint. i didn't like the way the background turned out, so i trimmed the sheet at both ends, and i finished the pot quickly because i was bored with the work.

the point was the freehand drawing, a more complicated drawing than i've done in a long time without a grid or projected image. i am becoming more aware of how a drawing emerges out of first marks so that i can make those marks with the right focus.

i like the way the blossoms cover the stems, and the variety of curls and perspectives in the six pointed star at the end of each blossom cone. they are called "naked ladies" because the blossoms stalk out of the bare ground. the leaves emerge and die off in the summer.

starfield

watercolor on velke losiny moldau CP paper, 300gsm, 30" x 22".

the star field between the pleiades and orion (across bottom) and between the milky way and the variable star mira (bottom to top). it includes several different distance scales: the star clusters of orion, hyades and pleiades, the milky way background, the red shifted galaxies in the distance.

first the star positions were identified in blue watercolor pencil using a grid to copy and project part of a star chart in the norton's star atlas. beads of latex resist were applied over the marks, and the whole sheet washed with indanthrone blue, prussian blue and phthalo blue. the resists were removed from the dried sheet and the star images edited with a brush.

the moldau paper is really a delight to work on, but the internal sizing does not hold up under areas protected by latex mask, so diluted color applied to them tends to creep or spread, which introduces variety into the star shapes.

15 September 2009

binocular self

Kremer pan watercolors, Wolff's carbon, Arches CP 300gsm, 16" x 12".

i have been feeling a desire lately to get back to vision rather than photography for a working basis. a lot of things going on ... looking at stars through an infrared scope, testing color combinations using photoshop generated media, finding the camera based paintings stale and timid, difficulty in focusing when i draw freehand, an interest in how objects are identified in vision, looking through japanese hantai comics and other graphic novels ... feeling boxed in by the image.

i had a grid traced on an acrylic sheet that i used to transfer a starscape into a large (30"x22") format, and thought to use it to draw my face in binocular view. the trick is to focus on the grid, but look at the image behind it; if the grid is propped against a mirror and the mirror is a few feet away, the binocular image appears fairly clearly.

it was very difficult for me to draw in this way, mostly because the binocular rivalry became stronger, and one image would dominate. there is actually great depth to this kind of image that becomes more apparent the longer you try to draw it; the difficulty is to draw both images with equal contribution.

the eye does various things to reconcile the images. the edge of the head (hair) and the eyes are pronounced, because the eyes overlap in the center (the right eye looks directly into the left eye, and vice versa). the mouth appears as a horizontal feature. the nose is split in separate images that are only half as strong as the eyes, and so on. where areas overlap, the image "behind" the other appears attenuated at the edge, as if the image in front were surrounded by a nimbus. features coalesce to make shapes, and the shapes change as one or the other image asserts itself. it was quite tiring.

the binocular issue was foregrounded by a large painting i am doing of "naked ladies", a type of lily that blossoms once each year around the first of september. the profuse lily cones created a dense pattern of overlaping and occluding volumes.

28 August 2009

star paintings

this is the span between the big dipper and cassiopea, centered on polaris. three stimulants on this. i happened by larry's on the first night of the perseid meteor shower, and let myself enjoy the asterisms in the north sky. i stumbled onto a freeware called "Where Is Messier 13?", which every amateur astronomer will recognize as a globular cluster in the constellation bootes, west in the sky from the bright star arcturus. i viewed the night sky using larry's infrared binoculars, which revealed texture in the milky way most beautifully.

i became intrigued with our celestial place and gathered photos of local galaxies, our galaxy structure, local star clusters and nebulae, the visual pattern of the milky way. i drew the northern star locations and magnitudes with a charcoal pencil, copying from the norton star atlas, making an asterisk shaped mark.

watercolor on Lanaquarelle HP 300gsm, 10" x 14".

this one was the first. i used this as the drawing guide for the painting below. the milky way is deep yellow, the sky green gold, every black star is tinted with cadmium scarlet, then colored in with cobalt teal blue. the stars look like blue cinders and the spatial sense of a star scape is more evident.

watercolor on Lanaquarelle CP 300gsm, 10" x 14".

this was drawn by copying the first. the sky is several kinds of transparent blue, stars reserved with liquid latex then tinted around the margins with yellow, magenta or green blue. i didn't enjoy the paper, which was too heavily sized and susceptible to cockling.

25 August 2009

april & son

watercolor on Arches CP 300gsm paper, 14" x 10".

second in the april series, heightened the color a little and enjoyed getting the fluffy texture on the sesame st. doll. unfortunately as with so many of my paintings, the photograph doesn't convey the figure modeling at all.

05 August 2009

april & son

watercolor on Arches CP, 300gsm, 14" x 10".

i had worked with april over a year ago, and contracted with her to do three paintings of her and her year old son as trade for her modeling for me.

one thing or another, other projects, travel, illness and an unpredictable tremble in my hand, perhaps a sign of age, alternately slowed or postponed work on these images. last month i substantially finished them, and this week put the final touches on all three.

in this image i opted for a muted palette confined to a limited range of warm hues, with an ultramarine blue wash for the background. the light structure is simple and the pose was both a good portrait study of april and an nice psychological contrast between past and future, adult and child, innocence and experience.

i kept the modeling rather flat, and stylized the hair, in a way that i wanted to suggest renaissance paintings. this was the painting the model chose to keep.

10 June 2009

trinity

watercolor & Arches CP 300gsm, 14" x 10".

i did this portrait because i liked the photograph and the pose, but especially because i liked trinity's luxurious, cascading hair.

the drawing is freehand, using a system of skewed guidelines i developed a couple of years ago. the guidelines assert a subtle distorting effect on the drawing, and the coloring is done roughly. the drawing resembles a portrait heroine from a graphic novel.

background is chromium oxide green and cadmium yellow deep, glazed with a layer of nickel dioxine yellow. flesh is raw sienna base, watermarked, with shading in burnt sienna, cadmium scarlet, and benzimida maroon. eyes are dioxine violet and green gold tinted with phthalo blue, phthalo green and cadmium scarlet. hair is transparent brown oxide and cobalt blue deep; the two give a granulating dark brown/gray black color that is tinted with phthalo blue and phthalo green.

07 June 2009

trinity

watercolor on Arches CP 600gsm, 16" x 12".

another figure study, this is a pose the model suggested from a photo she had seen of a movie star. i started this painting three times. the first painting failed because the background got out of control, the second because i spilled phthalo green on the face. this one turned out reasonably well but deserves to be larger size (probably half sheet). this is on an arches 600gsm block sheet, essentially a card stock with a rough finish.

the photo was altered in a few ways to make the image more appealing. for example, due to the optics of my position and foreshortening her left foot appeared too small: it's been enlarged about 8% so that it matches the (closer to camera) right foot.

background is several washes of phthalo blue plus iron blue, with a single top layer of cobalt blue deep. this dark granulation over the lighter gradations in tone gives the background a shimmery, radiant quality.

flesh tones are benzimida maroon for the darks, cadmium scarlet or burnt sienna for the volume modeling, isoindolinone yellow and raw sienna for the base (lightest) flesh tone, shadows tinted with indanthrone blue, cobalt teal blue or phthalo green. hair is sepia streaked with cadmium red and dioxazine violet.

27 May 2009

what has happened to arches?

yes, what has happened to arches papers? i thought my occasional bad experiences with their 600gsm sheets (specifically the double elephant or 29" x 41" sheets) were just luck of the half irish. what kind of bad experiences? how about a tuft of what appeared to be lint mixed with human hair stuck in the middle of the sheet, buried in the pulp, that had to be carefully trimmed down to the surface? or, in another sheet, a patch of denser pulp that repelled paint even when the patch was scraped slightly and scrubbed with a brush as paint was applied.

then a painter i admire wrote me about problems *she* was having with arches sheets, problems she took to the manufacturer and to which Arches responded in a generous manner. but one off gestures to repair the relationship with the artist do not get at the underlying problems with the paper.

case in point: the 29" x 41" figure nude of sienna, which i had to abandon because of inexplicable blotching across her ... well, across the part of the image that i could not disguise with texture, pattern, dark values or strong color contrasts.

i know how to store and handle papers; i wash my hands before handling papers, and i do not bruise or abrade papers accidentally or on purpose. these blotches get darker grossly darker when the paper is wet, implying the flaw is in the pulp.

the companion painting disclosed a different flaw -- a small cluster or spray of white dots, each about 1mm in diameter, covering an irregular, elongated area about 6 cm/sq. these dots, whatever they are, repel paint and cannot be worn down or lifted by judicious scraping with an xacto knife. they appear in a mid valued area where i can probably disguise them with texture.

i am a habitual user of Arches watercolor blocks, both the 300gsm and 600gsm sheets, and in general the 300gsm (140 lb.) blocks have a rock solid consistency. i recently purchased some 20 year old 300gsm blocks from an artist who wanted to offload her inventory, and the quality of the 300gsm sheets 20 years ago and today is indistinguishable.

in contrast, the 600gsm block sheets seem a little erratic to me; the surface in particular seems less finished and more unpredictable. so i have a conjecture: all the 600gsm weight papers are made in a separate line or at a separate manufactory, under separate or subsidiary management from the higher volume plants. if so, someone from Arches corporate (well, Arjo Wiggins or whoever owns them now) should drive out to that plant and do a quality and process review. something unhappy is happening to arches papers.

23 May 2009

bearded irises

watercolor on Arches CP 300gsm, 14" x 10.

jan's garden has come into full bloom so i spent a few days photographing and selecting some flowers for painting.

i justified cutting these irises because a heat snap would have cooked them dry. they are an almost black violet with gleams of red. i used ultramarine violet darkened and warmed with cadmium scarlet, and quinacridone magenta for the highlights.

this is just a recreational painting: freehand drawing, quick blocking in of color, little attention to detail or composition. the vase has a water glass shape but is actually a foot tall. the blossoms were about 13cm wide.

the stalks ended in a single blossom. after i posed and drew the flowers and started the painting, the stalks went through the death process and the central blossom opened, then the other buds opened after the two large flowers shriveled up. the plant exposed as much of its pollen as possible before the flowers were gone. it was sad to watch, but also inspiring.