30 November 2007

elina lowensohn

Strathmore drawing 130 gsm, 14" x 11".

this is another video still, at frame 26:41 in hal hartley's "amateur". i don't know whether the stunning elina lowensohn made so few films because she was not temperamentally inclined or because her brand of acting opened few opportunities, but this film is probably her best.

the interesting thing about her face, which is elegant and exotic, is that i wanted to standardize or "normalize" it through drawing. the spacing of the features was very difficult to get right.

29 November 2007

algernon moncrieff

Strathmore drawing 130 gsm, 14" x 11".

to complete the romantic geometry, jack's london friend takes an interest in jack's ward and makes a surprise visit to the country to meet her, pretending to be jack's brother ernest. of course cecily has already fallen in love with him because his name is ernest and because, by all accounts, he is wicked.

this image is from early in the play, at 07:13, where algernon accuses jack of being "a bunburyist" -- someone who has an imaginary friend or relative that allows them excuse to leave their routine life for a bachelor jaunt. algernon has also invented an invalid relative, bunbury, whose relapses require trips to the country.

this freehand drawing was difficult to do as there were strong shadows around the mouth and eyes. i usually start the face with the eyes but as these were problematic i started with the nose instead.

lady bracknell follows everyone to the country where, through various comedic twists, it turns out that jack and algernon are really brothers, and that jack was already baptized before he was lost in the handbag -- as ernest.

28 November 2007


Strathmore drawing 130gsm, 14" x 11".

this is aubrey mather, who plays merriman, the head butler in the worthing country household. the frame is at 1:05:36, and shows merriman's reaction to a dubious statement from gwendolyn. this is the classic look askance that one english social circle casts on the improprieties of another, and it is quite funny in context. (in the film, a cuckoo calls in the distance.)

it's expressions such as this that show how complex and subtle human facial signals can be. quite a lot depends on relatively small details, in particular around the mouth and nose, and in the drape of the eyelids. the director (anthony asquith) takes considerable pains to capture the facial communication that accompanies the verbal jousting among wilde's characters.

i'll use this drawing to illustrate a method i devised to critique the accuracy of my drawings. i photograph both the original and the drawing, and superimpose one on the other in photoshop, resizing and aligning the two layers until they match as closely as possible. i then use the transparency option to make both visible at the same time, which shows the size and form of any discrepancies.

the electronic image shows this as a gif animation. (this is only visible in the full sized image -- click on the image at right to see it.) as you see, the spacing of the eyes and nose, and the general size and shape of the head, are pretty accurate, but the mouth and left eyebrow are misplaced, and the ear and jaw line are extended too far. however these errors emphasize the expression and makes it somewhat clearer -- as it appears in motion in the film, rather than in a single frame.

27 November 2007

cecily cardew

Strathmore drawing 130 gsm, 14" x 11".

the principal reason jack must be ernest in the city is that he was assigned a young ward, cecily cardew, by the death of his victoria station benefactor. he requires urban relief now and then from the high moral tone he must maintain around cecily at their country home. as played by the lovely shakespearean actress dorothy tutin, here in frame 1:00:20, cecily presents her profile for inspection by gwendolyn, who has come to the country to check up on her fiance ernest (jack).

i chose this image for the nose. tutin's nose really is as perky as i've drawn it, maybe moreso ... noses are always difficult for me, and somehow tutin's nose stands out from her face and yet harmonizes perfectly with the rest of her features. this paradox is beautifully captured in the imaginative portrait photograph by peter keen in the national portrait gallery (london).

26 November 2007

lady bracknell

Strathmore drawing 130 gsm, 14" x 11".

gwendolyn is the daughter of lady bracknell, played for 30 years on the stage by dame edith evans. here she is responding to jack's admission that he has "lost" both his parents: he was adopted by a man who found him in a handbag in victoria station, the brighton line.

"a handbag??" exclaims lady bracknell at frame 25:55. she will never consent for her daughter to form an alliance with a parcel. and so the plot has twin engines -- jack must somehow find a family, and he must shortly be baptized, because gwendolyn will only marry a man named ernest. "the name has vibrations."

this drawing came off rather quickly. much of the expression is in the folds of the upper eyes and nose bridge, and in the pursing of the lips.

25 November 2007

gwendolyn fairfax

Strathmore drawing 130 gsm, 14" x 11".

in fact, jack has come to town in order to propose to his love gwendolyn, a cousin of algernon's, shown here at frame 19:06 as she encourages jack to propose to her because, she assures him, she intends to accept.

gwendolyn is played in the film by the unforgettable joan greenwood. it's perhaps her greatest role ... her breathy, plummy voice is mesmerizing.

greenwood has a beautifully proportioned and symmetrical face, with an exquisitely faceted nose and wry mouth. unfortunately facial features become harder for me to draw as they become more subtle. a big nose can be drawn too big and nobody will really notice; but a just right face must be drawn just right, otherwise it is wrong. the vexing part is that the error is usually subtle, and therefore difficult to identify and correct.

this is i think the least successful drawing of the set.

24 November 2007

jack worthing

Strathmore drawing 130 gsm, 14" x 11".

continuing my indoor freehand drawing practice, i started working from still video images or image captures.

this is michael redgrave playing the role of jack in the movie version of wilde's "the importance of being earnest" ... an all around enjoyable comedy and study in the cinematic portrayal of a stage play (including, for those who know the play, many judicious and happy cuts).

the play springs from jack's decision to be "jack in the country, but ernest in the city" ... a fabricated excuse to visit his imaginary brother ernest in london and enjoy a bachelor life away from familiar eyes.

this image is at 06:02, as jack tries to explain his behavior to his fellow bachelor in town, algernon moncrieff.

23 November 2007

got passion?

Arches CP 300 gsm, 10" x 14".

nick sent an email with several photos of castagnet in a painting workshop; it was his usual purple dreck, and painted rapidly. yes, it's remarkable, he can make a painting in 10 minutes. (it's the passion.)

when i recovered from the resulting spate of nausea, i wondered ... gee, how fast can i make a painting? i did this one in four minutes ... from imagination ... with passion.

once you stereotype the elements (shadow = purple, figure = box on two sticks, etc.) it's surprising how quickly a painting can fall off the brush. but then what? and so what?

22 November 2007


Charcoal on Arches sketchbook.

today is thanksgiving day. i spent it relaxing with my wife, who cooked a splendid turkey dinner with stuffing and cranberry sauce and brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes and giblet gravy (among other pleasures).

i spent the morning cleaning up my studio, putting things away, sorting drawings, throwing out works that weren't worth keeping.

this is my favorite small douglas fir, growing in the meadow below my studio and drawn from the studio deck.

i am thankful for my family, my friends, my health, my life, my ability to work.

21 November 2007

weekly figure group

Strathmore drawing, 14" x 10".

lisa was the model at this week's figure drawing group ... a petite woman with a lovely figure and a relaxed modeling style. this drawing was a 5 minute pose.

there is a certain combination of time and effort that produces drawings i like. if the time is too short the drawings are inaccurate, and if the pose is too long, i end up fussing or fixing. this one was just right.

Strathmore drawing, 10" x 14".

for this one i had to get up and take a different seat in the room in order to get the angle i wanted. this was a longer pose; i used the time to make a clean outline and put in some value gradations.

i don't like to push the dark values because all that charcoal on the paper gets really messy. (one occasional visitor to the group wraps medical tape around his fingers so he can aggressively blend his drawings. his hands are completely black by evening's end.)

here i tried to get the right values within a limited value range.

20 November 2007

sleeping (siena)

Sharpie pen on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

this is a simple study in edges. awareness that i was using blending as a crutch got me to use line explicitly in my drawing, and line eventually leads to the nature of edges.

this was done with a marking pen that prevented any blending but also any variation in the weight of the line. i emphasized this by drawing only shadow or form edges, using hatching to indicate a shadow transition, but not filling in any of the values.

i don't think this attempt is successful, but the pose is lovely and the effort helped me think about creating outline drawings with more depth -- using different ways to represent edges in relation to form and light.

19 November 2007

hand signals (siena)

Arches HP 300 gsm, 14" x 10".

change of pace. i asked siena to stand before me, and use the placement of her hands on her body to convey a mood or meaning. i cropped her with the camera to put all the emphasis on her torso, which acts as a kind of landscape or stage.

light came from the right, fell onto the floor, and radiated up along her figure and the wall. i treated surfaces roughly to bump the image out of representation and into iconography. the background deep yellow mixed with black shades into green, while her torso is in muted shades of red.

for some reason this seems to be one of siena's favorite images. the first time she saw it, at the start of a session, she simply said, "sweet".

18 November 2007

reprise (siena)

Charcoal on Strathmore drawing, 17" x 13".

after wringing all the changes on siena's features i wanted to leave her as she started (nov. 10).

even this short stint of drawing has improved my hand and accuracy in rendering proportions. (compare with previous version of this pose.) i am looking for ways to incorporate drawing into my daily routine.

the main point i learned from this excursion is the incredible subtlety of facial details. i would look between the reference photo and the drawing as work progressed, and toward the end it would take me a minute or two to identify something that needed correcting. often it was a tiny change, but it would have a large effect on the emotion in the image.

the mouth and eyes are particularly heavy with significance; the nose wrinkles or flares in some expressions but typically is rather immobile.

as one example, just the point where the eyelid edges cut across the iris, and the arc of the eyelid edges in relation to the pupil, have great weight in the facial expression. (see the diagram examples ... each conveys a distinct emotion or state of mind.)

in the same way, each lip divides into three or four thickenings from one corner to the other, and the spacing, profile and connections between these define the mouth gesture.

i recall the tutorials i looked at to learn to draw the face: they reduced everything to schematics and symbolism. i understand better now how the face has an unfathomable depth and complexity because it represents an irreducible individuality.

17 November 2007

doubt (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

by this time i had reduced the shading and lapsed back into outline; siena had swept her hair back with one hand so the complete right side of her face was in sunlight. all for better, as i was concentrating on the mouth and eyes in this emotion.

doubt is not one of the "universal seven" but it is pretty unambiguous all the same. ekman also left out awe, grief, guilt, shame, horror and other "moral" emotions, which were the meat and potatoes of the tete d'expression training regime.

the selection of emotions doesn't really matter. so long as they are balanced between positive and negative, aroused and depressed, honest and duplicitous, drawing emotional expressions is a fantastic exercise. it teaches details of facial anatomy you can't learn well any other way. and it teaches you how to turn the details into a coherent image.

16 November 2007

disgust (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

here is disgust. the mouth is particularly difficult, because the muscles pull the upper lip upward, revealing its inner surface and increasing its visual size. the corners of the mouth turn outward slightly, and the contours of the lips become distorted.

there is nuance in the brows. furrowed (upraised) brows are mild, and suggest frustration or exasperation. scowling (compressed) brows are strong, and often indicate visceral revulsion or nausea.

by this time i was getting slack in my shading, which gives the image a roughened and dirty look.

15 November 2007

sadness (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

in the 1980's paul ekman of uc san francisco, following the groundbreaking book on the expression of emotions by charles darwin, developed cross cultural evidence that there is a core group of seven facial expressions that are universally recognized by adults in all cultures. these were: fear, anger, disgust, surprise, joy, sadness and contempt. ekman's former wife, a perky california blonde, modeled the example facial gestures for his early publications.

ekman codes these expressions as combinations in the contraction of the 43 facial muscles. any emotion can be explicitly described with this "facial action coding system". (ekman went on to use his facial analysis system to teach the fbi how to detect liars.) as i used to teach it to cornell undergraduates, the face has about as many muscles as a guitar fretboard has musical notes, and each expression is a distinct chord.

fortunately there are many more chords than seven in human emotional experience. individuals often have their own key, scowling even when happy. is siena sad, or merely tired, or perhaps sick? negative expressions in particular are often confused.

for the artist, the problem is transcribing the music in a way that can be recognized without hesitation.

14 November 2007

surprise (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

surprise is a sudden state of arousal, but without the negative affect of anger. geneva seems to express some alarm or displeasure; in fact, anger and surprise shade into each other.

as i worked on the tetes, i became aware that i was using stumping or blending to correct misplacement of shading. this drawing was done without smudging any of the lines.

i'm trying to use the charcoal in an etching style -- clean lines, no blending, textures and value gradations expressed by line thickness, spacing and contouring.

i draw for two or three hours in the weekly figure drawing group, but my preferred style is outline. these "tetes" revealed a lack of versatility in my drawing technique, so i am focusing now on remedies. (practice, practice, practice.)

13 November 2007

anger (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

siena got into this pose, and gave me several different versions. i thought her eye was going to pop out.

the poses were taken in strong sunlight, and her hair shadows much of her face. this helps to accent the scowl dimples in her chin and the compression in her lips.

this doesn't have quite the fierceness of a really angry expression, but i learned a lot about the subtle details that help to increase the intensity of the emotion.

12 November 2007

fatigue (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

in contrast to the previous drawing, this one was easy and finished quickly.

11 November 2007

joy (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

this was a very difficult drawing; i had to do three preliminary sketches before i could begin. i will do more of these to practice.

joyous laughter is inherently difficult to draw because it is a kind of motion or flash of the face, and the movement has to be captured at the right point in order to appear convincing.

drawing teeth is also hard work, the spacing and shape have to be correct, and the profile contours of the teeth and gum line have to be accurate.

finally, i don't know if this is simply my limitation or a common problem: i find it very difficult to draw facial features when the head is tilted to one side. it is very hard to get the mouth, eyes and nostrils on a common line and to get all the features centered in the face. the mouth in particular is difficult because it also curves across the round front of the face, the corners receding into the cheeks.

this was an appropriate emotion to begin with, as siena's favorite email salutation is "joy".

10 November 2007

tetes d'expression (siena)

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

the traditional academic training included drawing the various "tetes d'expression" or facial emotions -- anger, fear, awe, etc., the kinds of faces that are useful in history and religious painting.

this is the baseline image of siena without any expression.

09 November 2007

siena mirror

Arches CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10".

i mentioned that some paintings in a group are laggards and take much longer to finish than their litter mates. this one was a barnburner (as nick would say) and completely occupied me for three days.

it started as a color study for a much larger (42" x 29") piece. to my surprise, it fell together like a chess game, starting with the foliage in the back window and ending with the figure's hair. there were no misjudgments or in flight emergencies. i learned a lot from painting it.

mirror plus female nude is the pretext of the "venus at her toilette" painting iconography. there are standard variations that depend on how the gaze of venus and any spectators (real or implied) are arranged. in my image the woman looks at herself, the "vanitas" theme.

in his book on the nude, kenneth clark says that the face is the keynote of the nude, and here the face is a cameo reflection. the intent gaze is how geneva approaches a mirror. to the greeks, the gods were egotists: venus admires her own beauty more than any mortal.

there is a lot of "design" in this image but it is in the luck of the moment. the odd alignments (hair to hair, arm to arm, hand to knee, breast to elbow), the almost dancelike flow, the crosscutting perspective, the edge silhouetting of the foreground figure are in the photo, but weren't part of the process. in the next snap siena lowers her right arm to her side and balances on both feet, and that destroys the flow and intensity.

the color is governed by two kinds of light, from the back window and from a window off image to the right. two kinds of flesh mixture were used, the reflection anchored in cobalt violet to give it a shimmering, specular quality, and the figure anchored in chromium oxide green, which mixes into a warm, chocolate & milk texture that reads just like skin.

08 November 2007

siena study

Charcoal on Utrecht bristol, 14" x 10".

this is a portrait drawing i did of siena in preparation for a large format painting, and also because the pose was especially nice: the necklace is african and was given to her by her mother.

after so many paintings i've decided to spend more time on drawing ... the winter rains have started rolling through northern california, and watercolors now take an awfully long time to dry.

i've also been invited to a group show in january and need to devote painting time to preparing pieces for entry. drawing is a change of pace and an opportunity to focus more on value gradations in modeling form.

07 November 2007

figure group

Arches CP 300 gsm, 12" x 9".

once more into the wednesday night figure group, and this week i used watercolor rather than charcoal drawing. this was one of her 15 minute poses.

the approach that seems to work best for me is to make a quick pencil sketch to establish proportions and their landmarks, cut the silhouette of the figure with a background dark, and finally fill in the figure shading.

burnt sienna is the best single pigment flesh paint; the color temperature is adjusted with an earth yellow or red, and chromium oxide green to indicate shadows.

06 November 2007

grasping hands

Arches R 300 gsm, 7" x 10".

i haven't used orange in a long time, which was the main reason i used it here.

this is especially a pose where the gender of the two hands is unclear. the significance changes when turned vertically or upside down.

for all her slimness, siena has very strong hands.

05 November 2007

tense hands

Arches R 300 gsm, 7" x10".

another in the hands series.

i am unsure about the role of color, and its relation to the lines.

there was a lot of tension in both our hands when this picture was taken; i was urging siena to press harder.

04 November 2007

siena resting

Arches CP 300 gsm, 12" x 9".

siena had done a long series of dancing poses until my camera ran out of memory. i left her to listen to blue man group while i changed memory cards, and when i came back she was resting on the studio floor. i worked with her there.

the rug is from crate and barrel (i.e., china) and sheds alot, but i vacuumed it scrupulously before the model came over. sunlight comes in from her left.

the grid makes a nice accent to her form. this is basically a color study, though i also wanted to experiment with a more schematic, "cartoon like" drawing of the figure and face.

03 November 2007


Arches CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10".

this is a portrait built from the same photo as the freehand drawing of october 31. it emphasizes the mature woman side of siena, who strikes me as a thoughtful and searching spirit.

i struggled a bit to get all the colors to harmonize. i finally put a wash of sap green over the brown blanket and the top background, a wash of magenta over the rest.

the flesh tones are almost entirely in reds and greens. i tried adding a light tint of blue to the shadow areas, to emphasize the value contrast, but this only appeared as dirty color. i've learned that there are two kinds of light/shadow mixtures -- red/green and yellow/blue, and using both systems together produces dull results that are difficult to manage.

i may step down her eyes a notch, but as they are they suggest the intensity of her normally reserved feelings.

around the time i started this piece i was responding to some "purple passion" images by castagnet that nick sent me. as i painted i kept thinking "no, THIS is how you use purple."

02 November 2007


Arches CP 300 gsm, 14" x 10".

a portrait of the tomboy side of siena, done in a rough and schematic style. she was posing in different tops.

i was working on this painting at the same time as works posted november 3 and 9, and this one got the least attention. the flesh mixture is left over from the "venus" painting posted above.

i painted all objects in local color, then draped them with a tinting layer of prussian blue to "cut out" the figure from the background. the light is warm without a reddish tint, and there is no blue or yellow paint in the flesh tones; again, everything is in flavors of red and green.

01 November 2007

siena's hands

Strathmore drawing, 12" x 18".

ok, well nobody commented on my gondola painting, so let's move on.

october was a great month but here comes november, and siena came by to pose today. we worked for four hours.

i always start the session with some hand poses, figure poses in miniature, and this was siena's contribution.

i sometimes wonder what's up with a model's pose ... maybe say siena came in a pointed mood and focused her attention on me. the foreshortening was tricky.

siena's hands are quite strong and calloused, but also graceful. it is difficult to strike the balance but it makes a nice contrast in the two hand poses (some posted below).

as for the blog ... i'm still catching up as planned ... spent a few days in los angeles and now that i'm back i'm behind only 27 days. should be all caught up by christmas. (just in time for another trip.)