Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pocket Sketching Rig


When I attend a fancy-dress event, such as an opera, a wedding, or a black tie fundraiser, my sketching gear has got to fit into a single pocket. Here's what I bring:

Two water brushes, one filled with clear water, and one with diluted black water-soluble ink.
• Fountain pen filled with sepia ink
• I add the white gouache to the collar later.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why Aren't Trees Black?

If trees were more efficient solar collectors, the leaves would be black instead of green. They'd look more like solar cells, which are black so that they can absorb as much light energy as possible.

James Gurney, River Suir, Ireland, Oil, 8 x 10 inches

The green color that we see is "leftover" light, a wavelength that the tree's solar engine is not able to process.

This so-called "green gap" is caused by the fact that chlorophyll does well harvesting blue and red light. But because of a deficiency in the organic chemistry, leaves are not as good at capturing light in the green range.

Then why is some foliage red? The red color is a sun block for young leaf tissue as it develops in the early spring. Without it, some delicate leaves would burn in the spring sun. Normally that red color of early spring foliage gives way to green thanks to the action of enzymes.



The copper beech—or Blutbuche (blood beech in German)—keeps its red color all year round. That happens because a metabolic disorder interferes with the normal action of those enzymes.

This type of tree probably would have died out in the wild, were it not for the intervention of human gardeners, who like the way red foliage stands out in gardens.

I've adapted these ideas from the book The Hidden Life of Trees
Scientific paper on ScienceDirect
Discussion on Biology website


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reviving the Camera Lucida


For centuries, artists have developed devices to help translate what they see directly onto paper. One of those tools is the camera lucida, which has remained popular even after the invention of photography.


As you look through the viewfinder, a virtual image of the scene appears ghosted over the paper and your drawing hand.

For the device to work, the optics must reflect the image twice so that it's right side up and right-reading. There are two ways of doing this: with a prism or with a set of half-silvered mirrors.


A few years ago, art instructor and antique-art-tool geek Pablo Garcia revived the prism-based camera lucida (below, left) in a successful Kickstarter campaign for a product he called "NeoLucida." But he admits that the small prism is a bit difficult to use.


So he has evolved his design to incorporate the half-silvered mirror optics (above, right) in a new design called the NeoLucida XL. Although the image is bigger and easier to see, the challenge is maintaining proper brightness levels on the subject relative to the paper. The design addresses this problem with neutral density filters that can block out light that's too bright.



In this video, Norm of the YouTube channel "Tested" interviews Mr. Garcia and tries out the new device, which will soon be in production. (Link to YouTube) The campaign for the NeoLucida XL is still live on Kickstarter.

By way of disclaimer, I haven't been contacted in any way by the makers of the Neolucida. Also I have never used either kind of camera lucida, so I can't speak to how practical it is to use. And I can't vouch for how well these devices are actually designed or built.

Graphoscope, a mirror-based camera lucida from the 1960s
The NeoLucida XL is not the first product that uses the mirror technology. There have been many variations over the years. In addition to the Kickstarter version, there's another product called a Lucid Art that's already available on Amazon, though the reviews from users are mixed.

Have you tried a camera lucida? What was your experience? I'd love to hear in the comments.
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Previously: Did Fitz Hugh Lane Use a Camera Obscura?
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Here's a discussion that developed after the FB version of this post. (It's too long to paste into the comments.)

Davis Fandino
Yet people still sneer at the concept that classical artists used lenses to project images to aid their practice.

James Gurney
I wonder how many 19th-century artists actually did use optical devices such as camera obscuras, camera lucidas, projecting mirrors, or sighting grids (not to mention photography later). Those that did rarely discussed it. David Hockney's book "Secret Knowledge," while perhaps overstating the case a bit, has opened up a lot of healthy experimenting, and that strikes me as a good thing.

Davis Fandino
Agreed Mr. Gurney. David Hockney may have over over stated the conclusions somewhat but it seems that the basic case is exceedingly difficult to refute. Many take umbrage to it because they see it as casting aspersions on the skills of these artists

Eugene Arenhaus
That is because camera lucida is a 19th century invention, and the classical artists simply had no access to it. It does not use lenses, either - it is a one-sided mirror.
Camera obscura, which was more or less known since 17th century or so, produces extremely faint images even with the best illumination conditions. It would be next to useless for an artist. There are no recorded mentions of any artist using one, or evidence of distortions produced by such a device in artwork. What is known to have been used by draughtsmen was a simple viewfinder frame, which works in daylight - but not any kind of camera.
Hockney's idea about curved mirrors does not hold water no better than his suggestions about lenses. Given how bad his portraits are even with optical aids, I suspect that his claims stem from a bad case of sour grapes. That you cannot refute his claims matters nothing: he makes claims about existence of some practice, it is his burden to provide evidence of such practice, not anyone else's to disprove it. And he did not produce any evidence so far - only conjecture.

Davis Fandino
It's well known Rockwell used models and photo to work from.
But, can you post a reference to Rockwell's use of a projection? Thanks

Davis Fandino
Rockwell used the balopticon image projection…

James Gurney
Re Cardany Yes, check out the book by Ron Schick on Rockwell's use of photography. Also in his book Rockwell on Rockwell he talks about how he used the Balopticon projector.

Davis Fandino
Eugene Arenhaus, David Hockney provided ample proofs to back up his theory in his book and the accompanying documentary. The distortions you mention are addressed and taken into account with convincing examples. That artists never mentioned using them is not evidence that they did not. Artists have always been notoriously circumspect about their methods lest the mystique of the craft be lessened. Michelangelo burned preliminary drawings and never spoke of his methods despite copious writings and letters throughout his lifetime in order to maintain the sense of him being the "divine" Michelangelo.

Another reason would be the natural insecurity at layman seeing these devices s and methods as a "cheat" and not understanding their use as tools to aid the creation of art. As seen in the link above Norman Rockwell stated once: "The Balopticon is an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy, and vicious machine. It is also a useful, timesaving, practical, and helpful one. I use it often — and am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming.” Vermeer did the same.

Another thing to consider is that in the entire history of writings on art and it's history and methodology there is not a single mention of where artists acquired their charcoal for drawing. It was seemingly considered too quotidian a subject to bother to mention. Only in very recent scholarship into the life and work of Caravaggio was it discovered that they acquired it from bakeries from when the ovens are cleaned. This was from a single sentence from the transcripts of one of the criminal trials he was embroiled in when a fellow artist acting as a witness was describing the circumstances around the incident. Should we have believed that charcoal can't have been used because there was no proof of where it came from in writings?

Lastly, it's in the life and work of Caravaggio that we find the most evidence of the use of the methods Hockney describes. He was used by a landlady for knocking a hole in the ceiling of his rooms and this corresponds to the practice of making a room into a camera obscura.

The possibility and probability of Hockney's theory being at least partially correct should not cause such consternation or emotionalism in it's detractors. As I said before it does not take away from the talents of classical artist. If anything only adds to their ingenuity and genius. Besides we should ever be searching for truth and new perspectives and not clinging to traditional ways of thinking about and making art. Where would we be if the great artist of the past had been so obtuse?

James Gurney
Those are all great points, thanks, Eugene Arenhaus. One of the problems with Hockney's book is that he puts too much emphasis on lens (and concave mirror) systems, which are cumbersome to use and difficult to build, even using today's tech. I haven't tried the lucidas, but I've fooled around with the mirror projection methods and for me they only worked under absolutely ideal artificial conditions. I've been experimenting instead with sighting grids, which were certainly discussed by Durer and Leonardo and others, and they work very effectively in the field if you know how to use them. They're really just an extension of a viewfinder. I love them because they have helped me identify the kinds of persistent errors I've been falling into when I do my usual methods of unaided drawing.

Eugene Arenhaus
Davis Fandino The only insecurity I see in all that is Hockney's own. There is no concrete proof, neither in records, nor in contemporaries' testaments, nor in artistic practices as they had been taught in ateliers and academies. Optical aids began to enter into artist training much more recently than Caravaggio or Vermeer (who constructed his perspective using a pin and a string, which would be unnecessary with optics, and freely changed compositions at late stages of paintings.)
Come on, really, give me a break. Making a hole in the ceiling big enough for the landlord to complain is evidence for camera obscura? That is preposterous on so many levels that it is not even funny. Have you even seen Caravaggio's work? Camera obscura would be terrible in the type of lighting he favored. Before you theorize and pontificate, go find a camera obscura and try to use it. It's next to impossible, and cannot be used for color work.

As for the charcoal example, it vividly shows the defects in your reasoning. You have one account of one artist using charcoal from a bakery, and make a conclusion that everyone everywhere did the same. Charcoal from a fireplace would work equally well; and in traditional artistic practice drawing charcoal is made by heating willow rods in a sealed tin until they turn into carbon - but you ignore that possibility completely. This simply is not logic, this is rubbish.

Andy Volpe
I want to get one and try it out

Greg Shea I have the "Neo-lucida", I'll let you borrow it.

Lancelot Falk
I assume you've seen "Tim's Vermeer"? A great documentary about this very subject. Compelling evidence that the classic Dutch master used this method as the experiment is recreated.

James Gurney
Yes, it's a well done documentary and an ingenious device, but it seems to me far more complicated than it needs to be.

Barry Van Clief ·
I must say, Tims results weren't excellent. Mark Carder's students do far better.

George Parra
Translated from Spanish
Hi James! How are you? An Artifact of these it is easy to make with homemade items? Thanks for all the info to post. Greetings, I am a big fan of yours šŸ˜

Nikhil Sahane
I have actually used camera lucida as part of an exercise while studying botany.
We would connect it to microscope and draw what we saw in slides... :)

Steven James Petruccio
Even with projecting or tracing images, one still needs a level of technical skill to paint realistically. Plus theres the initial concept and composition etc...

Nic Arrighi ·
I tried this out a few years ago using a photo of my mother. Resulted in a nifty painting but a VERY sore neck from contentiously going back and fourth between the mirror and the painting.

Michael Cross
I have heard of pinhole camera, and also current light projectors, but not this. That's neat...thanks for sharing.

Rob Howard
Although I haven't used it in decades, I still treasure my LEON camera lucida. It's. razor sharp and, for most people, confounding to use. They were standard gear in one of the studios I worked in and the layout artists had mastered them so they could fit type with them. In the right hands (and eyes) they are suprememly accurate. Just ask Ingres. He used a LEON.

Re Cardany Rob, can you post a reference to Ingres -use of this device? Thanks, it is fascinating...

Rob Howard
Almost all of his quick portrait drawings show the use of a "luci." This is immediately apparent to those who have used them and developed the special skills required. The lines produced are unmistakable. Of course to those who hold art technique as beholden to some unwritten moral code, the great artists of the past would rather have starved than "cheated". For them, art is not a highly competitive field but rather something akin to the Olympics, with unseen judges checking the artists blood for drugs and aalcohol and then holding up numbers as to how well they did in the side-saddle drawing event.

Ingres was the son of a drawing master and a precocious talent. But like all who had taken up the banner of art as a way to put food on the table, he was more interested in competing effectively than winning some moral high ground and, like Caravaggio, Vermeer and countless other masters of the past, he employed whatever techniques and tools as would give him a competitive edge.

You may do your own research on Ingres and other artists as the information gained from hard work is not so easily dismissed as that spoon fed.

Barry Van Clief ·
I have an old opaque projector from the sign business, but I usually use a grid when I want to reproduce something to scale.

Rob Howard
What has always amazed the unwary is, if you draw badly without a projector, you draw badly with one. It cannot turn a clod into a master draughtsman.

Barry Van Clief
One of my grown daughter's friends traced a photo of her, colored it and sent it as a gift. It looks nothing like her, even though everything is "right." A sweet thought, though.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Molyneux's Problem


Here's a philosophical question:

Let's imagine a person born blind had learned to distinguish shapes by the way they feel. If you could surgically bestow sight on that person, would he or she correctly identify those same shapes by sight alone, without recourse to touch?

People argued about this question for centuries. It is a hard one to test, because it's so rare to find experimental subjects. There aren't many people who start with total congenital blindness and later attain full vision.

In recent years, Pawan Sinha, of MIT, was able to find five individuals who met the requirements. They started out with only the ability to distinguish between light and dark. After a surgical procedure gave them the ability to see, they looked at a selection of forms with which they were already familiar by touch.

Although they could readily differentiate one shape from another visually, they could not transfer their tactile knowledge into the visual realm. They could not connect touch and sight. Their guesses were no better than chance. The answer to Molyneaux's problem was a decisive "no."

Sculpture by Carpeaux
However, over time, as they interacted more with the world, the senses of touch and sight were better integrated.

This problem  has relevance for artists. Several art theorists, including Harold Speed, have put great stock in the differences between the sense of touch and the sense of sight.

Many artists now develop their visual skills to a high level, often exclusively through a computer interface, without having the opportunity to touch the objects they draw or paint.

I've always believed that any chance we have to feel, touch, smell, or hear something that we're drawing will make us draw a more convincing representation of it. If you've danced the Charleston, you'll animate it better. If you've tightened the cinch on a Western saddle, you'll paint a better cowboy.

So the problem is not just experiencing the world through all our senses, but integrating those senses with each other. One thing that helps me when I set out to do a plein-air painting is to walk around the subject and check it out first before diving into the preliminary drawing.
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You might enjoy these previous posts:
Can Blind People Draw?
Seeing With the Hands
Touching Art at the Prado
Blindsight

Molyneaux's problem on Wikipedia.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Should you serve on an art jury?


Salon Jury, 1903
In a letter to the director of the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) declined to be a juror for their annual exhibition. Here's why:
"In regard to jurys of artists, I have never served because I could never reconcile it to my conscience to be the means of shutting the door in the face of a fellow painter. I think the jury system may lead, & in the case of the Exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute no doubt does lead to a high average, but in art what we want is the certainty that the one spark of original genius shall not be extinguished, that is better than average excellence, that is what will survive, what it is essential to foster--‘The ‘IndepĆ©ndents” in Paris was originally started by our Group, it was the idea of our exhibitions & since taken up by others, no jury’s & most of the artists of original talent have made their debut there in the last decade, they would never have had a chance in the official Salons. Ours is an enslaved profession, fancy a writer not being able to have an article published unless passed by a jury of authors, not to say rivals—"
She went on to say that she would be glad to help the museum in any other way.

Those of you who have been a juror, please share your thoughts about the process and the outcome of judging. No need to name the specific competition, but I'd be curious to hear what you learned about the experience of judging.

Letter to John W. Beatty, 5 September 1905, from Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Gran Torino in Gouache

While waiting for my car to be inspected, I do a gouache sketch of a Gran Torino. That car was produced by Ford in the early 1970s, with Coke-bottle styling and the long-hood-short-deck look. 


I mention to my mechanic, who modifies and races Triumph Spitfires, that the Gran Torino looks like a pretty hot car to drive.

Sure, it looks great and sounds loud, he says, but it doesn't really handle that well by today's standards. Just about any car these days has better steering, braking, and acceleration. "Even a Ford Focus! That car is a beast compared to the Torino."   
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Watercolor sketchbook
Watercolor pencils
Watercolors
Gouache
Round and flat brushes
Fountain pen

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Barefoot Pianist

James Fitzwilliam accompanied the Bard College Symphonic Chorus in a concert last night. I painted him in watercolor and gouache from the fourth row of the audience.  


Fitzwilliams is a dedicated barefooter all year round, including in the winter. He says that "it provides during performances the benefit of increased sensitivity to the instrument and better pedal control at both the organ and the piano."

Previously posts about sketching in concerts:

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Old-School VFX: Cloud Tanks

When the Barbican Centre museum in London wanted to develop imagery for its upcoming science fiction exhibition, they used an analog technique: a cloud tank.


Cloud tanks were used on such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Independence Day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Never-ending Story, and Poltergeist.

Image Via Wonder How-To
A cloud tank is essentially an aquarium filled with water. If you light it just right and drop in some paint or ink, the result is swirling, mysterious cloud effects.

You can use a layer of a concentrated salt water beneath a top layer of fresh water to create a boundary layer that looks like the base of the clouds in the actual sky.



(Link to YouTube) The Barbican Centre produced a video showing how they created their cloud tank.
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The exhibition "Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction" opens June 3 in London and it will include six of my most important Dinotopia paintings.
Here's an online tutorial showing how you can make your own cloud tank from an aquarium.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Tepper and Avati in Illustration Mag


The new Illustration Magazine (Vol. 14 #56) has feature articles on Saul Tepper and James Avati.


Like Dean Cornwell and Harold von Schmidt, Saul Tepper (1899-1987) was a student of Harvey Dunn.


James Avati (1912-2005) was best known for his paperback covers for American novels by mainstream writers like William Faulkner, Pearl Buck and Erskine Caldwell. His smoky, sultry young men and women promised drama and danger, and his composition and lighting choices were always fresh and interesting.

Here's more info:
Illustration Magazine

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Laura Coombs Hills



Laura Coombs Hills (American,1859-1952) excelled in three fields: portraits, illustration, and flower painting in pastel.

Margaret Curzon Hale, 1907: MFA Boston
After a visit to England at age 22, she figured out the method for painting miniature watercolor portraits on ivory. The painting above is less than 5 x 7 inches.



According to an early article about her, "she had no traditions, she had not studied the miniatures of the earlier masters."

Her formal schooling was limited, and included a brief stint at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase. 


"Miss Hills was mercifully saved from the self-consciousness so often, unluckily, bred by art school life."

A gallery dealer once “accused her of committing everything short of murder in breaking the accepted rules of color.” Her response was, “I don’t know about the rules, I was experimenting."

Fire Opal (Grace Mutell), 1899, MFA Boston 6 x 4 3/4 in.
Each of her portraits is unique in its conception, with disciplined color schemes and pearlescent skin tones.


She gave some of her originals to the Museum in Boston, but they can't exhibit them very often because of the delicacy of the watercolor-on-ivory medium.


She worked closely with the Louis Prang company to create prints and calendar images. Her images evoke the Art-Nouveau posters of Alphonse Mucha and the Flower Fairies of Cicely Mary Barker


Her "Dream Roses" calendar was immensely popular.


In addition to calendar art, she produced illustrations for St. Nicholas Magazine, and she designed for needlepoint and pottery.


After age 60, issues with her eyesight made the miniatures difficult to accomplish, so she focused more on larger florals. 

She often placed the flowers near a window, or sometimes in the direct sunlight with the enhancement of electric light. “It was the electric light that made the difference," she said. "It woke those lilies up, and made them speak.” 


Typically, she painted cut flowers from her garden in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she lived with her sister Lizzie. 

She was known in her day as the "Queen of Flower Painters." Fortunately watercolor and pastel were growing in popularity and respectability. Her annual gallery shows sold out quickly, with collectors running through the open doors and putting their hands on the first painting they could reach.


Laura Hills' pastel painting of Larkspur, Peonies, and Canterbury Bells has consistently been the best-selling image in the gift shop of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


A critic in 1921 wrote: “There is something about a pastel as a medium for this particular kind of work that is especially adapted to the purpose; one of its peculiar advantages being the blooming quality of the surfaces, the fineness of the textures, and the combined brilliancy and delicacy of the colors.”

Free resources online
Laura Coombs Hills on Wikipedia
More about LCH in a gallery brochure from the Cooley Gallery
Article about her miniature portraits in The American Magazine of Art, Volume 7, 1916

Saturday, May 13, 2017

American Watercolor Exhibit in Philadelphia


Jeanette and I visited Philadelphia yesterday to check out the blockbuster exhibit "American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent," which closes tomorrow.

The exhibition focuses on the period between 1860 and 1925. During that time water media flourished, attracting collectors and critics. Some of the finest realist painters lent their talents to the medium during that era.

Sargent, Muddy Alligators, 1917 Watercolor over graphite, with masking out and scraping, on wove paper
13 9⁄16 x 20 7⁄8 inches (34.4 x 53 cm) Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
There are familiar classics such as Sargent's Muddy Alligators. This plein-air painting would have been a challenging task, given the fact that alligators will hold still only so long, and their movements are sudden and unpredictable. His pencil underdrawing quickly defines the main shapes, but most of the execution is done rapidly with the brush.

The show (and the book) features some of the best works by William Trost Richards, Henry Farny, Thomas Moran, Fidelia Bridges, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green.


Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911) An Old Song, 1885 Watercolor and opaque watercolor over graphite on paper
28 x 48 inches (71.1 x 121.9 cm) Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection.


One room of the exhibit is set up as a "watercolor salon," reconstructing the way the works would have been shown in the late 19th century. Large framed paintings were accompanied by potted palms and urns. 

Instead of captions, the works in this room are identified by numbers and described in a booklet with black and white illustrations that simulate the engraved style of the day.  

Childe Hassam (1859–1935) Boulevard at Night, Paris, 1889 Watercolor on paper
8 x 12 inches (20.3 x 30.5 cm) Private collection
The curators, led by Kathleen Foster, did an imaginative job of organizing the paintings into thematic topics. Each room has a different organizing principle, such as: "Ruskin, Turner, and the English Tradition, 1855–1865, Figure Painting in the 1870s: Homer and Eakins, Impressionism from Munich and Rome, and Landscape Painting after 1880: Tonalism."

One of the rooms pitted Homer against Sargent with side-by-side paintings of similar subjects. The curators played a tongue-in-cheek "Who was better?" game. It is impossible to settle such a contest, of course. But it's a fun jumping-off point for discussion. 

And it gets museum-goers away from the darn recorded audio tour that dulls their brains, turns them into zombies, and makes the rooms quiet zones where even soft discussion is frowned upon. I watched people using those ear wands, and while they listened to the audio prompts, they only spent 1-2 seconds on average looking at the actual art. The rest of the time they either gazed blankly at the caption or stared into space.

I'd love to see curators work harder to get their museum guests talking with each other and really engaging with the art, rather than being mute and passive. 


Winslow Homer's palette

The final room does that! It has a fascinating presentation by conservator Becca Pollak about the materials and tools that the artists actually used. I'll talk more about this topic in future posts.

It's a massive show that was decades in the making, with about 170 paintings that are rarely exhibited because they're so sensitive to light. The show was very crowded but everyone was polite and good-spirited about it. It took us about four hours to get through it all and see everything. 

This is the last weekend. It closes Sunday, but at least the museum will be open until 7:00 pm today and tomorrow. It's a very popular show. If you go, be ready for crowds, and know that you can't go back for a second viewing. Get your tickets online to be sure you get a spot. There are 12-hour metered parking spaces on the streets a few blocks away.

The catalog is very thick and comprehensive, with fascinating essays and considerable new scholarship. It's probably worth purchasing for that reason, but inevitably the art reproductionss are on the small side and they just can't do justice to the color and detail of the original artwork.

Museum website: American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.
Catalog on Amazon: American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent