Monday, June 26, 2017

W. T. Richards Field Study

 William Trost Richards, field study
36.4 x 51 cm (14 5/16 x 20 1/8 inches), RISD Museum
Here's a field study in watercolor and graphite by William Trost Richards (American 1833-1905) The curators of the Art Museum at Rhode Island School of Design write:

"William Trost Richards’s close studies of nature reveal his belief, based on the writings of critic John Ruskin, that the way to truth was the study of nature in penetrating detail. On display here is Richards’s precision and agility with watercolor and gouache in vertical format—his favorite for such studies. He may have found this meadow on one of his many long walks around his daughter’s farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Before it came to the Museum the drawing suffered from sun exposure, leading to the fading of the sky’s blue pigment, some of which is still visible where it pooled."

I'm impressed with how he sets up two planes of focus: the near weeds and the far trees. While he carefully defines all the smaller textures of the flowers and foliage with a playful variation of colors, he does so within a controlled value gamut.

He keeps to his overall statement of light-foreground over dark-middle-ground over light-sky. The whole design is set up to feature the Joe-Pye weed in the center, where the tonal contrasts are most dramatic.

It would have been easy to get bogged down in other details, and a photograph would have presented a very different set of facts.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Podcast: 1986 Readings on Gerome, Repin and Shishkin

In 1986 I was part of a group of friends called "The Golden Palm Tape Network" who shared art-talk via cassettes. I thought some of these recordings would be fun for you to listen to in the form of a podcast on YouTube. 

Let's start with a fairly typical one called "Academic Chatter," a combination of readings and commentary. (Direct link to podcast on YouTube).

Topics include: 

The nucleus of the G.P Tape Network was a small group who knew each other at the Art Center College of Design. We first met each other at the Golden Palms Apartment in Highland Park, California.

The artists involved included Paul ChadwickBryn BarnardThomas KinkadeRon HarrisRichard Hescox, Tom KiddDavid MattinglyJames Warhola, Brad Teare, and Barry Klugerman. All those people were (or are) brilliant and incisive and funny, and I owe who I am to what I learned from them.

There were hundreds of tapes, most of which were recorded over again with new stuff. But I still have a lot of these. If you enjoy this one, let me know, and I'll share some more.
Jean-Léon Gérôme on Wikipedia
Previous post on The Golden Palm Tape Network

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Exhibit of Courtroom Art

Tom Girardi with beating victim Bryan Stow by Bill Robles.
An exhibit in Washington called "Drawing Justice" examines the work of courtroom artists.
"The nearly 100-work exhibit will feature historic sketches such as Howard Brodie’s drawing of Jack Ruby at his sentencing for killing Lee Harvey Oswald; Marilyn Church’s trial drawing of Martha Stewart; Pat Lopez’s capturing of a nervous Ken Lay looking at evidence during the Enron trial; Bill Robles’s drawing of the haunting, dead-eyed Charles Manson on the witness stand; and Joseph Papin’s image of “Son of Sam” murderer David Berkowitz in mental anguish." Read the rest at The Washington Post. 
The exhibition will be at the Library of Congress in Washington through October 28.
Article about the show in Columbia Journalism Review
Related: Sketch artist recreates Sean Spicer briefing after White House camera ban

Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: Portrait Drawing by Mau-Kun Yim

I recently had a chance to read a copy of Lessons in Masterful Portrait Drawing: A Classical Approach to Drawing the Head by Chinese-born artist Mau-Kun Yim.

The book consists mainly of Mr. Yim's charcoal portrait drawings from life.  

The book includes many step-by-step sequences that show his process. He starts with a foundation of straight lines to establish the structure of the head and the placement of the features.

Then he adds masses of tone in a sculptural but painterly way. He describes drawing as "painting without color," and he compares making a drawing to building a house. Edges and highlights are reserved for last.

The title of the book, "Lessons in Masterful Portrait Drawing: A Classical Approach to Drawing the Head" is a bit of a misnomer, because it's not really presented as specific lessons to follow so much as ideas and drawings to be inspired by. 

The book is helpful for the drawings themselves, which are well reproduced. A gallery section of full-page examples takes up the last 50 pages of the 144 page hardcover book. I found the book is also helpful for understanding his philosophy, which he has developed through his study of many traditions of drawing: not only Chinese, but also European, American, and Soviet. 

He quotes the teaching of Soviet master Konstantin Maksimov on the principle of wholeness: "Start with large blocks, straight lines, and masses of light and shadow, before gradually moving on to the features, details, and expression in a drawing. If you can get the relationship between the building blocks right, then a harmonious whole will emerge."

He is a believer in keeping a sketchbook. "Sketch often and sketch slowly," he recommends. "Is faster better in sketching?" he asks. "Not always! I've seen many private studios in the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan where the time allowed for nude sketches is so short that the paintings come out looking like wild scrawls."

There are several videos showing his method on YouTube, such as this one, sponsored by Nitram Charcoal. There are other videos on his own YouTube channel, where he also shares his masterful oil portraits. (Link to YouTube)

His website is Mau-Kun Yim

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Berkey Crowd Scene

John Berkey's widow, Demi, remembers what it was like for John to paint the massive crowd scene in this Indianapolis 500 illustration.

"John hated those crowd scenes. One of the things he did to keep from going completely mad was to mask off most of the painting and work on only one section at a time. There was just no way to do the crowds fast. A piece like this took many days."
See more Art by John Berkey (1932-2008) at Jim Pinkoski's fan site

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Your New Easel Builds

You've been sending in photos of your easel builds, and I've been very impressed with the ingenuity and problem-solving you've brought to the task.

Glenn Tait

1. The Coroplast Pochade Board
This light-weight, three panel, rig is built using a 14.5" X 6.25" panel of 1/4" plywood painted black to which black Coroplast panels are attached using Chicago screws and washers. Metal rods are inserted the length of bottom panel giving structural strength to support my water and paints. They also double as magnetic attachment points for my water containers. Neodymium magnets are placed into the right side of this panel to hold my palette. The board can be tilted using the 360 degree head mount on the tripod while the panels are adjusted with a 550 Paracord rigging tightened with a Cord Lock Stopper. Brushes are stored in a hanging support under the rig for easy access.

1B. Water cups
Other materials, extra water, etc. are easily accessed from the backpack, which hangs beneath the tripod acting as an anchor holding everything down.

2. Diffuser Screen
A wire mesh desk caddy found at a Dollar store made a great frame for my diffuser. The mesh was removed from the frame using pliers. A white nylon stuff bag was sewn for the diffuser cover. The support was made using a set of self-closing hinges with knurled screws for tightening all of which was attached to two sets of metal strips. 

2B. Diffuser Clip
This unit slides onto the plywood board and can be used whether the board is in a landscape or portrait orientation.

3. Tripod
I use a light, compact tripod with a sturdy load capacity. The Triopo MT-2205, an aluminum tripod with a 360 degree head mount, a spring loaded hang clip, a max. load capacity of 8kg / 17.64lb, a height of 162cm / 63.78in, folds down to 37cm / 14.57in and weighs 1150g / 2.54lb.

4. Construction and Materials Notes
I have no workshop or power tools but was able to build this using a few hand tools: a leather punch for the holes in the Coroplast, a universal screw starter to "drill" holes in the plywood, a utility knife to trim the plywood, scissors, a butane lighter (to melt the ends of the Paracord) and pliers.

Materials included Coroplast/Tenplast, Gorilla duct tape, Chicago screw, various sized washers (metal and rubber), 1/4 T-nut, Neodymium magnets, 550 paracord, Cord Lock Stopper, self closing hinges, brass knurled nuts and screws Loctite Super Glue for Plastics, (an instant super glue used to attach the magnets to the Nalgene containers.)

Nate Billings

Here are a couple of pictures of my build. I need to do some upgrading, but right now things are held on with clips and velcro in a modular system. I keep velcro on the back of my watercolors, cups, etc. It prevents things from falling off. 

Normally, I attach it to a tripod, but for this event, I had to use my standard easel. The bulldog clips allow me to attach it below the painting for easy access!

Keith Yong

Just wanted to share my very simple plein air setup. It's essentially just a flat plywood surface and some clips. I plan to add a light diffuser on top in the future too. It weighs at 440g (15.5 oz) and has a large available surface area. 

With this setup I can use it pretty much like a desk top. I attached a mini Swiss Arca plate on the bottom with screws and it's very solid. The only downside is that it doesn't fold, but it fits well inside my backpack like a thin book.

Edit: "I did add a light diffuser in the end and it works perfectly"

Piya Wannachaiwong

I just wanted to share my version of the Sketch easel (frankly I do more call it the Gurney easel). It's about 9" tall by 12" across for each panel. I use a Caran D'Ache 15 color gouache pan set and I'd like to be able to accommodate a Moleskine Sketchbook or a Perfect Sketchbook.

I've incorporated a 'ledge' for my sketchbook to sit on. It's simply a 1.25" tall and 12" wide strip of wood glued on just above the hinges. 

Wood-burned onto that ledge is the instruction 'First, Composition, then Values and finally, Colors'.

Also after using the easel for the first time, I decided I wanted to install a fold out brush holder. It's 4"x7", with ledges on the bottom and side. As I'm left handed, it's installed with simple hinges on the left side. I simply set the brushes down, I have found drilling holes on the side so the brushes can stand up makes the brushes an obstacle.

Otherwise, it's pretty close to what you suggested in your video. I have yet to install a holder for a light diffuser, but further down the line I probably will.

By the way, if anyone asks, I don't recommend birch plywood from Michael's. It's layered wood that tears apart under a circular saw and definitely made this easel a little less refined than I'd like. I'm planning on building another one for my wife with oak soon.
Thanks, everybody for sharing all these wonderful insights on all these builds. If you want to join the fun, check out my tutorial video. It covers how I make both the easel and four different diffuser designs.

The HD download of "How to Make a Sketch Easel" is more than an hour long and costs only $14.95.
It's available now from Gumroad, and Sellfy, and Cubebrush

The DVD version is available for $24.50, and it includes a slide show. The DVD is also available on Amazon

My materials list for making a sketch easel
Also check out previous posts Your Sketch Easel Designs and Your DIY Sketch Easels

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Watercolor Video 10% Off Today

(Link to video) Spontaneous portrait of a Civil War re-enactor, an excerpt from my video tutorial "Watercolor in the Wild." It's 10% off today at this link. The DVD is also on sale for 10% off today.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Modification to Southco Hinges

Blog reader Paul Savoie of Ontario Canada says:

"After viewing your latest video on "How to Make a Sketch Easel" I promptly ordered the friction hinges . They arrived a couple of days ago. After a bit of head scratching I figured out how to modify the hinges so that they can fully close for a standard installation. (No need to create a wedged hinge recess in order for the easel to close properly).

"First, the dome of the round head bolt needs to be filed flat. Use a standard mill file, and elbow grease, with the bolt fully seated into the nut and held in a vice. Once the dome has been removed place the nut and bolt assembly in a drill chuck and file a new dome as the bolt spins. Use a fine sandpaper (240 grit or finer) to give the head a satin finish. This still leaves plenty of the Phillips recess to provide sufficient purchase for the screw driver. The thinner bolt head is more than strong enough in this application since, as you know, VERY LITTLE torque and pressure needs to be applied to stiffen these friction hinges. The bolt modification alone is not quite enough to allow the hinge to close slightly past parallel.

"Second, a countersunk hole needs to be drilled into the cross brace of the hinge flap opposite the bolt. Remove the nut and bolt. Fully close the hinge. Use the hole where the bolt sits as your guide for drilling a SMALL hole through the opposite flap cross brace. You don’t want to weaken the cross brace too much by drilling a large hole. Countersink the new hole as shown in the attached photos. The shallower bolt head can now nestle into the new countersunk recess and VOILA!…the hinge can be fully closed!!!

"TIP: After the easel is finished, and just BEFORE you make the final tension adjustment on the hinges, add a tiny dab of clear nail polish to the bolt threads. This will “lock” the bolts in place but still allow for future adjustments if needed. Commercially available “Loctite" thread sealant will serve the same purpose if you have any."

Thanks, Paul, for sharing this valuable tip! If any of you would like to share a tip or a build idea from your easel, please send me a couple photos and captions. I'll do a round-up soon. Thanks to those of you who have been sending them in.
Southco Adjustable Torque friction hinges
Loctite  Heavy Duty Threadlocker
Video tutorial: "How to Make a Sketch Easel"

Sunday, June 18, 2017


Chris Rodley set up his computer up with a deep-learning algorithm to combine 19th century fruit art with dinosaurs. 

The resulting Arcimboldo-esque 'fruitosaurs' have pears and plums rounding out their rib sections. Berry textures stand in for pebbly scales.

Mr. Rodley's software also crossed dinosaurs with an old book of flowers, creating a botanical mashup that's different from what a human collage artist would invent. 

There's an overall color and value logic to each dinosaur, and a clever solution for each of their eyes. The background texture is fragmentary, not quite identifiable as specific plants. And the "writing" along the bottom is mumbo-jumbo.

While it's all delightful fun, it raises some serious questions for working illustrators. Is this truly creative or artistic? How will illustrators—or art directors—use these tools? Should illustration competitions such as the Society of Illustrators or Spectrum permit entries created with artificial intelligence? How could they ever stop it?
Here is Chris Rodley's website and Twitter feed. Thanks, Kevin Cheng

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Watercolor Streetscapes of Irwin Greenberg

St. Germaine Nocturne by I. Greenberg
Irwin Greenberg (1922-2009) was an American artist and teacher whose watercolor street scenes were beloved by his students and fellow painters. Mr. Greenberg—or "Greeny," as he was known to his friends and students—taught at the Art Students League in New York. One of his former students, Ricky Mujica, told me more about those watercolors.

James: What got me thinking about Greeny was that I was looking at a book called "How to Discover Your Personal Painting Style" and there were a few examples of his watercolors, including this one "St. Germaine Nocturne." It's a gorgeous little mood piece. 

Ricky: That's awesome! I want a copy of that book!

James: I was curious about what surface he was working on. It looks like a plate finish — but I could be wrong.

Ricky: Yes you are correct, most of these are painted on thick, super-smooth plate finish Bristol paper. For a while, back in the '80's he also painted with watercolors over gessoed paper. He made charcoal paintings on the gessoed paper too.

James: What brushes was he using? It looks like some giant brushes (at first), and with maybe some lifting.

Ricky: He used a very big mop brush to lay in the biggest shapes and then wiped out the lights and mid tones. He avoided colors that stain during the block-in stage, ie, ultramarine blue and alizarin. But he wasn't afraid to use them in the later stages of the painting. During the block-in stage, he preferred to use colors with pigments that stay on the surface and are easy to lift. He would also sometimes add a little Chinese white into his block-in colors because that also makes the colors stay on the surface and therefore easy to lift. The drawback with this is that it becomes hard to get dark because the upper layers become difficult to put down without lifting the floating under layers. His way around this was to use very soft red sable and let the dark colors puddle which made great effects.

James: Wow, that technique gives you a lot of flexibility.

Ricky: He really wanted to be able to keep the painting as malleable as clay throughout the whole process. He didn't want to get locked down at any stage of the painting (until he had to). Very often he would start with a big brush and layout the massive shapes first, and then he would come in with a pencil, or if he was working on a monochromatic watercolor, a fountain or homemade bamboo pen. Sometimes he might put down a very minimal pencil line first, but only for placement. As I said, he wanted to stay as flexible as possible for as long as possible, and pencil has a way of locking you in. Very often, he would avoid putting any pencil lines down until he was sure that an area was going to stay the way it was. But switching between brush and pencil was an organic process. It wasn't a question of one and then the other, but more as if the pencil was just another brush. It's a very effective way of working. You should try it. I think you would get a kick out of the flexibility it affords. When I see Sargent's watercolors, especially the later ones, I can't imagine that he didn't do the same thing. 

James: This one of under the elevated train is such a great value design. I get the feeling he was not painting stuff literally, but was simplifying and grouping values.

Ricky: Greeny was adamant about organizing a painting into its big shapes. His biggest influence was Rembrandt's etchings and very often his most important motif was the "Discovered Light" composition device that you see a lot in Rembrandt and in Vermeer. A dark interesting foreground, then the main action in the brightest light, then a dark behind that and often a mid-light behind that. The silhouette of the dark foreground should be as interesting as you can make it. The paintings above are both built around this motif. What is important to know is that the paintings look like they are organized into flat shapes, but a more accurate description is that they are shapes in space. They are overlapping shapes and he thinks of composition in 3D not 2D. The shapes are laid out kind of like train tracks receding into space along the "Z: axis of the painting as opposed to simply 2D shapes on the picture plane (X and Y axis). Hope that makes sense.

James: Yeah, I love the idea of thinking of composition with the Z dimension, like the Dutch term 'houding.'

Ricky: One important aspect that he always related to me was to not throw away any part of the painting. Even a vignette. To make everything as interesting as possible, even vignetted brush stokes. Even a flat area should be interesting. One shouldn't waste an opportunity to make something more interesting. The objects in the scene should be interesting. If you put a lamp in an interior painting, make that lamp the most interesting lamp. Make it the best lamp. Not just a generic lamp. Even negative shapes should be interesting. Details should be interesting and judiciously placed and not trivial. He was very against dotting every "i" and crossing every "t". Windows are suggested on a building or bricks suggested on a brick wall rather than putting everyone in. More important to selectively put in windows or bricks in an interesting way that goes with the composition and enhances the composition, than to put in every window and possibly ruin the unity of the art.

James: Were these paintings from life or memory or photography? Did he do sketches first and synthesize the design?

Ricky: Greeny worked primarily from life, though when the demand for his watercolors went up and he got older, he wasn't averse to working from a snapshot here and there. Most often he would make dozens of sketches from life in his sketchbooks and then go home and use them as reference for studio watercolors. Not much different than many of the Hudson River painters. People in his landscapes would be thought of as groups instead of individuals and very often he worked from memory or just made them up. He has sketchbooks full of little plein air studies of people and groups of people. (I wish I had been able to get one of those! Those are the most valuable to students who knew his work!!!!) They were carefully observed gesture drawings that he made with a fountain pen filled with brown ink and spit and a finger, or sometimes a little portable watercolor brush. He would have loved the watercolor pencils you sometimes use.

He would fill a sketchbook in two weeks and would draw everywhere. In trains, in meetings, on the street, on line at the bank. And these quick gestural sketches would be fodder for figures in the finished watercolors he did in his studio. It was like reference gathering. While you use your sketchbook in a journalistic way, like a journalistic photographer, he used his sketch like a reference gathering device.

He didn't plot out perspective, but rather eyeballed the perspective. No construction. But he was a master at perspective.

Ricky: Greeny often encouraged us to do little block-ins from memory. He encouraged us to do little landscapes or figure groupings from our heads. It was amazing to see how well and how effectively he could make a cityscape or a drawing of a group of people from his head as a practice exercise! He would start by making a random squiggly line, and then turn that into a beautiful little cityscape sketch! Or make something like an upside down potato sack and turn that into a very believable group of people! And in literally a minute! Lol, he would have given Bob Ross a run for his money with those! Amazing to watch.

James: You were so lucky to have him as a teacher and to watch him paint those things.

Ricky: You have to understand that he lost an eye in World War II and had poor sight in his one good eye! But he could put down a figure like nobody's business. He could get the life and the gesture so quickly, it would singe your eyebrows!

James: Didn't you end up with one of his sketchbooks after he died?

Ricky: When Max (Ginsburg) and I cleaned out his studio, I found a sketchpad behind a radiator. It's great, it is a full sketchpad that he made on a small vacation he took in Norway. It's full of monochromatic landscape studies from life while on vacation many of which became reference for finished paintings that I remember from his one man show in the late '80's! It's one of my most prized possessions! I feel very lucky to have it and there is so much to learn from it. I can't wait to show you. I also managed to rescue a few of his more finished watercolors that were still left. I got a bunch that he made before he started to use the smooth paper, and a couple of watercolors in the smooth paper style.

James: Thanks, Ricky. Greeny may be gone, but he's still alive thanks to his artwork and your memories.
Book with a few Irwin Greenberg paintings: How to Discover Your Personal Painting Style
Book that talks about the plate finish technique: Breaking the Rules of Watercolor by Burt Silverman