One of my goals for this year was to find a local group of artists to meet with regularly, preferably a group that hired live models to draw as a group. Thanks to Allison's superior Google search capabilities, we found an an artist group that meets at the Opera House in Howell, Michigan to draw live models. I've attended this group a few times now and really enjoy the opportunity to do life studies. It's also a really friendly group of people. People use a variety of drawing and painting media from color artist crayons to watercolor and acrylic ink as well as graphite and charcoal. For the moment I'm using charcoal drawings to improve my drawing ability and improve my use of tone to describe the form for oil painting. Some of my recent efforts from these life studies are shown here.
W. Currie, 2017. Pears and Pythagoras. Oil on canvas sheet, 13 5/8 x 17 5/8
The still life is such a classic form. My sense has always been that it's something every painter should try to do. Some of the general art instruction books that I am working my way through emphasize the still life as a way to practice drawing with paint and learning about composition. But as a topic for a painting, the still life never much appealed to me. Then I had a conversation with artist Ali Hasmut at the Ann Arbor Art Fair last summer. Hasmut paints wonderful figures -- you can see his website here. He convinced me that painting still lifes is an important way to practice and develop your skills. To build the skills for figure painting, you study the way that light and shadow describe the form on fruit and other objects and you learn to express that with oil paint. You also practice using and controlling value ranges (light to dark) and using temperature changes (warm to cool). (For example, the red pepper in the right part of this painting has four alternating temperatures: cool in the white highlights, warm in the intense red-orange color, cool in the shadows on the pepper itself on its top and right side, then warm in the shadow cast by the pepper). You might like to have access to a live figure every time you paint, but you can't. A still life can be set up and left for days or weeks. Hasmut explained that once you get started doing still lifes you begin to enjoy it, and as a bonus you will produce some nice paintings that people like.
So I set up several still lifes, one after another, and practiced with charcoal, grisaille in oil (just light and dark shades of a single color), and finally some full-color oil, as in the painting shown here. Hasmut was right -- I am starting to like this form of painting. I looked through my collection of art books and did some online searches to see how other artists approach this form. Cezanne, a late 19th century artist, has long been recognized as a master of the still life -- he is famous for saying "I shall astonish Paris with an apple" -- and his approach appeals to me. You can see a Cezanne influence -- perhaps too much -- in my painting here. He often used strong dark outlines around his objects, as I've done here, which he said a painting needed for structure. The slightly asymmetrical bottle is a nod to Cezanne, as is the handle on the brown jug, slightly mis-drawn in perspective. The knife at an angle, pointing into the center of the painting, I also borrowed from Cezanne.
I titled this one 'Pears and Pythagoras' because the small dark object at the left is a little bronze bust of Pythagoras. Richard Schmid, one of my favorite present-day artists, often inserts interesting and non-traditional objects like this into his still lifes. I found this bronze bust of Pythagoras at the Boy Scout rummage fair for about a dollar. Now I've started collecting interesting things to paint in still lifes. Allison and I have started going to yard sales and antique malls to look for interesting objects. So far I've collected an iron Japanese yard lantern, a horse figure made from leather, a bronze elephant, a carved wooden Buddha head, a die-cast model of a classic roadster, an African mask, and so on. I also started borrowing objects from friends -- please let me know if you have any such interesting things I could borrow to put in a painting. And check back to see how I try to incorporate some of these things into future still life paintings.
This is another exploration of a drawing-painting medium and new type of support (drawing surface). Here I tried pastel and charcoal on drafting film. Drafting film is a thin, translucent sheet of material that is much tougher than paper and has a surface with a fine "tooth." Architects and engineers use it for drawing blueprints and plans.
For me this was in part an effort to reproduce one of the techniques used by Degas, one of my favorite historical artists. Degas is well known for drawing and painting the figure -- in fact I think he is recognized as one of the premier figure artists of the last 150 years and he influenced art instruction for a century. He is particularly known for his sketches, pastels, and oil paintings of ballet dancers and dancing students in Paris. He used a technique that was heavily based on drawing lines at the start to capture the contours and gesture of the figure (a technique that he learned from his master, Ingres). He did many pastel drawings on tracing paper, which was translucent, stood up to a lot of layers of charcoal, pastel, and fixative, and had a fine tooth. Much like the drafting film that I used here.
I started with a charcoal line drawing and applied pastels in a cross-hatched pattern in many layers, with fixative sprayed on each layer, which allowed new pastel and charcoal marks to be placed on top without mixing with the underlying layers.
If you've been reading other entries in my artist blog, you know that I like to explore and experiment with using a variety of drawing media on different surfaces and that I also like to explore ways to combine drawing and painting. Here I used a grey watercolor paint for washes, combined with a black conte pencil and black conte sticks for drawing. Conte is one of my favorite drawing mediums. I usually use it dry on dry paper, but it is somewhat water-soluble so it is possible to brush over it with water and soften some of the drawing marks. What makes this work even more experimental is the Yupo. Yupo is a sheet of polypropylene. Water does not penetrate into it, so water-based paint beads up, flows, and mixes in irregular patterns, eventually drying and leaving spontaneous effects behind. It is an exciting surface to draw and paint on, but not very forgiving because erasing or correcting are not really possible. Here, I explored using a drawing medium (conte) to make a wide variety of marks: bold marks, softened marks blurred with a tissue, and scribbles brushed over with water and watercolor paint to take advantage of the spontaneous effects created when the water dries. I also came up with an innovative technique to get the soft grey shadows on the face; I sanded a conte stick to make a fine powder, then brushed the conte powder onto the Yupo gently with a dry sable brush and smeared it with a tissue.
I titled this work "Hope" because in the posture, the distant look, and the slightly clenched hand, the young woman looks like she is hoping something good will happen, or hoping something bad will not happen, or maybe something has already happened and she is hoping it will turn out OK. The slight smile suggests that overall, she is feeling positive.
This work derives from a set of sketches that I made from a live model, Samantha Watkins. Samantha is a longtime family friend who recently graduated from college with a degree in performing arts. I caught up with her when she was visiting her parents, our friends, in Dexter, Michigan before moving to New York City. We had two modeling sessions in which I did a couple dozen sketches, so watch for more drawings and paintings of this model.
Last weekend, Allison and I were in Cambridge, Wisconsin where we stayed in the Lake Ripley Lodge B&B, on the lake. I spent some time in the mornings doing some graphite sketching in a sketchbook. At right is a model sailboat that was on the mantel in the living room. (The owner, Janice, graciously let me carry it to the porch to sketch.) Below are sketches of the view of the lake from the porch, and a couple of rocking chairs that were on the front porch.
Juliette Aristedes is an artist and author of art instruction books that I follow. In Aristedes' atelier, students spend the first year drawing in charcoal and the second year doing oil paintings in grisaille, which is a monotone produced by various shades of a single dark color mixed with white. This practice helps you to build skills in handling the oil paint and to work on form and value (light to dark) without worrying about color. I have been doing a lot of these grisaille paintings this year to build these skills. In this painting I sketched the same model in the same pose from two different angles. Combining two angles on the same canvas like this is challenging but it helps with accuracy. One of the goals is to make each element such as the right elbow, the right ankle, the hem of the skirt, and so on, align horizontally in both views.
I also tried a new way of beginning the early stages of this painting. Normally I do a charcoal or pencil sketch on paper and then transfer that to the canvas, or draw with charcoal directly on the canvas until I'm satisfied with the form and proportions in the line drawing before moving on the painting stage. Here, using a long-handled brush I stood back and just immediately started painting, using the brush to draw directly with the oil paint on the canvas and making corrections by wiping paint away with a rag.
Sylvette David was a young French woman who worked in a pottery shop near Picasso. She agreed to pose for him and became perhaps his most well-known muse -- he painted about 40 works using her as a model. This painting was done in 1954 when Picasso was 73 years old. He was world famous, so Sylvette the model also became world famous. It's interesting that when Picasso was pioneering Cubism (1906 - 1915) people found the geometric shapes bizarre and inaccessible; 35 years later audiences found these "Sylvette" paintings, although highly abstract and geometric, much *more* accessible than art being produced by other artists at the time.
This painting has a great personal meaning for me. When I was 9 or 10 my parents gave me, as a present, the board game "Masterpiece: The Art Auction Game" (does anyone else remember that game?) It came with about a hundred little cards with prints of real paintings by famous artists. I kept a few of those cards, and this was my favorite. I had it pinned to my bulletin board next to my desk all through high school, college, and still today. You can see it here, pinned to my easel to help me produce this copy. This has always been one of my favorite paintings and in no small part inspired me to want to paint.
Artists often make "master copies" of works that they want to learn from. Copying a painting in all of its details, you learn so much more than you ever could just by studying it. In the photo of me with my copy in progress, above, the first layer is dry and I'm starting on the second layer. I'm working very hard to reproduce the colors. It's obvious that Picasso used a very limited palette on this; for the first layer I was able to reproduce all the colors fairly well using just ultramarine blue deep, viridian, transparent oxide red, and white. (The "black" areas and the grey areas are mixtures of ultramarine blue deep and transparent oxide red). For the second layer I worked really hard to get closer on the turquoise color that dominates the model's bottom half. I tried cobalt blue mixed with viridian -- no improvement. You can see from the palette I'm holding in the photo that I also tried mixing in a little yellow (cadmium lemon) -- again, no help. I don't know what colors Picasso used, but it's a moot point because in 1954 he did not have access to the pigments that we have today, and vice versa. Pigments in tube paints have changed over time to be more lightfast (non-fading) and less toxic and for other reasons. I could try to duplicate his color by glazing thin layers of slightly different colors overtop, but I believe Picasso did not use glazing techniques on these paintings to achieve color ... much has been written about how artists in his generation rejected that technique. I'm trying to use, within reason, the types of techniques that Picasso most likely used. Finally I think I came as close as possible to reproducing that turquoise in a single opaque layer by mixing Pthalo green blue, ultramarine blue deep, and white.
Photos never do justice to an oil painting. If you are local, stop by my house and see the painting!
If you've read other parts of my site, you know I love experimenting with the overlap between drawing media and painting. I recently got a bottle of walnut ink, which can be used in pen-and-ink work but is also water-soluble so there are all kinds of opportunities to explore using it with a brush and mixing it with water, both on the palette and on the paper. This is a line-and-wash sketch where I drew the figure with a dip-pen using the walnut ink, then washed over the wet ink with a brush that was wet either with water or with diluted ink. I tried this sketch / study on a few different types of paper and the best for this turned out to be cold-pressed watercolor paper.
Many artists copy the works of other artists to learn and practice technique. Most often these "master copies" are made from historical works, but here I copied from a present-day painter David Gray. His use of light and shadow is masterful here, using the full range from the brightest white to the darkest dark. His painting was in color but I did this copy in a monochrome using only burnt umber and white. With this painting I was learning and practicing a number of techniques, including blending oil paint with a new type of brush I hadn't used before, and working on combining hard and soft edges in the same work. I was also learning a three-layer technique where layer 1 blocks out shapes and basic values, layer 2 captures most of the value range and details with paint straight from the tube, and layer 3 completes the blending and details using a little linseed oil mixed with the paint.
One of the art instruction books I'm learning from is Figure Drawing for Artists, by the artist Steve Huston (2016). Huston uses Carb-othello pencils in some of his finished works, so I ordered a set of these to experiment with. I love these pencils already. They are like a hard pastel pencil, very rich with pigment, firm enough to sharphen like graphite, and they can also be used with water. They come in a variety of great colors for drawing like sanguine, sepia, greys and black. With the sanguine (earth reddish) tone I sketched a dancer in a variety of poses and produced the drawing, above, on sketch paper. Now I'm experimenting to see how this could best be made into a finished drawing using these new pencils. On thicker mixed media paper I did a variety of washes with watercolor and tried drawing over it with the sanguine pencil and wetting it to spread the pigment (at left). I'm not sure which is the way to go with this yet -- I'm continuing to experiment with different Carb-othello pencil colors, different papers, and washes of watercolor.
In October 2016 I made a trip to Seney National Wildlife Refuge, on the Michigan Upper Peninsula, with some graduate students and a colleague of mine from The Nature Conservancy. After meeting with the Director of the Refuge to learn about their approaches to land management, we took a long drive around the area. This is a landscape of inland lakes and wetlands where the water level is kept high to provide many square miles of habitat for endangered waterfowl, which is one of their main missions at Seney. The slightly rolling landscape coupled with the high water level produces a complex maze of these “tree islands.” Because it’s habitat for endangered waterfowl, they don’t allow any canoeing or kayaking. We were there on a grey, rainy day in October. We drove around and saw miles and miles of these areas. The red foliage in patches down close to the ground really stood out to me – from a distance it looked almost like cranberries. But from closer up I could see that it is some sort of knee to waist-high woody shrub with small leaves -- I couldn't identify it. From a distance it made this low blanket of deep, gorgeous red foliage and seemed to light up many of these islands. I shot pictures with my phone as we drove, which captured blurry pictures of the complex island shapes, but I reproduced the colors here from memory back home in my studio.
Richard Schmid, in his book Alla Prima II, Everything I Know About Painting and More, describes a reductive technique for doing an oil underpainting. It's reductive because you begin by painting a midtone single color (monochrome) over the entire canvas, then define the light shapes by wiping paint away with your finger in a cotton rag. In this manner you start with defining shapes instead of drawing lines, and you focus first on the light shapes instead of the dark shapes. You add more paint as needed for the dark areas as the figure begins to become defined.
For the monochrome color I used a mixture of equal parts transparent oxide brown, transparent oxide red, and cobalt blue light (as Schmid recommends). In Schmid’s technique, as I did here, no white paint is used. You achieve the range of values by building up thicker paint with a brush for the dark areas or removing paint for the light areas. The lightest lights are achieved by rubbing away the paint all the way down to the primed surface. In Schmid’s technique, you also use no medium or additional oil – just paint straight from the tube. Each of the paintings below, I completed in a single session while all of the paint was still wet.
These are meant to be underpaintings, meaning they allow you to establish composition and light and dark values without worrying about color. Then when the underpainting is dry, you would do a color painting on top of it. In Schmid's technique, the underpainting is sometimes so well done that it can stand on its own as a completed painting in monochrome.
For the first painting below, I copied the example in Schmid's book. For the second figure below, Mandy, I painted on my own from a reference photo, in a single session using the reductive technique.