Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Street scene with a cool underpainting

Warm air from the south has arrived in the Hudson Valley. The last remnants of winter have nearly vanished, except for one small pile of snow at the end of my neighbor's driveway. 

I'm thinking about fire devouring ice when I start this street scene. How can I convey that feeling?

I open my sketchbook to a page that is pre-painted with blue tones. The blue color is casein: titanium white mixed with cerulean blue. I allow it to dry for a couple of days so the paint surface is closed. The blue will serve nicely as a complementary base for a picture in browns and oranges.


Here's what the surface looks like when I start. I sketch in the lines with a reddish-brown water-soluble colored pencil.

Now I dive in with gouache. I could have used casein or acrylic—anything opaque. Starting with the sky, I apply warm colors with a flat brush. I cover the surface, careful to leave some blue areas showing through, especially on that windshield. I want that car to be the focal point.

I don't hesitate to cover up the lines of the underdrawing. I can find everything again with the brush.

I add more reddish-brown darks on the car and the awning at left. I try to keep any extreme darks from intersecting the sky. I want achieve the feeling that the skylight is flaring across nearby forms and devouring them, as if the sticks and branches are tossed into the furnace.

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes about "the fire, vital, consecrating, celestial, which burns until it shall dissolve all things into the waves and surges of an ocean of light."


Here's a detail about as wide the "shift" key on your computer. Those highlights on the car were blinding. 

See, I'm squinting! You can scroll back up to see the final painting.
-----

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pictures that Tell Stories

Gabriel von Max, Monkeys as Critics

Blog reader Sean Oswald asks: "I was exploring some narrative artworks, and I wanted to ask if you would point me towards some resources that would help me learn about narrative art making. I want to know more about story and how it has been used in visual art to communicate ideas. I would also like to learn more about the pictorial mechanics of telling stories and the science behind it."

Sean, I think this is an important question. I wish there was more written about this, and I think it's a fertile field for study. Most of what's been written about the topic by art historians so far has been dismissive and short-sighted, usually by people who don't really create storytelling pictures.

You asked about pictorial mechanics. The best practical resources I've found are these four books:
Famous Artists Course (Get the editions from the 1950s)
Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis
Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers by Marcos Mateu-Mestre
....and of course it's something I talk about in my own book, Imaginative Realism

To understand the science behind how we look at storytelling pictures, I would love to see a researcher combine eyetracking data with fMRI brain scans in real time to see what's going on in the brain as a person begins to decipher a picture. Do the mirror neurons fire when you see a picture of a person doing a certain action? Can you actually see the brain engage on different levels as the visual processing moves from lower to higher levels?

Thomas Cole Voyage of Life: (Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age), 1842
Here are a few thoughts on the topic. There are some famous series of paintings such as Thomas Cole's "Voyage of Life" that tell stories with a beginning, middle, and end, almost like a painted graphic novel. The Catholic church has told many Bible stories sequentially in stained glass windows and altarpieces.

Norman Rockwell, Breaking Home Ties
But let's consider single-image story-paintings, and let's begin with semantics. People often call them "illustrations." But I don't really like that term because it's misleading. Some paintings don't illustrate a text—they can stand entirely on their own, just as a play or a movie would do. In that sense, Rockwell's Post covers aren't illustrations, even though they're some of the finest examples of storytelling pictures.

As I mentioned in a post called "Detective Storytelling," I also have difficulty with the term "narrative art" because a true narrative requires the presentation of a series of events, revealed in sequence (First A, then B, then C). In a single picture, unlike a graphic novel or an animated film, all the events are telescoped into a single moment. Previous moments or events are implied by clues, and the subsequent moment can only be suggested. We might better describe this kind of art as a “detective storytelling.” It demands effort from the viewer to find all the clues, and care from the artist to make sure not to clutter the scene with extraneous detail.
‘A Special Pleader’ by Charles Burton Barber
Several books have been written about Victorian Narrative Painting. It's a big subject with a lot of wonderful examples. For example, in this painting by Barber, the dog's characterization shows its conflict of loyalties, and the picture hints at the tantrum the girl threw before she was punished.

Rockwell, Pyle, and N.C. Wyeth talk a lot about the importance of eliminating unnecessary detail, and of choosing the supreme moment to illustrate. Of the three, only Rockwell sat down to write a book about the topic. There are extensive student notes of Pyle's teaching. But they're mostly unpublished, so I'll try to share more on the blog. Also, don't miss the blog by Ian Schoenherr on Howard Pyle. Wyeth's thinking is best revealed in his letters, collected in The Letters of N. C. Wyeth
Ivan Shishkin Wind Fallen Trees, 1888
As a final thought, I believe it's possible for a painting to tell a story without human figures at all, as long as the painting implies a series of events that preceded the moment depicted. Shishkin's forest paintings often describe the story of the forest by presenting evidence of past storms and woodcutters.

Previous Posts:
Detective Storytelling and Before the Judge (Analyzing two academic paintings).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Morot's device for capturing motion

Aimé-Nicolas Morot (1850-1913), provoked a lot of discussion at the Salon in 1886 with his painting of a cavalry charge, because it changed how people thought about galloping horses. 

Aimé-Nicolas Morot: Charge of the Cuirassiers at Rezonville
According to a contemporary observer, "The old-fashioned rendering of this movement, which always depicted steeds with all their four legs fully extended, was, for the first time in an important picture, absolutely swept away and superseded. In it the horses are shown in almost every possible phase of the gallop, and some of the positions came rather as a shock."

Even before Eadweard Muybridge developed his methods for photographing animals in motion, Morot was beginning to suspect that the traditional "hobby horse" pose didn't really happen at any phase of real galloping action. The problem is that the unaided human eye can't with any certainty isolate individual poses from such rapid action.

Aimé-Nicolas Morot (1850-1913)
But Morot was determined. Day after day he would bring his sketchbook to the cavalry training ground at the Champ de Mars, "and there, with a special instrument of his own construction, spend many hours closely studying the movements and action of the horses as they dashed by. The instrument referred to was simply a small wooden box with a quickly closing shutter which he could release at will, through which he would closely follow the motion of a galloping squadron and then, suddenly letting go of the shutter, endeavour to retain and reconstruct the image last impressed upon his vision." 

You can do the same thing even without this device by watching an action closely and snapping your eyes shut. With practice and training, your short term memory can seize on these brief afterimages to reconstruct extreme fast action. 

Wikipedia on Aimé-Nicolas Morot 
Previously on GurneyJourney:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Easel-Mounted Diffuser


Getting the best light on your artwork while sketching outdoors makes a huge difference for seeing color. Ideally you want soft, diffused white sunlight at a level close to the brightness of the scene itself. The worst thing is cast shadows or dappled light across the painting. 

Controlling the light on your work can be difficult on a bright sunny day, which is why I came up with this easel-mounted diffuser. Unlike a white umbrella, this setup won't blow over in heavy wind. The diffuser affects the light only where you need it.

The white diffusing panel is made using a recycled Pendaflex frame. These rectangular aluminum supports were used for hanging file folders. Over the frame I stretched white rip-stop nylon and sewed a seam around the edge. The angle of the diffuser is completely adjustable and the whole thing is removable, held in by a wood bracket at the top of the easel.

Here's what it looks like on the side away from me. That bracket is a piece of plywood which is split so that it tightens against the aluminum bar. The wood bracket is held on with a Southco adjustable hinge, so that the whole bracket can fold down out of the way.

My homemade easel system can work for either sitting or standing height, because it mounts on a camera tripod. Here we were last week painting the old carriage house at the Wilderstein mansion here in the Hudson Valley. I'm painting contre-jour (facing the light), so the diffuser brings nice white light to my work surface.

And here's the painting I did. I was conscious of lightening and cooling the top edge of the building silhouette to make the sky feel bright and blue without actually painting the sky blue. It's an effect I've noticed from photography and I wanted to try it out on an observational painting.

I documented the whole thing on video, and I'll be releasing that segment as part of an upcoming DVD/download on plein-air watercolor.

If you make one of these diffusers, please send me photos of how you adapted the idea.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Can three artists work simultaneously on one picture?

This Australian street scene was painted on one giant piece of paper by three master watercolorists: Joseph Zbukvic, Alvaro Castagnet, and Herman Pekel, who call themselves The Three Caballeros The Three Amigos.


Fortunately the fun was captured on 24 minutes of mesmerizing video. (Direct link to video) They switch back and forth between big and little brushes, spritzers, and scrapers. They constantly trade places, with one guy diving into a wet area that another guy started. Their uproarious good humor and utter fearlessness is an inspiration to any painter.

Colourinyourlife
Books:
Zbukvic, Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor
Castagnet, Watercolor Painting with Passion!
Video: My Vision in Watercolour DVD
Another great YouTube video showing J. Zbukvic painting a rainy street scene.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Visualizing sound waves


Scientists have devised a way to visualize the propagation of sound waves, using a technique called Schlieren Flow Visualization combined with slo-mo video. (Direct link to video)