Monday, April 20, 2015

Constable's Outdoor Painting Materials

Constable, Dedham Lock and Mill, 1811, courtesy VAM.
John Constable (1776-1837) was one of the pioneers of plein-air oil painting in England. He became convinced around 1802 that he should paint in oil outdoors, believing that Claude Lorrain had done so, even though Claude actually used only water-based media or drawing tools in his outdoor work.

Paint Boxes
Here is one of Constable's surviving oil sketch boxes. The glass vials were a way to carry medium and pigment, as tubed paint didn't come along until 1841. Another way to carry mixed paint was the urine bladders from pigs or other animals, something you could pick up from a butcher.

One of Constable's wooden sketching boxes, 9.25 x 12 inches. 
According to an exhibition catalog of his oil sketches, this paint box "shows the removable panel that fits into the lid, creating a separate compartment, that Constable used for carrying small pieces of paper, canvas and board. Wet sketches were piled in here on the homeward journey. The panel could also be used as an impromptu palette or as a flat surface for standing bottles of oil, turpentine, and other materials during painting."

I don't know if I would agree with the authors that wet sketches were "piled in" to such a box. My guess is that Constable would have used a box like this open in his lap with the lid away from him as he sat on a tripod stool. The sketch would be pinned into the open lid, and kept pinned there until it was dry enough to handle. This was how Americans, such as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and William Trost Richards did it.

Constable's Paint Box c. 1837, courtesy Tate Gallery
Here's another paint box, divided into "seventeen compartments and contains a cork-stopped glass phial with blue pigment, a lump of white gypsum probably used for a variety of purposes including drawing and roughening paper, and various bladders with the artist’s own or commercial ready-mixed paint." Try getting this one through the TSA.

Constable plein-air study showing red-brown colored ground

Constable's studies were usually painted on heavy paper or millboard. Millboard was made from a mixture of cotton, flax, wood, and other fibrous material. The priming was a "viscous medium-rich oil ground containing a small amount of red and black pigment." (Source)

The priming, prepared in batches in advance of his painting sessions, saturated and sealed the sheets. I couldn't tell from my research whether he sized his surfaces before applying the oil ground. Later painters typically sized (or sealed) the paper or board with shellac or rabbit skin glue. By the 1820s, Constable was using commercially-prepared millboard or "Academy board," which was specially made for artists.

(With modern materials, I would use acrylic matte medium to size the paper or board before applying an oil ground. You can use the matte medium over brown- or gray-toned paper to keep that natural paper color, or make up your own toned oil-based ground over the sizing. Allow time for it to dry thoroughly.)

Color Palette
One of his surviving plein-air palettes was analyzed for paint ingredients, including vermilion, emerald green, chrome yellow, cobalt blue, lead white and madder, ground in a variety of mediums such as linseed oil mixed with pine resin.

Constable sunset study, probably painted all in one session (or alla prima)
Working Method
At times it can be hard to tell whether a given sketch was done entirely on location or whether he touched them up after returning to the studio. Chemical sleuths have found that some sketches contain slow-drying mediums, such as poppy oil, which would have allowed him to rework his surfaces over extended periods of time, but that doesn't prove anything. To my eye, based on the efficiency and urgency of the paint handling, the ones shown in this post look to be done entirely on location.

Written Notes
Constable often jotted notes on the back of his paper or boards. For example: "Very lovely evening—looking Eastward—cliffs (and) light off a dark grey sky –effect-background-very white and golden light."

Sources and further reading
BooksConstable's Oil Sketches 1809-29, edited by Hermine Chivian-Cobb, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York, 2007
The Painted Sketch: American Impressions From Nature, 1830-1880. Well researched exhibition catalog which focuses on American plein-air practices.
Websites: Constable Sketches Up Close and Personal (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Constable's Techniques (Tate Museum, London)
Lines and Colors Blog "Constable's Oil Sketches"
Constable paintings at the Yale Center for British Art

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Animated Paper Burlesque Dancers

Legendary toy inventor Mel Birkrant has just posted the story of his years developing R-rated paper burlesque dancers for his company "Boutique Fantastique." 

Circumzenithal Arc

A few days ago I photographed this circumzenithal arc in the sky above the Hudson Valley. These halo phenomena are sometimes called "smiles in the sky" or "upside down rainbows."

Unlike a normal rainbow, which describes a circle centered around the antisolar point (directly opposite the sun), this light effect curves around the zenith. The colors appear on the section of the circle closest to the setting sun.

Whereas the regular rainbow is the result of sunlight bouncing back to the eye in suspended raindrops, this effect occurs when sunlight refracts through plate-shaped hexagonal ice prisms floating in a horizontal position in cirrus clouds. Therefore, it often appears interrupted as it intersects the parallel tendrils of the clouds.
Wikipedia on circumzenithal arc
More at Atmospheric Optics
Classic book on light/atmosphere phenomena: The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Question: Drying Time in Oil Paint

Pedram F., an artist who works in Sweden, asks: "Heya James! Big fan and silent watcher of your posts and blog here! I'm going to break the silence tho' this time around because I have been watching your latest video on the Rise of Tyrannosaurus that I bought recently. It's a really simple question that wasn't really touched on, except maybe only hinted at in the video, but I wonder how long it takes for your painting to dry in between the stages/layers. Do you always wait for touch dry before moving on? Since you are using different dryers or mediums that shorten the drying time, it would be interesting to know how long you wait in between sessions. That is, from the moment you put down the paint brush to finishing it."

Hi, Pedram,
Great question! Thanks for asking. When I'm painting on a deadline assignment, I usually want the section that I'm working on to stay workable for a couple of hours. A few hours is usually plenty of time to accomplish any kind of blending or gradation. I typically want it to be dry to the touch by the next morning.

When there's time for slow drying
If I really need more than one day for a given passage—such as a big cloudy sky or a portrait with a lot of edge work—I might use a more normal painting medium (such as damar varnish + stand oil + gum turpentine), or no medium at all. In that case, I make sure to paint that passage early enough in the deadline cycle so that it will have time to dry to the touch in a natural way before I need to deliver the painting.

I have to be careful about thick impastos of titanium white or the cadmium colors, because they dry slowly. The last parts to dry are often the highlights. Those might take days or even weeks to dry.

This particular assignment allowed six weeks from first call to delivery. More than half of that time was taken with research, sketches, and approvals—which is typical for a scientific or historical illustration. As a result, the final paintings had to be done in the last two weeks. Most magazine deadlines allow a few weeks to a month start to finish, but I am sometimes called in on much shorter deadlines.

Eight strategies to speed up drying

1. Working thinly is a third way to get oil paint to dry quickly. I use Winsor and Newton's Alkyd mediumor Gamblin's Galkyd medium if I need medium at all. If the paint is reasonably thin, it will be set up by the next day.

2. Pre-texturing is the method I show in the video to achieve thick paint with impastos, while still getting the paint to dry quickly. The thin oil paint is applied over the surface of the dried acrylic underpainting textures. The oil layer dries overnight, but because of the underpainting textures, it looks like a thick impasto.

3. Another method is a heated drying box used at night between painting sessions. A drying box is an enclosed fireproof volume built to contain the painting, together with some heating element, such as an incandescent bulb.

4. If you don't want to build a box, you can use a light bulb in a reflector clamp lamp to speed the drying. If the heat is coming just from one side, there's a danger of warping the board or damaging the surface of the painting.

5. One solution for such thick paint is the use of chemical accelerators. If I think I might use thick passages of white or cadmiums, I might use just a drop or two of cobalt drier mixed with a palette knife into the blob of white on the palette. As I'm sure you know, these driers should be used sparingly, as they can weaken the paint emulsion and change the color if one uses too much of them. I rarely resort to them, but if I need them, they can be a lifesaver.

6. Another tip that you'll recall from the video is that I can save a day by doing a casein underpainting. Casein is a well established underpainting medium for oils, and the painting can be taken to any stage in that medium with the oil used only where necessary.

7. Sometimes the oil paint just isn't dry the night before shipment or hand-delivery. In that case, I build a gapped box, with cardboard shims around the outer edges, so that the cardboard of the container is not touching paint surface. I also would then put a note in the box to let the art director know that there might be some wet paint.

8. A final expedient is for the artist to photograph the wet painting instead of shipping it to the client. As long as the copy work is done to a standard acceptable to the client, this can save everyone a lot of effort, expense, and time, and then it doesn't matter if the painting is wet. If the lighting set-up is good, the new cameras such as the Canon Digital Rebel can shoot excellent high resolution files that rival what a lab could deliver. Here's a blog post explaining how I typically photograph paintings, and here are two other blog posts by Dan Dos Santos and David Palumbo explaining how they do it.

Hope that answers your question, Pedram. And in case anyone else wonders: I haven't experimented much with water-soluble oils, tubed alkyd paints, or acrylics, mainly because I've got my hands full with oil, casein, gouache, and watercolor. I'm sure they have wonderful properties, but I just haven't had a chance to try them out.

Friday, April 17, 2015

GJ Book Club: Chapter 3 "Vision"

On GJ Book Club, we're studying Harold Speed's 1917 classic The Practice and Science of Drawing.

The following numbered paragraphs cite key points in italics, followed by a brief remark of my own. If you would like to respond to a specific point, please precede your comment by the corresponding number.

1. The photographer's camera and the camera obscura are constructed on the same principle as the human eye.

There has been a lot of scientific research in recent years about the differences between the eye and the camera, as summarized in this recent video "Eye vs. Camera":

(YouTube link) True, light goes through the lens and forms an image on the retina, but who is looking at the retina? In fact, image processing begins happening right away at the level of the photoreceptors. In a way, this new science confirms the fundamental point that Speed is trying to make, which is that we don't see with our eyes, but rather with our brains.

Recent science also tells us that our  perception of edge contours or lines is a basic part of visual processing. See previous post "Lines and the Brain" or Wikipedia on "Edge Detection."

2. The sense of touch vs. the sense of sight.

This notion of connecting drawing with the sense of touch is a powerful one. As I understand it, Speed is making the distinction between the sense of touch and the sense of sight in order to build toward his overarching teaching idea, which is to distinguish line drawing from "mass drawing." By mass drawing, he means tonal, impressionistic drawing.

I've been thinking this week about this idea of drawing as an extension of touch, and it occurs to me that a lot of the things we draw are kind of untouchable: a cloud, a mountain range, the silhouette of a skyscraper—or that cute model at the sketch group.

But for small still life objects, having an awareness of the feel of things can add so much to the conviction of the drawing.

3. The commonplace painter will paint a commonplace picture... 

In this section, he makes an interesting point that you can put two artists side by side painting the same scene, a beginner and a seasoned painter, and the experienced artist will recognize greater depth and power in the same scene. This is not due to technical tricks or better materials, but to their different way of seeing.

4. A. Type of first drawing made by children showing how vision has not been consulted. 
B. Type of what might have been expected if crudest expression of visual appearance has been attempted.

Harold Speed (Dover ed
I love the "A" and "B" diagram! At first I thought he was saying one way of seeing was better or more advanced than another, but I think in the end he's saying that they're just two different ways of seeing, and that we have to cultivate both.

Am I getting this right? Maybe I'm missing something. I look forward to your thoughts. 
The Practice and Science of Drawing is available in various formats:
1. Inexpensive softcover edition from Dover, (by far the majority of you are reading it in this format)
2. Fully illustrated and formatted for Kindle.
3. Free online edition.
4. Project Gutenberg version
Articles on Harold Speed in the Studio Magazine The Studio, Volume 15, "The Work of Harold Speed" by A. L. Baldry. (XV. No. 69. — December, 1898.) page 151.
and The Windsor Magazine, Volume 25, "The Art of Mr. Harold Speed" by Austin Chester, page 335. (thanks, अर्जुन)
GJ Book Club Facebook page  (Thanks, Keita Hopkinson)
Pinterest (Thanks, Carolyn Kasper)

Original blog post Announcing the GJ Book Club

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Preliminary Sketches for TYRANNOSAURS

First off: WOW! Thanks so much for your generous response to my new video "TYRANNOSAURS: Behind the Art," which documents the illustrations I just did for the May 2015 article in Scientific American Magazine.  Here's the trailer on YouTube if you missed it.

In this post, I would like to cover your desktop with preliminary sketches.

The article by scientist Stephen Brusatte mentions a number of early tyrannosaur relatives: Kileskus, Guanlong (both with impressive head ornaments); Yutyrannus and Dilong; and the dwarf arctic Nanugsaurus. Any of these are candidates for the title spread.

I use gouache, a good medium for rapid visualizing in color. I indicate headline and text blocks with a pen to try to imagine the final effect of the page. Everyone likes the idea of the multiple-predator interaction, shown in the sketch at the lower right. 

Freelance Art Director Juan Velasco and SciAm's Design Director Michael Mrak suggest expanding the art to fill the entire spread, with allowance for the headline to reverse out of the art. I do these black watercolor pencil sketches to explore various points of view, almost as if I was a movie director planning a shot. 

I paint this small comprehensive sketch (5 x 7.5 in) in casein to give the art director something more complete that he can use for the layout. We decide to stage the scene inside a forest rather than in the open plains. The art director wants to make sure the little Dilongs don't get too close to that gutter, and also that the back of Yutyrannus isn't tangent to the top of the frame.

Mindful of the risk of getting carried away with too much detail and middle tones, I remind myself to keep it simple. These black and white thumbnail sketches, sketched with a pigmented brush marker, force me to interpret the image to its tonal essentials.

Meanwhile, for the cover, we want to feature Qianzhousaurus, aka "Pinocchio Rex," a strange long-snouted tyrannosaur that happens to be one of the author's most celebrated finds. As fun as any of these would be to paint, none of them are really striking or simple enough in their design.

Design director Michael Mrak proposes that I show the face up close with a simple background, maybe coming into frame from above. I paint these two sketches in casein. The one on the left gets the magazine's approval, with the suggestion of flopping it left to right. 

Dr. Brusatte sends me more photos and drawings of the skull and asks me to reduce the convexity of the ventral end of the maxilla and to reduce the proportional depth of the skull. 

I do the pencil drawing directly on the heavyweight illustration board, using a fairly soft pencil. Note the light indication of the "S" of "SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN" to be sure I've got room for the graphics. The rest of the pencil work is darker than I might usually use, because I want it to show through the thin passages of paint. I seal the drawing with workable fixatif and acrylic matte medium before heading into the final paint. 

And here are the finished illustrations in context. You can watch all the steps up close and in action in the 40-minute full-length video workshop available now from Gumroad (credit cards) or Sellfy (Paypal).
Yesterday's post with stills from "Tyrannosaurs: Behind the Art"
Be sure to pick up a copy of the May issue of Scientific American"Rise of the Tyrannosaurs"