Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cloud Study

I am a man who is intoxicated by clouds.  Cumulus, stratus, cumulo-nimbus, cirrus, lenticular.  Clouds are incredible.

Clouds are also extraordinarily difficult to paint.

This is a painting from a photograph taken in Kaua'i.  It's a sunrise shot.  The bright sun was rising to the left of the picture (obviously), and, as is often true in Hawai'i, the sky was hugely interesting.  Clouds in layers, clouds hangin' out by themselves, clouds obscuring the sun, clouds revealing the sun.  Big, puffy, beautiful, gray, purple, yellow clouds.

What makes clouds so difficult to paint?  Start with their complexity.  Clouds come in a multitude of shapes, they're changing all the time, and they're heavily layered, lying over and under each other in glowing sandwiches.  And that's the other difficult thing about clouds: they glow.  They're luminous.  Light plays on them and light flows out from them.  Finally, add in the element of color.  A uniformly "gray" cloud is a very rare thing.  They come in (or contain) pretty much every color there is.

All of these factors make clouds particularly worth painting.  They're great for practice in wet-in-wet techniques, glazing, melding colors, striving for luminosity.

I feel OK about this particular cloud study - in fact, I'd call it one of the best I've ever done.  And it also, as ever, reveals to me all that I need to work on: painting darker than I think I need to, building contrasts, and creating shapes with brush strokes.  

I love painting clouds.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

More on Portraits

This is the best profile portrait I've ever done of Anna Maria.  On seeing it again, I'm surprised it was only a ten-minute painting.  Sometimes it seems like limited time makes for a better drawing, and of course realism is all about the drawing.

I was looking at an edition in a store yesterday of Leonardo's notebooks.  One section of the book was all about human anatomy: how the body is proportioned.  I don't remember the exact words, but in one entry Leonardo notes that the inset or "cut" on the chin underneath the mouth is half the distance between the lower lip and the bottom of the chin.  Who'd have thought it?  Just guessing, I'd have said, "oh, a quarter of the way down, I suppose."  But no: on this fairly accurate capturing of Anna Maria's profile, here's the right answer.  Yup, it's about halfway down.

There are lots of surprises like these.  The classic one is the proportions of the head.  The "face proper" - i.e., the features of eyes, nose, and mouth - only takes up the lower half of the head.  When you first hear this, you don't believe it: "what?   The eyes are at the middle line of the head?  Naaah."  But it's true.  And I think this is a very interesting fact.  By the time we are five, we all are expert at drawing "faces": you draw a circle and put in dots for eyes and nose and a curve for the mouth and then you put squiggly lines at the top of the circle for the hair.  Right?  

To my mind, this universality of facial representation is proof that the drawing lives inside of us always: drawing is about changing the mind.  The face is what the mind thinks the face is, not what faces "really" are.  I still have a hard time getting facial proportions right (I think Anna Maria's forehead is a bit too shallow in this portrait).  

Thus the art of naturalistic or realistic drawing and painting is a practice of "loving what is," to quote Byron Katie.  It's a practice of getting outside the world in our heads and understanding the old world newly and freshly.  Realism is nothing less than the quest to change what the mind thinks the world looks like.

Monday, September 22, 2008


This tomato, which I painted yesterday, was really fun to paint.  It helped me get a bit of my art mojo back.  I like the red I cobbled together from alizarin crimson and light red, and I like the light reflecting off the top and side.  The shadow underneath, a greenish black for complement's sake, is nice too.

Tomatoes are what it's all about for me - late summer I mean.  It seems to have taken a while, but now we are having a surfeit of sweet heirloom tomatoes in the local groceries.  Delicious.

As much as I like the red of the tomato, this painting offers an excellent example of the limits of paint.  Yeah, my red here is nice, but you should see the red on the original.  It has a ruby depth that is simply incommunicable in paint, or at least in watercolor.  Maybe you could do better with oils.  As pretty as this painting is, what we have here is a pale shadow of the Creator's real tomato.

No matter.  My job is to taste the tomato with paint before I taste it with my tongue.  Mmmm.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Losing My Art Mojo

Work is killing me lately.  In my day job, I've taken upon myself bold new duties that are straining my resources in a number of ways.  I seem to eat, sleep, and live to work.  As that happens, the energy and delight I felt around painting during the summer seem to have receded.

The last two Wednesdays at life-drawing class have been sort of torturous.  My drawings seem poor, my schtick with the paints seems stale, my engagement with the models and the other artists is just not there.  Last Wednesday, our model was my friend Angela again.  I felt blocked, and now I feel that I've let down her and the whole class.

My favorite quote in the world is by William Blake: "Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius."  I think Blake is saying a lot of things in this quotation, but one of the things  is a militancy against perfectionism.  When I really look at my most recent paintings, I see that I have improved; but my standards have shifted too.  Hence the perfectionism monster rears his ugly head once again.

If I am serious about aquarelle being my spiritual practice, then my job is to get out the paints even when I don't feel up to it.  Buddhist monks don't sit on the meditation cushion only when they feel like it.  Today I will put brush to paper.

Grace never leaves us.  In this painting, Stefanie is simply sitting.  Her "simply sitting" is incomparably beautiful when I perceive the grace (meant in both the physical and the spiritual senses) involved in so simple an act.  Why can't I always see the grace involved each time I put color onto white paper?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paintings from Photos 2

Here's another painting from a photograph, this one of my wife on the beach on our last morning in Kaua'i last June.  Yes, this is a sunRISE.  I never did shift into the proper time zone on that trip.

I painted this for two reasons: 1) I love the photo, and 2) I am working to get the hang of capturing intense light in my watercolors.  I'll say a few words about this challenge.

One of the first things an aspiring watercolorist learns, I think, is that that special luminosity to watercolor as a medium - that "zing" you feel when you see a painting that's preternaturally natural in terms of its depiction of light - is actually a very hard thing to make happen.  Like me, I bet, most beginning watercolorists make a lot of mud on the page when they start out.  That idea of using the white of the paper for the lightest hues and values in the painting sounds great in theory but in practice it's a very odd thing to arrange.

But you get better at leaving white paper.  As you do, you realize that just "leaving the paper" is only one piece of a complicated equation that creates a painting that sings.  Why, you think, are my paintings so boring, so flat, so zing-free, even though I have dark spots and white spots?  So you buy books, and you start being able to talk the language of "warm tones" and "cool tones" and value contrast.  And you practice.  As above.

I don't think I'm doing too badly here.  But the sad reality you grasp pretty early on is that the hues and values of nature are infinitely more intense or subtle than any painterly medium can ever hope to attain.  It's heartbreaking, but then all painting is heartbreaking: you make something that, however good it is, can only hope to carry you back into the world full of even more wonder than you had when you first put your brush on the paper.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


One of the great pleasures of figure drawing is the excuse it gives you to look.  And keep looking.  And look some more.

I think that all human beings, really, are scopophiliacs.  We are not all voyeurs, most certainly, but we all love to look at people, and we all feel embarrassed and "caught" when we are found to be looking a little too long or a little too intently.  Maybe it's a more urgent concern for men as opposed to women, but I don't really think so.  Women are just better at checking out men and women and doing so surreptitiously.  (Maybe there is a little more carnality to men's looking.)

One of the women who paints with us on Wednesday night marveled at Krissy, the model in this painting.  "She has a great butt!," she said.  I had to agree.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Still Life: Pear

Here's another older painting from my beautiful handmade book.  I like this d'anjou pear.

I first learned the art of glazing from a book on botanical illustration that my girlfriend at the time owned.  I don't remember the actual title or the author or publisher.  But it was full of very realistic watercolor renditions of flowers, leaves, and fruit.  I said to myself, "that's the kind of work I want to do!"  And lo and behold, the book showed me how.

I needed courage to put more paint over paint that had already been laid down.  This is what "glazing" means.  It's a variation on "wet-on-dry" painting, where the paint goes on in translucent layers.  You get great effects that way, retaining a classic watercolorish luminosity where you want it and a rich opacity where you need it for realism.

Fruit is one of my favorite things in the world.  What a miracle it is: a clear gift from the trees and from our Creator.  For painters, it has the great virtue of  being beautiful and sitting still.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Painting from Photographs

Here's a capture of a photograph in a book of poses I own (Mark Edward Smith, The Nude Figure: A Visual Reference for the Artist, New York: Watson-Guptill, 1998).  The drawing was made with the help of a pencilled grid, and then I filled in, playing with variations on purple and lavender (great shades for shadows).

I do a lot of painting from photographs, and I love doing so.  Most of these paintings I really shouldn't display publicly, as I tend to work from copyrighted images, purely for my own amusement, study, and practice.  There is no shortage of great nude figure studies available on the internet!  I know you're all surprised to hear that.  

I really like to paint from photographs.  As I've said all along, I am intoxicated with realistic or naturalistic images - I wish to "capture" some of the truth of my subject, whether a human being, a cow, or a cloud.  In contrast to plein-air painting, working from photographs allows you to really study an image: its lines, the way shadow and light fall on various planes and curves, the real shapes of nature.  I really like to work with the grid system, because the grid helps me see exactly how the image looks, exactly how much space it takes up, exactly how the parts merge into a whole.  Sometimes when I'm drawing, I'm amazed at how much or how little one feature or other takes up - the head of this model as opposed to his legs, for instance.  Drawing is of course the practice of seeing past the shapes our brains want us to see, of seeing what's really there.  In making such a drawing, our brain pathways get reshaped.  I know that drawing from photographs has helped me draw more realistically in life-drawing classes, and vice versa.

My favorite achievement in aquarelle is to have captured an image realistically.  Completing an image that really looks like what I'm trying to paint, an image that has the indefinable "click" into reality, is what it's all about for me.  This painting is a pretty good case in point, I think.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Cold Day in Toronto

Pity the poor plein-air artist.

I painted this picture of a beautiful English-Norman-style tower at the University of Toronto in October 2005.  The picture is sort of weak (too little tonal or color contrast between the architectural details and the sky is the biggest fault).  But I forgive myself.  

You know the experience of a cold day constricting your bladder?  Well, I began this painting around ten in the morning, I guess, sitting under a tree across the lawn from this lovely tower.  The sky was cloudy from the first moment I put the pencil on the paper.  After I did so, as happens in painting (this is the zen of it), time disappeared.  It was a chilly, humid day - the kind of chill that goes straight down to your marrow.  I came out of my painting reverie two-and-a-half hours later, when it started to rain.  You can see the splotches of the drops.  They make a sort of neat effect in the clouds.

"This painting is done," I decided.  And then I realized that I could barely move my fingers because they were so frozen.  And that I REALLY had to pee.  And that I had no real idea where I was or where a restroom might be located.  There were no handy trees either.  Somehow I found a toilet and then took myself back to our hotel room, where, if memory serves, I took a long, hot shower.

Plein-air is extreme painting.  You sacrifice your safety, your comfort, your very life sometimes, I suppose, to get to that space and place where the world comes down to you, your brush and paints, your visual vocabulary, and that piece of the world that has inspired you to look at more closely.  The pitfalls are many, the worst of which is the simple reality that much plein-air work is weak: you don't have those studio comforts to support you toward excellence.

Of course it's all about the journey.  I'm really glad to have gotten to know this corner of the University of Toronto.