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Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

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Frederic Church's Area-by-Area Process

This plein-air oil study by Frederic Church was left unfinished, which gives us a glimpse into his process.

Frederic Church's Area-by-Area Process
Bavarian Landscape; Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900)
USA; brush and oil, pencil on academy board.; 27.3 x 30 cm (10 3/4 x 11 13/16 in.)

Church first outlined big areas of the scene in pencil over a sealed and toned paper surface. He then covered them in oil paint from the top to the bottom. 

This area-by-area method of painting is sometimes called "window shading" because it's like pulling down a window shade.

Making the Matterhorn

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) increased the vertical dimension to add drama to his study of the Matterhorn.

Making the Matterhorn

He later produced a studio landscape of the mountain peak.

Making the Matterhorn

According to the Metropolitan Museum, which owns the painting, "In the summer of 1856, during a four-year period of study in Europe, Bierstadt joined several American colleagues on a sketching trip. His fascination with the Swiss terrain resulted in a series of oil studies and pencil sketches, executed during the trip, and several large canvases of the mountain landscape, painted upon his return to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He revisited Switzerland numerous times between 1867 and 1897 to do more sketching. In this dramatic view of the Matterhorn, the artist depicted the cloud-encircled peak in the distance, strikingly juxtaposed with a low, rocky foreground."

Book: Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West

With Bierstadt on a Painting Expedition

In 1859, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) organized a painting expedition in the high country of the Rocky Mountains. He sought out the help of William Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, a "mountain tramp" who knew his way around. 

With Bierstadt on a Painting Expedition

Byers recalled how the artist "said nothing, but his face was a picture of intense life and excitement. His enthusiasm was badly dampened, but the moment he caught the view, fatigue and hunger were forgotten. He said nothing, but his face was a picture of intense life and excitement. Taking in the view for a moment, he slid off his mule, glanced quickly to see where the jack was that carried his paint outfit, walked sideways to it and began fumbling at the lash-ropes, all the time keeping his eyes on the scene up the valley."

With Bierstadt on a Painting Expedition

Byers waited patiently for Bierstadt to finish the color sketch, which the artist thought had taken fifteen minutes. Byers said: "You were at work forty-five minutes by the watch!"

The artist produced one sketch after another, each time exceeding his estimate of how long it would take.

“Wait twenty minutes while I sketch this storm.” They waited, but twenty minutes flew by, and he was still at work. Thirty, forty, and fifty minutes, and then an hour was gone, and the artist, absorbed in his work, was earnestly engaged in transferring the natural sublimity before him to paper. At the end of an hour and a half the artist completed his sketch."

With Bierstadt on a Painting Expedition
With Bierstadt on a Painting Expedition

According to Eleanor Harvey in her book The Painted Sketch

"'It was claimed that the artist’s recording “every detail of so wide a view in time—sketches, each limited to twenty minutes, and each noting the time of day, and consequent relative position of the sun, is one of the secrets of M. Bierstadt’s success.' He also developed a reputation early in his career as a prolific artist in the field, evidenced by the weight of his accumulated materials.”

Books:

Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West 

The Painted Sketch: American Impressions From Nature, 1830-1880 by Eleanor Harvey

 

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect
Arthur Parton, Lake Scene, 1876

Several artists have accomplished this effect of a big gradation around the sun, which influences everything around the source. 

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect
Frederic Church

It's kind of difficult to paint this situation from real life because you can hurt your eyes looking straight into the sun. If it's veiled behind enough clouds, you can do it. Scenes like this are composed from memory and imagination. 

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect

Russian seascape painter Aivazovsky often applied the effect to seascapes. He suppresses contrasts in the far waves, allowing the big gradation to envelop them. 

Painting a Sunset Glow Effect
Franz Richard Unterberger, Venice Under Sunset

Unterberger captures an effect that is more of a perceptual impression than a photographic transcription.

Seascape Sketchbook of William Trost Richards

William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905) filled this sketchbook with remarkably detailed watercolor studies of English coastal scenery. 

Seascape Sketchbook of William Trost Richards

The medium is graphite and watercolor on beige, medium thick, smooth wove paper, 5 1/4 x 7 3/8 in. (13.3 x 18.7 cm). 

Seascape Sketchbook of William Trost Richards
The Brooklyn Museum, which owns this sketchbook, says: 

"Richards was a prolific artist who, as a leading member of the American Pre-Raphaelites, embraced the Ruskinian principle of truth to nature. Sketching outdoors played a significant role in his quest for accuracy of representation. Throughout his long career and extensive travels, he seems to have always carried a sketchbook with him, filling the pages with drawings of the places he encountered. The Brooklyn Museum owns more than twenty-five of Richards’s sketchbooks, including the ones on view here. Serving as pictorial diaries of his journeys, they also demonstrate the variety of his working methods, ranging from quickly rendered outlines to carefully modulated tonal compositions to finished color studies."

Olana Eye Shows Famous View

Olana Eye Shows Famous View

Olana, the home of landscape painter Frederic Church has installed a  live skycam on its tower. Called "Olana Eye," it lets anyone stream the famous view of the Hudson River at any hour and in any weather.

Olana Eye Shows Famous View
Frederic Church, The ‘Bend in the River’ from Olana,
c. 1870-73. Oil on academy board, 10 1/16 x 12 7/8 in. 
Church frequently painted the view looking southwest from his tower.

Olana Eye Shows Famous View
Frederic Church, "Winter Sunset from Olana"
Typically his sketches were small and rapid oil studies, capturing fast-changing effects of light and weather. His paint application is relatively thin, working to finished effect from top to bottom and from background to foreground.
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Link to Olana Eye

Gouache Seascape by William Trost Richards

The notes from the Brooklyn Museum say: "Already established as a landscape painter in oils, William Trost Richards began working in watercolor in earnest about 1870 and over the next decade was widely regarded as one of America’s best watercolorists." 

Gouache Seascape by William Trost Richards
William Trost Richards, American, 1833-1905, A High Tide in Atlantic City,
Opaque watercolor with touches of translucent watercolor   8 7/16 x 13 15/16 in. (21.4 x 35.4 cm)
on moderately thick, moderately textured wove paper
.

"This turn to the medium coincided with a new focus on coastal subjects—watercolor was particularly well suited both to sketching outdoors and to capturing the constantly shifting climatic conditions at the water’s edge."

Gouache Seascape by William Trost Richards

"He generally used an additive technique: laying down transparent washes of color and then applying touches of more opaque paints to create body and texture."
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Church's Palm Trees

Church's Palm Trees
Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826–1900, oil sketch showing the top of one palm tree, with a glorious crown of palm fronds, beside a pair of coarse, scaly trunks belonging to two different palm trees, June 1865, oil on paperboard
I'm guessing he painted this over a prepared gradation for the sky color. Click on the image to get the full study.

Focusing Light on One Part of the Painting

Olana is the Hudson Valley home of 19th century landscape painter Frederic Church (1826-1900) (Link to YouTube video


My goal in this plein-air gouache/watercolor study is to focus light on one part of the painting.


Frederic Church himself inspires me to try this kind of lighting, given that he distributes the light in his paintings in a theatrical way.


Frederic Church designed his home, inspired by his travels in the Holy Land. 
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Frederic Church on Wikipedia

Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Edwin Church's Views from Olana (The Olana Collection)



Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

Today the National Gallery in Washington opens the exhibition "American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists."

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
John William Hill, Bird's Nest and Dog Roses, 1867
watercolor, gouache, and graphite
The exhibit examines a group of American artists that were inspired by the English critic John Ruskin. Ruskin advocated that young artists should go to Nature ‘rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’ 

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Thomas Charles Farrer, Mount Tom, 1865, oil on canvas,
The show includes more than 90 works of art, including oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings, some never before exhibited. One of the American leaders of the movement was English expatriate Thomas Charles Farrer, who was instrumental in spreading Ruskin's philosophy of close observation of nature.

Oddly enough, the curators left out Asher B. Durand from the selection of exhibited artists. He was a central figure in advocating truth-to-nature philosophies and practices, at least as much as Ruskin was. Although Durand didn't mention Ruskin by name in his Letters on Landscape Painting, he exemplified many of Ruskin's philosophies in his careful studies of trees and landscapes, and he gave Ruskin's ideas his own American slant. Durand exhibited these studies to a rising generation of landscape painters at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he was president from 1845-1861. Contrary to the impression left by the catalog essay, which quotes critics accusing Durand of belonging to a "past age and a dead system," in fact he remained an influential advocate of close observation, celebrated and beloved by younger artists until his death in 1886.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Henry Roderick Newman, Study of Elms, 1866, watercolor, 17 x 19 in.
The catalog begins with seven essays examining roots of the truth-to-nature philosophies, the role of photography in their work, their interest in still life painting, and the iconography of American Pre-Raphaelites.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Charles Herbert Moore, Hudson River, Above Catskill
One of the authors devotes twenty pages to the idea that some of the landscape paintings contain veiled references to the Civil War, Abolitionism, and other hidden political agendas. For example, the boat pulled up on shore in Charles Herbert Moore's painting Hudson River, Above Catskill is described as a "wrecked or stranded boat emblematic of a foundered ship of state and the associated fears for and even a loss of faith in the American corporate enterprise during and following the Civil War."

While some artists were certainly painting landscapes with political overtones during this period, I'm a bit skeptical of some of these interpretations. In the case of the Moore landscape above, maybe the boat was there because someone just beached his rowboat above the high tide line (the Hudson River above Catskill is tidal).

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
William Trost Richards Corner of the Woods,
1864, graphite, 23 x 17.5 in.
I wish the catalog's editors had devoted less page space to political theories (why not publish those online?) and instead tell the factual and humorous stories of the artists. What logistical challenges did they face, and what practical methods did they use? There are a lot of vivid, first-hand accounts in letters and journals to draw upon. I also wish the editors would consult practicing painters and conservators to give themselves more of a grounding in the concerns the actual artists faced.

Or better yet, cut back on the text and devote more pages to reproductions of artwork.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
John William Hill, Apple Blossoms, watercolor, 1874, 9 x 15.5 in.
Despite those quibbles, the 312-page catalog is worth the cost ($65 list, $42 on Amazon) for the 210 color illustrations. There are high quality reproductions of all the works in the show, plus several closeups.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Fidelia Bridges, Study of Ferns, oil on board, 10 x 12 in.
Catalog Review: American Pre-RaphaelitesI was especially impressed with the 11 works by William Trost Richards and the six samples by Fidelia Bridges. The back of the book includes an exhibition checklist, a timeline, artist biographies, notes, and index.
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Catalog: The American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists on Amazon
Exhibition: American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists will be up through July 21, 2019.


Frederic Church's Area-by-Area ProcessMaking the MatterhornWith Bierstadt on a Painting ExpeditionPainting a Sunset Glow EffectSeascape Sketchbook of William Trost RichardsOlana Eye Shows Famous ViewGouache Seascape by William Trost RichardsChurch's Palm TreesFocusing Light on One Part of the PaintingCatalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

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