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.
This is true at the level of individual leaves or fronds, such as these leaves in a rain forest. Note the gradations within each leaf, with the lightest values at the tips of the leaves and the darkest values at their bases where they attach.
With transmitted light, this darkening at the proximal end is a consequence of both the greater material thickness at the base, and the lesser amount of light arriving at the top surface due to occlusion from nearby forms.
In this painting from Dinotopia: First Flight, I was conscious of varying the color and value of the leaves and making them lighter at the tips, especially when we see them illuminated by the yellow-green transmitted light.
The principle is also true on a larger scale, not just at the level of a leaf, but also at the level of entire trees when you look at them in indirect light.
Ivan Shishkin, Woodland. 1889. Oil on canvas. 39 1-2 x 29 in. Date 1889
Although he was a devoted and prolific outdoor painter, Russian landscape painter Ivan Shishkin was also a big fan of photography, according to an article in the Russian archives.
He became closely involved with photos while working in Andrey Karelin's photography studio in 1870, coloring black and white photos for an album that was presented to emperor Alexander II.
Shishkin encouraged his students to work from photos, especially in the depths of winter, for example, when painting outdoors was impractical. Shishkin wrote in one of his letters:
"... Let me give you one major piece of advice, that underlies all of my painting secrets and techniques, and that advice is — photography. It is a mediator between the artist and nature and one of the most strict mentors you'll ever have. And if you understand the intelligent way of using it, you'll learn much faster and improve your weak points. You'll learn how to paint clouds, water, trees — everything. You'll better understand atmospheric effects and linear perspective and so on..."
Shishkin enlarged details with a magnifying glass, and he also used a projector. When he came to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1897, he specifically mentioned the need for a "magic lantern" type projection device to aid in student learning, not only for enlarging photos, but for presenting drawings at a larger scale.
Although photographs were used widely by artists during his time, Shishkin was conscious of not mindlessly copying. He told his students that the way an artist uses a photo will reveal the artist with talent, because "a mediocre artist will slavishly copy all the unnecessary detail from photos, but a man with a flair will take only what he needs."
Shishkin's enthusiasm for modern tools like photography is not surprising during an era of technological innovation, and in an age of positivism, which placed a value on verifiable facts. His friend, portrait painter Ivan Kramskoi also used photography, and he probably used one to guide his portrait of Shishkin below:
Portrait of Shishkin by Ivan Kramskoi
But Shishkin never regarded photography as a substitute for painting outdoors from life. Kramskoi marveled at his productivity: "He paints two or three studies a day and completely finishes each of them."
Shishkin wrote: "In the case of art - be it art, architecture, such practice is of the greatest importance. It alone allows the artist to appreciate the substance of the raw material which nature presents. Therefore, the study of nature is necessary for any artist, but especially for the landscape."
Shishkin knew as much about individual plant forms as did the professional botanists of his day. He probably would have agreed with the critic Adrian Prakhov, who said, "I love the original character of every tree, every bush, and every blade of grass, and as a loving son who values each wrinkle on the face of his mother."
Shishkin said, "Work every day as if it is your daily duty. There's no need to wait for inspiration! Inspiration is the work itself!" ------
At sunrise I'm standing at the bottom of an entrance ramp leading down into a parking lot in Kingston, New York. It's not a place that tourists would ever think of going.
Entrance Ramp, casein, 5 x 8 inches.
Instead, ordinary people come here on their daily routines. At this hour it's mainly older guys arriving for fitness sessions at the YMCA and patients showing up for appointments at the nearby radiology lab.
Off in the hazy distance is a tangle of street lights, utility poles and cell towers. The sun is coming up hot. A few pools of cool air settle in the shadows around my ankles.
I limit my casein colors to three (plus white): raw umber, golden ochre, and cobalt blue. The underpainting of tinted Venetian red adds a contrasting hue. (By the way, using a contrasting colored underpainting is a legal way to sneak in an additional color in the "Outdoor Market Challenge.)
Halfway into the block-in. The blue-yellow limited palette mixes with the red of the underpainting.
Covering the surface with grayish opaques is like putting out a fire. A few red embers still glow.
Now I can concentrate on the close value contrasts and the oppositions of warm and cool colors.
I'm glad I've got my night-painting Department of Art shirt on, because I'm standing a little ways into the road.
As I paint, I wonder about strange stuff, like why poles are never vertical, and who chose those ball-shaped street lights, and what the sounds would have been like here 100 years ago. I think this sunken parking lot was once the basement of a bustling factory.
With two colors that are near complements, it's fun to work over a surface primed with a color from the far side of the spectrum. I'm using blue and red over yellow. The yellow is about 95% covered up, but where it peeks through, it energizes the color scheme like a pinch of spice.
You might try orange + violet + white over a cyan underpainting, or yellow + cyan + white over magenta. You can also introduce black, either as an accent if you want to deepen the darks, or if you want to use it as a color of its own (such as black + orange + white over blue).
A two-color-plus-white palette has some advantages:
1. It's extremely fast to set it up and get it running. (I was painting while Jeanette was still fooling with her umbrella.)
2. It's good for beginners because it reduces your choices to light or dark and warm or cool.
3. It puts you into realms of color that you would never think of if you had all the color choices available.
I was using casein, but this method would work for any opaque paint: gouache, acrylic, or oil. If you're doing the painting in gouache, the priming should be done with a paint that gives a sealed surface (such as colored gesso, acrylic, or acryla gouache) so that wet layers don't pick it up.
I had to wait for a day that was just above freezing. Before leaving on the painting trip, I prepared a page of the book with a casein underpainting— a warm color area surrounded by cool colors. I had a vague idea of using that abstract color field for some subject that I could light selectively.
The casein underpainting presents a closed surface to the gouache, so it won't pick up the wet washes, and it makes the watercolor paper a little less absorbent. But the best part is that the color field suggested possibilities for the overlaying washes of semi-opaque color. --- Own the 72-minute feature "Gouache in the Wild" • HD MP4 Download at Gumroad $14.95 • or HD MP4 Download at Sellfy (for Paypal customers) $14.95 • DVD at Purchase at Kunaki.com (Region 1 encoded NTSC video) $24.50
Fidelity Bridges, Milkweeds, 1876. Watercolor and gouache on paper
Fidelia Bridges (1834 - 1923) was known for her meticulous botanical studies, many of which were painted outdoors in nature.
Both of her parents died when she was in her teens. She never married, but had a small circle of friends, including Mark Twain, for whom she served for a time as a governess of his daughters.
She lived by herself in a home in Canaan, Connecticut, overlooking a stream and a flower garden filled with birds and butterflies. A writer of the time described her this way:
"She soon became a familiar village figure, tall, elegant, beautiful even in her sixties, her hair swept back, her attire always formal, even when sketching in the fields or riding her bicycle through town. Her life was quiet and un-ostentatious, her friends unmarried ladies of refinement and of literary and artistic task who she joined for woodland picnics and afternoon teas."
Fidelia Bridges, Calla Lily, 1875
She was inspired by reading John Ruskin's Modern Painters, which preached truth to nature. She found her way to study under William Trost Richards, who became a lifelong mentor. Her early studies in watercolor and gouache, such as this one of a calla lily, show a patient and observant eye.
Bridges was one of only seven women who became members of the American Watercolor Society in the 19th century. She worked for the Prang company in her later career, and her work was often reproduced on greeting cards.
William Trost Richards painted Into the Woods when he was about 27 years old. It's in oil, and it's not large (15.5 x 20 inches / 39.7 x 51 cm).
William Trost Richards, Into the Woods, oil/canvas, 1860
I would guess that it was painted entirely on the spot in at least a dozen sittings, and probably in at least two different locations. As with some of Asher B. Durand's woodland studies, the foreground and background seem to be composited together. Such complete vistas rarely exist readymade in nature.
The painting caught the attention of the art public of his time. He had read Elements of Drawingand Modern Painters, the books by John Ruskin which urged young artists to be absolutely faithful to the small details of nature.
William Trost Richards, Woodland Brook, 1861
Several artists tried to take up the idea, but WTR did so with the most tenacity. One observer said "he persisted, and carried imitation in art further" than the other pioneers. Another commentator noted that he had "a slow, keen vision, and a slow, sure hand."
Other critics argued that he missed the poetry for the details. In fact, WTR shifted his attention more to express the moods of light and atmosphere in his later canvases. Ruskin suggested that young artists begin by modeling themselves after the Pre-Raphaelites, and with that under their belts, try to emulate the more evocative aspects of Turner.
The largest collection of outdoor paintings by Frederic Church (1826-1900) is held by the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York City. They acquired about 2000 of them back in 1917 when Church's son, Louis Palmer Church, was cleaning out the attic.
Frederic Church, Palm Trees and Housetops, Ecuador, May 1857, Cooper Hewitt
Church's field studies are notable for their precision, delicacy, and uber-photographic clarity. He made them not to sell, but as references for his epic studio canvases.
Church's field studies were painted on paperboard, and are fairly small. This tree study is just 9 x 12.
As finicky and precise as these paintings look, they are painted very efficiently. The sun and clouds moved through the sky as fast for Church as they do for us!
The paint is applied thinly over a graphite preliminary drawing. Sometimes the drawing is visible through the paint.
This unfinished sketch of Jerusalem from 1868 shows how he covered the pencil drawing in an "area-by-area" method, thinly, from top to bottom.
Because of the way oil paint can retain its brush character when it is scrubbed on, he suggests a lot of detail with a bristle brush. The foreground trees seem to have their full complement of leaves, but the light leaf textures are the light-toned board showing through. The line of trees at the bottom probably went down in a matter of seconds.
Find out more
• The Cooper Hewitt is currently exhibiting some of the sketches at the Metropolitan Museum through a special arrangement, since the Met doesn't own any of his studies.
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.
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
Surfaces 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."
On Thursday, April 2, Jeanette and I web-streamed a plein-air painting to viewers around the world using ConcertWindow.com. We webcast from the parking lot of the Beekman Arms Hotel in Rhinebeck, NY using public wifi from the hotel.
Here's the painting in gouache, which took about an hour from start to finish. I streamed with an iPad2 using BUSK, Concert Window's streaming app for iOS smart phones and tablets.
This is the prototype iPad holder that I built. It's made of plywood and a piece of picture frame. But it's not adequate because it doesn't protect the iPad enough from a fall risk. I'll build an improved prototype and share that with you.
iPad holder for a camera tripod
Having the iPad on a tripod allows for a lot of flexibility of camera angles, letting me tilt the view down to the palette and up to the painting and the subject. I also had the option of switching the view from one side of the iPad (the sketch) to the other (me talking).
We were just testing this out, really, so we didn't announce, schedule, or promote the show. But the word mysteriously spread, and 53 viewers magically found their way to the stream. There were viewers all across the USA and Canada, and also in Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, as well as fellow artists watching from work at Hallmark Cards, ILM, and Pixar. The interactive quality of the show was fun for all. People could ask us to change the camera angle or ask any question about the process. Thanks to all who watched. We appreciated your comments, questions, and generous tips.
(Link to YouTube video) Here's a random clip from the webcast to give you the flavor of it. Streaming an on-the-spot painting is filled with unexpected risks and surprises. We had motorcycles revving up around us, trucks backing, beeping, and blocking the motif. While we were painting, several passersby came up and interacted with us, and they became part of the webcast.
A few people told me this was the first ever web-streamed plein-air painting. I'm not sure—was it really? At least I'm pretty sure it was the first stream on a monetized platform of an outdoor painting using a public wifi connection. About the monetization: Shows can be set to be free, "Pay What You Want" ($1 minimum) or performers can set ticket price. Viewers can tip while the show is in progress. Concert Window splits the revenue: 70% to the artist / 30% to Concert Window.
It helped to have an extra laptop so that Jeanette could be moderator and read the chat stream aloud. I tried to answer questions as I painted, or if I was concentrating too much, she answered them.
If you want to be sure you don't miss my next plein-air webcast, be sure to check Concert Window's James Gurney page and press the "Follow" button. They'll email you next time I go live.
If you're thinking of doing a webcast, I recommend it. It's free to sign up and do a show. You could stream your demos, connect with your gallery clients, and be on the cutting edge of new technology. And you can webcast using your smart phone from anywhere there's cell coverage, or from a laptop anywhere there's wifi.