Thursday, November 27, 2008

Studio Tools: Paintbrush Holder

Value is of paramount importance while painting, and this is why there is no more a sinking feeling than when you lay a stroke of paint down on a wet canvas, just to find that your dirty brush has shifted the tint or tone of the area you were painting.  Do you scrape, do you paint the correct value in thicker, do you add a darker/lighter value and hope you mix it on the canvas back to where you intended...  Even painters of "mud" don't want to accidentally shift their values.  To avoid this, many artists clean their brushes often, or use many, many brushes in each session.

The paintbrush holder pictured here is a great tool to help you avoid the problem of crossing values.  It consists of 33 slots organized into three tiers of 11 holes per level.  The diameter of the holes reduce in size as you step down, enabling small brushes to fit snugly in the slots on the bottom row, medium brushes in the middle, and large brushes on the top row.  From left to right in each row, the holes correspond to values as established by Albert Munsell's color system;  from 10 (white) to 0 (black), with nine equal value steps in between.  In each column, the brushes are dedicated to a specific value, regardless of the hue.   This way all you need do is wipe the excess paint off the brush as you switch to a new hue of the same value.  The benefit of this is that it prevents value shifts created by the deposit of unintended leftover paint which had remained in the bristles (providing you put your brush back in the right spot), and it eliminates the need to clean the brush with solvent between switching colors (and taking the risk that leftover solvent will be transferred from your brush to the painting, damaging a finished section).  It also keeps your brushes from rolling onto the studio floor!

I based my brush holder off of the one Marvin Mattelson used when I first studied with him.  Knowing how he lays out his palette, it makes perfect sense to use a holder like this with a value based painting system.  Marvin later made improvements to his version, including stepped slots so the top row can hold all three sizes of brush handle (I tried this using 3 different size drill bits in each hole, but it didn't seem to work as well as his special bit, which was designed to cut all three widths with a single pass), and angled slots (90˚ in the top row, 60˚ in the middle, and 30˚ on the bottom) so the brushes were fanned out, making it easier to take and replace brushes (in mine, the brushes are all aligned perpendicularly).   Occasionally, he makes a couple of dozen of these and sells them to his students, but only when his schedule allows.

Someday, when I can set up a woodworking shop again, I hope to make more of my own studio furniture, and more painting tools like this one.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Color Palettes: Dennis Doheny (b. 1956)

Some time ago, I developed an unhealthy obsession with the color choices made by my favorite artists.  I think it all began in college when one of my teachers shattered my confidence by telling me I had horrible color sense because I had used burnt umber in one of my paintings, and "brown should never be used in a painting."  I read books on color theory but they never really addressed what it was for which I was searching, namely, controlling chroma without altering the hue with which I was working.  I decided that I might instead best learn by examining the palettes of other artists.  Whenever I came across the preferred colors of my favorite painters, I recorded them to see what choices they made, and  tried to learn from them.

Over time, I have come to understand that color choices are very personal, and that there are no wrongs in laying out your palette, though some choices might be more hindering than helpful.  Any hues can work together once you understand the different ways in which you can bring them into harmony.  It's important to learn color theory, read about different color systems, and to study specific color palettes, but in the end, it is also important to know that there is a lot of leeway in applying these systems.  

If you were to give ten different artists the same ten colors and ask them to paint the same scene, you would end up with ten very different paintings.  This is the way it should be.  Our color choices are but one of the ways in which we express our individuality as artists.

Having said that, this is the first of several posts I plan to make listing the color palettes of famous artists.

One of my favorite living landscape artists is Dennis Doheny of California.  Doheny, a former illustrator, has won numerous awards since turning his attention to fine art in 1996, including the Frederic Remington Painting Award at the recent 2008 Prix de West Invitational.  His level of detail, colors, and brushwork are all wonderful.

According to a recent article in the November 2008 issue of American Artist, Doheny's palette consists of the following colors:

•  Winsor Green
•  Cadmium Yellow Light
•  Alizarin Crimson
•  Cobalt Blue
•  Titanium White
•  Cadmium Orange
•  Cobalt Violet

Monday, November 17, 2008

Battle of the Sexes: Color Memory

Who remembers colors better?  Men or women?  Studies show that it is women who have the better color memory.

The theory for this difference in the sexes is based on evolution, and species survival.  When early man was busy outside the cave searching for red meat (hunter activity), the women were out searching for red berries (gathering).  Men developed the ability to track moving objects;  women on the other hand learned to tell the difference between the edible red berries and the poisonous red berries.  This is also why you don't run into many color blind women (the trait for color blindness is located on the X chromosome, and since women have two X chromosomes, they are less likely to have abnormal color vision on both - color blindness occurs in 0.4 percent of women, and 8 percent of men).

Of course, color memory can be affected by factors other than gender as well.  Age and color familiarity (using a variety of colors on a regular basis, perhaps in a work environment) also play their roles, and some colors are easier to remember than others.  Therefore a young male artist would most likely outmatch yellows with an eighty year old, retired, female lawyer in a color skill test.

Interestingly, the time delay between being exposed to a color and being asked to match that color from memory does not have a significant effect on memory.  If it did, then each harvesting season, early man would have had to learn the poisonous fruits all over again by trial-and-error.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Words of Wisdom

Jeremy Lipking

What the painter has to do is to see that the tone and colour design in his picture is governed by considerations of its emotional fitness to the impression he wishes to convey;  and not, as is often the case, left entirely to considerations of truth to natural appearances, which may or may not give him the tone and colour scheme he needs.

- Harold Speed   Oil Painting Techniques and Materials

In this quote by Speed, we are being encouraged to use tone to convey emotion, even though the scene before us might represent an entirely different tonal range, full of the entire value scale.  

Sometimes as realist or naturalist painters, we get too caught up in representing the actuality of the object or scene before us, and forget to impart enough of ourselves to our art.  When we don't lose sight of our original intentions and the emotional message we wish to transmit, we often transcend talent, and create true art.  

Jeremy Lipking's painting above is but one example of a successful compression of values to create an emotional theatre:  in this case, the mid-tonal range has produced a feeling of calm and serenity, quietness and introspection.  These feelings are further supported by Lipking's color scheme predominated by viridian, and the resulting overall cool hues in the portrait.

Contemporary Irish artist, P.J. Lynch accomplishes the same mood, in a similar manner, in his painting Cottage Plank Door, despite the lack of a human presence.

P.J. Lynch

Both paintings are favorites of mine.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bouguereau Catalog Raisonné Update

The Art Renewal Center announced on October 17th that the William Bouguereau Catalog Raisonné has finally been translated, and is expected to be available in the Spring of 2009.  The book will contain information on all 826 known paintings by Bouguereau, a 600 page biography on the artist by Damien Bartoli, 400+ B&W images, and 250-300 color images, at least 50 of which will be full-page.  The price tag is a hefty $370.00, but it does promise to be quite a large book, and I've been happy with other books published by Antique Collectors Club, so my hopes are high.  I put my deposit in two years ago.

For more information, click here.

December Auction: Illustration House

Illustration House in Chelsea is having another great auction of illustration art on December 6th.  Included in the sale are paintings by Frank Brangwyn, Charles Schulz, Haddon Sundblom, Jon Whitcomb, J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, and Mead Schaeffer.  You can see a preview of the auction online, and I assume, in the gallery itself.

Illustration House was founded in 1974 and is dedicated to the art and history of illustration.  Its owners, Walt and Roger Reed are renowned in illustration circles, and their book, The Illustrator in America, is the best "who's who" volume of the history of the field.  The gallery director, Frederic Taraba, wrote a series of wonderful articles on great illustrators for Step-by-Step Graphics which is due to be compiled and published soon in a single book, Masters of American Illustration.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Recommended Art Books

I recently pulled a few books off my shelf, and realized that I should have them on my recommended list.

On the Training of Painters (7th edition, ©2000) is a small, but educational, spiral-bound book published by The American Society of Classical Realism.  Written by Richard Lack, one of R.H. Ives Gammell's most influential students and a hero who kept realism alive during its deepest unpopularity, this book gives a great overview on the structure of atelier training.  In the first section of the book, Lack covers a comparison between academy, atelier, and college art education, Seeing, Cast Drawing, Figure Drawing, Still Life, Memory Drawing, Landscape Painting, Composition, Copying from the Masters, and Anatomy, to name a few.  The second section reprints articles Lack wrote for the Classical Realism Journal, featuring technical commentaries on The Venetian Method of painting, and Bistre Technique, including recommended modern palette equivalents.  The final section offers a wonderful book list broken down by categories of study:  anatomy, art history, composition, perspective, sight size, etc..

Unfortunately for us, The American Society of Classical Realism is now defunct, and the Classical Realism Journal and Quarterly are no longer printed, and, because of this, this book is difficult to find.  If you visit the old web address for ASCR, you are directed to the Richard Gandy Gallery of Realist Art, which specializes in artists who can trace their lineage through Gamell, Paxton, and the Boston School, including Richard Lack.  

Lack's atelier in Minnesota still exists, though Lack retired from art in 1992 due to health issues.  Former students of Lack keep the tradition alive, and the center, now simply called The Atelier, offers a bookstore which includes On the Training of Painters for $16.  The book is currently sold out.  I hope the manual is still in print, and that The Atelier will have more copies available soon.

Douglas Allen, Jr., is an excellent book on this star of the Golden Age of Illustration.  The first half of the book covers Wyeth's education under Howard Pyle, his illustration career, his religious paintings, murals, and gallery paintings.  The second half provides a listing of Wyeth's work in print.  There are great images in the book, though I have heard some complaints about too many of these being black and white.  Considering the book was originally published in 1972, the quality of the images and number of color examples is impressive, and for the price and size of this text, it is worth the money if you're a fan of Wyeth's art.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Drive-By Critiques

A friend of mine asked me about an old plein air piece I have up on my website, and it made me think again about my luck when I go out to paint.

On the particular day I was out painting, I knew I had limited time.  Having dropped my wife off at work earlier in the morning, I had intended to set up and paint immediately after returning home, but I got a late start, and found myself with a very short time to paint.  I set up along a seldom-used country road and began painting a crooked sycamore tree that hung over a small brook.  Things were going well, and I was happy with how the painting was coming out.

Now normally, if I had to stop painting at, let's say at 2:00 PM, I'd paint up to about 2:05, then scramble for 5 more minutes trying to pack up everything so I could make it to where I needed to be at a reasonably prompt time.  As I was happy with my progress, I knew I was going to stay as long as I could to finish this piece.

As I painted, I felt a presence behind me.  It was a slow moving car going by on the road.  I hadn't heard it approach because of my iPod.  I continued to paint, the remaining time being so  precious.  Suddenly, I heard an indistinct shout from the car (the iPod still filling my ears), and the car sped up, and a McDonald's cheeseburger went whizzing by my head.  A cheeseburger.  A sad, partially eaten cheeseburger.

I felt so disheartened.  I had already been so negative about my abilities before this day, and now I felt like a bad vaudevillian performer getting pelted with food.  Next would be a hook to pull me offstage.  Who was I to think I could be an artist?

I packed up and left, before my allotted time was entirely used.

Art critics are everywhere, and they can really get you down, but as I thought about this incident more, I became more positive about it.  After all, with critics like this, I'd never be a starving artist!  Nothing like painting in Jersey!

Eventually, I think I may go back and paint that spot again, but next time, I'll be watching those cars more closely.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Walter Launt Palmer (1854 - 1932)

When I attended the recent USArtists Exhibition in Philadelphia, I was introduced to the work of Walter Launt Palmer, an artist with whom I was previously unacquainted. There were several pieces of his work, all snowscapes, and I was really very impressed by them.  These paintings felt contemporary:  they did not show the characteristic calligraphy of the period and region (Hudson River) where they were created.  Also the colors, which showed impressionistic influence, were not overstated.  His method of applying mixed painting mediums (oil, pastel, and gouache) seems quite anachronistic, belonging more to the last few decades, and not the 19th century.  The paint was applied thinly over a white ground, and in many areas, the original loose pencil lines of the composition could be clearly seen, and this appeared to be more a result of the choice in paint application, and not because the transparency of the paint had increased with age.  His value and color control were wonderful, and he replicated these winter scenes fantastically;  when I was younger I often took long walks in the snow, and these paintings FELT like those times to me.

Walter Palmer was born in 1854 in Albany, New York.  As the son of the famous sculptor, Erastus Dow Palmer, Walter had privileged access to the best of the artistic community of his time.  At the age of 12, he received his first oil painting set from portraitist Charles Loring Elliott, and soon thereafter began his first formal study with family friend, landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church.  By the age of 18, his work was already being accepted into the National Academy of Design juried show of 1872.

In 1873, Walter travelled with his family to Europe, spending much of his time in Italy.  It was here that he befriended the 17 year-old John Singer Sargent, recognizing in him his talent, and admiring his "bold" and "vigorous" painting style^1.  By 1874, the young Palmer was studying with French artist Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, who was popular with American students such as Sargent, and who emphasized the direct application of paint to the canvas with little or no preparatory underpainting or drawing. 

Perhaps while he was studying there in France, Palmer was introduced to the Impressionists, when the independent Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artstes Peintres, Sculpeurs, Graveurs held their first show in April of 1874.  This fact is unclear, but upon his return to the United States in June of 1874, Palmer's work showed the influence of this avant garde group, placing Palmer among the first Americans to adopt the Impressionist's methods.   This foray into impressionism was short-lived, however, but these first few paintings were harbingers of his later winter landscapes.

Walter journeyed to Paris to study with Carolus-Duran again in 1876, and upon his return to the States in 1878, shared a studio with his previous teacher and friend, Frederic Edwin Church.  For the next few years, in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, Palmer focussed on creating paintings of Victorian interiors, which were well-received.  In 1881, he again revisited Europe in order to "paint some fine 'interiors' that are entirely lacking in our own country."^2

On an extended stay in Venice during this trip, while painting alongside such other notable artists as William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, and Robert Blum, Palmer decided to adopt an impressionist's pastel color palette to paint the famous waterways.  His paintings of Venice, which he showed until 1902, received a mixed reaction, nevertheless, he continued to work in this new palette, perfecting his colors and technique.  His genius seems to have reached its fruition, however, when he applied this new palette to scenes from his own beloved Northeast United States.

By the mid-1880's, Walter Palmer had moved back to Albany, New York, and had begun painting the snowscapes for which he would win so much acclaim.  He had become conscious of the art influences in New York City, which "disturb a painter's individuality and make him paint like other pictures and not like nature,"^3 but in Albany, he could work by himself, and refine his impressionistic technique.  In his winter scenes, Palmer found he could exercise his preferred palette as "snow, being colorless, lends itself to every effect of complement and reflection."^4  His mastery of tone was remarkable, and his subtlety of color, including his then unusual inclusion of pure blue in his shadows, brought him much attention and awards, and made his work quite desirable. 

Palmer painted his snow scenes from memory back in his studio, and encouraged students to do likewise.  "To the student wishing to tackle this problem of white and light, I might make a few suggestions.  Paint from memory if you can, from nature if you must.  Make endless sketches from nature with all possible fidelity and accuracy, then put them all out of sight and paint your picture from the facts that have been the most vividly recorded in your mind.  It will be a long time before you can do it, but it will be worth while when done."^5

Walter Launt Palmer continued to paint his winter snowscapes in his hometown of Albany and in his summer studio in Gloucester, Massachusetts until his death on April 16, 1932.  Despite his distance from New York City, Palmer was an active exhibitor, showing his work in nearly all major national and some international exhibitions during his lifetime.  His work, which fell out of favor after World War II and which was sold off by museums to make room for the work of the day, has only been re-discovered in the past 20 years as the paintings of the American Impressionists have regained their popularity and collectibility.


Most of the above information can trace itself back to the book, Walter Launt Palmer:  Poetic Reality by Maybelle Mann, Schiffer Publishing, Easton, PA, 1984.  

My reference for this information came from two other sources which can ultimately credit Ms. Mann for her research.  

The first of these is A Perfect Solitude:  The Art of Walter Launt Palmer (1854 - 1932) by Marshall N. Price, a gallery catalog released by Hawthorne Fine Art, LLC, to accompany an exhibition which ran from December 12, 2006 - February 10, 2007.  This is the same gallery which first introduced me to this wonderful artist.  

The second source was AskART, an online subscription service which provides examples of artist's work, biographies, exhibit schedules, and auction results for many artists.  For those who do not subscribe, you can still view the biographies of many artists on Fridays of each week, when AskART offers this service for free.  The biographies for Palmer listed on the AskART website were provided by Comenos Fine Art and Roughton Galleries, Inc..

1.  Walter Launt Palmer Diary, November 15, 1873.  Quoted in Mann, p. 12.
2.  Quoted in Mann, p. 21.
3.  The Daily Graphic, "A Group of Prize-Takers:  American Painters Who Have Won Their Laurels,"  July 2, 1887, p. 15.
4.,  quoted in Biography of Walter Launt Palmer as provided to AskART by Comenos Fine Art.
5.  Walter Launt Palmer, "On the Painting of Snow,"  Palette and Bench 2 (1910): p. 90.