Saturday, April 25, 2015

Baby Foxes Nursing

(Link to YouTube video) A few days ago, I filmed this family of red foxes at the edge of the wild woods behind my house. The male fox greets the vixen as she nurses five new kits. The mother's lactation lasts for about six weeks.

Friday, April 24, 2015

GJ Book Club: Chapter 4: "Line Drawing"

On the GJ Book Club, we're studying Chapter 4, "Line Drawing," of 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.

John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915) Oil on canvas; 52 1/4 x 63 5/8 in.
1. Attention to line can give a work an "innocence and imaginative appeal" that is often lost in work that is concentrating on "the more complete realization of later schools."

Harold Speed will give us a later chapter on the practicalities of line drawing, but for this short chapter he concentrates on the aesthetics of line. He associates line with the sense of touch, but also with more primitive and stylized perception, and that's the core of what he's exploring here. 

He makes reference to Botticelli and other early artists who used line predominantly. In the centuries that followed, chiaroscuro and form modeling came to dominate the thinking and made people forget about the power of line.

Artists in Asia were not as obsessed with chiaroscuro in the photographic / impressionist side of things. I was reading a book about the history of photography (Photography: The Definitive Visual History), and it said that when photographs were first introduced in Japan, people didn't like them because they thought they missed the essential truth of what they saw. Now, with the ubiquity of photos, we tend to regard a photograph as a true and complete representation of our vision, but people in Japan and China didn't think so.

2. The eye only sees what it is on the look-out for.

Speed makes this point only in passing, but it's something that I think about a lot. We see what we want to see. This was the theme of an episode in Dinotopia: The World Beneath (see previous post on Pareidolia and Apophenia).

Detail from Titian's "Three Ages of Man"
3. All through the work of the men who used this light and shade...the outline basis remained. Leonardo, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Titian, and the Venetians were all faithful to it as the means of holding their pictures together; although the Venetians, by fusing the edges of their outline masses, got very near the visual method to be introduced later by Velasquez.

Line and tonal modeling aren't mutually exclusive, nor must one use a hard edge throughout a picture to have a good sense of line. The Titian above combines a fine sense of line with a sophisticated feeling for edges.

4. The accumulation of the details of visual observation in art is liable eventually to obscure the main idea and disturb the larger sense of design. 

The problem, according to Speed, comes not only from losing a sense of the contour, but also adding so many small details and textures that the larger shapes are lost.

Speed's cautions about the late 19th century obsession with naturalism, and he points to a time in the academies when line drawing fell out of fashion. He says the use of the stump for blending charcoal added to the problem. Does someone out there know why Speed was so negative about the stump? He doesn't really explain his reasons for disliking it.

5. Art, like life, is apt to languish if it gets too far away from primitive conditions.

It's notable that the Fauvists and other neo-primitive movements were becoming active in Western art as he was writing this a hundred years ago. European and American artists were also appreciating the currents of art coming from China, Japan, and India.

Speed says that if you're going to study past movements, "to study the early rather than the late work of the different schools, so as to get in touch with the simple conditions of design on which good work is built."

6. No wonder a period of artistic dyspepsia is upon us.

Perhaps even truer now than it was in Speed's day!

Animation model sheet of Disney's Bambi by Milt Kahl
7. Line as contour vs. line of action

One last thought that I had in reading the chapter is that Speed seems to be talking about line mainly as the outer contour, but I think it's equally important to think of the line of action, the central gesture traveling through the center of all the forms. The great animators carried Speed's ideas forward into a whole new art form, and it is probably in the realm of animation that the art of line was most perfectly developed in the 20th century.

I look forward to your thoughts, and I enjoyed the discussion last week.
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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 Archive.org 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)
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GJ Book Club Facebook page  (Thanks, Keita Hopkinson)
Pinterest (Thanks, Carolyn Kasper)

Original blog post Announcing the GJ Book Club

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Imagining Dinosaurs with Feathers

This month, two Canadian paleontologists speculated about the origin of feathers in dinosaurs. Link


'One thing you can do with really, really simple feathers ... is you can use them as whiskers,' says Scott Persons, PhD candidate at University of Alberta, and Philip Currie, professor and Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology. Whisker-like forms functioning as tactile sensors turn up in many different kinds of animals, including mammals, insects, fish, and birds.

Back in 2011, a paper published in Science showed a variety of feather structures preserved in Late Cretaceous Canadian amber.


The feathers are of all types, from downy filaments to more complex structures. They match up well with the compression fossils found in northeast China.


Since the feathers were dissociated from the animals they covered, it's possible that some of these feathers came from birds living at the time of dinosaurs. Some coiled barbules are similar to the water-absorbing feathers in diving birds, such as grebes.


The feathers show light and dark banding and other coloration patterns. In this example the brown masses are concentrated pigmentation that would have given the animal a dark brown appearance.

It's important to note that not all dinosaurs had feathers, as skin impressions from hadrosaurs and other types dinosaurs have shown.

Feathers associated with Yutyrannus, courtesy Nature


On the cover of the May issue of Scientific American Magazine is my painting of a feathered Qianzhousaurus. The editor told me it's the first time the magazine has showed a feathered dinosaur on the cover. 

The inside spread shows two early Cretaceous dinosaurs known to have had feathers.


I produced a 40-minute video workshop about the making of those paintings, available as an HD digital download from Gumroad (credit cards) or Sellfy (Paypal). (Here's a link to the trailer on YouTube)
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May issue of Scientific American"Rise of the Tyrannosaurs"
Thanks, Greg. Via io9; Images of amber via Science/AAAS


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Erich Wolfsfeld (1884-1956)


In 2009, an 83-year-old widower went to clear out his attic and found a trove of paintings

His stepmother had died 20 years earlier, and he completely forgot that he had stored away more than 100 artworks by his stepfather, a German artist named Erich Wolfsfeld.



Wolfsfeld was born in Western Prussia in 1884. He studied at the Berlin Academy of Arts with Konrad Böse and continued with Jules Lefèbvre at the Académie Julien in Paris. He worked in Rome with other expatriate German artists Otto Greiner and Max Klinger.

During World War I, he spent two years in the army, and he took the opportunity to draw portraits of soldiers.

He won acclaim for his etchings of nudes, bound prisoners, and beggars. He taught at the Berlin Academy in the 1920s, but he was fired in 1936 by the Nazis because of his Jewish religion.


He was deeply inspired by a series of travels to Egypt, Palestine and North Africa. When he relocated to England, he often posed his models in exotic costumes to reconstruct scenes he had sketched in his travels. His customary painting garb was a long white Arab robe.

Erich Wolfsfeld portrait of Arnold Auerbach

Wolfsfeld died in 1956. The works found in the attic were auctioned off in 2009. Some of his paintings have been exhibited at London's National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
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More detailed biography at Stephen Ongpin
Article about the attic discovery at The Daily Mail

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dinotopia World Beneath, Episode 12


It's Tuesday, time for Episode 12 of the serialized audio dramatization of Dinotopia: The World Beneath. You can listen to the track by clicking on the play button below, or by following the direct link to SoundCloud.




A scene of the pod village of Bonabba, where Will is learning more about piloting skybaxes. Arthur tries to sell the locals on the mechanical strutters that he found in The World Beneath.

But they have a way of getting out of control, as these robot dinosaurs have a mind of their own. When I did these paintings in 1993, I had no idea we would see semi-sentient autonomous walkers within two decades. 

This audio re-creation was produced by ZBS Productions.  Audio wizard Tom Lopez and composer Tim Clark created many layers of sound to make Dinotopia come alive to the ears.

The Christian Science Monitor called this production "A dazzling soundscape that does full justice to Gurney’s wondrous lost world… perfect family listening.”

Episode 13 arrives in a week. Each short episode will only be live online for one week, and then it will disappear.

If you'd like to purchase the full two-hour World Beneath podcast right now and hear all fifteen episodes back to back in a feature-length production, check out The World Beneath at ZBS Foundation website for the MP3 download. It's also available as a CD.

The Book
You can also order the original printed book from my web store and I'll sign it for you. (It ships via Media Mail within 24 hours of your order. US orders only for the book, please). The book is also available from Amazon in a 20th Anniversary Edition with lots of extras.

The Museum Exhibition
Many of these paintings are now on view at the Dinotopia exhibition at the Stamford Art Museum and Nature Center through May 25.

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

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."

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