Friday, February 12, 2016

Harold Speed, "On Painting a Head"

Today we'll continue Chapter 9: "Painting from the Life" from Harold Speed's 1924 art instruction book Oil Painting Techniques and Materials.
I'll present Speed's main points in boldface type either verbatim or paraphrased, followed by comments of my own. If you want to add a comment, please use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.

Today we'll cover pages 144-157, "On Painting a Head."

Harold Speed, Old Tom, courtesy BBC

1. "Before commencing, select the colors you will need and choose the fewest that will serve your purpose."
This is good advice that will reduce confusion, eliminate habits of color mixing, and yield harmony in the final result.

2. Don't take the colors as they come from the tube; Mix your own colors.
Also a good idea. You can create your gamut primaries, instead of using the colors as they happen to come from the tube. So here you're not mixing the particular notes of your scene, but rather you're mixing the ingredients of your color scheme. Instead of using yellow ochre and cad yellow as separate palette colors you can mix the two, and then use that mixture as your gamut anchor. For example he recommends mixing Indian red and burnt sienna. This is what the manufacturers do, mixing pigments to get convenience colors.

3. "The paint as supplied in tubes is a little stiffer than is always comfortable to paint with, and it is as well to thin the white by mixing up some of your medium with it."
I find the opposite is often a problem with modern paint. Paint often comes out of the tube too runny. In that case you can stiffen tube colors by first placing them on blotter paper (or other absorbent paper or cardboard) a few hours before you need to use them. As Speed suggests, it's good to have some "stiff white" about the consistency of butter always available on your palette for impasto-rich highlights.

4. Sequence: background, hair, forehead (middle tone), planes of lower face, eye socket, nose, highest light in forehead, etc.
It might seem difficult to follow this procedure in the form of text, given that we're used to seeing videos that show the process much more clearly. But try to visualize it. This is close as we're going to get to a time machine back to the Royal Academy.

5. "In the case of a short portrait not attempt any more complications in your tones. Keep them flat and simple at first."
Put your work into refining the edges instead of refining the tones. I would say to think of the head as a roughly carved block at this stage, and rejoice that there aren't too many details to worry about.

6. "Always paint with the least amount of paint that will get the effect you want. Reserve thick paint for those occasions when you want to make a crisp touch quite separate from what it is painted into."
For beginning painters there's a lot to think about when you mix a color: value, color temperature, hue, chroma, and now you've got to think about paint thickness, not to mention what brush to use, etc. As you read Speed talking about his thought process, note what considerations are foremost at each stage. Value judgments are most important at first, then edges become vitally important, then he's thinking about warm versus cool differences. 

7. Carefully define the eye sockets before detailing the eye.
Speed probably learned this method from watching Sargent, who was said to paint an eye in this way, like making a frying pan (eye socket) and dropping an eye into it (the egg). Later Speed says: "Remember the eye is a cavity, through which is pushed the globe of the eye, on which the eyelids are placed. The eyelids therefore partake of the spherical form, as do also the 'whites' of the eye."

8. "You should always talk to your sitters if you want to keep them alive."
Many first hand sources attest to the fact that portrait painters of the past talked to their models while they painted them. This is one of the most important points that is generally missed by modern practitioners. It makes all the difference in the disposition of the face and the expression of the model.  Sleepy, dull models yield sleepy, dull portraits. Talking models yield portraits that are alive. There's no getting around it. Here's a previous blog post "Talking Models" on the topic and another post "Speaking Likeness" on the same subject.

Detail of a portrait by Velazquez
9. The under eyelid: "I know of no part of a head that so easily shows the hand of a master as the painting of the under eyelid."
To find some examples of plane breakdowns as suggested in the detailed discussion on pages 153-155, such as the "three cherries" of the lips, etc. I recommend the anatomy books by Vanderpoel, Loomis, Peck, and others.

10. "Having laid in your work with the muted middle tones, you will be able to use much purer colour in the later stages, as they will be quieted by mixing with the middle tones already there."

Portrait by Harold Speed
11. "Finish is not necessarily the addition of details, but of refinements."
Try to accomplish what Speed calls oneness of impression, and look for that quality in the great portraits of Sargent, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. Accents are last, and you can think of the whole head painting as a setup for those last highlights and accents.

Next week—we'll continue with the chapter with the section beginning on 157.
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials (with a Sargent cover)," and there's also a Kindle edition.
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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Parka Blogs Art Tool Interview

Parka Blogs has published an interview about the art tools I use

Portable expedition rig for both painting and making videos. This kit fits on my belt or shoulder straps so that I can walk through any museum.
Folding Folding tripod stoolwith shoulder strap.
Lightweight tripod for video camera, Zoom recorder, or LED light, strapped to chair with bungie cord.
Paint rag tied to the outside to allow it to dry (looks a bit weird).
Belt pouch. Contains: pencils, brushes, water cup, gouache set, mini watercolor set, watercolor sketchbook, and LED headlamp.
Flip video camera replaced by Canon point-and-shoot now.

Upcoming Workshops

I'll be participating as an instructor in three upcoming workshops this year. All are for experienced painters, taught by a top-flight group faculty. 

James Gurney painting a watercolor demo at SKB Foundation Workshop
The SKB Workshop happens September 18-27 in Dubois, Wyoming. It has lots of demos, lectures, outdoor painting and group meals. And many of the costs are subsidized by a benefactor, so it's one of the most reasonable workshops you can be part of. Here's the announcement and here's a page with more information. Besides me, the faculty features mostly wildlife artists and landscape painters, including John and Suzie Seerey-Lester, John Hulsey and Ann Trusty, Mort Solberg and many others.

Registration just opened yesterday, and it's nearly full already, so if you're interested, here's the link to the registration

I'll also be one of the presenters at the Portrait Society of America's annual Conference in Washington DC, this April 14-17. This gathering is one of the best for oil demos, lectures, and networking among the attendees and the 30-or-so leading instructors.

Here's the registration for the Portrait Conference

From June 30 to July 3, I'll be in Montreal for the Syn Studio Gathering of Masters. The program is intended for artists who work in the game and film categories, team-taught by people like Terryl Whitlatch and Raphael Lacoste, me, and several others, not all of whom have been announced. This is the one to attend if you're in the concept art field, or want to get into it. Here's the description:
Syn Studio’s Gathering of Masters is a small, laid back festival with lots of socializing and interaction between the invited guests and and participating artists. A mix of talks, workshops and fun activities, it is a gathering where artists share their knowledge, connect with each other and work together to develop and push the boundaries of their illustration, design and art direction skills. There will be 8-10 speakers and 100 tickets sold so it will be an intimate event where participants can have direct access to the speakers and be part of the conversation.
Register now if you're interested in any of these, and I look forward to seeing you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cook's Dinner

Restaurants in Chinatown are a good place for gouache painting if you catch them in the middle of the afternoon. You can hold down a table for a while and the cooks come out to eat. They always seem to eat cool stuff that's not on the menu.

The white of the chefs' outfits captures the colors of the light sources. There's a backlit photo panel pumping green light from behind them, a yellow-orange incandescent source from off to the right, and some bluish window light filling from behind me.

I'm in New York City to drop off a new painting at Scientific American, and I'll tell you more about that when the April issue comes along.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Anderson's Brother & Sister Covers

In 1949, illustrator Harry Anderson did a series of covers for Woman's Home Companion featuring a blond-haired brother having fun with his brunette sister. 

Anderson was a specialist in painting children for the women's magazines. The covers in this series are consistently well drawn and full of Anderson's generous and playful spirit. 

Harry Anderson (1906-1996) painted in gouache or casein because he was allergic to oil. If you want to see more examples of his work, check out the online collection by Jim Pinkoski.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Sketching in Iraq and Afghanistan

In this TED talk, news illustrator Richard Johnson tells what it was like to sketch during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how sketching brought him closer to the military company he traveled with.

Art by Richard Johnson, courtesy WBUR
He shares how the combat and courtroom artist Howard Brodie (1915-2010) inspired him early on, and he discusses what art can capture that photos can't. (Link to YouTube)
Interview with Richard Johnson on WBUR radio