Apr 2011

Google Art Project

If you have not had a chance to browse around Google’s Art Project yet, do yourself a favor and take a look. You’ll find links to virtual tours of some of the world’s most prominent art museums along with extreme close up shots of featured artwork.

The virtual tours work like an interior version of Google’s Street View. A few clicks of the mouse and you travel virtually through galleries where you can then select various pieces of artwork to learn about. You can also build a collection of favorite work to come back to later. There are info panels for gathering more information about an image and links to other pieces by the same artist. That stuff alone would be very cool, but the most intriguing aspect for me, is the ability to view the featured works under extreme magnification. All of the pieces featured in the different museums are presented in high resolution. Spin the wheel on your mouse or push a slider, and you can dive into a painting the way you might dive into a location using Google Earth. The super close up magnification can give you a great indication of how an artist worked with his media of choice.

Zero in on Van Gogh’s, Café Table with Absinthe, (click the link for the Art Project view), for example, and you can see the combination of thick and thin directional brushstrokes, optical color mixing and even places where it appears he may have dragged a brush handle through the wet paint.

It’s a great way to get a deeper look at the working methods of some of the world’s most famous artists.

Acrylic Pallet Tips

Even though most of my illustration work is done digitally, I still paint often with traditional media, almost always acrylics. Recently a question came up about pallets for acrylic painters. Specifically, how to keep the fast drying acrylic paint viable on the pallet during longer painting sessions. I’ve read about artists using a paper pallet and keeping a misting bottle, the type you might use to spray a light mist on plants handy. You occasionally spray the laid out colors with the mister which keeps the paints usable for a much longer time, even if they may skin over slightly. But since my days as an art student I’ve used a different method that I think is much more effective.

First, you need a non porous pallet. Painting with a fast drying water based media means a porous pallet will speed the drying time as the moisture is drawn away from the paint, the opposite of what we want. I’ve tried a few different pallets over the years but for painting in the studio I like using a butcher’s tray. These are available at various art supply outlets. The enameled surface is non porous, works well with all water based media and has the added advantage of being easily cleaned of paint. A few sprays with a water bottle and a scrape with a clean razor blade and you are good to go again. The acrylic paint “peels” right off. These trays also have a nice raised edge to help contain all the runny glazes I mix. I’m fortunate enough to have a couple of heavy duty, old trays that sit nice and flat. I’ve noticed one drawback of the new ones is they often are bowed up in the middle so your paint wants to run off into the corners. If you buy one try and find the flattest example you can.

Now that you have a nice pallet you’re ready to lay out your paint and here is where the tip comes in. Take a paper towel and fold it over multiple times until it reaches a width of about 1/2” or so. Then dunk the folded paper towel into a clean water bowl. I’m laying out my paint for the day and so my rinse bowl is filled with fresh water, I simply dunk it in there before it is used to wash any brushes. As you lift the paper towel out of the water pull it between two fingers to wring out the excess. Lay the towel out along one edge of the pallet and squeeze your colors onto it. Your colors will stay fresh for hours. If the conditions are really dry, use that mister to keep the paper towel moist. You want to keep your laid out paints even longer or overnight? Then you may try placing the entire pallet into a plastic “food keeper” type box.

A quick alternative to the enamel tray, especially useful if you need to be mobile, is a styrofoam plate. I’ve used these in situations when jumping back and forth around a large area, like mural painting.

And what about keeping those larger quantities of paint usable for long periods of time? Again, I keep it simple. Depending on the amount of pre-mixed paint I need and the length of time I need it to hang around, I’ll use anything from small wax paper cups to glass jars to mix color in. Plastic tubs run through the dishwasher to remove any residue work great. The key to the paint’s longevity is to keep air away from it when it is stored. In the case of small cups, you can insert them into a plastic zip seal bag. Add a quick mist of water first over the paint before you close the seal. I’ve kept paint usable this way for weeks. And those small plastic tubs or similar can keep colors alive even longer.

Classical Life Drawing

(Link to Amazon)

My first exposure to serious academic art training came in my life drawing class at the American Academy of Art. My teacher, Bill Parks, was old school in every way. Although he delighted in making the students groan over his corny, and oft repeated jokes, when it was time to put charcoal to paper, he was all business. He would patrol the silent room as we worked, desperately struggling to get on paper something that remotely appeared like the figure model posed on the stage, occasionally pausing to look over a student’s attempt. A mere glance over his half glasses spoke volumes. You knew immediately if you were on the right track. Or not. A longer pause by your bench, or perhaps a softly spoken, “Really Mr Walker?” as I pulled a contour line, did more to make me re-evaluate what I had considered a glorious achievement, than a cold slap would have.

Mr Parks expected his students to show up on time, charcoal sharpened, paper in hand, ready to work. This was not art instruction meant to be a pleasant diversion between breakfast and lunch. When you were in his class he expected your respect and your best effort. And the more you invested the more you received in return.

His class taught me so much more than how to draw the figure.

These thoughts came rushing back to me as I flipped through the book, Classical Life Drawing Studio- Lessons & Teachings in the Art of Figure Drawing, by James Lancel McElhinney and the Instructors of the Art Students League of New York. I say flipped through because this is not an art instruction book. It’s not meant to show you how to draw the figure with more accuracy or ease. Instead the purpose is to make a case for the high value of teaching academic drawing from life. Will Barnet leads off in the book’s foreword, “Academic training does not destroy creativity, but can reinforce it...” In other words, a solid foundation allows greater freedom by giving you the practical ability to express yourself.

After some brief history lessons the book goes on to make its case- not so much through text as by example. In fact there isn’t much text at all. Instead the book is mostly a portfolio of life drawings, both old and new, that display not only high academic accomplishment, but also incredible beauty and depth. It’s also interesting to see how drawing styles have changed over time along with the influence certain instructors had over their pupils.

Toward the end of the book we are introduced to present day teachers at the Art Students League and shown examples of their work. We see how basic academic drawing has inspired creativity and depth in these artists and the book comes full circle.

This book is a wonderful, inspirational example of the value of a solid academic foundation. Bill Parks would have loved it.

Digital Sepia Toned Line Art

First, let me say thanks to all the people who took the time to send comments about the Hookah Smoking Caterpillar demo. I appreciate all the positive input. I hope to do more demos in the coming months including some using traditional media.

One question I received related to the conversion of the imported line drawing to a sepia toned look. This is a really simple thing to do and works great for creating digital line and wash illustrations where the line art is drawn traditionally, scanned in, and the color is added in your digital art program of choice.

This is a cropped version of my original sketchbook drawing. Scanned and imported into Photoshop. I make a duplicate of the background layer.

Next I hit the Command+L keys to open up the Levels dialogue box. Move the sliders to clean up the line art and minimize the time spent in “manually” taking out all the extra crud you don’t want showing up in the final piece.

Now comes the color conversion. Hit Command+B and the Color Balance panel pops open. Now you can move the sliders to adjust the color of the line art to whatever you like. In this case, where I am looking to create a sepia ink look, I have taken the Cyan/Red slider to a +62 setting and the Yellow/Blue slider to a minus 18. You could just as easily change the line art to any other color in the same way.

At this point I make a duplicate of the line art layer (you can see I haven’t taken the time to name the layer with the art so in this case the art layer is labeled “Background copy”). Always make a backup layer of your line art. You never know when you may need it.

Now change the layer style to “Multiply,” add another layer beneath that to paint on, (this one I did label as “Color”), and you’re good to go. Here I painted a quick color indication with the Watercolor brush in Photoshop although I typically would move the file over to Painter if I wanted to paint with natural media effects.