Further progress on a plein aire painting of Grace church spire

One more session and I think this will be done.

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“Losing” a Painting

I begin my paintings with a burnt umber under painting:

The most demoralizing stage of a painting is when I add the first layers of color and the painting begins to ‘lose’ its strength:

This happens for a couple of reasons: first, the tone often becomes narrower, this can be counteracted by establishing your darkest dark, but many painters, myself included, like to work out from mid tones and not go too far in one direction – other wise relative color is lost.

Secondly, the strength of the simple lines of the under painting are lost- the under painting is more like a drawing than a painting and often has strong lines used to establish a ‘block in’. As Tolstoy noted, this is why preparatory drawings are often more striking than the paintings they were made for.

But this is a necessary stage – as with film editing, writing and other arts you have to be willing to throw stuff away, and not be scared that you won’t be able to produce it again.

As one of my teachers, Costa Vavagiakas said, “If you found it once you’ll find it again. “

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Hokusai On Drawing

In a world of short term rewards, it’s difficult to take a long term perspective, but to really achieve anything worthwhile, that’s the only perspective one can take.

“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.

.. and for those of us not quiet satisfied with our skills, its good to know that if we really apply ourselves for the next half-century or so, we might get somewhere!

Hokusai is also interesting because he was heavily influenced by Dutch and Flemish landscapes that had to be smuggled into Japan (they were banned by authorities). Although he obviously admired these artists (one has to wonder what a meeting of say, Cuyp and Hokusai would have been like) there is no mistaking them for ‘copies of dutch landscapes’ – they bear his unique imprint.

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Pleine Aire Painting

Further progress on some pleine aire paintings of Grace Church.

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Whatsover Thy Hand Findeth to Do.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
Ecclesiastes 9:10

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Creative Productivity: Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens was an extraordinarily productive painter and also had a keen business sense. It’s not surprising he became wealthier than many of his noble clients, and in fact, became a noble himself.

He shatters the myth of the ‘crazy’ egocentric artist – by all accounts he was kind, generous, temperant. He attended private mass every day, first thing in the morning,and set about his work. The following should give any artist pause.

Peter Paul Rubens came on a diplomatic mission to Madrid, charged by his government to pave the way to the conclusion of peace between England and Spain. Rubens was then about fifty years old. He stayed nine months in the Spanish capital, and, despite his diplomatic duties and the gout, found time to paint an extraordinary number of pictures, including five of Philip. He also copied the king’s Titians. 1

Five portraits of Phillip and he copied all the king’s titians. He may have had assistant’s help on the portraits- but he probably copied the Titians for his own study. Thus, in nine months he produced dozens of high quality paintings and succeeded at his ‘day job’ of negotiating a treaty.

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Study of Grace Church Chancery

This took about two hours. The shadows change rapidly on all the intricate details so I had to work rather fast and decide on a fixed shadow area. However, the beauty of it often emerges as the light hits it at different angles.

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Creative Productivity – Lessons From Theodore Roosevelt

To list Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments could easily take the rest of this post; any random year of his life contains more adventure and accomplishment than most men achieve in a lifetime. Cowboy, Rancher, Naturalist, Big Game Hunter, Police Commissioner of New York City, Colonel of the “Rough Riders”, Governer, Vice President, President of the United States….He also still found time to play with his five children a couple of hours and day and a remain a devouted husband.

On top of all of this, also wrote more than thirty books – more than many authors who write full time.

So did how did he do it?

One clue can be found in Candace Millard’s wonderful book “River of Doubt” an account of Roosevelt’s disaster plagued expedition in the Amazon basin.
At one point they were on half rations – despite doing back breaking labor of porting canoes over land, paddling, and enduring sweltering Amazon heat.

Roosevelt was also suffering from recurrences of malaria he had contracted during the Spanish American War, often running a temperature of over a hundred degrees.

Roosevelt at his portable writing desk, wearing mosquito netting.

Although Roosevelt was a co-expedition leader, he still had his share of duties. They were lighter than those of the younger men and porters but still tedious: hand laundering clothes for example.  Despite all this he still found time to write.

Funds for the expedition were raised in part by Roosevelt promising to provide Scribner’s with an account of the expeditions. Readers stateside could follow along with Roosevelts adventures from the comfort of their homes.  These became the basis for his popular book Through the Brazilian Wilderness.

Did he wait until he returned to the comfort of Sagamore Hill, don his cigar and slippers and retire to his study? No.

He would rise before the rest of the camp was awake and official duties began, go for his morning swim (first checking for piranhas and alligators), then he would write his self set quota of pages for Scribner’s.

It made sense to write this early for several reasons:

Firstly there were no other disturbances or distractions. Second, it’s a lot easier to write at the begining of the day rather than than at the end of if, when one is tired.  Knowing he knocked out his quota of pages for the day was probably a relief to Roosevelt, rather than having them waiting after a long day.

Some might counter that it would be better to wait until the expedition was over with to sit down and write in the comfort of one’s own home, but undoubtedly many details would have been lost.  Even in our day of ubiquitous media capture devices, it’s much better to reflect on events while they are still fresh in the mind. Also, the task of recalling the whole expedition could be quite daunting. Instead, he chipped away at it every day.

Another famous explorer and productive writer, Sir Richard Francis Burton also insisted on writing every night while on expedition,  despite suffering from similar ailments to Roosevelt.  To this day his observations of the Punjab, Somoliland, as he called it,  are still referenced by researchers.

So what’s keeping you from writing? How many times have you not written because you had the sniffles, or ‘didn’t feel like it’.  I don’t doubt that there are many real obligations that are enormously time consuming – it takes a lot of energy and devotion to raise children, to truly be dedicated to doing a good job at work, or being a caring spouse.   Sir Richard Francis Burton and Theodore Roosevelt were extraordinary men, possessing enormous energy, drive, and abnormally high intelligence (TR had a near photographic memory and would often read a book in a day) ; but we could take some cues from their dedication to writing and not letting obstacles get in the way.

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“Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.”

I don’t trust wikipedia on much, but this seems reasonable:

In 1855, Degas met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he revered, and whose advice he never forgot: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.”

The life part is common enough today, but memory drawing is rarely practiced. In the 19th century, it was unimaginable to not do so.

Link to an article on LeCoq’s memory drawing.
An example of a memory drawing from life.

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Street Sketches

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Left Behind By Time

I spotted this house while cycling up the west side highway. The lingering reminder of a time when this part of Manhattan was a small waterside village.
I am often drawn to the these remaining bits of ‘old new york’. St. Pauls, near Wall Street, which looks like it belongs in a small colonial village, which is exactly what was there when it was built.
These bits of the past keep the city from becoming too sterile, too crass too commercialized. I find this building far more interesting, human and beautiful than the temples of narcissim and cult of ugliness reflected in so many ‘modern’ buildings.

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A quick color sketch of Grace Church’s Spire

I did this in about 20 minutes with a pencil, water color pencils and a waterbrush, inking in later.

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New Painting

Mary Magdalene

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Cemetery Angels

I stumbled on this row of angels in Green-Wood Cemetery last fall. I am still finishing up the background.

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Two sketches at the Met

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Friday Sketch

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Completed, Rembrandt’s Herman Doomer

  … and a new appreciation for Rembrandt.

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Quick sketch

I had about 20 minutes in-between appointments, so rather than twiddle my thumbs, I started this sketch of the exterior of Grace church on 12th and Broadway. As long as you have a sketchbook, (or notebook if you’re a writer) handy there’s never such thing as wasted time.

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Finishing up Rembrandt’s Herman Doomer.

Two more sessions with this. The earth pigments (raw and burnt umber) are sucking up and flattening a lot of color, so this will require a heavy oiling in.

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Merry Christmas

Like mankind itself, this work is unfinished. Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men.

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Rembrandt’s “magic formula”

I started the fourth sitting of this painting today. Rembrandt  paintings look like they  were executed with little effort – spontaneous, alive, expressive.. there is no sense of ‘labor’ like a great ballet dancer or athlete – he made it look easy.

Trying to copy him is much harder, in my opinion than the more mechanical methods of academics and even the earl Renaissance painters I enjoy. With Rembrandt there is not a process, a secret varnish, a ‘trick’ color – it is simply masterful execution done with confidence. That is the hardest of all things to try to copy.

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Virgin Mary and Child.

Sketched in the Medieval hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have done several sketches of this statue. I find high gothic sculpture far more expressive an interesting than classical.

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Newsflash: Writing is Good.

That is, according to this article in Fast Company Magazine. It actually makes for some interesting reading, but it occurs to me, that much of the the twentieth century has involved throwing out all ideas, traditions and ways of doing things, simply because they were not new. Now, after million-dollar grant five year studies, countless brain scans and tedious research papers I can’t quite muster the strength to read, we find writing is good!

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