Category Archives: *Master Studies

Master Studies – A Different Approach

I took a composition class at Fullerton College with Marshall Vandruff last fall and was introduced to a more analytical approach of studying masterpieces. Instead of making a copy, we did value studies, and took closer looks at the use of patterns, directions, rhythms etc. in composition.

For me, the value study is the most valuable. Many artists recommend doing a value sketch before any painting, but I was never clear about what I should look at and work on in this step. As a result, I either skip it, or simply map out the light and dark in my reference. In the class, we were asked to turn some master pieces into two tones, three tones and four tones, and see if they still work. And that’s the key! A good painting should work at every stage, and a value study is make sure that the black, white and sometimes grey shapes are well designed and interesting. Why? because when someone look at your painting from afar or as a thumbnail, those value shapes are the ones that call attention.

Here are some examples of the studies I did for the class:

Two-tone (notan):

Three-tone:

Four-tone:

Movement Studies:

Colored Studies:

A few notes:

  • I used to do master studies by copying the entire painting. I find it very helpful, especially in appreciating the whole process of creation. Sometimes, however, when I am trying to get all the details right, I overlooked the big pictures. Single out certain elements of a masterpiece and study only that helps me go deeper in that direction.
  • Most of these studies are no bigger than a business card. They are not easy to do but still much faster than copying the whole painting in details. I could study a lot more masterpieces this way. I think these small studies are complementary to the detailed studies.
  • In theory you can go up many more levels in tonal studies, but as you can see, a 4-tone study is already very close to the final identifiable shapes. I personally find two-tone is the most important. That’s the first impression. Three and four tone studies help you work out more complicated and subtle designs.
  • The colored studies should also have a focus (such as temperature), and should still focus on big shapes.
  • Another thing these studies did to me it enhances my sensitivity to the design elements in a painting, and now when I am looking at an artwork, I find myself doing mental notans and arrows!

A Tribute to Wayne Thiebaud

My 2D Design class comes to an end and the final project is a poster designed as a tribute to an artist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920) is an artist I admire and want to study. So I took the opportunity to revisit some of his art:

A Tribute to Wayne Thiebaud, digital poster, 2020

All the images are paintings or sketches by Mr. Thiebaud. You can find his self-portrait, his portrayal of his wife, his best-known subjects, pies and cakes, and his typical landscapes – San Francisco streetscapes, Sacramento River Delta and mountains and many more. I also included one of my favorite quote from him.

I like Mr. Thiebaud’s vibrant but often economic use of color, his bold and whimsical composition, and above all, his ability to turn mundane subjects into humor and drama. There’s also a healthy positivity in his art, that always cheers me up.

Mr. Thiebaud just celebrated his 100th birthday this past November.The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento curated an exhibition commemorated the event and Smithsonian has an interesting article about it. Obviously Mr. Thiebaud is still painting everyday, playing tennis and driving!

Would art do that to me? 🙂 Best wishes Mr. Thiebaud!

Happy painting and happy holidays everybody!

A Series on Black Paper Inspired by Giotto

I first came to know this panel St. Francis Renounces All Worldly Goods, attributed to Giotto (1267 -1337), in Glenn Vilppu’s composition class at New Masters Academy. (He has a composition class on his own website and it’s very pricey. I don’t think they are the same thing. The NMA one is more like a masterpiece composition appreciation class.)

Honestly speaking, I knew little about Middle Ages art. It’s the section in a museum I often skip, assuming those paintings are mostly more about religion than art. I was surprised to see Mr. Vilppu going back that far to talk about composition. If I remembered it right, he sees many religious paintings as comic strips and superhero stories of the time. I guess that makes them the predecessor of the modern narrative art!

St, Francis Renounces All Worldly Goods, (from Wikimedia), Giotto

This panel is from a series of St. Francis stories. The figures are quite realistic, with vivid expressions and movement. The stage setting is deliberate. The artist used a series of verticals and horizontals to group the subjects and surroundings, and then use diagonals from clothing, figure and architectures to guide the eye. All this builds up to see the otherwise obscure hand in the air. There’s drama and clarity in the narrative.

What strikes me most, is the way the artist divided the panel. It’s cut in half horizontally in the middle, and vertically, there’s an obvious space to part the surface in two, also in the middle. If this is from a modern artist, I’d call it bold, but I don’t know Giotto or Late Middle Ages art enough to call it anything. While I watched Glenn’s lesson, I doodled some composition lines of the piece trying to make sense of them. Later, I developed a few pieces from that design:

Giotto Studies 1, Gouache on black paper, 9 x10 in, 2020
Giotto Studies 2, Gouache on black paper, 9 x10 in, 2020
Giotto Studies 3, Gouache on black paper, 9 x10 in, 2020
  • I show the pieces in the sequence of when they were designed, but I actually finished the painting of the third one first, and showed it in a previous post.
  • You can see how I took more and more liberty with the composition, or I should say, the design finds its own life.
  • I use Giotto Studies as the title for now for lack of a better one. These are not real studies though. I merely scratched the surface and stole a few lines.
  • I want to say this is like a one stone two birds thing. I read a masterpiece closely, and got inspiration for something new.
  • I know what I could do next time I am running out of ideas to paint! 🙂

Copying Masters (12) – Modigliani (1884 – 1920)

Amedeo Modigliani is an Italian artist famous for his uniquely stylized portraits. I always like his paintings and attempted a study years before. Somehow Modigliani’s Madame Amédée reminded me of my neighbor’s cat, and my original plan was to use the composition of the original painting, and replace the head with that of a cat’s. It didn’t work out and I switched back to the lady. The result wasn’t much of a copy, and you can still see the trace of my deviation.

Original

Madame Amédée (Woman with Cigarette), oil on canvas, 39.5 x 25.5 in, 1918

My copy:

Woman with a paw, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 20 in, 2016

This is another try. This time it was not a copy, but I tried to stylize a self-portrait. I meant to focus on the inner world of subject, but somehow it was all spilled over into the background. As a result I went way beyond his typical palette, which is quite muted.

Me with a hat, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20 in, 2017

After learning drawing and painting humans for a while, I find myself even more fascinated by Modigliani’s ability to go beyond realist forms while stay true to the spirit and character of his subjects. I probably will do more studies of Modigliani in future.

Copying Masters (11) – Yoshitoshi

Japanese woodblock printing (ukiyo-e) has a profound influence in western art since 19th century. “Japonism” has a visible presence in the art of many big names, such as Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin etc.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 月岡芳年 (1839 -1892; also named as Taiso Yoshitoshi 大蘇芳年) was generally regarded as the last great master of the this art tradition. He was a very bold, imaginative and prolific artist. Some of the images he created are regarded as gruesome and disturbing. His most famous series are One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885–1892), and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts (1889–1892).

In “Kiyomori sees hundreds of skulls at Fukuhara,” from the series New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts, Yoshitoshi portrayed the famous Japanese general (or soldier-dictator) Taira Kiyomori (平清盛, 1118 – 1181), who created the the first samurai-dominated government. The main attraction for me is the decisive and effective line work, and the presence of the character:

The original:

My copy:

After Yoshitoshi, watercolor and ink on paper, 11 x 15 in, 2020

A few notes:

  • This is not an exact copy, partially because the paper I used was a failed texture experiment. I have to work with un-intended marks here and there.
  • Copying line work is a tricky business: you want to be careful because the ink is permanent; but if you are too careful you’ll lose the force and the gesture of the line.
  • Sometimes having random textures or marks on paper is not necessarily a bad thing. You are forced to be creative since you have to work around or work against it.
  • My general has funny little hands.

Here’s my attempt of the ukiyo-e style:

Where to, watercolor and ink on paper, 11 x 15 in, 2019

This earlier post is in that line too:

Full moon, watercolor on paper, 11 x 14, 2019

By the way, the art of ukiyo-e fell out of fashion in Japan in the late 19th century but saw a come back since the 70s in Asia. Some young artists incorporated the line works and the fanciful contents into Chinese fine brush painting or watercolor painting.

Copying Masters (10) – Bernini

I am quite into drawing and painting humans recently, both portrait and figure. I find it a great way to practice hand eye coordination, and overall drawing and painting skills. While human faces and bodies are complicated, they are more organized than landscape. Learn the anatomy and you’ll have a sure way to approach them. They are also less forgiving than many other subjects – when you do it wrong, it’s quite obvious.

As always, copying masters is an effective way of learning. This time I chose an early drawing by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680), the father of Baroque sculpture. The drawing, Seated Male Nude, was collected by Princeton Art Museum. I am attracted to this drawing by its succinct use of marks, especially the highlights, so economic and so effective. I tried to draw on tinted paper before, and often ended up drawing a figure on top of the paper, instead of letting the color of the paper show through.

I figured if I wanted to let the paper work, I’d better keep it clean. So instead of jumping on it, I did some practice before hand. For example:

After Bernini, ink on newsprint
After Bernini, pencil on paper

Finally, the copy:

After Bernini, pastel pencil on paper, May 2020

A few notes:

  • I am glad I did those hatchings last week. My lines are still not neat and organized as the master’s (of course), but the hatching practice do help.
  • The preliminary studies paid off (I did more than those shown above). I did a very light-handed drawing first and managed not to disturb the paper too much (less erasing). The final lines are sharper and cleaner this way.
  • I only recently started to pay attention to this issue. In both drawing and watercolor painting, if the paper is too disturbed, it affects the final result. I know some watercolor artist draw on a different piece of paper and then transfer the image to the watercolor paper (carbon paper, light box, projector etc.)
  • I had a lot of fun drawing the effect of an old paper. LOL.

Morandi (2) and Pairs (III)

This was a class assignment – choose an artist to study, and then paint in his/her style. I was very into Giorgio Morandi at the time (still am now), and he became the subject of my study. To my delight, during my research, I found out that Morandi was very much influenced by another favorite artist of mine, Paul Cézanne; and he in turn, heavily influenced a contemporary artist I admire, Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920). Have I found my “art parents?” (A term I learned from Draftsmen Podcast, S1E5.)

So I set up a still life scene and gave it a try:

Acrylic painting of clothes hanging
Still life 1, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, Spring 2018

I know, there’s nothing Morandi about it (see my previous post about his style). The objects are asserting and the colors are singing. I don’t dislike it as a painting, but it’s definitely not the reservedness and tranquility I was after. So I gave it another try:

Still life 2, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, Spring 2018

Well, this is still not Morandi. It’s still me, and it’s very hard not to be me. I understand I will never be Morandi, and that’s not the point of studying a master. If every painting is a self expression, every study of other’s style is a self reflection. I have a lot of passions that I don’t know how to control, and observations I don’t know how to choose and let go.

For sure, I am not done with Morandi yet.

Copying Masters (9) and Morandi (1)

Some artists created wonders with limited subject matters. Like Cezanne, who famously claimed “with an apple I will astonish Paris.” He did, and the world. I don’t know if Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) ever made any statement about the bottles and jars, but he did say, “To achieve understanding it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.” He did look at those bottles and jars of his very hard, for almost a life time.

Most of Morandi’s still life featuring nondescript household objects on tabletop against an unremarkable background. They look like a humble crowd pushed onto a stage, but nothing in the composition is random. Morandi spent days, even weeks arranging these objects. The assuming is carefully achieved. Just like his use of color. The paintings often have a monochromatic look, even though he employed a rich range of earthy colors.

There’s a sense of calm and tranquil in Morandi’s paintings that I find very attractive. Maybe because my own paintings are the opposite. Even when I limited my palette, the result is often loud or even noisy. My first copying attempts were done in watercolor. In retrospect, gouache could be a better choice. Here they are:

The originals:

Morandi, Natura morta, 1954
Morandi, Vase and Still Life, 36 x 40 cm, oil on canvas, 1951
Morandi, Natura morta, 40 x 46 cm, oil on canvas, 1954

My copies:

After Morandi, watercolor on paper, 9×12 in, 2018
After Morandi, watercolor on paper, 10 x 12, 2018

Copying Masters (8) – Mary Cassatt

A couple of years ago, I went to Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade exhibition at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. Among the 40 Impressionist paintings and drawings about French fashion, American artist Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)’s pastel drawing made quite an impression on me. The gentle and soft gradation on the face of the little kid is surrounded by quick and dynamic lines, showcasing of the caring nature of a woman and the expressiveness of an artist.

The original:

Mary Cassatt, Head of Simone in a Green Bonnet with Wavy Brim (No. 2), c. 1904, pastel on paper, 16 x 17.875 in.

My copy:

Copying Masters (7) – Zoltan Szabo

Zoltan Szabo (1928-2003) was born in Hungary and later immigrated to Canada, then US. He was a modern master of transparent watercolor, and his technique books are popular among watercolorist. I learned to use big brushes and bold colors from reading his paintings.

The study of “The Last Wink” though, was for a different purpose. It is the harmony of unity of the colors that attracts me. I have a tendency to be too “colorful” with my paintings, and often don’t know how to control it. I like how the colors in this Szabo painting is so rich yet without being noisy.

The painting is collected in his book Zoltan Szabo’s 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques.

The original:

Zoltan Szabo, The Last Wink, watercolor on paper, 13.75″ x 18″

My copy:

After Zoltan Szabo, watercolor on rice paper, 2019

While Szabo’s original was on cold press watercolor paper, my study was done on pre-matted rice paper. It is intended for Chinese brush painting, and is very delicate and absorbent.