Category Archives: Ramblings

Stay Home Doing Art

Based on my very limited survey, this is how people around me spend their time nowadays: cooking; shopping online for groceries; cleaning and reorganizing their homes; zoom meetings. I have my fair share of cooking and shopping everyday, and decided to do some house keeping for a change. And these are the thing I dug out:

Sorry for the weird shadows in the pictures. Obviously the person who took the photos for me also wanted to sign the paintings with his shadows. To some extend, this is a Chinese tradition among art collectors. In some old Chinese pieces, if you see many seals filling in the empty spaces, many of them are not belong to the artist, but the collectors (a way to say “this is mine!”).

Most of the paintings above are done by copying old masters. This is the way of learning traditional Chinese painting through time. In some of these pieces, I combined elements from different paintings and I remember the teacher was quite surprised by that “Oh, you started creating already!” Composing your own piece usually follows years after years of copying, and it’s not a common thing for beginners. Since Chinese paintings are usually signed and dated with Chinese calligraphy, that’s another thing you are supposed to practice for years by copying masters.

Staying home is a good time to copy and study old masters. This is probably the most efficient way of improving skills, but if you only do that for longer period of time, the side effect might be daunting your creativity. Strike a balance.

I know the title “Stay Home Doing Art” is a bit misleading this time. It is actually stay home digging out art. Hope next time I could post “doing art” for real.

Life Drawing Gone Crazy in a Crazy Time

I’ve been taking a life drawing class at a community college this year. My professor is great at teaching and extremely knowledgeable about anatomy. This is her last year at the school and she planned a happy ending to her teaching career and a smooth transition back to a full time artist. Now she has to move her class online through Zoom, and for someone who’s not particularly tech savvy, this is not easy. It’s been a couple of weeks now, but our class is still not on track. Meanwhile, she has found some really good materials for us to practice on our own. Here’s a list of stuffs she recommended and/or I’ve been using:

  • Proko – by Stan Prokopenko. It contains some of the best instruction videos on figure drawing. Enough free stuffs, but if you pay, more structured lessons and practice materials. I personally have been using this site for a while, and am a big fan of their Draftsmen Podcast.
  • Love Life Drawing – Great advice for beginners or artist seeking improvement.
  • New Masters Academy – They have a subscription plan that allows access to tons of good art classes or master classes. The free stuffs including many timed life drawing videos featuring photos of clothed or nude models.
  • Croquis Cafe – Videos and photos of models for life drawing. This is probably the closest you can get online to a real life drawing experience. Great models and so many to choose from. My only problem with it is that after they moved to Vimeo, the streaming is less smooth.

This is not just a time for staying in, but also coping, adapting and discovering!

Here’s a quick drawing I did:

Shanon, Charcoal on paper, 18 x 24 in.

Obviously, it asked for more. Hence:

Shanon, Gouache on paper, 18 x 24 in.

More on Monochromatic and Morandi

As I mentioned before, the paintings of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) often have a monochromatic look, even though he used a lot of colors. The result is a very restful and understated effect – something I always find difficult to achieve. Usually the more time I spent on a piece, the more colorful it becomes, as if keeping quiet on canvas or paper is against my nature. The same goes with details and edges. The more time spent, the more definition, and the looseness and gestures are lost.

So I tried a couple with limited time and clear goals. 1)No more than 2 hours per piece; 2) limited palette to create near monochromatic effect; 3) less definition; 4) lost edges; 5) be quiet.

Still life, acrylic on canvas, 9 x 12 in, 2019
Still life, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20 in, 2019

I think goal setting with time restriction is an effective way of practicing. Right? :))

More on Color Studies (1) – Verdaccio

Verdaccio is a greenish gray color achieved by mixing of black (often mars , yellow, and white. It’s used by old masters for underpainting, especially in fresco painting. In portrait or figure painting, the greenish gray served as a complementary to the pinkish flesh color, and it also creates a contrast in temperature. The result is a more vibrant skin tone.

Contemporary artist Cuong Nguyen applies the verdaccio technique to not only oil painting, but also pastel and watercolor, with stunning result.

Here is a poster from his oil painting workshop:

MICHAEL.jpg
Cuong Nguyen, oil painting, workshop poster.

Here is a screenshot from his pastel drawing youtube video:

You can see in pastel drawing, Cuong really pushes the green. Another sample from him:

Cuong_Nguyen_workshops

Don’t be fooled by the layout of the above poster though. This is not a 4 or 5 step drawing. You need to sharpen your pastel pencils, apply lightly, and work many, many, many layers.

I tried this method in a simplified way during a life drawing session, and here’s the result:

Wenda, pastel on paper, 18 x 24 in, 2019

Since camera was not allowed during life drawing, I didn’t record the early stage of this piece. I did start with leaf green, and my fellow artists thought I was going for a Halloween theme. Here are some other things I noticed:

  • CarbOthello pastel pencils are great. Versatility and control at the same time.
  • While it takes many layers to cover the green, a little bit showing through is not that bad. After all, our veins are sort of that color.
  • If you want to achieve Cuong’s level realism, you need a better quality paper to take more layers; keep your pencils sharp (which I totally ignored), and a lot of patience.
  • Be careful about the fixatives. I used Krylon Workable Fixatif. It makes my drawing darker and grainier.

Some day, I’ll try this verdaccio technique in oil.

Color Studies (2) – Monochromatic

Of the three components of color, hue, value and saturation, I personally find value the most difficult. Colors are attractive and distracting, and it could be difficult to discern values accurately from all the colors in front of us. Monochromatic painting is a great way to train your eyes this way.

In traditional Chinese brush paintings, many of which are monochromatic, it’s the value changes through the control of water that create the art. I took a few lessons of Chinese brush painting one summer, and lessons were mainly copying old masters. This is one of the paintings I copied:

After Qi Baishi, ink on Xuan paper, summer 2018

Monochromatic is a good strategy when time is limited. In life painting, it saves the trouble of finding the right skin color and allows me to focus on value and shape.

Woman, ink on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 in, 2018

In landscape scene with overwhelming branches and leaves, monochromatic approach simplifies the view. This plein air was done in burnt sienna. I included some of the visitors I had during the painting – out of proportion, I know, but a lot of fun.

Fox and Caterpillar at West Valley, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20 in, 2018

More than often, monochromatic painting is used as underpainting. It serves as a value map, but also allow some color strategies. (I found this post by Mitchel Albala very helpful.)

Another approach is to do a monochromatic underpainting, and glaze over it with transparent colors, often times many layers. For acrylic, that means adding quite some medium to the color. My selfie is done this way – dozens of layers. I have to admit, I doubt I will ever use this method again. Too tedious.

Selfie, acrylic on canvas board, 16×20 in , 2018

I think in theory it could be done with watercolor too, for watercolor is transparent in nature. Even the opaque ones, with enough water, become transparent to some extent. From what I heard, to glaze in watercolor, the key is to wait for the underpainting or the previous layer really really dry, bone dry. Maybe someday I will try it.

Color Studies (1) – Complementary and Temperature

A most common way to practice complementary colors is simple choose a pair and limited your palette to those two (plus tints, shades, mixtures maybe). Like this:

Pastel drawing of a horse(?) skull
Skull (horse?), soft pastel on paper, 18×24 in, 2018

Whichever pair of colors we choose, it is most likely one warm and one cool. In a painting lesson I took years back, we used the complementaries a bit differently. We create a painting in cool colors, and paint the warm complementaries on top. Here’s the result:

Still life, acrylic on canvas board, 16×20 in, 2018

Unfortunately I failed to take a picture of the cool painting underneath, though I did let the cool colors showed through here and there. The colors were not strictly restricted to one pair of complementary colors, but it is within certain range.

I’d say the result is quite different than if I started with these topical colors. There’s a solidity and unity unique to this method.

Pairs (IV) and a New Thing for Me

My painting journey started with watercolor, and on the way, I also picked up acrylic and gouache. In other words, all water medium. Part of the reason I never tried oil is that I have more than enough art materials at home already, and I doubt I could ever use them up. Another part is that, I thought acrylic is the modern replacement of oil, and it could do everything oil can do.

Over the years, I met more than a few artists attesting that oil and acrylic are not the same at all. I started to wonder if I should give it try. A few weeks ago I attended a free lecture at University Art by an artist representing Williamsburg Oils (now part of Golden), and received some free colors. Well, I shouldn’t waste them, should I?

I dug out my very first acrylic landscape, and did a simplified copy of it in oil. Here they are:

Seascape, acrylic on canvas board, 12×16 in, 2015 (?)
Seascape, oil on paper, 9x12in, Feb. 2020

A few notes:

  • The acrylic painting was varnished, hence the sheen.
  • The oil painting was done on acrylic/oil paper. I don’t know if that makes a difference for the outcome.
  • I only have a few oil colors to work with.

I LOVE how oil colors can be pushed around freely and mixed smoothly, even the next day! I do feel I have more control of precision with acrylic, but that could simply because I have no skill with oil at this stage. For now, I would love to try more landscapes or portraits with oil, but for more modern and abstract paintings, I will stay with acrylic. Also, if you work with collage and complicated textures and patterns, acrylic is probably much easier.

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.

Try New Things (3) – Framing

Full Moon, watercolor on tinted paper, 11 x 14 in, November 2019

There’s nothing new about the painting itself. I was fascinated by the Japanese ukiyo-e art, and tried to create something in that style. The new things for me are the preparing of the paper and the final display.

To prepare the paper, I boiled 10 bags of Liption black tea in a pot, pour the water in a tray, and after it cooled, soaked the watercolor paper in it for a couple of hours. The result is a nicely tinted paper.

For display, I always find matting and framing of watercolor a chore, and that’s part of force driving me to acrylic painting in the beginning. I recently came across two videos on how to display watercolor painting without glass, or even frame. I am sure there are many other videos on the topic, but these are the ones I referenced:

  1. Brennie M Brown: Framing Watercolors without Glass
  2. Robert Burridge – BobBlast: A Contemporary Way to Frame and Exhibit your Modern Works on Paper

Simply put it, if you want to frame the artwork without glass:

  • Glue the artwork onto gator board with acrylic gel medium, and let it dry overnight
  • Varnish it with 2 coats of gloss and 2 coats of matte varnishes, in that order
  • Frame it

If you want to display the artwork directly:

  • Painted the edges of a cradled wood panel to desired color (this step is optional)
  • Glue the artwork to the panel with acrylic gel medium, and let it dry overnight
  • Varnish it (same as in previous method)

Mr. Burridge didn’t mention varnishing in his video, but I did it anyways. The result is a waterproof surface. There are artists online saying varnishing changes the color of their paintings. If you only use gloss varnish, the color will look more vibrant. If only matte varnish, it probably with dull or blur. I used both, and the result is fine. However, it always wise to test it on some old paintings first.

The result hanging on the wall.

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: