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California watercolor artist Mike Bailey once said in his workshop that artists should keep going back to their old works and find inspiration there. In the past, that’s something I rarely did. My own works used to make me sad. If they are good, I feel like I haven’t made any progress, and if they are bad, I am bad. Last year when I started my social media presence: this blog and my Instagram, I managed to go through some of what I had done with Mike’s words in mind. It took some getting used to, but after many self-pitying moments, I saw sparks. There are things that generate ideas, things that remind me of techniques I learned and forgot, and things I simply want to re-do.

One of the sparks is an old abstract acrylic painting “Waterfall”, a design still excited me:

Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30, 2017
Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30

I kept the design, but drifted away from the primary colors and brought in the fluidity of the watercolor medium. Here’s the new version:

Waterfall 2, watercolor on paper, 22 x 28 in, 2020

The new piece entered the juried Watercolor Group Show at Blue Line Arts Gallery last year and is also part of the Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society 53rd annual show. SCVWS is rolling out the participating artworks on Instagram now.

The “treasure hunt” will keep going! 😁

Earlier this month I also submitted a self-portrait to Art Room Gallery’s Portrait Show, and received an “Honorable Mention.” Here’s the artwork:

Decision, watercolor on paper, 9 x 13 in, 2021

As I mentioned before I have been focusing on portrait this year. Though techniques are still my major concern, and I understand it takes far more than the a few months to grasp it, I do often think about if I could go deeper than just the face. “Decision” is an attempt to bring out a bit of the inner world of the subject.

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! 🙂

Autumn Colors – A Throwback Series

The rich colors of the season remind me of a series I did years ago. It consists of four still life paintings, done in watercolor and ink pen. It was the first series I ever did and was done before I had any appreciation of doing things in some sort of consistency. My natural inclination is always jumping around among different things.

As I have better understanding of the creative process, I start to see the benefit of staying for a while with a particular technique, a color theme, a subject matter, a design concept, etc. It reenforces your strength, challenges your thought, and often leads to new discoveries.

Anyways, here they are:

Autumn Colors 1, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 16 x 12 in, 2015
Autumn Colors 2, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 12 x 16, 2015
Autumn Colors 3, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 16 x 12 in, 2015
Autumn Colors 4, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 12 x 16 in, 2015

The things that connect this series are techniques and subject matters. I set up some “fall” related objects and chose four settings. They are parallel to each other in terms of relationship. Another way to develop a series is to derive new pieces from the old one. I am in the process of an experiment of that and hope I will be able to show it soon.

Testing Materials (5) – Black Drawing Paper

I have a Strathmore black drawing paper pad that I bought for colored pencil drawings. Unfortunately after a few attempts, I came to the conclusion that colored pencil is too testing for my patience and on black paper, that’s even more so. A drawing like the following, to reach the desired effect (smoother skin, brighter color etc.), would need probably another 20 to 50 layers of coloring (or skills I don’t have to begin with):

Lily, colored pencil, 9 x 12 in, 2020

So what to do with the rest of the paper? Gouache came to mind because the colors come thick and don’t need much water (or at least you can use it that way).

Jazmine, gouache on paper, 9 x 12 in, 2020

I very much like the effect, but as you can see there are wrinkles on paper caused by accidental water drops.

Here’s another one:

Monique, gouache on paper, 9 x 12 in, 2020

After I did these paintings, I found out that Stonehenge actually has a line of black watercolor paper. Order placed already, and stay tuned!

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.

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.

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? :))

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 (5) – John William Hill

J. W. Hill (1812-1879) was a British born American watercolorist and lithographer. I came across his work in a still life anthology and was taken with soft, serene and tangible feeling he created with watercolor, quite different from the wet-in-wet method I was taught in. Upon close-up examination, it is full of tiny strokes, like an engraving. Some of the strokes in the background created interesting patterns and was applied in a very painterly way. Maybe that’s how you do impasto with watercolor! 😁

In my copy, I didn’t go for the strokes. I was at a moment that my colors often ran wild. I think Hill’s Study of Fruit is a good example of unity and harmony with colors, and that’s what I went for.

I almost missed this: obviously yesterday was J. W. Hill’s birthday. So happy birthday Mr. Hill! 🎂

J. W. Hill, Study of Fruit
J.W. Hill, Study of Fruit, 1877. Watercolor on paper, 6.13 x 10.63 in.

My copy:

JWHill study
After J.W.HIll “Study of Fruit,” Watercolor, 2018