Saturday, May 27, 2017

How to Make a Sketch Easel

A plein-air easel should achieve the following goals:

1. Allow you to stand or sit.
2. Hold your panel or sketchbook up out of your hands, so that both hands are free.
3. Position the work close to your line of sight so that you can achieve accuracy.
4. Allow easy adjustments of height, slope, and angle.
5. Diffuse the direct sunlight to get rid of glare and cast shadows.
6. Resist being blown over by the wind.
7. Set up and take down quickly, fit into a lightweight and compact bag.
8. Be easy to build from readily available materials.



After decades of tinkering—and with the generous input of you, the GJ Community here on the blog—I think we've got something that really achieves these goals.

People are calling it "The Gurney Easel," but I just call it the "sketch easel."



(Umbrella Video on YouTube) I recently headed into the workshop to build a sketch easel for Jeanette. And being the needlecraft wizard, she helped me create some light diffusers. We documented the whole process in a new Gumroad video.

It will show you exactly how to build one. If you don't have the workshop tools or skills, why not get the video for a friend who can build it for you?


(Quick-Release-Plate video on YouTube)

The video is loaded with valuable tips. For example, instead of attaching the quick release plate each time to the back of your easel, you can get a few extra cheaper generic plates.

Screw one of them semi-permanently into the back of your easel. Each camera and each easel gets its own plate, and the slot on the tripod is left empty when not in use (I use Velbon or Amazon tripods) which have a square slot.


The video covers how to make both the easel and four different diffuser designs. I'll talk more about tools and materials tomorrow, and share some of your design ideas on Monday.

The HD download of "How to Make a Sketch Easel" is more than an hour long and costs only $14.95.

It's available now from Gumroad, and I'll upload it to Sellfy and Cubebrush later today.

The DVD version is available for $24.50, and it includes a slide show. The DVD is also available on Amazon


Friday, May 26, 2017

Casein Emulsion and Varnish

Julien from France asks:
"I've finally bought Richeson casein online, still quite expensive [to import to Europe], but quite cool, actually different from gouache or Holbein's Acryla Gouache. My question is, have you used the Shiva casein emulsion or varnish, and can you use it with gouache?

First, a little background. For those who don't know, when you buy the emulsion separate from the paint, you're getting the liquid glue-like binder that holds the pigment together. Casein emulsion is a water-soluble, milk-based protein in liquid form in a can or jar. It's the same stuff that they use to formulate the paint.

Shiva is the company that originally made casein paint. The company was bought by the Jack Richeson company, which markets the product under both the Shiva name and Richeson brand, but I believe they're the same product.

Detail of Skysweepers, painted with gouache with some acrylic medium

In answer to your question, I have only experimented a little with the casein emulsion. I don't see any reason why you can't use casein emulsion with gouache. It would make gouache behave more like casein. You could even use acrylic medium with gouache. I used to do that a lot, because I liked the opacity of gouache, but I wanted it to have the sealed surface of acrylic.

I have used the casein varnish made by Richeson, which is a liquid brush-on varnish. As far as I know, they no longer make it. I found that it doesn't work well with watercolor paper because the paper is so absorbent. It just soaks the varnish up, so it requires a lot of coats before you start getting a gloss.

But on a panel, the varnish develops gloss with just one or two coats. The varnish is helpful for bringing out the depth and richness of dark paintings. If you're using paint with a matte surface, dark passages are prone to looking chalky. I find that the matte surface of gouache or casein is better suited to more high-key palettes.

If you want to varnish a gouache or casein painting, you could use a spray varnish, but keep in mind that once you apply a varnish, the surface is closed, and you wouldn't want to paint over it again with either casein or gouache.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

'How to Make Easel' Video Releases This Saturday

On Saturday, May 27, I release my newest video tutorial called: "How to Make a Sketch Easel."


Beginners and pros alike will be able to follow step-by-step as I build my compact, lightweight easel. I've been perfecting this design for decades, and it's ideal for sketchbooks and small panels.



Plus I'll show four different ways to make a white diffuser. Each one is a vast improvement over the blowdown-prone white umbrella. 



I thoroughly cover materials, tools, and methods, and I share alternate build techniques for those who don't have many power tools or workshop skills.

If you've built a similar easel design and would like to share it with the blog community, I'll be doing a post about 'Your Easel Designs' this coming Monday. Please email me a few photos with a sentence about each.

The HD download of "How to Make a Sketch Easel" is more than an hour long and costs only $14.95. 

The DVD version is available for $24.50, and it includes a slide show.





Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Sambourne's Reference Photos

Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910) was an English illustrator and cartoonist who discovered the benefits of photo reference.


He joined the magazine Punch in 1871 and eventually became its principle cartoonist, replacing John Tenniel. 


Many of his cartoon illustrations for Punch can be associated with photographs of figures in costumes.


For models he enlisted the help of friends, servants, family members and local characters. At first he used Edwin Austin Abbey's studio as a place to do his photos.


Sometimes his wife or kids posed, and he often posed himself. He also recruited professional and semi-professional models, such as the local policeman.


Later he took an interest in photographing nude women, and amassed a large collection of photos of women undressed or partially undressed, though he only rarely used those photos for illustration reference.
His well preserved house in London is a fine example of Victorian style. 


It includes many of his original reference photographs and is open for touring.
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Edward Linley Sambourne on Wikipedia
Article in the Camera Club
Related previous posts: 
Charles Keene's cartoons about artists
Using Photo Reference

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pocket Sketching Rig


When I attend a fancy-dress event, such as an opera, a wedding, or a black tie fundraiser, my sketching gear has got to fit into a single pocket. Here's what I bring:

Two water brushes, one filled with clear water, and one with diluted black water-soluble ink.
• Fountain pen filled with sepia ink
• I add the white gouache to the collar later.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why Aren't Trees Black?

If trees were more efficient solar collectors, the leaves would be black instead of green. They'd look more like solar cells, which are black so that they can absorb as much light energy as possible.

James Gurney, River Suir, Ireland, Oil, 8 x 10 inches

The green color that we see is "leftover" light, a wavelength that the tree's solar engine is not able to process.

This so-called "green gap" is caused by the fact that chlorophyll does well harvesting blue and red light. But because of a deficiency in the organic chemistry, leaves are not as good at capturing light in the green range.

Then why is some foliage red? The red color is a sun block for young leaf tissue as it develops in the early spring. Without it, some delicate leaves would burn in the spring sun. Normally that red color of early spring foliage gives way to green thanks to the action of enzymes.



The copper beech—or Blutbuche (blood beech in German)—keeps its red color all year round. That happens because a metabolic disorder interferes with the normal action of those enzymes.

This type of tree probably would have died out in the wild, were it not for the intervention of human gardeners, who like the way red foliage stands out in gardens.

I've adapted these ideas from the book The Hidden Life of Trees
Scientific paper on ScienceDirect
Discussion on Biology website


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reviving the Camera Lucida


For centuries, artists have developed devices to help translate what they see directly onto paper. One of those tools is the camera lucida, which has remained popular even after the invention of photography.


As you look through the viewfinder, a virtual image of the scene appears ghosted over the paper and your drawing hand.

For the device to work, the optics must reflect the image twice so that it's right side up and right-reading. There are two ways of doing this: with a prism or with a set of half-silvered mirrors.


A few years ago, art instructor and antique-art-tool geek Pablo Garcia revived the prism-based camera lucida (below, left) in a successful Kickstarter campaign for a product he called "NeoLucida." But he admits that the small prism is a bit difficult to use.


So he has evolved his design to incorporate the half-silvered mirror optics (above, right) in a new design called the NeoLucida XL. Although the image is bigger and easier to see, the challenge is maintaining proper brightness levels on the subject relative to the paper. The design addresses this problem with neutral density filters that can block out light that's too bright.



In this video, Norm of the YouTube channel "Tested" interviews Mr. Garcia and tries out the new device, which will soon be in production. (Link to YouTube) The campaign for the NeoLucida XL is still live on Kickstarter.

By way of disclaimer, I haven't been contacted in any way by the makers of the Neolucida. Also I have never used either kind of camera lucida, so I can't speak to how practical it is to use. And I can't vouch for how well these devices are actually designed or built.

Graphoscope, a mirror-based camera lucida from the 1960s
The NeoLucida XL is not the first product that uses the mirror technology. There have been many variations over the years. In addition to the Kickstarter version, there's another product called a Lucid Art that's already available on Amazon, though the reviews from users are mixed.

Have you tried a camera lucida? What was your experience? I'd love to hear in the comments.
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Previously: Did Fitz Hugh Lane Use a Camera Obscura?
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Here's a discussion that developed after the FB version of this post. (It's too long to paste into the comments.)

Davis Fandino
Yet people still sneer at the concept that classical artists used lenses to project images to aid their practice.

James Gurney
I wonder how many 19th-century artists actually did use optical devices such as camera obscuras, camera lucidas, projecting mirrors, or sighting grids (not to mention photography later). Those that did rarely discussed it. David Hockney's book "Secret Knowledge," while perhaps overstating the case a bit, has opened up a lot of healthy experimenting, and that strikes me as a good thing.

Davis Fandino
Agreed Mr. Gurney. David Hockney may have over over stated the conclusions somewhat but it seems that the basic case is exceedingly difficult to refute. Many take umbrage to it because they see it as casting aspersions on the skills of these artists

Eugene Arenhaus
That is because camera lucida is a 19th century invention, and the classical artists simply had no access to it. It does not use lenses, either - it is a one-sided mirror.
Camera obscura, which was more or less known since 17th century or so, produces extremely faint images even with the best illumination conditions. It would be next to useless for an artist. There are no recorded mentions of any artist using one, or evidence of distortions produced by such a device in artwork. What is known to have been used by draughtsmen was a simple viewfinder frame, which works in daylight - but not any kind of camera.
Hockney's idea about curved mirrors does not hold water no better than his suggestions about lenses. Given how bad his portraits are even with optical aids, I suspect that his claims stem from a bad case of sour grapes. That you cannot refute his claims matters nothing: he makes claims about existence of some practice, it is his burden to provide evidence of such practice, not anyone else's to disprove it. And he did not produce any evidence so far - only conjecture.

Davis Fandino
It's well known Rockwell used models and photo to work from.
But, can you post a reference to Rockwell's use of a projection? Thanks

Davis Fandino
Rockwell used the balopticon image projection…

James Gurney
Re Cardany Yes, check out the book by Ron Schick on Rockwell's use of photography. Also in his book Rockwell on Rockwell he talks about how he used the Balopticon projector.

Davis Fandino
Eugene Arenhaus, David Hockney provided ample proofs to back up his theory in his book and the accompanying documentary. The distortions you mention are addressed and taken into account with convincing examples. That artists never mentioned using them is not evidence that they did not. Artists have always been notoriously circumspect about their methods lest the mystique of the craft be lessened. Michelangelo burned preliminary drawings and never spoke of his methods despite copious writings and letters throughout his lifetime in order to maintain the sense of him being the "divine" Michelangelo.

Another reason would be the natural insecurity at layman seeing these devices s and methods as a "cheat" and not understanding their use as tools to aid the creation of art. As seen in the link above Norman Rockwell stated once: "The Balopticon is an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy, and vicious machine. It is also a useful, timesaving, practical, and helpful one. I use it often — and am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming.” Vermeer did the same.

Another thing to consider is that in the entire history of writings on art and it's history and methodology there is not a single mention of where artists acquired their charcoal for drawing. It was seemingly considered too quotidian a subject to bother to mention. Only in very recent scholarship into the life and work of Caravaggio was it discovered that they acquired it from bakeries from when the ovens are cleaned. This was from a single sentence from the transcripts of one of the criminal trials he was embroiled in when a fellow artist acting as a witness was describing the circumstances around the incident. Should we have believed that charcoal can't have been used because there was no proof of where it came from in writings?

Lastly, it's in the life and work of Caravaggio that we find the most evidence of the use of the methods Hockney describes. He was used by a landlady for knocking a hole in the ceiling of his rooms and this corresponds to the practice of making a room into a camera obscura.

The possibility and probability of Hockney's theory being at least partially correct should not cause such consternation or emotionalism in it's detractors. As I said before it does not take away from the talents of classical artist. If anything only adds to their ingenuity and genius. Besides we should ever be searching for truth and new perspectives and not clinging to traditional ways of thinking about and making art. Where would we be if the great artist of the past had been so obtuse?

James Gurney
Those are all great points, thanks, Eugene Arenhaus. One of the problems with Hockney's book is that he puts too much emphasis on lens (and concave mirror) systems, which are cumbersome to use and difficult to build, even using today's tech. I haven't tried the lucidas, but I've fooled around with the mirror projection methods and for me they only worked under absolutely ideal artificial conditions. I've been experimenting instead with sighting grids, which were certainly discussed by Durer and Leonardo and others, and they work very effectively in the field if you know how to use them. They're really just an extension of a viewfinder. I love them because they have helped me identify the kinds of persistent errors I've been falling into when I do my usual methods of unaided drawing.

Eugene Arenhaus
Davis Fandino The only insecurity I see in all that is Hockney's own. There is no concrete proof, neither in records, nor in contemporaries' testaments, nor in artistic practices as they had been taught in ateliers and academies. Optical aids began to enter into artist training much more recently than Caravaggio or Vermeer (who constructed his perspective using a pin and a string, which would be unnecessary with optics, and freely changed compositions at late stages of paintings.)
Come on, really, give me a break. Making a hole in the ceiling big enough for the landlord to complain is evidence for camera obscura? That is preposterous on so many levels that it is not even funny. Have you even seen Caravaggio's work? Camera obscura would be terrible in the type of lighting he favored. Before you theorize and pontificate, go find a camera obscura and try to use it. It's next to impossible, and cannot be used for color work.

As for the charcoal example, it vividly shows the defects in your reasoning. You have one account of one artist using charcoal from a bakery, and make a conclusion that everyone everywhere did the same. Charcoal from a fireplace would work equally well; and in traditional artistic practice drawing charcoal is made by heating willow rods in a sealed tin until they turn into carbon - but you ignore that possibility completely. This simply is not logic, this is rubbish.

Andy Volpe
I want to get one and try it out

Greg Shea I have the "Neo-lucida", I'll let you borrow it.

Lancelot Falk
I assume you've seen "Tim's Vermeer"? A great documentary about this very subject. Compelling evidence that the classic Dutch master used this method as the experiment is recreated.

James Gurney
Yes, it's a well done documentary and an ingenious device, but it seems to me far more complicated than it needs to be.

Barry Van Clief ·
I must say, Tims results weren't excellent. Mark Carder's students do far better.

George Parra
Translated from Spanish
Hi James! How are you? An Artifact of these it is easy to make with homemade items? Thanks for all the info to post. Greetings, I am a big fan of yours šŸ˜

Nikhil Sahane
I have actually used camera lucida as part of an exercise while studying botany.
We would connect it to microscope and draw what we saw in slides... :)

Steven James Petruccio
Even with projecting or tracing images, one still needs a level of technical skill to paint realistically. Plus theres the initial concept and composition etc...

Nic Arrighi ·
I tried this out a few years ago using a photo of my mother. Resulted in a nifty painting but a VERY sore neck from contentiously going back and fourth between the mirror and the painting.

Michael Cross
I have heard of pinhole camera, and also current light projectors, but not this. That's neat...thanks for sharing.

Rob Howard
Although I haven't used it in decades, I still treasure my LEON camera lucida. It's. razor sharp and, for most people, confounding to use. They were standard gear in one of the studios I worked in and the layout artists had mastered them so they could fit type with them. In the right hands (and eyes) they are suprememly accurate. Just ask Ingres. He used a LEON.

Re Cardany Rob, can you post a reference to Ingres -use of this device? Thanks, it is fascinating...

Rob Howard
Almost all of his quick portrait drawings show the use of a "luci." This is immediately apparent to those who have used them and developed the special skills required. The lines produced are unmistakable. Of course to those who hold art technique as beholden to some unwritten moral code, the great artists of the past would rather have starved than "cheated". For them, art is not a highly competitive field but rather something akin to the Olympics, with unseen judges checking the artists blood for drugs and aalcohol and then holding up numbers as to how well they did in the side-saddle drawing event.

Ingres was the son of a drawing master and a precocious talent. But like all who had taken up the banner of art as a way to put food on the table, he was more interested in competing effectively than winning some moral high ground and, like Caravaggio, Vermeer and countless other masters of the past, he employed whatever techniques and tools as would give him a competitive edge.

You may do your own research on Ingres and other artists as the information gained from hard work is not so easily dismissed as that spoon fed.

Barry Van Clief ·
I have an old opaque projector from the sign business, but I usually use a grid when I want to reproduce something to scale.

Rob Howard
What has always amazed the unwary is, if you draw badly without a projector, you draw badly with one. It cannot turn a clod into a master draughtsman.

Barry Van Clief
One of my grown daughter's friends traced a photo of her, colored it and sent it as a gift. It looks nothing like her, even though everything is "right." A sweet thought, though.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Molyneux's Problem


Here's a philosophical question:

Let's imagine a person born blind had learned to distinguish shapes by the way they feel. If you could surgically bestow sight on that person, would he or she correctly identify those same shapes by sight alone, without recourse to touch?

People argued about this question for centuries. It is a hard one to test, because it's so rare to find experimental subjects. There aren't many people who start with total congenital blindness and later attain full vision.

In recent years, Pawan Sinha, of MIT, was able to find five individuals who met the requirements. They started out with only the ability to distinguish between light and dark. After a surgical procedure gave them the ability to see, they looked at a selection of forms with which they were already familiar by touch.

Although they could readily differentiate one shape from another visually, they could not transfer their tactile knowledge into the visual realm. They could not connect touch and sight. Their guesses were no better than chance. The answer to Molyneaux's problem was a decisive "no."

Sculpture by Carpeaux
However, over time, as they interacted more with the world, the senses of touch and sight were better integrated.

This problem  has relevance for artists. Several art theorists, including Harold Speed, have put great stock in the differences between the sense of touch and the sense of sight.

Many artists now develop their visual skills to a high level, often exclusively through a computer interface, without having the opportunity to touch the objects they draw or paint.

I've always believed that any chance we have to feel, touch, smell, or hear something that we're drawing will make us draw a more convincing representation of it. If you've danced the Charleston, you'll animate it better. If you've tightened the cinch on a Western saddle, you'll paint a better cowboy.

So the problem is not just experiencing the world through all our senses, but integrating those senses with each other. One thing that helps me when I set out to do a plein-air painting is to walk around the subject and check it out first before diving into the preliminary drawing.
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You might enjoy these previous posts:
Can Blind People Draw?
Seeing With the Hands
Touching Art at the Prado
Blindsight

Molyneaux's problem on Wikipedia.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Should you serve on an art jury?


Salon Jury, 1903
In a letter to the director of the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) declined to be a juror for their annual exhibition. Here's why:
"In regard to jurys of artists, I have never served because I could never reconcile it to my conscience to be the means of shutting the door in the face of a fellow painter. I think the jury system may lead, & in the case of the Exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute no doubt does lead to a high average, but in art what we want is the certainty that the one spark of original genius shall not be extinguished, that is better than average excellence, that is what will survive, what it is essential to foster--‘The ‘IndepĆ©ndents” in Paris was originally started by our Group, it was the idea of our exhibitions & since taken up by others, no jury’s & most of the artists of original talent have made their debut there in the last decade, they would never have had a chance in the official Salons. Ours is an enslaved profession, fancy a writer not being able to have an article published unless passed by a jury of authors, not to say rivals—"
She went on to say that she would be glad to help the museum in any other way.

Those of you who have been a juror, please share your thoughts about the process and the outcome of judging. No need to name the specific competition, but I'd be curious to hear what you learned about the experience of judging.

Letter to John W. Beatty, 5 September 1905, from Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Gran Torino in Gouache

While waiting for my car to be inspected, I do a gouache sketch of a Gran Torino. That car was produced by Ford in the early 1970s, with Coke-bottle styling and the long-hood-short-deck look. 


I mention to my mechanic, who modifies and races Triumph Spitfires, that the Gran Torino looks like a pretty hot car to drive.

Sure, it looks great and sounds loud, he says, but it doesn't really handle that well by today's standards. Just about any car these days has better steering, braking, and acceleration. "Even a Ford Focus! That car is a beast compared to the Torino."   
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Watercolor sketchbook
Watercolor pencils
Watercolors
Gouache
Round and flat brushes
Fountain pen