Friday, April 30, 2010

Reader dissection invitation

Avvakum by Myasoyadov

I am back on the East coast again. I did 800 miles today. I am going to do the same thing I did last week ( or month? I don't know I lose track of time) and open up the subject to comments.

This unpleasant scene is very well composed and tomorrow night I am going to dissect it. I invite you to log on to the comments and take a scalpel to it yourself. Tell us, what design ideas do you see here? I have written about many of the devices used in this machine in prior posts. How many can you find?
See you all tomorrow with my take on this painting.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A scam that targets artists

I heard from a friend today that he received an inquiry over the internet from someone who wanted to buy one of his paintings. I hope it was for real, but I did take the time to warn him against a common scam. Perhaps you already know about it, but in case you don't, here's the deal.

There is a scam that targets artists and any one else who markets online. What usually happens is that you receive an e-mail, often in stilted English, that says something like " I have seen you paintings on the line, and I am most serious to buy many.


They often want to send you a cashiers check as they are foreign or moving. They ask to overpay you for one reason or another, often shipping, and you are to deposit the check, send them the paintings and the balance left over from the cashiers check after what ever arrangements you have made. In short you are to take a cashiers check, let it clear and mail them money. What most people don't know is that a bogus check can clear your bank and then be rescinded.

Many artists are so delighted to receive the sale that they comply. What happens next, is the bank contacts you in a week or two to explain that although the cashiers check appeared fine and they have posted it "cleared" to your account, it was a fake and bounced. The check was a fraud. You are out the balance that you sent to the customer and perhaps a painting or two as well.

The easiest way to avoid this is to set up a paypal account and take the payment through that. If the client won't do that, walk away. No matter what the deal is don't do business with anyone in Nigeria. If that seems unfair to you go ahead, but I warned you.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A little more about brushes

With all the comments from the last post explaining excellent ways to care for brushes that would work for most people, I suppose I should explain about my brushes some more.

My brushes are worn out, not neglected. At the end of their lives they are dull and becoming ragged. Almost never do I have a brush ruined because it has dried in paint in it. I have only about four. A #1, a #4, a#12 and a rigger which lasts a long time as I do maintain those carefully and use them very little. You have seen painters with great handfuls of brushes and they keep a separate one for every color. I clean mine in between colors on a paper towel and that wears them. I also scrub, jab and mash them into the paint.

Rinsing them out in thinner works for me because I paint every day, they really don't have time to dry out. I could probably stretch their lives a little, but I don't have the patience to wash them. When I teach workshops virtually every students brushes are ruined. I like em new and sharp.

If you are gently stroking with your brushes I suppose they will last longer and if you have many you will spread the wear over the entire assemblage. If you paint every day using two or three you go through them.

I was taught in the Gammell studios how to rub the brush in bar soap and clean it on my palm. I used to spend perhaps 15 minutes every night cleaning brushes, but over the years I have abandoned that. I think the Masters brush cleaner is a good product if you want to clean them incidentally. But as I said I beat them and wear them out, so cleaned or not they rapidly become dull. I am the same way with shoes incidentally.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Some advice on brushes

I received this query today. I am always happy to get questions, as they prompt me on what to write.
Could you tell us what make of brushes you recommend. Also, how do you maintain them and when do you throw them away?

I am not loyal to a single brand of brushes. Lately I have been using the Winsor Newton brushes. I buy them from Jerries Artarama. They have a funny handle that is supposed to counterbalance their weight. It gives them a wasp shape that I am not sure I like, but they are median priced and the quality is excellent. So many of the brushes are made in China now and I have been unhappy with their quality. They seem to develop loose ferrules. That's the metal part that holds the bristles onto the stick part. If it gets wiggly the brush is useless. I have had that problem with brushes from a number of different manufacturers all of whom have their brushes made in China.The exception to this is that I do buy the Creativemark brushes from Jerries, they are Chinese cheapies so I only use the #1 size, it seems like their ferules don't come loose as easily.

I recently bought some Canson bristle brushes that were made in France. The silky hairs in them gave great handling and I think I will try some more of them. I also have been keeping a
# 12 nylon brush in my kit and laying things in with that. I like the softer stroke that makes sometimes.Those brushes tips do seem to explode though. The big ones, just as in the bristle brushes tend to last longer than the small ones.

I don't ever wash brushes. I rinse them out in my thinner and set them aside for the next day. I am sure that shortens their lifespans and I go through a lot of brushes. I get the same number of days out of a brush as its size number. A number four lasts me about four days for instance. If a brush becomes choked with paint or I forget to clean one, I use professional house painters brush cleaner on it. That's a noxious product, best used outside. I also treat brushes with GOOP the mechanics handcleaner. That softens them up when they get stiff.

I throw away lots of brushes as I like them sharp. When they start to wear, out they go. I look at them as Popsicle sticks, disposable.

Monday, April 26, 2010

An artistic home

I visited some old friends yesterday. Tony and Avis Erickson have spent years crafting their home. I went to high school with this couple and have maintained sporadic contact with them over the years. They have worked as teachers and landscape gardeners and in nursing homes, so they have had a limited income with which to operate.. They have substituted enormous artistic creativity for money and put together a truly remarkable series of rooms. Let me give you a tour.

The flash on my camera over illuminated many of these shots. Here is what the place looks like below in the subdued lighting they use. The materials came from big box home stores and architectural salvage. Ordinary off the rack tile and millwork are used in unusual ways to give the look of period luxury.

They bought a strange house that was two prefab units like house trailers with a frame structure bridging the space between the two. The room you see here is a sunken living room with 14 foot high ceilings. They have worked for years wallpapering and carpentering to create a stylish Victorian fantasy that looks like it was lifted from Dickens. They say it is a work in progress and have dozens of separate projects going at once. They know it will never be finished.

Here is a room off to one side of their kitchen. Notice the arches on the doorways and cabinets. A large stained glass window hangs above the entrance.

Above and below are chandeliers they have fashioned from cast off strips of brass, toilet chain and prisms scrounged from discount lumber yards. Every bit of the house is like this. They told me that creating these chandeliers was one of the most fun things they have ever done together.

Here is a cabinet in the bathroom with old silverware bent to form pulls for the doors.

Below is a shelf in their bathroom with bracketed shelves.

Below is a crib Avis constructed, with its gate closed .

Here is the same crib with its gate opened showing it's elegant interior.

I am so enchanted with this home that I come to see it nearly every time I am in Minnesota. My photos really don't describe the level of detail and textures that make this house a work of art.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

One thing that I think these images have in common

Here again are the pictures that I posted last night. I am in a little better shape today. I was pushing myself too hard and I was too tired to be comprehensible. I assemble these posts by finding the picture or pictures and then writing. I got the pictures posted and just couldn't do more. Thank you to all the good sports who made intelligent comments on the last post. Here are my thoughts on what these images have in common.

The top image is a Manet which was thought radical in its day as it compressed the image so much. The painting flattens the figure to such an extent that it becomes a 2D design. The two Franz Hals below are also somewhat compressed but the important thing about them is the mosaic of brushwork from which they are built. They are not as flattened as the Manet but they are not illusionistic in the same way as a Rembrandt either. They also live in a very shallow space rather than an entire concocted world with depth and distance. Both the Manet and the Hals acknowledge that they are a painting and not a facsimile of reality intended to fool the viewer that they might be looking out of a window. The painter and his ideas are more important than the subject. The painting is about what it looks like more than what it is a picture of. The subject is a jumping off point for a "treatment' by the artist who made it.

The rest of the paintings below this point are by Robert Henri a seminal figure in the ashcan school. I think he was synthesising the ideas in the paintings above. I could probably have included a Velazquez as well. Henri has compressed his figures against shallow backgrounds and like the Hals, carried the modeling with planar brushstrokes. Unlike Hals and more like the Manet the modeling is in real close values, they have form but it is more like a bas relief than a 3D sculpture.

Look at the dress in this painting, it looks a lot like the Manet's boy's pants above. There is just enough modeling to give it believable drawing but not enough to suggest deep form. The whole unit is flattened and stays close to the picture plane, or the surface of the imagine visual space behind the skin of the canvas. What is lost in illusion by this compression is gained as decorative patternmaking. Oriental artists have used this flattening as part of their design vocabulary all along. But it is a novelty for most of Euro-American art history.

Mural painters have long known this. In traditional mural painting the idea was not to chop illusionistic holes in the fabric of the architects walls but to decorate their surface. Many muralists, particularity of the generations around Henris time deliberately painted flat images and even outlined figure to keep the on the "surface" of the painting.

There is no brushwork in nature, simply by having that you are compromising the illusion somewhat to gain an artistic advantage. Notice the decorations on the sleeve of the girls portrait above. The further part of her body barely exist because the space in which she stands is so tightly compressed. The back of her head is hardly further away from us than the tip of her nose.
This young women lounging before us has plenty of form but the modeling is kept to a minimum. She is not deeply scuptural she is more like those half round figures that stick out from the surface of temple architraves or roman sarcophagi. The painting says form but then again it doesn't.

Almost all of this standing figure above is pushed against the frontal plane. It is almost as if she was preserved under a sheet of glass like a butterfly.

Look at how flattened the left side of this face is. She might make a great face card in a deck of cards. The illuminated side of the face is along the fromtal plane too. At a glance the form is convincing, it does have a surface, but on closer examination she is a flounder girl.

This girl is about four inches thick, Shes lovely but you couldn't put you arms around her. There is no distance into the picture behind her. The artists in these pictures have deliberately
shown their subjects in a shallow space, losing believable depth but gaining decorative power.The images are compressed deliberately.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A comparison

Well readers, the unthinkable has happened. I am too exhausted to write . I have posted a Manet, two Frans Hals and a number of Robert Henri paintings. I intend to compare them but I just can't continue tonight. I have been teaching and traveling. Look at the images, and tomorrow I will post them again with some commentary. This might be fun anyway. Perhaps you could log on to the comments and tell me how they resemble one another. I certainly think they do. What do you think? A very tired Stape

Friday, April 23, 2010

Making a tonalist painting

R. Swain Gifford from

I received a question some time ago about tonalism. The writer wanted to know about the color used by tonalist painters and whether they used black.
I have written a comparison of tonalism and luminism, here is a link to that from the archives. There are also some nice baby goats in that one.

I am not myself a tonalist painter but I have experimented with the ideas a little. There is at least one very fine tonalist painter who reads this blog. She may log in and explain the ideas better than I can, or maybe tell me I have it all wrong.

Tonalism is a historical approach to painting that involves systematically presenting the landscape permeated by a dominant tone and in a restricted color scheme. Often, at least historically, these painters worked mostly in earth colors so black would have been a common color on their palettes. The tonalist painting above undoubtedly contains black. For a painter who is restricting his dominant color to a single tone, black is a handy thing to have, it adds another pigment without adding another color. Grays can be laced into a tonalist painting without losing the look.There are tonalist painters today who favor chromatic colors. So what pigments are used is secondary to the logic with which they are arrayed.

Edgar Payne while not a straight up tonalist painter was influenced by those ideas and wrote of the danger of mechanically adding the same color into every pigment on your palette. That is a way that some painters have arrived at a tonalist look. He felt it destroyed the beauty of your color. However he did offer a pointer for obtaining tonalist effects. It is simple and straightforward, an elegant idea. Payne suggested that in order to keep a painting dominated by a single tone all that was required was to remove its compliment ( or opposite) from your palette. In other words if you are doing a tonalist painting based on an ochre yellow, you want to avoid the use of purple.

Often tonalist paintings are backlit by sunsets or failing light and are in dark tones set against that light. Other tonalist schemes weave a single color through a painting like the warp strings of a tapestry. Another way to think about this is to imagine an instrument with a drone string, like a dulcimer. Dulcimers have several strings, one of which is played open so that it always sounds as part of any chord that is played.

Tonalism is sort of the opposite of impressionism which is made up of the transcribed mosaic of the observed notes of nature before the artist. Therefore impressionist color is usually full spectrum rather than restricted to a single group of hues.

Usually the goal of tonalist painting is the production of a mood in a painting rather than the representation of any actual place. Usually they are done in the studio and as often as not the landscape is no real place but an idealized design. Historically tonalism was a reaction against the view painting of the mid 19th century which so often portrayed "Oh my God" locations. Because of that, they were often of simple and universal scenes. The color, design and the mood were the subject rather than a unique and spectacular location. The painting above is an example of that.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shattuck memories

I know most of you come here for art instruction, however I have done a fair amount of personal history on this blog too. If you look in the archives under chronological history you can see some of that. I am a visiting artist at Shattuck this week, where I went to high school. It is an interesting chapter in my life and a fairly unusual experience.

I was given the opportunity, not forced, to attend a military academy about an hour away from my home, in Faribault, Minnesota. I jumped at the chance and enjoyed my years there. The endurance I learned from that tough program served me well when I had to deal with the Ives Gammell years and the 15 years of starvation and hard times that began my art career.

This is the front entrance to the school which was built in the 1880's, the steps are worn hollow from all of the traffic they have seen. The campus is full of fabulous buildings, but this is the best. The hallway from that entrance looks like this.

The school had many traditions and one of them was that this hallway was reserved for seniors. So I didn't spend much time on that red carpet. The school was run on a what was called the new boy-old boy system. That meant that the senior class ruled the school. Discipline was very strict. The system was a hundred years old when I got there.

The upstairs of the building is a theatre, also late 19th century. Lots of wood. Here is a view looking back from beside the stage. Marlon Brando was a student there . A tradition of signing your name on the wall of the back stage area after each production resulted in this.

Like me, Brando left before graduation. Below the theater is the hallway leading to the refectory where we took all of our meals, here is the hallway leading to that.

I loved the aesthetic of the place. If you can imagine the hallways all filled with young men in uniforms with braid on their epaulets and shining brass. The seniors and some juniors who were officers carried sabres on their crisscross or Sam Brown belts that went over one shoulder and around their waists. The crack squad, a sort of Zouave drill team, carried 1892 trapdoor Springfields, an elongated "needle gun" a relic from before bolt action weapons that had a trapdoor that opened in the breech to allow loading. Very elegant.

Here is the stairway I took up to the classrooms. Many of my classes had about ten students in them. The teachers were excellent, far better than I saw later in college.

It was so beautiful, the pageantry and the architecture, that it was like being in an old movie. When I was there nothing had changed in a century. I sometimes have a hard time believing I lived for a while in that world. The Vietnam war, changing ideas about education and the alterations in society born in the 60's swept it all away and the school is now an elite boarding college prep school.

Below is the refectory where we all ate. It isn't much changed except now it was cafeteria style and in my day it was in a formal family style with a master (which is what we called our teachers) at the head of each table. The seniors sat next to them and the underclassmen were arrayed towards the foot of the table, seated by their class. Freshman, or new boys as we were called, sat at the bottom of the table and had to pour their drinks from pitchers there and pass them up. An elaborate system of hand signals was used to signify what each of the upperclassmen wanted in their glasses, which we filled and then passed back upto them.

There is only one teacher left who remembers me from those days, or at least he claims to. I have been painting very publicly , I did a seascape in the middle of a busy hallway today and I have been talking in the various classes. The director of the arts department was born 2 years after I was in school here.

I haven't been in these hallways in 40 years. The alum who interests me the most and with whom I identify somewhat was Townes Van Zandt. Townes graduated a few years before I arrived and became a legend in Texas folk- country music before his untimely death from a drinking. There is a movie about his life which was melancholy and half psychotic, but produced many eloquent and achingly beautiful songs. here is a live clip of him preforming one of his tunes that Emmy Lou Harris later covered.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A visiting artist gig.

Here is a picture of Shattuck, the school at which I am teaching. I went to this school forty years ago. It was a military academy then, it is now a coat and tie school. It has been fun to walk around the halls and through the classrooms in which I spent part of my youth.

Located on a bluff above Faribault, Minnesota the school is an elite college prep school, I believe the tuition runs about 45,000 dollars a year.The students are from all over the world. They are bright and engaging for the most part. Their mothers must have been good looking because they are beautiful a group of young men and women as I have ever seen. They are way too interested in athletics for my purposes though. There is a small group who are interested in art and I have taken them outside for a few lessons. There are one or two who have really responded to the outdoor painting thing. I am used to teaching workshops for adults, who have traveled a long way and spent money to be there, they hang on your every word. Most of the students with whom I have dealt are conscripts and that's a new experience for me. I am very impressed with the hard work done by the art faculty here, they work extremely hard and for long hours. They seem to have built a core group of students who are the art kids. I could not do their jobs.

I am working up a post defending the ashcan school from the charge of tastelessness which is quite wrong. I have some good images and I imagine I can generate some appropriate text.