Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Painting in Gouache, Part 1

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009
Finished painting

Finished painting

Gouache is not as common a medium for fine art now as it should be, in my opinion!  Gouache is mostly used in the present time by illustrators  and designers because the colors are brilliant, they dry fast, and they are opaque like oils.  Unlike watercolors which require working from light to dark and reserving the white of the paper for lighter areas, you can work from dark to light with gouache.

It is an old medium.  It was used in the 14th century (and probably earlier) and known also as “bodycolor.”  Wikipedia states:  “Gouache differs from watercolor in that the particles are larger, the ratio of pigment to water is much higher, and an additional, inert, white pigment such as chalk is also present. Like all watermedia, it is diluted with water. (Gum Arabic is also present as a binding agent, just as in watercolor.) This makes gouache heavier and more opaque, with greater reflective qualities.”

Some artists of note who have used it often:  Albrecht Durer, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, Edgar Degas, and others.   I’d say that was good company!

As a matter of interest, I thought I’d include some photos of the progression of my last painting “Meeting of Curious Minds,” which is mostly gouache, with some watercolor.

I used a multiple-ply acid-free cotton rag illustration board for the paper support.  While you could use watercolor paper with gouache if you used thin washes, most of the time you must use a stiff inflexible support for gouache, as the thicker parts of gouache painting will crack if the support is bent.

After sketching the basic lines of the piece, I painted an undercoat for the tree, the hollow,  and the owl to give me some basic tonal values to work with.  It all looks rather ghostly so far.


I next worked further on the owl, adding more darker areas over which I would use white gouache later on.  The beauty of gouache is that you can paint dark colors as an undercoat and, depending on how transparent you make your gouache strokes, you can allow that undercoat of fur or feathers to show, as they often do in nature.  I figure that if I mess up here, it’s not worth continuing.  So I always tend to do the hardest parts first so that if I do make irreversible mistakes, I don’t waste too much time!


In the photo below, I’ve finished the owl, adding pure white feathery strokes of a fairly well-loaded brush.  I’ve worked on the aged, non-growing wood of the madrone nesting hole, and also darkened the interior of the hole so that the owl is seen in better contrast.  Now I must work on the rest of the trunk.


I see that in order to bring out the contrast between the rich hues of the tree trunk and the craggier, lighter bark that lives on top of the smoother trunk underneath, I have to make the background much darker than I have so far.  So out comes a darker brown, as well as the first greens of the poison oak that has insinuated itself onto the tree.  The hummingbird also begins to appear.


To be continued…

Vincent Van Gogh and His Drawings.3

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

drawing4This is called Portrait of Patience Escalier done with reed pen and ink over graphite on paper, 1888.  Vincent wrote to Theo:   “Shortly you are going to make the acquaintance of Mr. Patience Escalier, a sort of man with a hoe, former drover of the Camargue, now gardener at a farm in the Crau. Today I am sending you the drawing I made after this painting.”

Vincent painted two portraits of Patience Escalier.  I prefer the warmer tones of the version I’ve included.

As I mentioned in part 1, Van Gogh was keenly interested in the life of peasants and workers, so it’s no surprise that he drew and painted so many.

When I first saw this portrait, I was stunned at how much Van Gogh was able to portray in the eyes of Patience.  Van Gogh shows me a person who has worked very hard in life, who has suffered much, but someone who also seems kind.  It made me think that Van Gogh could never have captured all these qualities so clearly without having recognized and experienced them himself.

painting1For all you painters and non-painters alike, Van Gogh’s thoughts on being active and facing fears are timely:  “If one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of failures, one must not be afraid of making some mistakes. Many people think they they will become good by doing no  harm; that’s a lie…it leads to stagnation, to mediocrity…. 

“Just dash something down when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face with a certain imbecility.  You do not know how paralyzing that staring of a blank canvas is; it says to the painter, You can’t do anything. The canvas stares at you like an idiot, and it hypnotizes some painters, so that they themselves become idiots. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the really passionate painter who is daring – and who has once and for all broken that spell of ‘you cannot’….”

Vincent was always worried about draining his brother’s resources.  One of the circumstances that most surely must have contributed to his deepening depression toward the end of his life was that Theo was married and recently had a child and was feeling financial strain.  Vincent did not want to be a burden to his brother.

Theo was at his brother’s side when Vincent died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  Vincent’s recent paintings were hung around his coffin.  The coffin itself was covered with yellow sunflowers and dahlias.  Theo is quoted as saying:  “It was his favorite color, if you remember, symbol of the light that he dreamed of finding in hearts as in artworks.”  Theo was heartbroken and perhaps drained from caring for his brother and family.  Theo died 6 months later and the two brothers are buried side by side in France.

After having read so many excerpts of Van Gogh’s letters, studied his drawings and paintings, I feel like he has become a friend and mentor.  While he had to suffer so much during his lifetime – and depended on his brother Theo for monthly monetary help to survive (remember, he was not selling any of his paintings at the time, though Theo, as an art dealer,  tried to sell them)  – he nonetheless managed to create a monumental body of art that continues to inspire.

Vincent Van Gogh and His Drawings.2

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

drawing6You might recognize this scene.  This drawing was obviously a preparatory sketch for Van Gogh’s  painting entitled “Cafe Terrace at Night.”  I love this painting.

In a letter to his sister Wilhelmina Van Gogh, Vincent wrote in 1888:  “It is already a few days since I started writing this letter…interrupted these days by my toiling on a new picture of the outside of a cafe at night.  On the terrance there are the tiny figures of people drinking.  An enormous yellow lantern sheds its light on the terrace, the house front and the sidewalk, and even casts a certain brightness on the pavement of the streets, which takes a pinkish violet tone….Here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and citron-yellow color.  It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot.  They used to draw and paint the picture in the daytime after the rough sketch.  But I find satisfaction in painting things immediately.” (p 284, Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings by Colta Ives.)

Now there’s an example of en plein air in the dark!


One constant about Van Gogh’s life is his relationship with his younger brother Theo Van Gogh.  The only reason we know so much about Vincent is through the hundreds of letters he sent to Theo, with whom he felt the closest in his family.  His parents really did not understand him and his extremes.  Vincent seemed to be an artist who couldn’t function well in the world as a businessman and failed at many attempts to fit in.

That Vincent had something wrong with him there was no question.  Mental problems afflicted him, especially in the last few years of his life.  Over 100 psychiatrists have tried to pinpoint his illness(es), resulting in over 30 different diagnoses!  Some guesses:  schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, poisoning from his paints, malnutrition, alcoholism, or a combination of disorders, etc.  Some physicians have suspected epilepsy and possibly a brain lesion.  That he was able to work despite whatever ailed him is amazing.

By the way, the famous incident of the cutting off of the ear now has a new wrinkle.  Wikipedia states:  “It is generally recognised that Van Gogh cut off the lobe of his left ear during some sort of seizure on 24 December 1888, although doubt has recently been cast on this theory by Dr Wildegans, who suggests that an accident during a fight between himself and Gauguin may have been the cause.”

Reading excerpts of his letters to Theo, I see a mind that is razor sharp and logical, humorous, self-deprecating at times, opinionated, kind, loving, and very vulnerable.  His human side shines through,  making me wish that he’d had more enlightened help for his handicaps then.

Vincent spoke and wrote at least 3 languages fluently:  His native Dutch, English, and French.  He often included sketches in his letters to Theo – ideas for paintings.  Here is one such excerpt, written in English to the Australian artist John Russell:


To be continued…

Vincent van Gogh and His Drawings.1

Monday, May 18th, 2009

vincent1I’ve recently been immersing myself in Van Gogh’s paintings and his life story.

One new discovery I made about his painting process is his very large body of drawings, sketches, and watercolor studies.  Many of these provided ideas and thumbnails for his later paintings.

These drawings are really exquisite and often executed in a style I wouldn’t have associated with his paintings.  Some of them are exquisite and so unusual.

Remember, Van Gogh did not begin painting in oils until he was 27, after having gone through some interesting career changes:  art dealer, bookseller, university student, and preacher to the working classes.  And in 10  short years, until he died in 1890, he produced more than 2,000 works (his best work appeared in the last 3 years of his life).  This includes around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches.

Colta Ives, in her book Vincent Van Gogh: the Drawings says:  “Astonishingly inventive, Van Gogh’s drawings are in inextricable part of his development as a painter and had tremendous impact on that outcome.”

An example of an early drawing is this one of a boy pulling grass.  Vincent was intensely interested in the struggles and inherent beauty of the working classes.  He spent quite a lot of energy and time trying to portray his respect for everyday people and their concerns.

drawing2This is entitled:  “Boy with a Sickle,” black chalk, charcoal, opaque watercolor, 1881.

Around this time, he wrote:  “Drawing becomes more and more a passion with me, and it is a passion just like that of a sailor for the sea….I am quite absorbed in this now and sit daubing and washing out again; in short, I am trying to find a way.”

drawing1He surely did find his way!

Van Gogh was largely self-taught in his artistic pursuits, and although he was apparently not that talented in the beginning (some of his earliest drawings do seem rather crude and clumsy), Van Gogh believed in his own strengths and had a passionate drive to accomplish his artistic goals.

Believe it or not, though, Van Gogh only sold one of his paintings (The Red Vineyard at Arles)  during his lifetime!

To be continued…

Art Embroidery

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

embroidered-rabbit2During my recent family visit, I went through old photos.  Amongs them I found this small piece of hand stitching I made for my mother many years ago during my embroidery years.

My mother first showed me how to embroider when I was a child.  I loved it.  When I was 14 and leaning toward hippie-ish, I found a long gray vintage wool coat in the thrift store and embroidered the wide lapels with my own wild designs, the peace symbol (of course), and anything else that was on my mind (a lot).

Over the years, I made quite a few very realistic embroidered scenes for people:  a flying eagle, a child bending over a small puppy, St George slaying a dragon, etc.  This little rabbit is not my own design.  I had been given a postcard sold in 29 Palms, California, depicting a small desert rabbit.  Who knows, it may still be sold even now.

One thing I learned early on is that I had to find a way to fill in large spaces without having to painstakingly stitch line by line with small stitches.  I created what I thought was a stitch of my own, only to find that it’s been around for centuries and is called “couching.”  This is a stitch I’d never heard of until I read about how the Bayeux Tapestry was worked.  (By the way, the Bayeux Tapestry is not technically a tapestry but an embroidery.   I’ve always found the Bayeux Tapestry completely fascinating and compelling.)  According to Wikipedia:

“In embroidery couching and laid work are techniques in which yarn or other materials are laid across the surface of the ground fabric and fastened in place with small stitches of the same or a different yarn. The couching threads may be either the same color as the laid threads or a contrasting color. When couching threads contrast with laid threads, patterns may be worked in the couching stitches.”

I absolutely love to embroider and still have an entire box full of amazing colored cotton embroidery thread.  However, my neck and shoulders (and eyesight) aren’t quite up to the task any more.  But it was wonderful while it lasted.

The Amazing Albrecht Durer – Part 2

Monday, February 9th, 2009

Albrecht Durer made several self-portraits, this one painted in oil in 1500, when he was 28 and already well-known.

Some years ago, while visiting friends in Nurnberg, Germany – Durer’s home town – I was able to actually enter the “Durerhaus” which is now a museum.

Durer’s home/studio is located just outside the Kaiserburg – the King’s castle. The Kaiserburg itself is well worth seeing. It’s built on top of the highest hill in the old town of Nurnberg, through which the Pegnitz River flows.

The streets are cobbled, the oldest buildings are half-timbered, and very Bavarian. I fell in love with Nurnberg and ended up going back two more times to visit. It is a city of ancient culture and amazing art that one feels was lovingly created. This art is not only in museums, but everywhere: on city walls, in ancient sculpture in passing, within churches at eye level and in reach of touching. What we would rush to place in a museum is so prevalent that it’s just everywhere.

In this photo, on the right are the thick walls of the castle. The columns at the far right flank a gate through which the heavy war horses would clatter down the cobbles.

The Durerhaus is in the middle of the photo, next to the castle walls.

Durer’s studio is at the top of the house facing the castle. The next photo was taken inside a re-creation of Durer’s studio and work room. Not all of Durer’s life was spent in his birthplace. He spent some years traveling to many parts of Europe, learning new techniques. Durer’s trips to Italy apparently had an enormous effect on him.

Durer’s studio is fascinating as it shows different types of methods (woodcuts, silverpoint, oils, etc.) and contains materials used in Durer’s time, including the creation of pigments made from minerals, insects, and semi-precious stones. There was no buying of prepared paints and artist’s materials from a store. Much of what was used was made from scratch.

This is another shot, taken from the studio window, showing the castle walls and one of the towers.

For me, medieval times came alive when I walked these cobbled streets. It is easy to block out the modern world just by walking down an alleyway and letting the imagination go back in time.

But before leaving Durer’s world altogether, I wanted to be sure his Eule (Owl) got the opportunity to be seen. Here he is!

The Amazing Albrecht Durer – Part 1

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

As a teenager, I was greatly inspired by Albrecht Durer’s art, especially his handling of very small creatures and natural objects. For his time, he seems to have been a forerunner of still lifes and nature studies.

According to Wikipedia: His watercolors mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium. Durer’s introduction of classical motifs into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian artists and German humanists, have secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. This is reinforced by his theoretical treatise which involve principles of mathematics, perspective, and ideal proportions.

“His prints established his reputation across Europe when he was still in his twenties, and he has been conventionally regarded as the greatest artist of the Renaissance in Northern Europe ever since.”

The painting above is called “Blaurackenflugel” – or, Wing of a Blue Roller. The detail and coloring are marvelous. This piece was painted in 1512.

This sketch of “Papagei,” or Parrot, was sketched circa 1500 and was used in a drawing of “Adam und Eva.” Apparently, a close friend of Durer kept parrots, which made Durer’s rendering so accurate. (Those parrots would have had to endure a lot of cold in the winters of Germany!)

The “Das grosse Rasenstuck” – or Large Piece of Turf – is a masterpiece of realism.

I had the opportunity to visit Durer’s house and studio in his home town of Nurnberg some years ago. I’ll include some photos from that visit in my next post.

The Rape of Europa

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I recently watched a most unusual and deeply affecting documentary. “The Rape of Europa” chronicles Hitler’s rise to power and his ever-growing desire to collect the world’s art masterpieces for a grandiose museum he was planning in the city of Linz, Austria.

That museum never materialized, but throughout the duration of World War II, Hitler and Herman Goering amassed vast collections of some of the world’s most famous art treasures. They did this through escalating greed and systematic stealing from the great collections – privately- and state-owned. And of course, collections owned by Jewish art lovers were taken without any regard whatsoever.

Over the years, I’ve read a fair amount of literature and history about World War II, Hitler, and the Holocaust. Somehow, this film did more to underscore emotionally for me the wholesale and senseless destruction resulting from this war than anything else I’ve read and seen.

There is a large amount of film footage from the 30s and 40s in this documentary – of Hitler exhibiting “degenerate” (read: modern) art before the war began, of the looting and destruction of art meccas like Florence, Italy, and so much more.

But there are also amazing stories of courage and dedication – of how the Mona Lisa and the major works of art from the Louvre were spirited out of the museum to the French countryside before Hitler invaded France, of individuals who risked their lives to hide and save the cultural icons of their countries.

And there is the story of the “Monuments Men” – museum directors, curators, members of the Army, and others who worked to protect art and other cultural treasures from destruction during and after the war. It is estimated by the US, that the Nazis stole about 1/5 of all the known artworks in Europe. According to the Rape of Europa website, “While the Allies returned most of the displaced art in the decade following the war, much of the loot is still missing. Tragically, unique masterpieces were destroyed and lost to posterity forever. Other works of art—the last, forgotten victims of the war—survived but remain unidentified, traceable only with costly and difficult investigation.”

This DVD is quite amazing and very moving. I was left with the idea that recurs throughout human history: Art is what makes us human and art is worth saving at great personal cost..

The Cave Painters

Monday, June 16th, 2008

I just finished reading a fascinating book entitled The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis.

It’s utterly astounding to think that ancient paleolithic humans created such art of exquisite beauty and movement. I find it amazing that much of this art seems so fresh and alive – even modern.

It’s also interesting that these artists – as long as 30,000 years ago – used principles of perspective that more modern humans didn’t rediscover until the Middle Ages. Apparently this period of cave painting lasted for about 20,000 years.

These caves are dotted throughout France and Spain. Most of the more famous ones, such as the caves of Lascaux, are closed to the public in order to preserve the paintings for as long as possible.

Since reading this book about the history of the French caves, I’ve seen a larger photo book by Norbert Aujoulat that highlights Lascaux and its art – a beautiful book.

After the second World War, when Picasso saw some of these ancient cave paintings, he was awed and humbled. He said: “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.”

You know, I think he’s right.