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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Using Historical Reference Photos for Sci-Fi Paintings

Blog reader Jeff Jordan asks: "I was wondering if you're using gouache strictly as a sketching medium, or if you've done or are doing finished works, illustrations, whatever, in gouache?"

Jeff, yes, I love using gouache for illustrations of vehicles, robots, and architecture. For example, this small (about 6x12") painting: "The Sinking of the Hagfish" shows a giant fish-like ship, burning and sinking, with its survivors standing along the top, hoping to be rescued.

It's part of Dinotopia backstory development, documenting dramatic events thousands of years ago in Dinotopia's Age of Heroes, when humans and saurians defended Dinotopia from an invasion of drones and mech dinos from Poseidos.

The inspiration for this composition came from this historic World War II photo of the burning carrier "Franklin" off the coast of Japan after it was struck by two bombs. Over 772 of the crew were lost, but the ship returned to port on its own steam.

In my composition, I kept the figures on the far left watching the unfolding drama. The feeling that we're among those watching adds a sense of vérité to the science fiction image.

The painting appears in the expanded edition of Dinotopia: First Flight.

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Excursion

 The giant Camarasaurus walks gracefully along, as Ornithomimuses dash by with the speed of ostriches.

There will be plenty of time for swimming, picking flowers and flying kites before the shadows lengthen and it's time to return home. 

I set up the dinosaur on an illuminated patch of ground, sandwiched in space between shadows in the foreground and more shadows in the middle distance.

To figure out that lighting idea, I adapted a maquette of a Camarasaurus (made by Kaiyodo), outfitted with a saddle that I made out of cardboard, wire, and starched cloth. The little plastic figures (made by Britains) helped me to figure out the overlapping and the cast shadows. I recruited some neighbor kids to wear my Renaissance-fair costumes (made by Moresca) and pretend they're riding dinosaurs.

The painting appeared in Dinotopia: The World Beneath. There's also an Excursion Art Print (signed and numbered) in my web store.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Levka Gambo

Levka Gambo offers Will and Sylvia hot buttered tea and and blankets of woven fur after their arduous climb to the Tentpole of the Sky, a remote settlement at the summit of Dinotopia's mountains.
The painting is executed in transparent oil wash over a pencil drawing.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Arch of Septimius Severus


The Arch of Septimius Severus, sketched on location in watercolor, inspired the Roman-style architecture in Sauropolis, Dinotopia.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Miniature Carvings of Chen ZhongSen

Chen ZhongSen carved 5,000 characters on a piece of stone that's only 33 x 70 cm (13.3 x 28 inches). 

The characters form two poems: "Two Poems on a Hair" or "The Art of War." 

Thanks, A.R. and Nick Miller

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Don't Like the Portrait of You? Break it Up and Burn it.

In 1954, painter Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) was specially commissioned by the House of Commons and the House of Lords to paint a portrait of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

It was unveiled on Churchill's 80th birthday in a solemn official ceremony in front of both houses of Parliament. 

Churchill looked at the painting for a long while, then "remarked on the unprecedented honour shown to him and described the painting as 'a remarkable example of modern art,' combining 'force and candour.'"

His backhanded compliment brought forth peals of laughter from the assembled dignitaries.

Fortunately the moment was captured by the BBC.(Link to YouTube)


Churchill brought the gift home, but he continued to despise it: "He described it to Lord Moran as 'filthy' and 'malignant,' and complained that it made him 'look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand." 

Meanwhile, "Sutherland maintained that he painted the Prime Minister as he truly saw him and that the depiction was an honest and realistic representation."

The Churchills never showed the painting to anyone, and wouldn't bring it out for exhibitions. Later, it emerged that they had destroyed the work:

"In 1978, it was reported that Lady Spencer-Churchill had destroyed the painting within a year of its arrival at Chartwell, by breaking it into pieces and having them incinerated to prevent it from causing further distress to her husband. Lady Spencer-Churchill had previously destroyed earlier portraits of her husband that she disliked, including sketches by Walter Sickert and Paul Maze. She had hidden the Sutherland portrait in the cellars at Chartwell and employed her private secretary Grace Hamblin and Hamblin's brother to remove it in the middle of the night and burn it in a remote location. Many commentators were aghast at the destruction of the work of art, and Sutherland condemned it as an act of vandalism; others upheld the Churchills' right to dispose of their property as they saw fit."


Wikipedia on Graham Sutherland's Portrait of Churchill

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Learning to Paint from Art Magazines

How many of you remember American Artist Magazine?

Before the Internet it was the place to learn about realist painters like Richard Schmid, Andrew Wyeth, Tom Nicholas, Robert Vickrey, and Frank Frazetta.

It was founded in 1937 under the name "Art Instruction" by the two architectural draughtsmen Ernest Watson and Arthur Guptill, who also founded Watson-Guptill, the book publishing company. The mission was practical, businesslike, and didactic.

The first decades of the magazine spotlighted both easel painters and illustrators. The articles were usually based on studio visits, and the discussion always included process and professionalism as well as philosophy.

Mr. Watson went on such a flurry of visits to illustrators that he was able to assemble them into a book called Forty Illustrators and How They Work. In the '50s and '60s, there were plenty of post-impressionist-inspired painters, but the orientation was always relatively realistic compared to the more avante-garde magazines.

During the decades of the 1970's and '80s, as the realist revival gained steam, American Artist was the most vocal champion. For students wanting to learn about painting before the Internet era, it was the clearest window into the world of real working artists.

If you wanted to learn how to paint back then, you would study the step-by-step stages of the painting process printed in the magazines and books, and carefully decipher the artists' explanation in the captions.

The classified ads were the way to find out about workshops, art schools, or new art supplies.

I sent this postcard to the editor on its 75th anniversary, little guessing that it would be bought out by one of its rivals (Artists Magazine) and cease publication.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Jessie Wilcox Smith and Her Child Models

The American illustrator Jessie Wilcox Smith produced over 200 covers for Good Housekeeping Magazine, most of them featuring children. 

Editors of that magazine said that her artwork represented "the highest ideals of the American home, the home with that sweet wholesomeness one associates with a sunny living-room—and children."

She never married and didn't have her own children. So where did she get her child models? She tried using professional models, but they didn't work out for her. She said, 

"Such a thing as a paid and trained child model is an abomination and a travesty on childhood—a poor little crushed and scared, unnatural atom, automatically taking the pose and keeping it in a spiritless lifeless manner. The professional child model is usually a horribly self-conscious overdressed child whose fond parents proudly insist that he or she is just what you want and give a list of the people for whom he or she has posed."

Instead she asked her friends with kids to come by and let their children play in her home and studio, where she could observe and sketch them in natural moments of interaction, driven by their own curiosity and childlike instincts.

She recalled: 

"While they were playing and having a perfect time, I would watch and study them, and try to get them to take unconsciously the positions that I happened to be wanting for a picture. 

"Once during the war, when I was painting children's portraits while doing my bit for one of the Liberty Loan drives... I painted the portrait of three little brothers. They were just steps apart, little yellow-headed fellows, all dressed in canary-colored suits and as much alike as the proverbial peas. Their greatest distinction lay in the toys they carried. One had an elephant, one a camel, and the smallest a kiddie car... He disported himself by riding it round and round my easel while I worked, and I could catch a glimpse of his face only as he looked this way  for a second while turning a corner."

The new issue of Illustration Magazine includes a cover feature on the American illustrator Jessie Wilcox Smith written by Dan Zimmer. It also features illustrator John Schoenherr, famous for his Dune covers.


You can order Illustration #75 at the Illustration Magazine website.

Book: Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love by Alice Carter features JWS, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley. 

The Subject Was Children: The Art of Jessie Willcox Smith

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Musée des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden's 1938 poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" describes how we respond to suffering, often by going on with our daily routine as tragedies unfold in plain sight.

Pieter Brueghel, The Fall of Icarus, Oil-tempera, 
29 inches x 44 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

Musée des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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Saturday, March 5, 2022

Micrographic Penmanship of Matthias Buchinger

Matthias Buchinger (1674–1739) was an expert at drawing and lettering precisely at a small scale.

His lettering astonished his contemporaries with its complexity, control, and order. Some of the letters were so tiny as to be almost indistinguishable to the naked eye.

He also "performed on more than a half-dozen musical instruments, some of his own invention. He exhibited trick shots with pistols, swords and bowling. He danced the hornpipe and deceived audiences with his skill in magic." 

Even more remarkable was that he could accomplish all this with his unusual body: "Buchinger was just 29 inches tall, and born without legs or arms. He lived to the ripe old age of 65, survived three wives, wed a fourth and fathered 14 children."

Quotes are from the book Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living, which features many examples of his artwork and tells his incredible life story, the result of exhaustive research by the author Ricky Jay.