University classes are just about done but, just across the river, students in my pastel class are still in high-gear, clearly in no hurry to have this series of classes end. Here is a practice pastel worked up in the studio class after some sketches made not long ago. In the ever-expanding armory of art supplies, NuPastels have been joined now by Sennelier half-stick pastels in 120 colors. This is a messier medium than watercolor, for sure, and a whole lot more “forgiving.” It is just about as different as it could be, in fact. But, how do people go “urban sketching” –especially if traveling abroad–with such an array of tools–hard and soft pastels, paper of all kinds, etc? More “problems” to solve! 🙂
There’s nothing like being reminded for the umpteenth time to do a “thumbnail.” For those who don’t know, this is a (usually small) simple sketch or two before attempting to dive right into drawing or painting the work you have in mind. Often it takes a teacher to get through to you on this; for those more accustomed to “multi-tasking” and thinking it is doing some good, it requires a bit of discipline to keep slowing down.
In my experience, this business of reinforcing what we’ve already supposedly learned is one of the main benefits of keeping anchored in a class or two–so that your habits do not become too sloppy. And of course you keep learning new stuff even as you are reminded about the “old stuff.”
So, in the current class in pastel painting, the teacher handed out this handy little value chart (which I’ve protected in a little plastic sheath–see photo below).
When we do thumbnails or sketches, one purpose (besides mapping out a composition) is to do a value study–a study of the “values” or the tones or shades of contrast. While it is tempting (and normal) to jump right to the details, I have learned that the details often blind us to the really important things in art (and elsewhere?…) –like values, shapes and shadows. This requires re-training the brain for many of us. Doing value studies is the most direct form of problem-solving I’ve encountered so far in my art education. (And it seems quite transferable to other fields requiring problem-solving.)
While can be more fun to jump straight into colors (and sometimes, depending on what you are seeking to achieve, it is a good idea!), learning to see the values, shapes and shadows has its own delights. Doing this in different media, including water-soluble graphite…
and conte crayon
also provides valuable learning opportunities.
So during a recent visit to the majestic, privately-run Hillwood Museum and Gardens estate in the heart of Washington, D.C., the grounds were so beautiful underneath a
clear blue sky that it was nearly impossible to go inside. Instead the sights of flowering trees and bushes, the gentle slope of the “Lunar Lawn”, and ornate garden sculptures were captivating. Frankly, it was a challenge to detect the “values” in different shades in such a riot of bright color. In addition, the diversity of people, from all over the world, and particularly Russian families, made it an even more memorable afternoon. (The Hillwood Estate of Marjorie Meriweather Post features the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia, according to its website.)
Such a glorious visit to the Hillwood mansion gardens has provided much fodder for future practice in value studies and beyond…
- A small Japanese garden, for instance, features two whimsical bridges, leading to a roughly sketched out ‘work-in-progress’ in pastel.
- And, a toddler sitting in the tall grass already has provided inspiration for a series of sketches and value studies…
Beautiful weather ensures motivated sketching and even follow-through to completed watercolors–especially if it all can be done ‘al fresco’. Keeping a pencil handy can help the hand and eyes stay limber, and make the most of even the unlikeliest compositions. This is a quick sketch for a potential watercolor done during a pause while passing by this restaurant earlier today. (It is fairly easy to sketch diners who are deeply engaged–as all these people were–in their conversations on a gorgeous afternoon.)
In the little oasis where this scene adjoins other restaurants around a fountain and near a lake, the calm is reenergizing and the colors extraordinary–if you have time to look. Here, in real-life, there were a lot of colors, including bright red tulips standing tall in a circle of yellow flowers in the big cement pots in the foreground, and bright tropical blue pillows on low-slung couches in the rear. Can this scene of colors and calm be captured in a watercolor or a pastel? There’s only one way to find out! And a bit later, with the help of some (Daniel Smith) Venetian Red, Cobalt Teal Blue, and Raw Sienna watercolors (as well as a few of the magical watercolors from the Sakura Koi pocket set):
As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,” increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected. We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here. (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train: How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action” at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)
But, our classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch. This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or even the exact facts on the ground (simulating reality). The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes. Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially. Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester. We all learn something in the process.
We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.
Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.
Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!
But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished. Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented. (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)
It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes. Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.
How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions. Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles. But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt. It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary. Would we better off if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school? One wonders. Meanwhile, it’s no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire: sketch away!
Spring is finally here. This sketch made just yesterday in a bright and glorious sun is of a bridge with its destination obscured.
In other developments, experimenting now with Strathmore Aquarius II paper, converted into an accordian sketchbook, per instructions generously provided by urban sketcher Marc Taro Holmes on his blog, Citizen Sketcher; the sketchbook is for an upcoming trip out West later this week and will be featured here in the future.
There’s one more week left before the inspiring “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculptures of the Hellenistic World” closes at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Seeing these exquisitely detailed figures from two millennia ago, and knowing that quite a few of them were discovered only recently, in some cases at the bottom of the Mediterranean, leaves one simply amazed. As a whole, the exhibit is stunning; the alcove with the bronze statue of Artemis and the stag is so beautifully designed that it almost demanded to be seen, again and again, on multiple visits.
According to the exhibit catalogue, between the late seventh and second centuries B.C., Greek sculpture of the time was most distinctive for “its obsession with ever greater naturalism.” Thirty-four museums in thirteen countries on four continents contributed the sculptures that made this exhibit possible, an example of extraordinary international cooperation involving priceless treasures.
According to the organizers, this exhibition is unprecedented in its scope and ambition. Although marble sculpture was more common in Hellenistic times, bronze sculptures, such as those in this exhibition, were more “highly prized in antiquity.” Unfortunately, since bronze was “easily melted down for recycling,” many of the sculptures were melted down and repurposed over the years. Thus, “thousands of spectacular [bronze] sculptures produced throughout the Hellenistic world have disappeared from the archaeological record” and the finest of those that have survived are in this exhibition, say the organizers. It’s an unforgettable experience for those who have a chance to see it.
An out-of-print book, called Watercolor Solutions, by Charles Reid, is proving helpful in slowing down enough to grasp some important concepts related to watercolor painting! The book can be borrowed at a local library or you can pay about $50 for a used copy. Reid is a highly respected watercolor artist and teacher who has an excellent way of explaining things; there are a couple of his lessons on YouTube.
In his book, he explains things as basic as how to hold, wet, and shake water off a brush. In addition, he explains how to mix colors on the palette and directly on the paper. There are exercises in drawing profiles, portraits, and figures. Reid recommends abandoning sketching, and to instead do contour drawings by keeping your pencil on the paper and doing one line (outline), stopping only to check on your location, but not lifting your pencil from the paper.
Here is one practice watercolor I did based on his instructions:
and another based on Reid’s explanation on “Adjusting Values from Photos”. This latter section inspired me to try my hand at practicing the values by trying to copy Reid’s own method of painting of John Singer Sargent at work painting. What is fascinating in this section is his description of how to “lose edges.” It means focusing exclusively on shadow shapes and not, for instance, where the edges of an umbrella or neckline or coat are; the purples below thus sort of run together, per Reid’s own painting example on p. 85 of the hardcopy of his book.
From this experience so far, it is clear that there are good habits to work on developing, related to how much water is on the brush and how the colors are mixed and used. Aside from all the lessons in the book, another challenge is not to ruin a library book with paint splatters. Reid’s explanations are so helpful; it’s clear that complementing class instruction with a book like this is the way to go, at least for me (and maybe for some others!)