Monday, March 31, 2008


Twentieth century illustrators have used the term “confetti” to describe the small, colorful paint strokes that resolve into suggestive detail in the viewer’s eye.

Dean Cornwell sprinkled confetti-like strokes throughout his painting of an eastern procession. On the left is the full composition; on the right is a detail showing the riot of floating shapes behind the camel’s back leg.

Another master of confetti is the contemporary science fiction illustrator John Berkey. A detail of one of his spacecraft improvisations appears next to the full composition. Dots, squares, and dashes hover by themselves or in clusters.

Berkey’s approach to confetti balances two-dimensional abstraction with three-dimensional plausibility. The strokes are always arranged in perspective, with attention to lighting.

Contemporary photorealists like Richard Estes (detail, above) create miniature abstract compositions in the midst of their realistic canvases.

Before the impressionist and abstract movements offered realist painters the impetus to think of strokes as having their own existence as pure shapes, detail areas usually tended to resolve into recognizable forms. Here’s a bustling crowd scene by Beraud.

As we zoom in on one small section of the picture, we can make out what’s going on with each of the tiny figures. It’s as if the smallest atom of a picture is always representational, rather than abstract.

Even Canaletto (detail above), whose paintings are a bustle of activity up close, always keeps his strokes tied to intelligible forms: here a head, there a jacket, there an oar.

Personally, even though I’m a realistic painter, I welcome the contribution that abstract painting has made to our pictorial toolset, and I indulge in a sort of confetti, though my own preference is to stop short of strokes that draw too much attention to themselves. Of course, this is a matter of individual taste, and there’s room for a wide range of handwriting.

Here’s a detail of the crowd in the distance in Dinosaur Parade. The figures were blocked in with a square bristle brush. The detail is handled a bit like a mosaic.

To finish up, one last detail from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara: a scene of a festival in Jorotongo. In the closeup, you can see how I sketched in the singers in terms of simple confetti-like shapes.

Related GJ post: Clustering
More images by John Berkey, Jean Beraud, Dean Cornwell

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Color Corona

An extremely bright light, like a setting sun or a streetlight, is often surrounded by region of intense color, which I like to call the color corona.

In photography this effect is generally known as a lens flare. A halo of light often appears around a very bright source, caused by the internal scattering of light within the lens elements. That halo or corona takes on the native color of the source, even if the source has burned out (or “clipped”) the film or the sensor to pure white.

Photographic lens flares often include starbursts, rings, or hexagons.
These photographic lens artifacts can be added with Photoshop to give a fantasy painting—either digital or traditional—a realistic effect, but beware: if they’re overstated they can quickly become a gimmick.

A similar effect happens when a bright light travels into the human eye. Light scatters in the eyelashes, cornea, lens, and aqueous humor—the jellylike liquid inside the eye. The light then hyperactivates a region of the cones around the central spot of light.

The color corona also forms around the reflections of the light source on a specular surface like water. This close-up is from a painting from Dinotopia: First Flight. The color corona floods out from the bright water reflections and melts all adjacent silhouettes. A color corona can help to make a source seem brighter than the white of the paper, and actually make a viewer squint involuntarily.

This painting by Peder Mønsted capitalizes on this idea of an intense color corona adjacent to the setting sun. The mountains seem to be taking on fire from the sun, rather than retiring to a cool distant hue.

Related GJ post: reverse atmospheric perspective.
Wikipedia entries on aqueous humor, lens flare.
ARC entry on Peder Mønsted

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Animals are not Fauvists

Around 1900, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain began a movement of painting called “Les Fauves” (which means “wild beasts”) in order to describe their wild brushwork and raw color.

It's worth noting that elephants, who are possessed of an eleven-pound brain and 30,000 muscles in the trunk alone, can paint a representational portrait of a fellow elephant (or is it a self-portrait?), and that they do so not wildly or randomly, but with extreme care and deliberation.

The elephant is trained, and this is a commercial enterprise, you might say, but couldn’t the same be said of us all?

Related Gurney Journey post: Gorilla Portraits
Thank you, Daniel M.

Park Bench

This on-the-spot sketch from the early 1980s was made with a brush pen on drawing paper. Everything in shadow goes to black, and everything in light goes to white, ignoring the contour lines bounding the light side.
The technique is a good way to simplify detail. Each figure is an edge-lit silhouette. I worked from left to right, completing each man before starting the next, because I anticipated that the subjects might come and go unexpectedly.

Related posts: high-contrast shapewelding, edge lighting, two values

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bernstein on Metaphor

I know that this is an art blog, and not a music blog. But there are at least two reasons why I can’t resist sharing this clip from Leonard Bernstein’s legendary Norton lectures of 1973: 1. He was one of the best explainers on the planet, and 2. His thoughts on metaphor are universal enough to apply to those of us who draw pictures and write stories.

More from the Bernstein website, link.
New York Times review of the DVD release, link.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Krøyer’s Hip Hip Hurra!

The Arken Museum in Copenhagen is presenting an exhibition called “The Skagen Painters —In a New Light,” currently on view until the first of June, 2008.

The principal work in the show is called “Hip Hip Hurra!” by the Danish/Norwegian painter Peder Krøyer, the ringleader of a group of genre painters who gathered in the fishing village of Skagen.

Krøyer, like the Juste Milieu painters in France and the Newlyn painters in England, blended the insights of Impressionism with the skills of traditional academic craftsmanship, which he perfected in Leon’s Bonnat’s atelier in Paris.

The small color study above shows how the design looked as it was almost fully crystallized. Between this sketch and the final painting he removed the hat from the man with the glasses, and he added a man with a light jacket leaning into the picture at right.

The current exhibit in Denmark examines how Krøyer achieved the feeling of a spontaneous, offhand composition in “Hip, Hip, Hurra!”, which in fact was carefully staged and arranged. The painting took him over four years to complete.

The detail of the final painting shows a principle Krøyer would have learned from Bonnat, namely to be careful not to violate the lights. The large light area composed of the tablecloth, the girl’s dress, and the woman at right is skilfully shape-welded together, with no dark accents interrupting it. This unified structure makes a strong, simple mass that holds the painting together despite a prodigious amount of detail.

Here I’ve taken the final painting and exaggerated the underlying tonal structure. The light shape is an abstract unit that looks something like a butterfly. The light woman’s arm extends upward from it at right, and the dark woman’s arm comes into the shape at left. These two gestures are given compositional salience and they help us recognize the theme of the picture immediately.

Two smaller light shapes float like islands in the dark background of foliage: the head of the woman at left, and the cluster of revelers in the distance.

Further Reading
Related Gurney Journey Posts: Shape Welding, Juste Milieu, Color Sketches
More on Skagen painters, Link.
More on the exhibition, Link. feature on Peder Krøyer, Link.
Thanks to Armand Cabrera for telling me about the Skagen painters.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Art By Committee: Wind

On previous Wednesdays, here and here, we’ve played a game called “Art By Committee,” where I give you an excerpt from an actual science fiction manuscript, and then you have a week to illustrate it.

Here’s an example from the original Art-By-Committee sketchbook. Please click on the image to enlarge.

The new excerpt for you is: “A wind—not moving air but currents of force—rose up and tore at her.”

Tomorrow: Krøyer’s Hip Hip Hurra!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Artists Blog Search

Merci to the Artist's Blog Search for listing Gurney Journey among its 500 hand-picked art blogs. This is a Google-powered search engine devoted solely to art blogs, so if you're researching a particular art-related topic, you'll get much more focused results. (Link).

Attic Scene in Allentown

A few days ago, Jeanette and I stopped in Allentown, Pennsylvania for a slide lecture that I gave at the art museum there.

We also visited the exhibition of National Geographic artwork. I blogged more about the show in a previous post.

In 1988, in honor of its centennial, National Geographic asked me to create a painting to express the magazine’s legacy of adventure and discovery. Instead of portraying some bold explorer, I thought it would be fun to show something more poignant and homespun—an old man looking back on his life and his world through the pages of old magazines.

In the exhibit, my painting hangs alongside the preliminary sketches, letters, and photos that went into its creation.

The painting shows an old man and his grandson in an attic, surrounded by the mementos of the man’s life: a military uniform, an old family photo, and a ship clock. I searched out all those items from real attics in my hometown and asked two friends to pose.

In early concepts for the painting, the man sat all by himself. The idea didn’t quite work. It was depressing because the man looked lonely, despite the cat rubbing against his leg.

Here’s a small early charcoal study. I did several of these, and a few small color sketches in oil. I also drew a full-size charcoal comp, which appears alongside the finished painting.

Of course comparisons to Norman Rockwell are inevitable with a subject like this. His work comes to mind whenever you paint American characters in a narrative setting. I love Rockwell’s work, but I wanted to make a picture that was authentic and not derivative, so I closed all my books on him while I was working on this piece and tried to find my answers in real life.

The finished painting is in oil, 24x36 inches. This detail shows the cool light from the window and the warm illumination bouncing back from the attic space. I tried to capture the boy’s faraway expression, as if the magazine and his grandfather’s memories were taking him to another world.

Installation photos courtesy Allentown Art Museum. For any museum interested in booking "National Geographic: The Art of Exploration," contact Mary Dawson at the Norman Rockwell Museum at

Tomorrow: More Art By Committee

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sketchbook Scrapbook

Why leave the endpapers of your sketchbook blank when you can fill them with ticket stubs?

Life, you might say, consists of all the dull moments suspended between the Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Hot Rod Motor Jam, and Flubber.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Healing Colors

Can certain colors—or certain groupings of colors—promote well-being, or even healing?

I created this montage of photo samples by snipping random bits from the pages of a single catalog from the mid 1990s called the Red Rose Collection, consisting of products designed to promote inner peace.

The photographer and graphic designer were evidently working from a controlled chart of colors, which I’ve graphed with the color wheel mask, above. The color scheme includes violets, greens, and cool reds, but avoids hot reds and yellows.

An entire field of alternative medicine called color therapy or chromotherapy has grown up around the belief that colors have specific therapeutic properties on the mind and body.

These practices are rooted in very old beliefs of the Ayurveda in India, and in ancient Egypt, where rooms were built with colored glass windows to promote effects on the body. In China, specific colors were associated with certain organs of the body.

In various practices of color therapy, patients observe colors through special viewers, or colors are applied to accupoints on the body, using gemstones, candles, prisms, penlights, colored fabrics, or tinted glass.

Although not all systems of color therapy agree on the associations of each color, most agree that red signifies blood and the base passions, including anger and power. Orange is associated with warmth, appetite and energy, followed by yellow, which represents the energy of the sun, and which is used for glandular problems.

These bright, warm colors are also almost univerally used by advertisers to sell fast food and soda pop.

The spectrum of colors continues through green, blue, indigo, and violet, moving more and more toward states of serenity and meditation.

This progression corresponds to the ascending chakras of yogic practice, and can be charted on the body by superimposing the progression of hues on each of the seven spiritual centers of the body.

The association of spectral color with chakra centers has recently been taken up by mainstream marketers, even appearing on the website of major interior paint manufacturers. (Link).

Critics of chromotherapy argue that these designations are nothing more than pseudoscience, because the health benefits can’t be proven by clinical tests. If the contemplation of certain colors has any effect on a patient’s recovery, they would argue, it’s simply due to the placebo effect.

To some extent, the color symbolism of catalogs like the Red Rose Collection owes as much to fads and fashions as it does to physiological response. Recent catalogs, like Gaiam Harmony have a rather different palette than we would have seen ten years ago; these days health-promoting catalogs tend to sport golds, dull olives, and venetian reds.

I haven’t made my mind up about all this, and would be curious to learn more. In any event, I believe that we artists, designers, and photographers should remain open to the general idea that color can affect us at a physiological level. Color can stimulate us, and it can soothe us—not just psychologically and emotionally, but at even deeper levels.

We should fine-tune our awareness of how we are influenced by the colors around us—not isolated individual colors, but combinations of colors.

Further reading
Interior decoration and associated chakras, Link
More on associations of each color, Link
Outline of contemporary theories and equipment, Link

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ranger Rick, April 2008

The April issue of Ranger Rick magazine devotes eight pages to a portfolio from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, exploring how dinosaurs help humans and vice versa. There's also a page with an exclusive feature: "Where did the idea for Dinotopia come from, anyway?"

Ranger Rick is my favorite nature magazine, and this issue has plenty of other fun stuff, like advice on how to properly skip a stone, catch a frog, make a dandelion chain, and whistle with a blade of grass. Do any of those things, and you'll know that spring is here at last.

Gouache on Tone Paper

Most people think of tone paper as a vehicle for figure drawing with charcoal and white chalk. But it’s also a great base for landscape sketches in gouache. Here’s an example of a view of Prescott, Arizona, painted a while ago ago in opaque watercolors.

The trees in the lower right were scrubbed in with a big bristle brush, and the sky was painted thinly with white gouache. I laid down the semi-opaque ribbons of roadways with a white nylon flat, and came back with whiter touches for the cars and lines. At the end I placed just a couple of red accents in the central area.

The paper wasn’t a typical drawing paper, but rather a heavyweight stock that I got from a limited edition publisher. It’s thick enough that a sheet can stand up without buckling over. I had Kinko's bind up a sketchbook out of the stuff.

There must be commercial tone paper pads that have similar paper which can take a little water without buckling. Maybe someone can suggest sources in the comments.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Rainy Alley

Yesterday was a steady downpour, but I had most of the day free before the Malaprops bookstore signing in Asheville, so I headed out to the nearby town of Black Mountain in search of a non-touristy motif.

I found an alley with a good view of the backs of the shops. There was also a convenient public restroom close by—something to factor in after several cups of coffee that morning. Jeanette wisely opted for a ballpoint pen sketch from inside the car.

I figured I had only two hours before I would be completely drenched.

Here’s how the painting looked after a quick block-in. I’m using a method recommended by Richard Schmid, where you start a tight rendering in one area of the picture, and work the area of finish across the canvas, rather than moving the whole picture loosely along.

The wind was starting to pick up, knocking over the umbrella every time I took my foot off the C-stand. By the time I had to pack up, the paint tubes were swimming in water that had collected inside the box. The lower areas of the picture are just blocked in with tone, with no attempt at rendering.

By two-thirty in the afternoon, as the thunder and lightning started up, we staggered into the Dripolator coffee shop, my old raincoat covered equally in rain and paint.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sargent at Biltmore

It would be natural to assume that when John Singer Sargent painted a portrait, he had everything his way. After all, he was the most sought-after portrait artist in the world. You’d think he could set everything up exactly the way he wanted it.

But in fact he often had to overcome huge obstacles. His resourcefulness under trying conditions makes his accomplishments all the more admirable.

On Tuesday we visited the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the sumptuous mansion of American millionaire George Vanderbilt, above.

In 1895, at the height of his powers, Sargent came to Biltmore at the invitation of Mr. Vanderbilt to paint a full-length portrait of Biltmore’s landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

But Olmsted was not in good shape. He had been injured in a carriage accident in Central Park, and was beginning to suffer from dementia. His sons were running his business in New York. His wife was insistent that Sargent paint Olmsted to look healthier than he really appeared. She worried that if he looked weak, it would injure the business.

When Sargent arrived, the estate grounds were a muddy, barren construction site, not the verdant wilderness suggested in the painting. Sargent found some mountain laurel for a very unconventional portrait background, and he depended on one of Olmsted’s sons as a stand-in for the figure.

Sargent also painted Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect. Hunt was also in very poor health, and could not stand for long periods. He died later in the same year.

Hunt’s wife also had demands. She insisted that Sargent paint him looking robust and young. It was hard to get Hunt's availability to pose. The trip from New York took a week by train.

The Biltmore itself was still under construction, most of the building covered with scaffolding, so Sargent had to imagine how it would look. Instead of showing the whole building, he used a corner of the structure as a backdrop, just enough to suggest the Gothic revival flavor.

Jeanette and I found the exact spot where Sargent posed Hunt. You can see exactly what Sargent was looking at. He pushed the architecture back a bit to introduce the ornate balustrade at the upper left and the second column at right.

The canvas is almost 8 x 5 feet. It was painted on location, far from the artist’s comfortable studio. Sargent had to travel with his entire setup, and had no photos to fall back on.

Because Hunt couldn’t hold the jaunty pose for long, a surrogate stood in for the body. The head had to be painted in a completely different location. The reason it looks pasted on is because the light on the face is coming from the left, whereas the rest of the picture is lit from the right, as it is in the photo. I don’t know why Sargent set up this contradictory lighting, because it compromises the painting, and keeps it from being as successful as the Olmsted portrait.

Nevertheless, despite the obstacles, Sargent scored two brilliant works, masterpieces of economy of handling and originality of design.

Tomorrow: Rain Work

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Business Cards, Illustrated

A restaurant in our hometown long ago established a tradition inviting people to shove their business cards in the cracks between the shingles covering its interior walls. The result was hundreds of cards festooning the walls beside every table.

From time to time I plucked a few of cards at random and stuck them into a sketchbook, wondering what was the secret behind each business. Here are two examples.