Monday, March 28, 2011

Blame it on Beatrix Potter

My sister Jenn loves to dress up her pets. She used to have tons of little Yorkies running around the house, and they would always be getting their hair done up.
Sometimes the Yorkies' hair would look like this

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And sometimes like this, with a fountain on top, reminding me of when my mother used to put my hair in a ponytail because the Yorkies' eyebrows got pulled to the upper part of their foreheads, just like mine did.
Now she has a Chihuahua, named Twinkie for obvious reasons. Twinkie always manages to get more than her fair share of food, even though she's on a strict diet.
If Twinkie looks a little defensive here, it's because Jenn, her son Nate, and three pet store employees just wrestled the cute little pink sweater onto her. The pet store employees are filing for Workmens Comp.

Jenn started this practice at an early age. We used to have Siamese cats, and Jenn would dress them up and push them around in the stroller. To this day, I have no idea how she got away with it. The cats probably just instinctively knew that Jenn's gentle manner is backed up by a cast iron will.
My other sister is a lot more moderate in the pet dress-up department. Her animals just get beautiful, artful, handmade collars, different ones for every holiday and season throughout the year. Oh yes, and beautiful, artful handmade beds. If she sends me a photo of them, I'll post it.

Her daughter, however, has a very pampered pup, undoubtedly the most doted-upon animal in the family. Here she is in her hooded winter jacket, getting ready for the Happy Meal her "mother" is currently buying for her. (I have a sneaking idea that she and her mother regular manis and pedis.)

Our dogs, Rosie and Leo (RIP -- how I miss them!) had coats, but for strictly practical purposes -- to keep their fur somewhat dry in the Seattle winter rains, and thus keep their servants (me and Bill) from getting soaked when they shook. You might gather from this that I am a bit more level-headed in the animal anthropomorphism department than some of my relatives.

Rosie and Leo, aka Bad Dog!
Thus, it didn't cross my mind that I should be plotting against Bertram, figuring out what kind of outfit to dress him up in, in the completely unlikely event that he ever let me get close enough to grab him and stuff his poor little struggling body into some outlandish getup. This did, however, occur to Jenn. She called me the other day, after reading my post Meet Bertram, saying that I should be planning his outfits. Knowing that this would never actually occur in real life, I decided to humor her and ask her advice.

Here you go, Jenn. Is this the idea?
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Was does my family insist on dressing up their pets?

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Basic Setup for Watercolor Painting

For those of you who are new to watercolor painting, here's a list of things you'll need, as given to me by various teachers. Another post lists resources that might be helpful to you starting out.

First of all, if you want to make a minimal investment just to try out watercolor painting, I suggest getting one of these sets from Cheap Joe's. They have everything you need to get started, except the stuff that's listed in "Misc" at the end of this post.

If you're ready to get started and really get set up, here's what you need:

It's a good idea to get a big palette with good-size paint wells. I use the Robert E Wood palette. I also have a small palette to travel with. I'm ogling Cheap Joe's porcelain palette at the moment, and may spring for that one soon, as my plastic palette is totally stained after five year's hard use.

I started off with totally synthetic brushes, which I was frustrated with by the end of my first class. Synthetic material holds a limited amount of paint and tends to be somewhat stiffer than you might ideally want in most situations. Michele Cooper suggested that I buy Kolinsky sable brushes. This is a good choice if you have lots and lots of money to spend. You'll love them forever. I have gradually added this type of brush to my collection. It's the kind of thing to put on your birthday and Christmas wish list. If you have a budget, like most of us, I suggest getting a set of brushes made of a combination synthetic/sable hair.

When I first wrote this post, I recommended these basic brushes to get first:
  • 1/4, 1/2, and 1 inch flats
  • Small, medium, and large rounds 
After taking three classes with Kathy Collins, I'd add a 2" synthetic brush to the list. She uses that brush to create long straight edges. If you look at her paintings, you'll see what I mean.

  • One or two riggers or a rigger and a script brush
  • A big flat brush for laying water or washes down.
Don't try to economize and get student-grade paints. It just isn't worth it. Buy Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints, Windsor Newton Artists, or Holbein. I haven't tried Cheap Joe's American Journey, but I understand they work beautifully and are a good value. Be aware that Holbein costs more.

Every teacher has their own favorite set, but here's a basic list: cabriole violet, French ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, perylene green, olive green, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, aureolin yellow, raw sienna, burnt sienna, sepia, or burnt umber.

Again, don't buy student-grade paper. I recommend either Fabriano or Arches 140 lb cold-pressed paper. (Strathmore is made with more paper fiber and less sizing, so you may have trouble trying to do layers or wet-into-wet. I still have a pad that I bought for my first class and gave up using shortly thereafter.) For details about watercolor paper, see this article. You can get it at fine art supply stores.

You will also need some gator board or other stiff flat surface to either clamp or tape the paper to. I like the gatorboard because it's easy to cut into the sizes I want using an exacto knife, and it is light weight so I can easily carry it around with me. You will also need some big clamps and/or some artists tape. A lot of people use masking tape, which is probably OK to start with, although you might just want to break down and buy the real stuff.

You don't need to have an easel. Many watercolorists just paint flat on the table, propping their gatorboard up an inch or so on one end. You can also get a table easel or a floor easel. The one that's on my wish list is Joe Miller's Signature Easel. I've looked at a great many watercolor easels, and have seen nothing better than this.

For plein air painting, you can use an easel, or you can just buy a beach chair that sits low enough to the ground so you can reach your paint and water sitting by your feet, and hold the gator board in your lap. That's what I do, and it works fine. You can see my blue chair in the photo to the right.

Tom Hoffman Plein Air Workshop on Lopez

You need a bag to hold your supplies, a non-breakable water container, something to keep your brushes in so they don't get trashed in your bag, a small spray bottle for water, paper towels, a small sponge (sea sponges are great), sketch pad, sketch pencil, kneaded eraser. You might want something to hold your paper that will keep it flat. I cut two thin pieces of gatorboard and taped them together on one side. I slide my paper and paintings in there to keep them from getting damaged in my bag. I also recommend having a camera handy (optional, but highly recommended) for taking photos of scenes or still life's you want to work on in your studio (which for me is the dining room table). The camera can be a simple point and shoot. Digital is best for immediate gratification.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Painting from Photos

Daniel Smith Fine Quality Artists' Materials

See the end of this post for special discounts on Photomatix software. Photomatix helps you make HDR photos the easy way.

When it's too rainy and cold to paint outside, I often paint using a photograph as my reference. One thing I like about photos is that you can crop them to match the picture you want to paint. Also, you don't have to worry about your subjects moving all around on you or shadows and light changing as the day progresses.

More problematic is that the camera distorts the view. Depending on the type of lens you have, the scene can look more or less "deep" than it really is. (You can see an illustration of this in my Depth of Field post.) To compensate for this, you can take sketches in the field at the same time you take the photo. (When taking portrait photos this gets really critical, and you want to be sure to use the right focal length on your lens. This discussion is a bit more than I want to bite off tonight, though.)

Another issue is that the camera lens can only record a slice of the total range of light and dark that is quite a bit smaller than the slice the human eye can see. This is the most noticeable on a sunny day where the scene is brightly lit because this creates a very broad range of light and dark for the camera to record. You have to adjust the camera exposure to keep the photo from being overexposed (too light), but then the shadows are too dark, and you can't see into them in the photo like you can in real life. If you expose for the shadows, the light parts of the photo so bright you can't see the details, or possibly much of anything at all.


There are several ways to deal with this. One, you can decide that you don't care about the overexposed lights or the underexposed shadows, that the photo is good enough to paint from for your purposes. If you're not satisfied with this solution, alternatively you can take two exposures, one with the shadows correctly exposed, and one with the lights correctly exposed. If you print these yourself, they'll come out the way you took them, which is what you want. You can then use both of them as references to see more of the information in the original scene. If you have a service print them, be sure to tell them not to correct for the exposure.

Bill Wiped Out
If you're a camera buff and have the software -- such as Photomatix (affiliate) or Photoshop -- you can make an "HDR" photo, which is one photo that is made from three or so others taken at different exposures. The software smushes the photos to make a single one that contains all of the information from the original photos. This will allow you to see details in both the shadows and the lights. Some newer cameras have this feature built in.

Here's an HDR photo that I did of Bill after he spent the day digging holes for all the little trees I brought home from the plant nursery. It was made from three exposures that were combined using Photomatix. The photos were taken at night in a darkish room. This rendition is very reduced in resolution, so it will upload quickly, but you can still see all the details just as you would sitting there in the room.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Seattle Watercolor Meetup Group

I got tired of waiting for someone else to do it, so I've started a meet-up group for watercolor painters in Seattle. If you're interested in getting together with other painters on a regular basis, click the link and see what it's all about. Hope to see you at a meet-up!

Update: The Loyal Heights Community Center is sponsoring us now, so we just pay a $3 drop-in fee and have the use of their wonderful art room.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Meet Bertram

Bertram is a very handsome crow that lives on our street with his wife, who is so shy that I still don't know her name. Each morning and each afternoon he lands on the power line that goes from our house to the power pole across the street and patiently waits for me to realize that he has been patiently waiting. He always gets peanuts in the afternoon, but in the morning I sometimes give him cornbread, which he loves so much he almost falls over himself to get it, or rye bread, which he can barely choke down.

This morning when I went outside, the poor nameless yard squirrel was sitting on his haunches, expectantly waiting for something edible to fall on the ground. He looked so adorable sitting there that I couldn't resist giving him a two VERY small pieces of "Bertram's" rye bread. This infuriated Bertram, who ignored the pieces of bread that I balanced on the top of the railing posts next to the front steps for him. Instead, he swooped down to the ground behind the squirrel, grasped some of its tail hair in his beak, and pulled. The squirrel whipped around, and Bertram quickly hopped back out of reach. When the squirrel began nibbling his bread again, Bertram again pulled his tail. This sequence was repeated until the bread was gone and Bertram lost interest.

Bertram then flew over to the railing to choke down some rye bread. About halfway through he started making an unusual clicking sound, followed by something that sounded like a chuckle. He did this over and over until I became so concerned, I put some fresh water out for him. Maybe he really was choking on the rye bread. He ignored the water, but instantly regained his "Caw" when he saw another crow flying too near. I came inside and read up on crow noises. Apparently this is one that they make, and not when they're choking. Maybe it's their version of a laugh. I was certainly laughing about the squirrel episode. Maybe he was too.

PS Someone recently asked me if I made up this story. Nope. It's completely true. Crows are surprisingly intelligent and, believe it or not, they share a lot of social traits with humans. In fact, their social behavior is closer to humans' than any other species on earth. If this interests you, see the PBS video, "A Murder of Crows." Also, I just found this video of a crow pulling a dog's tail:

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Laundry Day Haiku

Socks find their own way
To my dresser drawer
Not always on a straight path

The mate to a pair
I thought was lost for good
Mysteriously shows up

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Art of Making Mistakes

Marvin Percy Bartel, Professor of Art at Goshen College, has good news for those of us who are adept at making mistakes. He says (among other helpful things), "Mistakes are fascinating gifts, and what we do with them makes all the difference.   It is hard to plan creative work, but when a mistake happens, I am given a gift.  When I respond to the mistake and make a new thing from it, I do not have to borrow other artist's ideas to be creative.  It has emerged as my solution." For more great thoughts on this, see Percy Principles of Art and Composition.