20 Impeccable Cubes

Our first assignment in perspective class this year was 100 impeccable cubes, freehand. You don’t usually think of perspective class as a place for freehand drawing, but it really should be. Being able to work out a complex perspective problem with a ruler is important but let’s face it, most of the time drawing with a ruler is a drag. Rulers are a tool for finished drawings, not for sketching. But sketching is where all the design happens. I can only speak for myself, but I want to have the sort of draftsmanship skills that I can draw what I want to long before I have to get the ruler out.

As with any hand skills, the only way to build them is muscle memory inducing repetition. So I started drawing cubes. 100 isn’t that many, right?

The first hurdle to get over is to realize that what you think is a cube in your head isn’t. It took me about 45 cubes to realize this. When I started drawing my cubes I did them out of my imagination. They were awful. To help things along we were encourage to build a model to draw from. Here’s mine:

It’s made from foam core board, 4 inches on a side, with some geometric printouts pasted on each face. Drawing from the model was a big help. I also taped a knitting needle to the end of my pencil to use as a measuring guide while I worked. I did the next 90 or so cubes this way.

It get’s a little monotonous. Especially when you realize that there are really only 9 views of a cube (think about it). Everything else is just some slight variation of one of those nine.

One drawback to the cube model is that you’re always about the same distance away from it, so the amount of foreshortening and wideangleness is always the same. A good alternative I found was to draw up a cube in a 3D program on my computer and then move the camera around at different focal lengths for variety. This is also nice because you can set it to wireframe and see where the back faces are too. It’s super important to draw the cubes through to the back side to make sure you understand the structure.

By the end of the assignment I had drawn 227 cubes, but quite a few of them were less than impeccable. We were asked to submit 20 of our best. Here are mine (in no particular order):

You can see they’ve got a little of that hand drawn wobble to them, but that’s fine. It just gives them a little class. The point is that my hands have the experience of drawing 227 cubes (and about 20 good ones), and my eyes can recognize a good cube from a bad one.

Glazing Portrait

So as I mentioned in the previous post, we did a number of painted portraits this semester. That last one was all about direct observation of color. This assignment was about observing value. We painted several studies of the portrait in monochrome and then added color through glazes later.

I got the original picture from a very interesting collection of mug shot photos taken by the New South Wales Police Dept. around the turn of the century.

Isn’t this picture fantastic!!! The Historic House Trust has a collection of hundreds of photos like these up on their website. The caption of this image reads:

Dorothy Mort, criminal record number 518LB, 18 April 1921. State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, NSW

Convicted of murder. Mrs Dorothy Mort was having an affair with dashing young doctor Claude Tozer. On 21 December 1920 Tozer visited her home with the intention of breaking off the relationship. Mort shot him dead before attempting to commit suicide. Aged 32. Part of an archive of forensic photography created by the NSW Police between 1912 and 1964.

The photos are all haunting and amazingly detailed.

So anyway, here’s how my underpainting went. I took a photo part way through and then again at the end. I was trying very hard to map out the planes of the face and make her features more angular with the intention of rounding things over when I got to the color stages later.

Because the original photo is in black and white I was going to need to make up the colors for her face so I decided to do a digital paint over to play with a few things. Honestly it didn’t go that well. This was the best of the lot.

When the time came to add the color I decided to take a different tact. This same week in figure class we were working on master copies and were discussing the idea of using another artist’s images a touchstones. I’ve always liked this portrait by Edward Kensella:

In fact, I’ve got a really bad laser printer copy of it on my wall. The color laser printer amps up all the colors and really saturates everything and it gave this picture this angry red glow that is totally absent in the picture above. It seemed like an interesting place to start from. Here’s what I came up with:

Originally the idea was for the color to be a transparent glaze over the underpainting, and it was at first, I swear. But as things moved on and I kept adjusting it turned unto a rather opaque paint over. The glaze still comes through in the eyes. You can see where the black is now a deep red. I’m pretty happy with it.

Oil on board, about 8 in x 10 in

Direct Painting Portrait

My painting semester is over and I’ve got a bunch of paintings to share.

I got a little behind in posting things. This piece is from way back in October in the first half of the semester when we were still working in traditional paints. The goal for this assignment was to directly mix colors from observation. This was in contrast to the previous assignment where we did monochromatic under paintings and then applied color later.

Because this assignment was an exercise in color matching I decided limit myself from doing any blending or mixing on the canvas. Only splotches of flat color ala Lucian Freud. It came out a little flatter than I was hoping but it was interesting to realize how much variation in color there is in areas that look solid at first glance.

Portraits are kind of a new area for me, so I’ve had a lot of fun practicing.

Oh! Before I forget. I found woman’s picture on the photo stream of photographer Debabrata Ray. Go check out his work, he is very talented. I’m afraid I didn’t give the original photo justice.

Oil on Board, about 8 in x 10 in

Figure Drawing Progress


I’m really enjoying the figure drawing course I’ve been taking. It’s only been about 6 weeks but I am making HUGE improvements. One thing that’s helped a lot is this method we are working with using nupastels on smooth toned paper.

It works like this:

  1. block in the silhouette of the figure with a light pastel, something lighter than the tone of the paper.
  2. cut back into the silhouette with a dark pastel to refine the silhouette and define a good composition.
  3. smear the heck out of everything so you’re left with a sort of mid tone.
  4. cut back in with the dark to find the silhouette again, and then use the light pastel to add highlights and details to the figure.

Credit for this technique goes to Mark English who developed it while he was teaching figure drawing. It’s very helpful because it gets you to focus on the big shapes in the figure before getting caught up on the details. Also, because you rub everything out mid way through you can spend the first half of the drawing noodling and adjusting all you want but the final result still looks fresh and not overworked.

Nupastel on toned paper, 18 in. x 24 in.

Hector The Ivy Plant in Broad Strokes

Back to oil paint this time.

I’ve been leafing though the archives on Nathan Fowkes’ blog looking for ways to improve. He has a few posts with progress shots of his gouache landscapes that were very revealing. It looks like many of the paintings start with a bright wash over everything and then builds dark values on top. This painting of morning glories from March 2007 is a good example.

Fowkes is working in Watercolor with white gouache, but I decided to try with oils. Bright yellow wash, big strokes, oversized brush, and careful planning. Here’s Hector again:

You can see the yellow wash peaking around the edges. I wish I had left more of it. It’s all on the masking tape, so if I pull it off it will be gone. I kind of like it there.

Oil, about 7 in square.

Comp Studies

Here’s a little exercise I’ve been doing lately that I’m really enjoying. Take an image that you really like (painting, illustration, photograph, movie still, whatever) and do a little thumbnail size study.

Don’t worry about the details, that’s why you’re working so small. The idea is to get past the content of the picture and see the underlying composition: lights and darks, warms and cools, the big puzzle pieces.

Here are a few of my examples:

These are digital greyscale, originals on the left and my studies on the right. You can click for a slightly larger view, but really the point is to see things small so you get away from the details. The pictures are from my favorite book: 

Here are a few from famous paintings – 10 points if you can name them all. I wanted to try a few outside of the computer, so I did most of these using my fountain pen. I also tried a few in gouache so I could study the color arrangements.

These are a few modern works. From the top left: Chris Van Allsburg, Gianni De Conno, Shaun Tan again, a photo from my favorite photographer Lartigue (look him up, he has a very interesting story), Eric Fortune, Jens Claessens, Shaun Tan again again, and Peter Nguyen.

This is a good way to deconstruct works of art you like and see what makes them so appealing. It’s also a good way to rehearse successes, get a feeling for what makes a composition work so that you can apply those lessons to your own work.

Four Little Tea Cups

Still life number 2 for painting class. Our assignment was to paint the same subjects from 2 different lighting conditions so I thought this would be a good opertunity to expiriement a bit.

This is my little white tea cup and one of my patchwork juggling balls.

Tentacle Cat Monster Enjoys a Spot of Tea in the East Library

This was kind of a warm up / try oil paints again / get to know people in class painting for my painting class. It’s a still life I set up with one of my plush critters and some books (that Practical C++, Cascading Style Sheets, a modern art history textbook that weighs a ton and 3 illustration annuals) .

I have very poor ventilation where I work which makes working with oils very unpleasant. I forgo the solvents and medium and try to work with just the paints and linseed oil, and I keep a big houspainter’s fan going while I work, but the fumes still start to make me woozy after a short time. I think on the next one I’m going to give the water-oils another try.

Simple Form Analysis

These are some simple form analysis drawings I did for my class in linear perspective. I did these free hand from observation so they are a little rough. The idea was to take an every day object and deconstruct it into geometric forms.

This is my favorite chair. It’s a big cushy wingback number (it’s much rounder than this). I got it when a neighbor moved away and didn’t have room for it in the moving van. It’s upholstered in a sort of crime-against-nature blue/ocher plaid. I like it because it has a really big seat so I can sit in it cross legged with a drawing board and sketch while I watch TV:

The bottle of 409 that sits on my shelf. I feel like I should have some sort of heart-felt personal anecdote about it, but really it’s just 409.

This last one is “my” sewing machine. I say “my” because really it belongs to my mother but I’m “mostly” the one who uses it (“mostly” because it lives on my work table covered in the half-finished remains of whatever I’m “just about to get back to”). The bulbous dohicky behind the needle is a secondary set of footdogs that advances the top fabric at the same rate as the bottom. It helps to keep the two bits of fabric aligned when trying to sew something thick. I used a ruler for a bit of cleanup work on this one.

Painting Class: Colo(u)rs

In service to my efforts to become a better painter I recently took up an evening oil painting class. So far it’s been great fun, and I’m already learning things that I wish we had gone over in the painting classes I took in school. It goes to show how important it is to have a good teacher, especially when you’re first starting out.

The class is aimed at beginners, so the first week we just went over the basics of how to work with oil paint. Guess what, I’ve been doing it ALL WRONG.

It turns out that cleaning your brushes between every color with paint thinner only leads to ruined brushes (I’m really good at ruining brushes). Instead, all you need to clean your brushes is a jar full of vegetable oil. That it! It works surprisingly well; it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t eat your brushes from the inside out, and it works even when it gets all dirty and gross looking.

We do still use thinner, but only as a medium to thin the paint, and only as a mixture: 1/3 thinner to 1/3 damar varnish to 1/3 linseed oil.

Next we talked about laying out your palette, another place I’d been lead astray. We were given the following order to follow clockwise from the top left of the palette and moving around the edge to the bottom right:

  • raw/burnt umber
  • burnt sienna
  • yellow ochre
  • cadmium yellow (medium)
  • cadmium red (medium)
  • alizarine crimson
  • ultramarine blue
  • cerulean blue
  • viridian green
  • and a big dab of titanium white in the lower left corner

The idea behind this ordering is that colors nearest to each other on the palette, when mixed, will form the most vibrant version of that mixed color. So, for example, mixing cad yellow and ultramarine blue will make a vibrant green where as yellow ochre and cerulean blue will make a more subdued green.

With my new found color skills I made this color wheel:

That thing in the middle is an apple by the way. Or at least it was until I started “experimenting”. I’m a painter now, I get to do that.