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Monday, May 20, 2019

The Color Blue

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
What's your favorite color? If you're male, there's a 42% chance you'll choose blue. If you're female, that number drops to 29%. It would be interesting to know if the choices and percentages are also the same for artists. My guess is that, generally speaking, they are. The least favorite color, by the way, is yellow. However, Vincent van Gogh is an interesting case in point. Judging from one of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night (above), it's obvious he loved blue. Yet one doesn't repeatedly paint sunflowers without also having an affection for yellows. He originally planned to paint a series of twelve. He ended up doing only seven, two of which have disappeared. Personally, I'm not sure I have a "favorite" color, but I suppose, if I did, I'd choose blue as well.

Sphinx of Amenhotep III
Why is blue a perennial favorite of so many people? My guess is because there are so many of them (shades and tints of blue, that is, not people). When the range is from navy blue to so-called "baby" blue that equates to just about one shade or tint" per person. Over the course of art history, artists of all media have utilized the multitude of unique shades of blue as a means of expression. For example, Pablo Picasso underwent a “blue period” where all his paintings were created in shades of blue and blue-green to create a subdued, melancholic at-mosphere. With the latest blue pigment, YInMn, which was discovered less than a decade ago, the color blue continues to unveil its artistic prop-erties, carrying a rich history and significance for both artists and audiences alike. As with so many other things, the first blue color was produced by ancient Egyptians around 2200 B.C. in an effort to create a permanent pigment that could be applied to a variety of surfaces. Since, the color has continued to evolve, and its association with calming, natural elements like the sky and clear water have solidified it as a universal favorite among artists, interior designers and other disciplines.

Although the Egyptians were fascinated with lapis lazuli, they never discovered how to create pigments with the mineral. Not until the 6th century did the color blue emerge as a true pigment when it appeared in Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan. The pigment was eventually imported into Europe by Italian traders in the 14th and 15 centuries, where it was renamed “ultramarine.” In Latin, ultramarinus translates to “beyond the sea.” It soon became the most sought-after color in medieval Europe, with a price tag that rivaled that of gold.

The Last Judgment, 1536-1541, Michelangelo Buonarroti,
The scarcity of the blue minerals ultramarine and lapis lazuli led early artists to seek chemists in their search for a means to produce blue that was less costly. Because blue pigments were rare and expensive to acquire up until the dawn of the Industrial Age, it has often been associated with royalty and divinity. That may be why it is a favorite color today. Because it was so costly, the color was often reserved for royalty.Great artists of this era such as Michelangelo and Raphael were forced to use it sparingly. Art historians believe that Michelangelo’s The Entombment (1500) was left unfinished because he could not afford to buy more ultramarine. Ultramarine is a blue pigment found naturally. It is ground down from a mineral called lazulite, the main component of lapis lazuli. The pigment remained expensive until a French chemist discovered a synthetic version in 1826; aptly named “French Ultramarine.”

Vue du Mourillon, 1890, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
In 2016 Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Vue du Mourillon (above) sold for £305,000.  Renoir and Vincent van Gogh utilized cobalt in many of their iconic works, including the instantly recognizable The Starry Night (top). Cobalt was originally discovered in the 8th and 9th centuries, where it was used to decorate ceramics and jewelry. In China, cobalt was the chosen pigment for the iconic blue and white porcelain patterns that emerged in the region. A purer version was discovered by French chemist, Louis Jacques Thénard in 1802. Not long after, commercial production began in France.

Le Grand Canal, 1908, Claude Monet
Cerulean comes from the Latin word caeruleus, which means “dark blue” and is most likely derived from caelum, the Latin word for “sky.” The pigment was originally composed of cobalt magnesium stannate, or compounds of tin. In 1805, it was perfected by roasting cobalt and tin oxides. It was put on the market for artistic use in 1860. Cerulean was used heavily by Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet as in his Le Grand Canal (above), one of 37 Venetian scenes painted during his stay in the city in 1908, Monet combined cerulean with other bright blues like cobalt and synthetic ultramarine to create vibrant, colorful works. In 1999, cerulean was even named “color of the millennium” by Pantone.

Indigo is a blue dye, rather than a pigment, which comes from Indigofera tinctoria, a crop grown in abundance around the world. The indigo plant originally came from India. The Ancient Greek language word for the dye is indikon. The Romans used the term indicum, which passed into Italian dialect and eventually into English as the word indigo. Because it could be grown in excess, it was an affordable option for dying textiles, and became a highly desired import throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, sparking tensions and trade wars between Europe and America. Isaac Newton named and defined indigo as a spectrum color when he divided up the spectrum into the seven colors of the rainbow. In 1880, a synthetic version of indigo replaced the natural version, and it is still used today to dye blue jeans. The color shown at right, electric indigo, is the closest hue possible to display on a computer to the color of the indigo color band in the rainbow.

Portrait d’Angel Fernández de Soto, 1903, Pablo Picasso
The pigment Prussian blue consists of iron cations, cyanide anions, and water. The name Prussian blue originated in the 18th century, when the compound was used to dye the uniform coats for the Prussian army. Over the years, the pigment acquired several other “blue” names, including Berlin, Parisian, and Turnbull’s blue. It has been used for centuries in unusually diverse applications Despite the presence of cyanide groups, the pigment is not toxic to humans. Older artists among us will recognize “Prussian blue” as a crayon color. Prussian blue was one of the 38 original Crayola colors introduced in 1903. The Prussian blue crayon name lasted until 1958, when it was changed to midnight blue. The reason for the change is unclear. One source says it was made because by then no one knew what Prussia was anymore; while others suggest the move was spurred by political correctness during the Cold War. Picasso's Portrait d’Angel Fernández de Soto, (above) dating from 1903. is painted almost entirely in Prussian blue.

Moonscape, 1965, Roy Lichtenstein
Navy blue is the darkest shade of blue, and they have many variations of the pigment. It is not normally termed an artist's pigment. It was originally referred to as marine blue since it was the color for British Royal Navy uniforms and worn by officers and sailors after 1748. Since, modern navies have darkened their uniforms even further in an effort to reduce fading that happened quicker with a lighter navy color. Today artists often create navy blue using Phthalocyanine Blue (below, right) which is also called by many names. It is a bright, crystalline, synthetic blue pigment from the group of phthalocyanine dyes. This brilliant blue is frequently used in paints and dyes. It is highly valued for its light fastness, tinting strength, covering power and resistance to the effects of alkalis and acid. Roy Lichtenstein makes heavy use of it in his Moonscape, (above) painted in 1965.

Blue can have a variety of meanings and symbolize a diverse range of ideals depending upon various cultures. Largely, the color blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It is believed that it slows human metabolism, which produces a calming effect. Light blue is associated with health, healing, and tranquility while dark blue represents a more powerful, serious, but sometimes melancholic nature. Surveys have shown that blue is the color most associated with the masculine, just ahead of black, and was also the color most associated with intelligence, knowledge, calm, and concentration.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Raccoon Art

Rest Stop, Gemma Gylling
For most of this past winter we've had an unwanted houseguest living (take your pick) in our crawlspace, in our basement, or in our garage. We've even taken to calling our little illegal alien "Bandit." (For ease of use, I'm going to consider him male.) Bandit is an average size raccoon and if he had a middle name, it would be "mischief." My wife first noticed his likely presence back well before last Christmas, hearing strange noises of something going "bump" in the night. Then we noticed he'd taken a tour of our kitchen with time out to "poop" on our couch. Strangely, there seemed to be no evidence of his looking for food. A night or two later, I was sitting here at the computer and the thing actually crept up on me in the dark and rested both front paws on my thigh, much like a dog begging for food. It's hard to say which of us was the most startled, but in any case he quickly departed at a dead run. Since than he's torn up insulation in the basement ceiling; ransacked my antiquated darkroom; and dragged down a number of items from a closet in my studio. We had an exterminator go "coon hunting" in our crawlspace. He met the varmint but to know avail. A few days later I cornered the little bugger in our basement and chased him out an open door. Alas...he came back. We set a trap with an open can of tuna as bait. He took the bait (can and all). He's apparently a smart little rascal and to this day still makes his presence known from time to time.
Raccoons are wild animals and would prefer to stay that way.


Raccoons are fascinating creatures. Artists such as Gemma Gylling (top) and Belgian artist, Carl Brenders (below) have often been captivated by their masked face and unpredictable nature. Closely related to the Giant Panda, their culinary tastes are far less discerning, everything from dirty baby diapers to yesterday's garbage. And, although I've referred to ours somewhat whimsically, they do NOT make good pets. They are utterly impossible to train, let alone allow the coon to live freely in your home as you would a normal pet. Raccoons are feisty, nasty, vile animals, quite willing to fight (and bite) anything, dogs, cats, as well as one another. They'll fight you, too if they feel cornered.


The coonskin cap, mid-1950s
I first became aware of raccoons through Davy Crockett...or rather Walt Disney's version of the historic Tennessee woodsman as played by Fess Parker. Davy Crockett became something of a children's hero armed with his musket, clad in leather, and wearing a coonskin cap. Bolstered by the three-part Disneyland series which ran in 1954 and 55, I'm guessing a great many raccoons gave up their lives so we kids could be properly attired to fight Indians and defend the Alamo.
Because of their distinctive facial markings, racoons are fun, easy, and quick to draw.
Raccoon-1, watercolor by Suren Nersisyan
Although relatively simple to draw, like pandas, cats, dogs, and a few other oft-drawn creatures, it's quite easy for an artist to encounter the pitfall of adhering to only one or two successful angles and crea-ture poses. You will note that many of the sketches above, and all three of the painted examples below (including my own) rely on a single, sym-metrical view of the "face." Such a stereotype is the first stop on the slippery slope to monotony.
If you're looking here for the cute, little iconic, cartoonish renderings of the raccoon, or any of the animal, search under clipart. Given all of the constantly changing poses drawing from life entails, an artist needn't rely on photos taken by an unimaginative photographer. Zoos are wonderful places for artist to sharpen their skills drawing animals from life. Outstanding photos of wild animals rely all too often on chance--the photographer being in the right place at precisely the right moment. An artist drawing animals from life has choices as to angle, pose, lighting, and overall composition seldom available to a wildlife photographer. Below are two similar paintings of the raccoon face, my own Rosemary Cooney (left) and that of the Italian artist Roberto Rizzo (right). Both of us have handled the stereotypical raccoon face differently in order to break free of the mundane.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Rosemary Cooney, Jim Lane
Raccoon' Lair, Roberto Rizzo


Manda Nay Crochet
All together now: "Awwwwww."

Monday, May 6, 2019

Playing Card Art

Jack of Diamonds by Vaelyane.
My wife tells the story about her grandmother, who lived with them when my wife was growing up. Her grandmother considered any form of gambling to be a mortal sin (not uncommon at the time). I suppose that might explain why my wife is so reluctant to gamble on getting up each morning. In any case, her grandmother's belief was so strict she wouldn't allow a deck of playing cards anywhere in the house. She saw them as a tool of the devil. Today there are playing cards featuring events from the life of Christ. Still others are designed to help children (and no doubt some adults) learn to keep track of all the Old Testament prophets. Such illustrations might seem odd to be considered an art form, but down through the centuries artists have found both the front and back of playing cards to be a very receptive "canvas" for some of their best artwork, such as the Jack of Diamonds (above) by Vaelyane.
"Jesus" playing cards.
When searching for the "genesis" of such common items, we have to go back (as is often the case) to China, to the Ming Dynasty of around 1400 AD. (left). Although one might expect such an artifact to look nothing at all like it's modern counterpart, in this case however, although the shape is different, the image is obviously that of a queen, though the deck had neither suits nor numbered cards. They were, indeed, part of a game, but one more reminiscent of Old Maid than poker. Actually, the Chinese can boast bragging rights to cards with numbers and suits going back even further to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) known as the "leaf" game. The rules have long since been lost. Most scholars attribute the advent of playing cards to the invention of block printing around the same time. Whatever the case, the games associated with such cards must have been quite intriguing in that there use, in various formats, spread westward at an surprising pace. The Egyptian Mamelukes from around the 12th or 13th centuries used a deck of four suits and twelve cards similar to ours today, except in appearance (below). Being Muslims, the depiction of the human figure was forbidden, though if one has a keen eye (and some degree of imagination) the "face" cards can be seen embedded in the otherwise geometrical designs. The four suits were polo-sticks, coins, swords, and cups (still used in traditional Latin decks).
Mameluke playing cards from the 12th or 13th century. Can you spot the "royal" figures?
Knave of Coins (diamonds) from
the oldest known European deck
(c. 1390–1410)
From the Far-East to the Mid-East playing cards seem to have traveled the trade routes, arriving in Europe by about 1365. The Germans, having invented movable type and perfected the printing process began producing what we would consider "modern-day" playing cards around 1418. Some such decks even contained devotional images. All such cards were hand-painted or colored using stencils from about 1450 on. Red, black, and golden yellow became the most common colors since those pigments with both inexpensive and readily available. The Knave of Coins (right) from the oldest known European deck dates from between 1390 and 1410. By both Chinese and Mameluke stand-ards the artwork and printing seem quite crude. At the same time, the symbols for the various suits evolved with trèfles (clovers) corres-ponding to clubs, carreaux (tiles), became diamonds, cœurs (hearts), and piques (pikes) evolving into spades. Today, whether we realize it or not, we are essentially playing with French playing cards, though there are decks from other European countries, among them being Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany using various other icons, some similar while others differ greatly (below).
European suit symbols with the French icons probably gaining greatest favor because of their simplicity.
As gamblers and other card-playing groups (such as Bridge clubs) continually developed new games with new rules, artist have had a great time catering to this surprisingly lucrative pastime, with attractive (usually geometric) designs for the backs of each card and the most up-to-date, high society fashions on the front. During the 1700s and 1800 the French, having popularized cardplaying, and being extremely fashion conscious, unleashed their burgeoning army of fine art painters to produce some of the most highly detailed and visually exciting royal "face" card images (below) not seen (before or since).
Antique French playing cards from the 18th and 19th centuries. Notice only the figure of the king and queen have remained constant. The "Jack" has sometimes been represented by church officials, figures from the royal court, of lesser members of royalty.
Being something new, the joker
had to explain itself.
If you haven't already noticed, some of the face cards seen so far are not "revers-ible" (the lower half of each figure being a mirror image of the top half). This feature and the value indices in the upper right corner of each card were developments of the early 19th century. Apart from rounded corners, the final innovation to the deck of playing cards came from the United States in 1864 when the printer, Samuel Hart, introduced the "joker" as part of the still wildly popular game of Euchre. Although Hart's version seems tame enough, later artists have long had a "field day" drawing jokers. The only other modern-day playing card "invention" I can think of is the novelty "mini-deck" (below), though I doubt anyone plays more than a single hand with these little guys before the "novelty" wears off. Likewise, magicians specializing in nightclub card sleight-of-hand love the giant playing cards with faces and figures clearly discernable from the rear mezzanine.

The mini-deck. Few cardplayers would want to use these after the first hand cramp.
The history of playing card design is much easier to write about than the present-day images which have evolved. Since the advent of photography and mass advertising both the fronts and backs of today's playing cards have shed any vestige of "fine" art in favor of promotional values. The playing card art of Carne Griffiths (below) created in a drippy watercolor style with inks made from tea would seem to be a notable exception.
Playing card designs created using tea ink by Carne Griffiths.
Otherwise, from Coca-Cola to Pepsi, Gone With The Wind to Star Wars, (below) I don't think there's ever been an advertising art director who didn't think that literally putting their ads in the "hands" of card players wouldn't help sell their products. Even the venerable folks at Disney (right) have not been above using this longstanding and highly effective promotional device (below). Some movie stars don't even need a hit movie to get their faces on playing cards (bottom).
I know they're tiny, but can you name all the Star Wars series heroes and villains?
Can you name the character played by each
actress as pictured above.

You know you have it made when
your face graces an entire deck of
playing cards.