Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bonsai Art

Cynthia Decker
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

                                       --Joyce Kilmer

I doubt very much if Joyce Kilmer sat contemplating a Japanese bonsai tree as he penned the poetic words which made him famous; but had that been the case, he might have added poetically and parenthetically "(with a little help from we)." Whatever the case, that was obviously the inspiration of Cynthia Decker's Haiku (above, left). As with many other elements of life, God creates, man recreates. With regard to bonsai trees, the thinking seems to be, God made them too big. so I'll see what I can do about that. Although most bonsai trees are small enough to ornament an interior, the Japanese insist that true bonsais should reside out-of-doors, brought inside only for brief periods during inclement weather.
An Atlas Cedar
A "forest" of Black Hills Spruce.
Bonsai simply means "plantings in tray", from bon, a tray or low-sided pot and sai, for plantings. Thus it is a Japanese art form using trees grown in containers. Similar prac-tices exist in other cultures, includ-ing the Chinese tradition of penjing from which the art originated, and the miniature living landscapes of the Vietnamese. The Japanese tradition dates back over a thou-sand years; in China, perhaps twice that long. The purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation (for the viewer) and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity (for the grower).

Tang Dynasty
Penzai, ca. 706 A.D.

A few days ago I wrote regarding "Sign Design" referring to it as a melding of art and science, with science, in most cases, being the dominant factor. With the art of bonsai the opposite is true. In contrast with other forms of plant cultivation bonsai are not intended for production of food or medicine. Instead, bonsai practice focuses on long-term cultivation and shaping of one or more small trees growing in a container. There is some horticultural sci-ence involved, but here, art and aesthetics dominate.

Above are a few of the basic bonsai styles, which are by no means
carved in stone. There are many others and many combinations of these.
The earliest illustration of a penjing (Chinese bonsai) is found in the Qianling Mausoleum murals at the Tang Dynasty tomb of Crown Prince Zhanghuai, from 706 A.D. (above, right). Over the centuries since then, bonsai enthusiasts have frequently tried to reclassify the styles, and their many sub-divisions into which plants can be trained. These designs/styles, provide a reference point from which to assess a tree's potential for bonsai and to decide what style best suits it's natural attributes. From that point on, training a tree is somewhat like training a pet, you establish limitations and provide instruction through the use of judicious pruning and copper wire to shape the branches (below).

A common misconception is that the plants used for Bonsai
are genetically "dwarfed" plants. Bonsai trees are normal
plants, propagated like any other, best trained using
sophisticated techniques to keep them small.
Pruning: by regular pruning we keep the tree in the determined shape.

Wiring: by wrapping wire around the branches we are able to bend these to achieve our determined shape.

Tools: several specialized tools were developed including a concave cutter and twig shears.

Repotting: Since bonsai trees are held in small pots, regular repotting is required to replenish nutrients in the soil.

The specie of the tree also dictates the temperature range in which
it grows best outdoors. Bonsai often do not do as well inside.
All you need to get started, except for seeds or a seedling.
Just add water and exceptional patience. Be firm but gentle.
One of the things that stunned me in researching bonsai, and something I guess I'd never realized, is the incredible number of flowering bonsai trees. The chart below, while not supplying much detailed information, does suggest the amazing range of colors some growers have achieved. In general, flowering and fruit-bearing species are treated and styled using the same techniques as for other Bonsai tree species. But they require more sunlight, and if they are pruned at the wrong time or too often, they will grow too strongly due to high nitrogen fertilizer. If the soil gets too dry, they will not bloom or bear fruit. When the tree is in bloom, the flowers must not get wet, otherwise they wilt very quickly. Flowering trees can have very different growth patterns which must be considered when pruning the tree. Among the favorites for those growing flowering bonsai are azaleas, flowering apricot, pomegranate, bougainvillea, snow rose, potentilla, Chinese quince, and the lagerstroemia. Others include crab apple, hawthorn, blackthorn, firethorn and flowering quince.

Keep in mind, appearances change greatly when the flowering
trees are not in bloom.
The smallest are referred
to as Keshitsubo.
Of course, the critical element in the entire bonsai art form is size. believe it or not, bonsai trees may range in size from as small as an inch or two in height (right) up to the Imperial Bonsai which are in the 60- to 80-inch range. Yes, even at that size, if they grow in a container, they're still considered bonsai. Also bonsai have been known to live for as long as six to eight hundred years (below).

The world's oldest bonsai, said to
be 600-800 years of age,
Today bonsai have become so popular around the world that they are mass-produced in greenhouses or open farm fields (below). In Japan, large numbers of bonsai trees are sometimes landscaped to form gardens (bottom). And if you can believe it, some wise-guy inventor with way too much time on his hands has come up with a floating bonsai (just click on the video).

A bonsai farm.
A bonsai garden. I wonder how the owner keeps people from stealing them.
A special thanks to:

Bonsai Empire

in providing information for this article.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Copyright, Jim Lane
Feline Fascination in White, 1981, Jim Lane
It's been years since I painted one. Back in college, some forty-five years ago, I got pretty good at it, though. A course in watercolor was require. I don't think I'd ever so much as touched them before that. However, despite their "orneriness," I came to enjoy the medium. I had two things going for me. I was already fairly adept at oils, and I've seldom had difficulty drawing. Though oils and watercolors are nothing alike, insofar as technique is concerned, paint is paint and I was not at all intimidated by either type. I came to love the demands, as well as the inherent beauty, of (almost) pure pigment on paper so much that when I picked up on acrylic painting several years later, I found myself painting transparently on canvas much as I had using watercolor. Feline Fascination in White (above) to this day, I can't recall (or tell) if it was a watercolor or an acrylic. Only the date, 1981, suggests it might have been done in transparent acrylics.
Once you're comfortable with the peculiarities of watercolor,
they're far more "fun" than oils or acrylics.
Why did I "give up" on watercolor in favor of acrylics? Simple, watercolors must be displayed in a frame under glass (or Lucite). At the time, I was turning out up to thirty or more paintings a year and selling them mostly at outdoor art shows. Acrylics on stretched canvas are, not only remarkably durable, but need only a lattice frame, usually costing less than a dollar. Framing a single watercolor, even when using standard size frames, could cost up to twenty times that much, with glass and frames subject to scratches and breakage...not to mention the fact they're heavy and fragile. There's nothing worse than handling any object that is subject to both of those liabilities. Add the vagaries of the weather to that mix and it quickly became evident that carting around even a few framed watercolors to art shows was a colossal pain in the posterior.
White Ships, 1908, John Singer Sargent. Even when the signature is
nearly a household word, watercolors seldom bring the same prices
at auction as similar work on canvas.
The other important factor in my eschewing watercolors for oils and acrylics is one bemoaned by watercolor painters since the medium first became popular in Europe during the late 1700s. Buyers simply don't respect that which is painted on paper as opposed to canvas. And adjacent to that, art buyers are seldom willing to pay the same price for such works, even though the time and skills involved on the part of the artist are often quite similar. That's especially the case when they're sold wrapped in Mylar and displayed in a browsing cradle (which I did for a while). They appear cheap (and thus they usually are).
Copyright, Jim Lane
Durer's hare was probably a pet.  Mine wasn't. It was a photograph.
Try your luck at sketching with
Watercolors have, of course been around for centuries, in effect having been the first painting medium used by man (on the walls of caves). On paper, they likely go back to the time the Egyptians or Chinese (take you pick) invented the stuff, not too many centuries after cavemen found watercolor rocks too hard to carry around to art shows. European monks found it quite appropriate for their illustrated manuscripts. However, the Ger-man artist/engraver, Albrecht Dur-er, may have been the first Euro-pean to master watercolor as an illustrative medium, as seen in his 1502, Young Hare (above, left). Not to brag, but I think my own watercolor Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow (above, right), from 1971, stands up reasonably well to his. Watercolor is great for rendering fur.

In terms of shapes, watercolor brushes differ little from those
used with oils or acrylics, though they are more often softer
and more pliable. The best are made from sable tails.
Watercolor pencils--my students
loved them. They seen far more
natural to use than brushes.
For those not familiar with the medium, watercolors consists of four principal ingredients--pig-ments, natural, synthetic, mineral, or organic; a binder, usually gum Arabic (acting as a "glue" to affix the pigment to the paper); ad-ditives such as glycerin or honey to add durability to the mixture; and, of course water, which acts as a solvent to thin the paint. The water evaporates as the paint hardens and dries. Transparent watercolor never contains white pigments. Such paints are sold in tiny tubes, in tiny tubs (best for on-location painting), and more recently in the form of water-soluble pencils (above).

State legislator, 1995, Yong Chen
Landscapes lead the list of watercolor artists' favorite subjects, followed closely by animals and still-lifes. Watercolor portraits are fairly rare in that the discipline needed in attaining and maintaining a good likeness during the painting process is quite difficult to master. Also the near-instantaneous dry-ing times create a similar challenge. Any reasonably smooth flesh tones take some degree of speed in painting. Moreover, it's far more difficult to practice painting portraits in watercolor than rendering plants, flowers, and animals. Try printing this page and us-ing it as the basis of a watercolor exercise, sketching in the various items only if you feel you must. Remember, practice makes perfect...and a lot of wet paper.

The more detailed the item (such as flowers) the more you may want to sketch in the item first.

Obviously, wild animals are seldom painted from life...
especially bears.

A poor photo of a 1971 floral
watercolor not much better. Is it any
wonder I gave up watercolors?


Monday, August 29, 2016

Painting Babies

Ahh, she looks just like her dad...unfortunately.
Acrylic portrait by Ian Bodnaryk.
Beautiful Eyes, Frances Hook,
baby artist for Northern Tissues
during the 1950s and 1960s.
There's probably not a single portrait artist working today that hasn't been called upon, at least once, to paint a portrait of a baby. By that I mean a child younger than twelve months. And what artist-mother of a newborn can resist the urge to at least sketch her nine-month labor of love. I know, labor doesn't last nine months, it just seems that way at the time. In any case, each artist, male or female, who undertakes such an effort quickly discovers that painting babies is unlike any other subject in the world. Drawing them from life is largely out of the question. They don't hold still unless they're asleep; which is why you see so many portraits of the little darlings with their big, beautiful, dark eyes closed. What a waste! Even with the aid of a competent photographer, the whole experience, while perhaps fun, can also be exasperating and nearly as time-consuming as drawing the infant from life. And if all that weren't enough, the proportional instincts the portrait artist commonly employs become simply irrelevant when the subject still wears diapers.
Watching Paint Dry (left), Sandra Busby, and the likely results of
doing so (right).
Whether working from one or more photos, or from life, asleep or otherwise, an artist has little or no chance of rendering an attractive baby portrait without learning to draw one first (preferably several). For the proverbial "baby-face," the artist must learn to think in circles. That is to say, whether drawing in profile, three-quarter, or straight-on front views, the predominant shape is the circle. If you're in the habit of starting a face by drawing the features, even then, when wide open, a baby's eyes are often quite circular, as is, of course the whole head. As for the proportions and alignment of the facial features, think in terms of halves, as seen in the charts below.
As if infant proportions weren't challenging enough, keep in mind
they change slightly virtually every month as the child grows older.
The lower drawings would apply to a baby six months or older.
It's likely that no other artist who ever lived knew as much about painting babies as did the great Raphael di Sanzio. Today, some thirty-four Madonna and Child paintings from Raphael's all-too-brief career have survived, mostly painted between 1500 and 1514 (he died in 1520). One might refer to them as his "bread and butter" work; and to push the analogy to the breaking point, he seems to have certainly known "which side his bread was buttered on." Also, as you might note in looking down over the details of each Christ-child below, it seems he learned to paint babies the hard way--by painting a lot of them. I've included approximate dates for each example. You can almost chart the course of his progress down through the years.
One has to admire a painter of babies who lacks the option of
working from photos. Note, the first two at the top are almost comical
as the artist struggles to learn the "rules" of painting babies. Compare
the to the ones toward the bottom from about ten years later.
Baby-face, Georgia
Just as babies come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and styles, the same can be said for the paintings and portraits resulting from their cute, cuddly little faces. Some artists paint babies life-size or smaller. Others paint them so large, many a young mother might wince and say "ouch" in seeing them. The style in which babies are rendered depends some-what on two factors, the preexisting style of the artist and that artist's gender. Just as mothers gently em-brace their young, usually their painting style reflects such instinctive nurturing. Fathers, on the other hand, like to play and "rough-house" with their progeny, thus their "hand-ling" of babies with paint on canvas often seems quite similar. Compare the pristinely delicate handling of Georgia (above-right, whom I assume is a woman) with that of Derek Russell (below). The difference is like that of silk and sandpaper.

Babies by Derek Russell.
"Aw, come on, Dad, a little more red on my nose."
Personally, I would advise anyone painting babies, from whatever source, to use oils, even though I customarily paint in acrylics. Very often, when painting portraits, regardless of the age of my subjects, I paint all but the flesh tones in acrylics, then switch back to oils (my original painting medium) for the flesh tone, allowing me to take days rather minutes in trying to get them just right. I was somewhat dismayed at the fluid ease with which Janusz Migasiuk handles his paints in the time-lapse video below. I was even more dismayed at the results of the highly experienced Crystal Cook in painting a baby in acrylic (bottom). Beyond that, I was nearly dumbfounded at the though of painting a baby in watercolor as seen in the work of Candice Bohannon Reyes (below that). I've painted a few baby portraits in my time, but the only one I could find at the moment was my The Stripper (clear down at the bottom) dating from around 1972.

Just click the triangle above to play.

Baby Mia, 2006, Candice Bohannon Reyes

Sadie, Crystal Cook

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Stripper, 1972, Jim Lane


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Henri Alphonse Barnoin

Market in Day in Front of the Closed City, Henri Barnoin
I love looking at old photos, whether those from the archives of social history or my own family's considerable contribution to that vast "picture" window into the past. Of course, photos do have their limitations. First, in terms of history, they simply don't exist before about 1840, and for the first couple decades after that they were so few and stiffly formal they might just as well have not existed. The American Civil War in the early 1860s changed that. Photography, though still not without its awkward difficulties, became portable, as wartime photographers of death and destruction perfected the "darkroom on wheels." George Eastman brought Kodak photography to the vast middle-classes and much later added color to this art and science. I don't know who, specifically, invented digital photography, but that too was groundbreaking. However, before all this, before photographs became "photos," which soon became "pictures," which later became "pix," there was the painter. Their pictures were highly developed, in color, highly detailed, quite archival, extremely diverse, and fortunately, quite plentiful. And before photography freed them from the abject bondage of realism, they were an even broader, more important (and much more beautiful) "picture" window into the past. The French painter, Henri Alphonse Barnoin was one of the human cameras who maintained their clarity and focus, but with an interesting twist (noted at the end).

Breton women at the Sainte-Barbe fountain in Le Faouët,
Henri Barnoin
Nothing can replace a good painting in bringing the past to life (at whatever level of society). Historian can record the facts with some degree of human detail, but seldom the ambience. A few outstanding novels have come close to filling in the blanks of the ongoing eras from the past, but both literary efforts have much the same limitations of antique photos--they're stiff, dry, and have relatively little color. Moreover, at they're best, they offer only a brief "snapshot" of the life and times of their protagonists and antagonists. Their greatest asset is also their greatest limitation--they use words. Worse still, they rely on the profit motive of publishers to be read by the masses. Painters are, in effect, self-published, except in rare instances when a printer sees a few bucks to be made in a broader distribution of their most popular images. Henri Alphonse Barnoin was quite prolific in painting his marine, harbor, and market scenes. He was one of the self-published best.

Henri Barnoin seems to have had an affinity for market days.
Born in Paris in 1882, Henri Barnoin's father was an artist as were two of his uncles. Henri studied at the École des Beaux Arts under the academicians, Luc-Olivier Merson, and Émile Dameron, the latter becoming the most significant influence on his style. He introduced Barnoin to Impressionism. The young artist began to paint professionally around 1909 at the age of twenty-seven. Some ten years later he set up his studio in the far northwestern port city of Concarneau where he'd often been summertime visitor. His studio on the "Quai Pénéroff" became a favorite meeting place for fellow artists inspired by the light and lively scenes of fishing boats, village markets, and the sea. In 1926, Barnoin became official Artist to the French Navy (in lieu of an official photographer one might assume).

Fishing Harbor, Concarneau, Brittany, Henri Barnoin

Portrait of the Artist's Brother,
Henri Barnoin

Although Barnoin painted an excellent full-length portrait of his brother (right), he left behind no portrait of himself. There's not even a single, solitary, blurry photo of the man to be found. Among Barnoin's favored subjects were marine, harbor, and coastal scenes, mostly painted in the rich settings of Brittany. This is exem-plified in his painting Fishing Harbor, Concarneau, Brittany (above). As a win-dow into the past, Barnoin's work is especially valuable in that he seems, himself, to have been peering into the past. He died in Paris in 1940; thus Barnoin painted well into the 20th-century, yet not once, in any of his paintings, do we see any evidence of the modern-day world. As seen in his The Market in Quimperlé (below), dating from 1928, and in his Fishing Harbor, Con-carneau (above), there's nothing but sailing ships, no cars, no contemporary dress, not even so much as a utility pole. Henri Alphonse Barnoin was an artist from the past painting his past.

The Market in Quimperlé, ca. 1928, Henri Barnoin
Woodland River at Dusk, Henri Barnoin.
Getting away from it all in the countryside.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sign Design

Eye-catching, simple image, memorable message.
It's no accident that some universities in the U.S. (and quite a few more elsewhere) offer a degree they call the Bachelor of Arts and Science (BAS). It's basically a double major but a single degree. This course of studies recognizes the fact that in many professional endeavors there is often quite a fine line between that which could be termed an "art" and what we usually recognize as a "science." Frequently that which at one time was considered an "art" has now been studied to such a degree that many of its aspects have been boiled down to a science. One such area is that of sign design. Where once the client and artist painting the sign put their heads together and instinctively decided what would be both attractive and effective (two major criteria) with one usually taking precedence over the other.
The warning sign (center) says way too much.
The exclamation mark (upper-right), far too little.
Road signs are an example. As art goes, they're seldom very attractive, though sometimes quite creative (even humorous, as above). Their main aim is to impart critical information as to what lies ahead. They must do so quickly and unambiguously. History and common practices have turned this type of sign into a science that saves people's lives. Art has little to do with that. However, along the same highway, we find giant billboards in which, as my wife sometimes notes, "Someone got paid a lot of money to come up with that stupid idea." She's right of course, the fact that the theme of the sign appears rather "stupid" or at least unconventional, is, in reality, what make the sign eye-catching in the first place, and even more important, memorable (below). A sign noting a curve in the road need only be memorable for a few seconds before having served its purpose. However a massive billboard depicting the birth of a baby with the giant words, "ABORTION KILLS" first stuns the viewer, perhaps even offends, but in any case grabs attention and, finally, may be memorable for years to come.
Someone got paid a lot of money...
Speaking of years, road signs have been around about as long as roads, if for no other reason than to identify the name of the road and perhaps as mile markers so travelers could mark their progress. Advertising signs, if there were any, were largely haphazard and incidental. It was hardly worth the bother in that so few people did much traveling, and in any case had little need for information on roadside products and services. Of course the automobile changed all that. Roads multiplied and improved. They grew longer, wider, smoother, and straighter. Speeds increased. Signs of all kinds proliferated as did, eventually, the science of size, placement, images, and messages. Not only that, but often they were vitally important economically as whole towns lived (and sometimes died) in relying on a well-traveled highway passing through. U.S. Rt. 66, as it beat a paved path across the west, is a near-perfect example.
Signs such as the five-cent Coca-Cola sign (above-right) seem
quaint to us today; but actually, the bottled carbonated
beverage sold for five cents for some seventy years.
While sign painting and messaging were once strictly the domain of artists and advertisers, today, thanks to the ubiquitous portable signboards seen along streets and highways everywhere, virtually anyone can say about anything their freedom of speech allows. Very often there's more than a grain of truth in the wit and wisdom which such lighted signage proclaims. Our church once posted with their ever-changing letters the question: "What on earth are you doing for heaven's sake?"
Democracy at work--tweeting for the masses.
Road signs of the future.

Solar signage.