Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Owl Art

Three Owls, Michael Dumas
More than forty years ago now, back when my wife and I were still doing local arts and crafts shows, among the exhibitors was a taxidermist displaying his craft. He expressed a desire to have one of my paintings but, as is so often the case, the income from his craft did not afford him the luxury of collecting art. He did suggest, however trading two or three of his mounted pieces for the painting. At the time (and probably still today), bartering among various artists and artisans was much more common than many might guess. To cut to the chase I acquired a mounted mallard, a squirrel, and a barn owl. Although I've painted virtually every animal on God's green earth, that trade resulted in my one and only venture into the ancient art of painting owls (below, right). I also used the mounted wildlife I acquired as models in a junior high drawing unit. Later, as it sat high on a shelf in my studio, our cat thought the bird looked so realistic he attacked it, ripping off one or more wings.
A Snow Owl of paper and wood by Zack Mclaughlin
Copyright, Jim Lane
How Now Brown Owl, 1978, Jim Lane
In my research into owl art I encountered hundreds of painters with far more skill and experience than I. Michael Dumas' Three Owls (top) for example. My own painting of an owl depicts one of two families of owls. Mine is a Barn Owl while most other owls belong to the Strigidae family. Owls are the oldest living birds, their origin having been traced back to 60 million years ago. They have been featured in almost all ancient mythologies. The oldest specimens found show that the bird has not changed much, perhaps due to the fitness of its features as a successful bird of prey. Its capability of night vision, silent flight, acute hearing, strong claws, and excellent plumage con-tributes to its survival skills. Only a few cave drawings have been found relating to birds, and the owl is one of them.

The owls of John Pusater. The third image (just above) illustrates one of the owl's strangest attributes, the ability to swivel its heads up to 270 degrees
Owls invite the art of artists from young school children up through that of rank amateurs and finally the professionals such as the watercolor work of John Pusater (below). In all likelihood, the reason the owl is so popular at all levels of the art world comes down to the fact that the frontal view is a broad face with two circles (the eyes) and a triangle (the beak). Add some highly prominent eyebrows and you have an essence much like the uppermost image above. Switching to a profile view challenges the artists' drawing skills to a greater degree and is less commonly seen. In choosing examples here I've tried to avoid the tiresome, highly symmetrical frontal view. The video below provides insight and instruction as to the drawing of an owl.

What a cat is to the mouse in cities, an owl is to them in a rural environment. Owls keep the population of mice, rats, and rabbits under control. Over past centuries down through to the present, owls are the most-sought-after birds by sorcerers, tribal medicine men, bird watchers, artists, environmentalists, and those who write mythologies. All of these people know about owls, but no one (other than Harry Potter) wishes to keep them as pets. Owls are found all over the world, but they like to keep themselves aloof and out of the sight of human beings in that they are nocturnal birds with an inherent liking for deserted places. The fifteenth century Netherlandish painter, Hieronymus Bosch, was probably the first painter in the history of European art to gravitate to this wise old bird of prey as seen in two details from his famous 1504 painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The upper image (below) depicts a pygmy owl while the lower image is that of a giant Barn owl. Why all the owls? They seem like very nearly frivolous afterthoughts, working as they do in the dark places, windows, tree branches, and margins of his paintings. Despite their marginalized presence in many of Bosch's works, they still manage to convey a touch of sensitivity, intimacy, and humor--as though their tiny presence somehow supervised the goings-on in the paintings.

One could say the owl is Bosch's signature motif, its absence in a
Bosch painting is far more notable than its presence.
Barn Owl Chick, painted bronze, Nick Bibby
In the realm of modern day iconography the owl is often used to denote love as in "Owl Always Love You." In addition to its more common attribute of wisdom. This type of sent-imental work such as that of Dann-e, Owl Love (below) has a tendency toward being over-ly sweet or "cutesy." Likewise the same is true of artists' love of baby animals, in this case fuzzy little owlets. Although it would seem not to be an ob-vious choice as subject mat-ter for sculptors, Nick Bibby's life-size Barn Owl Chick, cast in painted bronze (right) dem-onstrates otherwise.

Owl Love, Dann-e

Watercolor seems to be quite adept in rendering the delicate
qualities of owl chicks.
Other sculptors have taken to painting rounded "pebbles" of various sizes to depict owls such as those of Cindy Thomas (left). (I wonder how they ever learned to fly.) And finally, what would a discourse on owl art be without mention of the abstractionists' contributions? Just below we see the wildly colorful flat design owl images in contrast with the near-colorless, and somewhat cubistic interpretation of this nocturnal bird titled Owls with Black and White Abstract by Donald Wood?

Cindy Thomas 'heavyweight owls

Lower image: Owls with Black and White Abstract by Donald Woods
Just what we need, a sexy Barn Owl.


Monday, August 19, 2019

Van Gogh's Sunflowers

Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed, August--October 1887, Vincent van Gogh
Have you ever noticed that some artists often paint the same subject again and again sometimes in nearly identical versions? There are probably several different reasons for this but usually it's because they've found a subject that sells and therefore want to "milk" it for all it's worth. I must confess that I've been guilty of doing this. Years ago when I was still doing art fairs I found the small paintings of cats (especially kittens) were moving at a very gratifying pace. At times, it was hard to keep a half-dozen or so of them in stock. Likewise I once painted three identical rural farmhouse sunsets but in three different formats--square, horizontal, and vertical. All three sold almost before the paint was dry. Monet had his waterlilies; Degas, his ballerinas; Renoir, his bathers; and van Gogh his sunflowers. I don't know about the others but van Gogh's many sunflower paintings had nothing at all to do with their sales. Their story is a bit more complicated than that. So, what was behind van Gogh's near obsession with these towering giants?

Painter of Sunflowers (left) by Paul Gauguin, and
Portrait of Gauguin (right), December, 1888, by van Gogh.
Most artists in painting flowers like to depict them neatly arranged at their peak of perfection. But, as Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (top, painted between August and October of 1887) suggests, van Gogh's fascination with this subject seems to indicate a much deeper involvement. In late 1887, as a struggling artist living in Paris, Vincent hung dozens of paintings on the walls of the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet in Paris. Above the long tables where low-income Parisians went to eat from a simple, set menu, works by Van Gogh, as well as those of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and other avant-garde artists decorated the establishment. The makeshift hanging was short-lived and received little fanfare. According to Bernard, Van Gogh quarreled with the owner and eventually loaded all his paintings onto a hand cart and took off. However, the exhibition had made a mark on one painter, at least. When Paul Gauguin came to look at the works, his eyes were drawn to a few of Van Gogh’s oil studies, especially, his close-up still-lifes of sunflower heads, their wide seed-cores velvety-looking in texture and their crowns of wilted petals like dancing flames. He requested two of the paintings. Van Gogh traded them for a single work by his Symbolist colleague.
The Yellow House, 1888, Vincent van Gogh

The street corner in Arles today where
once stood Van Gogh's rented yellow house.
It was destroyed by
bombing during WW II.
From this little episode, we might gather that van Gogh was so starved for the attention and respect of his fellow artists that even the slightest indication of admiration was enough to set his hand to painting between seven and eleven different sunflower paint-ings (depend-ing upon the source). However, there was more to it than one artist's critical approval of his work. Albeit some of them were intended to impress Gau-guin, while others van Gogh painted to adorn his bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles (above). There the two artists spent two months together in the fall of 1888. Van Gogh hoped to start an artists colony in Arles along with his newfound friend.

Gauguin eventually accepted van Gogh's invitation after funding for transportation and expenses was pro-vided by Vincent's brother, Theo van Gogh. However Gauguin only stayed for two months as the two often quarreled, climaxing with the famous incident in which van Gogh severed his left ear with a razor after an argument with Gauguin. What followed was a particularly dark period for the famously unstable artist. Van Gogh spent time in an asylum. During his stay in the hospital, he longed for the countryside of his upbringing in the rural Netherlands. The sunflower, which Van Gogh once saw as merely decorative, became something almost sacred, a symbol that represented light itself, an ideal of an honest life lived in nature. Van Gogh's paintings, he wrote to his sister in 1890, were “almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflowers,” an image that brought him comfort and familiarity. We might imagine, that they had a certain vital glow and form that could raise his spirits in troubled times.
Fourteen Sunflowers (left),  and Fifteen Sunflowers (right), 1888, Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh painted seven versions of his glorious sunflowers in a vase. One, the seventh in the series, was destroyed by a nuclear bomb in Japan during the war. They make up the most famous (and valuable) series of pictures in the history of art. In a staggering burst of creative energy, culminating in an agonizing mental breakdown, Vincent van Gogh produced a series of paintings of cut sunflowers in a vase. The pictures are now scattered to museums all over the world. One has gone unseen in public since 1948, residing the private collection of an unknown millionaire, revealed only to his closest friends. Five others are in museums in Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Munich, and Tokyo (the latter bought for a world-record £25-million in 1987).

Sunflowers Gone to Seed, 1887, watercolor study by Vincent van Gogh

There are a few things that are really striking about the sunflower paintings, especially the ones van Gogh did in Arles. First, his use of color is extraordinary. We don’t see traditional shading, but unmodulated, bright pigment. The colors in Van Gogh’s paintings seem to sing. Second, the way he rendered the sunflowers, table, and vase are quite innovative for their time. The “table” is basically a flat field of paint. The same thing is true with the vase, which has its roundness suggested, but not defined. Everything sits on the surface of the picture plane, rather than having the illusion of space that we see in traditional Western painting. Van Gogh was fascinated by Japanese art, and the way in which Japanese printmakers had a different conception of space in their art. He took this inspiration and developed his own, unique approach. Third, Van Gogh didn’t make physically flat paintings. He used paint as texture in some fascinating ways--both in the background and in the sunflowers themselves. The petals and other forms are articulated in a way that mimics their actual forms and gives them an amazing sense of vitality.

Detailed closeup of a van Gogh sunflower.
At the age of 35, van Gogh was less than two years from death. His career as an artist was an unmitigated failure, his excitement at painting mingled with disappointment, sadness and self-destructive mania. Before turning to painting, he had been an art dealer and teacher in England (in Brixton, Ramsgate and Isleworth), a bookseller in Holland, and a missionary in Belgium. Those around him despaired of his prospects almost as much as he despaired of them himself. In a letter, van Gogh angrily reported that his family wanted him to become a carpenter, accountant, or baker. In any case, the prospects of his being a world-famous artist seemed remote. His romantic life fared no better. When he proposed to the daughter of his Brixton landlady, she refused because she was already engaged to a former lodger.

Sunflowers, First Version,
Vincent van Gogh.

The second version.

Van Gogh painted seven versions of his glor-ious sunflowers in a vase. One, the seventh in the series, was destroyed by an Allied bomb in Japan. They make up the most famous (and valuable) series of pictures in the history of art. In a staggering burst of creative energy, culminating in an agonizing mental breakdown, Vincent van Gogh produced a series of paintings of cut sunflowers in a vase. The pictures are now scattered to museums all over the world. One, unseen in public since 1948, is in the private collection of an unknown millionaire, revealed only to his closest friends. Five others are in museums in Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Munich, and Tokyo (the latter bought for a world-record £25-million in 1987).

Sunflowers,  third version,
Vincent van Gogh

The fourth version

However, van Gogh didn’t just have an exceptional talent. He was also an astonishingly fast painter. The first four sunflower pictures were done in a week. But for all their golden, glowing colors, no one would buy them. Despairing, but not yet defeated, Van Gogh continued working at a furious rate through the autumn of 1888. He painted a self-portrait, a picture of fellow artist Paul Gauguin, who was with him at Arles at the time, and several famous pictures of empty chairs. Relations with Gauguin were stormy at best. Van Gogh was terrified his friend might desert him, leaving him alone with his demons in Arles. Then came the blow that sent him off the rails for good. Paul Gauguin departed for Paris.

Two Cut Sunflowers, 1887, Vincent van Gogh, though painted in Paris as much as two years earlier, they seem they seem quite in tune with van Gogh's mind upon Gauguin's departure.
Through a fog of madness, Van Gogh produced some of the most extraordinary paintings the world has ever seen. What is more remarkable still, is that these masterpieces came about quite by chance. One hot, breathless August day in Arles, the models Van Gogh had engaged to sit for him failed to turn up and it was too stifling to consider taking his easel outside. But through this struggle to maintain his sanity, Van Gogh produced some of the most extraordinary paintings the world has ever seen. So, with some peasant pots and dying sunflowers, Van Gogh produced seven paintings of astonishing brilliance.

Final version.


Monday, August 12, 2019

The Color Red

Red Canna, 1924, Georgia O'Keeffe. The artist's magnified flower paintings have often been associated with female genitalia, bearing strong, yet discrete, sexual overtones.
A few months ago, I did a discourse on everyone's favorite color--blue. Judging from the number of "hits" it has had, it would seem to be one of my more popular posts. Therefore, today I'm going to delve into what seems to be everyone's second most favorite color--red. The color red is a warm and positive color associated with our most physical needs and our will to survive. It exudes a strong and powerful masculine energy. Red is energizing. Being the color of physical movement, the color red awakens our physical life force. It excites the emotions and motivates us to take action. It signifies a pioneering spirit and leadership qualities, promoting ambition and determination. It is also strong-willed and can give confidence to those who are shy or lacking in will power. It is the color of sexuality and can stimulate deeper and more intimate passions in us, such as love and sex on the positive side as with Georgia O'Keeffe's 1924 painting, Red Canna (above). Or it can denote revenge and anger on the negative side.
Red Studio, 1911, Henri Matisse
The Cardinal, 1510, Raphael
Although iron oxide pigments were one of the earliest colors known to the prehistoric artists, a case could be made that Raphael was the first artist in "modern" times to use red to any great degree as seen in his The Cardinal from 1510. Of course, when you're doing a portrait of a Catholic Cardinal, one doesn't have much choice in the matter. In more recent centuries, Henri Matisse gets his place in the timeline of painting because of his use of color. He did things with color no-one had before, and influenced many artists who followed. Matisse's Red Studio (above) from 1911, is important for its use of color and its flattened perspective, his altering of reality, and our perception of space. The painting is said to have been the result of Matisse's exposure to traditional Islamic art during a visit to Spain, which influenced his use of pattern, decoration, and depiction of space. About the same time (1907) in the midst of Picasso's so-called "Rose Period," he painted Seated Harlequin Seated before a Red Background, (below, left).

Harlequin Seated before a Red Background,
1907, Picasso 

Harlequins and traveling performers were common subjects during Picasso's Rose Period. He identified strongly with these characters and their stories. He continued painting them throughout his career. A few years later (1946), Jackson Pollock with his Red Composition (below, left) managed to upstage a deep red ground by using overlaid fireworks of yellow and smears of blue and black. In May, 2012, Mark Rothko's 1961 painting, Orange Red Yellow (below, right) set an auction record for the artist. Christie’s New York sold the work, which had been in a private collection since 1967, for a total of $86.9 million, more than double its low range estimate of $35 – $45 million. And finally, in our own century (2008), we find our old friend, Peter Max, apparently floating on a sea of red with his Runner on Red Ver. II #2 (below).

Red Composition, 1946,
Jackson Pollock
Orange Red Yellow,
1961, Mark-Rothko

Runner on Red Ver. II #2, 2008, Peter Max
Like the color blue, red is undoubtedly loved for its tremendous number of shades and tints. (A shade utilizes black while a tint uses white. My wife had to ask, so I'm guessing most people use the two terms interchangeably.) As the chart below illustrates, red is nothing if not versatile. However things get complicated when we start mixing popular names for reds and all their many manifestations with those color labels we find on tubes of paint. All (or most) of the latter are based on the various red pigments contained within. And like the blues, there are a surprising number of pigments commonly associated with red as used by artists down through the ages. Among those to be found below we have, Ercolano red, Venetian red, Minium (red lead), all the Cadmium reds, Napthol red, Red Ochre, Sartorius red, Indian red, and finally, Alizarin (this is not a comprehensive list).

If; you think the colors above seem to have all been originated by fashion designers,
you wouldn't be far off.
Ercolano Red is a natural earth containing clay tinted by iron oxide that gives an exceptionally warm red hue. Ercolano red is obtained from iron ore deposits near Ercolano, Italy.

Venetian Red was used in cave paintings as well as by the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks and Romans. It's a light and warm (somewhat unsaturated) pigment that is a darker shade of scarlet, derived from nearly pure ferric oxide of the hematite type. Modern versions are frequently made with synthetic red iron oxide

Minium, also known as red lead, is a bright orange red pigment that was widely used in the Middle Ages for the decoration of manuscripts and for painting. It was made by roasting white lead pigment in the air; the white lead would gradually turn yellow, then into an orange lead tetroxide. The color varied depending upon how long the mineral was roasted. Minium may have been manufactured in China as early as 300 B.C.

Cadmiums have the broadest range of hues derived from any of the inorganic pigment groups. These hues range from pale to golden deep yellows, light fiery to deep oranges through to light bright scarlets to deep reds and maroons.

Naphthol Red is an organic pigment extensively used in automotive coatings and painting. It's a modern, warm red that closely matches Cadmium Red Medium in masstone. It makes for more intense tints, that are more transparent. It's excellent for high key painting.

Red Ochre is particularly intensive. It is not unusual to find a layer of the cave floor impregnated with a purplish red to a depth of eight inches. The size of these ochre deposits raises a problem not yet solved. The coloring is so intense that practically all the loose ground seems to consist of ochre. One can imagine that the prehistoric cavemen regularly painting their bodies red, dyed their animal skins, coated their weapons, and sprinkled the ground of their dwellings. A paste of ochre was used for decorative purposes in every phase of their domestic life.

Sartorius Red Earth is an aqueous pigment dis-persion, a natural mineral containing clay tinted by iron oxide that gives an exceptionally warm orange-red hue. Sartorius red earth is from mineral deposits in the Tuscany region of Italy.

Indian red is a pigment composed of naturally occurring iron oxides widely used in India. Other shades of iron oxides include Venetian Red, English Red, and Kobe. Chestnut is a color similar to, but separate and distinct from Indian red.

Alizarin dihydroxyanthraquinone (also known as Mordant red and Turkey red for obvious reasons) is an organic compound with formula that has been used throughout history as a prominent red dye, principally for dyeing textile fabrics. Historically it was derived from the roots of plants of the madder genus.

For the layman, the is probably more than you ever wanted to know about the color red. For the artist, such technical material may be of help in choosing which of the many red pigments to use, and may, in fact, save no small sum in buying. them.
I think this is a photo, but in painting from it,
one might want to use all the red pigments
listed above.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Tire Art

Animals made from tires by 34-year-old Yong Ho Ji. His stylized horse is some nine feet tall at the head.
As an art instructor at all levels for some twenty-six years, I often found myself in need of supplies. Of course, the most fundamental answer to this need was discarded material, ranging from such old standbys as toilet paper tubes, newspapers, magazines, and corrugated cardboard to more sophisticated items such as pine cones, yarn cones, and potatoes. When you have the main element available free, or at a very low cost, the decorations and other factors that make such art a thing of beauty can come out of the art supply budget. For example potatoes (peeled or unpeeled, can easily be carved safely by even the youngest art students if given the right tools appropriate to their age. I used wooden ice cream sample "spoons" with first and second graders. When finished, they make good "feet" for their potato heads (the most likely outcome). Painting the item was optional. Perhaps not in the case of potatoes so much, but quite often such "art supplies" would otherwise end up in a landfill. Thus, such project are environmentally friendly. This consideration becomes doubly important when the adult artist has developed more sophisticated tastes and skills.
The Korean-born artist uses a steel frame then meticulously
hand cuts each detail from used tires.
Over 1 billion tires are manufactured annually, made of synthetic rubber, natural rubber, carbon black, polyester fabric, and steel wire. Tires stay in the environment an exceptionally long time. Green-thinking artists such as Yong Ho Ji (top and above) are doing something with them. And though his rubber figures are much larger and infinitely more intricate than a potato head, like his juvenile counterparts, he also favors animals. Today a typical tire consists of about 28 percent natural rubber, 28 percent synthetic rubber (made from oil), and 28 percent carbon black filler—a material produced by the incomplete combustion of heavy petroleum products. Anywhere from 15 to 38 liters of oil are used to make a standard tire. The remaining 16 percent of the tire is composed of different functional agents such as softeners (hydrocarbon oil, resins), antidegradants (para-phenylenediamine, paraffin), curatives (sulfur, sulfemamides) and activators (zinc oxide, stearic acid). If tires burn, it is an extremely toxic cocktail, both for the atmosphere and nearby groundwater. However, the future holds promise, as manufacturers are now testing more sustainable ingredients.

Monogram, 1955-59, Robert Rauschenberg.
The tire "belt" is not as obvious as that of his present-day followers.
Robert Rauschenberg
If we go back looking for the first artist to ever utilize tires as a major element in their work, we inevitably land on Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg (right) was primarily known as an avant-garde painter and collage artist, also using various "found" objects in his collages. However, his Monogram (above), dating from 1955-59 is both a collage and a sculpture. Apparently he "found" a tire somewhere. The world of recycling and creativity has made great progress since Rauschenberg. Things that are worthless and no longer useable around the house, in the hands of a sculptor can become, in a sense, "black gold." Most people don’t care about old used things and throw them out as rubbish. But in the modern world of creativity, DIY ideas can be found virtually everywhere.

There's no hiding the fact that Zak's designs center upon tires...a sort of "retire"ment.
Fashionable recycling is often the best way to use the old things like, tires, pallet wood, rubber and many others. Applied ideas can serve in dozens of modern ways to save your hard- earned money on expensive home items and such routine useable items as furniture. Old reusable items can form the basis for many attractive and practical additions to the home, lobby, kitchen, and as room decorations; or, as the Italian designer, Zak, simple items of furniture. You might not want them for the living room, but such furnishings would look not at all out of place in a "man cave," in the garage, or on the patio.

Tire Ball, by Seamster
Tires, being such a basic shape, allow for circles, cylinders, cones and virtually any other shape not involving corners or straight edges. Therefore, tires lend themselves quite readily to abstract forms. If you're in the mood to make a funky piece of recycled yard art, or you've just have a strong desire to abuse some power tools, try making a "tire ball" (above). Although it may look relatively simple, it's not. Detailed instructions (with pictures) are available at:  . If sawing up three tires at precisely the right angle seems too easy, you might try tire carving as in the work of Wim Delvoye (below). Sometimes he carves only on the sidewall, sometimes both there and on the tread. Sometimes he carves to a depth to let light pass through; sometimes he works in low relief. Obviously he must plan carefully in order to make the starting point and finishing point correspond. And if he makes a mistake, well, there's always the spare tire in the trunk of the car.

Tire carving by Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye.
Again we must come to grips with the problem: Where does one hang such art?
Tire carving probably best resides in the enclosed, secure confines of an art museum. But some items of tire art would definitely look out of place inside...even inside an art museum. Some such works are site specific, that is, they must be partially buried and/or anchored to the ground such as the nightmarish worm (or snake, take you pick) seen below. The cobra? I don't think I'd want that in any room in my home (I'm sure my wife wouldn't). And the roadkill--obviously not out in the middle of a highway, but perhaps beside a road, well anchored into the ground, of course, to prevent theft or some practical joker from moving it to a double yellow line.

Can you imagine the fun kids might have getting "eaten" by the creepy, crawly creature in the park? Of course, one might want to first check inside for real creepy crawling creatures.
Going back probably to discarded tires from the early Model T Fords, dads have turned old tires into swings, suspended from the limbs of trees, Today, that and several variation are still in use. However, grownups have also realized that turning old tires into delightful garden animals such as the bug-eyed frog below, or simply as landscape ornaments. Frogs, apparently, lend themselves quite easily ro tires once their rubber has hit the road for the last time. And since they are all but impossible to biodegrade, as an art material, they are very archival.

In using tires to create garden ornaments, the difficult part is
keeping the kids from playing with them.
Ficus Elastica Robusta
By Ann Carrington
Commissioned by Seeds of Change
Hampstead Heath, London.

There are probably easier
ways to frame pictures,
but none cheaper.