Category Archives: Watercolor and Gouache

W. Heath Robinson (update)

W. Heath Robinson, illustrations, cartoons, contraptions, watercolors
William Heath Robinson, who signed his pictures “W. Heath Robinson”, was an English illustrator, cartoonist, author and watercolorist known in particular for his wry cartoons and his series of drawings depicting unlikely and complicated contraptions for accomplishing mundane tasks.

Here in the U.S. we associate the latter with American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, but Robinson was the original, and Goldberg… well, lets just say he “borrowed” the idea from Robinson. Robinson’s elaborate nonsense machines were also the inspiration for Nick Park’s delightful Wallace and Gromit animated films.

W. Heath Robinson’s brothers, Charles Robinson and Thomas Heath Robinson were both well known illustrators, as was their father, Thomas Robinson.

W. Heath Robinson was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the “Golden Age” of illustration. He is not as well known here in the U.S. as contemporaries like J.C. Leyendecker, N.C Wyeth, Arthur Rackham, Franklin Booth, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Maxfield Parrish, and Robinson doesn’t really get the recognition he deserves, even among aficionados of classic illustration.

Also, Robinson’s cartoons, as delightful as they are, often overshadow his achievements as an illustrator in pen and ink and in watercolor, and he sometimes is thought of more as a cartoonist than an illustrator. I love his cartoons, but I think it’s unfortunate that many miss out on his superb book illustration.

For me, one project of his stands out as a high point in the annals of pen and ink illustration, up there with the best of the best, and that is his illustrations for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (images above, top, bottom and several of the more complex images in between).

The project also included several color illustrations (image with the reflecting pool above), but it is the ink drawings from the book that have always captured my fascination.

Exhibition at Delaware Art Museum

As much as I have long admired them in print, I was astonished to find how beautiful the original drawings are when I had a chance to see some of them — along with a wonderful selection of Robinson’s other work — at a new exhibit that opened recently at the Delaware Art Museum.

The exhibit is a retrospective drawn from the collection of the William Heath Robinson Trust (UK), and it covers the breadth of his styles and length of his career. It is beautifully arranged and presented, and the selections of his work are superb.

Wonder and Whimsey: The Illustrations of W. Heath Robinson is on view until May 21, 2017.

I intend to go back as I have the chance.

Books

There is not a catalog accompanying the exhibition, but there is a nice book from Dover titled Golden Age Illustrations of W. Heath Robinson that makes an acceptable substitute, and gives a nice overview of Robinson’s work. It was authored by Jeff A. Menges, who wrote the terrific book on 101 Great Illustrators from the Golden Age that I recently reviewed. Dover also publishes an edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Robinson’s illustrations.

There is a new book of Robinson’s clever contraption illustrations, Very Heath Robinson, coming from Sheldrake Press in the UK; I don’t yet know if it will be available in the U.S.

A general Amazon search will bring up many more titles either by or with illustrations by W. Heath Robinson.

Online images & articles

As far as online resources, the selections are not as wide as I would hope. The Delaware Art Museum offers a modest gallery of a few of the images from the exhibit. The websites of William Heath Robinson Trust, Heath Robinson Museum offer image galleries, but the images are frustratingly small, and in the case of the Trust, defaced with watermarking.

The best and most extensive source I’ve found for Robinson’s images is Poul Webb’s Art & Artists, which features 20 extensive articles filled with Robinson’s cartoons and illustrations.

You can start with the first article and look for links to the others in the sidebar under November and December, 2015; or you can do a general search for W. Heath Robinson. If doing the latter, keep clicking through the “Next Posts” links at the bottom of the pages; there are 20 articles, but not presented in order when viewing that way.

I’ve linked to some additional articles, image sources and biographical information below.

 
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James Gurney’s Living Sketchbook app

James Gurney's Living Sketchbook app
One of the most fascinating ways to see into the mind of an artist is to have the opportunity to look through their sketchbooks. This is not often possible; sketchbooks are frequently personal, full of unfinished thoughts and experiments and seldom volunteered for display by the artists themselves.

When the opportunity does arise, it’s a treat, as well as being instructive for fellow artists in a manner similar to watching an accomplished artist work.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting author, illustrator and plein air painter James Gurney on a few occasions, and I’ve had an opportunity to briefly look through a couple of his sketchbooks.

Gurney’s sketchbooks are filled with location sketches from his extensive travels, as well as his day-to-day activities in his home town. He is an inveterate sketcher in watercolor and gouache, and he records what he sees, whether a classically beautiful scene in the mountains, of the view out the window of the waiting room for a tire service center, painted while waiting to have tires changed. He is so accomplished that even his most impromptu location sketches are lively and beautifully rendered.

I found myself wishing that I could spend more time looking through his sketchbooks at leisure, and thought that they would make good subjects for publication of some kind, perhaps offered as PDFs if not printed books.

I was recently pleased to find out that Gurney has apparently been thinking along the same lines, only much in advance of what I was thinking, when I received a review copy of a new app for iOS and Android that Gurney has developed in cooperation with his son, Dan Gurney.

The Living Sketchbook is an app that provides a virtual sketchbook experience. Not only does it allow the viewer to go through the pages of a sketchbook, but also includes audio, and sometimes video, commentary by the artist about the pieces, as well as giving access to additional information about the painting, subject and materials. It’s the next best thing to going through a sketchbook while standing there with the artist as he comments on it for you.

I’ve done some iOS app development myself, as well as creating numerous web interfaces in my role as a website designer, and I will give the app a big thumbs up for the accommodating the most important factor in an interface like this — presenting the material in an easy to use manner and then getting out of the way while you enjoy. It’s hard to overstate how many apps, websites, games, gadgets and desktop applications get that wrong.

At the moment, The Living Sketchbook ships with one sketchbook included, this one is called “Boyhood Home”. Gurney names his sketchbooks, and enjoys creating fun hand painted typography for their covers.

The app allows you to simply thumb through the images as if through a physical sketchbook, and at will pinch to zoom into the image. Unlike some poorly designed interfaces for viewing images (I’m looking at you, Instagram), Gurney’s app allows the zoomed image to stay at full size when you let go, and programming by Dan has even provided some subtle touches of physics in the reaction of the scroll as you nudge the image around in the window.

You can also access a row of thumbnails at any point as well as bring up an overlay of information about the painting.

The Living Sketchbook is $4.99 and is available for iOS and Android. You can find links to the app for both platforms in this article on Gurney’s blog.

There is a trailer and teaser for the app on YouTube, that give a better idea of how the app functions, and Erwin (Cherngzhi) Lian, who knows a few things about sketchbooks, has a more extensive review on his blog.

It may be restricted to relatively current versions of the operating systems, so if the respective app stores don’t allow you to purchase it, that may be the factor. I couldn’t view the app on my older iPad 3 (Retina), because it’s too old to run the required version of the OS, but I could view it fine on my newer iPhone 6.

So bear in mind the the screen captures used for my exmaple images above are from an iPhone, and the app will view quite differently and more effectively on a tablet.

I was actually surprised, though, at how effective it is to view zoomable images of the paintings on the relatively small iPhone screen. I can easily see popping an app like this open for inspiration while taking a break when out location painting.

I’m already looking forward to the release of the next sketchbook.

[Addendum: For those interested in the process, Dan Gurney has posted on his blog an article on Building the Living Sketchbook App.]

 
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Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant

Jean-Honore Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant
18th century French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard was known for his luxuriously colored and lavishly rendered depictions of frivolity and sensuality, much in keeping with the High-Baroque fascination with those kinds of scenes.

As beautifully painted as they may be, the subject matter of Fragonard’s paintings can leave you with the undeserved impression that his abilities as a painter are likewise somewhat frivolous, and he doesn’t often get his due as a painter.

My introduction to Fragonard was through his drawings, which I encountered early on at shows in New York at the Met and the Morgan Library, both of which have superb examples in their permanent collections.

Fragonard’s drawings, with their remarkable combination of suggested detail and economy of notation, as well as his fluidity in rendering figures — much of which was passed on from his teacher, François Boucher — reveal his exceptional skill more directly than his paintings.

Not only are his drawing abilities impressive, his methods of notation are often unusual, particularly the wonderful way he suggests foliage with those crazy zig-zag lines, as in the image detail above, second down.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted a new exhibition of Fragonard’s drawings, with over 100 works on paper. As with most works on paper, they are rarely on view because of the fragility and light sensitivity of paper.

Many of those in this show are from private collections and have not been on view previously to the public. Much of the remainder are from the Met’s own collection, and apparently from that of the nearby Morgan Library and Museum.

There is a preview of works on the Met’s web pages for the exhibition, those in their own collections have links to high-res, downloadable images elsewhere on their site (or you can search their collection online for “Fragonard drawings“).

Those from private collections are, unsurprisingly, not presented as large images, however, you can look for those from the Morgan Library’s collection on their site, on which you will also find high-res zoomable and downloadable images.

Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant” is on view at the Met until January 8, 2017.

There is a book accompanying the exhibition, also titled Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant, that is available from the Met’s online store, or through Amazon and other book sources.

I haven’t gotten up to see this show yet, but I have seen a number of these drawings in other shows over the years, and they are just beautiful.

In particular, I love the stunning little gouache painting shown above, bottom: Interior of a Park, The Gardens of the Villa d’Este, which is from the collection of the Morgan Library (high-res version here). Wow.

 
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Painting with casein paint

Painting with casein, Samuel Coleman, John Molnar, unknown ancient Egyptian artist, Harry Anderson, Gustav Klimt, Jane Fisher, Len Guggenberger, John Berkey, Walker Moore, David S. Costanzo, Anthony Martino, James Gurney, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alan Bray, George Mclean, Colin Campbell Cooper
Casein (pronounced “kay’ seen”) is a water based paint in which the binder is the milk protein of the same name.

Casein is one of the least familiar of the water based painting mediums available to contemporary painters, even though it’s one of the oldest painting mediums known. Casein’s use can be reliably traced back over 9,000 years, with evidence of the formulation in cave paintings, and examples have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs from several thousand years ago.

There is new evidence that casein as a binder for paints may have been present in the oldest known examples of human use of painting materials, recently analyzed traces preserved in caves in South Africa from 49,000 years ago. (For reference, the oldest known examples of human writing — i.e. language, not just numbers — are only about 5,000 years old.)

Casein has a varied history, frequently used as an underpainting for oils and achieving its greatest modern popularity as a stand-alone medium in the mid 20th century, when it was popular with illustrators for its quick drying time, workability and easy-to-photograph matte surface. Like it’s gum arabic based cousin, gouache, the use of casein by illustrators was largely eclipsed by acrylic, which quickly dries impervious to water and subsequent applications of paint layers.

Casein has been in use as a decorative paint for furniture and other items, where is is generally referred to as “milk-based paint”; I’m not sure if the formulation is different from the artists’ paint. Casein has also been used as a ground for oil paints and for silverpoint drawing; the binder itself is a glue, used in undiluted form to glue furniture.

Casein has an interesting place in the spectrum of artists’ paints. It most closely resembles gouache as an opaque water based medium that dries to a beautiful matte finish. Like gouache, it changes value somewhat — generally lightening — as it dries. This can take a little getting used to and it can take multiple layers to produce satisfactory darks, but I find that more than offset by casein’s other qualities.

Casein is more full-bodied than gouache, and can be used a bit more thickly (though not in heavy impastos like oil). This makes it a little more like oil in terms of scumbling and creating interesting surface textures, and it can be particularly appealing to oil painters who want the speed and convenience of an alternative water based medium.

Casein also has a particularly nice characteristic of flowing off the brush, and can be applied to a smoother and more even flat color surface than gouache.

Some have said they’re not fond of the scent of casein paint, but others, including myself, find it quite pleasant. Your mileage may vary.

Unlike gouache and watercolor, which can always be reactivated with water (either an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the artist’s needs), casein eventually dries to a surface more resistant to water.

Varnish can be applied to paintings that have dried for two weeks or so, either matte or glossy, the latter application bringing out the darks and giving the painting a look closer to oils. Care must be taken, though, not to disturb the surface when applying the varnish; you’ll find more detailed information on some of the sites I’ll list below.

Like gouache, casein is being “rediscovered” by contemporary artists, and appreciated for its unique characteristics. It is particularly suited, I think, for plein air painting.

“True” casein must be made up frequently by the artist, as it goes off in a day, or 4 or 5 if refrigerated.

Modern adoption has been greatly boosted by the availability of casein emulsion, a formulation of casein and drying oil that does not readily spoil and is available in tubes.

To make “true” casein, vinegar is used to separate out the liquid whey, leaving the curdled milk protein — essentially cottage cheese. This is dried and ground to a powder for future use or used immediately, and usually mixed with water and ammonium carbonate or clear liquid ammonia (though there are other formulations using lime or borax). The result is a milky fluid into which powdered pigments are mixed to make paint.

Already extracted and dried casein powder can be purchased from suppliers like Sinopia, Kama Pigments or Earth Pigments (recipe here).

The tube casein seems to have most of the wonderful working qualities and beautiful surface appearance of the fresh made version, and is certainly an easier approach to the medium.

Casein emulsion tube paint

Jack Richeson & Co. is the most prominent provider of commercial casein paints, having bought the “Shiva” line and name from the previous manufacturer. Their casein emulsion paints are available through most online art supply houses, though I understand that they may be difficult to find outside the U.S.

Plaka, by Pelican, is another brand of casein based paint, that I know is at least available in the UK, though it may be aimed somewhat more at decorative artists than painters.

Casein is generally less expensive that gouache, perhaps because the binder and formulation of pigment is less costly, I don’t know. It comes in large tubes of 37ml, similar to oil, as opposed to the small tubes favored for watercolor and gouache.

Casein, even more than gouache, is brittle when it dries, and if used thickly, should be used on a heavy watercolor paper, or ideally on illustration board or panel. Ampersand, which makes familiar painting panels for plein air artists, makes a line of Claybord, that they promote as being ideal for casein and gouache, largely because the clay infused primer is absorbent, rather than non-absorbent as is favored in surfaces for oil painting. I haven’t tried it yet, I’ve been working successfully so far on 140lb watercolor blocks and hot press Bainbridge Board (I use hot press because I prefer a smooth surface).

To a point, casein washes up like watercolor or gouache, but because it hardens to a water resistant form over time, more care must be taken to wash out brushes after painting, or keep them suspended overnight in a brush washer. Casein is also a little rougher on brushes than watercolor or gouache, and it might be considered preferable to use synthetics. Because of the thickness of the paint compared with watercolor, casein painters often use brushes labeled for acrylic, somewhere in between stiffer oil brushes and softer watercolor brushes.

It can also be a little more difficult to get brushes clean, I use a little Murphy’s Oil Soap, I’ve also heard Greek olive oil soap recommended.

Casein is well suited to be used with gouache, the former giving body and texture, and the latter being even better for fine detail and sharp lines (though casein does well on its own in that respect).

Casein is often used with other paints, notably acrylic, in which acrylic plays the role of thin, transparent application and casein provides the ability to easily create thick, opaque passages — similar to the way watercolor and gouache are often used together.

There is a National Society for Painters in Casein and Acrylic, which sounds promising, but the navigation in their online galleries of competition winners is so terrible as to be almost unusable. You have to click to enlarge an image in a pop-up just to see the artist’s name, and even then there is no indication of the medium. You have to either look up each artist in Google and go to their own sites to look for the medium, or look for the winners of the “Richeson/Shiva Award For Casein Painting” as you wearily pop-up and close, pop-up and close, pop-up and close, in an attempt to find the few casein painters among the predominant majority of acrylic artists. Unfortunate; it might otherwise be a good resource.

Also unfortunate, and similar to gouache, is the dearth of information on casein use and painting techniques compared to other painting mediums. The Richeson site provides some information, and you can find casein mentioned in art materials compendiums, like Mark David Gottsegen’s The Painter’s Handbook, as well as in older books on illustration materials, like Rob Howard’s The Illustrator’s Bible.

A number of artists who work in casein feature short informational pages about the medium on their websites, and I’ll list some in my links, below. By far the best source I know of is James Gurney’s blog, Gurney Journey.

Gurney has for several years been working with casein, as well as gouache and other mediums, and has been sharing his experience and findings in the form of articles and short videos.

He has just released a new full-length instructional video, Casein Painting in the Wild, which I cover in a separate post.

One of the segments of his video demonstrates painting in a very limited palette of four colors, and artists who are curious about casein may want to try a similar approach to simply try out the medium.

Personally, I find casein to be a genuine pleasure to work with. I like the way it flows and handles, the textural possibilities and the appealing color and matte surface in finished paintings.

Artists who try it may be surprised at how nice it can be to work with.

Cave walls optional.

[Addendum: David Clemons, who has painted in casein for many years, has been kind enough to add some additional information. Please see this post’s comments.]

(Images above, links to my posts: Samuel Coleman, John Molnar, unknown ancient Egyptian artist, Harry Anderson, Gustav Klimt, Jane Fisher, Len Guggenberger, John Berkey, Larry Seiler, Walker Moore, David S. Costanzo, Anthony Martino, James Gurney, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alan Bray, George Mclean, Colin Campbell Cooper)

 
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Casein Painting in the Wild, James Gurney

James Gurney's Casein Painting in the Wild

Casein is a water based paint that uses milk protein as its binder. It shares many characteristics with gouache; both are water-based, opaque and dry to an appealing matte finish. Both dry quickly and can be used in concert with other water based mediums. Both are neglected step-children of watercolor and are somewhat on the fringes of awareness among painters — undeservedly so.

Partly, this may be because they don’t get much attention in popular media, and they suffer from a shortage of instructional material.

This is where contemporary painter, illustrator, writer and instructional materials creator James Gurney comes in. Gurney has long been an advocate of the use of casein and gouache, and his blog, Gurney Journey is one of the best sources of information of both mediums.

Gurney has just released the the latest addition to his excellent series of instructional videos on painting “in the wild” with water based mediums, Casein Painting in the Wild.

In it, he takes you through 7 location paintings, discussing the process in his laid-back, conversational manner, with lots of helpful close ups of paint application and brush handling, as well as occasional split screens of the subject and painting. He also discusses materials and gives and overview of the medium in general.

Though it’s focused on painting in casein on location, the techniques are applicable to gouache, which is readily used in conjunction with casein, and many of the basic principles he covers are relevant to other painting mediums.

Given the frequent $70 – $100 or more price range of other artist instruction videos, Gurney, by acting as his own camera operator and post production studio, can offer quality videos like this for a bargain price of $15 (for the downloadable version).

I purchased my copy as a downloadable file from GumRoad, though the video is also available as a disc from other sources (see this article for information).

As always, the video is generously supplemented by additional material on the blog, such as a specific post about readers’ casein questions. There is a trailer and excerpt videos on YouTube as well as in several articles on Gurney Journey.

Like Gurney’s other instructional videos on water-based mediums, Casein Painting in the Wild leaves you enthused to load up your brushes and have at it, indulging in the unique qualities and pleasures of this unfairly overlooked method of painting.

 
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Eye Candy for Today: Dürer’s Large Piece of Turf

The Large Piece of Turf, Albrecht Durer, watercolor and gouache
The Large Piece of Turf, Albrecht Dürer

Watercolor and gouache on paper mounted to board, roughly 16 x 12 inches (41 x 31 cm). Link is to zoomable version on Google Art Project; downloadable file on Wikimedia Commons; original is in the Albertina, Vienna.

For its small size and unassuming subject, this painting ranks among the most well known works in the history of art. In it, Dürer did not set out to create a work of art, but simply to study from an artist’s greatest teacher, nature.

And study he did. The painting is a marvel of clear, direct observation and painstakingly precise but naturalistic rendering.

In a clump of grass, weeds and leafy plants that few would consider worth a second glance, let alone hours of intense study, Dürer reveals a world of intricate plant forms, their shapes, colors and patterns of growth worthy of a dozen separate botanical illustrations.

The painting has been studied, copied, analyzed and even modeled in 3-D. Its plants have been identified and listed. Much has been made of the artist’s keen powers of observation. There is a Wikipedia page that may serve as a jumping off point for more about the painting.

This is the most famous of Dürer’s naturalistic and strikingly detailed studies of small bits of nature (unless you count his wondrous Hare, painted a year before and also in the Albertina).

In particular, I love the way he has painted the delicate tufts of the grasses, with the same attention one might give to the form of a great tree.

Though not directly related to the painting, I’m reminded of a quote from writer Henry Miller: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself”

 
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