Oil Sketch of a Child on Claessens Rough Canvas

Here is an underdrawing on Claessens universal primed rough canvas, with five coats of gesso.  I spend a lot of time preparing the surfaces, tweaking the color and sanding-back.  This one is painted with Winsor & Newton gouache in ochre and brown.  One has to be careful with the underpainting:  it needs to be dark enough to cause the white highlights to "pop," but not so dark that the final painting is murky.  It must be warm enough to provide a glow in the shadows of the final painting, but not so yellow that the skin appears jaundiced.  Underpainting can make, or ruin, a painting.

And below is the finished oil sketch.

Among the Illustrators: Princeton Children's Book Festival

Another big crowd at the 2016 festival.  Here the stars are gathered, away from their drafting tables, the talented few who have achieved what many only dream of, a career in illustration and success in the publishing of picture books.  

Many say to me, each year, "I can't believe I am doing this--it is a childhood dream come true."  What they have accomplished on paper and canvas, against all odds in a world where print is dying and media is synonymous with "screen," is extraordinary.

The very talented Lauren Castillo of Los Angeles, left below, won a 2015 Caldecott Honor for Nana in the City.  She studied illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.  She has written and illustrated more than 14 books for children. 

The author of the famous “Skippyjon Jones” draws a crowd, below.  Judy Schachner of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, is the #1 New York Times Best Selling Author/Illustrator of more than 23 books for children.  Growing up in New England, she remembers doodling on everything, including her father’s bald head.

Prolific Philadelphia illustrator Brian Biggs, below, attended Parsons School of Design in New York starting a year after I took courses there.  Brian has written and drawn everything you can think of:  comics and graphic novels, children's books, magazines, animation, advertising, posters, toys, and puzzles. 

Julia Denos of Quincy, Massachusetts, says watercolor is her favorite medium "because it's the wildest."  I admire the freedom and boldness of her work, so akin to 20th century modernism in attention to the full potential of the medium--she can make it do everything it is capable of.  I told her that I think she has come into her own with her newest books like "Swatch," which seem to capture something of her own personality and worldview.  She agreed.

Illustration: Child with a Teddy Bear

The initial stage was pencil overdrawn with Winsor and Newton waterproof ink and a brush; this was then washed off the surface to a considerable degree.  Then the paper was tinted with W&N peat brown ink before highlights were added in white gouache.  Volumetrics are emphasized in the body and clothing but are suppressed to flatness in the background, which was meant to resemble a woodcut.

An Old Textile Mill Sketched in Watercolor

The historic Bancroft textile mill was featured in my book, "The Brandywine:  An Intimate Portrait" but now is collapsing.  New townhomes have been added, at left.  This quick watercolor sketch suggests its appearance in afternoon light, under the enormous yellow-brick smokestack.  Artists ought to record endangered buildings like this one.  William Bancroft, owner of the mill, established America's best collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Illustrating "The Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait"

It took eleven years to write this book (available at Amazon.com), and I am pleased that readers have praised its appearance and the quality of its many illustrations.  The cover has gotten considerable attention and helps drive sales, which have been very strong.  This scenic area is famous for cultural tourism, and the book provides visitors with an in-depth account of Brandywine history, nature, literature, and art.

It is obvious that books, overall, are in eclipse.  According to the Guardian, adult nonfiction sales from 2009 to 2014 fell 21%.  I pay attention to what people discuss, and they no longer discuss books; it is always their techno-gadgets.  Knowing that this may be the last book I will ever write in this category of adult nonfiction (my seventh), I pushed to have this be as beautiful a physical object as possible.  After all, an e-reader is a chunk of plastic.

"The Brandywine" has cover art that wraps across most of the dust jacket, spanning more than a foot.  Inside, the pages are thick, warm-white paper with a deckled edge, very classic.  This is the first lengthy history of the Brandywine since 1940 and is meant to be passed down.

I had intended to have an Andrew Wyeth painting on the cover.  His estate denied permission.  I have seen Titian paintings on book covers, but Titian's estate is really, really lenient.  

I was able to use some Wyeth art inside, in particular his very early drawings and paintings that show how he belongs to a nineteenth-century cultural tradition on the Brandywine, learned from his father, the painter N. C. Wyeth.  I have tried very hard to put these artists in a larger context.  Here is a 1940 Andy Wyeth (or Andrew, as his estate had me change all references):

This was my first book to have a gallery of color plates at the center, rather than color being interspersed throughout.  To make the point that the Brandywine has long been a haven for artists, I had all the plates be paintings of the river.  Seen below is Cope's Bridge, which I have painted myself many times, though the view seen here is now deeply wooded.

Here is an historic photograph of Cope's Bridge from the same location that the artist George Cope painted it in 1897:

The one exception to my rule that only paintings would be used:  the photograph I took of writer John McPhee visiting his great-grandfather's homestead on the Brandywine.  It cried out to be included, and I was pleased that he did not complain about it when he opened the published book--I knew better than to ask his permission first!

I created an appendix listing every bridge on the lower few miles of the Brandywine, in part to draw attention to their artistry.  I gave an enthusiastic "picturesque" to the better ones and I hope skewered the worst ones:  "characterless modern replacement of an 1857 covered bridge."  The point of this book is to encourage readers to go see the places I mention.

 I exhausted myself making maps for "Walden Pond:  A History," which reviewers then ignored.  I broke my "never again" resolution by deciding at the last minute to include one map in "The Brandywine."  It is almost schematic, to give readers the lay of the land:

Illustrating "Buildings of Delaware"

I spent much of 2002 through 2004 writing the encyclopedic "Buildings of Delaware" for the landmark Buildings of the United States Series (available at Amazon.com).  I drove to every corner of the state, no matter how obscure, to study cultural heritage and its relationship to the built environment.  I looked at everything, from an ancient Dutch dyke of 1660 to a cutting-edge cable-stay bridge recently completed, from colonial smokehouses in the countryside of Kent County to a rare, intact, International Style 1940s elementary school in the city of Wilmington (later demolished).

When finished, the book had 449 building entries and mentioned more than 1,000 structures.  I was pleased that journalist Harry Themal called it "the best guide to those who want to tour Delaware since the 1938 'Federal Writers' Guide.'"  It has proven very popular.

As the page below suggests, it was a giant challenge to illustrate this lengthy book of 350 pages.  Not only were there numerous photographs, there were maps, fully 47 of them.  Making these precisely accurate was an exhausting project in itself.  Later volumes in this series gave up on the difficult mandate I followed, "every building appears on a map."

I was especially pleased with my historical maps, such as the one below, showing colonial roadways and towns.  This was based on exhaustive study of every early Delaware map I could find, compiling them into one reliable picture of colonial conditions.  A later map showed how the coming of the railroads changed the transportation patterns entirely and even killed some old towns.

I mention in the book the tremendous difficulties involved, there being so much less published information about Delaware architecture than I had imagined.  I might have added that photography of Delaware buildings was surprisingly spotty, making it a challenge to illustrate the book.  Photos in the collection of the state proved grainy and unaesthetic; pictures of twentieth-century buildings were very scant.  So I ended up taking scores of the 258 photographs myself, as seen below, to supplement the seven other collections I used.  This being 2002-04, nothing came from the Internet.

I enjoyed doing the photography and had many adventures.  Shooting the I. M. Pei Building, below, I happened to meet the building agent and had that memorable conversation about this important Brutalist landmark:  "Oh it is awful.  All concrete, all concrete, all concrete everywhere."  By accident I ended up leading a modest local protest against the painting of that concrete and the replacement of Pei's windows.  We appeared on a television panel but ultimately had limited success. 

"Buildings of Delaware" has become a standard source for researchers, I am glad to say.  It also records a bygone moment in the history of the state, a boom time before the Great Recession.  Seven of its buildings had been demolished before the book was published and many more have followed, so that in some cases "Buildings of Delaware" marks a final view of a vanished world.

Underdrawings for Oil Portraits

Underdrawings in Winsor & Newton waterproof ink, pencil, and Conte crayon form the basic structure for the oil portraits to come.  The drawing may seem successful thus far, but the painting may not be; an artist can never tell, and undertaking a work of art feels like a high-wire act from start to finish.  These underdrawings were done on watercolor paper, often coated with Liquitex Clear Gesso after the drawing was finished.  First applications of oil paint have begun.

Designing a Civil War Memorial

I designed the Delaware Memorial at Gettysburg, dedicated in 2000 as one of the last monuments authorized to stand on the battlefield before a moratorium was imposed.  

I learned a life lesson when the architectural firm that took my design and rendered it in a form useful to the stonemason was given credit in some media sources for having designed the monument!  Above is my first drawing of March 1998.  Later I mocked up the entire monument in paper full-size in my tiny house, using authentic Column of Trajan letters.

I am seventh from the left in this photograph taken on dedication day.  The late sculptor Ron Tunison (far right) created the bronze bas-relief.  Below, Tunison poses with the memorial.

More Art from College Days

My very first week at college I sought out the print studio in the art building.  One Christmas I printed my own cards, of which I was very proud at the time.  I envisioned a whole series of bird profiles, in linocut and hand-tinted with watercolor.

I liked to draw anywhere and everywhere, for example on an October night at Quadrangle Club, where the conversations always seemed to turn to engineering and computers, which bored me.  A fellow club member was Jeff Bezos, who nine years later founded Amazon.com.

The hot summer I spent at Rhode Island School of Design seemed to produce more emotional upheaval than actual artwork, but a few Berol Prismacolor drawings of architecture survive, which I did while procrastinating from coursework.  My teacher that summer was the illustrator Richard Merkin, at RISD since 1963, whom we vastly admired for having been on the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" album.

I took courses on fashion illustration at Parsons School of Design in New York, taking the train in on Saturday mornings.  Here the emphasis was on high-speed sketching with markers.  We covered scores and scores of sheets, and whenever I hear an old Anita Baker song I am back in that classroom.  The community of artists and models was fascinating, although AIDS had everyone there frightened as it spread rapidly around 1986.  The mood of that period came back to me in reading about the life of Illustrator and future AIDS activist Alison Gertz, who was studying at Parsons at the time.

My own university seemed to neglect its artists, or so I thought at age 20, and so Sean Sawyer and I organized what we pointedly called an "independent showing" of student art--thinking, I suppose, of the Salon des Independents.  Some of us signed the poster as a manifesto.  We were intensely proud of our show and pleased that Brooke Shields showed up at opening night.  The university paid us no attention but 25 years later announced a change of emphasis and began building a colossal Arts Campus.  Sawyer is today President of the Olana Partnership that operates a great house museum dedicated to American artist Frederic Church. 

Illustrating Hawaii, 1989

A highlight of the Hawaii trip was spending several days with a biologist friend who lived in a tent at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge on the Big Island.  We netted and banded many rare birds, including the bright-red Iiwi, and I did my best to illustrate the flapping bird as I held it in my fingers.  In subsequent years the Iiwi has suffered the steepest population decline of any of the Hawaiian honeycreepers.  

For speed and expeditiousness, the drawings were done in Berol Prismacolor pencils in my battered Nature Journal, the cover of which I have shown at the bottom.


Historic Bridge

This little, 5 x 7 oil on panel was painted en plein air at historic Cope's Bridge, which is described in my book, "The Brandywine:  An Intimate Portrait."  Owing to time constraints, it was left unfinished, but I like how it recalls an August afternoon along the creek during which I only saw one other person, a lone canoeist.  

b painting of bridge copes.jpg

Art and Illustration in College

I spent a summer at Rhode Island School of Design studying painting and was accepted to their undergraduate program but enrolled instead at Princeton in fall 1984, as the letter below recalls.  

Freshman fall I hand-colored Audubon prints:

There was only a small community of studio artists at the university then, and we spent much time in the art building, which had not yet been refurbished.  This was 30 years before the university's much-heralded push for "more green-haired students," artists included, and the construction of a huge Arts Campus.

My own juvenile artwork varied between representationalism, which the painting faculty (Greenbergian modernists all) regarded as mere "illustration," and attempts at emulating the Surrealism I was studying in art history courses.   


I filled many notebooks with drawings of nature, compiled on long walks through the fields and forests that one could reach from campus.  Close studies of old trees owed something to Andrew Wyeth, whom at 18 I dared call my favorite painter--how my professor laughed at that, explaining that he was an illustrator.  Later I wrote about Wyeth in my book, "The Brandywine:  An Intimate Portrait."

I did a kind of scientific study of the forest south of campus, comparing its extent to nineteenth-century records and worrying that it was vanishing.  Years later the university administration awoke to ecology, and I was pleased that this study proved valuable in a 2015 historical analysis by professors there--a baseline for comparing today's conditions to those of 30 years ago.

Illustrating "Walden Pond"

I was very pleased by the strong reception accorded to "Walden Pond:  A History"--Finalist, Herbert Feis Award, American Historical Association; Certificate of Commendation, American Association for State and Local History; "A book of lasting value," Boston Authors Club Julia Ward Howe Special Award recipient; The Masters of Science Writing--Best Sci-Tech Books, Library Journal.

Illustrating the book (available at Amazon.com) brought its own set of challenges.  I was fortunate to find a hand-colored, historic glass slide for the cover:

Nearly all the black-and-white photographs inside the book were culled from hundreds of hours of archival research, and many of them had never been reproduced before.  But some I took myself.  After the death of my friend Brad Dean I got requests for the photograph I included of him studying a rock during one of our outings in Walden Woods, a boulder that Thoreau showed in one of his surveys:

The great environmentalist Ed Schofield was incredibly helpful to me as I wrote my book.  He paid a nice compliment when he looked at the photograph of himself and said, "I see what you are trying to do with your illustrations--to maximize the value of each picture, given the strictly limited number of them.  You've introduced both me and the Thoreau Lyceum building in one picture."  

"Walden Pond" captured a moment in time:  Ed and several other of the main characters have subsequently passed away.

I took the photograph of Don Henley mobbed by the media in the middle of a forest, where his backdrop had been prepared by sawing down some birch trees.  

The series of maps in "Walden Pond:  A History" were extremely time-consuming and difficult to pull off.  There could have been zero maps, but I insisted on six, because the whole thesis of the book was, "This is a real place, not a literary construct as some English professors imagine, so we ought to see exactly where Thoreau walked."

The map below shows who owned all the land around Walden Pond when Thoreau lived there.  It was far from being an unexplored wilderness, I hope this irrefutably demonstrates.

At the very center of the book appear two maps contrasting Concord Then and Now.  One environmentalist objected strongly to my showing this, as if I were seeking to portray Concord as spoiled by development.  And yet I did see much ruination, including the destruction of Thoreau's Deep Cut of the Railroad, without anyone noticing it, during the time I was writing the book.

I drew the maps by hand, down to the smallest detail, and hovered over the shoulder of a patient graphic designer who created the published versions.  Graphic designers are in the habit of moving things around a lot, and changing their sizes, and I found myself constantly crying, "But you can't do that--this is a map!" 

I was pleased to include a few of Thoreau's own drawings of Walden Woods:

I did a series of 5 x 7 studies en plein air around Concord, recording the appearance of the places I had gotten to know so well.  The one below is from a collection in the Southeast and shows the Old Manse.

Illustration: Strong Lighting on the Face

A contrast is generated between the head, modeled naturalistically, and the abstract background with its raw color slashingly applied, in a kind of early Modernism way.  A strong bulb was aimed directly at the face as an experiment in very intense lighting.  The range of capabilities of Winsor & Newton Designer's Gouache is suggested by the watercolor-like thinness of the background and the heavy impasto of the face.

Measured Drawings of Architecture

In the 1990s I wanted to write a book about the artistry of colonial American brickwork.  We visited almost every colonial church between Philadelphia and the Virginia Tidewater, plus many in New England.  At every one I drew details in a gridded notebook.  The book was never written--I doubted enough people shared my enthusiasm for this topic--and these drawings have not seen the light of day until now.  

I fell in love with each of these buildings and was astounded at the quality of their aesthetics, as I later alluded to in my book "Buildings of Delaware" and in chapters for the British book "Banister Fletcher's History of Architecture," for which I wrote the American sections.

There is a fascinating vocabulary to the laying of colonial brickwork, once one learns the language.  My interest in brickwork is surely genetic, the photo at the bottom showing my great-great-grandfather Jenkins' brick plant in Wetumpka, Alabama, a family business that thrived until the Great Recession.

Grisaille Portrait Study

Arches Rough paper gives this gouache drawing a textured effect.  Some final touches were added with a white Conte crayon, which poses a risk of rubbing off.  Otherwise the surface of a gouache-on-paper is extremely tough and long-lasting.

Sketches in a Colonial Town

A visit to Williamsburg afforded only a little time for sketching.  Rapid drawings using a Pentel Aquash brush were, in some cases, supplemented later with watercolor, based on color notes taken at the time.  The Aquash was handy, freeing one from the need to dip a brush into a bottle of ink, but it leaked in my pocket, and the reservoir was soon empty.  Nonetheless, a pleasure to draw with.  The color drawing shows the newly rebuilt Blacksmith Shop.

I have visited Colonial Williamsburg 24 times since 1976.  Below is an oil-on-panel of the Brush-Everard House, now part of an art collection in Philadelphia.

Surrealism in College Illustration

These pen-and-ink exercises in Surrealism are typical of what I was doing at age 20, when I seem to have had lots of time for meticulous treatments.  Everything was meant to symbolize something specific, all of which I have now forgotten.  Today I caution my students to use Indian ink (as here) rather than markers, so many of my marker drawings of 30 years ago now looking faded or discolored.


Illustrating Two Histories of Summer Camps

I am often asked, "Why don't you try self-publishing a book?"--because this is now popular.  I have done this before, actually, in a series of books about the world's first summer camps in New England.  The first I wrote in 1994.  I mention it here because it was my first experiment in page design, long before I had heard of a computer program that would do this for you.

At the time I was excited by what one could do with a Xerox machine, mixing historical maps and photographs with my text.  Years later I discovered the "Shell Guides" by John Betjeman, John Piper, and others in Britain and realized that they were doing the same thing--even with the coil binding I used for some copies--a kind of rough-and-ready art publishing.

In 1997 I self-published another book, "The Natural History of the Newfound Region, New Hampshire" which contained early records that the summer camps had compiled.  It seemed to me that these were valuable in understanding how the environment has changed in the century since 1895, and I spent a lot of time getting all the animals' names right bringing the records up-to-date.  Here, too, I combined text with my own drawings and historical documents:

My drawing showed the first nature center at any summer camp, built about 1899 if I recall correctly:


The advantages of self publishing:  I could pick the topic myself and design the book any way I wanted, so that it becomes a kind of artistic self-expression, albeit with the extreme limitations of the Xerox machine.  The disadvantages:  these books are now extremely rare, to the point that I donated just about the last copy I could find of "Nineteenth-Century Pasquaney" to the library at Dartmouth.  I would have donated the book on natural history, too, but only a single copy remains!  And naturally the computer disks of 22 years ago are now unreadable.