French Easel

A not-entirely-serious painting stood on my French easel in fall 2001.  I still use this sturdy easel, as well as the green-handled Silver filbert brushes.  If you study historical representations of artists' palettes, white is always placed near the finger-hole.  In fact, the color arrangement seen on this palette would have been familiar to artists of the sixteenth century.

Once I briefly left my easel in the backyard seen here and our neighbor, a distinguished college professor, pounded on the door to warn us that a furry animal was prowling near it:  "I don't know if beavers eat paint!"

Study of a Head in Sienna

This small, rapid study was done using simple means:  the head was drawn in Conte crayon and black ink, the paper was unevenly toned with Winsor and Newton burnt sienna gouache with a square brush, and finally the highlights were added in white gouache.  The idea was to see how quickly one could achieve a reasonable likeness.  Everything being done fast, the white of the rag paper shows through in many places, which adds a certain sparkle.

Drawings Around Town

Keeping sketch paper at hand, one can do some quick drawings at odd moments around town.  The Victorian rooftops were drawn in Winsor & Newton non-waterproof ink, with its rich range of values, tending towards gray as the ink quickly weakens on the brush.  The 1960 church was drawn with a brush pen.

Art at St. Paul's School, Age 14

At St. Paul's as a boy I adored the elderly art teacher Mr. Abbe, who had taught there since 1950.  I was one of his last students; he died shortly after.  I despaired of painting the New England fall colors in oil pastel, grackles rising from a field as students approached.  These pastels taught me something:  that color without form and shadows was insufficient for me, at least.  On this path days later, I heard that John Lennon had been shot.

I find that I filled notebooks with political cartooning of the kind I later did in college.  Mr. Abbe had taught a famous cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, although my youthful opinions in the notebooks were more Al Capp than "Doonesbury."  I did not spare Reagan, however:

World War Two scenes were a favorite in these notebooks, copying something or another I had looked at during long winter twilights in the school library overlooking the lake.  The one below is, at least, a little looser than my usual tight, teenagery style.  The St. Paul's library where I spent so many hours now collects my books in its alumni author series.

Playing in a Puddle

In a quick study using Winsor & Newton waterproof ink (brown and black mixed), a child splashes in a puddle on a rainy day.  The ink lines appear ragged from having been washed off under a faucet when not quite dry.  The entire paper was toned with ink and highlights were added in white gouache.  

Oil Portrait of a Dog

A collector who loves dogs purchased this oil-on-panel painting.  It was meant to be somewhat comical, given that a low horizon line usually signals an "important" portrait.  The sky is scumbled over a darker blue.  The dog's white fur is underpainted in pinkish vermilion, giving it a warm glow. 

Winter Coat

This gouache study of a child in a warm coat uses the strong, low light of a winter day to mold the form of her face and neck.  I have left the background empty, just the color of the Fabriano Artistico rag paper.  I encourage my students to paint portraits with hats and interesting clothing, as was traditional in centuries past but is less common today.

Below this is a quicker sketch of the same subject.

Efforts at Portraiture, Age 17

All my life I have been fascinated by portraiture and the idea of recording the human face, which time will erode.  Artists have no higher task.  For a high school student, portraits are a difficult challenge.  At age 17 I tried to portray my mother as she read, both sitting up and reclining.  Today I advise my students to draw from real life rather than stress fantasy or cartoons, because only real life will surely grow in emotional value with the passage of time.


I only have a Xerox of the ink drawing I gave to camp director Vin Broderick in 1983.  Artists, I am convinced, never change at all:  I am still painting such profiles today, stressing modeling and fall-of-light.


In high school I took art courses at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, where we recklessly attempted full-color oil-pastel portraits of the model in a single sitting, very difficult to pull off!  I still recall lessons I learned in those classes, which were a blessed liberation from high school's stultification.

A great thing about art is its longevity.  I still have the pastels I used during these years around 1982.

Fruit Still Life with Strong Lighting

Intense lighting was applied from behind the subject of this oil painting, which a collector in the South has displayed over their mantelpiece.  I think such contre-jour lighting is unusual in still life, and the shadows take on a life of their own.  The bold crop enhances the abstract quality of the fruit.  The painting is not labored, having been completed in one or two sittings. 

Below this is quick study of fruit and an old bottle, purchased for the same collection, with more conventional top-down lighting of the subjects. 

Painting an industrial theme

This steamroller formed an appealing subject for an oil painting outdoors, although difficulties emerged.  One had to paint quickly, because the shadows crept across the metal skin as the sun moved west through a winter sky.  And the whole painting appeared much lighter once I had gotten it inside; brilliant sun can cause a misjudgment of values.  Turpentine-rich brushstrokes suggest rust.  The collector has framed it in a rather ironical, very sumptuous setting.

Still Life with Pears

Strong directional lighting from the side casts definite shadows in this oil-on-panel study of two pears and an orange.  Lit surfaces are heavily modeled with impasto.

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Nature Drawings of a High Schooler

Berol Prismacolor was my favorite medium, for the total avoidance of having to clean up anything, I suppose.  I took notes on scenery and wildlife during the madcap summer I spent with friends working on a ranch at Lovelock, Nevada:

I constantly drew birds, including ones at the Birmingham Zoo aviary.  These pencil sketches show the strange discolorations that now accompany many drawings I did 35 years ago.  Young artists beware of the effects of markers with their solvents even touching another sheet.

I see that I took notes on art books, trying to teach myself how to paint.  I have continued this habit ever since and have assembled notes taken from at least 1,000 books, surely.  Sketching is part of the note-taking process, which I highly recommend to my students.

My Prismacolor birds seem fresh and lively and the colors have not faded at all, having never been exposed to light.  But at the time I was proudest of the pen-and-ink drawings, at bottom, which show the influence of the book "Rendering in Pen and Ink," which led me to hardness of line.  A meeting with the legendary bird artist Roger Tory Peterson shocked me out of this habit, when he looked at my drawings and said I ought to use a brush.

Painting an Old Colonial Church

One of the first paintings I did after resuming studio work in 1998, this oil-on-paper was done in chilly conditions outdoors along White Clay Creek.  The meeting house was in such a lonely place, it had been overlooked by the major catalog of American colonial churches.  A horse block for ascending to a carriage occupies the foreground.

Old Railroad Bridge

This large oil painting was commissioned by a collector in Baltimore.  He and his wife like to walk their dogs across an historic railroad bridge through a wooded valley.  I visited the remote locale and worked from life, as usual racing against the constantly shifting shadows and trying to make a virtue out of a somewhat unaesthetic subject, a hulking metal bridge.  

Heavy impasto on the stonework of the bridge and on the rusted ironwork is made to contrast with extreme thinness of the paint in the shadow areas.  I think a lot about surfaces, varying them between thick and thin, smooth and rough, within each painting.  This is one of the great virtues of painting in oil, the command the artist enjoys over surface qualities.


Illustrating Gneiss Cliffs over the Brandywine

I have drawn these cliffs several times and written about them in my new book, "The Brandywine:  An Intimate Portrait."  At the time that T-Rex walked the earth, these gneiss rocks were already 375 million years old.  Unfortunately, most such outcrops were dynamited in the nineteenth century for building farm walls and for paving stones.  This one survives in a public park. 

The first drawing is Conte crayon on paper toned with ink, based on a pencil sketch.  The second was done on-the-spot in Winsor & Newton non-waterproof ink, with its superb range of values from jet black to subtle grays.