Thursday, April 28, 2016

August Sander's Dora

The work of German photographer August Sander has long fascinated me. One facet of his career was to document artists of his generation. Among these photos is a strange image of known as Hans Heinz Luttgen and his Wife Dora, taken in 1926. Here is the image from the National Gallery in London.

The juxtaposition of physical differences between the May/December pair is striking and the image provocative. The look of Dora, in particular, caught my eye, and apparently caught the eye of Sander, since he also photographed her posing without her husband.

I thought I might try to capture her likeness by painting from this photo reference, something I hesitate to do, since I prefer to work from life whenever possible. I find the information I need as a painter is often lacking in photo references, no matter how large or clear they are. In some cases, however, I have no choice, as in this one. So I began:

First, I simplify the image and crop out Hans in Photoshop.

Transfer a simplified outline to unstretched linen and reinforce in graphite pencil.

Setup with computer and painting

Block in darks and halftones

Complete the face. I decide to put her in a fencing jacket.

Set up jacket on a mannequin.

Paint the jacket.

Transfer her name (Dora Delfs—I used her maiden name, found on German Wikipedia). I did this because it turns out Luttgen divorced her before his move to New York City.

Final painting.

Painting in Frame.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Helen's Painting: Lily Posing on Pluff Chair

After my New York art school days were over, and I was painting on my own for several years, a friend invited me to join a weekly painting group that met in SoHo on Greene Street. The sessions of this informal, but highly accomplished gathering of friends of the arts, and of one another, and known in fact, as The Painting Group, were headed by the portraitist Aaron Shikler and painter and illustrator David Levine. 

Every Wednesday evening, we members, plus a model, would gather and paint in this large, formerly industrial space. It was there that I got to know, and observe David Levine, who fascinated me with his continual experimenting with paint media, as he sought to express the persona of our model. Meanwhile, Aaron impressed us with his sensitive and skillful drawing and paint handling in compositions that focused on strong design and flattened local colors. 

Recalling those days, I set to work painting Lily, who recently posed for me, to create a type of homage to both of these very inspirational teachers from my past. I posed Lily in a black and white dance costume to create strong graphic appearance to the design. Under soft daylight, I was able to keep her skin colors fairly unified in value, while flattening the black, gray, cream and white areas. After that, I focused on catching her expressive gaze and the slight curve of her mouth using a few quick brush strokes.

I would like to think Aaron and David would be pleased.

Transferring the photocopied drawing to glue-sized linen canvas

Canvas with transferred contours (in blue Saral)

Blocking in darks—bringing out the graphic qualities

Adding darks and light in skin

Modeling the facial features with expanded color palette

Helen Oh,  Lily Posing on Pluff Chair, oil on linen, 20" x 16"

Andrew on a visit to Aaron Shikler's apartment & studio

Helen and Aaron talking in his studio 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Model Muse is Moving

Recently we learned from F.C., one of our favorite models, that she was soon to leave our city for a new adventure out West. Before she left Helen decided to preserve something of her spirit by having her pose a few last times. From those sessions, I made a sketch, while Helen produced a large mixed media drawing and a life mask.

Helen's drawing of F.

Andy's oil sketch of F.

Helen learned the process of making life masks from a talented colleague here in Chicago. Helen made the life mask using plaster-infused gauze, available commercially.  First she had F. cover her face thoroughly with vaseline, then cut the plaster gauze into strips of varying sizes, which were soaked in water before being applied to the model's face.

Once the whole mask hardened (the plaster tends to warm slightly as it sets) the mask is carefully pried off the model's face. This negative mold is left to completely dry. To make a positive, powdered plaster and water are mixed to a paste, which is then poured into the negative mold and left for many hours, until the compound is hard and cool to the touch. At that point the mold is removed and discarded. The results can range from good to incredibly detailed, with every pore and lash showing.

Helen actually made several molds from our patient F., and the completed and colored mask, shown here, was from the first, less detailed plaster mold. Because it was rough, Helen sanded it lightly to unify the plane transitions. She then painted it to resemble terra cotta clay.

The photos show something of the process described above. I suggest the model remain upright in order to create natural looking cast. If you would like to try it, check out the many YouTube videos on this topic.

This leads us to recall a debate among representational artists, well-documented in the Renaissance, about the 'truth' of capturing nature in 3D vs 2D. As painters, we were trained in the many ways to depict the what we saw on canvas, including scale, perspective, effects of light and atmosphere on the recognition of space, not to mention figure anatomy, color theory and paint application techniques that connect to creating effects of form, weight and volume. Of course, while sculptures learn many of these essentials, they rely on other concepts and techniques not necessarily used by painters.

In this 15th century debate, known as the Paragone, painters and sculptors in Italy competed to prove the superiority of their respective media, at conveying the reality of nature, for want of a better term. We can't say which of these two is better; perhaps neither is a great as architecture or drawing (which Vasari claimed), but we do know that Helen and I find that the tactile process of cast-making and pouring plaster to create a life-size model helps us imagine the texture and weight of the human head when working from photo references.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Whitecross vs Thames radial easels

While the painter relies primarily on the quality of his or her brushes and canvas, other materials and equipment are also vital to creating and maintaining a good working environment, so that, like all good design, they essentially 'get out of the way' and let one focus on the work at hand.

To this end, an easel can either help or hinder the working process. In my experience, the most useful easel I have is one I bought just after my painting studies at the National Academy of Design. I believe my instructor, Ron Sherr, recommended a Whitecross easel because of its great versatility: it was light, strong, able to hold a range of canvas sizes, even those up to seven feet high, and could fold down to a mere 5 feet tall by 5 inches wide!

Whitecross easel

Folding the Whitecross

I ended up buying the floor model at New York Central Art Supply, since it seems that was all they had in stock when I visited with Helen, then my girlfriend, on our frequent rounds of the downtown art stores. The easel has literally supported my art — at least while in progress — ever since.

The Whitecross is a radial-style easel, made of a pale, tight-grained wood, and held together with solid silver hardware. To operate the easel, one turns a very large, heavy butterfly nut at the small base. This releases the trio of short legs, allowing them to rotate down from the telescoping mast. After splaying the legs, and tightening the butterfly nut, the easel stands upright, or can be tilted at whatever angle is desired.

The shelf, well-designed to hold the canvas and a few brushes, can be lowered or raised along the front part of the mast, allowing a the artist a great range of canvas dimensions. The back part of the mast, which slides within the fixed front part, can be extended vertically up to 8 feet high.

One convenient aspect of the Whitecross easel's shelf is that the screw is long enough that the wingnut can be reversed enough to rotate the tray vertically while still attached to the mast.

Atop the adjustable canvas holder that slides within the back mast is a brass label that declares proudly:

Handmade by Craftsmen
Cornwall, England

In the first of a series of paintings I did in New York that focused on Artists and Models in the studio, I included the Whitecross easel at the far left.

Artist and Model I, oil on canvas, 48" x 72"

For many years, I searched for another Whitecross easel without success. Just recently, though, Helen came across a variant on this type, called a Thames easel, sold by Winsor & Newton (though I don't know where it is made). It is available in the States at

Thames easel; Extended at right

This easel shares much in common with its older brother, with a few small differences, these being:

1. The wood is a bit darker with a slightly more pronounced grain. (Beechwood, apparently). The Thames hardware is gold; the Whitecross, silver.

2. Slightly different dimensions. (See diagram)

The Thames easel is 1 inch shorter with the back mast retracted, but the same height (8 feet) when extended. Both easels weigh about the same,approximately 15 lbs or 7 kegs.

3. The Thames mast contains an additional sliding wooden clamp, so it can hold two canvases or panels simultaneously.

4. The Thames's large butterfly nut is asymmetrical, being designed to be adjusted with a foot as well as a hand.

5. The tray screw is too short to allow the tray to be rotated vertically in place. Instead, the tray must be removed to reduce the easel to its thinnest dimension (See image.)

6. A noticeable design difference between the two easels has to do with the radial mechanism holding the legs. I like the simplicity of the Whitecross, with its flush front, as opposed to the raised profile of the Thames, so that the legs, instead of resting against one another, don't meet:

Differences in design of the Whitecross (left) and Thames

Both are useful, convenient, and elegant. While I prefer the Whitecross (something about the way the proclamation on the workers' label tracks perfectly with the soundness of their product) the Thames is a welcome resurrection of this singular type of easel.

Check out this brief video on YouTube demonstrating the easel setup.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

'Greeks' or 'Turks' vs 'Miners or 'Peasants'

I recall reading somewhere that painters come in two varieties: so called 'miners' and 'peasants.' By this dichotomy the author proposed two essential approaches to subject matter and technique. The 'miners' were artists who found one subject, or way of working, and mined it throughout their careers, digging deep to exploit all possible meaning and expression. By contrast, the 'peasants' wandered about, grasping ideas and subjects wherever they found them, and readily incorporated them into their body of work. Perhaps Rothko may be considered a miner, while Picasso is an example of a peasant par excellence.

This put me in mind of another dualistic impulse one finds in the figurative tradition of Western art: that of what might be thought of as the Apollonian vs the Dionysian impulses in representation. The prime example in art history is that of Classicism vs Romanticism in the 19th century, which, when played out in France, divided the Rubenists against the Poussinists, and, later the followers of Ingres against those of Delacroix. In many ways, Degas is thought to have reconciled these dueling impulses, by claiming, and proving, to be, as he said, "a colorist with line." 

Still, this tendency persisted, as Abstract Expressionism's wild abandon contrasts with the sedate Constructivist and Minimalist serenity and stability.

Probably most figurative painters feel the urge to join one camp or another at various points in their education, if not later in their careers, as one, then another, exponent of either order or chaos makes its appeal on a visit to a museum. Klimt and Munch beckon the painter to cede control of the conscious effort to construct and render, while Raphael and Holbein urge a careful, methodical path to success.

I include here a few works that touch on these impulses: a few still lifes painted in my studio with the Greek notions in mind, and a few oil sketches done on a trip to Istanbul, in which the atmosphere of Asia, visible in the shapes, colors and forms were, for me, a rich riposte to the 'classical' structure of (a part) of my own training.

For all the stress on uniform proportions in the face and body, I am reminded of the quote of Sir Francis Bacon: 'There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.'

Friday, March 6, 2015

Motion Capture Studio painting

Over the last few years I have shifted the focus of my large figurative works from those depicting painters and models in traditional painting studios to a setting and a subject whose participants at first appear far removed from the proverbial garret, but in fact are working toward aims similar to the painter, though in a far different context: this setting is the motion capture studio.

In my painter and model series, the dialectic of observer/observed aligned with traditional notions of the male creative force inspired by the female form. This conventional narrative, retold since Ovid's story of Pygmalian, has, for generations, been a symbol of the creative act of the visual artist. 

I was interested in depictions female characters in less traditional roles, and began looking for inspiration in works such as Domenichino's, Diana and her Nymphs and Degas's Young Spartans, both of which show women with agency. About this time I also had a chance to visit a motion capture studio in Chicago, and did some research on the motion capture process and game characters like Lara Croft. I also met with game animators and found my training had much in common with theirs, from figure anatomy to form rendering to color theory to aesthetics. I decided to make a series of paintings from the point of view of those working at the grueling and unglamorous process of motion capture.  I use traditional painting methods and materials to depict motion capture studio environments that show the interplay between female athletes, whose bodies are covered with tiny glass markers and male technicians, who, as they skillfully manipulate computers, unwittingly continue Pygmalion's efforts.

In making these paintings, I also was inspired by mystical religious imagery, including the ritualistic wall paintings of Pompeii, and the Himalayan paintings such as those of the god Rahula, whose dark body is covered with human eyes.

Below I document the process of painting Motion Capture Studio 04. The work is 40" x 40", oil on linen. Painted from models, in natural light, using traditional oil painting techniques.

Conklin motion capture
Sketchbook study of Jess with cardboard rifle.

Conklin motion capture
Cartoon drawings on vellum of Jess twice, to test composition.

Conklin motion capture
Tracing paper overlays of Jess and Helen, scaled to the ultimate canvas size.

Conklin motion capture
Tracing paper cartoon: a retracing of the two figure to test overlaps.

Conklin motion capture
Small oil on paper sketch for color and value.

Conklin motion capture
Second oil sketch on paper.

Conklin motion capture
Drawing transferred to canvas; block in started. Model on break in background.
Conklin motion capture
Second layer on the left figure; block in of central figure. The right 'tech' still not resolved.

Conklin motion capture
Helen was not available, so I began work with another model. Series of large cartoons on trace.

Conklin motion capture

Conklin motion capture

Conklin motion capture
Overlay of model over Helen's figure, to test the overlaps.

Conklin motion capture
Trying another cartoon over Helen's figure.

Conklin motion capture
I decided to remove the rifle, and replace it with a folding bike. Study on dotted dressmaker paper.

Conklin motion capture
Another bicycle drawing on dressmaker paper.

Conklin motion capture
Work in progress. The central and righthand figures were later removed and repainted from other models.

Conklin motion capture
Final painting: Motion Capture Studio 04, oil on linen, 40" x 40"

Motion capture Rahula god
image of Rahula, a god covered with eyes. He resembles a figure in a motion capture suit, which is typically black and covered with tiny glass markers.