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 Plazaart.com.

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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Apple iMac Computers as Still Life Objects

My little collection of Apple computers has, over time, made appearances as still life objects in my paintings. I include many of them in this post. In fact, the computer's role in motion capture has become an important theme in my work in recent years. You can see examples here:


I find the early iMacs in particular beautifully designed, very paintable, and interesting in that they epitomize the computer graphics revolution of the last generation, a movement that coincided with Helen's and my education as visual artists. In our own training as draftsmen and painters in art school and college, the computer played only a tangential role, though, over time the powerful technology has proved of great assistance in planning and testing compositions. 

There is another side to their inclusion in my work, having to do with what I see as the 'rivalry' between the traditional reliance on my own eye and analog tools to make art, and the digital tools, that, while adding convenience, insert their own aesthetic into the process. For my part, I prefer to keep my process mostly free of electronic technology, working out paintings from live models and still life objects observed directly before me in the studio. Of course, as the technology becomes ever more impressive and useful, I anticipate its advantages will eventually overcome my resistance.

Square Still Life, Blue

Square Still Life, Yellow
Still Life with iBook, La Primula Bowls and CDs

Rebecca and Helen

Interior with Woman in Kimono

in Progress: Nude on Purple Divan

Nude with iMac

Interior with Venetian Chandelier and iMac

Detail of Interior

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Helen Oh — Oil Materials Class in Chicago

As an art student I attended several schools. At one of them, the National Academy of Design, in New York City, I recall a particularly fascinating course, titled Painting Materials, Methods and Techniques, taught by Dr. Furman Finck.

The first thing I learned from Dr. Finck was that the jars of ‘gesso’  I had been priming my panels with wasn’t gesso at all, but an acrylic substitute. The real gesso, he showed us, was a silky white gypsum powder, the best quality of which was imported from Europe. 
With patience and gentle encouragement, Dr. Finck taught my classmates and me how to prepare canvases and panels to paint on, and how to properly grind pigment powder to make oil paint. The lessons I learned peaked my interest in the nature of artist materials. Shortly thereafter, I became an apprentice to a framer, Timus Bowden, who ran a large studio in mid-Manhattan. There I assisted in restoring and gilding enormous Baroque frames and period Neoclassical furniture, among other things. 
My knowledge of gilding and framing eventually connected me to a position as a painting conservator, which became my profession for more than fourteen years. 
As a painter, I rely on these experiences, as a student, framer and conservator, to inform my approach to the materials and processes of oil painting. This experience, along with numerous visits to view master works throughout the US and Europe, has helped to me discover the best color palette, media, and supports to work on. For instance, I prefer to paint primarily with non-toxic earth colors. 
As a painting instructor, I formerly taught a semester-long Oil Painting Materials course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This year I offered the course as three-day workshop at the Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. My students and I had a heady weekend stretching canvases, making paints and gilding with 22K gold leaf. The images are sample colors charts and my students working on projects. 

I am offering The Oil Materials Workshop at the Palette and Chisel   this fall. The dates and times: September 12,13,14 from 9 am—4 pm.  
If your are interested, please register by following this link:


or call 312-642-4400


"I thoroughly enjoyed Painting Materials Workshop. There are very few people that teach this. If somebody wants to learn how paintings and pigments are put together in the dutch painting tradition: This is the workshop to go to. It was fun, we learned about a lot of topics and met some very interesting people along the way. All the basics were discussed. Everything is usable. And some of the materials we used were simply amazing. What fun to learn painting in this way!!!"

"Helen Oh's weekend workshop on prepping surfaces for oil painting was excellent. From making rabbit skin glue, gilding a panel with gold to making color charts from pigment, the participants gained an enormous amount of knowledge about materials. We also had 'hands-on' experience preparing paper, linen canvas as well as panels for oil painting. Helen demonstrated how to make gesso, egg medium and oil paint from pigment. It's an opportunity to understand better as a painter the importance of having a well prepared support for your work. Helen shared historical techniques with the class that are still used today. I highly recommend this workshop."
—Sue A.