Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Blackbird Woodcut

I may have mentioned in passing that aside from oil painting I'm crazy about printmaking, specifically woodblock printing. I've tried linocut printing (carving an image out of a block of linoleum) but there's something about working with wood that I really love. I usually work with white pine, since it is a soft wood and easy to carve. Over the last couple of months I've been working on a woodcut of a blackbird in reeds.

The inspiration

During spring migration, male yellow-headed blackbirds congregate in huge numbers at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah, just north of Salt Lake City. On our annual trip to the Refuge, we see hundreds of them at a time and this year the image of them in the reeds really struck me and ideas for a painting began to form.

While I was sketching studies and thumbnails for a painting it occurred to me that the scene would also make a great woodcut image, so I changed gears and began working on a print.

The bird's face reminded me too much of the bald eagle in The Muppets.

At first my plan was to use just one block of wood and black ink, however I was not happy with the bird's face after seeing the first proof. The only way to change the face was to completely carve it away and create a second block with a new face carved into it which would print over the first block. Since I was going to the trouble of carving a second block, I decided to change a few other things, too. Can you spot what I changed?

The new face

I printed the original block of wood with gray ink and printed the second block with black ink on top of the gray layer and got some interesting results. This got me thinking about printing with multiple colors. I think this might be part of the reason I love working with woodblock - it seems that every step leads to a new idea.

The brown layer.
When I inked the block, I wiped the brown ink off the area of the bird
before printing so that the bird's black ink layer would print clean and sharp over top.

So I printed the original wood block with brown ink, then inked the second block of wood with blue in the water areas and black on the bird and printed that over top the brown layer.

The completed image

The random black marks in this print are happy accidents. The unexpected things that happen with printmaking is one of the things I love about working in this medium.

For now I'm pretty pleased with this print, but I may make more changes as they occur to me.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Options for Painting Lights and Darks

In my oil painting class for beginners, we've started to delve into color after working in black and white for a while. This week I did a painting demo for them showing two different ways to lighten and darken an object, in this case an apple, so they could compare the two methods side-by-side.

Apple 1

The first method I showed them was using white to lighten and black to darken the paint. I used titanium white, but I did mix my own black rather then using a tube black. I think the difference between the dark areas of the two paintings would have been more striking if I'd used black from a tube (full disclosure here: I forgot to bring a tube of black). It's been a long time since I used white as my predominant lightener and it felt awkward. I had to really concentrate and fight my now-automatic color choices!

Apple 2

In the second painting I used yellow and orange to lighten the apple and only added white when absolutely necessary. For the dark areas, I used purple and blue. I had planned to use a more white-looking tabletop color, but I accidentally put a streak of that rusty peach color down and we all loved it, so I kept going with it.

While comparing the two paintings side-by-side, the students commented on how much more vibrant Apple 2 was, and they noticed that in Apple 1 the white mixed with alizarin crimson created a pink tone, rather than a sense of light striking the apple. As they were leaving class pondering all these color choices, one student half-jokingly said, "Can't we just go back to black and white? It's so much easier!"

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Before applying varnish

I have been a rather haphazard varnisher; some paintings I remember to varnish and others get forgotten. I used to use Crystal Clear spray varnish, but with mixed results. For one thing, we live in a perpetually windy and dusty area, so using spray varnish outside could be a nightmare. I also found it challenging to get an even coat. After reading about Mitchell Albala's experience with Gamvar varnish, I decided to try some myself. In my mind, there are two main advantages to this varnish: you apply it with a brush, which makes it much easier to control that spray varnish, and you can apply it as soon as the thickest part of your painting is dry to the touch. For oil painters, this is a huge time savings.

After applying varnish

So I decided to document my first experiment with Gamvar*. In his aforementioned blog post on the subject, Mitchell Albala stressed how important it was to use as little varnish as possible and apply it with a soft brush in a scrubbing motion (have a special brush for this purpose - don't use one of your good painting brushes!). I closely followed his instructions and found the varnish quite easy to apply. I didn't have any problem with streaks, either. 

One thing I did note is that in the past when I've applies varnishes, the varnish tended to bring out the darks and liven up the painting in general. However, I didn't see much of a difference in the appearance of my painting after applying this varnish.

Detail - can you see any difference in appearance?

But regardless of whether the varnish heightens darks and brightens colors (sounds like a laundry detergent...) in your paintings or not, varnishing also plays an important role in protecting your artwork. Over time dirt can build up on the surface of a painting and cleaning it can harm the painting. If you have a layer of varnish, the dirt attaches to the varnish and the old varnish can be removed and a new clean layer of varnish applied with no harm to the painting underneath. Here's a discussion about varnishing from Scott Gellatly when he was a guest blogger on Lori Putnam's blog. And if you're a painter and you don't know about Lori Putnam's blog, you best go check it out right now! 

Meanwhile, I think I'll become a more regular varnisher, since using the Gamvar was very easy.

*This is not a commercial for Gamvar and I did not receive any compensation from Gamblin.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Bird Bookplates

“It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”
                                                                                                     ~ Vincent Van Gogh

Wood engraving, bookplate, J. Bieruma Oosting
Wood Engraving
J. Bieruma Oosting, Dutch, b. 1898, d. 1994

Hidden in the basement of the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is Robinson's Fine Prints. If you are a fan of prints, you might want to pay this store a visit. Plan to spend a few hours going through the racks and bins of prints, with prices ranging from just a few dollars to a few thousand. They also have a remarkable collection of books for sale on printmaking and printmakers.

Wood engraving, bookplate, Emil Kotrba
Wood Engraving
Emil Kotrba, Czech, b. 1912, d. 1983

One of the things Robinson's Fine Prints specializes in is bookplates, sometimes called "ex libris", which are usually glued to the inside cover of someone's book to show that it belongs to them. Some book-lovers commission printmakers to create a series of hand-pulled bookplates for their personal library.

Wood engraving, bookplate, Josef Weiser
Wood engraving
Josef Weiser, Czech, b. 1914, d. 1994

Not all bookplates are of birds, of course. I'm just into birds, so these were the ones that caught my eye. The American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers has a website with the history of ex libris and examples of hundreds of designs, and articles about various related topics. Aren't these just wonderful little treasures?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Delights of Drawing

"The process of drawing is, before all else, the process of putting the visual intelligence into action, the very mechanics of visual thought. Unlike painting and sculpture it is the process by which the artist makes clear to himself, and not to the spectator, what he is doing. It is a soliloquy before it becomes communication."
                                                                                                   ~ Michael Ayerton

G Sivitz, sketch, drawing, graphite, sketching materials, pencil, notepad, art
Drawing materials - graphite on paper

Every time I've been away from drawing, when I return I am reminded of how much I love to draw. To me, it is very soothing and comes much more naturally than painting. But perhaps that's why I take it for granted, that is until I haven't done it in a while.

G Sivitz, sketch, drawing, graphite, watch, art
Wrist Watch - graphite on paper

There are endless things to draw around us all the time and no expensive materials or lengthy set-ups are needed, so I have no excuse not to draw. When I am in a drawing phase, I like to get out of bed and draw something before I do anything else. It's a wonderful way to start the day.
G SIvitz, drawing, sketch, shirt on hanger, art
Shirt on a hanger - graphite and white charcoal on toned paper.

Everyone has their preferences, but my favorite drawing tools are mechanical pencils and Pigma Micron pens, which I will occasionally add watercolor to. I prefer paper with a smooth surface. I started using Strathmore 400 Series Toned Tan paper this summer and I really love the effect of the white charcoal pencil on the tan paper. It's been a nice change from white paper.

So now that I'm done the 30 Pears project, I'm eager to get back to making daily drawing a priority.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Drum Roll Please - Pear #30

G Sivitz, oil painting, pear
Pear #30
6 x 6 inches, oil on canvas panel

Have you ever been to a fantastic workshop that was incredibly intense and you learned an amazing amount, but by the last day your brain had shut down and you just couldn't force another bit of information into it, no matter how hard you tried? That's kind of how I'm feeling at the end of my 30 Pears in 30 Days project. Worthwhile? Yes! Exhausting? Oh yeah.

I had fantasies of my 30th painting being so brilliant that blog-readers were blown away by the difference between Pear #1 and Pear #30. Well, that remained a fantasy. Honestly, I could barely think straight as I painted this final piece. Sure, it would've been nice to finish the project with a stunning painting, but in the end I'm just happy it's done. There will be other chances to paint stunning pieces. Right now I am in desperate need of some rest and some time to absorb everything I've learned this past month. A break from painting pears might be nice too, although surprisingly I do still like them.

So did I achieve my goals for this project? Did limiting the subject matter lead to greater creativity and getting a good workout on some key artistic concepts? I believe it really did. I explored color palettes and color temperature, brushwork, and composition. I concentrated on tricky things such as fabric, and I tried to loosen up, be more expressive, and not overwork things (still struggling with that one!). And at this point, I think I could paint a pear blindfolded.

I am looking forward to blogging about other things now, looking forward to not having a daily deadline hanging over my head. There are woodblock projects to work on and I want to get back to my sketching routine. However, I've got a collection of vintage Hall china teapots that keep catching my eye. I wonder what a month of painting those would do...