Quick Portraits at the ACR 2016 Review Course + A Visit to the National Gallery of Art

At ACR’s 2013 Review Course, as a first-year rheumatology fellow, I sketched quick portraits of the speakers in pen and pencil while they lectured.  I hadn’t drawn them since.  At this year’s review course in Washington, D.C., I sketched them again, broadening the range of media to watercolor pencil and ink brush pen:

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While there, my girlfriend and I were hosted by and visited with dear members of my extended family.  We also visited the National Gallery of Art, where Dutch/Flemish drawings for paintings were on display.

The exhibit emphasized the importance of drawings as the basis of paintings.  For example, drawings by one artist (Pieter van Laer) were possibly acquired by another (Philips Wouwerman) in stealth so he could base his paintings off of them.

William van de Velde the elder drew a meticulous portrait of the ship, “The Royal Prince,” that was on display alongside a later painting by his son, who used the drawing to help depict a battle at sea.

Other drawings were displayed next to the paintings that resulted from them.  It was interesting to see how often portraits (especially noses, which can be particularly difficult to draw) differed from drawing to painting.

In one case, an extremely detailed freehand drawing of the nave of Saint Bavo’s church had incorrect perspective–the arcade at the right of the nave was much lower than at the left and the far windows were too small–which the artist (Pieter Jansz Saenredam) later corrected with ruler and compass for the painting that resulted from the drawing.

What interested me most about the drawings on display was the use of sanguine, or red chalk, on prepared paper.  Sanguine, a red-brown iron oxide chalk, “allows for a degree of subtlety and control beyond what [modern chalk equivalents] offer.”  It was used for sketches and studies by the “Old Masters,” among them Leonardo and Michelangelo.

A rough modern approximation of chalk is colored pencil.  A closer equivalent is probably charcoal or pastel.

However, red chalk appears capable of more subtlety, warmth, and power than colored pencil for quick sketches.  It also appears easier to control than charcoal or pastel.  I’ve never used it.

Later, in the gift shop, I was not surprised to see that John James Audubon used mixed media in his paintings.  For example, his masterpiece of Carolina parakeets was created with watercolor, pastel, crayon, etc., not just transparent watercolor.  It’s difficult to convey a lot of detail in focused natural history paintings with transparent watercolor alone.  Modern wildlife artists who use watercolor, such as Roger Tory Peterson, use transparent watercolor and acrylic together or just gouache (opaque watercolor) for detailed, scientifically accurate paintings.


Watercolor Practice: Quick Sketch of a Drawing Mannequin


The colors in this painting are not harmonized.  A sophisticated way is to use a color gamut.  A simple way is the following:  if the mannequin is to be yellow, then the surroundings should be violet.  But if the surroundings are blue, the mannequin should be orange.  And green harmonizes with red, which isn’t in the painting!  I wanted to see how a painting looks with colors that are somewhat dissonant.  Looking at this sketch, I keep wanting the mannequin to be orange, with perhaps some reddish parts in shadow that harmonize with the green.  Of course, the composition isn’t ideal, either, but this is just a practice sketch.

Update: a friend shared this paper with me on automated color harmonization.  The algorithm presented harmonizes colors using various gamut masks–a gamut mask imposed over a color wheel is the most sophisticated way to harmonize colors in a scene.  I first read about color gamuts in James Gurney’s Color and Light, an excellent modern book on color theory.  The authors of the paper note that naturally-occurring color combinations are often well-harmonized by default. This has always seemed true to me. Betty Edwards discusses this observation, too, in Color, a great book on color theory (but not as advanced as Gurney’s text).  Some examples of color harmonization in nature:  a blue jay is black, white, gray, and blue. A bluebird is blue and orange. A scarlet macaw is red and green, violet and yellow, black and white. Each of these color schemes is well-harmonized.

Update 11/30/16: Actually, based on the YURMBY color wheel, which is a mathematically accurate color wheel, blue is opposite yellow, which means that blue (not violet) and yellow are complements!  Ironically, I realized this by just looking up the YURMBY wheel in Color and Light for another painting I’m working on.  I hadn’t used the YURMBY wheel since I read about it years ago.  It’s time to start using it.

How to Draw Trees, Hair, and Other Very Complex Things

A large tree can hold millions of leaves and at least thousands of branches (if you count the twigs).  A human head can have more than a hundred thousand hairs on it.  You’d be a fool for trying to draw a tree or human hair photorealistically, right?  Well, yes and no.

A couple years ago, inspired by the majestic trees I saw while hiking in Yosemite National Park,  I tried to draw a photorealistic tree.  This is the result:

Unfinished pencil drawing of a Jeffrey pine seen near Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park
Unfinished pencil drawing (4B graphite on Bristol board) of a Jeffrey pine seen near Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park. Circa April, 2012.

Yep, I gave up.  Although I was still learning to draw at the time and this was good practice for me, it was too painful to continue!  In retrospect, I was going about it the wrong way.

I was trying to draw every single detail as I saw it.  How painful is that?!  Let’s just say that I’ll never do that again.

You can draw trees or hair or anything else photorealistically in a freehand way (instead of tracing)*, but you’d be foolish to try to draw complex details exactly as you see them instead of drawing the general pattern that you see.

Drawing the general pattern is the key to drawing hair and foliage photorealistically without driving yourself nuts.

Don’t get me wrong:  it’s not easy to draw anything that has a lot of detail.  Photorealistic pieces are very time-intensive.  For example, Paul Lung, an artist who uses a mechanical pencil to create photorealistic drawings of cats, supposedly takes 40-60 hours per piece.

However, it simplifies things and speeds you up, if, instead of drawing exactly what you see when you look at something extremely complex, you draw the general pattern.  The result will still be photorealistic.  (Note:  this might not work for portraits, because our brains are designed to pick up on very subtle facial differences.  This is one reason that drawing portraits is harder than drawing other things.)

If you simply want to give the impression of something complex, like a tree, hair, or fur, then you should give only as much detail as necessary and leave the rest up to the viewer’s imagination.  Unless your aim is photorealism, you should stop when you’ve suggested enough to the viewer that they can identify your subject.  As Betty Edwards says, you shouldn’t overdraw.

Respect for negative space is important when drawing trees, as is remembering a few key heuristics:

1. Branches should get thinner as they extend farther from the trunk.

2. Any branch must be thinner than the branch or trunk it’s growing from.  (Otherwise, it will not look realistic).

3. Vary hue, value (very important), and chroma when painting leaves.

4. Depending on the type of tree you’re drawing, branches will grow out at different angles at different heights along the trunk.  Usually, though, this angle is more acute higher up and closer to horizontal lower down.  Don’t forget to draw in branches that face toward and away from the viewer!

5. If painting in watercolor, consider using a natural sponge to quickly paint foliage.

Here’s a quick sketch I made (with a Pentel Pocket ink brush pen and black ink) of a pine tree at a nearby park, back in January:


Here are a couple imaginary trees I sketched by following the above heuristics:



Here’s a digital painting of oak trees (initially posted here):


When drawing human hair, focus on large masses of color and try not to get bogged down by drawing too many individual hairs.  Keep the outer edges of hair (where it meets the air) somewhat blurry, except where hair meets the face, which can be drawn in some detail.

After some practice, it all becomes easier and more natural!  Artistic skill (or any skill, really) is all about quantity of practice!

*Many photorealists avoid drawing freehand and instead use grids or projection techniques to trivialize the transfer of correct perspective.  Personally, I’ve always drawn freehand because I enjoy the challenge!

Mixed Media Sketch of a White Tern

White Tern.  Sketched in pastel, ink, charcoal, and white colored pencil
White tern. Sketched in pastel (~3 analogous colors), ink, charcoal, and white colored pencil

I sketched this on cheap construction paper from a dollar store immediately after a party a couple years ago.  It was my second drawing using pastel–I haven’t used it since, but would like to!  Pastel drawings can really approach the nuance of oil paintings.  Also, and this may surprise you, pastels are chemically the most stable of all paintings.  E.g., they’ll last the longest if they’re not physically disturbed (which is, unfortunately, very easy to do, even if you spray fixative onto them).

You can’t mix pastels the way you can mix paint, so you need many colors on hand if you’re depicting subtle changes in hue, intensity, or value.  Another thing is that pastels other than oil pastels break down into fine particles that may be dangerous to one’s health, so it’s important to take precautions, such as working outdoors or wearing a face mask.

My First Acrylic Painting

My first "serious" acrylic painting (detail)
My first “serious” acrylic painting (detail)

I first used acrylic while working through Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors, by Betty Edwards, an excellent resource for learning the basics of color theory.  The above painting was the final exercise in that book and was painted on October 25, 2012.

If you’re still interested in painting after you’ve worked through Color, you should consider reading Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, by James Gurney, which is more accurate (e.g., it brings you up to speed on the most accurate color wheel, “YURMBY”) and more comprehensive.

The above painting used cheap acrylic paint on Bristol board.  Acrylic, unlike oil, can be very difficult to use because it dries quickly and is permanent when dry (e.g., you can ruin your brushes by letting acrylic dry on them; it also dries on your palette).  I had a difficult time creating the above painting.

I plan to create more acrylic paintings in the future, probably on canvas, and I’ll mix some medium into the paint to slow down the drying time.  I might even use transparent and opaque watercolor along with the acrylic (all of them are water-soluble and compatible).

Here’s the setup for the painting above.  I freehand sketched the flower arrangement and then returned to paint it at night using a flashlight.  Tough!

Setup for my first acrylic painting
Setup for my first acrylic painting

Learning Watercolor with Jack Reid, Part VII: More Complete Paintings

Misty Fall Scene

The above painting is probably my least favorite.  It was intended for rough-textured paper, but I used smooth, cold-pressed paper.  Still, it looks pretty similar to what Reid intended.

The following painting is my personal favorite:

Gourds and Pitcher
Gourds and Pitcher

I like the wet-in-wet effects on the surface of the table, on the window panes, and even on the gourds!  (The first pass over the gourds was actually a graded wash.  You can also see graded washes over some areas of the pitcher.)

Soft Winter Day
Soft Winter Day

The above painting uses wet-in-wet pretty heavily (background trees), as well as another technique called “wetting and lifting”  (seen over the roof of the cabin).  There’s some dry brush in there, too (the grass).

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

The above painting is the last exercise in Reid’s text, and is also one of my favorites.  Besides graded washes, “lifting out” was also used over the distant mountains to suggest cloud cover.  It wasn’t hard to do; I just used a tissue to lift out paint while the areas were still wet.

This concludes the series of paintings I created as I worked through Jack Reid’s Watercolor Basics!

Learning Watercolor with Jack Reid, Part VI: Complete Paintings

Here are a few of the complete watercolor paintings I created while working through the last chapter of Reid’s book:

Mist at Dawn
Mist at Dawn

All of these watercolors were created on 300-lb paper.  (I did use stretched 140-lb paper for many of the exercises in the book, including the value studies.)

In the above painting, note the graded wash from top to bottom (showing the transition between sea and sky).  My initial attempt was too light in value, so I waited for everything to dry and then painted over it with an identical graded wash.  It worked well, increasing both value and intensity!  The lesson I learned was that you shouldn’t be afraid to redo a graded wash to make it more intense.   (Similarly, you shouldn’t be afraid to redo wet-in-wets, either!)

Winter Pond
Winter Pond

The surface of the lake in the above painting is a wet-in-wet, while the shadows along the snowy areas are graded washes.  Super fun time!

Waterfall and Rocks
Waterfall and Rocks

Some of the rocks in this painting are graded washes over which a wet-in-wet was performed.  The thicker the paint (e.g., less loaded with water) you drop into a wet-in-wet area, the better, usually.  You can also see the use of dry brush in the falling water.

To be continued!