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.

Painting of an Imperial Moth in Mixed Media

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“Such is the method of nature: start from a basis of utter simplicity and from it create complex and beautiful forms.” – Lee F. Ryan, The Natural Classical Guitar

The above is a painting of an imperial moth (Eacles imperialis) that spent an entire weekend on my doorstep in late August.  The view is slightly askew, not directly overhead.  One wing is more brightly lit than the other.  It’s >99% transparent watercolor–I haven’t yet used opaque watercolor in any paintings–with a few final touches in wax-based colored pencil.

I spent weeks working on this painting off and on, from as little as one minute a day to two hours a day, finally finishing it after a six-hour marathon painting session yesterday after work.  My references were multiple photographs that I took of the moth from different angles.  In the future, I will also take written color notes of a potential painting subject (some professional painters do this because they don’t trust the colors of photographs).  This is the most complicated watercolor I’ve attempted so far as a nascent painter.  Even the freehand pencil sketch that forms the basis of the painting took some time.  Perhaps I’ll detail the stages of the painting in a future blog post.  (Some artists recommend using mirror images to speed up drawing the second half of a moth or butterfly, but my view of the moth wasn’t symmetrical.  Also, I simply enjoy the challenge of drawing freehand.)

Watercolor is an unpopular medium because it is technically unforgiving.*  My friend, who is a master-level chess player, says that the first few moves in chess often decide the game.  So it goes in watercolor, too: make a few big mistakes anywhere in the painting process, especially early on, and it’s all over.  Watercolor, like chess, is all about planning.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how to move forward before attempting each stage of the painting.  There were color harmony issues to think about, difficult technical issues such as how to portray certain features of the moth using available watercolor techniques, issues of presentation (e.g., “Should I portray the moth impressionistically or with scientific accuracy?”–I opted for scientific accuracy), etc.  However, despite the difficulty of watercolor, I discovered that one can often make a total comeback from perceived minor mistakes or inaccuracies.  (This is also true in chess.)

Before it landed on my doorstep, I had never seen an imperial moth in-person or otherwise in my entire life.  It was huge and arresting with its idiosyncratic color scheme.  My girlfriend called it “that 70s moth” because of its soft dull orange and bright yellow colors that were popular in the 70s.  I learned, through an internet search, that imperial moths are highly variable in color and pattern but are usually a combination of yellow and purple/red-brown (note that brown is dull orange from a color-theoretic standpoint).  This particular moth’s darker colors were brown and red-brown under natural light with possible hints of purple under flash.  I thought about going over the brown in the finished painting with a very light glaze of purple but feared ruining the painting if I did so.  Perhaps I’ll try it in the future, but I think that sunlight portrays color more accurately than does a standard flash bulb. These were my two primary reference photos:

The internet says these moths don’t eat in the adult phase. They don’t even have functional mouthparts.  They live off their fat stores, and they don’t live for long:  for a few days to two weeks at most! Their sole purpose as adult moths is to reproduce.  Females wait, releasing pheromones at certain times, while males search for females.  The internet also tells me that males can detect the released pheromones from up to a mile away.

I initially thought that this particular imperial moth that spent the weekend at my place could be a female waiting for a male, but I now think that the large amount of dark coloration on its wings indicates that it’s a male.  It had a single antenna.  I often wondered, while painting it, about what might have happened to its other antenna.  Creatures with missing body parts are probably very common in the wild:  I sometimes see birds (especially grackles and crows) with one foot, butterflies with nipped wings, and just last week I saw a grasshopper with one leg.

*On the other hand, watercolor is the “functional programming language” of the painting world:  with a functional computer programming language, one can accomplish a lot with just a few lines of code.  With watercolor, one can be very expressive with just a few brush strokes. Each is also used for rapid prototyping in its respective domain.

Autumnal Chinese Tallow Tree Leaf in Mixed Media

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My girlfriend asked me to create a painting of a leaf she found, so I painted it in watercolor and then used ink and colored pencil for final details.  It’s a Chinese tallow tree leaf.  In our neck of the woods, there has been a decades-long fight against these trees because they’re an invasive species with toxins in their leaves that make the soil uninhabitable for native species.  They naturally create monospecific forests if left unchecked.  The internet tells me that they were introduced to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. for soap-making in the early 1900s.

Cicada Wing Sketched in Watercolor

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I found this solitary, intact wing on the sidewalk–probably belonging to a cicada eaten by a squirrel, opossum, or raccoon during a recent emergence of cicadas in our area. The symphony of male cicadas is like white noise:  it drowns out nearly everything else on hot summer afternoons.  They fly erratically, bumping into things and people.  I often saw them crawling on concrete sidewalks, walls, even outdoor ceilings.  For many nights in a row, one of them “knocked” on my balcony door’s window, probably by jumping against the glass.

It’s remarkable how little one notices visual details unless one draws, paints, or sculpts what one sees.  Only after painting this wing am I able to reconstruct it in my mind.  This is no different than getting to understand anything else deeply: one must observe its behavior, interact with it, construct a representation of it if possible.

I draw and paint to build stronger, richer, longer-lasting memories of the world around me.