Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The ethics of sketching on the subway

Daumier, Riders on an Omnibus, 1864

Chuck Klosterman, ethicist for the New York Times, ponders whether it's OK to sketch strangers on the subway. His basic point is that:

"If you’re in public, people are allowed to look at you. This can be creepy and annoying, but it’s not unethical. If the individual scrutinizing you starts sketching your face, you can say, “Don’t do that,” and the person should stop (out of normal human courtesy). But the act is not inherently unethical."


Here are a few excerpts from the many comments after the piece:
  • "I am amused in this day of pervasive smart phone cameras that someone is concerned with the "invasiveness" of a hand drawn sketch."
  • "It's always best to ask permission if the activity is obvious or intrusive."
  • "I am a stealth sketcher. The way I do it, although they know I am drawing, they can't tell who I am drawing. I draw them when they are distracted, sleeping, reading or on the telephone so they don't notice."
I believe it's helpful to consider what might be going on in the mind of of the person being sketched:

Why is the artist interested in drawing me? 
Should I hold still?
Will he make me look good? 
How long will it take? 
Will I get to see the sketch afterward? 
If I like it, can I put it on Facebook?
Are they going to try to sell it to me? 
How are they going to use it? 
(Young woman's perspective might be) Is he hitting on me?

If the person being sketched is preoccupied with their phone or their book and doesn't notice the artist, the artist is under no obligation to tell them they're being sketched, and doing so could make the person self-conscious. But once the subject and the artist lock eyes, all the questions start playing in the subject's head. 

The artist can alleviate all the anxieties by addressing the questions in a friendly opener, such as: 

"Hi, I'm just getting some practice sketching people, hope you don't mind. Keep doing what you're doing. I'll be done in five more minutes and I'll show you when I finish." 

If they look annoyed after that, I'd probably try someone else, but nine times out of ten, you will have erased their worries and perhaps made a friend. 

Sometimes you're sitting too far away to make such a friendly request, or you're dealing with a language barrier and in that case, I have held up the sketchbook to face them, smiled, and raised my eyebrows, and pointed from the sketch to them, which helps clear the air a bit. That gives them the opportunity to decline politely nonverbally, by waving a finger or frowning.

If you're in a waiting room where you might wish to do a portrait with a lot more commitment, rather than stealth sketching, it's best to get permission and set the terms at the outset. Then you can say something like, "Hey, are you going to be around here a while? I'm an artist traveling around here, and I'd love to sketch your portrait while we talk." Asking permission up front from parents is also a good idea if you're a man sketching children in public places.

Many times people line up, wanting to be drawn or painted. In this case, I was painting a street scene on a rainy day, and a father and daughter came up to look at the painting and chat for a bit. Before they walked on, I asked them, "After you cross the street and get to the blue sign, would you mind holding a walking pose for a minute or so?" They did so, very willingly, and then turned around afterward to give me a happy wave goodbye.
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Previous GurneyJourney posts about making contact with people who noticed I was sketching them:
Logger in Supermarket
Tattooed Guy On the Train
Caught Sketching Girls in a Pizza Shop
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 Read the whole New York Times article
Thanks, Patrick

Monday, July 28, 2014

Coming Soon: New Video on Watercolor


Two weeks from today I'll be releasing an art teaching video all about plein-air painting in water media called "Watercolor in the Wild."


The 72-minute HD video will cover all the nuts and bolts of materials, including watercolors, water brushes, and water-soluble colored pencils. I'll show a few basic tricks and techniques, and then I'll bring you along on six outdoor painting adventures, demonstrating both beginning and advanced techniques for urban sketching.


The six paintings include two architectural subjects, a figure in landscape, two animal drawings, and a spontaneous location portrait. Since you asked for videos that show the whole process from start to finish, I made sure to document all six paintings from the first pencil lines to the final touches, along with detailed, helpful commentary and plenty of closeup details.

If you're an experienced artist wanting to try more water media, or if you're a beginner interested in trying out watercolor or taking your art out "into the wild" for the first time, you'll find this video practical, inspiring, and entertaining.


Here's a photo from the episode where I paint Rosebud, a baby miniature horse. She took a 15-minute nap, and I did a painting while she slept. I documented the whole thing on video from start to finish in real time.


I worked hard to make this one of those art videos that you'll want to watch again and again, because it's both entertaining and informative.

The video will be available as an HD download and a DVD. The DVD will have the addition of a slide show of my plein-air watercolors.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cartoons about Modern Art


 For more than a century, cartoonists have loved to take aim at modern art.


This 1910 cartoon caricatures the paintings themselves. Around them, exhibition patrons express various forms of puzzlement and consternation. In the upper right, an American art student likes the color harmonies. At the bottom is a group of people laughing uproariously, with the line "From the pictures' point of view."

From Britain's humor magazine Punch: "Farmers! Protect your crops using 'Binks Patent Futurist Scarecrow'. Specially designed by an eminent Cubist. No bird has ever been known to go within three fields of it."

 "I just can't wait to see your work, old fellow." (Peter Arno, 1953)

A Renaissance painter comes up with the tomato soup idea long before Warhol.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Ghostly Gaze Illusion

Here's an optical illusion. This woman seems to be looking to our left when we see her up close, but she switches to looking to our right when we back up and look at the same face from across the room.

Here are two women with light gray eyes. They're looking more or less forward, right?

If you look at the same image files at a much smaller scale, the eyes of the two women seem to be looking at each other instead of looking forward. 

To create the faces, scientists rendered the eyes so that the sideways-looking eyes were rendered in the form of coarse, blurry detail, and the forward-looking eyes were rendered with fine detail. 

Back up enough and these ladies will all smile at you.

Our brains process fine and coarse detail in different ways, as was first made famous with the Albert Einstein / Marilyn Monroe hybrid image illusion. That's also why we need to back up from our portrait paintings while we're working on them. Otherwise we can unknowingly set up contradictory information streams at the level of fine and coarse detail. Every portrait painter has experienced eyes that seem to move or a smile that seems to change when the piece is viewed from farther back.

These gaze illusions have an eerie effect because it's so important to us humans to know which way another person is looking, and misreading gaze direction is a major issue for social interaction. That's also why it creeps us out to talk to someone up close who is wearing mirror shades.
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The twin gaze illusion was created by Rob Jenkins of the University of Glasgow.
Hybrid images are a technique first published by Philippe Schyns & Aude Oliva in 1994.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Zorn's Self Confidence

Anders Zorn (1860-1920) painted this portrait of an executioner in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) while he was on his honeymoon in 1885.

Just 25 years old, Zorn was brimming with self confidence. "I never spent much time thinking about others' art. I felt that if I wanted to become something, then I had to go after nature with all my interest and energy, seek what I loved about it, and desire to steal its secret and beauty. I was entitled to become as great as anyone else, and in that branch of art so commanded by me, watercolor painting, I considered myself to have already surpassed all predecessors and contemporaries."

He later translated the portrait into an etching, which is necessarily reversed.

The quote comes from Zorn's autobiographical notes, included in the recent book Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Magic Realism

Magic realism is a genre of art which endows otherworldly significance to ordinary things. The suggestion of death, the hint of history invading the present, or the sense of inanimate objects coming to life is woven into mundane reality.

Robert Vickrey 1926-2011

The movement goes back at least to the 1920s and originated in literature, with a special vitality in Spanish speaking countries. In painting, the movement was defined by the “Magic Realism” show of 1943 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The curators describe artists using "sharp focus and precise representation" to "make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike and fantastic visions."
George Tooker, "Government Bureau," 1956
One of the ground rules to magic realism is that the dreamlike effect has to happen without any overtly fantastical elements, such as dragons, space ships, unicorns, or trolls—or even fantastical effects, such as glowing rays, levitation, or morphing.

"Spring" by Andrew Wyeth, 1978
Andrew Wyeth often combined familiar things from his world in strange ways, such as showing the aging Karl Kuerner lying in one of the last bits of snow on the field opposite his house to suggest the death and rebirth of spring.

Gary Ruddell, born 1951
Among contemporary artists, not everyone fits the description of "sharp focus and precise representation." Sometimes motion blurs and simple backgrounds convey the magic, as with the science-fiction-cover-artist turned gallery painter Gary Ruddell,  whose paintings often deal with points of decision, rites of passage, and the inability to communicate.

Among contemporary photographers, Gregory Crewdson stages off-kilter scenarios of ordinary people in everyday surroundings, but often in states of undress or with weird lighting that he carefully sets up in Hollywood-style shoots. It looks almost plausible, but strangely otherworldly.

In film, magic realism (or the more recent term "magical realism") might include Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, Jan Jakub Kolski's Venice,  and Alfonso Arau's Like Water for Chocolate.