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Sketching Rodin at the Montreal Fine Arts

September 18, 2015


This summer the MFA here in Montreal has been featuring an exhibition of sculptures by Auguste Rodin. (On until October 18).

The show is titled Metamorphoses: In Rodin’s Studio, and in keeping with that theme, it features a collection of fascinating smaller works and sculptural fragments, mostly presented as plaster casts.

It seems, the way the show’s curators present the work, that these small models were Rodin’s real passion. I would like to think so – they seem so full of energy and keen observation – as compared to the bombastic bronzes made for the courthouse steps.


There are of course monolithic figures as well. The famous Thinker, as well as figures from The Burghers of Calais. And this standing nude. Possibly it is Meditation: The Inner Voice. I can’t recall the title. But this one caught my eye. The stretched neck and classically antique severed arms are an ongoing theme in Rodin’s work.

But it was smaller works that drew my attention. I didn’t even look at the Thinker. To me, it’s been rendered uninteresting – conceptually buried by thousands of copies, editorial cartoons, and humorous t-shirts. Much like the unfortunate fate of the Mona Lisa.

These exciting smaller works are, I suppose, studies. Temporary works in clay, from which moulds have been taken, allowing the artist to make a plaster cast for use in the studio, or – when he had something noteworthy, these casts might be copied into marble or re-cast into bronze.



One room of the show is dedicated to what Rodin called “Coupes et Fleurs” (translated as Vessels and Flowers). In these, he combines ‘authentic’ classical objects – small clay jars and cups purchased from antique dealers – with fragments of statuary. Some do resemble vases and flowers. Some appear to be bathers. In others, the pale plaster figures rise out of the jars like incense smoke.


Later in the exhibition we see a series of charming arrangements, in which he combines broken fragments of plasters into new works. Using the head from one study on a torso of another, combining figures in interesting juxtapositions. Making new stories out of old.

This kind of playful re-combination of his leftover works seems like a very contemporary idea for the turn of the century.


My personal favorite of the show is a set of copies of his infamous Iris, Messagère des Dieu. (Iris, Messenger of God). As I recall, there was one in stone, and one in bronze on exhibition.

It is impossible to look at this piece from 1895 without thinking of The Origin of the World by Courbet (1866).


At this time, with the movement away from the baroque and towards truth and naturalism in art, it was inevitable that male artists would produce these sort of frank depictions of the female body.

Once these artists, academicians and rogues alike, give themselves permission to seek personal obsessions – rather than continue to serve up re-heated bible stories or historical propaganda – then the confrontationally eroticized nude seems unavoidable.

It can’t be denied, even to a modern audience, Rodin, and Corbet before him, are leveraging tremendous conceptual power by breaking social taboos. This supercharged exhibition of the body made for a lot of headlines. Any publicity is good publicity.

Friendly critics could call it a celebration of female power. Less compliant feminist analysts might see Rodin as the patriarch – appropriating the female body, using it for his own aggrandizement, and the titillation of his clients.

No matter how you react to the sculpture – it’s a striking piece – the most impactful in the show. Demonstrating both total mastery of modelling, and Rodin’s daring as an artist.


It is interesting that this too is one of his recycled works. I am reading on the Musee-Rodin site that the Iris figure was taken from a swooping angel-winged version of the Messenger – now turned right side up, and exposed with the contortionist’s flexibility of Rodin’s favorite models.

I cannot find (with a quick search) a confirmed account of who the model was – but even if this was a re-used torso, the sculpted limbs and splayed pose must surely have been done from life.

For sketching fans, here’s a look at my process. These sketches were drawn in a Moleskine Folio Watercolor Album (11.75×8.25”) while in the exhibit, using fountain pen and water soluble ink. Then painted off-site with a small watercolor kit. I’m impressed the museum does not restrict us to sketching in pencil, but of course, you have to leave the exhibit to paint. The drawings couldn’t have taken much more than five or ten minutes, most even less. Making it possible to draw standing without unduly blocking people in the crowded exhibit.


Of particular interest here is the (new to me) pigment Graphite Gray (Pbk #10). Used very wet, with a loaded brush in the shadows – most visible in Iris, and Meditation. I’m very much liking this extremely sedimentary silvery grey. It really does look like pencil or graphite stick, in watercolor form. I think it would be an ideal color to take to any major metropolitan area.

Other colors in this mini-kit: DS Moonglow, Quinn Gold Deep, Cobalt Teal, Perlyne Maroon, and Indigo.



The Hand Drawn Snapshot

September 13, 2015


I show a lot of ‘nice’ sketches on this blog. What I consider finished works. Things where I took a reasonable amount of time (45 minutes? an hour?). And things that often call for an easel and a watercolor kit. Today I wanted to show the opposite. Sketches that took 5 minutes or less. Drawn in a cheap 3×5″ pocket book with flimsy paper.

Sometimes when you’re travelling, you’re not in the mood for carrying your gear. Or you’re with people, and you don’t feel like asking everyone to wait for you. That’s when I go into snapshot mode. Drawing standing with two pens (my current favorites: a Platinum Carbon pen, and a Kuretake Sumi brushpen). Often I don’t even stop walking – getting the first few lines in, then doodling from memory while walking away. It doesn’t take any longer than pausing to take a photo. And I enjoy the feeling of filling up these tiny sketchbooks. The drawings are so fast, you can easily fill a book in an afternoon.

I enjoy these little booklets as keepsakes of the trip, and as small studies that I might paint from later. I might just take a detail – a boat I liked, or the shape of a palm tree, into a future studio painting. Mostly though, I just do them for the pure fun of it. Even if I never look back at them, every drawing builds your visual memory. Just like taking snapshots – probably they just go into your albums and lurk on your computer (or on my bookshelf) – but the act of taking them is a way of looking deeper at a place. It makes for lasting memories. And maybe when I’m old(er), those albums will come back out again. Who knows!

You can see the ‘for real’ paintings from this trip to Florida over here, and some more over here.


Sketching Characters at Montreal’s 18th Century Market

September 7, 2015

New_France_Market_2015 (2)

Every year the Pointe-a-Calliere museum takes over their corner of Montreal’s old port to put on the 18th century New France marketplace.

It’s always a great opportunity for USK:MTL to get together and sketch.

I imagine most people have some sort of costumed re-enactors group in their area? These guys above are the Compagnie du 2e Battalion du Régiment de la Sarre.

You might want to scout around your own area online. Many cities have some sort of military re-enactors, a local crew of pirates, or a medieval history group. I highly recommend this sort of thing for a fun afternoon sketching characters in fancy dress – and an opportunity to draw as much as you like without your subjects running off. (Not that they won’t move, but at least they’ll stay in the area :).

If anyone else has sketches from costumed events (or might be a re-enactor themselves?) – why not post a link to your drawings in the comments – and tell us when and where the event takes place. Maybe there are some people in your area that will turn up for the next event – sketchbooks at the ready!

New_France_Market_2015 (3)

New_France_Market_2015 (4)

For the artists out there, these are sketched in pencil while walking around following my subjects, and tinted with watercolor during lunch and teatime. I skipped drawing in pen and ink over the pencil as I sometimes do. These days I’m tending to do either pencil + color or straight-to-ink + color – but rarely all three, pencil and ink and color.

Even though I do recommend all three when teaching beginners, after a few years of thinking about this, I feel it drains some ‘freshness’ (and slows you down) if you do too much drawing before the paint.

So – as you get more comfortable, you can skip one step – and just get more drawings done in the session :)

New_France_Market_2015 (1)


Painting Underwater in Singapore

September 1, 2015

Singapore_Chinese Garden copy
[Chinese Garden, Jurong, 9×24″]

Let me just say – Singapore was nothing like what I expected.

This is entirely because I’m uneducated, and had no idea what to expect.

Other than it being a modern Asian city with a booming economy. And a democratic republic with a pretty decent reputation for transparency. What I was not really aware of (being basically clueless) was how multicultural it would be.

It was inspiring to see temples of three religions side by side on ‘harmony streets’. Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu all equally well used by a variety of people. It was equally great to see every hawker center (open air restaurant courts) representing ethnic foods from all these cultures. And then to see, in the faces of the people on the street, all these races intermixed.

I would hope this could just be normal everywhere – but it seemed to me a unique aspect of the city. Good for you Singapore! Thanks for that experience :)

Singapore_Japanese Garden
[Japanese Pavilion at the Chinese Garden, Jurong, 9×24″]

The other thing that completely overturned expectations was the fact you cannot paint in Singapore.

Well – eventually you can adapt. And certainly the locals can paint just fine. But I for one, found it to be the most challenging environment of any place I’ve ever watercolored. It reminded me most of that time I painted in the rain in Ithaca.

The challenge was not because of difficult subject matter or any lack of views – but simply because of the climate. The HUMIDITY. (And the heat). But my goodness – the HUMIDITY.

You might see a kind of wild abandon in the painting style on display here? A kind of splashy wet-in-wet and a sort of ‘mosaic’ feeling? Shapes floating on white spaces, a kind of composition that is perhaps on the edge of control? This is my compromise for the shocking conditions we encountered.

Simply put: watercolor will not dry in 100% humidity and 110 degrees.

I suppose the up-side is you have as much time as you like to work wet-into-wet. I had paper remain wet for over four hours. When you made a painting, you had to carry it flat for the rest of the day or colors would actually drip off the page. Some days I ended up only doing two paintings, needing to drop them off at the hotel between outings. My usual method of working larger-to-smaller and wetter-to-dryer in progressive layers, was simply off the table.  If I’d have been working in a sketchbook, I imagine all the pages would be stuck together.

Singapore_Grand Mosque
[The Sultan Mosque, Kampong Glam, 9×24″]

So – these works are not done in layers at all – but are made working edge-to-edge, stroke next to stroke, in a single wet shape. They are more reliant than ever on white space – defining shapes with dry paper edges.

I think I gravitated to this fix for the weather because I was just back from filming: Travel Sketching in Mixed Media.

If you look back to the previous post on the Brush pen silhouette exercise where I’m talking about shape welding and ‘growing silhouettes’ with black ink. This is exactly what’s going on here:) It’s amazing how descriptive you can be even with just black ink. You’re training yourself to make shapes with solid masses, and to be decisive about what you leave out. The small gaps and edges in the brushwork – the negative shapes – can be equally descriptive as the positive forms. All of these works, especially the Mosque above, are done with this kind of thinking – but with watercolor instead of ink.

I’m glad I filmed the class before going to Asia :) Thinking about teaching something, is the best way to get better at doing it. If I didn’t have this concept in my back pocket, I’d have been one frustrated sketch-tourist in Singapore.

Singapore_Garden By the Bay copy
[Giant Super Tree Sculptures at Gardens by the Bay, 9×24″]

Travel Sketching in Mixed Media: Lesson Sneak Peek – Silhouette Shapes

August 29, 2015

Lesson02_A_Brush Only_Example01

Here’s a sneak peek at the second concept in my new video class Travel Sketching in Mixed Media.

The course starts with the slightly more obvious approach of doing line drawings and tinting them with color. Then, by taking a look at the *opposite* way of thinking – building up from silhouette shapes instead of line – we can start to think about how a tonal sketch might work. To me, when they say painterly – this is what they mean. Thinking about masses of value, rather than linear contour.

In the course I go into a few ways to arrive at a study in shapes – the solid masses you can do with a brush pen, but also the accumulation of different line weights you can make with pen-hatching.

And finally, closing that section I show a sketch done with water soluble ink – in which you do a bit of both. Making a line drawing that you convert to masses by blending shapes with water. You can do this right on the spot, or come back later with the water.

I hope you’ll get a little something from each of the three ways to think about silhouettes and masses. This approach has been very useful for me on my recent trip to Asia – I’ll show you some more of that in the next few days :)

If you’re interested in joining the class to see the sketching happen, I have a special discount ($20 off the retail price!) for anyone reading this blog. Click over here to register at your Blog Reader’s Discount!

Last chance to see the MTL:USK Sketchers at Stewart Hall, Pointe Claire

August 27, 2015


Just a quick note – three more days to see some original artwork from myself, Shari Blaukopf and Jane Hannah on display at Stewart Hall Art Gallery in Pointe Claire QC. We each have a variety of framed artwork, and a few sketchbooks on display. If you’re in the area, the show remains up till Sunday afternoon.


Video Trailer for Travel Sketching in Mixed Media

August 25, 2015

This just in: The teaser/trailer for my new class Travel Sketching in Mixed Media. This short video gives you a brief look at the seven sections included in the 2.5 hour video series. Check it out, and don’t forget, if you register here on the blog, you get $20 off the retail price. (Click here!)


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