History of drapery in painting

Anne Hollander’s book Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting has been reprinted and is available to order from Book Depository or Amazon and, no doubt, many other places.

hollander_fabricI have been so keen to read this book, but second-hand  copies of the original 2002 edition haven’t been affordable and I didn’t want to make an expensive mistake. There are no copies in the West Australian state library system, but Trove revealed there are actually two copies here, both in university libraries. I don’t have borrowing rights for either. (Trove is a wonderful resource but it does generate great envy – the other states between them have 22 copies, including many available to the public.)  In desperation, I called on a friend who happens to have the correct library card…

After reading it cover to cover, I will never draw or paint my scraps of fabric in ignorance again. The wealth of history in drapery through the ages, the significance, the styles and layers of meaning are complex, enthralling and eye-opening. It is one of those books from which note-taking is useless because there would be so many I would need to re-type the whole thing. It’s value is as a reference so all those half-remembered passages may be re-examined with more care when needed. Or dipped into for inspiration by flipping through to look at the pictures or, rather, the pictures she has chosen to juxtapose.

Even though it was written by a respected scholar in conjunction with an exhibition it is actually an engaging, easy read, with a story to tell. Yes, I was concerned that it would be dense or worse, one of those catalogues with tiny illustrations and a difficult essay that doesn’t say much at all! My quest was rewarded and, in my experience, If you too are into making art of drapery and want to know about those whose footsteps we follow: this book belongs on your shelf.

I certainly got what I needed from the library book – the sure knowledge that I will order a copy of my own.  I am very grateful for the loan.

Apollo Dorian’s values #2

Still not quite convinced by the calculated values for the bevelled cube I did the only sensible thing I could think of and made some to test. (Very simple, just bits of wood cut to shape with a bandsaw and painted with acrylics.)

Then painted a picture of them under ordinary studio light taking care to match the values I was seeing:

Painted blocks exercise using Apollo Dorian values
Bevelled cube study in acrylics

It doesn’t work with Apollo’s values because I am seeing the effect of two light sources (the overhead light which lights my easel plus the one set up for the subject.) My mistake. Tried again with a shadow box to exclude the top light.

Painting study of cubes in controlled light
Bevelled cube studies in controlled light

I actually tried many lights and setups but could not recreate Dorian’s values for light and shade. The darkest I could get the white in shadow was V7 – a long way short of his V4.

Also the value for the light side of the black cube measured at V4. I found it impossible to replicate the rule-of-thumb taught everywhere that “a black cube in the light is the same value as a white cube in shadow”.

This exercise for me has highlighted the value (couldn’t resist the pun) of actually recreating examples rather than merely accepting something read in a book. Any book.

Apollo Dorian’s values

It is too stinking hot to paint outside or in the studio during the day so I’ve begun a study project that I can do using my plein air kit and small panels in bad light. (The coolest rooms in the house have the worst light…) One gets very spoiled working outside where the light on panel and subject is either plentiful or controllable.

Apollo Dorian’s book Values for Pictures Worth a Thousand Words is a step by step explanation of American teacher Frank J. Reilly’s lessons. (Another great resource for that is John Ennis’ website The Reilly Papers.) It’s all about knowing how to manipulate values to express a lighting situation when painting realistically from imagination. Very useful for days like this when it 47°C outside (and even hotter in the shed studio).

I have read Apollo’s book several times but I confess that reading for me is not the same as doing, so for the next month I’m going to paint his examples myself. I expect in painting them, with my own materials and limitations, to get a more useful outcome than merely nodding at the page and thinking I got it.

I can do these in poor light because I am painting the values Apollo specifies with the Munsell neutrals I have already mixed and stored in syringes. Kept in the fridge like this they last just fine. (This an old pic from an earlier post – the only difference since then is that I cut the block down to fit just the set of greys and use the other bit for other colours).

Storing oil paint in syringes

Step one is some bevelled cubes. Painted according to this diagram from the book:


Apollo Dorian painting exercise

Painted, it looks like this. Not convincing at all. I realised that what I took to be values for a plane 45° to the light is actually intended to be a suggested halftone value. The half-tone on a sphere would only be this dark for a tiny band close to the terminator. The point would have been clearer if the diagram showed a sphere rather than a bevelled cube! (My mistake, but that’s why I am doing this.)

Keen to know what that plane should be I asked Ron Francis (the modern master of painting reality from imagination). He agreed “Even without our eyes adjusting the brightness, the amount of radiated energy would be close to 71%, (value 7.1), and if we take perceived brightness into account, it would appear to be 87% (value 8.7)”. He also pointed to the page on Dr David Brigg’s ‘Dimension of Colour’ website about the Effect of Inclination to Light. Perfect.

Painting exercise cubes with Apollo Dorian's values



Sir Alfred East “The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour”

"The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour" by Sir Alfred Edward East

An interesting post on The Landscape Atelier blog this morning mentioned a book called The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour by Sir Alfred Edward East (1844- 1913).

A quick Google search for the book turned up several links to the title as an audio book. How useful is that? An art book as an audio book? What about the pictures? The ones that illustrate the points the author is making? OK, I am curious and will listen while I paint this afternoon.

Keep searching and you might find the Kindle version on Amazon. Do a “look inside” and you will notice two things – firstly it has been badly digitised, the text is scrambled, secondly it has been stolen from Internet Archive (a resource which is free for everyone). Grrr…

Searching again with the name simplified to Alfred East yields success, Internet Archive does indeed have the print book – several versions – the good one is this one: https://archive.org/details/artoflandscapepa00eastrich



Alla Prima

Alla Prima by Richard Schmid is one of my favourite art instruction books. But before I go on about it – the reason for the post in fact – is that this book is very much still in print and not readily available secondhand. It’s not listed on Amazon as a new book – only a few secondhand copies and those are priced high. There aren’t many secondhand ones because it’s a keeper! Perceived rareness means high prices – in this case anything from $70 from an Amazon reseller to $750 for an ex-library copy advertised at Abebooks… (the word soundrel just came to mind.) Bottom line – Alla Prima is available from the author’s website. They are easy to deal with and prompt – my copy arrived in Western Australia without fuss or delay. Urban rumour has that Richard self published Alla Prima because several publishers knocked him back when he presented his first manuscript. It’s now in it’s seventh printing…

OK, a brief opinion because I absolutely have to get up to the studio and get some work done.

This is not a book for the rank beginner. Actually it might be if you’re a serious beginner. Where it really comes in is for those who have been painting for a bit and are frustrated with both their own efforts and the myriad of conflicting advice from books, workshops and artists who insist that their way is the only way. That’s the biggest thing I took away from this book back when I was dizzy-headed with exactly that.

His offering by way of instruction is more of a good sound discussion with an experienced artist blessed with commonsense and a sense of humour. He encourages you to work – with a clear indication of what work you need to do. There are no promises of instant anything.

Like this on composition after a discussion that sorts out nomenclature; separating harmony, pattern, balance, lines of direction, movement etc etc…

How do you make judgements about your own designs? My advice is to learn all you can about what has already been done. There are many books available that present design theory with helpful graphics and in more detail than this book. Some books are worthwhile, but others, because they are so rigidly dogmatic, or even written in vague terms, should not be taken seriously. Make sure that the ideas and explanations in them are written in plain everyday English instead of arty gobbledygook such as this: “Unity is harmony in balance with objective rhythmic dynamics.” That kind of drivel is simply ostentation concealing ignorance, and it leads nowhere.

And, no, I ain’t getting a free copy of the new book to say any of that. I just got mad that there are rip-off merchants out to get any anyone who goes looking for a copy of a book they’ve heard good things about.



Kailis Fremantle
Kailis Fremantle

The view you would be seeing while sitting outside Kailis Brothers Fremantle which munching on fish & chips

Yes, I “wasted” yesterday relaxing by the ocean, sipping tea at Dome and cruising the secondhand bookshops. I should have been painting.

Brought home two books: one on Velazquez (which only almost satisfies the itch over the one in my Amazoncart) and another on Alan Fearnley’s paintings of classic cars. Will review that one another day ‘cos it made the day off worth it even if it didn’t ease the guilt. Well that one and another book, which I didn’t buy, on American artists. Liked it because it had a few pages on Andrew Wyeth but didn’t like it because it only had a few pages on Andrew Wyeth. Thus the book on Velazquez in the Amazon cart has been joined by two books on Andrew Wyeth. (I’m thinking Memory and Magic and Autobiography. Comments anyone?*). Those joining a book about the Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia which was already there. Oh crumbs.

What do Wyeth and Garcia have in common (along with my other idols Alex Colville and Edward Hopper)? They are all sometimes classed amongst the “magical realists”. The what? If you want to know know more there’s a pretty good article at Ten Dreams.

And Antonio Lopez Garcia? Try this:

Have fun, a

*Too late too wait for comments on the Wyeth books they’re here. They’re great.

Eric Griffiths on art

Modelling in Clay by Eric Griffiths

Griffiths Modelling in Clay

The Technique of Modelling in Clay by Eric Griffiths (1987) is essentially a book about just that but Eric also has opinions on art in general and isn’t afraid to say so. In his own words “this book is full of my opinions …remember it is only another artists approach” and the “only duty you have is to accept or reject this book’s contents as it suits your need and fancy”.

In the introduction he talks about the role of the teacher, expressing a preference for being considered an expert. He sees a teacher as someone with access to specialized knowledge which may be taught, examined and rewarded with meaningful qualifications. He believes this approach has little to do with the practice of art because it’s a course of study without an end, for which the exams are the models made and for which the most important skill is the “ability to rely on your own self judgement”.

Craft skill is a commodity that one person can hand on to another whereas art is a much more indistinct thing – more difficult to define – and is not something that can be passed from hand to hand. It is a mysterious quality that is either part of your personality or not. Art is a combination of ego or individuality with a quality of creative imagination. Whether you have art within you can only be resolved by you.

Eric Griffiths’ first lesson is that we must travel our own road accepting responsibility for our art and then learn to make our own evaluations of what is right .

Copies of The Technique of Modelling in Clay are available secondhand from Advanced Book Exchange. I found the one I’m reading at my local library. I’ll continue this next time with his thoughts on craft…

Have fun


Art books – free online

Some of the classic art books are just that: classic! There are, however, some real gems amongst them.
Walter Crane ebook cover
Of the several online libraries that have titles available for download my favourite is the Internet Archive because they offer books in PDF format among others and don’t tease with a bunch of books that are just “snippet view” as do Google Books.

Internet Archive

Sketching and rendering in pencil (1922) by Arthur Guptill

French Art Classic and Contemporary Painting and Sculpture by W. C. (William Crary) Brownell (1851-1928)

Landscape painting (1909) by Birge Harrison

Modern painting by George Moore (1852-1933)

A Text-Book of the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke (1856-1932)

A treatise on painting by Cennino Cennini (15th century)

On drawing and painting by Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935)

The practice of oil painting and of drawing as associated with it (1911) by Solomon J Solomon

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s discourses on art (1891) edited by Edward Gilpin Johnson

Google Books

When you go to Google Books do a search but don’t get too excited with the list that comes up. At the top left of the results of your search there will be a drop-down box “Books showing”. Select “Full View” – to get the ones worth bothering with. Once you have the book you want you can read online or look to the top right for ways to save the file – eg PDF…

An Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth (1810)

Lectures on Painting Delivered at the Royal Academy by Henry Fuseli

The art of drawing in perspective by James Ferguson (1778) – definitely a classic…

Project Gutenburg

Line and Form by Walter Crane

Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures by Henry Rankin Poore

Outdoor Sketching by Francis Hopkinson Smith

The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed

The Mind of the Artist – Thoughts and Sayings of Painters and Sculptors on Their Art edited by Cicely Margaret Powell Binyon

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) translated by Michael Sadleir (1888-1957)

Lectures on Landscape delivered at Oxford in Lent Term, 1871 by John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Fischli & Weiss

Heard of them? They’re the artists behind a film called The Way Things Go. I will explain but I’m supposed to be up the hill finishing a painting (it’s not going that well which is why I’m down here – I’m procrastinating…) so I’ll make this quick by quoting You Tube:

In 1987 Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss built a enormous, precarious structure 100 feet long out of common items. Using fire, water, gravity, and chemistry they create a mind-blowing chain reaction of physical and chemical interactions and precisely crafted chaos.

And while I was grabbing that I borrowed a teaser of the animation – about 4 minutes worth – the real thing goes for half an hour. (Yeah, yeah, I know about the Honda advert – these guys did it first.)

So why am I telling you about a 20+ year old video now? I first saw it 3 years ago and, quite simply, had never forgotten it. It was in class – I only saw it once. Grrr… This past year I’ve done pretty nothing but animation. (Now doing pretty much nothing but paint.) Then just a month ago I stumbled on a little book about the film – tell you about that in a minute – and for the hell of it went hunting. Sure enough, it’s now out on DVD and available from Amazon. I wasn’t sure if it would work in our clunky old DVD player but intrepid I am. And it does. Yes!

In the same package came a copy of a book put out by the Tate on F&W’s retrospective called Flowers & Questions. Cut to the point here – it’s a good book – lots of pictures interspersed between articles/critiques/reviews by different writers. OK, so a few of them are dull and academic, but most are an easy and interesting read. Each is followed by a bunch of pictures of the particular work they were talking about. It’s one of those books that you can dip into when you have a few minutes. Good with coffee.

The big surprise was that F&W have done so much other work using materials as varied as plaster, unfired clay, photos, more films and, best of all, sculptures of everyday objects made with polyurethane. The objects are convincingly real – imagine a workman’s bench in a small room in a gallery looking exactly like that – no didactic – yet everything in there is fake. People stick their head in to look and suffer the uncomfortable feeling that they’ve intruded on a someone’s workspace. A delightful twist on Brillo boxes… And craftsmanship ain’t always such a bad thing. I (and no doubt every other self-respecting sculptor), having seen this, am curious as to what the material actually is – a quick Google says there are lots of kinds of polyurethane.

The other book, the one that prompted all of this search, was The Way Things Go by Jeremy Millar, is OK but not as easy to get along with. It’s smaller but then it’s only looking at that one work. One for die-hard enthusiasts or fellow academia. Good selection of pictures of the the film though. And not too expensive – sooooo – if you have a parcel on the way maybe do F&W justice and read both.

Have fun, Amanda

Old Masters and Young Geniuses

Old Masters and Young Geniuses

I expect I’m entirely normal in my struggle with questions as to the right and wrong ways to make art. The early part of the muddle was the worst, when it was all new and the edicts many. The time when it was simply a lot to remember: colour theory, perspective, how to mix plaster, why not to use a favourite brush to apply latex… Then the moments of undisputed nitwitism, for example, a country-living history meant that I had mixed copious loads of concrete for 2 chook sheds, a bike shed and countless step footings –reckoning on fact that I knew a thing or two about cement and said so – not thinking that it was agro to bare skin because I’d always used a mixer and garden gloves without issue. Eek! Red face in addition to red hands. Anyways, add to that a seemingly endless array of mediums and thinking it necessary or possible to be expert in everything and one has a recipe for issues, more so while noticing that some artists appeared to be master of none and revered for it.

Then the dawning realization that much of the advice was conflicting! It took me a while to notice… It would have helped enormously to know that the Impressionists really were in battle with the realists who came before them, and that most practitioners speak authoritatively on their niche without a nod to the existence or legitimacy of others. Yeah, that’s an argument for getting a bit of history before launching into the how-to books. No, I never have disagreed with that. My irritation with art education – argued at length here – is on the relevance of what is included in the curriculum and consequently what is left out. Understanding the “timelineliness” of art would have been more useful than the ways in which the Gothic cathedral was as much a civic building as a religious one.

But then I came into art by accident – wanting to make sculpture for a garden. Nothing flash: elegantly simple bird baths would have done. I thought real art was Titian, ugly modern stuff and overpriced minimalist excuses for not wanting a proper job… Another reason as to why art history needs to be relevant and touched on in earlier schooling (before we get channeled off into mathematics or some such…)

The next conundrum was that some artists are famous early on, without the benefit of solid skills or even the yen to get any (usually the ugly modern and lazy minimalist) while others took a life time to get solid craft behind their art often dying poor and unrecognized. Me? I figured I wanted both – fast skills to make great bird baths. Then realized to my surprise that I had a knack for this stuff – I could draw after all, had an eye for form and so much creativity bottled up, that it was that which had been slowly driving me crazy. Get it out or go under. Clearly, the bird baths hadn’t been enough. The evidence was there all along, I was just slow in coming to the party. OK, so I ended up knowing I fit. (Well, sort of.) It was then the confusion became really overwhelming.

All that is simply to explain (the long way) why reading Old Master and Young Geniuses by David Galenson has felt like one of those hit over the head moments. A turning point that has changed not so much what I do but that it’s OK that I do it. I came out of it with a sure sense of the validity of my process, no less. Heady stuff that plonked me on firmer ground as why I want to work the way I do.

David is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago which means he has cred. He also has a fair bit of education and interest in art and art history which seems an odd mix of the prosaic and the fanciful. Needless to say, this gives him the means to look at art from an entirely different vantage point, or in other words, he ran some stats on artists… gasp.

He asked a bunch of questions. What’s the relationship between stage of life and quality of art? What is quality anyway and how do we measure it? He decided that importance couldn’t be evaluated by the hoopla of short term popularity or economic success. He decided that real worth belonged to those artists who made innovations that a have had a lasting impact on other artists; and the value of that influence be decided by experts such as critics, scholars and curators. He chose to measure by counting things like the outcomes of auctions, the number of illustrations in textbooks and which works from various stages of careers were included in retrospectives. Interesting method and numbers, maybe, but what’s more enthralling are his conclusions.

Old Masters and Young Geniuses convincingly argues that there are two types of artists: either experimental or conceptual. The experimental artists have careers which tend to be dominated by single ill-defined objectives which are achieved in a tentative and incremental fashion. They often work without preliminary drawing or planning, effectively discovering the image within the process. Typically such artists rarely feel they have succeeded and are seen as perfectionists plagued by frustration and unfinished works. Notable examples would be Cezanne and Pollock. Conceptual artists, however, work to communicate specific ideas or emotions by systematically executing a clear vision. Much of their work is in the planning and detailed studies which leave the completion of the work itself to be something of a formality, often so much so, that it may even be delegated to others. Clear members of this group would be Warhol, Chuck Close and Robert Smithson.

Where this distinction between two creative methods becomes useful to us is in the recognition that experimental and conceptual are styles are at either end of a spectrum. Most artists lie somewhere in between these opposites, with a leaning toward one, balanced with a little of the other. Do you need pedantic accuracy achieved by repeatedly painting over an image? Or have evidence in the form of piles of meticulous studies to prove a more conceptual inclination? It’s also possible to change that position over the course of a career, as Picasso did. Knowing that there is a spectrum offers not just an understanding of where we fit in, and permission to experiment looking for that which feels right, all the while knowing that all possibilities are valid. It’s comforting to know that we don’t have to try to emulate both Rembrandt (experimental) and Bridget Riley (conceptual). Not all at once, anyhow…

David continues to explore the meaning of the polarity of creativity by looking at scholars, writers, film makers and sculptors in addition to painters showing that his thesis pans out to artists and thinkers of many disciplines. He looks at the cyclical nature of the two styles and the reactions and roles of critics and dealers. He also looks at our current position as a conceptual art world postulating that we may well be ready for an experimental backlash. A reassuring thought for those who like to see a good dollop of craft as the basis for a work of art. Now that’s an odd thought.

Well worth a read!