DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Painting in Negative

Filed under: Drawing: Experimenting — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 01:07

Firesprite, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

When I was a teen in the 1970’s, I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a wonderful experimental toy in the pre-digital era.  One time I wrote a “message from the aliens”, analyzing the words into phonemes and then trying to speak the whole thing into the recorder in reverse order, to be played backwards by reversing the tape.  The result was barely intelligible – it sounded like someone with a heavy Scandinavian accent trying to speak on the inbreaths.  If I had this tape at hand I would post a sound clip, but I don’t, so you’ll have to imagine it.  At the time, there was a lot of talk in the media about “backward masking“, supposedly concealed or subliminal messages on commercial music recordings.  That was probably my inspiration for that little experiment.  In this post I’m sharing a similar experiment I’ve done recently with painting.

As you know, if you follow this blog, for many years I have used artists’ crayons on black or gray paper in my regular practice of life drawing.  A few months ago, I decided to switch to watercolor painting in order to bring new challenges to the routine.  The most difficult thing for me to get used to with the new medium is working with white paper.  Using crayons and dark paper, I was able to begin by building up the highlights, more natural to my way of seeing than starting with the darks.  In the watercolor technique I’m developing, I occasionally use white gouache (opaque water-based paint) in combination with the transparent watercolors, but the painting technique mainly starts with a white ground and works subtractively.

My approach to drawing has always been influenced by my study of photography.  Film records only light.  It does not see darkness, except as the absence of light.   Most traditional analog photography works through a negative process.  Where light strikes the film, the developed film is darkened, creating a negative, an image in which light is dark and dark is light.  In a color negative, hues are represented by their complementary hues – red becomes turquoise, yellow becomes blue violet, green becomes magenta or purple, blue becomes orange.  A print is made by exposing light-sensitive paper through the original negative.  A double negative becomes a positive, so the lights, darks, and colors of the original scene are reversed, restored to the original,  in the print.

Today I decided to try an experiment of painting in negative.  I would take a photograph such as the fire shot above, and digitally “invert” the colors and values, creating a negative image, as below.

Firesprite, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt, digitally inverted

I printed the negative image and made a painting based on the inverted image.  The painting below uses three watercolor pigments:  phthalocyanine (a greenish blue, complementary to red), ultramarine (a deep violet blue, complementary to yellow), and cerulean (a light sky blue, complementary to orange).  I’m using the paint to selectively subtract from a white ground, but if I make a negative from my painted negative, I’ll be painting light on a dark ground!

Firesprite, 2012, watercolor by Fred Hatt

Now, how will it look when I digitally invert this painting, converting dark to light, and colors to their complementary hues?  Not bad!  The result is a pretty good painterly representation of fire.  In watercolor painting, the darker the color, the more saturated it can be.  In the inverted form, the brightest colors are the most saturated.  Would I have been able to capture the look of fire so well by painting with positive colors on a white ground?

Firesprite, 2012, watercolor by Fred Hatt, digitally inverted

Fire is a luminous phenomenon, and clearly lends itself to such a technique.  What will happen with a figurative subject?  For a model, I chose a photograph of Kayoko Nakajima, the dancer who organized the dancing/drawing performance featured in last week’s post.  Here, Kayoko poses standing in the water of a lake in Harriman Park, in the Catskills region of New York.

Kayoko at Harriman, 2005, photo by Fred Hatt

In the negative, Kayoko’s skin takes on a blue hue, while the greenish reflections on the surface of the water have a purplish tone.

Kayoko at Harriman, 2005, photo by Fred Hatt, digitally inverted

I made a very rough watercolor painting based on the negative version of the photo.

Kayoko at Harriman, 2012, watercolor by Fred Hatt

And here it is, digitally inverted to negative values.  There’s not enough brightness variation between the lower area and the upper area of the water in the picture, but the skin colors are more accurate than I would have predicted.

Kayoko at Harriman, 2012, watercolor by Fred Hatt, inverted

For this post, it would probably have worked better to have the images side-by-side, so you wouldn’t have to scroll up and down to compare paintings with photographs, negatives with positives.  You’ll have to bear with the limitations of the format to make the comparisions.  I really like the effects I can get in negative painting.  Now I’m thinking about trying this technique directly from life.  That will entail looking at light and seeing dark, looking at red and seeing blue-green.  Will it work as well without using photographs as a transitional medium?  Unlikely!  But perhaps a worthy experiment.

The original watercolor paintings in this post are 11″ x 14″.


A Toe in the Water

Sketch with watercolors and brush, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I’ve been doing art sessions with a good friend’s seven year old daughter.  She wanted to learn about painting and I thought pan watercolors would be a good medium to start with – vivid colors, cheap, and not too messy.  Sharing her beginner’s joy with watercolors inspired me to try working with pan watercolors in the life drawing sessions I attend regularly, and in this post I’ll share some of the results from my first two weeks of struggling with this medium, which I have never before attempted to master.

Many of my readers are art students, so this blog is my platform to be a teacher.  I supervise an uninstructed weekly life drawing session at Spring Studio in New York.  A lot of older, experienced artists attend the session regularly.  Many of them have done life drawing or painting practice for decades.  I’ve noticed that while nearly all of them have a pretty good style and technique, most long ago settled into a comfortable rut.  They stopped when they got good, kept doing what worked for them, and haven’t learned anything new in a long time.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the magic of art as a practice is that it is possible to keep it growing and expanding for a lifetime, and they’re missing out on that.

In this blog I always urge pushing the envelope, going out of your comfort zone, being willing to fail.  I often try different drawing materials and techniques for quick drawings, work on varying scale, and experiment in various ways.  But in my developed drawings I too could be accused of working the comfortable rut.  I developed my technique of drawing with aquarelle crayons on gray or black paper a long time ago.  It’s a great way of working, perfectly suited to my strengths and tendencies, and difficult for other people to copy.  I can easily vary the technique to make it more impressionistic or expressionistic or stylized or classical.  I’ve made the medium my own.

But once you’ve mastered something it may be time to move on to something that remains a challenge, to get back to the Zen ideal of “beginner’s mind”.  Watercolor struck me as an ideal challenge, because it goes against almost everything I love about the crayon technique.

With the crayons, I start with a dark ground and build from the highlights first.  With watercolors, the paper is white and paint can only make it darker.  With crayons, my focus is bold, linear, gestural.  Watercolors are soft by nature, and intensity is only achieved by incremental washing.  With crayons, I use additive, optical mixing of colors.  With watercolors, colors blend subtractively.  My style of drawing is to dive in spontaneously and then to work towards correcting mistakes in subsequent layers.  Watercolors are transparent, making it nearly impossible to correct things by going over them.

Companheiros, 2011, by Fred Hatt

In quick drawings, one minute to five minutes, I’m still drawing with my flowy linear style.  The watercolor brush is far more responsive to touch than a pencil or pen.  Speed and pressure affect line thickness, but density also varies according to the ratio of water and pigment in the brush, and whether the brush dashes quickly or lingers as it moves.

Stepping Forward, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here are two beautifully expressive quick poses from my great friend Claudia, the Museworthy blogger.

Onde, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Compared to a pen, pencil, or crayon, the brush is hard to control.  There’s almost no friction – it’s like walking on wet ice.

Réveil, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here are some ten and twenty minute watercolor sketches from the sessions at Brooklyn’s Figureworks Gallery, with the wonderfully idiosyncratic models Taylor and Jillian.

Lying on Side, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I’m still more or less drawing with the brush.  Some watercolor painters use watercolor-specific techniques like letting the paint infuse into pre-wetted paper.  So far, I’m using regular inexpensive sketch paper and painting “wet on dry”.

Supplicant, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Maybe with tube watercolors you can get deep colors right out of the tube.  With these pan watercolors every color goes on pretty thin, and then gets even lighter as it dries.  You have to paint multiple layers to get any density.  This may be a good thing, since there’s no erasing.

Rayon Vert, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The dryer I can keep the brush, the more controllable the line is.  By combining wet and dry application I can use some of my pencil drawing techniques but also blended shading.

Tea Drinker, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Little touches of color can suggest area color without filling it in.

Vanquished, 2011, by Fred Hatt

On the one below, I lightly sketched in the figure with crayons, then used watercolor for the shading and colors.  The foreshortening of the right leg at the bottom of the page is a bit awkward here, but the torso is wonderfully present.

Rêverie, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Just this week I tried for the first time using watercolors for a long pose at the three-hour session I supervise at Spring Studio on Monday mornings.  I allowed myself to use crayons for the initial rough sketch, and to sharpen highlights and shadows at the end of the session, but besides those small touches, this is all watercolor.

Športnik, 2011, by Fred Hatt

I was getting a little too adept at crayon drawing.  Working with watercolors, I’m struggling again, and it feels good.  I think I’ll keep working with this medium for a while, so expect to see more here, perhaps mixed in with crayon drawings.

All the pieces in this post are 18″ x 24″, pan watercolors (sometimes with aquarelle crayon) on paper.


Chaotic Landscape

Filed under: Drawing: Experimenting — Tags: , , , , , , , — fred @ 21:36


Mixed Grass, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Drawing landscapes and plants is not my strong suit.  I love wildernesses and gardens, but I feel overwhelmed trying to capture their forms in drawing or painting.  They present a bewildering chaos of detail, a vast, borderless scale, and a range of color and tone that makes my palette look paltry.  My urge to draw operates comfortably at the scale of the human body, a form and an expressive range I know intimately from inside and out.  But the body is a product of Earth, an efflorescence of organic forms that reflect evolutionary history and evoke the forms of the land and its creatures.  A hip is a hill, an ear a shell, an elbow a crooked branch.  Even if the body is my primary subject, I need to understand it as a microcosm by looking to the macrocosm.  And purely from the standpoint of practice, I can only benefit by straying outside my comfort zone, trying to draw what I am incompetent to draw.  In this post I’ll present some of my awkward stabs at landscape.  I’ll immediately make them look worse by setting them in the context of some real masters!

The sketch of my own I’ve chosen to head this post was made while looking at a field of mixed short grasses and weeds in a rural field.  I was struck by the variety of different leaf shapes all jumbled together.  What seems at first glance a tranquil and plush tapestry of green becomes on close inspection a dense jungle, and that is surely how it would appear if you could shrink to the size of an ant to make your way through it.

Below is Albrecht Dürer’s astonishingly realistic watercolor portrayal of a similar patch of sod, known as the “Great Piece of Turf”  (Go to this link to see it in a much larger size).  Botanists can clearly identify at least nine species of herbs in this drawing.  The production of this painting was an act of profound and sustained meditation on the reality of nature, made at a time when nature in art was usually idealized and symbolic, a mere setting for human and spiritual subjects.  The artist’s intensity of attention, directed at something that most would see as utterly inconsequential, has preserved a bit of nature over the centuries like a specimen in amber.  Dürer has captured the chaotic quality of wild plant life, but has somehow given it a kind of clarity that even photography couldn’t provide.  This painting sets a standard that every great naturalist illustrator can only hope to approach.

The Great Piece of Turf, 1503, by Albrecht Dürer

Even if the detail of photography rarely achieves the clarity of Dürer’s vision, by the late nineteenth century many painters had ceded this kind of hard physical detail to the new light-capturing technology and tried instead to depict the wild energy of the natural world with brushy, gestural strokes of color that give a sense of leaves fluttering in a breeze and rays of light dancing over and through shimmery water and misty air.  Claude Monet painted the same scenes over and over again, at different seasons and times of day, striving to capture the mercurial subtleties of luminosity and atmosphere.

Rainy Morning on the Seine, 1890’s (?), by Claude Monet

Charles Burchfield is a magical realist, seeing the natural world as a physical manifestation of different qualities of spiritual energy.  The forms of land and sky and plants are abstracted slightly to more closely resemble the Platonic archetypes of these forces.  The chaos is there, but it is unified within a greater spirit of pure Nature.

Dawn of Spring, 1960’s (?), by Charles E. Burchfield

I have usually avoided drawing and painting the landscape, but I’ve frequently tried to capture it with photography.  I’ve always felt especially drawn to the raw and ragged forms of uncultivated plant life.  Thick thatches of foliage are challenging subjects even for photography, as the transition from three dimensions to two reduces the bursting and branching shapes to a flat patchwork like a camouflage pattern.  Stereo photography can better portray the complexity.  If you look at the picture below (previously posted here) with red/cyan 3D glasses you’ll see what I mean.  If you look at it without glasses, it’s pure abstract field.

Sprouting Hedge, 2010, stereo photo by Fred Hatt

But now let’s take a look at some of my recent fumbling attempts to draw complex, chaotic plant forms.  Just today I took a sketchbook and a camera to my neighborhood park.  Here’s a snapshot of a particularly plush evergreen tree, and below it, my scribbly marker sketch, drawn from direct observation of the tree without any reference to the photo.

Evergreen, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

Evergreen, 2011, sketch by Fred Hatt

The drawing doesn’t get much of the texture or spatial form of the tree, but it has, perhaps, something of its energy.  Another day I made a sketch of the plants growing in a window box, with these ornate curly leaves in front of a stand of long spear-like leaves.  This is a smaller subject, a closer focus, and a more careful hand with the drawing.

Leaves, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Here’s a sketch of a flowering plant with trumpet-shaped flowers (some kind of orchid?) drooping thickly around a central stalk.  (If anyone recognizes any of the species depicted in these drawings, let me know – my botanical taxonomical knowledge is practically nonexistent.)

Flowers, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Last month I spent a week teaching workshops and attending the festival at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Western New York State.  I spent some of my spare time making crayon sketches.  Here you see the fire-builders’ woodpile in the foreground, the Roundhouse (a sort of ritual structure for drum circles) and bonfire stack in the middle ground, and the trees of the forest in the background.

Roundhouse and Bonfire Stack, 2011, by Fred Hatt

The sky was clear, deep and luminous, with the great zaftig white bodies of cumulus clouds lazing across the heavens like manatees in a warm current.

Clouds, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Near my campsite was this traditional Plains Indian tepee.

Tepee, 2011, by Fred Hatt

This last Brushwood landscape was drawn a couple of years ago.  This is a clump of plants in the hollow under a big tree where the henna artists and body painters decorate people.

Under the Henna Tree, 2009, by Fred Hatt

I still always feel completely unequal to the task when I try to make a drawing from a landscape, but I try to open myself to the chaos and let some attenuated remnant of that vast current flow through me and into my sketch.  I may feel like a mouse trying to sing opera, but sometimes it is better to squeak than to be silent.

Drawings on black paper are 9″ x 12″, medium is aquarelle crayon.  Drawings on white paper are 11″ x 14″ or smaller, medium is brush-tip marker.  The images of pieces by other artists were found on the web; clicking on a picture links to source.

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