Quick Drawing Exercise - in Front of the Tube *

Groan...I just got an email saying that the sender did not like my "new work" (meaning these drawings).


This is NOT any presentation of my "new works." These are merely exercises to loosen up, observe quickly and capture the essence in 15 seconds or less...the opposite of what I do all day at the easel.

It really helps me to do something completely different and I wanted to share this cheapie little drawing device that has helped me so much.


I confess that after a long day at the easel, I sometimes like to relax in front of the TV. The odd thing is that some days I just cannot put down that dratted brush.

So when I discovered the “Budda Board” in a local store, it was the perfect "Busman's Holiday" for me.

I suppose you could call it a children's toy or merely a fun thing that nobody really needs.

I love drawing the animals from the National Geographic channel (yeah, it's a polar bear).

The Buddha Board is a medium value grey board made of some kind of “plastic.” You draw on it with a clean brush and plain water.

This is what a Buddha Board looks like - a pretty low tech thingy. You can see my scribble with water on the surface. It evaporates quickly - and disappears even sooner after a swipe with a paper towel.

It's a good exercise in drawing quickly and capturing the "essence." I like to experiment with different brushes.

And cheap - no paper/pencil costs.

I draw what is in front of me - from the TV screen - as “moving models” keeps me loose and painting at the speed of light. It surprises me how often I can get a "likeness" this quickly.

I digitally photographed some of these paintings before they dried up so I could post them.

I actually have found that these little quickie paintings have loosened me up a lot and made my regular daily painting more efficient.

Try it and let me know what you think.

John Singleton Copley

I think that his great achievement was the development of Contemporary Narrative Portraiture,
that special combination of 
Idealism and 

This is my kind of painting and Copley is my kind of painter.

I use so many examples of this artist's works that I feel obligated to include a little blurb about him by way of introduction if you don't know his works.

John Singleton Copley (1738 - 1815) was an American painter, born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the son of Richard and Mary Singleton Copley, both Irish. 

He is famous for his portrait paintings of important figures in colonial New England, depicting in particular, middle-class subjects. 

Paul Revere
by John Singleton Copley

His paintings were innovative in their tendency to depict artifacts relating to these individuals' lives. Copley was the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America, producing about 350 works of art. 

With his startling likenesses of persons and things, he came to define a realist art tradition in America. His paintings take my breath away.

This is my favorite book of his works. I wore out my first copy and have ordered my second one from Amazon.

Don't Paint An Open Mouth Smile

Go to a museum - any art museum. Look at the Old Master Portraits. 

You won't see any great big toothy grins. Notice that every single one of them painted their subjects with closed-mouth smiles.

Mug Shot of Tom Delay, House of Representatives Majority Leader (2003 - 2005), Republican, Texas.

Evidently Tom got all spiffed up for his arrest photo. Although it was obviously the best photo in the stack, it would still make a really crummy painted portrait. And not just because it is an unimaginative Mug Shot - it sports a big toothy grin.

And big toothy grins are a big "no-no in" portrait painting.

Don't paint anybody with an open mouth!
Karin Wells (and you can quote me)


The eyes are "the mirror of the soul" - the Old Masters knew this and in their paintings, they wanted the eyes to show as much as possible and often allowed the sitter's eyes to engage the viewer.

When someone gives you a big toothy smile - the eyes narrow into slits. When the mouth is closed and smiling, the eyes will be open much wider.

Let me prove this to you:

Stand in front of a mirror. Give yourself a great big grin and then freeze that grin. Notice that your eyes have become narrow slits.

Then, still freezing that toothsome grin,  open your eyes as wide as possible.

Scary face, eh?

Note: As soon as I can convince someone to agree to pose for me doing this, I'll post a picture here to illustrate. In the meantime, I paraphrase and repeat myself:

Don't ever paint anyone with a big toothy grin!
Karin Wells (and you can quote me again)

Kids, aaaaaarrrrrrrgh!

It is especially difficult to do a photo shoot of a child because so many of them tend to grin when they see a camera pointed at them. 

I often "pretend to shoot" until the child is bored enough to interact with me, forgets the camera  and stops "mugging."

The Mug Shot

With the exception of just one of the photos above, I swiped most of these snapshots from the FBI's "Most Wanted." And I grabbed a few of the others from police logs.

The "Mug Shot" style, no matter how "cute or lovable the person" is NOT EVER EVER EVER a good reference material for a painted portrait. 

A good portrait painting needs go way beyond a mere head and shoulders. Talent just isn't enough to compensate for an unimaginative and poor quality reference snapshot.

Good portraits are meant to be, first and foremost, GOOD paintings. Be mindful when you choose or shoot reference material or you could end up with a well painted Mug Shot. Cringe.
Good composition needs to be thoughtfully built. 

The artist must carefully consider and plan for interesting positive and negative shapes. For the most part, Mug Shots aren't "interesting" in any way.

And most importantly - a single source of light is essential to define form. Shadows are an important design element and in good portraiture they are seldom accidental.

So here is how an Old Master, John Singleton Copley, transformed his particular little "mug shot" into a magnificent painting. 

Did you spot the head? I included in the group photo collage (above). 

For starters, his sitter is the only one that had proper lighting - no flash bulbs in those days. And Copley knew that clothing doesn't make the person - but it really does make the painting!

Instead of a mere rendering of someone's face, he made an amazingly beautiful painting. It hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Art. They have a large collection of Copley's works and it is worth a special trip to see it.

Copley was soooooo creative! He was no slave to reality and "made up" a lot in his portraits:

Sometimes he "shamelessly borrowed" clothing styles from pictures via engravings that came from Europe. 

He "invented" backgrounds to display beautiful lands that did not exist but suggested that they were "owned" by the sitters. 

He often "dreamed up" drapes and props from thin air. 

And he sometimes "borrowed" furniture - just to serve the compositional elements that the painting demanded.

No wonder Copley is one of the greatest portrait painters (in my opinion) that ever lived. It fairly takes my breath away when I stand in front of one of his works.

If you wish to study and learn a lot about composition, color and the creative use of clothing and props, John Singleton Copley is the guy to look at. 

I suggest that you focus on his early body of works from when he lived in America - and before he fled to England during the Revolution.

Essentials of a Successful Portrait

"Clothes don't make the man - but they sure do make the portrait."
Karin Wells, Portrait Painter

The idea is to "frame the face." What looks good in a painting is not to be expected to look good when "walking down the street." Even the clothing the Old Masters used were largely made of drapery and they added, buttons, bows and other "fancies" if it served the composition.

Clothing, background and props provide needed color in a painting (not just the portrait) - the Old Masters included some representation of each of the following five colors - in every painting: 

Red, Yellow, Blue, Black and White

It doesn't take much, just a touch and it can even be as subtle as the color of wood (i.e., pine for yellow, cherry for red). If one of these colors is missing, the eye will hunger for it and the portrait will leave the viewer somehow "unsatisfied" - no matter how well painted.

The first time I ever found this little painting secret, it was hiding in plain sight in all of the works of Vermeer. And sure enough, I began to see it everywhere - when I knew what I was looking for that is.

Clothing and props allow the portrait painter to establish a strong composition.

Mrs Samuel Quincy
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 35 1/2" x 27 7/8"

This portrait is really "made" by the addition of that wonderful hat.

Mrs James Smith
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 49 5/8" x 40"

Note the fun flying blue drapery. Obviously invented by the artist as a necessary design device, I would guess that it was also an excuse to add a cool blue into an otherwise very warm area of this painting.

Mary and Elizabeth Royall
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 57 3/8" x 48 1/8"

The Red, Yellow, Blue, Black and White colors in this painting are obvious. The drapes provide the props for this portrait even though I suspect that the sitters probably didn't sit around on a rumpled yellow cloth playing with a black ferret. 

But these design devices work visually - and this is the point of it all.

Mrs Ezekiel Goldthwait
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 50 1/8" x 40 1/8"

Adding blue to a painting is usually made easy when a piece of sky is included. However, Copley made good use of that wonderful blue in the chair.

Rev Pennicott (Historical Portrait)
by Karin Wells (after a "lost" portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence)
Oil on Linen, 20" x 24"

This one is by me and I include it here to show that colors can be subtle - and still be there in order to satisfy the eye. 

In many portraits of men, you simply have to get creative and look for "excuses" to sneak some representation of those five colors into the painting.

There is an indication of a red drape behind the figure. The coat is black over a dark gold inner vest with dark gold buttons (hard to see here but there). The neckpiece is white. And the sky has a touch of blue and a little red-gold in order to repeat a bit of the vest/drape color.

Breathing Room Needed for Painted Portraits

Photographs look just fine when they are close cropped...just browse through any current magazine.

This is a news photo of Oprah Winfrey that I found on the web. It is flattering and is what I call a "close crop" - even the top of her head is cut off. as a photo, the image works.

However, as a painted portrait of  Oprah, this would NOT work. 

A well painted portrait of a person, will take on a "life of its own" and quite simply, "living" people need to occupy more of their own space.

The Old Masters knew this and here are some examples of portraits with what I call "enough breathing room," i.e., space surrounding the head:

Mrs John Amory 
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 49 7/8" x 40"

This canvas is large although the head is smaller than life size. Note that the space around the head appears to be even  greater because of the added sky.

Mrs Timothy Rogers
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 50 1/4" x 40 1/8"

There is an old saying that "clothes do not make the man, but they sure do make the portrait." 

John Quincy Adams
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 30 1/8" x 25"

This portrait is not currently on view so I don't know if it is unfinished or simply painted to fit into a spandrel frame (i.e., a rectangular frame with a flat oval insert).

In any event, the oval design device and the "outdoor" device give this painting a lot of inches of space surrounding the head.

Robert Hooper, Jr.
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas 50 3/8" x 40 1/2"

Note the sky device used in this portrait to give added "breathing room." 

And just to show how you can crop a "photograph" - I have cropped this one for you. (You are looking at a photograph of a painting after all). I rotated it to make it look more "interesting" and close cropped it according to the current style.

Not bad as a photo pix, eh? BUT you will never ever see something like this hanging in a museum in the section that displays the old masters. It would appear claustrophobic - no matter how well painted.

It is kind of funny but when you see beginners in portraiture draw or paint from a news or magazine photo (usually a celebrity pix) the "original" art just never looks quite right. 

And despite the obvious copyright problems a painting like this just isn't right. But most of us don't know that close cropping is likely to be the problem.

Now you understand what your eye knew but your head hadn't figured out.

Buddhist paintings made of oil before Europe ‘invented’ it

Ohmygosh, the most ancient of all oil paintings have recently been discovered in Asia - not Europe! ALL of our art history books will need to be rewritten.

Oil paintings have been found in caves behind the two ancient colossal Buddha statues destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, suggesting that Asians — not Europeans — were the first to invent oil painting.

Detail of an oil painting discovered in a cave *

Many people worldwide were in shock when the Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues in the Afghan region of Bamiyan.

Behind those statues are caves decorated with paintings from the fifth to ninth centuries.

New experiments performed at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) show that the paintings were made of oil, hundreds of years before the technique emerged in Europe. The results are detailed in the peer-reviewed Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry.

“This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics," said researcher Yoko Taniguchi.

In many European history and art textbooks, oil painting is said to have started in the 15th century in Europe.

Researchers take samples from the caves at Bamiyan, in Afghanistan *

However, scientists from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo (Japan), the Centre of Research and Restoration of the French Museums-CNRS (France), the Getty Conservation Institute (United States) and the ESRF have recently identified drying oils in some samples studied from the Bamiyan caves.

Painted in the mid-seventh century, the murals show scenes with Buddhas in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures. The scientists discovered that 12 out of the 50 caves were painted with oil painting techniques, using perhaps walnut and poppy seed drying oils.

The researchers relied on a combination of synchrotron techniques, including infrared micro-spectroscopy, micro X-ray fluorescence, micro X-ray absorption spectroscopy and micro X-ray diffraction.

More details of ancient oil paintings found in the Afghanistan caves at Bamilyan *

"On one hand, the paintings are arranged as superposition of multiple layers, which can be very thin," said Marine Cotte, a research scientist at CNRS and an ESRF scientific collaborator. "The micrometric beam provided by synchrotron sources was hence essential to analyze separately each of these layers. On the other hand, these paintings are made with inorganic pigments mixed in organic binders, so we needed different techniques to get the full picture."

The results showed a high diversity of pigments as well as binders, and the scientists identified original ingredients and alteration compounds. Apart from oil-based paint layers, some of the layers were made of natural resins, proteins, gums, and, in some cases, a resinous, varnish-like layer.

A cross section of the sample where different layers are visible *

Protein-based material can indicate the use of hide glue or egg. Within the various pigments, the scientists found a high use of lead whites. These lead carbonates are often used paintings.

The paintings are probably the work of artists who traveled on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China, across Central Asia's desert to the West. However, there are very few studies about this region.

"Due to political reasons, research on paintings in Central Asia is scarce. We were fortunate to get the opportunity from UNESCO, as a part of conservation project for the World Heritage site Bamiyan, to study these samples, and we hope that future research may provide deeper understanding of the painting techniques along the Silk Road and the Eurasian area”, Taniguchi said.

* Photo credit: The National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, Japan

Making Our Democracy Work

Today is Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day. It is our day to honor those who have died in our nation's service. 

Thornton Wilder wrote "Our Town" about Peterborough, New Hampshire. Today we honored the 99 people in our town who have died in war. As each name was read, a second grade child rang the bell on the Memorial Gate. Many of us were moved to tears.

Remembering these brave man and women, I cannot help but think that they did NOT lay down their lives to protect any American's inclination to be apathetic.

"Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote."
George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)

“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”

“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy”
Charles de Montesquieu

“Is it ignorance or apathy? Hey, I don't know and I don't care.”
Jimmy Buffett

“By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy - indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction”
William Osler

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
Robert M. Hutchins

“Apathy is a sort of living oblivion.”
Horace Greeley

"Now picture a soggy rain-soaked piece of cardboard lying on the ground - with black ink streaked like weeping mascara that reads, "There is no room on this wall for more wars. Thank you for supporting the troops. - Come again." 
John Corey

“Apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand”
Bodie Thoene

Yes, Benjamin Franklin said this - was anyone listening?

“So much attention is paid to the aggressive sins, such as violence and cruelty and greed with all their tragic effects, that too little attention is paid to the passive sins, such as apathy and laziness, which in the long run can have a more devastating effect.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

“Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium”
Cyril Connolly

“Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal, with takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”
Arnold Toynbee

“Everyone talks about apathy, but no one does anything about it”

And my personal favorite....

“Harold Wilson is going around the country stirring up apathy.”
William Whitelaw

And here's the point to all of my "apathy" quotes:

Eligible to vote but not registered?  We can do something about this. Register yourself and let us actively encourage others to register to vote.

Vote411.org (sponsored by The League of Woman Voters) makes it easy for you to register to vote by providing answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about voting.

You can use their Online Voter Registration Tool to register for the first time or to update your registration.

Dining Out in Peterborough NH

Er, that's Tofu, Vegetable and...what?
"Cellphone Noodles?"

Staffage *

"Staffage" is a historical term for placing people and animals into landscapes. Like many time-worn conventions, there's more to it than meets the eye.

The populating of pictures--mainly views, architectural subjects, natural wonders and other general scenes--was once more widespread than it is now. 

In the 17th century, some Dutch painters actually employed other artists to put people in. Staffage was used as an aid to composition, a device to show scale, and an opportunity to enliven scenes. 

Gathering Wildflowers
20" x 20" Oil on Linen

Figures were strategically placed, often holding a stick, cane, spear or gun, sometimes together with a lesser person, or a dog or other beast, or even pointing toward the picture's center of interest. 

Detail from "Gathering Wildflowers" 
As you can see, the figure is not detailed. I consider them archetypes - in that everyone who has unexpectedly found wildflowers in a natural setting can relate.

Sometimes a jacket or coat brought a bit of colour to a sombre landscape. The Impressionists gave themselves a choice--some went for it, others didn't. 

These days some photographers dine out on girls in red shorts on foreground rocks. In current landscape painting, Nature is more likely to be unpopulated. This, of course, will change.

In the Hancock Garden
20" x 20" Oil on Linen 
When I was painting this I could almost "see" this figure walking in the garden - so I painted her in.

Many painters these days don't do figures because they can't. Actually, this was always true. People are a tough order. But there's more to it than that. With the rise of rugged individualism and the concept of "me first," it is often the viewer who feels the need to supply his own figure. 

Living in someone else's world is not our style anymore. It's not the wealthy lord in the big hat who gazes at the Sphinx, it's us. The wonders of Egypt are now theoretically available to all. 

The idea of other people enjoying the architecture in Piazza San Marcos in Venice is more the business of illustration. With the widespread suspicion of sentiment, anecdote itself has become distrusted and even suppressed.

"The Buck Stops Here"
8" x 10" Oil on Canvas
Once again, as I was painting this watering hole, I could not resist putting in the buck - hence the title.

Next time you think about putting in a figure or figures, think about what may be pulling you around. Early this morning I painted a tranquil lake in the Western Canadian foothills. I couldn't prevent myself from putting a couple of guys and a dog out there in a yellow rowboat.

Detail of "The Buck Stops Here"
Because of the small overall size of this painting (only 8" x 10" for pete's sake), this animal is verrrrry tiny. 

It was a technical nightmare to paint it so I cut a teenie-weenie little stencil out of a piece of tape and added it into the landscape that way. 

I usually don't have the patience for this sort of thing - but I was in an "icky picky-poo mood" at the time and, most importantly, I  had a brand-new exacto blade  handy.

The devil made me do it. I'm not sure if I made the painting better or worse. What do you think? To me it looks curiously old fashioned. We put the painting at the top of the current clickback so you can shoot it down if you feel like it.

PS: "I'm done with girls on rocks." (Maxfield Parrish, 1950)

* Except for my paintings posted here, the all the text in this color has been "lifted" from Robert Genn's Twice Weekly Letter of May 23, 2008. This is his website and you can sign up for his newsletter. Robert Genn full of interesting info on the the subject of art and best of all, his newsletter is free!

Also, I have been reminded to tell you that Staffage is available online along with artists' comments. The online versions of Robert Genn's newsletters are illustrated and enriched by many comments from artists worldwide. They can be accessed for free and do not require subscription to the email newsletter.