Are hard. Not with pencil, charcoal or pen and ink. I can do that. But because I started out as a sculptor, I want to use my fingers and my hands. I want to push stuff around. With the aforementioned materials, that is pretty hard. Pencil and charcoal admit of a little finger work, pen and ink not at all. (Stumping is, I recently learned, the correct term for rubbing graphite or charcoal particles around until a life-like effect has been achieved, and is now generally frowned upon.) The very fact that there is so little stuff to push around, means that it is easier to get rid of the sculptor in me and just draw what I see.

With oil paint, that’s harder. It’s such delightful plastic, messy stuff — it just begs for the judiciously applied finger nail, the scratch with a pointy stick, the aggressive thump in the right direction. And it doesn’t work that way. Apparently, with oil paint, you need to observe to colours, the tonal values and the way they blend into each other. And then try to achieve a thorough technical knowledge of which type of white is good for mixing, which for highlight and which for underpainting and more like that. It’s hard, that’s what I wanted to say. But I’m a little stubborn and not a little foolhardy, so I try to persevere. And I want a nice portrait in oils of my daughters.

Attempt #1:

I carried this painting a little beyond this snapshot; but I did so using mixed white for glacis; and that just doesn’t work. The whole attempt was spoiled by a spotty, rusty fungus-like layer over Naomi’s face. I tore the thing up,  which I perhaps shouldn’t have done. But it did me good…

Attempt #2:

In this attempt I made the mistake of trying to draw instead of paint. Menna’s face — the one on the right — is not too bad, but the rest is just horrible. Inaccurate in colour, line and composition, and with no real dash. It was a mistake not to paint the background first, I noticed with my third attempt. A strong background, as in the first attempt, really helps to define the faces, as opposed to the white of the canvas-like paper.

Attempt #3:

This is better. In dim light, it actually looks not too bad. It’s just not a good likeness of Menna, whose immensely joyful grimace at the time the photograph was made is hard to believe — it was a Church feast the snap was taken. Still, the painting has form, and a measure of dash.

Maybe that’s part of the problem: I ought to work to a living model. Anyway, I’m learning — and that’s always fun.

The contented bureaucrat

I achieved little on the Krita front today. I should have prepared my tax return, but I spend about eight hours hacking on Krita. I’m trying to arrive at a slightly sane situation with regards to plugins and modules, but that’s a lot of work.

As with any paint application, the core of Krita is just a tile manager: an image is divided into small blocks of pixels, and the hardest code is to cobble the tiles together in one image. Anyway, that part was recently redone. Around the tile manager is a display routine — and that’s the core. The rest is done with plugins.

KDE has made working with plugins really easy, but you need to have some consistent idea of how to work with plugins. We had a different way of loading filters, UI plugins, color strategies, paint operations and other resources. Making everything consistent is taking a long time…

Anyway, feeling a little dispirited by the lack of progress I was making I shut down my laptop and grabbed my brushes and started finishing an old painting I had never finished, The Contented Bureaucrat, inspired by a photograph of a civil servant in India. I learned enough from Baxter and Cockshott (see previous entries) that I felt confident I could tackle the mounds of paper:

At the same time, Rebecca was discovering that she has indeed a talent for rendering with pen and ink:

Pieter Claesz — meester van de Gouden Eeuw

We went to a great exhibition of still life paintings by Pieter Claesz in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. This exhibition will travel first to Zürich and then to Washington. Pieter Claesz is — in my opinion — the greatest master of the genre, even better than Heda.

I seldom buy the catalogue of the exhibition, but this book, published by Waanders, like Het Nederlandse Stilleven, and Waanders always prints excellent reproductions; there are many art books, like the Phaidon book on Caravaggio, that are much worse, with indistinct, lifeless, flat reproductions.

But Waanders’ books are excellent; and the text is scholarly and thorough, too. I tend to skip the text in art books, but I sometimes got engrossed enough to skip the paintings. And then I started thumbing back and forth.

If you like painting — a liking for still life is not required, there’s one very excellent painting of a cat killing an eel — and if you’re near Haarlem, Zürich or Washington, then this exhibition is one to go to. And the book one to buy.

We had a lot of fun; the kids like this kind of thing, too, and surprised an elderly gentleman by exclaiming that they’d recognized a particular knife in a series of paintings over and over again. They discovered the reflection of the painter in a tin jar, the difference between a berkemeier and a roemer, decided that the painter in his later period began to deliver sloppy work — and so on. Full marks for observation, those kids.

Next time we’re going to Haarlem, we’ll take Danitia, one of our kids’ close friends, and pay a long visit to the artist’s materials shop, buying stuff. We have what I’d almost call a regular club; Saturday afternoon and Sundays after Church the four girls sit down with me and we experiment with stuff, paint, ink, charcoal — everything is fair game. They don’t get any art lessons at school anymore, so it’s up to the parents to make sure they know oil from gouache, ink from charcoal, wax from clay. And it gives me an excuse to buy cool stuff, and to take a bunch of kids to a museum.

Polishing off a lemon

As I noted before, I have been trying to figure out how to paint a lemon like it should be painted. I think, however, that I should admit to defeat. The result of the exercise is not bad, perhaps even commendable, given my lack of experience with the materials, but it falls short of the mark by a wide margin.

I have tried to get the translucency of a real lemon with thin washes of white and yellow, but that didn’t do what I expected it to do. Adding highlights of  pure white seemed  indicated from careful study of old masters, but that needs, perhaps, a  lighter touch than I have, and certainly a lot more experience.

I’m afraid that there’s nothing for it, but to start over again…

On a related note: Rebecca, the number II daughter, has started on her attempt at mastering oils, taking a rather nice picture of Hendrik as inspiration. A week or so ago, she started sketching. It turns out that all my daughters have a hard time just letting their pencil do the work. They all want to carefully outline their subject — and I mean outline, just the  silhouette, even if they don’t know what a silhouette is — and then they add eyes. I don’t think that that’s a terribly sensible procedure, so I have tried to teach them to sketch. The hardest part of sketching is the daring to just do it; the daring to make mistakes. With both Naomi and Rebecca, achieving that level of confidence meant I had to kind of break through their trepidation. With endless patience, and a lot of repetitions of the  theme “Just try — if you fail, take another sheet of paper, we have enough of the stuff to last us till Monday anyway., both of them got through to the other side, and are now convinced they can sketch and paint — and if the result ain’t perfect, they don’t clam up, but are confident that the next time it’ll be better.

Menna, however, the No. III daughter, didn’t get over her fear. And I’m at a loss now. I don’t know how to proceed. I’m baffled; because, all it takes is taking a pencil. And she can do it; she did a creditable lemon in pencil…

Anyway, here’s the piccie of Hendrik, and the first stage of Rebecca’s painting:

Part of the sketch is my work; most of the sketch is Rebecca’s work, and Rebecca also mixed most of the colours.


Return of the lemon

Slightly less than a month ago, I made a begin with my first attempt
at painting a lemon. Today I braced my self for the next chapter in the saga, by buying a tube of cadmium yellow lemon (azo) — and, for good measure, a tube of dark naples yellow. Buying cool stuff is, after all, one of the main reasons for pursuing a hobby.

Lessons learnt today: ‘cadmium yellow lemon (azo)’ isn’t much use for painting lemons, and neither is ‘naples yellow (fonce)’. The photograph I made of of the still life was taken from a subtly different angle, and is not sharp enough to boot, and therefore nearly useless. A peeled lemon will rot and grow mold in the second week, even in the fridge. It is impossible, however, to paint a lemon like Heda wet-in-wet, and I strongly suspect the master from cribbing, that is, not painting after life, but using other paintings as examples. Although there are plenty of still lives with lemons that show mold. Cadmium yellow doesn’t really cover pencil lines, either.

The wetness of the inside of the lemon is hard to get right; but a step in the right direction is painting thin lines along the radials of the cross-cut:  (click for a bigger image)

However, the really cool effect, the glistening you can see here isn’t my work, but the result of the camera catching the light and reflections in the still wet paint. It gives me a hint, though — I need a colour brighter than white to top the painting up with. Or, alternatively, darken everything a bit, and add pure white with a little bit of yellow.

Another problem was the knife. If you compare the photograph:


With the result of today’s exertions:

You’ll notice I have tried to get the reflection of the lemon in the blade of the knife. That’s a bit of a poser, as is getting the ‘feel’ of metal right. Oh, well, when this layer is dry, I’ll try again with the next layer. Another problem is perspective: this is something Heda and co spent a lot of time getting it right, and in their heyday they could tumble a tazza and paint it with impunity.

And again, the really cool bit, where wet seems wet and metal looks as if it gleams is more due to my camera than my ability. Sorry…

Painting with Naomi

Dutch primary schools nowadays aren’t terribly adequate when it comes to teaching their pupils that painting and drawing can be a whole lot of fun; neither do they teach them even the most basic of techniques. Naomi once came home with a reasonably competently executed sketch of a horse. It turned out that she was giving step-by-step, connect the dot instructions that would invariably lead to the exact same cartoon-like sketch no matter who executes it. Harumpf.

No wonder that Naomi firmly believes she ‘cannot draw’. Another harumpf. She can, only she needs to be taught two things: confidence and perseverance. Confidence to always believe that what you are doing is the best thing you’ve ever done (which is quite likely, of course) and that it’s pretty good in any case, and perseverance to spend twenty years making mistakes, all the while being convinced you’re doing good work.

Anyway, all three kids are interested in art — have firm likes and dislikes, and their taste can be trusted, I find. They like paintings with detail, bronze statues of sleeping cats, drawings with a story and above all prize a competent execution. In short, they know quality when they see it and like craftsmanship.

Now it is an indisputable fact that most artists materials that children get to work with are, well, the word stinks, but so do those materials, crap. Bad brushes, treacly paint with lumps in that even so doesn’t provide enough colour and wishy-washy bum-wiping paper. This year I decided that they should have a chance to use decent materials, and that they would all get a chance at some intensive coaching.

By me. Now I’m not much good, either technically or pedagogically, but I’m full of confidence, and the children are still young, so I have a few years to make mistakes, and with luck, the children will learn to love sketching,  drawing and painting and will go on. I hope they will in the fullness of time curse me for the wrong, bone-headed things I’ve taught them, because they know better by then.


Menna and Rebecca received a set of very decent watercolour paint for Sinterklaas, and a couple of evil brushes (must do something about those), so I spent a Sunday afternoon, after church, working with them with watercolours. Rebecca took to those like anything, but Menna clearly stated her preference for covering paint. (Is that English? The dictionary thinks so, but it reads weird to me.) Still, the experiment was a success. Rebecca and Menna produced a very well-done, considering they are both eight years old, rendering of a Lego building. Naomi, ten years old and still without watercolours, had been asking for over a year whether she might use my old box of oil paints. This Christmas holidays, I promised her, she could, or rather, we would. I went to the very pleasant and good hobbyist art-shop Jan Rauw in Deventer (a much more friendly and pleasant place than ‘Uit de Kunst’, where they don’t even know what bristol paper is), and I spent way too much money on new paint, since most of my old, twenty years, paint appeared to have locked itself in their tubes. Not true: holding
the caps under running, hot water unlocked them, but half the fun of any hobby is buying cool gear, so I also bought a few more brushes and a block of oil paint paper. Everything in the name of raising the kids right and doing research for Krita.

Leentje and John

We decided to do cats, since we both love them, and since we had a large stock of cat photographs. Using Expose I placed both pictures side by side on the screen of my laptop, and we started painting, layer after layer, as advised by the best authorities.

I must say, I’m impressed by Naomi’s achievement. This is John, the gray cat who frequented the terrace of the house we hired for the summer holidays on the island of Kea. He was quite ferocious, very nice, had a bad case of bronchitis and one of his balls had half rotted off, but we gave him his name because he ate the enormous locusts that were everywhere:

And, since I learned that working with kids is easier and more enjoyable if you do the same when Naomi and I both learned Greek last year for our holidays on Kea, I joined her and did a painting of Leentje, our tortoise shell cat, after a photograph taken by Rebecca:

(These are not scans, but snaps shot with a digital camera and reduced by 50% from the actual size.)

Visiting the Prinsenhof and painting a lemon

The Prinsenhof in Delft is a very nice museum which had, when we visited them, a wonderful collection of still life paintings. As always, and no doubt as intended by the painters, I was very impressed by the lemons…

The stofuitdrukking — texture expression, I guess — these painters achieved is ncredible, and no matter what you ask google, you won’t find a website dedicated to learning the technique, only a few face-to-face
courses that don’t seem all that applicable. For a really nice lemon, see Heda’s Still Life with a Gilt Goblet.

Anyway, I decided to try and find a way to teach myself how to do it, and these are the pictures from the first stage, done today:

The still-life itself:

The place where I work — it takes more time to set everything and
place and clear up, than I spend painting…

The first stage of the painting. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll do an entry about the rest of the stages when I get round to them…

The children rather consider this painting done; they cannot imagine me not messing it up. Me neither, but we’ll see. At the moment it looks more like water-colours, but that’s because I used very thin paint. I still haven’t achieved the effect I want; the shining wetness, the translucency, the wax coat of the lemon, the reflection in the knife, so I’ll continue. (Anyway, don’t you think it looks like an illustration out of ‘Teach yourself painting in 21 days’?

The Art of Describing

I like to sketch a bit, paint a bit, mess about with pen and ink, pencils, everything but chalk and charcoal is fair game. And in the grand Dutch tradition of interpreting and showing daily life, as discussed by Svetlana Alpers in The Art of Describing, I’m not afraid to turn my pen to other things than those that exist in my imagination.

In fact, I tend to, nowdays, work from photographs. Either my own — soon in this space, an oil sketch of Leentje, our tortoise-shell cat — or other photographs. One day when I was writing the book that’s languishing on a slush pile, when I opened the newspaper, the protagonist was looking at me. I clipped the picture from the paper, and started sketching, all the while feeling that I was somehow abusing this obviously poor girl from the streets of Jakarta. The sketch now serves me as wallpaper (note that this is a transparent PNG file that can blend with your background colour if you use KDE. Other desktop systems, like OS X cannot blend a background colour with a wallpaper), and she is still looking at me.

My grandfather — my mother’s father — was a better artist than I am, for all that he earned his money as an interior decorator. Maybe that’s too grand a word for what he did: papering walls and marbling concrete or plaster. But he had talent and a very fine eye. One of these days I’ll scan the few sketches and the one drawing in pen and ink I have by him.

Barend Demoed was a soldier in the Dutch army in 1940, a field cook, in fact. And when the Germans invaded the Netherlands he was stationed at the Grebbeberg, together with many other Dutch boys of his age. They were captured, of course, and carried off to a kriegsgefangenenlager. Mühlhausen, in his case. He escaped, and walked back home, to Amsterdam. In the camp he had made quite a lot of sketches, but they are all lost. And he has never done a serious bit of sketching, drawing or painting since the war. A few years before his death, the family presented him with a fine sketch block, pens and ink for his birthday, but he never touched them. I inherited them, being the only one amongst the grandchildren interested in them — the bottles of ink, by now completely unusable, are still here, in the upper right drawer of my desk.

The only times when he would take up a pencil or a pen was when he visited us, me and my sister, my father and his daughter, my mother. He’d draw silly cartoon-like puppets, more doodling than drawing, and I believe my mother has thrown away all those things. But he’d be sitting with us, my sister and me, and we’d sit around the table, drawing, chatting, and he’s taught me a lot.

But after the war, he didn’t like drawing from life — much less from a photograph. And my mother didn’t like it even more. So there I was, imbued with the idea that every sketch ought to have come from my own imagination. It took years before I admitted to myself that drawing from life might be a good idea — in fact, when I met Irina and wanted to sketch her. And now I even dare to use photographs…

As for the tortoise-shell cat painting: Naomi, my eldest, wanted to learn oils, so I restocked my twenty-year old paint box, and she choose a gray cat we met in Greece, and I choose Leentje. I’ll put a scan of her work up, too.

The book by Svetlana Alpers, by the way is quite good, very nicely steers away from the extremes of symbolic interpretation of Dutch C17 paintings, perhaps even too much, but it also very wordy, and the Dutch translation is wooden, and in places silly. I mean — if the author has to translate a paragraph of Dutch into English after quoting it in Dutch, then the Dutch translation doesn’t need a translation into Dutch of the English translation of the Dutch quote that precedes this translation verbatim… And the author is wordy, often too wordy, taking pages to say something that could be said in one paragraph, in equal depth.