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Inside Smith and Barber Sculpture Atelier

February 25, 2015

Smith and Barber (10)

The other day my friend John Wright called up from Ottawa. His drawing group had lined up a fascinating opportunity. They were going to the Smith and Barber Sculpture Atelier. A local studio specializing in the ancient art of ornamental carving in stone.

Two hours drive to sketch in the workshop of these master craftsmen? Count me in! That, after all, is the whole point of location sketching. To get out and experience new things. To see the world through the lens of drawing.


Sure, I only managed a quick sketch. But at the same time, it was a chance to draw with the folks in Ottawa and meet Phillipe Smith, one of the two lead sculptors. He was more than generous with his time, hanging out as we pillaged his shop, regaling us with stories about his unusual art form. Everything from the dangers of silicosis to the origins of some of the irreplaceable blocks of stone they carve.

Smith and Barber (3)

I was excited to hear Smith and Barber are also founders of the Canadian Stone Carving Festival – coming up July 10, 11, 12th  2015 in Gatineau QC at the Museum of History. I hope to make it out for that, and get a chance to sketch craftsmen from around the world in action.

I’ve enjoyed sketching ornamental stone sculpture from so many different time periods and places – to now have the chance to step into one of those workshops, well, that’s something worth dropping everything and making happen.

Smith and Barber (8)

If you’ve had any great sketchbook adventures of your own, leave us a note in the comments. Let’s give people a tour of all the hidden places our pencils have taken us.

iPad sketching “Marvels of Orientalism” at MTL Beaux Arts

February 21, 2015


Right now through May 31st, at the Montreal Beaux Arts there is a major show on Orientalist painting (Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism), centered around Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902).

The primary attraction are Benjamin-Constant’s massive wall-sized travelogues of an idealized version of Marrakesh based on sketches and experiences from multiple trips to the near East. These are masterpieces of composition and brushwork, full of detail and some very clever texture and finishing effects. To me, Constant’s version of Orientalism is typified by flashy brushwork, almost overly reliant on special effects. But these are effects I love.

Bright metallic glints floating over dark grounds, hazy implied strokes making transparent gauze veils, ragged impasto textures conveying gold brocade and slashes of raking light.


As well, we see some fascinating smaller works, including a pair of mind-bending watercolors by Henri Regnault. These are not the stars of the show, but have special appeal to me. In some passages this is transparent watercolor – but I think they are worked over with a gouache/watercolor mix. It’s handled so delicately you can’t even detect how it’s done. Truly remarkable.

Henri_Regnault_Hassan_and Namouna_1870 Henri_Regnault_Harem Interior_1870

At a guess there’s about 150 works of art from a dozen artists. You’ll also see books and engravings of the period, and some related contemporary work by women artists discussing the cultural fallout from this mileu of languid harem girls and ferocious warriors-eunuchs.


So – I know I’ll be back for more – but here’s my sketches from our first visit. Since these paintings are all about color and richness, I didn’t want to simply do line drawings in the museum. I haven’t inquired after permission to bring my water media into the gallery, and I know opaque paints are completely out of the question. Somehow I don’t see getting much traction there. For now I chose to make sketches on the iPad mini. These allow me to work in light-over-dark color, in a nice clean way that won’t get me kicked out of the museum.


These are of course, purely studies. Despite its unlimited potential, I still feel clumsy painting on a digital tablet. But no matter – here I’m just meditating on this (to me) upside-down oil painting light-over-dark thing. So strange for a watercolorist. I’ve never made gouache work for me in this kind of way. I was inspired to try it after last year’s Sargent show – but to be honest, I haven’t delved in.

These sketches are in the iOS app Procreate, which I prefer over other iPad sketching tools I’ve tried, for its clever customizable brushes and an approach to layers that is very familiar to Photoshop users.



Welcome to the Biodome : Field Sketching in the Dead of Winter

February 18, 2015


Was over at the Montreal Biodome, scout-sketching with some USK friends who introduced me to the Naturalia Room.

It’s an educational space aimed at schoolkids – but ideal for artistic practice. They have a large open space with tables and chairs surrounded with taxidermy animal mounts and biological specimens. All sorts of things for a person to study. I seems (on one trip worth of scouting) to be less crowded that the Insectarium, and with more variety of subjects. Even better – it’s free!


We’re going to head there with the full Urban Sketchers Montreal group on the 22’d. Anyone in the area is welcome to stop by. Opens at 10:30am, and is near the Viau station on the Green Line.


No matter what kind of artwork one is pursuing, I think this kind of study is the ideal foundation. If you want to capture a rapid gesture, or an impressionistic view, the first order of business is being confident with your drawing. This kind of studio work is just the thing to tune up observational skills. Hope to see you there.


Testing some new colors : Plus, finally getting a nice portrait

February 14, 2015

15Jan07_Perlyne Maroon_Boodstone Genuine_01

Trying out a new color: Daniel Smith Perylene Maroon.

I’ve learned this new term : Masstone. That is, the color when the pigment is applied full strength – as compared to when diluted. This pigment’s masstone is pretty damn nice if I might say. A deep purple/red that tints out into a fairly passable Northern European skin tone. This sketch is a good example I think.

This sketch is almost entirely done with the one color, Perylene Maroon. Using with a bit of DS Bloodstone Genuine for the darks in the hair, maybe the lightest hint of DS Quinacridone Deep Gold under the nose and along the left eye (an accidental touch really) and one stroke of DS Mayan Blue Genuine at the back of the head.

This may be the perfect limited palette for figure painting dark haired Caucasians.

I’ve been idly looking for a solution for the poor light-fastness of my favorite cool-red Alizarin Crimson, which is well known to be unreliable when exposed to the light. Much like the Caucasians it is used to paint.

There’s a pretty straight-up hatchet job of poor pale Aliz over on After reading that I had to do something about switching.

15Jan07_Perlyne Maroon_Boodstone Genuine_02

The only thing that is a bit daunting about this Maroon is its powerful tinting strength. The DS version I’m testing seems to easily overpowering other colors. It’s almost like there might be ‘beginner’ and ‘advanced’ palette choices. Alizarin is a pliable color. It’s compatible with a lot of things. I normally mix with Ultramarine blue to make darks, Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ocher to make flesh – both of which this new Maroon can simply do on its own. But I also use Alizarin in foliage quite often. Being a nice complement for green. So. I’ll have to keep testing and let you know how I like it in situations other than the life model.

DS Bloodstone Genuine on the other hand is challenging in the opposite way. It’s a velvety dark in masstone – a rich warm black. But weak as a kitten in dilution. I actually really like it – but it’s very hard to use. You almost need to use it impasto to get any power from it when edge-pulling with water. But it made a beautiful sedimentary haze next to her left eye socket – and in the hair mass behind her jaw.

Oh, and yes – this sketch was another incremental break-though for me. I’ve painted with Elissa many times – but it’s taken multiple tries, before I can finally recognize her. I really can’t emphasize enough how hard likenesses are.  I don’t think it’s possible to get a great rendition on the first try. At least not by me. I keep gaining respect for the real portrait painters out there.

Wintering Bikes

February 14, 2015

(This is an older post that got accidentally deleted – so, re-posting back up).

Here’s a slice of life in Montreal. The mournful sight of bikes rusting away in the snowbank.

There’s lots of reasons to bike in Montreal. The bike lanes pretty much go everywhere, and there’s nowhere to park a car anyway. Plus it’s greener and all that jazz. So lots of people bike. Some ride all winter – snow and sleet be dammed. We’re Quebeckers! Mon pays c’est l’hiver!

Here on the Plateau, people live in these 100 year old buildings with precarious external staircases. There’s no place in your tiny apartment for a bike even if you didn’t fall to your death trying to take it upstairs. So you’re always seeing them on the sidewalk, locked to a little iron railing, axle deep in the snowbank.

After the melt the streets are littered with these frozen bike-corpses chained to posts. Many have been crippled by the snow plows crushing their wheels in to pretzels. It’s like the Russian front for bikes. Dead soldiers frozen into the ground. If you’re a bike, you do not want to get sent to Montreal for the winter.

Good Question of the Week : Why is there no Paper Texture in your Scans?

February 11, 2015

Oddly, two people just asked back to back, “why it is there is no paper texture in your scans?  You can see what they mean in this one (windmill). When you click to enlarge you can see texture in the wash, but not in the white paper.

14July15_Ile Perrot

When you scan watercolor paper, the bumpy surface of the paper will show up as an undesirable grainy texture in the white areas. Or, simply have a grey or yellowish cast.

When you take a snapshot (especially a cellphone photo) the white of the paper can be quite dark – giving the whole thing a lifeless feeling. So yes, I do some color correction in photoshop to get it the way I like it. It’s not a big task – a few minutes on each image.

And you can in fact make some improvements to your painting. When I started painting, my work lacked for color – and I used these kinds of photoshop color corrections to teach myself what I wanted in a real painting.

Keep in mind – scans will never look exactly like an original. A lot of complexity is lost – especially in the lightest tones. And further, you never really know what people are seeing. Everyone’s monitor is different. I know my iPad looks desaturated compared to my desktop, and many of my things look neon to when seen on expensive iMac monitors. (I’m PC by nature – being a video gamer).

SO! Here’s how I get rid of any left over paper texture in a scan.

01_Raw Scan

The untouched scan, as it comes in with paper texture. Scanner is an Epson Perfection V500 Photo.

If the paper is rippled from water, this causes shadows, and you may have to be more heavy handed with the following adjustments. Or resort to some manual erasing.

I use a stack of books to press the paper during the scan. Sometimes I leave the book-weighted painting under a sheet of plexy for a few days prior to scanning. See – expensive art books are good for something!

Also, if the painting is larger than the scanner bed – scan it in overlapping pieces and used File>Automate>Photomerge to join up the pieces.


A CURVES adjustment layer (the blue row in the layers palette – shown in the adjustments panel below) – to keep the mid tones stable, but bring back some of the darks and the lights. Each piece is slightly different – but you will see it’s a matter of clicking points on the curve (line graph) and pulling them down towards the histogram (bar graph). You can just twiddle those little points around, and see how you like the changes. Nothing is permanent, so just play with it, watch what it does.


A LEVELS adjustment layer to bring the white point in considerably. Everything in the graph to the right of the white ‘carrot’ on the slider will be pushed to pure white. Values to the left of the ‘black carrot’ will be turned 100% black. This is, I do believe, called ‘clipping’.


The last adjustment SATURATION ( in this case, taking it DOWN -22) – because the previous process exaggerates the colors.

If you open the first and last images in two different tabs, and flip back and forth, the effect is more visible.

This is not a perfect color match to the actual painting, but it’s within the 80% rule.You can go out to a photo printing service and get better resolution and color quality – but even then results vary. For most uses, this process should work fine.

I have been known to use this effect to desaturate intentionally on occasion. Sometimes quite a bit. Sometimes, for reasons of mood, I prefer the look of a less colorful painting.

You can use this general approach to boost up the strength of pale drawings, or shift the color drastically to create artistic effects. As an illustrator, it’s tremendously useful. I do feel however, you shouldn’t make unrealistic changes to the image of a painting you intend to sell – it might be misleading to a potential customer. I try to use the heady power of photoshop only on illustrations – where the finished art is the printed page, or a fine art print.

It’s all about Class Struggle innit?

February 9, 2015

Class Struggle_01

Last USK:MTL outing we went to the Beaux Arts for some indoor sketching.

There’s a sculpture in the permanent modern collection that I always enjoy, despite its hideous appearance.

Tony Matelli’s Old Enemy, New Victim depicts a pair of emaciated Chimpanzees attacking a morbidly obese Orangutan. It seems an act of monkey cannibalism is imminent.

As I was sketching, a young dad and his cute moppet passed by, and I heard him explain “It’s all about class struggle innit?

Class Struggle_02

In the distant past, in one of my teen dropout phases, I had a job delivering junk mail flyers in a rather posh neighborhood. Actually, my ex took this job, thinking it might be easy side money. That illusion didn’t survive the first day, and I was roped into going door-to-door schelpping huge bags of paper pulp.

Naturally it was the middle of winter in Alberta, so by the time we were hitting the streets it was freezing cold, dark and knee deep in snow. You could see that inside the cheerily lit windows, these were some beautiful homes. They certainly all had monster long sidewalks. I think we were paid a penny per flyer.

Matelli’s sculpture encapsulates my feelings quite well.


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