Category Archives: Family

The Nitty Griddy

jim grid

“It doesn’t upset artists to find out that artists used lenses or mirrors or other aids, but it certainly does upset the art historians.” – Chuck Close

A few friends have asked me how I drew James.  Apparently, “With pencils, paper, and a well-worn eraser,” wasn’t a sufficient answer.  So for those of you who are curious about my methods, I used a grid.

Originally described by Leon Battista Alberti in his treatise, “On Painting,” to explain how a landscape could be accurately transposed using a gridded window, Renaissance artist, Alfred Durer, used the grid technique to draw live models.


By looking at a model through a window frame, strung with a grid of black thread, Durer could draw an accurate image of the model onto a corresponding gridded piece of paper (as seen in the image above).  This technique allowed Durer to capture a truer likeness of the model by breaking a complex subject down into smaller, more manageable bites.  Since my uncle lives in Paris and wasn’t available for a live drawing session, I used a gridded photo that I took of him as the source for my drawing.

I have heard some argue that using the grid technique is cheating and that an artist should be able to draw the likeness of a person using freehand only.  My recent drawings of Maya and of Tommy Kane were both done without the use of a grid, so I’m confident that I can draw reasonably well.  But if Chuck Close, Paul Cadden, and Jonathan Yeo sometimes use a grid in their paintings and drawings, then I figured I could too.  Some of my favorite artists even trace projected photos that they have taken onto a canvas before they start painting.  Artists have long employed technology in the production of their works, but their ideas and talents are no less impressive because of it.

I appreciate seeing how other artists create their works, so I took some “play-by-play” photos of James with my iPhone.  These photos are not as clear as the final scan, but I thought it would give you a good sense of how I approached this drawing.

P.S. For an incredible story on how one of the world’s most famous artists used tools and technology to create his paintings, I recommend watching the documentary, Tim’s Vermeer.  This film surely upset some art historians.

Hyperrealism and the Spurning of Milli Vanilli

James_sm    James (8″ x 11″), pencil on paper

“A face is a road map of someone’s life. Without any need to amplify that or draw attention to it, there’s a great deal that’s communicated about who this person is and what their life experiences have been.” – Chuck Close

The other morning, Stacie said, “You know, it would be a lot easier if you just took a black and white photograph and told people you drew it. You could be the Milli Vanilli of the art world!”

When I started painting a couple of years ago, I thought I wanted to paint like Vincent van Gogh, or Canadian artist, Tom Thomson. So I surprised myself when my artistic interests gravitated away from Impressionism and towards Realism, and most recently, Hyperrealism.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Hyperrealism is, “realism in art characterized by depiction of real life in an unusual or striking manner.” Hyperrealist artists capture meticulous detail in their works (mostly aided by high-resolution photography). But they go beyond just reproducing a photograph, and often express some underlying message or narrative: hence why Merriam-Webster includes, “in an unusual or striking manner,” in its definition.

After seeing paintings by Chuck Close and Gottfried Helwein, and drawings by Paul Cadden, I was inspired to give Hyperrealism a shot. I am not yet confident enough with oil paints, so I figured that for my first attempt, I would try a pencil on paper drawing of my uncle. James is the result.

Drawing James took me over 30 days to complete (mostly in 30 to 45 minute increments before work), and given the continuous attention to detail (particularly in the beard and the plaid shirt), there were times when I thought my head would explode. James is nowhere near as good as Paul Cadden’s drawings, but I worked through a challenge, and I learned a lot in the process.

I appreciated Stacie’s suggestion, but I admire the talents and work ethic of hyperrealist artists. As Igor Babailov said, “It is far easier to debate about realistic painting than it is to paint one.” There is no easy way to produce hyperrealist art, and after completing this drawing, I have even more respect for Chuck, Gottfried, and Paul.

P.S. Chuck Close is one of America’s greatest artists, and he deserves a separate post. Gottfried Helnwein’s works are disturbing and not easily forgotten, but they are important – for why, read this article. Separately, I took to Helwein as much because of his dedication to his family, as I did due to his paintings. As for Paul Cadden, he’s a good Scot, who can just bloody well draw.

Why I Sleep Better


My grandfather once told me that the hours of sleep before midnight were better than those afterwards, so he recommended that I get to bed at a reasonable hour.  In order to wake up early in the morning to draw, I try to get to bed before 10:00 P.M.  I always thought my grandfather’s suggestion was just some folksy aphorism, but when I go to bed early, I sleep better – go figure.  Thanks for the advice, Opa.

P.S.  My grandfather’s favorite expression was, “Courtesy costs nothing, gains much.”  He was a wise man, and I miss him.

Searching for Anders Zorn

B @ Legion

I am a John Singer Sargent fan.  When I first saw his portraits, I thought they were not only expressive, but also accessible – Sargent’s use of broad brush strokes seemed like a style that was within reach for this would-be-painter.

To learn how to paint more like him, I wanted to look at his portraits up close, to see how he put paint on the canvas.  Unfortunately, the de Young Museum in San Francisco only has a couple of Sargents on display, but earlier this year, the Legion of Honor hosted an exhibition by Anders Zorn, one of Sargent’s contemporaries, someone who also employed a healthy dose of bravura while laying down his paint.  On the last day of the exhibition, I went to the museum in order to convince myself that, with a little practice, I too could paint like Sargent and Zorn.

I took my eldest son with me, and before we left the house, he said, “Can we bring our sketchbooks?”

I thought the exhibition would be crowded, which would make sketching difficult, but I said, “Sure, that’s a good idea.”

So I grabbed our sketchbooks and some pencils, and off we went.

I was most interested in seeing Zorn’s large oil paintings: his portraits, and the paintings in which he captured Swedish life in the late 19th century.  I had heard his watercolour paintings were also stunning, but I wasn’t prepared for what we encountered when we entered the show.

Zorn.Anders.Fiskmarknad.I.St.IvesZorn.AZorn.AFiskmarknad I St Ives (courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)

 My response to seeing Zorn’s watercolours was similar to Emmet’s reaction when seeing Wyldstyle for the first time in The Lego Movie –  “Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” (although my son enjoys visiting fine art exhibitions, he also likes going to children’s movies).  I was speechless.  Controlling water on paper is difficult even for the most accomplished painters, but Zorn’s techniques go beyond what I thought possible.  In Portrait of Cristina Morphy (my son’s favorite), the details of the lace on the girl’s right shoulder are so fine that I felt like reaching out to make sure it wasn’t real (I would have included a picture of the painting in this post, but the online images don’t come close to doing justice to the real thing).  And even after staring at a few landscapes, I still can’t grasp how Zorn captured the water’s surface and its reflections.

Summer-Fun-largeSummer Fun (courtesy of

It wasn’t long before I thought my view toward the “accessibility” of Zorn was beyond naïve.  But when we walked into the second half of the exhibition, where Zorn’s oil paintings hung, I gained renewed confidence.

Zorn’s oil paintings are impressive, particularly his self-portraits, and Midsummer Dance, which is a Swedish national treasure.

Zorn_Self-Portrait-in-RedSelf-portrait in red (courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)

Anders_Zorn_-_Midsummer_Dance_-_Google_Art_ProjectMidsummer Dance (courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike the river of visitors who strolled through the exhibition, stopping for only a handful of seconds to view these paintings, I crept up as close as the security guards would allow, to study the brush strokes of each one (here I must commend my son that after an hour and a half of such behavior, he never once asked me to leave or quicken my pace).  I saw the thick layers of paint.  I saw the different brush sizes that Zorn used to paint the faces and the clothing.  And after seeing touches of similar colour throughout a painting, I gathered that Zorn did not always clean his brush between strokes.  I was inspired, and I left the exhibition feeling the artistic thermals push my wings outwards and upwards.

After leaving the show, I figured my son would be ready for lunch, so I was surprised when he said, “Can we sketch now?”

So for the next hour and a half, we strolled through the rest of the Legion of Honor, and periodically sat down to sketch a sculpture that caught my son’s eye.

BB_LOH sketces

Finally my son said, “Can we go now?”

I was as impressed with my son’s staying power, and his genuine desire to draw, as I was with Zorn’s paintings.  I didn’t want the day to end, but after three plus hours of walking through the museum, I was also ready for a cheeseburger.  So we left, and over a plate of fries, we looked at each other’s sketchbooks and talked about drawing and painting.  In this post are a few of our sketches from the day (frankly, I like my son’s better than mine).

DB_LOH sketces

Later that night, after our boys were asleep, I told Stacie that I was going to the back room to start a portrait.  Zorn was fresh in my mind, and I wanted to get down to what I knew would be my best painting to date.

Zorn makes it look easy – he lulls you into a false sense of confidence that once you squeeze paint onto your palette, magic will flow.  That night, after only two brush strokes, I realized the foolishness of my thinking.  Zorn and Sargent are special, and no one should assume that he or she can paint like them.

I don’t paint like Anders Zorn.  I paint like me, and with practice, I will improve.  But artists like Zorn and Sargent motivate me, so I will also keep visiting museums and galleries to seek inspiration, particularly if it means I can sketch with my boys, and share a cheeseburger and fries with them afterwards.

P.S. Although the Anders Zorn exhibit at the Legion of Honor has come and gone, the exhibition is currently on display at the National Academy Museum in New York City.  But it ends on May 18th, so if you are in New York, make the time between now and then, and go see Anders Zorn’s works in person.

A Time For Thanks

C & B_babies

I am thankful for these little guys, and for the bigger versions they are now.  Of course, I’m also thankful for the little brother, who after seeing that he was not included in this drawing, told me that I have to draw him next.  It’s a good thing I am still on a portrait kick.

P.S. And thanks to you for visiting The Hipping Post.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

On Jeff Koons, Technicians, and Minions


Last Tuesday, Christie’s held an auction where Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142.2 million, the highest price ever paid for a single piece of art.  Jeff Koons‘s Balloon Dog (Orange), which according to the New York Times, is a “10-foot-tall mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture that resembles a child’s party favor,” sold for $58.4 million.  Jeff Koons made four other balloon dogs, each in a different color, so I’m sure the owners of those pieces are feeling pretty good about their respective art collections.

Unlike Francis Bacon, who unquestionably painted his triptych, it’s unlikely that Koons actually built all five dogs on his own, as Koons is known for employing “technicians” to construct his sculptures.  Some contemporary artists defend the use of technicians, as they believe the idea behind the art is more important than who actually completes the work.  For example, Damien Hirst had the idea behind The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, but I’m sure he had help suspending the 14-foot tiger shark in his 20-foot case of formaldehyde.

With three sons, I’d like to think that I have my own budding young technicians.  I have plenty of contemporary art ideas, some of which I have already titled, but none of which my technicians have properly completed.  These ideas include Clean Bedrooms, Table Manners, and A Day Without Whining.  Not only are my helpers not as dedicated as Jeff Koons’s employees, but I also recently found myself in a role reversal.

My son asked me to help him paint a portrait of a Minion that he wanted to give to his friend.  My son picked out the reference picture, and said that he just needed help with the outline.  Once I drew the Minion in pencil, I pointed out where the yellow, the blue, and the black should go.  He blocked in most of the colors, but then he asked if I could paint the eyes, the mouth, the hair, and the logo on the overalls.  “And can you just finish the rest for me?” he said.

So after a few minutes of watching me add touches of paint here and there, the artist left the room to consider more important ideas, like whether to litter our living room with orange construction cones, or to just watch another episode of Jessie.

When I finished, I showed the painting to my son, who was happy with the result.  He then asked me, “Where do I sign it?”

Like a loyal technician, I pointed to the right hand side of the painting and said, “Your name would look good here.”

P.S. And no, the irony of the subject matter was not lost on me.

P.P.S. I listened to an interview with Damien Hirst, who said that he often thinks of titles for his works before he even gets started on the idea.  And if you would like to see some of Damien’s technicians in action, watch this timelapse video.

Portrait Practice


“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” – Stephen King

As you can tell from a few of my recent posts, I am in a portraiture phase.  I imagine most artists go through a period of wanting to draw the exact likeness of a human face.  All of our artistic paths start by drawing stick figures and smiley faces.  That might be the best time as an artist, as we draw and paint with reckless abandon.  We don’t care whether the eyes are in the correct proportion to the nose and mouth, or why hair is just so bloody hard to capture.  We just draw.


But eventually, the urge for accuracy takes over.  This may be the point when artistic curses take hold.  We try to draw the shape of a head, and wonder why it looks more like an alien’s than a human’s.  We can’t understand why the nose is just so hard to place properly on the face.  And it certainly doesn’t help that artists like John Singer Sargent and Jonathan Yeo make it look so easy.

BART portrait

As Stephen King advises, to get better, we are left with only two methods, study and practice, with practice being the most important.  Included here is some of my recent practice.


I once read that when you are learning to draw portraits, you shouldn’t practice drawing famous people, as others will know when you’ve messed up the resemblance.  Drawing unfamiliar faces is safer and will build your confidence.  There’s definitely not much room for error when drawing a self-portrait.  I asked my son whether the sketch above looked like me.  He said, “No.  Your neck is too skinny and your head looks like a balloon.”  Apparently, children also criticize with reckless abandon.

P.S. Stephen King suggests that would-be writers should read to become better at writing.  This would-be artist likes reading too.  So Stacie, please feel free to surprise me at Christmas with Jonathan Yeo’s new book, “The Many Faces of Jonathan Yeo.”