New Portraits from Life

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“Evan”, 11 inches by 14 inches

I’ve been continuing my practice of painting portraits from the model at a weekly session with some friends in Oakland. Every 4 hour session is a new chance to try something new and I am finally beginning to see some improvement since last fall when I started attending. There is something about the air of a group of painters in a room, trying valiantly to capture the visual phenomena that lies before them. Its a great feeling of camaraderie, one that I look forward to every week. Enjoy!

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“Annabelle”, 16 inches by 12 inches

 

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“Kawena”, 11 inches by 14 inches

"Anjuli," 16 by 12 inches

“Anjuli,” 16 by 12 inches

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“Mia II”, 11 inches by 14 inches.

Creating Convincing Armor

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The Knight with Two Swords – 2012. Lots of armor issues here.

Fred Knee-Chee - Level 4 Dwarf Ranger - 2016

Fred Knee-Chee – Level 4 Dwarf Ranger – 2016. Getting better at armor!

Painting armor is really tough. There’s no getting around it.
To begin with, it’s very difficult to get good reference for a full suit of armor. Most artists don’t have the funds to go out and buy a period specific suit of full plate mail, so we have to do what we can with existing reference elsewhere. I’ve been knocking my head against this problem for a few years now, and have learned a few rules that seem to make it easier.

  1. Armor is an external architecture that wraps itself around the body.
    Basically, this means that wherever someone is wearing armor, it is an additional layer over their anatomy. Everything gets thicker because there is this armature that is adding to the girth of the chest, the groin and the appendages. Armor is designed to deflect blows, so it inherently has a convex shape that induces blades, arrows and other penetrating objects to bounce off of it. This further adds to this appearance of extra thickness. This is the fundamental problem with “boob armor”, but many other bloggers have gone on at length about this issue so I won’t dwell on it here.
  2. Armor is designed for movement.
    IMG_4241When knights were wearing armor in the middle ages, they not only needed it to protect themselves but also needed it to allow them to move sufficiently enough to swing their weapon, raise their shield and any number of other necessary maneuvers in combat. This means that anywhere that a limb needs to rotate, the armor needs to be flexible enough to allow a full range of movement.
    A great way to replicate this is to build armor yourself out of cardboard for reference purposes. You’ll quickly find that in order to lift your forearm, the bicep armor needs to have a sort of diagonal cut near the elbow joint that allows for movement.
  3. Form follows function.


    Although it is super fun to draw super buffed out knights with massive armor, it’s important to remember that armor is always designed for a specific purpose and that the amount of armor is always relative to the combat role of the soldier wearing it. Knights could wear full plate mail mainly because they rode on horseback, and didn’t need to worry as much about the weight of their gear. A footsoldier, on the other hand would quickly tire with all that weight so his armor is much lighter with more tactical placement that emphasized speed and agility over protection. Notice how the armor on the right protects the soldier’s head, chest cavity and neck – but not much else.
  4. Study, study, study!
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    Whenever you can, draw from real suits of armor in museums. There’s just no replacement for this kind of observation, as you can’t take that suit of armor home to photograph it in just the right pose. I always try to draw armor when I see it and take lots of reference pictures from all angles. Of course, the interwebs have a vast trove of reference to glean as well, but there’s nothing like your own notes.

Hope this was insightful, thanks for stopping by!

2015 Review

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All the paintings I made in 2015!

Sometimes, there are so many exciting developments between one blog post and the next that I have a hard time writing them all down. With 2016 comes an exciting start to many new ventures, but it’s worthwhile to review what 2015 had to offer. Here’s a breakdown!

  • I traveled to Eastern and Central Europe for the first time in June-August, and gathered an incredible amount of inspiration from the wealth of cultures there. I visited many museums, and also painted on location.
  • I exhibited work at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 4 in Kansas City, MO in May, as well as Illuxcon 8 in Allentown, PA in October. Work was well received and I got great critical feedback from peers, and also sold a painting to a private collector.
  • I also showed work at two pop-up shows, one at the Latvian Song Festival in San Jose and another at the Latvian Center in Los Angeles. The second show saw a successful sale with a collector as well.
  • In September, I began attending a weekly figure painting session with fellow Bay Area figurative painters – a wonderful opportunity to learn through observation.
  • In December I traveled to the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, camping out and painting beautiful desert landscapes.
  • And just to cap it all off, a piece that I recently submitted to the art annual “Infected By Art” was accepted into the next volume!
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Painting on location at Cesis Castle, Latvia with fellow artist Amuna Laima.

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My booth at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 4!

My booth at Illuxcon 8!

My booth at Illuxcon 8!

My pop-up show at the Los Angeles Latvian Center.

The pop-up show at the Los Angeles Latvian Center.

"Mickey and Stripes", figure study painted from observation.

“Mickey and Stripes”, figure study painted from observation.

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Painting on location in the Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley, CA.

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Painting on location in the Mojave Desert.

Witness - 24" by 18"

“Witness” – a painting that I submitted to Infected By Art in late December… and was later accepted in early January!

As I am writing this post, I am a slightly surprised by how much there was to cover from 2015. A lot can certainly transpire in a year! There are so many things that I am looking forward to in 2016 that it’s hard to wrap my head around it. Stay tuned for more posts and exciting new happenings coming soon 🙂

Character Portraits, Real and Imagined

"Mia", 12 inches by 16 inches, oils on canvas.

“Mia”, 12 inches by 16 inches, oils on canvas.


I have recently begun attending a figure painting session with fellow bay area artists. It’s been a great weekly routine in which about four to six painters and a model crowd together for warmth in a cozy garage studio in the Oakland Hills and together struggle to depict the human form for four hours. Beer and bad art puns are shared amongst all. I’ve been to a lot of different drawing and painting groups over the years, and I have to say this one is my favorite so far. Sometimes I pull off a great portrait, and sometimes I just learn from mistakes (usually the latter).
"Mickey," 12 inches by 16 inches, oils on canvas

“Mickey,” 12 inches by 16 inches, oils on canvas


Sometimes in my initial lay in I go for something more than a simple portrait. The above painting of the model Mickey was one of these. I struggled with her posture and proportions pretty much the whole time, but at the end I was reasonably sure I captured her silhouette somewhat accurately. It’s not a knock-out painting by any means, but I learned a lot, which is what it’s all about.
In progress character portrait

In progress character portrait


This practice is in turn translating into what I am doing at the studio. I’ve recently started up a series of small character portraits that are inspired by a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’m running. I’m not sure what this series will turn in to, but I’m having a lot of fun translating what I’m learning into narrative works. Stay tuned for more coming soon!

Learning from the Figure

"Lury", 14 inches wide by 17 inches tall, oils on canvas

“Lury”, 14 inches wide by 17 inches tall, oils on canvas


I have been learning a lot from traditional figure drawing and painting recently. More and more, it has become to clear to me that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with drawing and painting from life.
I recently finished taking a class with the acclaimed portrait painter Bob Gerbracht. If you can visualize the ultimate guru of classical portrait painting, that’s Bob in a nutshell. I learned a tremendous amount during his class. We studied the same portrait pose over 4 consecutive weeks, for a total of 12 hours. I haven’t done that sort of intense observaton for years and it really made me think differently about how I depict “reality”. It occurred to me that no matter how much time you have to paint something, there is always more to do. After the first session, I was convinced that I was going to finish it in the next session and have oodles of extra time. But Bob kept reminding me where I was falling short and where the picture wasn’t exactly right (down to the millimeter). Correcting my mistakes took the vast majority of the time and by the fourth session, I was racing to get it all down. Another thing that I learned from this experience: painting from life is fundamentally different from painting from a photograph. There is always limitations to a photograph’s fidelity, but our eyes can see an infinite amount of detail. This is why I have to continue painting and drawing from life while I simultaneously work from photos in my studio so I don’t forget that lesson!
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Along with Bob’s class, I also started to attend a weekly drop in figure drawing session in Berkeley with some fellow illustrators. It’s a simple uninstructed session, starting with gestures and moving into 10 to 20 minute poses. While these quick drawings are almost the polar opposite of the experience of Bob’s class, they share many observational truths in common. Here are a few more of my favorites. Thanks for stopping by!
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Weekly Observations

"Bridge." Painted somewhere between East Oakland and Alameda.

“Bridge.” Painted somewhere between East Oakland and Alameda.


"Winter's Lane," painted on location in the town of Briones.

“Winter’s Lane,” painted on location in the town of Briones.


A pen and ink study from a live model. 25 minutes.

A pen and ink study from a live model. 25 minutes.


My easel on location at Lake Anza in Tilden Park, Berkeley. This one was a struggle.

My easel on location at Lake Anza in Tilden Park, Berkeley. This one was a struggle.

I’ve recently begun to do more observations from life as my commissions have lightened up recently. It’s hard to keep up but when I have the opportunity to learn from nature there is no better teacher to be had! I am trying to push myself to use new colors and experiment with risky compositions. At the moment, I am participating in both a weekly plein air session as well as a figure drawing group. If I can keep both these in my schedule, I believe it will do my technical skills a world of good.

Some pieces come out, and others simply don’t. The last study is on location at a lake in a park in Berkeley. I wanted to experiment with super saturated blue shadows. As is often the case with high key colors, they got out of control. The end result is unbalanced and I found that when I finished, my favorite section was actually the top left where I simply painted what I saw with little attempt to edit reality. Oh well- you never know what will happen until you give it a try!

Grand Canyon Inspiration

I recently returned from a backpacking trip to Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Describing my trip as “inspiring” does not do it justice, but its the best I could come up with! The Grand Canyon is an incredible place that almost seems entirely untouched by humanity. For seven days and six nights, I hiked through the most desolate, remote and impossibly beautiful places. If you’d like to see another planet, but can’t afford the ticket aboard a space shuttle, I suggest going to the Grand Canyon instead. It was bizarre, enchanting and dangerous all at the same time.

I had originally planned to bring along my full plein air painting kit to make some on location work, but in the end the strenuous nature of the trip and weight restrictions forced me to leave it at home. I sketched instead, and took lots of photos to make some work back in the studio from.

Here are a few of the highlights and my favorite sketches.

Sketching my first view of the Colorado River up close. Photo by Alex Nitta.


At the canyon’s rim, ready for adventure! Left to right: Alex Nitta, myself and Willie Rusert. Photo by Alex Nitta.


Photo by Alex Nitta.


We walked for miles with no sight of water, and then see this: a geyser of water, bursting straight out of the canyon’s walls, named “Thunder River.” Simply marvelous. Photo by Alex Nitta.


“Kanab Creek.” Water became a wondrous thing in the desert.


“Colorado River.” One of my longer sketches that I’m pretty happy with.


A quick sketch at yet another magnificent desert oasis, “Deer Creek Falls.”


Once we hiked down to the Colorado River, the landscape completely changed. Now we were on a riverbank, mostly rocks that alternated with occasional sandy beaches. Rafters would pass us by – and occasionally would give the amazing gift of cold beer!


Sometimes, a spring on an overhanging ledge would drip water down to the canyon floor below. All sorts of ferns and plant life spring up from these oases.


“Branches.” A quicker study of some wiry willows growing out of a creek bed that I rather like.


Photo by Alex Nitta.

Life Cycle of a Sketchbook

I am a big fan of the sketchbook as an idea factory. For me, it’s an indispensable resource of thumbnails, studies, scribbles and half baked plans. Some artists have beautiful sketchbooks that look like illuminated holy texts, with every page given hours of loving care and elaborate attention. My sketchbooks are just the opposite: messy and dogeared and by the time I’m finished with them they look like they’ve been through a war.

Ideas, good and bad, need a place to live. For me, that’s a sketchbook.

Exhibit A: A brand new shiny sketchbook on the left – a coverless, mangled, well loved sketchbook on the right. I like sketchbooks that have perforated pages, as they are much easier to remove and post up on my studio wall or next to my easel.


One of the many pages of thumbnails from the last sketchbook. Ideas tend to mingle along with poses and gestures and other gibberish.

I’ll often write descriptive notes alongside thumbs- this is especially useful when working on personal projects that are more ambiguous than commissioned work, and can use the specificity.


I also take my sketchbook for studying at museums when I’m lucky enough to go. This drawing is of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, “The Mighty Hand.”


I also use my sketchbook for gestures during life drawing sessions. The model for this session was dressed in a jester outfit and reminded me a lot of a character out of a Diego Velasquez court painting.

Radio Mystery at Simple Pleasures

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I took a break from some commissioned work and sketched the band Radio Mystery last night at Simple Pleasures Cafe in San Francisco. I’ve done this several times now- since illustrating their album cover, it’s become somewhat of a tradition. I’m liking these sketches. I think I really needed a break from illustration and a chance to just draw what was in front of me with no external parameters.

In other news- my blog is now 3 years old! 146 posts and going strong! Hooray!

Here’s another favorite sketch from the last time I drew Radio Mystery in action. Thanks for looking!

Inspiration from the Third Dimension

Auguste Rodin - Nude Study for Eustache de Sanint-Pierre

Auguste Rodin – Nude Study for Eustache de Saint-Pierre

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco and draw some of the amazing sculptures on exhibit there. It’s always one of my favorite drawing activities when I get the chance. The Legion boasts the world’s largest collections of Rodin sculptures (most famous for his “Thinker” piece) and I always learn something new whenever I draw his work. What a master of gesture! I also had the chance to draw some of the newer pieces at the museum as well, including some gorgeous suits of German armor. Here are some other past drawings from previous visits to the Legion. Enjoy!

another Rodin sculpture, "The Athlete."

Rodin’s “The Athlete.”

and another Rodin, wish I'd recorded the name of this one.

and another Rodin- wish I’d recorded the name of this one.