Monday, November 3, 2014

Recent article in Paint and Pattern magazine

A quick word of thanks to Regina Garay (she of for putting together a little piece featuring my commentary on how to turn stencils into unique hand finished pieces. Here's the link to the article and here's a little preview of one the images.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Acanthus #5- Roll me over and do it again!

All right! If you've been doing the homework, you have now drawn out a flat acanthus leaf with all of the necessary components of its design. Way to go! However, acanthus ornament is very rarely depicted as flat. ("You mean I did all this work and I'm not even going to use it?!") You will use it, but we will now modify the leaf shape to fit different purposes.

Probably the first thing most people will associate with the acanthus is the decorative foliage of a Corinthian style capital, as seen in this beautiful Beaux-Arts print from Camillo Boito's book, Gli Stili dell'Ornamento (1882). As you can see, the leaves of the capital lean out and bend over, which is the norm for a Corinthian capital. Look also at the stylization of the eyelets on this leaf; they look almost like the metal-ringed eyelets on a workboot. This is again a stylization: it would not occur in nature, but it looks clean, and it attracts the eye by creating a highlight around the dark of the eye, making a clear punctuation of the leaf's rhythm.

Top capital is from the Temple of Apollo at Didyma (present day Turkey), the bottom acanthus leaf is from the Temple of the Winds in Athens.

Below is an acanthus leaf applied to the bottom side of a modillion, or soffit bracket, from the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum. Again the top is bent forward. Also look at the eyelets on this one; cut very squarely with tiny leaflets hanging down, and the deep grooving of the leaflets, a characteristic that is seen in many examples from Greece and Asia Minor.

Modillion from the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum. From Hector d'Espouy's Fragments Antiques (1905)

So here's a quick run down on how to do this bending, taken from James Page's Guide for Drawing the Acanthus, (1840). I won't go into too much detail, as I think the drawings are pretty self-explanatory. 

Step one- fold over the general form of the leaf with the eyelets drawn in.

Step two- elaboration of the lobes and leaflets. Observe carefully the reversing of the curves of the lobes that are folded over. 

Step three- the leaf rendered

Corinthian Capital from the Temple of Mars Ultor. From Hector d'Espouy's Fragments Antiques (1905)

Corinthian Capital from the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum. From Hector d'Espouy's Fragments Antiques (1905)
All of the examples of capitals that I have shown here are in the more "olivine" style (leaves that look like an olive tree's), another variant on the acanthus leaf which can be found in many places. Look at it carefully, and draw a section, so that you can recognize it and be ready to design with it, noting the cleaner, more linear, more geometric style by comparison to the frillier, more organic style that we have been using for the lessons. Each has its purpose, in accordance with the architecture it enhances.

Next up: Twisting the Night Away!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Acanthus Leaf #4- The Good Stuff

Ok! Whew! Hopefully if you are reading this you have gotten as far as drawing the basic structure and outline of the acanthus leaf as I have outlined in the last three posts. Give yourself a pat on the back! This is NOT a simple form! In fact, it's quite a complex form, but it is very important to understand these basics before we move on to the next step, which is where the fun starts.

So far what we've been doing is the mechanics of the leaf- it's outline, structure, and form. Next up is filling in the details; the leaf tips, the eyelets, and the profile of the leaf, leading into the shading of the form to clarify its form. Even if you are planning to finalize this design in a three-dimensional output, it is very important that you understand all the aspects of that form via drawing before you start

The profile of the leaf we have been working on thus far is fairly simple, so that we may learn the shape without dealing with too many bends and twists. Seen in profile, the leaf, as rendered below (from Page's book), would be almost flat, with a slight curve under at the bottom. In a horizontal section it appears like a bird's wings, as in the top part of the illustration here.

We had left off on the last post with an outlined leaf that had begun to be broken down into the smaller leaflet divisions. Here is a good example, again from Page, that shows the further division, which is based on the same method that was used for the larger divisions, though becoming more irregular and asymmetrical as it gets smaller and smaller. One important thing to notice is how the end of each leaflet flows into the main part of the leaf, which then flows down and into the stem channels to the base of the leaf. See how all those parallel lines converge as they descend the leaf?

One last detail I will point out is in the eyelet and the ridge that it creates. In Page's example seen here, there is a stylized rhythmic notching of the ridge that can be found in many examples from historical models. There is also a "skirt" of leaves around the large eyelet on the left side of the leaf, again something that is seen quite often in ornamental work. The skirt protrudes from the rib, catching light and emphasizing the eyelet's darkness. I will show more examples of these stylizations later, but for now perhaps you can work on your drawing of the whole leaf (if you have actually started one!) and see if you can get it close to the example

Next up: Variations on a theme

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Acanthus Leaf #3- Forming the leaf part II

Now that we've got the basic structure of the leaf and the position of the eyelets, it's time to form the lobes of the leaf. As I mentioned in the last post, the convention is for the lower lobes to overlap the one above. Here's how we do that.

Step Eight: Aligned with each of the eyelets that you drew in the last step make a circle that touches the edge of the leaf, and that has a center about parallel with the eyelet. As usual, these are only guides that will disappear in a few steps, so draw these lightly!
As you can see, I only drew one side of the leaf. That's because from this step on I will be folding the paper in half to do the other side of it, to avoid having to erase quite as much. For now, just leave it as it is here- one half only drawn in with the circles.

Step Nine: What we will be drawing here are the central veins of the lobes, which in ornamental language are usually represented by a crease in the leaf. The tip of each crease starts at the point on the perimeter of the leaf that is halfway between each of the eyes, represented here by where the horizontal dotted lines cross the outside profile. They then curve and taper downwards, where they will all flow into the gully that defines the side of the central rib of the leaf. Notice that each of the creases passes through the center point of each of the circles and passes just above the eyelet of the next lobe down.

Step Ten: We now begin to define the individual lobes of the leaf, starting at the bottom and progressing upwards. Each lobe begins at the eyelet (as we practiced on the last lesson), curves upward around the circumference of the circle, and comes to a point at the end of the crease. It then returns downwards around the outside of the circle to die under the top edge of the leaf below it. 

Step Eleven: Here I have erased the circles used as guides so that you can see more clearly the shape of the lobes

Step Eleven: By folding the paper in half vertically and tracing the design, I have duplicated the lobes onto the other side of the leaf (without going through the whole process of circles and creases.) I also erased the last bit of the crease near the tip of the lobes, an aspect that will be further explored when we talk about styles and leaf types. You should still be drawing lightly, as even now we will be erasing much of this before we are done.

The other trick you can use in the sequence of these steps is to flip the paper and trace from the other side each time  you make a new step, that way you can completely erase the step before without erasing the current drawing. This is easiest with vellum, but you can also hold regular paper up to a window or a light box so that you can see through it.

Step Twelve: Subdividing the lobes gives the acanthus leaf its individual character, and also allows us to take guesses as to where and when an example might be found historically. There are many ways of doing this, but I've attempted here to distill what is common to most of them, so that we may use it in this lesson.

First up, a note on the particular style that I'm using in this example. The curve on the left side of this illustration is what might be called an ogival arch (especially if my Illustrator skills were better!) That  is, it has two "s" curves meeting at a point in the middle. To me this is a nod to the natural form of the acanthus, which has sharp spines at the tips of its leaves, so I will use it for our lesson.

Secondly, as seen in the illustration at right, the lobes are roughly symmetrical over the axis of the central crease, so when subdividing we will arrange 3 circles to fit inside the lobe, using the perpendicular axis to the crease as the base of the triangle formed by the 3 circles (Just look at the illustration- don't try to make sense of it verbally!) As usual, these are only guides, so draw lightly!!

Here is the method seen above as applied to the lobes of the right side (we can do the same method of advancing one side and tracing it to the other side again.)

Step Thirteen: Following the same method we used for the general lobe shape, we create leaflets that follow the outlines of the three enclosed circles, noting that the notches formed between the leaflets should make a more or less perpendicular line to the central crease (see illustration two below this one)

Step Fourteen: Removed the guide circles (and replaced the center creases that I accidentally took out of the last illustration!)

Step Fifteen: Illustrating  the small eyelets separating the leaflets and how they are perpendicular to the central crease of the lobe. Also notice how the central rib of the whole leaf has been added, and how the creases and folds of the eyelets all spring from the same channels on both sides.

The further subdivision of the lobes gets less orderly from this point on, with more asymmetry visible. Nevertheless, the tips of each leaflet and its divisions still follow an arrow-like form proceeding from the central rib and channels of the leaf. I will go deeper into style and variants on the form in the next post.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Acanthus Leaf #2- How to: Forming the leaf shape

As I said in the last post, the acanthus leaf is a mix of natural and artificial; evocative of plants in its details, but grounded by a geometric regularity expressed through its form and construction. As with any artifice, it is helpful when a form is quickly comprehensible (what draws the eye in) and then detailed to the artists' abilities (what makes us keep looking.)

So how do you make an acanthus leaf? What follows is a basic primer in the form and features of the acanthus leaf. As with any primer, this is not the only way of doing it- in fact you will find very few examples that would follow this exact pattern- but it is a solid starting point that includes all of the basic features found in more complex examples, which we will look at later.

Here's my method, adapted from a 19th century book by James Page called, (appropriately,) Guide for Drawing the Acanthus, and Every Description of Ornamental Foliage (London, 1840).  This book was directed at tradespeople who wished to learn the methods for drawing ornamental foliage that looked good and would translate to three dimensional work, which is where the majority would be found, decorating architecture, furniture, and trade goods.

For your first attempt, I would recommend working on a standard sketch or drawing paper, at least a 9"x12" pad,  something that you can erase without tearing, and see through a little if you hold it up to the light. Architectural vellum (heavy weight tracing paper) also works very well. Use a medium pencil (HB) and have a good eraser on hand. Many of the steps are there only as guides, and will be erased later. You can use a ruler for some of the steps, but always draw lightly with it, as none of the ruled lines will show when you are done.

Step one: Let's start with a vertical rectangle that is 5 inches wide by 10 inches tall (about 12.5cm by 25 cm for our metric friends). Construct a grid that is 2 units by 5 units by dividing it in half horizontally and every two inches (or 5 cm) vertically. As you will see, many of these steps will only be temporary, so draw lightly. This one, in fact, will completely disappear by the end, and is only intended to show the proportions of the overall shape of the leaf.

Step Two: [Each new step will be drawn in red]. Divide the bottom edge into 3 equal sections and LIGHTLY draw the diagonal lines that connect the center of the top with the two divisions of the bottom, as seen in the illustration.

Step Three: Starting from the outside bottom corners, draw diagonal lines that are approximately parallel to the inner diagonals, stopping at the first division of the grid from the top.

Step Four: Connect the two diagonal lines you just drew to the top center point, as seen in the illustration. Check your curve against the one I have drawn here- you can use the straight diagonal I drew on the left side as a further guide to your curve. Notice how it forms a bow shape with the curve. Again, these lines are just guides for your overall shape and will disappear before you are finished, so draw them lightly, but try to make sure they are symmetrical (you can check this by folding your paper on the vertical center line to see if they overlap when you look at them through the folded paper.)

Step Five: OK, let's get rid of some of the lines now so it doesn't become too confusing. You can erase everything except the outline of the leaf and the two vertical diagonals that define the center rib of the leaf. It should look like this;

Step Six: Now we start the more artistic part of the process- less geometry and more eyeballing. We need to divide the central diagonals into intervals that get smaller as they get towards the top. I could try to give you some kind of formula for that (6, 5, 4.5, etc.) but it's really better to just look at the model below and give it your best shot. I've drawn the dotted lines so that you can better compare the intervals between the dots, but you can just draw the dots on your own sheet- that makes it easier to adjust as you go. Notice also how the very bottom interval is a bit smaller than the one just above it, but then they each get smaller as they go upwards.

Step Seven: The dots, or "eyelets" are a very important aspect of the acanthus leaf ornament. They give it rhythm and they also allow the eye to position the leaf in space. In a dimensional ornament (stone, plaster or wood) they are the registration marks that make reference points for the planes of the leaf that come later. They are derived from the natural shape of the divisions of the lobes on the leaf, but they also have a number of artificial aspects that I will show. 

If you look right in the center of the above photo you will see what the shape comes from. It is the place where one lobe ends and the next begins. It forms this little teardrop shape that is the basis for the artificial shape seen below. 

As you can see, the eye is formed by the overlap of each lower leaf over the next leaf, which is the convention when drawing acanthus for decorative purposes. It's not a bad idea to practice drawing the shape several times until you become familiar with it. It's formed like a "b" and a "d" in pairs, with the line of the lower leaf forming the part that continues upwards, covering some of the lobe above it. 

Once you've gotten comfortable with it, you can make the mark (just the eyelet- don't fill in the lobe yet) at each of the intersections that you made in step seven. These are the first marks you've made that will not be erased in the end! 

Next up: creating the lobes and the subdivision of the leaf edges. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Acanthus Lesson 1: A Proper Leaf, Part One (The Roots!)


This is the first lesson of several that I will post here on the origin, usage, and construction of acanthus leaf ornament in Western classical decoration. Ever since the classical Greeks, acanthus leaves, and their variant forms, have been used to enhance everything from temples to pickle forks. The form of the leaf has become so transformed by usage that most do not recognize the origin of its plant based shape, even if they are familiar with the plant, seen often in temperate climates as a garden specimen.
The leaf of the Acanthus Mollis plant, regularly used as a model for plant based ornament

Part One: Roots

When Louis Sullivan created his book on ornament*, he began with the organic, as conveyed by the shapes of leaves. He listed 14 basic shapes, somewhat less than the myriad collection in this illustration from Wikipedia, which pretty much covers the gamut of just about anything you could find on the planet, at least above the oceans. I also love being able to describe a leaf as a 'doubly serrated dichotomous flabellate"!

Leaf shaped ornaments have been covering man made objects for thousands of years, found on items from around the globe, and the shapes seen in the chart above are doubtlessly an early source of many decorative patterns, translated into other materials by busy hands. The illustration below shows a variety of capitals from Egypt, with ornaments derived from the leaves and blooms of palms, lotus, and papyrus plants. 

Plate 45 from Denon, Dominique Vivant - Voyage dans la basse et la haute Égypte, pendant les campagnes du général Bonaparte (1802)
The Greek sculptor Callimachus is apocryphally credited with inventing the Corinthian capital by Roman writer Vitruvius, as illustrated by this page of Claude Perrault's book on the Five Orders from 1683. According to Vitruvius, the sculptor came across a votive basket left at the tomb of a young girl, with a stone slab on top to protect the offerings inside. An acanthus plant had begun to grow under the basket, and thus became the basket form covered in leaves that we recognize today as the Corinthian order.

Perrault's illustration of the origin of the Corinthian capital, 1683

The earliest known example of a Corinthian capital is found at the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae (Greece), dated around 450 BC (incidentally , more than 100 years before Callimachus was even born), but it is thought to be a one-off, somewhat of an oddity in a temple that is mostly in the Doric and Ionic orders. A beautifully preserved early example was found in the tholos at Epidaurus, dated to the 4th century BC also.

Corinthian capital found at Epidaurus, Greece, 4th c. BC
As you can see above, the leaf shape used to ring the capital is a fully developed acanthus leaf, clearly derived from the plant itself, although regularized and codified in a way to make it something between a natural form and a geometric shape. That is where we will pick up in the next installment.

*Sullivan, Louis, A System of of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers, New York 1924. Published posthumously by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Pic 'o the Day #1330- All in the details!

One of the rarely acknowledged benefits of the erosion of the monuments of ancient sites is the revelation of the sculptural substructures that support the ornamented surfaces. As the incredibly articulated and often quite delicate leaves, flowers, wings, etc. are worn away by the abrasions of time, we get to see what was hidden in the finished work: the work that went into sculpting the undercut parts.

A plaster cast of a large section of the entablature of the Temple of Vespasian, seen in the Tabularium, (part of the Capitoline Museums, beneath the Palazzo Senatorio), was the first piece that really drew my attention to this. The multiple moldings of this florid Corinthian ornament seem almost to be assembled from separate bits of stone rather than sculpted from a single massive block. The eggs of the egg and dart molding can be seen to be smoothly rounded as deeply as one can see, with no visible marks from the stone drills and chisels. This despite the fact that, apart from about thirty percent of the front face of the egg, the largest portion would have been hidden behind the surrounding molding. This not only makes that area invisible, it also makes it extremely difficult to carve and smooth. Yet there it is, clearly seen in the photo below. While this is a plaster cast piece in the museum, it is accurate to what is there, and the same type of carving can be seen elsewhere on similar original pieces.

Section of the entablature of the Temple of Vespasian in the Roman Forum, built in the first century AD. This temple was relatively small (for the forum), so there would only have been around 250 feet of this! It was also carved on its inner aspect.
The lower egg and leaf molding is equally stunning, with almost free standing leaves surrounding each egg, and tiny flowers and vines carved on the face of each one (Click on the photo for a closer view.) Incredible when you consider the overall number of these on the exterior of the temple, and that  (to my knowledge) they had no glue for fixing a broken bit, again quite incredible considering the delicacy of many of the parts. These obviously were carved in place, as it would have been quite impossible to get them into place without some damage to the ornament. 

With the overall amount of ornament on the building, there must have been hundreds of craftsmen who were capable of this technical work banging away up on the scaffold every day; the sound must have been deafening! While it is almost certain that a good portion of these sculptors would have been slaves, skilled work was often paid for, and in some cases, might have bought the slave's freedom. The flip side being that mistakes were most likely paid for in some not so pleasant ways. 

Detail of a Corinthian capital on the Temple of Mars Ultor, built by Caesar Augustus around 20 BC. You can see here the level of detail on the wings, which would have been virtually invisible at their height.

The top of the bell of a Corinthian capital and the point where the volutes attached, showing how the underside of the corona is carved flat and the bell curve continues around smoothly, despite the fact that these parts were largely hidden by the volutes themselves. From the museum at the Market of Trajan.

Rosette from the soffit of Temple of Mars Ultor. Each layer of the flowers is almost entirely distinct from the other. The egg and dart molding is similarly separated

Closeup of a molding with acanthus leaves showing how deeply carved the spaces behind  the leaves went, to the point that they were almost entirely freestanding. You can also see traces of where the rock drills were used to make the registration points of the leaves

An added benefit of a well crafted classical ornamental scheme is that even in its eroded state, it still presents a fascinating pattern of light and shadow, unlike modern ornament, which generally just looks dirty and dull after a few years of weathering.
The question must arise then of why would they expend so much effort on something that was largely invisible. Partly it IS visual, as can be seen by contrasting it to the modern reproduction moldings in the image below. While reproduction moldings might be well modeled and cast, the drama of the deep shadows in the Roman originals is lacking, making the copies look flatter (and this is actually some of the better pre-cast work available.)

Capital and entablature from a modern pre-cast company shows that the depth of shadows in the Roman originals is much more dramatic.

The Roman examples I have shown are from the early Imperial age (27 BC to 50 AD) corresponding to the 2nd and 3rd styles of painted decoration, which were the most painstaking and detailed, so partly it may have just been a cultural zeitgeist that briefly valued highly the attention to detail shown here, and had the resources in both the funds and the highly skilled artists available to make it happen. Other pieces from around the empire are certainly impressive, but rarely quite as detailed as what was found in the capitol city at this time.

There may also be some credence to the idea that because these ornaments were going on major new temples, that they had better be pleasing to both the clients and the gods they honored, with no shortcuts. It would be equivalent to the work done for St Peter's Basilica, or the Pyramids and monuments of Egypt, where they looked at the work as something sacred.

It will be interesting to see if new methods of creating moldings, such as the 3D printers that are increasingly being used industrially, will be used to create deeper versions of these patterns. It would seem to make sense, as this complex undercutting does not add time to the printing, and in fact it lessens the materials used, a benefit to both the cost of production and the weight of building. Artist Michael Hansmeyer has already created full size highly perforated columns using computer aided cutting, though his design module is uses mathematically generated modules rather than traditional structures. It will be up to a new generation that is familiar with computational modeling AND values the traditional design process to take the next step.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1329- Intermission

Still coping with a major computer meltdown that took out both my desktop Mac AND the peripheral drive that I had my pictures backed up on at the same time! Fortunately I have my pics spread around, so I'm not completely image free.

Here's one that caught my eye today, a detail of a Roman era fresco at the Museo Barracco, over near the Campo dei Fiori. It's a good lesson on how to paint greenery fast, a prerequisite for painting in fresco, where the plaster is constantly drying as one paints.

First off, notice how the overall shape is roughed in with a neutral brown color that relates closely to the background color, and also sets off the greens (which in Roman times were not very vibrant.) Secondly, see how the the bush is rendered as a sphere, with the light coming from the right side, so that the deepest shadow colors fall on the left side and the brightest colors are on the upper right side. Lastly, notice how the colors are separate and distinct from each other, and that even though they don't really fall the way they would on a realistic portrayal, they give a good impression of the tree that reads dimensionally and coloristically. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1328- TGIF!

Ever have one of those weeks? Imagine these poor stiffs- can't even go home and take a shower to wash whatever that accumulated stuff is. From Naples.

Atlantes supporting a Doric entablature on a commercial building in Naples

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1327- Thanks for Dancing!

Big thanks to those who joined us last night at the Grand Annex in San Pedro to celebrate the power of music!! Even if you only danced in your seats!

Opus sectile panel with Dionysiac dancers from the House of the Colored Capitals in Pompeii

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1326- Pin the tail on the What?

All we know about Roman era painting (Greek too, for that matter,) comes to us in the form of wall paintings. None of the panel paintings have survived the perils of time, with the exception of the funerary portraits that were locked away in the tombs of Egypt. But in a second hand way, we know that they existed, partly by verbal descriptions from Vitruvius and Pliny, and also by their depictions in several murals, such as this image from the House of the Ara Maxima in Pompeii.

If you look closely at the painting of Narcissus looking at his reflection in the water, you can see that both sides are flanked by folded shutters, which is how these paintings were protected (it also made them easy to display on a flat surface!) They are known as pinakes, and it's where we get the word Pinacoteca, meaning art gallery, which you will see in many places in Italy. Too bad none of the real things has survived!

Genre painting of Narcissus is given a trompe l'oeil shuttered frame. From the House of the Ara Maxima, Pompeii.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pic o' the day #1325- It's the little things that count

In some of the later wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum you'll find a whole wall painted just one color, with some kind of small image in the center of it. Could be an Eros, or a dancer, or just some birds, eating fruit. From the House of the Grand Portal in Herculaneum.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1324- What a Pain in the Neck!

One of the first things that started me down this rabbit hole of ornamental research was wanting to know about Pompeian style ceilings for a project I was working on. At first I had difficulty finding images of ceilings, but I now have about 350 of them, including these. I'm a little surprised at the energy that was often spent on ceiling decorations, which are very hard on the body, making it difficult and time consuming to do. For more photos of what I did at the house go to this earlier post.

This is a ceiling in the Casa del Salone Nero (Black Salon) in Herculaneum, with a ceiling that preserves both the painting and the vaulted form.

This is a reconstruction drawing of one of the ceilings in the Domus Aurea, Nero's palace in Rome.

Here's what I came up with for the ceiling at my project, with a bit of frieze inspired by the Villa della Farnesina in Rome. I'm still waiting for the go ahead to do the walls of the room!
By the way, Michelangelo never painted lying down; here's his little drawing of himself, in a letter where he is complaining about the pain in his neck!