Wok Fight!

My still-life setups were placed on a table (also seen in my Hobbies paintings) in a corner of our living room, with just enough room to set up my light, easel, paints, palettes, and brushes. I wouldn’t have been able to turn the kitchen counter into a second painting studio in our 1BR, and so I brought the wok and part of the oven grate over to the still-life table.

With this configuration, I focused on the appetizing play of light on the hand-hammered, carbon steel wok.

I was going to invent a stove, but it became apparent that it wasn’t going to look right. And so I turned to my free camera lucida setup. I put my smartphone on a tripod and pointed the camera toward the stove at about the same angle as my earlier view of the wok on the table. On my laptop, I could line up the ellipse of the wok in the painting precisely with the image of the actual wok on the stove, and then block in the contours of the stove, the rest of the grate, the front panel and knobs, and the side counter.

Upon that foundation, I touched up the background, the marble, and the hot-cool flames.

On the display, I added a couple Japanese kanji characters for “empty” and “fry” (空炒). This isn’t an actual word, but you might pronounce it “karaita,” empty fry, similar to “karaoke,” empty orchestra. I was thinking of this painting as the base layer, the empty fry version, of a larger project.

Part of the deal of being in any atelier at Gage is that you can take another class of your choice. I waited until the end of the last term to make my pick: Introduction to 2-D Animation, taught by Brianna Fecarotta.

Here’s my final project for this super-fun class:

Wok Fight (2021). 2-D animation

The soundtrack is straight out of the built-in samples from the Teenage Engineering “Street Fighter edition” PO-133, an inexpensive sampler, sequencer, and effects machine.

To demonstrate what it does, here’s “Ode to Joy x PO-133.”


Eye Level

Seeing eye to eye with a goat

During Spring 2021, we worked on mixing master copies with still-life paintings, and so here’s a Corot painting of a goatherd wearing a red hat. (In a green-and-brown landscape, it always helps to have a little dash of red.)

And here’s my version:

Copy of The Goatherd, acrylic on 9″ x 12″ canvas paper

And here’s me adding an ink jar and a retractable tape measure to the foreground.

During the critique, we discussed eye level. I had thought to have the top ellipse of the ink bottle read as if eye level was even with the mountain range just under the goatherd’s hat. But in this case, there was some ambiguity as to the location of the horizon line and vanishing point. Maybe the eye level is aligned with the city nestled in the hills, or perhaps it’s even lower, at the level of the goat.

I went with the goat’s-head stoop. Here’s the final version:


Free Camera Lucida

How to trace images and live video feeds using free software and your smartphone and PC cameras

Red Onion (2021)

I was having trouble with my drawing skill, which was holding back my ability to complete paintings. And so I looked into computer-aided shortcuts.

I don’t consider it cheating, first because I was open about my process to the point of giving an in-class demo, and second because the way to learn a difficult skill is to break it down into constituent parts.

Here’s a painting by Valenciennes.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. Bâtiments de ferme à la Villa Farnèse, les deux peupliers (1780).

I did a drawing of the Valenciennes, and uploaded it to an appropriately-titled website:

What’s wrong with my drawing? Side-by-side comparisons.

As a value study, it’s not too bad, which means that I was making progress on that particular skill. But the drawing itself was off, and the website lets you see exactly where, using comparison lines placed on landmarks on the source and on your drawing. As you can see, the foreground is too large, the trees are too compressed and slanted, and the roofline silhouette is imprecisely drawn.

Checking your work is impeccable pedagogy. You’re doing it on your own, and then only using technology to measure accuracy.

But what if you could shorten the review cycle? What if you could evaluate, in real time, every mark you make on the canvas?

I figured out how with my second attempt at the drawing.

Sketch of value study for Valenciennes painting

That looks much better, doesn’t it? The trees look the right size, the composition is accurate. But how accurate is it really?

Overlaying a transparency of original painting on top of the drawing.
Precise contour match between the original and the drawing

Here’s how I did it:

The task was to overlay a transparency of live video of the canvas on top of the still image of the source photo, and then adjust the position and transparency of each.

The open-source Open Broadcaster Software OBS Studio essentially works as a video mixer. You can combine multiple sources, connecting to your laptop camera, an external device, or an application window.

The result is that you can see both images, video feed and still image, one superimposed as a transparency on the other.

At the beginning, it’s just the onion from the source image. Then, whenever you place a mark on the canvas or paper, you can watch the monitor to see your hand placing that mark exactly where it belongs. You’re drawing on the paper, but you’re looking at the screen.

You can use this technique to copy a source image onto a canvas, or you can take it step further by putting a camera in front of the still-life setup. This means you have two live video feeds: one for the canvas, and one for the still-life setup itself. With this approach, you can mess around with a 3-D still-life setup until it looks good on a 2-D canvas, without thumbnail drawings.

Our class had been working on a project to insert our own still-life objects into a master copy of a landscape painting. In my case, I wanted to add a new condo building in front of the Villa Farnèse in Valenciennes’ painting.

With OBS, it was easy enough to add another camera feed from my smartphone. I’m sure there are dozens of ways to do this, but I went with Zoom. I started a Zoom meeting from the PC, and used OBS to capture the video from the Zoom application. Then, I dialed into the meeting with the phone (turning off audio). With the phone on a tripod, I could then position the phone with a straight-on view of the still-life setup.  

I adjusted the camera height until the perspective looked right. 

I had the block just where I wanted it.

The next step was to trace the outline and key landmarks of the still-life object onto the drawing. Again, you’re looking at the screen, tracing an object that’s entirely out of view, while moving your hand on the canvas off to the side. 

And there you have it, The Poplars Luxury Condominiums at Villa Farnèse.

I know it’s a bit complicated, and I’ll have to shoot a YouTube video to do this explanation justice. In the meantime, if you want to try out something easier, it turns out there are all sorts of “camera lucida” apps for sale in the various app stores, and some of them look really slick.

But my approach has the advantages of price (free) and scalability (unlimited). You can do much more than just copy a still image, and by adding as many cameras as you want, you can do all sorts of things you could never do with a single camera.

Give it a try, and have fun!

And share your work! 



A Recap of “My Atelier Year” so far

My single best work was near the very beginning of class in September. I did some interesting experiments in the weeks that followed, but my garage art studio soon became a difficult place to work, and I particularly struggled with backing up interesting ideas with solid realist painting techniques. After the death of my father in November, I took a few weeks off, with only a few attempts at creating art.

With the new year came a new place to live. December was dedicated to the home search, January to the garage clean-out and move, and February to settling in. During that time, I worked at home, mostly in charcoal, which was the easiest to handle in the limited space I had available.

The studio space at Gage was open, but until I had my vaccine shots, I wasn’t really comfortable going there. And by the time I did get my shots, it was already late spring, and I had gotten into the habit of painting with acrylics at home, which was more appealing than the deserted Gage studio.

Anyway, here are some of the few drawings I did over the winter.


I chose Klee for a value study because of the Klee color squares displayed at my parents’ home in New Jersey.

Klee at my parents’ home

GF on Klee: “He’s too unknowable, intellectual. I don’t get Klee. I find him a mysterious, puzzling artist. He’s a hyper-intellectual driven by theory and philosophy. I saw a Klee show in Vienna, I went out of that show so confused.

“People love pieces like this. It has a sex appeal. It’s fun to look at.”

Still Life with Plums

Over the Winter holidays, the atelier students each did a master-copy, limited palette exercise of a Chardin, one of Gary’s favorite still-life artists. I did mine in charcoal instead of oil, and this was my first large-scale charcoal.

Galgo Corredor

Upon returning to class after the Winter break, I had somehow forgotten how to draw. Everything was out of proportion, out of scale, out of order. Three times, I tried drawing the same setup and my hand just came up with the same drawing.

Most students come to the atelier knowing how to draw. But Gary was patient with me, and he went back to basics during my critique.

Left: Setup
Right: Charcoal drawing, take 2, January 2021.
Bottom: In-class drawing by Gary Faigin

I don’t know how or why I forgot how to draw. And I wasn’t sure how to regain the skill that had suddenly left me, or how long that would take. But I did know that for the remainder of the atelier, I needed to get around the problem. What I needed was a gimmick.

(To be continued.)


Still-life painting

Nature is the ultimate teacher.

Still life with porcelain teapot (1763)
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779)

What the world looks like is the ultimate way to learn about making images. We’re constantly referring to what is in our visual surroundings. If you make it up, you’re just repeating what’s already in your head. You want to be educated by what’s really out there, and then you can work from your imagination much more effectively.

Buttoned-down representational still-life paintings give you the freedom to go back and let your personality come through. I invent a lot, but I like the security of having the object there. Where’s the shadow? Where’s the highlight? Where’s the color going to change? I like making up the backgrounds, not the foregrounds.

Don’t get hung up on painting what you see. The idea of being true to your subject is a non-issue. We know that Chardin constantly mixed and matched what was there in what he decided to depict. Left to our own devices, we tell people more than they need to know. TMI really applies to painting.

Still life exists in its own universe. When the painting is over, the actual setup vaporizes. The only thing that matters is your painting. Nobody’s going to care or know what your setup looks like. All they care about is your painting.

All your decisions need to be – OK, is it going to work in the painting or not? Not whether it looks like the setup.

Representational artists are constantly faced with this issue. Even though people are going to look at our paintings and assume we painted what we saw, we make tons of decisions, alterations, editorial corrections. You can’t help it.

It takes a certain amount of willpower to look at something and know that you doing your own version is going to work better than doing what’s actually there.

In scientific illustration, they put in every little detail, because that’s what they’re trained to do. They paint every spot on the bug, all those little bumps on the antenna and the joints and the spots and the creases. It’s like a diagram. But you’d never mistake it for fine art or John Singer Sargent. For scientific illustration, the priority is not to create art, but rather to describe something in the physical world as closely as possible to the way it looks.

– Gary Faigin, quoted during the Faigin Still-Life Atelier 2020-2021, Gage Academy of Art. Notes collected and edited by Ivan Schneider.



Good art should read strongly in a thumbnail.

Study of hands (c. 1474), Royal Library, Windsor
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

You’re all trying to invent these pictures as you go. I never do that. It would make me crazy. And if you want to be Gary Faigin when you grow up, you shouldn’t do it either.

The thumbnail is so important. A thumbnail is a map, and you’re much more likely to get lost without a map.

It’s your first rush of excitement and inspiration, without getting bogged down in the bitsy details.

Start with a plan, a concept. You’ve got your big shapes and small shapes, your lights and your darks, balance of warms and cools, a strong contrast.

When you do a setup, arrange the objects, arrange the light, and say OK, this is what I want, I’m going to paint this. What makes us decide to paint something is the way it looks with our particular light setup.

It’s a whole lot easier to figure stuff out on a thumbnail when you’re not trying to get all the drawing and the details right. You’re seeing the thing as a whole.

Tunnel vision is a real danger on these big pictures. You can’t help but focus on just these little bitsy things. It’s easy to lose your way, drilling down for a week or two to get the details right.

The point of a thumbnail is to produce the effect of the final painting. When the viewer looks at the painting, they take it in at one flash. Whether it’s a good painting or not is all about that flash. The thumbnail captures that flash.

Back when slides were still the way that artists presented themselves, people would walk into a gallery with a slide sheet, say “take a look at my work.” Sometimes they’d just hold it up to the light and say, “No, not interested. Come back in a year.” The point is that they could tell in just 30 seconds, just by looking at a slide sheet, whether the art was striking – and along the lines of something they might show.

Don’t use a photograph of a setup instead of a thumbnail. If you’re just relying on a photo, you don’t bring out what you want to bring out. Don’t let the photo do the deciding. The thumbnail represents your interpretation. A photo is not a substitute.

– Gary Faigin, quoted during the Faigin Still-Life Atelier 2020-2021, Gage Academy of Art. Notes collected and edited by Ivan Schneider.


Light and shadow

Drama, contrast, depth, and form

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602), San Diego Museum of Art.
Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627)

The setup

In your setup, put the light to the side. The idea is to have two-thirds of the object in light and one-third in shadow, making it easy to see the contrast. Use a shadow box to prevent light coming in from random directions.

Most setups are dominated by midtones, which is why we need dark darks and light lights. Without them, it’s like having a stew without salt. You can have all the right organic ingredients, everything perfectly cooked, but if you don’t have any salt, it’s going to be bland.

The eye

The eye is relational. When we gauge a scene, the eye decides based on the values in that scene how brightly it’s lit.

The eye adapts to local conditions. If you’re looking at a setup that’s all midtones, the eye imagines much more contrast than there really is. The eye will extend the apparent value range no matter what the actual value range of the picture. That’s why it’s important to get darks in at the early stage.

Shadow color

Every shadow is at least as dark as burnt sienna. The color in shadow is not very important as long as the value is correct.

Shadow shape

Shadow shapes tell us about the nature of the object, responding to the physical quality of the object. It’s the area of highest contrast, and our eye goes to it intuitively to get the shape of the object, whether smooth, rough, cylindrical, cone, or sphere. It’s prominent graphically, and explains the nature of our objects. But sometimes we make it more prominent than it really is.

When we look at a picture, shadows act like objects. It’s dark, it has outlines, it’s got weight. It becomes another actor in the drama. But you’re not supposed to notice the shadow. If you notice the shadow, there’s something wrong with the shadow.

– Gary Faigin, quoted during the Faigin Still-Life Atelier 2020-2021, Gage Academy of Art. Notes collected and edited by Ivan Schneider.