Thursday, December 31

A 'Mystery' Painting - Finding the Origin of an Unknown Painting & Artist

Today’s Image
Our Family's "Mystery" Painting
Photo Copyright 2009

I thought I’d close out the last OrbisPlanis art blog of 2009 with a mystery. I hope you like mysteries.

In my last blog I talked about several paintings that I remembered fondly from my grandmother’s home.

Today’s Image
is another painting originally from her home that has been in the family for at least 50 years, maybe more.

Funny, we never named this painting like we did the ones I mentioned in my last blog (Blue Boy, Pink Lady, etc.), and I don’t know why. It certainly deserves a name.

It also deserves a past, and that’s what the mystery is. Who was the artist who painted this, and where did it come from?

The painting has a few hints that I can share, although they only partially answer the above questions.

In the lower left corner of the painting, there is a signature. It’s “T Harris” --I'm pretty sure that’s what it is. After the signature is “52” which I’m sure is the year in which it was painted. Now, I’m assuming that's 1952. It’s unlikely from its condition, but I suppose it’s possible that it could be a very well preserved painting from 1852 (or older?). Also, it's oil on stretched canvas (I think, but it's been framed and you can't see the back). It's 15.5 x 19.5 in (39.4 x 49.5 cm).

The painting was a gift from an elderly neighbor friend of my grandmother’s in Houston during the 1950s. I only know the neighbor as “Mrs. Downey” who was originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She had moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in Houston, Kay Newton and Dr. Bern Newton. I do not know if Kay’s maiden name was Downey or not.

I Googled several search words, of course, such as " T Harris, painter, artist, Houston, Calgary," but there were no hits remotely associated with the artist or painting.

And that, folks, is the extent of my knowledge of this painting. It has hung in various houses and various rooms at various times in which our family has possessed it.

If anyone has a clue to its origin, feel free to leave a comment or email me.

If it turns out to be a masterpiece by a famous, famous painter of whom I’m unaware, wouldn't that be a great way to start 2010!?

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28

Discovering "Blue Boy," "Pinkie," and "Red Boy"

Today’s Image
Sarah Barret Moulton: Pinkie by Sir Thomas Lawrence
In the Public Domain
This is the time of year when people tend to do a lot of reminiscing about holidays past and the year--in this case, the decade--coming to a close. That got me to thinking about some of the art I remember from my childhood. Without giving out the exact timeframe, I will only say that it was a while back.

Some of the art I remember from my grandmother’s house is indelibly burned up there in my brain, and I can see it "there" whenever I want to.

Hanging on her walls were "Blue Boy," "Red Boy," and "Pink Lady." At least that’s what she called them, so that’s what we called them. I’m still lucky enough to be in possession of "Red Boy" and "Pink Lady," although "Blue Boy" somehow vanished over the years.

These are framed prints, of course. If we had the originals, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing a blog about them, now would I?

I decided to do a little online research after I recently viewed "Red Boy" and "Pink Lady" again. Here’s what I found out. I hope you find it interesting.

"Blue Boy" is really called THE Blue Boy, and it’s by Thomas Gainsborough painted around 1770. According to Wikipedia it was Gainsborough’s most famous painting, and it’s a portrait of a man with the unflattering name of Jonathan Buttall. It says it is a historical costume study intended to pay homage to the Dutch painter Van Dyck of Charles II. It stayed in collections in Europe until it was sold to American railroad magnate, Henry Huntington, in 1921. It hangs today in the Huntington Museum in San Marino, California.

Based on the comment received by a reader, I subsequently edited this blog to clarify information about the painting known as Red Boy. Blue Boy and Red Boy are often thought of together because of the obvious similarity in names; however, the real Red Boy was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence depicitng Charles William Lambton.

The painting we were calling"Red Boy" is actually titled Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga by Francisco de Goya, painted about 1790. It shows a little boy in a fancy red suit with lace standing next to a cat and a bird cage. The original hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

And it turns out, "Pink Lady" is actually Sarah Barrett Moulton:“Pinkie” also by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It was painted about 1794. Sarah was the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in Jamaica, and her family nickname was Pinkie. It also hangs in the Huntington Museum.

Anyway, I’m glad to know the actual titles and artists of these three paintings that I remember so vividly from childhood and which I still enjoy today. Perhaps they sparked my interest in art.

I have one more “mystery” painting from my grandmother’s house that I’ll discuss in my next blog. Maybe you can help me discover its origin.


Monday, December 21

Using RED in Your Artwork

Today’s Image
A Good Use of Red

I’m seeing red, and you probably are, too. You see a lot, and I mean a lot, of red this time of year. I’m pretty sure you would agree with this.

I like red. I really do.

I don’t paint with it a lot or even much at all--oops, make that any at all—I just checked the paintings I’ve done this year. There are no objects in any of my paintings that are painted red.

I’m talking red-red. I mean red, so that you can’t help but notice that something in the painting—like a rose or vase or a fire truck—is painted RED. That would be something painted straight cadmium red light or medium or some similar screaming red.

Now let me be specific, so you don’t think I’m not telling the whole truth. I actually use red in every painting I work on. However, it’s not the straight red right from the tube. Red being one of the three primary colors, of course, I use it freely and copiously—only it’s mixed in with other colors so that the correct hue and value are achieved.

Red is like the little kid in the shopping cart screaming at the top of his or her lungs for a piece of candy that Mom or Dad refuse to give. Please, would someone just stop him or her from making such a screeching racket.

Red is perfect for attracting attention, but you should—no, you must--use it sparingly; otherwise, if there’s too much of it, it loses its punch, if you know what I mean.

That’s what red is like, a punch. They must have been talking about red when they came up with the term “a punch of color.”

Have you noticed there’s no such thing as a royal red? There’s a royal blue and a royal purple, but no royal red. I think I know why.

Red is not a civilized color. It’s wild and wants to be free. No wonder the Fauves used it.

How about a nice alizarin crimson? Now there’s a civilized shade of red. Then there are all the maroons and the deep, dark cherry reds. Those are wonderful reds.

If you add white to red, which seems like the right thing to do to tone it down--watch out! You get pink, red’s bastard step-child. Pink is a completely different color from red, and it can ruin your painting if you try to mix it.

There’s an old joke you’ve probably heard about how to get your painting(s) selected for a show or juried exhibit. It goes like this—“if you can’t paint it big, paint it red; if you can’t paint it red, paint it big; but you’re better off painting it big and red!”

And that, my friends, is how I feel about red.


Thursday, December 17

A New Way to Illustrate and Author a Book!

Today’s Image
Jenny Gives A Pony Ride
A Book for Children
Copyright 2009

I wanted to tell you about a children’s book on which a fellow watercolorist and I collaborated—I authored it, and she illustrated it. First, the details—it’s titled Jenny Gives A Pony Ride (and it’s available now on It's cover is Today’s Image.

I thought you may find it interesting the way the project evolved.

It all started last summer. One of the members of my watercolor class has a definite style of painting that is recognized as being open, flowing, soft, and which usually puts you in a cheerful or relaxed mood when you look at her paintings. She also illustrated a previous children’s book titled Too Too Many TuTus, a clever title I think.

This artist also likes to paint animals—dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, and cows, among others. One day she brought her painting of a donkey to class. During one of the breaks I casually told her she should write a story to go with the portrait of the donkey.

She replied. “Why don’t you write one?” I thought, well, OK, I can probably do that, and that’s how our collaboration started.

I thought about the story line for a couple of weeks, and actually wrote it in about a week. It’s about a little donkey named Jenny, which also happens to be the name for a young female donkey. Jenny lives on a farm with her family and best friend, Boswell, the dog. Jenny, who dreams of giving pony rides down at Old Main stables, wants to try out for the pony-ride team, but runs into an obstacle because she’s a donkey.

It’s really a story about how it’s OK to be different. I hope you and a child in your life, if there is one, enjoy it. Here’s the link to order one or you can just go to and type the title in the search box to find it on Amazon. (And thanks!).

Anyway, with the story in hand, the illustrator and I met for two or three work sessions where we decided which and how many paintings we thought we needed. It was totally an iterative and collaborative process. Sometimes the story dictated what the art should be, but sometimes one of her paintings added so much to the story that it was edited to accommodate the art.

The book was published and produced totally online through one of the new print-on-demand publishing or self-publishing services. Basically, you write the manuscript, plan and layout the art with the text, then save it as a PDF file, then upload it to the service. For a fee, you then receive proof copies, as many as it takes until you’re satisfied. The book is then “published” on the service’s site and also on

It was a great experience where writing and art come together to produce something that I think readers, especially children, will enjoy. After you’ve read Jenny Gives A Pony Ride, please feel free to write your own book review on!


Monday, December 14

Are Art Rules Made To Be Broken?

Today’s Image
An Un-ruly Art Car
Photo Copyright 2008

Are there “rules” in artwork? I’ve been thinking about this recently as I work on my current watercolor. Hmmm…

I had a couple of false starts on my painting, and by that I mean, I actually started completely over. Why, you may ask, would I do such a thing?

Well, it seems my current painting contains architectural detail on several buildings in addition to a broad street that brings the viewer into the painting from the lower left corner—and, it seems, I did not straighten it properly as I laid down my sketch from the reference photo.

The view I’m painting is several stories above street level, looking out at the horizon and at the same time down to the street. One reason I wanted to paint this picture—it reminds me of some of the Impressionist paintings of Paris streets, and if it were reminiscent of that, that's fine by me.

Originally I was advised to straighten and align the painting so that the left side of the main building was more vertical (?) than it appeared in the photo. The camera “lies” or so it seems.

Therefore, I “straightened” the building as I sketched the main elements onto my relatively expensive sheet of 300-lb. watercolor paper. Then I happily began painting my picture.

However, during critique, parts of other buildings then looked askew to several people who viewed it.

The discussion about this straightening got quite involved, which is a word I don’t really like to use. We got off on eye-level and site lines and vanishing points—both above and below. This is in addition to the fact that it’s a foggy, misty day, which fuzzes up the whole thing.

The consensus from this discussion was that the painting would never “look right” due to the misaligned views, so much so that I got the impression viewers would experience vertigo or worse.

I started completely over with sketching the main elements on a whole new sheet of watercolor paper. And I began painting the picture again. I will show it to you when I finish it, but that probably won’t be for a few weeks and after the busy holiday period. But I will.

So anyway, to bring this discussion back to where it started—are there rules in artwork?

Well, of course, but are they iron-clad? In my humble opinion, no way. In fact, I think that’s what makes art, art. I know some, many, or most of the famous and well-know painters studied and followed all the art-school rules.

But aren’t spontaneity, creativity, and ‘joie de vivre’ (to throw in a little French) just as important? I certainly think so.


Thursday, December 10

A Practical Way To Frame Watercolor Paintings

Today’s Image
Metal Sectional Frames

Today’s blog is a about a practical way to frame your watercolor paintings-- at least what I think is a practical way. I’ve blogged about framing before, and I like to bring it up every once in a while because it is part of the whole art process.

If you’re a regular viewer, then you know I embrace frugality. Let me explain, if you will, being frugal is not the same thing as being cheap. I see cheap as being focused only on price with little or no regard for any intrinsic value and certainly not quality.

Frugality, however, is a lifestyle that seeks to find a balance in value and quality for the purpose of not wasting or needlessly squandering assets. It is the antithesis of consumerism and over-the-top spending. I see frugality as part of “being green.”

Okay, enough of that; back to my practical picture framing.

I am assuming that if you are a watercolor painter, then occasionally you want to frame your work in order to enter an exhibit or as a gift or simply to hang in your studio. I frame my watercolors for all these reasons.

Let’s face it. Framing can be expensive, or what I think is expensive; that is, upwards of $200US for a medium-sized painting and even more if it’s a custom frame job depending on the cost of living in your areas. The Plexiglas alone can cost $40-100US.

Let me add, I don’t want my paintings to look cheap. No, I want them to look professional. I don’t want the viewer to even notice the frame(s) in either a positive or negative way. It’s the art they should be looking at. An artist friend once heard a professional artist say that a frame is similar to a nice pair of shoes for an outfit—they should complement the outfit and neither detract from it nor attract attention to it. I like that, and wanted to pass it along.

So, being frugal, I asked several of my artist friends, some of whom are also frugal, what they do to frame their paintings.

Here’s what to do:

Purchase sectional metal frames (in black, silver, or brass--and Today's Image) in the lengths needed when they are on sale half-price. I can’t find a brand name, but I buy them at one of the chain arts & crafts stores in my area. They are usually on sale every third week or so. (You can’t assemble the frame without hardware, so don’t forget to get it in the little plastic bag next to the frames. You will only forget it once if you have to make an extra trip back to the store!)

Buy the less expensive foam core as the backing for your picture and frame. The arts & craft store I mentioned carries foam core in 30 x 60-in (77 x 153-cm) sheets for about $6US on sale, and you can cut them yourself to the size you need (very carefully, please) with an X-acto knife or similar.

Rather than buying the high quality and more expensive .25-in (.6-cm) Plexiglas at the arts or framing stores, I get the thinner, and less expensive, acrylic sheet. A big-box home improvement store in my area carries the Optix brand of acrylic sheets in the .08-in (.2-cm) thickness. It’s perfectly suitable, AND they will cut it to your exact measurements for FREE. You can’t beat this deal.

One piece that I DON’T scrimp on is the mat. It’s so integral to the beauty, or whatever, of your artwork that it needs to be done right. Buy a quality mat, and let the framing professional cut it for you. This is one time I don’t mind the cost (at least not too much). A 24 x 30-in (61 x 77-cm) mat cost me $13US.

Assemble the frame yourself. If I can do it, so can you. The metal sectional frames are relatively easy to put together. You have to align the corner pieces just so, but it’s easy once you get the hang of it. I first assemble three of the sections with two of the sections being the longest sides. Then stack the acrylic sheet, the mat, your painting, and the foam backing. Carefully slide this “sandwich” into the three assembled sections, and then assemble the fourth sectional side. Don’t forget to install the springy curved pieces that hold the picture tightly inside the frame, but WATCH OUT—those things can really spring back in your face, so you should wear eye protection.

All that’s left is to add a wire hanger, and your masterpiece is beautifully (and frugally) framed and ready for the spotlight.


Monday, December 7

Creating Art Cannot Be Rushed. Ever.

Today’s Image
This is how I feel this time of year
Courtesy of Edvard Munch

Time seems to have sped up considerably in just the last few weeks, and I feel suddenly behind in many areas. I don’t like that feeling of having to rush through life with tasks and appointments and “things” in general flying by like cars on a speeding passenger train, lights flashing and horns blaring.

I especially don't like feeling that way about my art.

Creating as well as viewing art should not be rushed. Ever.

Perhaps the act of painting should not be so painstaking, but neither should it be undertaken so quickly and casually that it doesn’t seem to matter.

Art should be calm.

And artists should be calm when they’re creating art. We’ve all probably seen caricatures of an artist painting away madly on a canvas like some mad scientist from an old horror movie. Artists know it’s almost never like that. But if that is the way you usually create art, then you need to speak to someone about it.

Try to remember, if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. That little gem didn’t originate with me, of course, but feel free to quote it.

I’m not talking about lolly-gagging around without a care in the world either. I’m just saying there needs to be some balance in life so your art can be accommodated--without rushing.

I’m guessing it’s the “season” we’re in—lots of activities to plan and to attend, lots to do, and to top it all off, everything you thought you would accomplish this year is speeding toward that wall that is December 31.

Here’s what to do.

Go to your studio, or wherever your artwork is waiting for you, and either physically or mentally shut the door.

Take a deep, cleansing breath as they used to say back in the last century.

Then, lose yourself in your current project, and all your cares will slip quietly away as if on little cat feet.

Plan how you’ll paint that red roof or that bluebird’s wing or the ear lobe on that portrait.

Mix and match those luxurious colors for your still life or your snow scene or your cityscape.

Pick up that brush, dip it into your oil, water, or acrylic paint pan, and fly away into your painting only to return when your mind is at peace.

Now, isn’t that better?

Creating art cannot be rushed. Ever.


Thursday, December 3

Painting Like the "Old Masters"

Today’s Image
The Mona Lisa, of course

If you are a regular reader of the OrbisPlanis, then you know I’m painting primarily with watercolor these days. I’ve been studying and practicing and painting with watercolor for about nine months now, so I’m an expert, right?

Well, of course not. I’m not even close, and will probably never reach that level of expertise. But, I do have fun trying, and I would like to think I’m nearing the point where, maybe sometime next year, I can say I’m no longer a beginner. Hope springs eternal.

The point is, as you’ve heard me say before, there is always something new to learn in art.

The tangent I’m currently on is my latest watercolor. I’ve just started on it, and I’m using as a reference photo, a shot of Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., taken on recent trip there. It’s a rainy, misty, cool, damp day, and I want the painting to reflect that mood. As I was planning the process of painting this picture, I was advised that the best palette would be the Old Masters.

The what? Up to now, we’ve almost always used primarily the Standard palette of New Gamboge Yellow, Ultramarine Blue Light, and Cadmium Red Medium with a few ancillary colors, such as Hooker’s Green, thrown in for good measure.

Just when I was getting comfortable painting with the Standard palette and its light washes, now I would have to research this. I had heard talk of other palettes, such as Old Masters, along with the Delicate, Intense, and a few others. But now I was going to have to learn something new—again.

Several months ago a fellow watercolor painter let me borrow a book , Exploring Color, by Nita Leland. I remembered the author had called out several color palettes, one being the Old Masters with Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Ivory Black, Payne’s Gray, Olive Green, and something called Neutral Tint (I think these referred to oil paints).

So, I thought I’d also do a little online research to see if I could find out more about the Old Masters palette. The first hit I Googled was from It talked about Leonardo Da Vinci and his palette and techniques. I would certainly consider Leo to be an Old Master, or old anyway. It said he used “muted, earthy browns, greens, and blues within a narrow tonal range” with no intense colors, such as “bright red lips on Mona Lisa”--that, what a joker.

I looked at a few other sites that weren’t very specific, and then I found, whose tagline is color + design community for creative inspiration (how inspirational). I can’t exactly figure out the site because it looks like someone called ‘lostit’ selected this palette, and you’re supposed to vote on the colors or palettes or something and leave a comment. It may be these are colors for online viewing as the hex code numbers are also provided. Whatever. It did provide a palette chart showing the actual colors in a palette it called Old Masters 01. The colors are Burnt Sienna, Int (international?) Red-Yellow, Int Yellow-Blue, and Payne’s Gray.

Another site I receive email updates from had an article that said the painter used terra verde as an underpainting just like the Old Masters did in the Renaissance. That was the only place I saw the Old Masters palette, or any other palette, tied to a specific historical time.

I think I get it--the main attribute of the Old Masters palette is the use of low-intensity, muted colors that were used by many of the great, and not-so-great, painters a long time ago when painting as we know it was beginning to be developed. I speculate that the colors were muted not only because the culture was just emerging from the Dark Ages, but also because the availability of bright colors and tones was very limited.

Moving along, on my watercolor I’m using a similar palette of: Raw Sienna, Brown Madder, Green Gold, and Indigo that was suggested to me by an expert. I intend for my painting to be muted with low-intensity colors just like an Old Master, so everything should be just fine. I hope so. We’ll see, won’t we?