Our Friend the Alfred

matthewcook_windows2_web matthewcook_window sketches web  

One of my favorite things about physics class in college was learning about the SI units. My friends and I took to calling them Old Dead White Guy Units (ODWGU) because it seemed to us that most of them were  named after ... well ... distinguished European gentleman of the englishmen era.

Perhaps its a little solipsistic to claim some aspect of the natural world and name it after yourself. But I supposed we have to call these things something, and it's kind of fun to learn the history behind each discovery. Plus, if those gentleman can do it then I don't see why I can't. There are so many things in life that are just yearning for quantification.

A case in point: Todays unit is the Alfred (Alf)

The Alfred is the SI Unit of intrigue, as observed through a window. It's named for Alfred Hitchcock, English director of the film Rear Window.

Here are some common observances as measured in Alfreds:

0 Alf  =  An empty, non descript window (theoretical, all actual windows are > 0 Alf.) 0.001 Alf  =  1 mAlf  =  A window with a spooky shredded curtain blowing gently in the breeze. 0.01 Alf  =  1 cAlf  =  A scowling child looking back menacingly. 0.012 Alf  =  1.2 cAlf  =  A scowling child looking back menacingly and eating an ice cream cone. 0.04 Alf  =  4 cAlf  =  Scowling twins in matching outfits (any age). 0.1 Alf  =  A mysterious shadowy figure. 0.2 Alf  =  A mysterious shadowy figure in a fedora. 1 Alf  =  A gruesome murder in progress, as seen in silhouette.

Note that the presence of a cat in the window automatically multiplies any recorded value of Alfreds by a factor of 0.045. This unitless constant is known as Pluto's coefficient.


Thieves Guild Show at the Phoenix Gallery


Come and see some of my art in person!

I have two pieces that will be part of an art show at the Phoenix Gallery in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. The exhibit is a showcase of work from the Thieves Guild, who run themed figure drawing nights each month here in Lawrence. There will be drawings and finished pieces by over a dozen of the regulars including a lot of my very talented friends.  The work is all based on art created or inspired by our drawing sessions over the last year and a half.

There will be an opening as part of the Final Fridays Art Walk this Friday, the 27th of June, starting at 6pm at the Phoenix Gallery on Massachusetts Street. If you can't make it to opening night, no worries, the show will be on display through the month of July.

While you are there, keep an eye out for my pirate lady sculpture and this portrait of our model from 80's night. I will post a bit more about the process of making these, but don't miss out on seeing them in person.


Painterly Hand

test hand_web  

This is a hand study I painted in Photoshop. I was experimenting with brushing, looking for a way to make things painterly but not have that overworked digital look. I've been following Carol Marine's painting a day blog for some time now and I love the way she can render things in oil with such big chunky brush strokes. This study didn't really achieve that but I like the way it looks anyway. If you're curious to try it yourself, this is just one of the default photoshop chalk brushes after playing with the brush settings a bit.

Painterly Object Studies

painterly color and material studes_web  

A few more attempts at painterly digital studies, still looking at Carol Marine's blog. I thought trying some things with different textures would be interesting. These are embellished from photos of an old brass stein and a plant in a porcelain goblet vase that I found on the web. I wish I could link you to the original pictures but they have sadly passed into the Internet's back catalogue.

Bristle Brush Portrait

Dad in Mono_web  

I look through a lot of portrait photography on the web (usually Pinterest now) for things to draw and over the past few years I've come across a lot of black and white portraits in this sort of "show every wrinkle" sort of super-sharp, high contrast closeup. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know where the trend comes from. If you do leave me a comment.

In any case, I wanted to try rendering one and I thought it might be a good match to use a very scratchy looking bristle brush. I turned the opacity all the way up and laid out a set of color steps to sample from as a way to force myself not to keep overworking things. I think the study still looks a bit overworked. Next time I'll force myself to use a larger brush as well. But I do like the scratchy texture. It gives things a bit of energy.

Color Studies Out My Window

These are a few color and shape studies I painted looking out the window of my apartment building. I'm on the 9th floor of a renovated hotel that was built around 1929 and have a steller view looking south and west. I did these pieces for my Oatley Academy work, so I'm still experimenting with lasso and gradient tool painting technique. window_web

This first view is looking south out of my studio window at the street below. This was in the evening so the sun is slowly setting off to the right.

West Window_web

These views are looking out of my west window. The other structures you see are other historic buildings turned into apartments that line the street I'm on. In the distance you can see the big broadcast tower of the local PBS station. I did these over the course of a few hours as the sun when down so I could study how the colors changed. The first is purely observational but for the latter two I made a conscious effort to set a color palette and work from that.

Painting with the Lasso Tool


I've started working through a digital paining course over at Oatley Academy. In the first lesson we're focusing on shape and form so we're working on painting using only the lasso tool and the gradient tool in Photoshop. This was my first attempt, painted from a photo of Salvador Dalí. Making things so angular was not the goal but I was enjoying the look of it so much I tried to strengthen the facets rather than smooth them over. More to come!

Tattoo Hand Studies

I want a tattoo so badly but I think I'm too fickle to decide on just one thing I want for the rest of my life. I've been reading about mehndi henna painting lately and I even bought a henna kit but I haven't worked up the courage to give it a try just yet. It has a sort of strong smell to it. Anyway, it gave me the idea for these watercolor hand studies. The hands are all from reference photos but I added the tattoo designs out of my noggin. They're all about 9x12 or so.







Plein Air Painting: Malott Hall, University of Kansas

Can you tell there are lasers in this building? I mean big lasers. BIG LASERS. This is Malott Hall at the University of Kansas, home to the physics and chemistry departments. I had a number of classes and labs here when I was a student. It's full of the sort of glassware labs and big hand-built science contraptions that are the reason you become a scientist. Even the roof is cool, it's covered with all sorts of vents and steam hoods and weather equipment and important looking sticky-outy doodads. I used to wander around the building between classes sometimes to look at the equipment in the hallways but really I was mostly looking for an unlocked door to get up on the roof. I never managed to find one though.

I painted this from the sidewalk next to Budig hall. Watercolor and pencil, about 4 in. by 9 in.

Election Day Construction Equipment

Last Tuesday was election day here in the United States. Since I've been glued to my work table for the last few days I relished the chance to get out of the house and do something, so when I left for the polling place to go vote I brought my watercolors and my little travel watercolor sketchbook along.

I've been following James Gurney's blog for a while and he regularly posts these charming little watercolor plein air sketches. If I were James Gurney I would be brave enough to talk to the poll-workers and ask if I could sit in the polling place and paint their portraits or those of the voters. Unfortunately I'm terrified to talk to strangers and even more terrifies that if they would agree they would want to see the finished painting. I know, I know, I'm working on it.

Anyway, instead I decided to take a walk after I voted and came upon these bulldosers. I went to vote in the late afternoon figuring that there would be fewer people, and so by the time I got to this spot the sun was on its way down and there were long cool shadows running across the road. It looked sufficiently Gurneyish so I gave it a try. It took about an hour.

Gouache Sketches

I've had a few gouache palettes going but I recently got a new sealable palette that I can (hopefully) take with me to paint around town. I hate to throw out the paint in the old palettes because its so expensive so I spent a very frustrating few hours trying to rewet and then scoop the old gouache out of the old palettes and get it into the new one. By the time I was done I don't think much actually got transferred, and there was still a lot in the old palettes so I decided to try and use some of it up before I tossed it. I've been doing little gouache studies for the last few weeks. Here are some of the ones I'm not embarrassed to post. These are all about 2 to 3 inches on a side but I scanned them real big for your viewing pleasure.


A WWII bomber of some sort, a woman's profile, and standing woman with a basket, and a crazy tribal looking bird thing. Pretty standard art stuff I would say.

Landscape study from my collection of "iPhone Photos Out the Car Window As I Drive On Kansas Highways and Should Probably Be Looking Where I'm Going and Not Taking iPhone Photos but This Particualr Thing Looked Pretty so I had to Take A Picture".

This one is from a photo I snapped of downton Seattle. Did you know they have big trees in Downtown Seattle! Why doesn't my downtown have big trees I wonder?

Iguana, he has no name, and also he may be a she. I don't know, I'm not a herpetologist.

Someones really pretty glass bobble from Etsy.

One of Claes Oldenburg's giant shuttlecocks from the lawn of the Nelson Atkins art museum in Kansas City. These are probably my favorite thing in the world.

And finally some pretty ceramic bowls because I wanted to study warm and cool bounce light.


Remember, when you are designing the uniforms for your personal guard, style and color counts! Stormtroopers may look cool in the movies but you're going to have to look at these guards every day as they mill about your hollowed out volcano. So choose wisely.

These are the Beefeaters, or "The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary" *gasp*. Which is a ridiculously long name and probably why everyone just calles them "beefeaters".

They guard the Tower of London and keep Her Majesty's ravens. You know the guards belong to her because she writes her name on everything. "E II R" is Queen Elizabeth's royal cypher and translates as "Elizabeth the Second, Regina".


Femme Fatal

Another piece of classwork from my digital painting class. This assignment was to paint a character in an environment. I had film noir on the brain and wanted the challenge of making a "beautiful" character so I decided to try for a femme fatal.

To start I did a little googling to find some relevant movie examples. A femme fatal has to be beautiful, but there is a certain look to that era of film, the costumes, the hairstyles, so it's helpful to have something to look at. If you know your cinema you may recognize Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) from Sunset Boulevard in blue there in the middle. In this and the next few sketches I loosely based things on cameos from The Postman Always Rings Twice (avoid the remakes), Double Indemnity, Carole Lombard, Betty Garble, Frances Farmer, Gene Tierney, Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich, and some Audrey Hepburn for good measure.

There are also a few artist that were helpful to look at. Cindy Sherman is one of my favorites. If you don't now her work as a photographer you should look her up. She has a series of self portraits from the mid 60's that look like stills from an Alfred Hitchcock film. There are also a few modern photographers who will do film noir portraits. Jim Ferreira has a particularly good gallery.

Anyway, after the sketches I tried a few full figure poses to look for something interesting.

You can see I'm starting to make the drawings more caricatures.

Here are some more face centered caricatures. That's Cindy Sherman there in the middle on the top row.

Through all of that research I started thinking about the film noir movies I really like. There are a lot of good ones but its hard to beat Casablanca. The problem with Casablanca is that it doesn't really have any femme fatal characters. Ingrid Bergman is hardly a villain. What it does have is the fabulously contemptible Sydney Greenstreet as the Signor Ferrari who runs Casablanca's black market from his bar, the Blue Parrot.

Ferrari makes a particularly good reference because his character is so visually memorable. White suit, fez, corpulent and always mopping his brow in the North African heat. He has all the hallmarks of a good character design in shape and silhouette. I thought it might be fun to try switching up his gender, so I put together the following sketch.

I tried to keep the background elements subtle and just hint at a few references from the movie and the character. I knew I wanted to make a big deal out of the shadows. Film noir draws a lot on German Expressionism and its high contrast, angular shadows.

I was pretty happy with this sketch but I got a few notes from my classmates that her pose and expression were leading them out of the picture. After some revisions and a bit of color here was my first pass at the painting.

 As you can see I made her a bit more full figured and changed the pose slightly. I was happy with the composition but the colors left a lot to be desired. After a lot of color fiddling in PS I finally decided that no color scheme was going to feel right. Film noir just feels black-and-white to me. That being said, simply turning the saturation down in PS made things look disappointingly flat so I opted for a hybrid approach. Here's the final in a page from my portfolio, along with a few character study sketches.

The image is basically black-and-white, but if you look carefully you can see that I've painted most of the background in cool grays and then hit the shaft of light with warms. I also continued the warms into her exposed fleshy bits. I think it gives the image a kind of undercover vitality that fits nicely with the ambiguous overtones of the subject.

I'm probably thinking too much.

Quetzalcoatl: The Feathered Serpent

This piece was another assignment from my CGMA digital painting class. The goal for this week was to make a creature design and have some fun playing with found textures. Seeing as doomsday is fast approaching, I thought it might be fun to try something a little Mayan. The first thing to get straight is that the Maya actually called their feathered serpent deity Kukulkan (for the Yucatec Maya), and Q'uq'umatz and Tohil (for the K'iche' Maya). Quetzalcoatl was the Aztec deity, but it's also the name that's the most fun to say.

First here's my sketch:


And the final painting:

I started out trying to use cut-up photos for the plants but the lighting and textures of the different photos wasn't blending well, and I'm sure you can imagine how much of a nightmare it is trying to cut leafy things out of their background. Eventually I came across the idea of blowing out the contrast on a few good plant images and then turning them into brushes. That worked really well.

The feathers and scales on the snake are all "based" on photos, but there was quite a bit of painting on top of them to blend things together.

Cloud Fields

While modern industrial cloud manufacture takes place around the world, the Flint Hill region of the state of Kansas is synonymous with its centuries-old traditions of artisanal cumulo-culture, or cloud farming.  Many connoisseur insist that clouds from the fields of Kansas, with their natural nacreous layers and hand hewn silver linings, are the finest in the world. One of the benefits of living in Kansas is the opportunity to sample each season's crop fresh from the fields. I must admit that I am a bit of a cloud snob. Kansas farmers produce dozens of varieties including some species found no where else in the world. While grows can occasionally spawn tornados and other severe weather events, such is the life in the Flint Hills.

This is a collection of plein air sketches and watercolors from around my home in Eastern Kansas.

From a few of the roads near my house, some (slightly) embellished to make the hills more hilly.

Playing with some different cloud shapes.

Watercolors from K-10. I have a habit of pulling my car off to the side of the highway to paint. I've met quite a few friendly Kansas Highway Patrolmen and wormen.

A few of the smaller grows in Desoto, between Kansas City and Lawrence on K-10.

A few larger studies. I really wanted to play with some of the colors. When you think of the Great Plains you often get this sort of drab golden Little House on the Praire look, but its actually very colorful here.

I must admit that the aerial views are more or less invented. I don't have access to a helicopter or artist's zeppelin (yet).

A few more views from nearer my house. That bottom one is actually a commercial farm, but it's still pretty.

Last few, anti-clockwise from the top left that College boulevard, K-10 in Desoto, and College blvd. again across from the local elementary school.

Soviet-Era Vending Machine

From venerated laboratories of glorious Soviet worker’s paradise, we are presenting now newest in modern convenience. Never again are brave citizens to be having to stand in line for to buy essential needs. Features of model is including: - 5 mm armor exterior for to repel minor damage. - state of art 6 1/2 bits computing control systems with Rotary User Interface (RUI). - new streamline design, is weighing only 1800 kilograms. - 10,000 year power supply Cobalt-60 gamma reactor core.

I've been taking a fantastic digital painting class with Eric D. Martin over at CGMW. This was for a prop design assignment. Can you tell I had fun?

Memory Lane

I recently read Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine. Although it was the subject of some recent unpleasantness for Mr. Lehrer, I liked the book a lot. One item he discusses is the way mixed neighborhood of houses, shops, and varying income levels like New York's Greenwich Village foster creativity. I've always wanted to live in a city where I could walk everywhere and see new buildings stuck right next to historic old ones.

This is what I came up with, painted mostly with the lasso tool and a hard square brush. The idea is that the middle section of the image dips into a vintage photograph of the street as it was, and then dips back out again. First a sketch or two:

I knew early on that I wanted the whole image to be a flat on POV, but I couldn't help trying out a few perspective sketches. Originally the style of the building and the colors were going to signal the transition, but I was worried it would be a little to subtle. I got the idea of having something in the image that overlapped the transition and I really like drawing Volkswagon Beetles.

I hope you like the layout of the sketches. My portfolio has so many sketches in it I'm looking for ways to clean them up a bit without taking away the sketchiness. I based the formatting on a number of ArtCenter student's work I've seen.

Here's a version with some of my reference overlaid. I wanted the colors to be really vibrant and eclectic. I found a ton of great storefront images, both historic and modern. I also tried to add a lot of little goodies for people who go hunting for them. For example, all the shops have names relating to birds. I think Emperor Chicken on the end is my favorite.