Sunday, January 14, 2018

Color Testing and the New Painting

In my last post, I talked about a new painting on my easel.  One of the things I want to work on is color mixing.  The impetus came from researching Jeremy Lipking's process.  I had noticed that his colors were beautifully muted without going into mud.  That's not an easy thing to do.  Several people who have taken workshops with him have made blog posts about his processes.  As it turns out, his palette is pretty basic with almost no unusual colors.  One notable difference is that he does not use earth colors (the umbers, siennas, and yellow ochre) because, he says, they go to mud very quickly.  That being said, he apparently does use burnt Sienna on occasion, plus a couple of reds that could be considered earth tones, depending on how they're prepared by the paint maker.

So with this painting, I thought I'd use a very limited palette and use them to mix a range of grays and muted colors.  Today, in the studio, I put that plan into action.  I put some ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red light, and Flemish white (a lead white) on the palette.  Then I mixed up a range of cool and warm grays, then some cooler and warmer skin tones.  Here's how the process looked:

There were more sheets, but you get the idea.  I'm seeing a nice range of cool and warm grays, nice muted greens, and some good skin tones.  Some of the mixtures gave a dark brown and I was even able to come up with one that was close to burnt Sienna.  No blacks, though.  Ultramarine blue and cad red will give a very dark muted purple, but as soon as you add a bit of yellow to the mixture, it gets lighter.

The next step was to apply some of these colors to the new painting.  I started on the face, since that's the focus, and laid in what will probably be the first of several layers.  Here's a detail of how it looks right now:

This is a fun challenge.  I'm excited to see what happens with it next.  I'll let you in on a secret: I have no idea how it'll turn out!

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Starting a New Painting

I haven't done much of anything in the studio for the past three weeks or so.  When our dog came down with vestibular disease, that took all my attention through the holidays.  I mean, I have my priorities, and my dogs are a very important part of my family, and I needed to take care of the little girl.  Over the past week or so, I've been able to get into the studio three times, so things are starting to move again.

Being out of the studio for a while may have a benefit that I didn't expect.  For the past couple of years, I've been working on figures and experimenting with ways of capturing an individual's character on paper or canvas.  This has included mark-making that is more energetic, exploring how much to "finish" a work vice leaving parts of it "unfinished", and trying to be a bit less literal about what goes into an artwork.  In the back of my mind, there has been this idea that the next level is to put those figures into environments and situations where there's more of a story or metaphor.  Now, after being away for a while, it seems to be time to go to that next level.

I've had an idea that I wanted to take one of my charcoal and pastel works and blow it up in oil on a much larger canvas.  The specific piece is this one:

Astrid #7

There are many things I like about this work: the strong focus on the face, the unselfconscious and slightly awkward pose, the overall composition of light and dark, the unfinished nature of most of the work, the mystery that comes from the eyes being in heavy shadow, and the confrontational and challenging nature of Astrid's gaze directly at the viewer.

One reason that I hadn't translated this into an oil on canvas earlier is that I wasn't sure how to capture the looseness of the charcoal and pastel.  Oil painting is a different beast entirely and I have not been able to get the same effect in oil that I can get in charcoal.  But now I think I have an idea about how to move forward with this image.  No, I'm not going to try to duplicate it.  Instead, I'm going to use it as an inspiration for a very different work.

So that's what I started yesterday.  The first thing I did was to lay a piece of tracing paper over the original and grid it up.  A grid is an old and low-tech way of enlarging or shrinking a composition.  You build a grid over the original, build a new grid on the canvas where you want the image, and draw the outline on the corresponding grid marks.  Here's the original with the tracing paper and grid over it:

Some artists use a projector to enlarge an image onto a canvas.  I don't.  One of the reasons is that I like the grid system.  It's low-tech and ensures that there are human errors incorporated into the image.  That's an advantage to me because human errors are the big difference between art and photography.  The original of Astrid #7 was done freehand and you can see some of the "errors" if you look closely.  The chair, for example, is a little lopsided, which is fine by me.

The next step is to draw a corresponding grid on the canvas and then transfer the composition onto it. Here's how the canvas looks:

Okay, sorry, it's a bit hard to see, but you can barely make out the gridlines and some of the drawing.  I use vine charcoal because it erases easily.  And yes, the canvas really does have a slightly greenish sloppy tint to it.  I had started a painting on it four years ago, but it failed, so I painted oil primer over it and then toned it again.  The canvas has been waiting for something new ever since.

And here's my painting setup.  The original is 25"x19" and the new canvas is 50"x40".

This afternoon, I started on the canvas.  I wiped out all the gridlines then laid in a cool dark as basically one large shape.  I'm trying to use a limited palette as much as possible, so I've got ultramarine blue, cad red, cad yellow medium, and Flemish white on my palette.  I'll let this dry a day or three before starting to develop the figure.  So here's how it stands right now:

Friday, December 22, 2017

My Dog and Vestibular Disease

One of my dogs got hit with vestibular disease last week.  "Got hit" is the right term. She's recovering now, but this has been a very hard week on all of us.

Indy is a 14 1/2 year old Shih Tzu.  She has always been a bit of a tomboy, meaning she has always been active and ready to run and play.  On Tuesday evening last week, she was her normal self, chasing the laser light around the house at full speed, barking, pouncing, and having a great time.  When we went to bed around 11:30 she settled in to her bed.  About 1 am, though, I woke to a strange scrabbling noise.  Indy was flopping around on the floor next to her bed and then threw up.  I picked her up but she couldn't stand, couldn't control her movements, and looked like she was having a seizure.  I did what any responsible dad would do: I panicked.  Actually, I got dressed as fast as possible, wrapped her in a blanket, loaded her into the car, and headed to REACH, the emergency veterinarian for the Asheville area.

The staff at REACH was great, as they always have been for us in the past.  The doctor evaluated Indy with vestibular disease.  This is a sometimes-nasty condition that is not uncommon in older dogs.  It is not that well understood, but appears to be a condition in the inner ear or possibly the part of the brain that deals with balance.  The dogs basically suffer from vertigo.  In most dogs, they will have difficulty walking, have a head tilt, or suffer from nausea.  In Indy's case, it was really severe.  She would lie on her side, legs stiffly out, a panicked look in her eyes, and sometimes would try to roll over.  It appeared that anything to her left was like falling off the cliff, and "up" was somewhere over her right shoulder, no matter where her shoulder happened to be.  The doc gave her some medicine to treat the nausea and told me that the only thing to fix the vertigo was time.  Most dogs would see improvement in a couple of days, with recovery in about two weeks.  So back home we went.

As it turned out, Indy's recovery was much slower, probably due to the severity of the attack.  She showed almost no sign of improvement on Wednesday.  On Thursday, she was calmer, but still clearly suffering from vertigo and unable to even sit up.  On Friday, we took her to her regular vet, who had already read the report from REACH and confirmed the diagnosis of vestibular disease.  He was concerned about her lack of progress, though, and said we'd have to revisit Indy's situation in a few days.  If she wasn't improving by then, we should think about putting her down.  Worrisome, to say the least.

By this time, we were pretty exhausted from the 24/7 care.  She couldn't eat or drink normally, which meant we had to watch her closely and provide water and food when she was ready.  For water, we used a syringe to squirt it into her mouth while she lapped it up.  Our vet recommended baby food mixed with pumpkin from a can (just pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filler).  We used the beef baby food. The pumpkin provided Indy with fiber to help keep her system functioning.  She loved it.

Urinary events and bowel movements were very problematic since Indy couldn't stand and was extremely averse to soiling her bed or normal in-home environment.  We put puppy training pads on her bed, which required one of us (me) to sleep on the floor next to her bed so I could change the pad and clean her up when something happened.  Urinary events were generally accompanied by a good bit of wailing, not from pain but from distress.  Bowel movements were a different matter since she basically stopped them for a few days, which really worried us.

I mentioned 24/7 care.  To keep an eye on our patient, we made up a bed on the floor next to hers.  I've been sleeping there (correction: TRYING to sleep there) every night since this started.  Something happens every hour or two that requires us to do something: change pads/clean the dog after a urinary event, flip her over occasionally, give her water or food, console her when she whimpers, that sort of thing.  Janis and I have been tag-teaming: I take the nights, then she takes over early in the morning and I try to get a couple of hours of sleep in a real bed.  One or the other of us has been with Indy ever since this started.  It wears you out.

On Saturday evening, I had to take her back to REACH because she hadn't had a bowel movement in several days nor a urinary event in half a day.  She was miserable and we were worried that something more serious was going on internally.  We wound up seeing the same doc as the first time. After a thorough check, she reported that Indy's internals were functioning normally and that it was probably stress that kept things from coming out.  The doc was very concerned about Indy not being able to walk or even sit up, though.  She suggested giving Indy an acupuncture treatment to stimulate the muscles.  I thought, what the hell, sure, and so we did.

As it turned out, this was acupuncture augmented with electrical impulses.  Indy's reaction?  She went to sleep.  In the photo, I'm holding her head up and she's snoring.  The doc said we should see some improvement in 12-24 hours and sent us on our way again.

Sunday, though, was not a good day.  We saw no improvement at all.  In fact, by late in the day, I was starting to think about which day this week would be best for putting her down.

Monday, though, saw some changes.  Indy was able to sit up for the first time.  She did the normal dog head-shake, the kind where they're just getting the hair out of their eyes, which is not something you'd expect to see in a dog with vertigo.

Tuesday was better.  She sat up further, bracing herself on her front paws, although the rear legs were still immobile.

On Wednesday, Indy woke up with the attitude that she was sick and tired of lying around in her bed, and it was time to get up and go.  She had three self-initiated physical therapy sessions: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening.  Each session was longer than the last, and each was INTENSE.  This little girl worked her ass off.  And she continued into Thursday morning with a long session from 3-7 am.  Just wouldn't quit, even when I was trying to convince her to lie down and go to sleep, dammit.  The highlight, though, was that she was finally able to get her butt off the floor and actually stand up for a few seconds.  You have no idea how glad that sight made me!  You can see her determination in the photo:

Later on Thursday, she continued to make progress.  By the end of the day, she could actually walk about four feet or so.  It was a very crooked walk, but she was moving on her own.  She even got to her water bowl, where she drank, albeit with great difficulty.  Amazing stuff.

Now it's Friday morning and we have another milestone to report.  I took Indy and her sister Soozzee for their walk this morning.  No, we didn't make Indy walk - I put her into the doggie stroller and headed out.  A few minutes down the road, she started whining, so I put her on the grass, where she squatted and peed.  This was her first pee outside in over a week.  I put her back into the stroller and we went on a ways.  At a flat spot, I put her on the ground again and after stumbling around a bit, she actually had her first normal, outdoor poop since this all started.  Wow!  A normal poop and pee again!  Folks, we are movin' forward!

Speaking of pooping and peeing, until this morning, we have been using puppy training pads.  We're now changing over to doggie diapers.  She's mobile and we don't want to have to chase her around the house with the pads.  Actually, we're chasing her around the house anyway because she's like a toddler, bouncing off walls and furniture, and we are trying to prevent the hardest hits.  But after our experience this morning, the diapers are just a safety measure.  She may not need them very long.  We'll see.

If you're reading this because you're a friend of ours, it looks like Indy will be with us for a while longer.  Exactly how much movement she can regain still remains to be seen, but I am so encouraged by the unbelievable work that she has put into it.  I don't care if she's a bit wobbly for the rest of her life, at least she will be with us.

If you're reading this because you Google'd "vestibular disease" and landed here, it's probably because you have a dog or cat that's going through something similar.  It's a very scary time.  Vestibular disease hits hard and fast and the recovery process is all about time.  Somebody has to be with your pet 24/7 to provide them with water, food, change pads, and whatnot.  As they improve, your role changes from ICU nurse to physical therapist.  Fortunately for us, Indy is responding and recovering.  Most animals do; however, a few do not.  And sometimes what's initially diagnosed as vestibular disease can be something much more serious, like a brain tumor.  I hope that's not the case with you.  At any rate, this has been a very long post, and I hope it has provided some insight into how you might have to treat your dog or cat.

Meanwhile, I'm just happy that Indy is going to be with us for a while longer.

UPDATE - December 29

Unfortunately, things did not go well with our beautiful Indy.  Indy gradually was able to walk and even run, which gave us great hope.  However, she was able to do that by sheer force of will.  The vertigo never let up and, in fact, it gradually wore her down, both physically and in spirit.  After 15 days, she spent all her day lying on her side, occasionally struggling to do something, anything, but not having the strength to overcome the debilitating condition.  Our vet determined that it wasn't the milder form of vestibular disease, but almost certainly due to a tumor on the brain.  A fix is very delicate and iffy, with a long recovery.  So yesterday, rather than submit her to a long and painful process that had no guarantees of success, we took her in to the vet for the final time.  At 4 pm, she crossed over to the other side.

Good God, that hurts.

So if you're here because your dog may have vestibular disease, watch for the rate of improvement.  If Indy had the common kind, she would have improved significantly in the first 72 hours.  But she was one of the smaller percentage with more serious and permanent damage.  We lost our little girl.  I hope you don't lose yours.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Seeing Colors

I was recently listening to a podcast of a great interview.  The podcast is the Savvy Painter; the interviewer is Antrese Wood, and the interviewee was Frank Lombardo.  Frank is an outstanding artist who lives and works right here in my county (see his work on his web site), so it was cool to hear him on a national podcast.  Among the interesting things that came out in the interview is that he's somewhat colorblind.  Yes, you read that right: a fantastic artist is color-challenged.  That hits home with me because I am, too.  I'm what they call a "mild deutan", which is a type of red-green color blindness that makes it difficult to tell some colors apart.  This is particularly true when they're the same light/dark value.  Put a yellow and green, or blue and purple, of the same value next to each other, and my eyes won't see much (any) difference.  Change the value of one or the other slightly, though, and I see them clearly.  Not only that, but I can mix up paint to match the colors.

After hearing Frank talk about his color blindness (which is evidently much worse than mine), I've been thinking about how we see colors.  Frank noted that color vision comes from the cones in the eyes.  Most people have three sets, generally called the red, blue, and green cones.  A very few women have four sets: red, blue, green, and yellow.  Their color vision is really good.  But other animals have even more.  A mantis shrimp, for example, has 16 types of receptors and can see visible, UV, and polarized light (wow).

Having the physical ability to see colors, though, and actually seeing them, are two different things.  I've learned over the years that the more I paint, and have to see and match colors, the more colors I see.  Sometimes I'll see a range of colors in something that, years ago, I would've just passed by.  It's the same as any other physical ability: if you don't exercise it, it won't work for you.

So the other day, I was walking my dogs.  The sky was perfectly clear and the snow was on the ground reflecting the colors around it.

This is the scene that first caught my eye.  There was a brilliant blue sky, a seemingly equally brilliant blue reflection in the show, with bright highlights from the late afternoon sun.  But look at the colors a bit more closely.  Yes, the sky is brilliant, a cobalt blue higher up (maybe with a trace of red?), getting lighter and slightly more cerulean blue toward the treeline.  The reflection on the snow, though, is not as saturated as the sky.  It can't be: the sky is pure light, while the snow is a reflection, meaning that some light is lost in the process.  So the blue on the snow is a bit grayer and, to my (color-blind?) eyes, a touch redder, too.  And the highlights on the snow?  They're not white, they're actually very light yellow-orange, which is the color of the light coming directly from the sun. So if you want an extreme example of what can happen with a warm/cool color shift, here you are!

Once I saw that, I started looking around more to see what other colors jumped out at me.  Here's a shadow on the side of the hill:

I think you can see the orange light more clearly here.  Look at the shadow, though: how strong is that blue, and what color is it?  Okay, I'll help: here's a blown-up section of that shadow:

Pretty dark, darker than I would have thought.  And here's a clip of the sky that was directly above this blue shadow:

As you can see, the sky is a much clearer blue because it's pure light.  To paint the sky, I'd use cobalt blue.  To get the reflection, I'd use cobalt blue plus a warmer earth tone, maybe a touch of burnt umber or burnt Sienna.  

And then, finally, here is the bank above the shadow:

This was just beautiful to me: the yellow-orange light, the blue shadows, the bright blue sky, and I'm even seeing some reds along the top of the ridge line.

Cool stuff, isn't it?  The more you use your eyes, the more things you learn to see.  And the more I can see, the more pleasure I have in just looking at the world.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

New Wedding Painting

Steven and Marissa
Oil on canvas, 24"x30"
(Click on the image for a larger view)

I just finished a new wedding painting commission for a wonderful couple.  Steven and Marissa asked me to do a painting of the first dance at their reception.  I went to the hotel (quite fancy) in Charlotte last month, set up my easel a couple of hours in advance, and continued to paint throughout the event.  And it was quite the event!  Steven, Marissa, and all their friends and family came to party.  Everybody had a great time, even me.  I was bopping away at my easel while the dance floor was jammed.  Just about everybody came over to see what I was doing, many of them quite frequently, and it was fun talking with them.  Some of the people in the final painting are there specifically because they came over to chat!  Yes, it was a great time.

Painting at a wedding is kinda/sorta like being an outdoor landscape painter in the middle of a hurricane.  Everything is changing and moving at high speed.  People come and go.  The noise level picks up and quiets down.  One minute nobody is around you, the next there are 20 people looking over your shoulder and asking questions.  All of which, really, made it fun.

And doing a live painting at a wedding reception builds on things I've done previously.  I started surreptitiously sketching other people many decades ago (don't ask) and have continued to draw and paint people ever since.  I work as a courtroom artist for our local TV station on occasion.  In Afghanistan, I sketched the locals during our frequent meetings, and all those drawings wound up in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington.  All of that was a great preparation for this line of work.

Some wedding artists give the couple the painting at the end of the event.  I can't, no way.  The first day just gets the basic idea down.  It takes a lot of work to go from the first very very rough painting to something that I'm ready to put my name on.  Over the past several weeks, I've continued to work on the painting, getting feedback from Steven and Marissa as well as my Primary Critic, my wife, who is NOT SHY about sharing her ideas.  That can sometimes be frustrating, but she's almost always right, or at least on the right track, so I value her opinion.  Finally, a few days ago, I got the thumbs-up from Janis and from Steven and Marissa.  Done!

So now I need to play catch-up on all the other artwork that's been waiting in the studio.  There are four or five pieces that are partially finished that each need another day or two.  I've had an idea in the back of my mind for a larger painting and even have the canvas stretched, toned, and ready to go, but haven't been able to get to it yet.  And I've been looking at two other artists whose work I want to study.  One is a new (to me) artist whose work is much more free and expressive than mine.  I want to study his work, reverse-engineer it to learn the process, and then see how much of that can be applied to mine. The other is an artist I've known of for some time.  I found a book of his in our local Barnes and Noble and want to go through some of the exercises and do some learning.  So: more to do than there is time to do it in.  Yep, I'm happy.

If you'd like to know more about my wedding paintings and how that process works, visit the website I built for it:  I think you'll enjoy it!

Monday, November 06, 2017

A Bit of Success

I had a bit of success this past week and wanted to share it here.  Two of my paintings were juried into the Grace Center's annual juried art exhibition.  They're very different paintings, although they are both figurative paintings about real people.  

Cinderella's Seamstress
Oil on canvas, 48"x48" 

Saddle Up
Oil on canvas, 50"x40"

I went to the opening reception on Saturday night and was blown away when both of them won awards.  Saddle Up got an Honorable Mention while Cinderella's Seamstress was awarded Best of Show!  Absolutely amazing.  There is a lot of really good work in the show, so I was happy just to be in it, but to have both pieces recognized like that is something out of this world.

I had a great time talking with some of the other artists as well as other art professionals.  One woman had a beautiful collage in the show that had so much to say in addition to being so wonderfully made.  We had a short conversation but I'm hoping to talk with her in more depth sometime soon as I'd love to have some insight into the way she puts her pieces together.  Something tells me that her basic process is not that different from mine, but the medium and end results are so very different.

The show will be up until the first week of January.  If you're in the Mills River area, I recommend stopping by to see it!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Painting a Wedding Reception

This past Saturday night, I was the live painter at the wedding reception in Charlotte for two lovely people.  Yes, I painted.  Live.  At the reception.  And I have to say: it was a blast!

I've posted on here before about being a live event painter.  This time, I thought I'd share some thoughts about how I go about it and what the experience is like.  I was contacted a while back by the couple who had a general idea about what they wanted.  We talked on the phone about some of the different options, along with the pros and cons of each, and decided that we would focus on the couple's First Dance.  This is my favorite subject for an artwork as it allows for greater creativity in composition and subjects.  I coordinated with their wedding planner, the venue manager, and the photographer to ensure that we were all on the same sheet of music.  The venue manager had a few specific requirements that were quickly taken care of and we were ready to go.

On Thursday, I put my painting rig together and got it ready to load into the car.  There's quite a bit of stuff needed, and I've made up a checklist to make sure nothing gets left behind.  There's the easel, canvases (two: one with a cool tone and one with a warm tone), paints, brushes, palette, rags, medium, and solvent, of course.  I need an easel-mounted LED lamp to ensure there's enough light to paint by, which also requires an extension cord, which also requires gaffer's tape (not duct tape) to prevent tripping.  Then there's an industrial mat to protect the hotel's expensive carpet.  I also have my camera and ancient MacBook so I can photograph important things (like the first dance) and then work from the photos later.  Trash bags, baby wipes, brush soap, lots of business cards and flyers, a copy of the contract and other important details, scissors, and a few other odds and ends.  All of it needs a rolling toolchest (thanks, Lowe's) to haul it around.

On Saturday afternoon, I drove down to Charlotte.  I checked into my hotel, changed clothes, and headed out to the Marriott City Center.  I only went to one wrong floor before finding the right location, then quickly set up my stuff.  The Marriott staff was extremely helpful and went out of their way to make sure I had what I needed.  They'd never worked with a live wedding painter before, so my rig and I got a lot of attention.  The wedding planner, Lauren Kelley, owner of Kelley Event + Design, and her staff, had all the details well under control.  The DJ was Mike with Split Second Sound, and he turned out to be an outstanding MC and DJ - he had that place moving all night long.  And I enjoyed working with the photographers of Capture Me Candid - they were very creative and easy to work with. 

Once we were set, I started painting.  My goal was to have something on the canvas before the guests started coming into the room.  That meant I had to decide on the composition and get it and the newlyweds roughed in before they even arrived.  Not a problem, really: a few small sketches to try out some options and a workable composition presented itself.  And I was off and running.

To say that the guests were intrigued by the idea of a live artist is an understatement.  None had ever seen anything like it at a wedding, and only one had even heard of the idea.  People came by the easel continually all night long, asking questions and keeping an eye on how it developed.  I had a great time talking with all of them.  This was a great crowd, really enthusiastic, and with some sharp questions and observations.

The painting itself developed over about five hours into a very rough first draft.  I decided to put the couple over towards the right side with the crowd circling behind them and to the left.  Actually, the last time I was at a reception, everybody was sitting during the first dance, and I'd planned on something similar, but this crowd was on their feet, and that necessitated a few changes!  I also included the parents of the groom and the mother of the bride.  My goal for the first night was to establish the lights and darks, keep the brushwork lively, and capture the spirit of the evening.  Here's how the painting looked at the end of the night:

The painting is now back in the studio to be brought up to a much higher level of finish.  Today I worked on correcting the perspective (it was way off, but that's to be expected when you're winging it) and developing the walls and ceiling.  Then it's on to the figures: first the couple, then the parents (not to the same level of detail) and then the rest of the crowd.  I estimate it will be a 2-4 week process.

So stay tuned - I'll post the finished version here as well!