Saturday, August 30, 2014

Landscape Studies

I mentioned a while back that I've started to study landscapes.  There are several reasons.  One, I ran into a creative wall while trying to do my "Survivor" series.  I was stuck and couldn't find a way forward.  Doing something different for a while is usually a good way to work around a creative block.  A second reason is that I wasn't able to spend multiple days in a row in the studio, which is what is necessary for my creative juices to really get rolling.  (Are those two reasons related?  Ya think??)  A third reason is that I'm pretty bad at landscapes.  I rarely do them, so I'm not very good, and since I'm not very good, I rarely do them.  Maybe it's time to break the cycle.

So I tried a couple of landscapes on my own and, as you might guess, the results were pretty awful.  No, you may not see them.  So I started studying how other painters created landscapes.  Eventually, I found a really good guide on the subject.  Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala is very thorough.  It is intended for artists who are already have a bit of experience.  It discusses plein air and studio work, equipment, color and values, site selection, light, and much more.  My copy is now marked-up, highlighted, and complete with paint smears from testing out what he discusses.  I've had other landscape books before, but none of them come close to Albala's book.  Rather than say "here's how to paint a landscape", Albala discusses the things you should think about and different approaches you can use.  In other words, he gives you the tools to develop good landscapes in your own style.

To put these lessons into practice, I set my French easel up outside and copied a number of works that were in the book or in a recent issue of Plein Air magazine.  Copying other artists' work is a time-honored tradition.  You learn a lot when you have to focus on something for an extended period of time, including how the picture was composed, an appreciation for the colors used, how the artist might have achieved success, where the weak points are, and so on.  All of these paintings are about 7 1/2" x 12" on gessoed and toned watercolor paper.  Why not panels or canvases?  Because I'm being a student again, and a lot of my work will be crap, and it's easier to tear up a piece of paper than a panel.

Each of these was done in two steps.  First, I copied the painting in one session, outside.   A day or two later, I critiqued it in the studio and then went over it again.  In every case, the first try was maybe an okay start, but totally unsatisfactory as a finished painting.  It was maybe a 50% solution.  And in every case, the end result is not something I'd exhibit, either.  Not only is it a copy of somebody else's painting (unethical to call it mine, which is why all these are unsigned), but none of these are completed to the level I would want.  They're maybe 80-90% solutions.  But that's fine, because I learned what I needed in each exercise.


This is a copy of Elk Creek by Jay Moore, from Albala's book.  Albala says that he's always asking his students "What is your painting about?"  Too many times, novice painters are just painting whatever is in front of them with no idea what the focus of the painting is.  I'm guilty of this, too, which is a big reason most of my landscapes have been junk.  But every painting should be about something, the central idea that everything is arranged around.  In this case, the central idea is the beautiful golden glow on the field.  Moore framed the gold with muted greens on the top and bottom.  The creek on the lower right has small areas of strong blue that are complementary to the golden-orange of the field and therefore enhance the gold.  There's great depth to the work, achieved through the overlapping hills that recede in the distance (and with atmospheric perspective, they get lighter and bluer as they do).  One thing I noticed when I pulled this off the easel was that I need to ensure the painting surface (paper, panel, whatever) is level when I block it in.  This one was crooked both times I worked on it!


This is a copy of Oak Creek Passage by David Santillanes.  In contrast to the painting above, which is bathed in late afternoon light, this one is in a deep forest with subdued lighting.  Most of the edges are very soft and colors are muted (actually, the colors in the original are more muted than my poor copy).  This image required a very different approach than my usual, very literal, one.  I basically scrubbed in large areas of muted warm tones in the top third (where the trees are) and down the course of the creek, then scrubbed in muted greens for the ground cover to the left and right.  Then I gradually developed the forms: the vertical trees, the round rocks, and humps of green grass.  My first go-round resulted in very little variation in the greens of the trees and ground cover (both in the range of greens and in their values).  Pretty blah.  So in the second round, I punched up the value differences (darker darks and lighter lights) and the color differences (warm and cool greens, strong and muted colors, shots of burnt sienna, and a very few touches of blue).  The end result is nowhere near as good as Dave's, of course, but it was a good learning experience.


This one's a copy of Where the Rabbits Are by Marc Bohne.  It's a little more successful in person than in this image.  My first cut at it had little depth, the bushes weren't dark enough, there wasn't enough color variation, the road was too light, and the tops of the bushes on the right, which were caught in sunlight, had no glow to them.  I worked on all that the second time.  The shadowed parts of the bushes are now much darker (more mysterious, more of a coherent shape), the road now appears to be out of direct sunlight (it's a little darker, with both cool and warm that give it the "beachy" feel), and the ground has more color variation.  The parts of the bush that are hit by the late afternoon sunlight are still unsuccessful.  Marc nailed it in the original; my copy failed.  But still, I got a lot out of this exercise.


This is a copy of Skagit River Dike, North by Mitchell Albala.  This was a plein-air demonstration project in his book.  My first attempt at this came up with the same green, just light and dark versions, over much of the painting.  I thought I was giving it some variety, but two days later, after it had dried some, it was clear that it was almost the same green.  Not only that, but the whole thing lacked value differences.  One reason was that I had used toned surface that was too dark.  It was a mid-value warm gray.  I tend to paint thinly, so my paint didn't have enough body to sufficiently cover the tone.  Lesson learned (at least for me): use a much lighter initial tone on my painting surfaces.  In the second round at this, I punched up the lights and darks and played more with the greens.  For all these greens, I used four colors: ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cadmium yellow light, and yellow ochre.  Occasionally I used a touch of terra rosa to mute the greens, but just a touch.  The bottom line is that you don't need a lot of tube colors to get a wide variety of greens.


This one is a copy of Tower Shadows by Russell Case.  This was fun because Russell really played up the blue in the shadows.  I'm very literal, so I would not have used such strong blues (various combinations of ultramarine blue and cobalt blue, muted with burnt umber or burnt sienna).  But now that I know it works, I'll do it more often.  My first effort was actually too blue: the warmer, sunlit areas were just cool grays.  In the second round, I warmed up the sunlit rocks and put some warm colors into the shadowed rocks.  In Russell's original painting, the edges of the shadows were strong blue; the warm strokes were buried in the middle of the shadows.


This is a copy of Willeo Misty by Marsha Savage.  It was an interesting exercise because the original is done in pastel.  Pastel allows the artist to get very strong colors at all value levels: strong dark blues, strong light greens, and so on.  Oil paint doesn't allow that, especially when you're working with a limited palette.  As with a previously-discussed exercise, my first cut at this didn't have the value range it should have, the greens had too little variation, and I totally messed up the water.  In round two, I lightened the hill in the background, made the shadowed areas of the trees bluer and darker, with the lighted areas yellower and much lighter.  Marsha was able to use strokes of strong color everywhere with her pastels.  I forced myself to put in a lot of strokes of my primaries - in other words, in the shadowed areas of the trees, not only did I use a mix of ultramarine and cad yellow, but I also put in strokes of ultramarine alone.  And I played up some of the blues in the reflections in the water.  Again, this is something I would not normally have done, but copying her work forced me out of my comfort zone.  I had fun with it and learned some new stuff.

So what's next?  I think it's time to head out into the countryside and start making my own landscapes.  Maybe I'll post some here.  And if they're junk, maybe not.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Artwork Updates

A few weeks ago, a cousin sent me a box of old family photographs.  Her father passed away several months ago and she's been sorting through all his effects.  These photos were of my mother, her parents, and her maternal grandparents.

One of the photos grabbed my attention.  It was taken a few months after I was born, when my parents visited my mom's family to show off their new addition.  They handed me to my great-grandfather, Ruben Bell, and snapped this picture:


I was really taken with Ruben's expression.  This was a man who led a hard-scrabble life.  He had been a sharecropper in rural Tennessee and had buried four of his six children early.  Now here he was, in his 70's, with his first great-grandchild.  This was the only time we were together, though.  Ruben died on Christmas Eve a few months after this picture was taken.

Being and artist, I had to do something with this image.  So I grabbed a canvas and here's the result:

Ruben and Me
Oil on canvas, 24"x18", 2014

I liked the fact his face was in heavy shadow, yet you could still get a strong impression of his emotions.  The background had to change a bit.  My posture in the photo was inelegant, to say the least, so it had to be modified, and while I was at it, I changed the outfit and added a blanket.  This may look like a simple copy of a photo, but trust me, it isn't - and it was harder than it looked.  Sometimes things come together quickly and other times they don't.  I wouldn't call this one a "fight", but there were some aspects that required, shall we say, a considerable amount of heated discussion between me and the damn paint.  But it works and I'm happy with it.

There are quite a few other photos in that box that are crying out for similar treatment.  I might do a series of paintings based on them.  Sounds like a bit of fun!

In addition to this painting, I've been going to life drawing sessions when I can.  Here's one from last night:



The Monday night sessions that I go to are two hours of very short poses, lasting only one to three minutes each.  That's quite a challenge in itself, as you have to get the essence of the pose very quickly.  If you don't get it, tough luck - we're already on the next pose.  It's actually a lot of fun.  Last night, our model was an aerial gymnast.  She spent several years doing aerial acrobatics with the circus.  She was the one who had the long streams of colored silk that she'd wrap around herself and do all kinds of flips and rolls 30 feet in the air.  Last night, though, she was only a few feet in the air but still doing some amazing things.  Like the splits in this quick sketch here.  Every try to draw somebody that's hanging upside down?  It's quite difficult.  Since everything is turned  around and coming at you from unusual angles, you have to actually look at what's there, understand it, and put it down on paper.  If you're used to drawing figures, you often draw automatically, because you're used to the eyes being this far above the nose, which is this far above the mouth, with a chin that's formed in a certain way.  When everything is reversed, your brain goes "erf?" and short-circuits, and you have to connect your eyes to your drawing hand.  Which should be connected anyway.  So this was a great exercise.  Go find yourself an aerial gymnast and draw her/him - you'll learn a lot!

Other life drawing sessions are more traditional.  I went to one that had traditional 20-min poses.  This allowed me to work with charcoal and Conte crayon again.  I hadn't used those in quite some time, so I was a bit rusty, but it came together again after a bit.  Here's one of sketches I did:

B's Back
Charcoal and Conte crayon on toned paper, 13"x10"

I've got this one in my Etsy shop now, along with quite a few others.

So that's a sampling of what I've been working on lately.  Hope to have more to show you soon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Shows and Color

Has it really been two weeks since I last posted?  Evidently it has.  Sorry for the absence, as if anybody noticed.  Most of the absence has been due to real-world activities.  But I've been kinda/sorta busy in the studio as well, and have a few things to report.

First, my "Faces of Afghanistan" artworks are on exhibit at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina.  This was one of those things that came together quickly.  Basically, I was talking with one of the art teachers about the drawings.  He asked, "How long would it take you to get them ready for an exhibit?"  My answer: "Oh, maybe two hours to get 'em all packed up."  That was on a Saturday.  A few days later, on Wednesday, we hung the show in the Student Center.


Here's part of the show.  More is on the opposite wall.  "Faces" will be up until September 26.  Since it's in the Student Center, it's open every day, so go see it if you're in the Banner Elk area.

Later that week, I got some more good news.  "Faces" will be shown at a college in Ohio in November.  More details to follow.  I'm really excited to have the drawings shown up north!

Meanwhile, I've continued to work on how I apply paint to canvas.  In one of my earlier blog posts, I posted a picture of this cloudscape study:


It was pretty ... meh.  Fairly accurate but about as exciting as a roll of toilet paper.  So I revised it:


That's better.  Still not great, but a big improvement over its "Mr Blah" earlier stage.  I based the revisions on some ideas from some of my reading.  And I'm still reading: just started another book about color and light.  Neither one of those topics is a strong suit of mine, so any improvement is welcome!

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Gallery Closing


Bella Vista Art Gallery, in Biltmore Village, Asheville, closed today.  Bella Vista was the only gallery that carried my artworks.

Its closure wasn't a surprise.  The owners, Glenn and Christin, had told me several months ago that the gallery would close at the end of July.  Unlike most galleries, its closure wasn't due to lack of sales.  Christin and Glenn were from New Orleans.  They wound up in Asheville after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and destroyed their gallery.  They rebounded, opening Bella Vista in the River Arts District and then, later, moving to Biltmore Village.  And they turned it into one of the best galleries in Asheville.  They had really good artworks, beautifully displayed, and cared very much about presenting the artworks well.  Bella Vista survived the economic downturn of 2008 and was still doing well up until today.

Family issues were what drove the decision.  Glenn and Christin still have family in Louisiana, and it was time to go back and be near them.  So they made their plans and are leaving Asheville on a high note.

For an artist like me, Christin and Glenn were the gold standard for gallery owners.  Christin was the artistic director and primary sales person; Glenn provided the back-room support.  Christin has a sharp eye for artworks.  She educated me about buyers, what different people look for, and how they might respond to my works.  She focused on my drawings and etchings.  When she took one of my works, she framed it beautifully and presented it in its best light.  Even when my sales were slow (meaning more than a year between sales), she never wavered.  "I like your work, it's good, and it will sell!"  And, eventually, it did.  Whenever Christin sold one of my works, she was on the phone to me within ten minutes, excitedly telling me about the person who bought it, and why.  When I was deployed overseas, she shot me an email.  Christin and Glenn were more excited about the sales than I was!  And even though our contract only called for them to pay me after the end of the month, they always sent a check within just a few days.  Amazing.

I've been with galleries that just used my work as filler, or forgot who I was even though they had three of my paintings, or tried to tell me what to paint.  Glenn and Christin, on the other hand, were my trusted partners.  I'm very sad to see them go.  It's the best thing for them, but not for me and all their other artists.  They will be missed.

And after my experience with Bella Vista, I'm really spoiled when it comes to galleries.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Art Studies

I've continued to do mostly studies about art, rather than making new paintings.  Work and home have demanded a lot of my time.  I've got a couple of new clients for my consulting business, and I'm trying to make sure they're happy.  And at home, a combination of ongoing projects and decent weather has required a lot of labor outside.  We had a new propane tank installed in the yard, which meant they had to dig a big hole to bury it, which required me to smooth over the ground, spread grass seed and fertilizer, cover it all with straw, and restore a stacked rock wall.  Sounds simple but it required a lot of time and I was a whipped puppy at the end.

So the studio has gotten short shrift lately.  I've used my limited time to work on several different studies.  One of them is landscape.  I've continued to go thru the landscape book mentioned in a previous posting, taking lots of notes, and learning a good bit.  One of my studio efforts was a cloudscape.  Here's how it turned out:


Great art?  Hell, no.  But it's paint on canvas and gave me a chance to work with the play of late-afternoon sunlight.  I've always loved looking at those big summer afternoon thunderclouds.  Sometimes the light catches them just right and stops me in my tracks.  But painting them is a difficult thing to do.  Painters work with a very limited range of colors that reflect light, whereas a thundercloud and the surrounding sky comprise an infinite range of colors and light.  With this particular study, I looked at how the range of colors in the sky (an ultramarine in the upper left corner, to a light green in the bottom right), as well as the range in the cloud (bluish purple shadows, light rose highlights near the bottom, gradually shifting to orange and yellow up high).  The mountains are, to me, a disaster, but that just shows what I need to focus on next.  Lots of lessons learned here.


I've been going to sessions with a model on Wednesday evenings.  Last week was my third session.  We had a lovely young lady who took a pose leaning against the wall.  She was very tanned and athletic, which gave her skin a rich warm glow, and the strong lighting gave sharp contrasts in light and dark.  I was pretty happy with the way this study turned out.  Titled "Megan Standing", it's now up in my Etsy gallery.  With this study, I put into practice some of the things I've picked up from my figure studies.  Specifically, I do an underpainting using only burnt umber.  This lets me work out the composition and light/dark structure.  Once it looks acceptable, I go in with a very limited range of colors.  This one used primarily yellow ochre and cad red, with a little bit of cobalt blue in various places, some ultramarine in the very dark darks, and a tiny bit of cad yellow in some of the highlighted areas.

Last week, I visited one of our local used-book stores and found a thick book on Anthony Van Dyke.  I never knew much about him, besides that he could paint a helluva fine portrait.  I've been going thru the book and studying the images, taking notes on the compositions, colors, metaphorical representations, and other things as they pop into my head.  My method of taking notes is to do a thumbnail sketch of the image and then scribble things down as they pop into my head, in a stream-of-consciousness way.  Here's a page from the notebook:


After this afternoon's session, I have quite a few things that I want to try out in the studio.  Lots of lessons learned, I think ... if I can remember them!


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Exhibit Review

Aperture Magazine published a review of the show I was in at Western Carolina University.  "Remote Sites of War" was a 3-man show curated by David Brown, the Director of the Fine Arts Museum there.  The other two artists were photographers Todd Drake and Chris Sims.  The show ran from April 10 to May 30 and the review was just published today.  Here's the link:

http://www.aperture.org/blog/remote-sites-of-war/

Monday, July 07, 2014

Early July Update

It's been busy times here since my last post.  Very little of it has to do with art.  We finally had our heat pump replaced.  That was a big deal, about 3 days worth of work for the crew from Bullman Heating and Air, but they did a really good job.  The new system pumps more air than the old, and it cooled the house down quickly, so we're happy.  The next stage will be next week when we have the propane guys come out and install a big tank.  Since our heat source in the winter will now be propane rather than electricity, it will be needed.

One of my business clients had a big project come up, and I spent about ten days going full-bore on it.  No studio time for this boy.  But we got it done and met the deadline.  And then I was able to catch up on other things.  Art, for instance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm going through another stretch of training myself in better painting techniques.  I had studied some classical figure painting techniques and applied them to a couple of copies of master paintings - one by Odd Nerdrum and another by Rembrandt.  Subsequently, I did a couple of life studies.  One will never, ever, see the light of day again.  The other was done from an old drawing session and it actually turned out okay.  Here it is:

Blue Shawl
Oil on linen panel, 20"x16"

This was done in a classical style, with warm underpainting and glazes on top.  I learned a good bit from this exercise.  The painting is now up in my Etsy gallery.

In addition to working on techniques for the figure, I'm also looking at landscapes.  This is a subject that I've typically avoided.  I don't do landscapes well, except for a very few that were really "portraits" of specific things.  And since I don't do landscapes well, I just don't do them.  But that's not a responsible attitude to have if I want to consider myself professional.  So it's time to learn how to up my game with landscape paintings in addition to figure paintings.

To that end, I'm overhauling my outdoor kit.  My French easel is permanently loaded now with a decent selection of paints, brushes, and other equipment.  And it's in my truck, where it's readily available when I can get away from work.  I've done some plein-air studies that, like the figure study mentioned earlier, will never see the light of day again.  But that's fine: you gotta whiff a lot of pitches before you start getting some hits.

And I'm doing some reading.  One of my plein-air painting friends told me to not worry about technique, just paint with passion and it'll happen.  Well, no, it doesn't, not for me.  I'm the kind of guy who needs a structured approach.  When I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm winging it, the result has invariably been a disaster.  But if I understand the approach, then I can take deliberate risks with when and where to wing it.  And it generally works out better.  The result may still be a disaster, but at least I have an idea about what happened and can learn from it.

Oh, yeah, the reading.  I got the book Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala.  I'm working my way through it and finding it to be quite good.  His style of working, from color choices to drawing to basic approach, is very similar to what I've already worked out for myself.  So I have pretty good confidence that the things I'll learn later will mesh with what I'm already doing.  Good stuff.

This doesn't mean I'm turning into a landscape painter.  Far from it.  But I do feel that I have to be reasonably competent in that genre.  So it's time to get to work and learn something.  Hopefully, by the time I make my next post, I'll have a landscape or two that are worth showing.  Or not.  Don't hold your breath.  But sooner or later, you'll see some here.