Saturday, July 23, 2016


I spent last week up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana.  I was part of the team that trained a group of US government civilians heading to Afghanistan for a year.  Last month, my role was as a mentor for a team of students.  This time, I was what we call a "subject matter expert".  This meant that I worked with our Afghan role-players to ensure that the training events were well coordinated, the role-players had an idea as to how the students might react, and the events went off on schedule.  It can be a nerve-wracking job, but it's a lot of fun.

You could think of my role as the director and stage manager of a play in which only half the participants know what the script is.  Yes, there is a script: we have very definite goals in mind for each event.  These goals are increasingly complex as the training progresses and build on previous events.  In the first event, the student teams meet a local Afghan official.  It's a basic meet-and-greet.  The students are informed on very short notice of the meeting and have to learn something about the official, try to figure out what his interests are, prepare the meeting room as best they can, and determine which team member is going to fill each role.  Then they have to do the meeting.  It usually goes well, but it can go south in a hurry.  Last month, the official asked my student team about Donald Trump's veracity (a very realistic question as many Afghans watch American politics).  One of the students replied that "all politicians are liars".  This, to an Afghan politician.  Ooops!  Fortunately, the other team members helped the guy recover from his faux pas.  That's why we do this training: put the students in a safe environment where they have to put their training into practical use, and where mistakes aren't going to result in permanent damage.

Our Afghan role-players are wonderful people.  Many of them were driven out of their homes by the Soviets, or warlords, or the Taliban, and are eager to help the US rebuild the country.  Some were diplomats, some were officers or soldiers in the Army or Air Force, several were police officers, others were businessmen, teachers, village elders, scholars, and farmers.  One was a smuggler.  One has gone back to Afghanistan and put his life on the line three times as an interpreter with US forces.  Most have lost family members - wives, husbands, parents, sons, daughters, or other close relative - to the fighting that has raged in the country for 30 years.  Many still have family in Afghanistan.  I won't post any photos of them as that might endanger their family members still in-country.  But they have an amazing dedication to this job.  They bring insight, intelligence, and wit to their interactions with our students.  And, as one who was trained by these very same people five years ago, I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that their efforts are invaluable.

Outside of Muscatatuck, these men and women get little respect.  They are treated with suspicion because they're Muslims and Afghans.  They get told to "go home" way too often, even though many of them are now US citizens.  Extra attention and pat-downs in airports are a given.  Yet they still continue to show up, every time, to train people heading to Afghanistan.

So the next time you hear some idiot condemning all Muslims and Afghans as terrorists or worse, tell them to sit on it.  I work with Muslims and Afghans.  We are damned lucky to have them!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Taborets and Palettes

One of the things I do when I visit another artist's studio is study their taboret and palette.  It really gives me an insight into how they work.  Mechanics will check out another mechanic's tool set and shop layout, and for an artist, it's the same exact thing.  I get a lot of good ideas that way.

A taboret (pronounced "ta-bo-ray") is basically a table next to the easel that holds the artist's stuff.  It's a combination workbench and tool chest.  If you look in art catalogs, you'll probably notice that they're often fancy, made out of wood, and very expensive.  You won't find one of those in my studio.  I use a rolling tool chest that I got from Sears.  They still have a similar one in their catalog.  Mine is basically a steel 5-drawer unit on heavy-duty casters with a plastic top.  I tossed out the fiberboard top insert that came with it and replaced it with thick coffee-table glass for use as a palette.  On the left side, I added a shelf from scrap wood.  There's a recess in the top where I keep my mediums and the brushes I'm currently using.  I've got some small cardboard boxes attached to the back that hold my full selection of brushes.  Here's what it all looks like:

I'm right-handed, so I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  The wooden shelf holds the paper towel where I scrub my brushes.  Next to it is the recess.  From top to bottom you'll see the jar that holds the brushes in current use, then the large jar with dirty solvent (I use Gamsol), then a small jar with clean Gamsol, then a small jar with my medium (50% Gamsol, 50% linseed oil), and then a small jar with Liquin when needed.  To the right of the recess is the glass palette.  For me, this provides a natural flow, and I've been doing it for so long that I can't change now.  Some artists would want the palette to be as close as possible to the painting on the easel, but that hasn't worked for me.

Regarding the unused brushes, they're arranged according to size: small 0's to 2's to the left up to 12's on the right.  That way I can quickly find the size and shape I need.

The glass palette has to be backed with something so you can see and evaluate your paint.  Many artists use a white background, but I use a medium gray.  This allows me to see how light or dark the paint is.  If you use a white palette, then everything is darker, even a light yellow.  A medium gray background lets me get a good idea whether the paint is light or dark enough, and also whether it's strong or muted.  

The other good thing about glass is that it's easy to clean.  When I'm done for the day, I scrape off all my used paint, then wipe it down with Gamsol to clean it even more, and finally wipe it down with alcohol.  This removes all the remaining Gamsol and paint and leaves it clean enough to eat off of.

I mentioned earlier that I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  When I'm working from life, I position my easel so that it's just to the left of the subject and the taboret so it's just to the lower right of the subject.  This results in a small vision triangle and I can shift quickly from subject to painting to taboret, compare the paint mixture on the taboret to the subject, and back to the easel.  When I'm just drawing, though, I have the easel to the right of the subject, since I'm right-handed.

So that's how I set up my easel and taboret.  How do you set up yours?

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Figurative Paintings: Alla Prima versus from Photographs

A previous post talked about painting landscapes from life versus from photographs.  Many artists, especially the hard-core traditionalists, say you should never work from photos.  Other artists copy photos in so much detail that they've spawned the Photorealist movement.  I'm not in either of those camps.  I find that photos and life are complementary: there are things that come with working from life, and there are different things that come with working from photos.

In working from life, I'm really open to the person in front of me.  I see their natural posture, the way they move, how they speak, their manner, their personality, their humor, and their humanity.  I see the way their clothes hang on them, the way their skin is different colors in different areas, and get a 3-D sense of how their body is formed.  When I'm drawing or painting a person, I'm trying to get a sense of who they are as a person.  You can't really get that from photos.

There are limitations, though.  A person can't hold a pose for very long.  They need to move every so often, which interrupts the process.  Then they never get back in exactly the same position.  The result is that a painting done strictly from life is an average of many poses.  Also, the more interesting the pose, the shorter the time they can hold it.  If you twist your torso 90 degrees, for example, you're going to un-twist over the next few minutes.  Think you can hold it for 20 or 30 minutes?  Hah!

Another limitation: time.  The person being drawn or painted has a life outside the studio.  Sitting in one position for hours while I mess around on canvas is not an option.  As an artist, I have to respect that.  Furthermore, a professional model is paid by the hour.  That rapidly gets quite expensive.

So: working from life has some good aspects, and some limitations.  Just like everything else in life.

Photos have their own characteristics.  For one, the subject can hold the pose forever without moving.  That's pretty valuable in itself, particularly in those cases where the pose is difficult or impossible to sustain.  Since the subject isn't moving, the artist can focus on important things like the structure of the face.  It's often the little details that I catch: the way the shadow of the jaw falls on the neck, for example, or the dip of a lower eyelid.  Things that would be easy to miss in working from life because the subject is always slightly moving.

On the flip side, photos are flat 2-D representations.  When you and I look at something, we see it in 3-D because we have two eyes that provide depth perception.  That matters a lot more than you might think.  When I'm painting an arm, for example, I need to know what that arm is shaped like, so I can convincingly paint it so it appears to curve toward you or away from you.  Photos don't give you that information.  Also, photos don't tell you much about the person.  They give you an image of what that person looked like at a specific moment in time, but you can't interact with that image to find out who they are as a person.

Given all this, I find that working from life and from photos are complementary.  I see things while working from photos that I can then look for when I work from a real person.  When I'm with a person, I can learn a lot about them, and carry that into later work from a photo.  The lessons learned flow both ways.

When I'm working on a large painting of a specific person, I use a combination of both in-person and photo techniques.  I generally have the individual come to the studio.  I'll have my camera set up on a tripod near me with a remote to take the exposures.  We'll talk and I'll be taking photographs like crazy.  We'll move the individual around, move the lighting around, have them stand or sit or whatever, and I'll continue to take photos.  I can shoot a thousand pictures in an hour.  Sometimes I'll do some sketches, sometimes not.  By keeping the camera to the side, I can engage the individual in a discussion.  The camera is not front and center between us, so much of their camera shyness goes away.  We just talk. Meanwhile, I'm punching the button on the remote to take photos like crazy.  That's the great thing about modern cameras: you can shoot a thousand photos and not break the bank getting them developed!

What this does is give me a lot of exposures, all with controlled lighting, along with a sense of their personality.  I can then choose which photos to use to create the story of that person.  Often it'll be a combination: the position of the head from this one, the expression in the eyes from another, the hand from a third.  Since the lighting is pretty much the same, this is pretty easy.

I really don't like working from snapshots.  It's common for figurative artists to have people ask them to do a portrait from a snapshot.  Hey, it's easy, you've already got the image, right?  Well, no, it's actually pretty hard.  The person's expression may be great, but the lighting, pose, environment, and color will be terrible.  And if they give you a bunch of snapshots, they're all taken at different times of the day or year, lighting is completely different and usually very harsh (flashes on mobile phones are NOT good light sources!), clothes are different, and so on.  No, it's much better if I take my own photos, thank you very much!

Okay, so this has turned into a tome.  Time to wrap it up.  Bottom line: working from photos and working from life are two different, and complementary, things.  Each can bring information to the table that the other can't.  Just don't rely exclusively on one!

Sunday, June 26, 2016


People in the UK are so much more creative with their words than we are in the US.  This is especially true with insults.  A few days ago, Donald Trump stuck his foot in his mouth again by saying that people in Scotland were ecstatic over the vote to leave the EU.  That, of course, is not true, as every single district in Scotland voted to remain.  The Scots, no fans of the Donald, were quick to reply.  Here are some of their terms for him:

- Witless fucking cocksplat
- Tiny-fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret-wearing shitgibbon
- Incompressible jizztrumpet
- Ignorant fuckmuppet
- Utter cockwomble
- Polyester cockwomble
- Hamster heedit bampot
- Weasel-headed fucknugget
- Leather-faced shit tobogganist
- Cock-juggling thundercunt
- Touped fucktrumpet
- Bloviating fleshbag
- Weapons-grade plum
- Clueless numpty

- Mangled apricot hellbeast

Now if only our own political commentators were this creative ...

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Landscape Painting: Plein Air versus Photographs

I got some questions today about this painting of the Grand Canyon:

South Rim Afternoon
Oil on linen panel, 18"x24"

I painted this one in 2014, several months after visiting the Grand Canyon.  I was only there for too short of a time: we drove there one day, walked around the south rim a day, and then drove back.  Not nearly enough time - the Grand Canyon is such a mind-blowing place.  As an artist, as a rock-hound, as a hiker, as just about anything, a person could spend days, weeks, or months there and never get enough.  I took several hundred photos that day with the intention of seeing what I could do in the studio later.

One thing that inspired me was an exhibition of paintings by a bunch of artists who had spent a week or so at the Grand Canyon sometime prior to our visit.  These paintings were awesome: almost all were plein air, done right there in the Canyon, and they captured the light, colors, and moods perfectly.  I was in awe of what those artists could do.  So, after I got back home to North Carolina, I tried my own versions in the studio.

And failed.  Miserably.

I am primarily a figurative artist, not a landscape artist.  For years, I avoided landscapes because I wasn't any good at them, and I wasn't any good at them because I avoided them.  Kind of a self-reinforcing circle, huh?  But landscapes, done well, have immense power.  Additionally, when you're In The Moment, painting a landscape that's right in front of you, you're alive to the world in a way that you're otherwise unaware.  You see shapes and colors and things that you would probably miss.  And you're trying to capture it all in paint, which is a hopeless proposition, but so worth it anyway.

After a bunch of failed efforts, I eventually came up with an idea for a carefully-considered approach.  I relied on several photographs taken in the same general area, worked up a composition, and figured out which area would be the focus (the cliffs on the right) and which areas would play supporting roles (the more distant canyon).  This painting was the result.  I was fairly happy with it.  Now, after a couple more years of experience with landscapes, I'd do it a bit differently, but still, it falls in the "okay" category.  Not a bad early effort.

That's the background for today's blog post.  The first question that prompted this post was, "Do you paint plein air?  Or do you use a reference photo?"  Generally, I prefer to paint plein air.  Being out in the open, in front of whatever it is I'm painting, makes me aware of the wide range of colors and shapes, as well as the smells, sounds, and feelings of the place.  I have to work fast to capture the feeling.  When it works, it's great.  It doesn't always work.  Kinda like golf: when you get that perfect drive, it's a great feeling, but then you flub the next several shots and maybe even wind up in the water hazard.  That's life.  That being said, here's an example of a plein air painting that I think turned out fairly well:

Harvested Hay
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12"

This was done about a half mile from my home last fall in mid-to-late afternoon over about an hour and a half.  What caught my attention was the swoop of the tan part of the field, where the hay had been cut, next to the green of the grassy area, and bordered by the rich oranges and browns of the surrounding hills.  For me, things clicked pretty well with this effort.

But I can't always work from life.  Sometimes there's no time, or I need to paint a large work.  (Ever tried to do a 30"x40" landscape from life?  Some people can.  Some people can build a car in their garage, too.  I can't do either of those things.)  Sunset paintings are an example of something that are extremely difficult to do from life.  The light at sunset changes so fast.  You wait and wait and wait and then THERE'S TEN MINUTES WHEN IT'S PERFECT and then POOF it's gone.  So last summer, when I was trying to do a painting of these beautiful summer clouds at sunset, I went out and took a gazillion sunset photos over a period of several weeks, and then used a bunch of them to do this painting:

Clouds over the French Broad River
Oil on canvas, 30"x40"

This thing kicked my butt.  I wanted to get the beautiful range of reds, oranges, and yellows of the clouds right at sunset.  As it turned out, this painting was all about light.  (Well, duhh ...) The real colors in the clouds are pure light, but I was trying to capture them in paint, which only reflects a part of the light and is really muddy and dull compared to the real light in the clouds, particularly once you start mixing colors.  But when I used stronger and clearer paint colors, then I wound up with an unbelievably gaudy mess on the canvas that was not nearly as bright, clear, and subtle as the real thing.  Eventually, I toned the sky way down so that the clouds could have a gentle range of reds and oranges while still popping off the canvas.  Did it work?  Well, ehh.  I probably need to do a lot of smaller studies for a while to understand the process before wrecking another canvas.

The second question was, "I really want to start landscape painting and I'm wondering if you can get beautiful paintings like this if you are using just a photo."  Well, thank you for that vote of confidence.  I think the answer to your question is "yes" but there are some qualifiers:
   - You have to paint plein air, from life, in order to understand what it is you're looking at, and to know what's missing from the photo.  Photos are a good reference tool, but they are very limited.
   - DON'T COPY THE PHOTO.  You need to know what it is that you want to say with your painting, what the focus is.  That will tell you what to stress and what to go lightly over.  If all you're doing is copying the photo, then you should just take the photo to WalMart or wherever and have them blow it up into the size you want.  Painting is something else altogether.
   - Go to the library or used-book store and find some books on landscape painting.  Get one and try some of the things the author says.  Then get a different book and try those things.  Then another.  Get something like Plein Air Magazine and copy some of the paintings in there.  Don't try to invent it all yourself.  Thousands of artists have gone down this road already and some have written down their lessons learned, so take advantage of them.  Not all of their approaches will resonate with you, but keep trying new stuff and eventually you'll figure out a way that works for you.
   - Take a class from a plein air painter.  You'll learn stuff you'll never learn from a book, because you'll have somebody experienced looking at your work and giving you feedback.  And you'll be seeing other students wrestling with similar problems and you'll learn from their experiences, too.  And you'll have fun.

Dang, this turned into quite the tome, didn't it?  I could write something similar about doing figurative paintings from life versus from photos.  Maybe I will ...

Monday, June 20, 2016

Afghanistan Training

This past week, I was up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in southeastern Indiana.  I was part of the team providing training to a bunch of Defense Department civilians who are headed to Afghanistan.  They're going over there to support the US effort by doing things like managing base operations, carrying out logistics support, providing oversight of various projects, maintaining base infrastructure, and coordinating with the Afghans.  These are all critical jobs that have to be done, and they're better done by civilians than by military.

Muscatatuck is a really cool place.  I wrote about it in a blog post back in 2013, when I first went there as a trainer.  Read the blog post for a more detailed description of it and to see some photos, or you can go to the Wikipedia page for a lot more.  The short story is that it is an old campus-like facility that has been turned into a training center for all kinds of operations.  The military uses it for urban combat training, FEMA and other agencies use it for disaster training, and my group uses it to train people heading to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Lord knows who else uses the place, but locals are used to helicopters, all kinds of emergency vehicles, and loud noises at all hours of the day and night.  Fortunately, it's pretty remote, so the noise doesn't bother too many people.

My role this time was to be the mentor for a team of eight students.  They went through several days of intense, immersive role-playing, in which they had to work with their military escorts (themselves undergoing training), plan for meetings with various Afghan officials, carry out the meetings, work through an interpreter, respond to changing circumstances, figure out what's going on both overtly and behind the scenes, and perform as if they were really on the ground in Afghanistan.  They had all been through a couple weeks of classroom training and this was their time to put it all into play.

I've been blessed to have a bunch of really sharp people during all my training sessions and this time was no different.  There weren't any egos in my group.  One individual was a very senior guy who had run large organizations.  Another was an executive secretary who was pretty junior.  The rest fell somewhere in between.  Yet all of them were active participants in the planning.  The secretary's input was just as respected as the senior guy's.  And they pulled together as a team: when somebody tripped up or went blank, others jumped in to fill the gap.  It was great to see.

That's not to say they didn't make mistakes - of course they did.  But that's almost by design.  This training exposes them to the thousand shades of gray that comes with real operations, and so we discussed all their decisions and actions in quite some depth so that they could understand some of the second and third-order implications of their actions.  This is where it gets real.  Americans in general are problem solvers: we identify an issue, make a decision, implement it, and move on to the next one.  Except it's not that simple, and the decision or the implementation may have consequences that were not expected.  Our goal was to get them to think of that.

As a mentor, my job was to guide them along by asking them how they would prepare for a meeting with, say, a district governor, what kind of things they should know, where they might go to find things out, asking what they learned after meetings, asking how their lessons learned tied in with their greater mission, and so on.  I never gave them the answer, just raised the questions.  And this team always - ALWAYS - took the ball and ran with it.

It was great.

So I'm happy to be a part of the training team again.  This is so much fun and so rewarding for me.  I really get a kick out of helping people learn new stuff, particularly when it's this important.  I'm looking forward to doing it again!

Sunday, June 12, 2016


I recently finished a commission.  I was contacted by somebody who wanted a "portrait" of her parents' house, to include her parents.  This was an interesting assignment for me.  Since the house is nowhere near here, I needed a lot of photos of it.  My client was, fortunately, able to provide quite a few.  I worked up a couple of compositions in sketches and, after a bit of back-and-forth, we decided on the approach.  Then it was time to get to work.

Although I was working from photographs, I wasn't copying them.  No single photo showed everything I needed, and different areas were kinda/sorta covered from different vantage points.  The focus of the photos was generally on the spectacular flowering bushes and other features, and usually from the viewpoint that showed them best, which was never my chosen viewpoint.  And, as you can see, there's a LOT going on in this yard.  To work out where everything was, I had to make a map of the front yard, using all the clues from the photos.  Once I had that, then I was able to determine my viewpoint and accurately place the house, trees, and flowers.  Then it was a matter of creating something that worked as art, as well as being accurate.  So here's the finished painting:

The Williams House
Oil on linen panel, 16"x20"

I knew that the house was going to be the primary focal point, simply because of the straight lines, sharp edges, and dark shutters and door.  But I didn't want it to overpower everything else.  The yard, particularly the flowering bushes, was the secondary focus.  So I made the house fairly small and near the top of the panel.  The flowers were strong reds, pinks, and whites.  To make them pop out, I had to play with the greens surrounding them, which generally meant changing the light/dark values of the greens as well as muting them.  The grass was different: I decided to make that a stronger, warmer green, and make it look almost like a carpet rolling back to the house.  This connected the foreground to the house and provided a nice swooping movement to guide the eye into the painting.  Finally, I put in the surrounding foliage.  I kept it as simple and muted as possible, just enough to read as trees and foliage, and to provide an environment for the primary interest areas to strut their stuff.

Right near the apex of the swoop, I placed her parents.  They're small enough so that they don't become the focal point, but large enough so that they are recognizable for who they are.  Had they been any closer, the painting would have been about them, with the rest of the painting serving as support.  As it is, it's about their home and their creations in the yard, with their figures serving as a supporting element.

Reading back on this, it sounds as if I did this by painting the house, then the plants, then the grass, and so on.  Of course, that's not the way it happened.  I worked up a full-size sketch, transferred it to the panel, then blocked in the house and everything else in one go.  Then it was a matter of developing, adjusting, smoothing, and tweaking over several sessions, keeping all the stuff I wrote about in mind the whole time.

All in all, I'm happy with the way it turned out.  More importantly, my client is, too.