Monday, August 24, 2015

A Missed Opportunity

Back in June, an opportunity for a commission came up.  I won't say who it was with, except that it was a large organization with a lot of money.  They put out the word that they wanted seven large artworks, two of them 48"x60" and five of them 36"x54".  In addition, they wanted very specific themes for each artwork.  And they were actually going to pay for them.  What an unusual concept!  I could relate very well to their subject and themes.  So after a bit of a back-and-forth with the contact, I submitted a proposal in early July.  They were on a tight timeline and had said they'd make their decision by the middle of the month.

Which came and went with no word.  More weeks passed.  Still no word, even after I sent them notes.  It got to the point where I couldn't have completed the paintings in the time remaining, anyway, so I wrote it off.  But then they contacted me, asking about purchasing one of the paintings that I had submitted as a sample of my work.  Okay, well, if I can't get the commission, then maybe I can at least sell them one of my existing paintings.  So I gave them a discounted price for the painting, plus my costs for framing and shipping.  As it turned out, they only had enough in their budget for the framing, shipping, and my cost of materials, but then asked if I would do it anyway.


Something like this is really frustrating for me as an artist.  First, it's obvious that they didn't do any homework before advertising that they wanted seven very large paintings with specific sizes, subjects, and themes.  A little bit of research, even just ten minutes on Google, would have given them something of an idea of the cost.  Had they talked with a couple of artists, they might have had an even better idea of the cost as well as the time required.  But they didn't.  As a result, I spent a lot of time preparing a professional-quality proposal, carefully discussing how my paintings would meet their requirements, how the process would benefit their target audience, what would go into the effort, and what the cost would be.  And it's apparent that the proposal was dead in the water before I even printed it out, because the shipping costs alone for the seven paintings were twice as much as their entire budget.

The second thing that's frustrating is how little value is placed on an artist's time and effort.  This organization was typical of so many in that they willingly pay professional-level fees for architects, engineers, and even day labor.  Yet when it comes to artists, they expect us to work for minimum wage or less.  Or, as in this case, to essentially give them the artwork.  Why is that?  Is it because they don't consider art work to be real work?  If so, how do we turn that around?

When I was in the River Arts District, I participated in the semi-annual Studio Strolls, in which we opened our studios to the public.  I spent a lot of time talking with people about my paintings and how they came to be.  Most people had some appreciation for what goes into the process.  More than once, though, I had somebody say something like "Oh, it must be so relaxing to be an artist!"  Yes, ma'am, it's about as relaxing as it is to be a defense lawyer or high-stakes stock trader, except it doesn't pay as well.

Unfortunately, very few people ever see the inside of an artist's studio and understand what it takes to make art.  It's a very private process - we don't work in large bustling offices where lots of people see what we do.  And, for artists like me who make two-dimensional art (paintings, drawings, prints, and so on), the end result is a still image.  These images tend to get lost in, and significantly devalued by, our culture's constant flood of advertising, posters, TV, billboards, movies, YouTube videos, and magazines.  Everybody's got a camera, and anybody can take a picture to WalMart and have it printed out at any size they want for next to nothing.  For many, a print from a cellphone snapshot and a painting from an artist's studio aren't fundamentally different - they're a nice design of colors and shapes in a particular spot on the wall.  So there's no need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a painting when Little Ronnie's photo can be printed at Target for just a few bucks.

I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining.  I'm frustrated, yes, but about the larger issue of the value of an artist's work in our current culture.  I don't see that changing any time soon.  Still, I learned a few things during this event.  For one, now I have a good structure for a proposal the next time an opportunity comes up.  There are a couple of things that I would do differently in future proposals as well.  And the next time somebody wants to talk about having me do an art project, I'll make sure we have an understanding of the ballpark range for the costs before I spend a lot of time putting together a proposal.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Landscape Follow-Up

In yesterday's post, I wrote about some lessons learned from looking at landscape paintings by Peggy Root and figure drawings by Tamie Beldue.  Well, lessons learned are not worth a hoot if you don't put them into practice.  So today I tried some out.  Yesterday's post had an image of a crappy landscape that I did in Florida a while back.  Here 'tis:

Butler Beach Marsh

And here is today's effort:

Butler Beach Marsh, the Remix

I think this one is much better.  Instead of trying to depict too much, I made the marsh grasses into areas of greens with soft edges.  I also pumped up the value contrasts in the water and made the reflections better, both of the sky and grasses.  And the treelines in the distance are bluer.  The composition is no better, but that was intentional: I wanted to see the effect that this very different painting approach would have on the image.  So the lesson learned is one that all the good landscape instructors have been telling me forever: get the big shapes, don't try to paint everything, and mind your edges.

I'm a slow learner ...

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Looking at Artists: Peggy Root and Tamie Beldue

We visited the Blue Spiral 1 art gallery in Asheville today.  It's Asheville's largest gallery and represents a great variety of artists and crafters.  You can tell that they have standards because they don't represent me!  The current exhibition shows new work from a few of their stock artists.  Two of them really caught my eye: Peggy Root, a landscape painter, and Tamie Beldue, a figurative artist.

As discussed in a number of earlier posts, I've been doing a lot more landscapes over the past couple of years.  And I've been largely frustrated and disappointed with my results.  My paintings wind up being overly literal and too specific, with colors that are either too intense or too muted, and values that are either too dark or too light.  The result is too often a clash of things vying for attention rather than a harmonious image where everything pulls together.  So when I see somebody who can really paint a good landscape, I look at how they handle particular passages and compare that to how I might have blundered through it.  And as I saw today, Peggy is a really good painter, and I learned quite a bit just from looking at her works.

Marshes Connecticut
Oil on canvas
Artist: Peggy Root

Here's a sample of her work.  To start with, she has an eye for good composition.  The distant hill and the treeline is in the upper third of the painting, the stream is in the left third, reflecting the trees and sky.  The marsh is a mid-value, muted green area that sets off the dark and light areas.  There is a nice, natural balance to the arrangement.  Everything fits together and contributes to the mood.

Speaking of mood, all of Peggy's paintings that I saw had strong emotional depth to them.  Too many landscape paintings by other artists look like snapshots with all the depth of a Twitter tweet, but Peggy's show real feeling.  It's like she's saying "I was here, and it was beautiful, and I want to share that joy with you."  That's not an easy thing to say with paint.

One of the things that I noticed with her work is that she builds them up in layers.  For example, a tree may start with an ultramarine blue block-in, then have a layer of muted dark green, then a lighter warmer green, and a stronger yellow-green in the lightest areas.  These layers will usually not have hard edges - they'll be blended or scumbled to suggest foliage rather than define it.  That's one area where I typically fall down: I try to define too much.  Compare her painting of marshes (above) to mine (below):

Butler Beach Marsh
Oil on panel, 9"x12"

Peggy's is calm and contemplative, with strong composition, excellent use of light/dark, and colors that naturally go together.  In mine, I got sucked into trying to depicting every weed and matching colors as accurately and literally as possible.  It would have been much better to paint the greens as areas of broken color rather than tons and tons of vertical strokes.  And I should have done better in selecting and painting my lights and darks - the reflected light on the water, for example, should be much brighter than it is.  But that's the way I saw it at the time, so that's what I put down.  And so you see what I mean between Peggy's suggesting and my defining.  

 I saw that Peggy teaches workshops occasionally.  I'm going to try to take one.  You, meanwhile, should go to her website and take a look.  Or, better, go to Blue Spiral or one of her other galleries and see them in person.  They're so much better in real life.

The other artist that made an impression on me was Tamie Beldue.  Tamie teaches drawing at UNC Asheville.  She came long after I'd already graduated, but I've talked with her a time or two.  Blue Spiral is currently featuring a number of large mixed-media drawings, mostly graphite with watercolor, pastel, and encaustic.  Here's one that's typical:

Portrait on a Porch Swing
Graphite, watercolor, and encaustic, 52"x35"
Artist: Tamie Beldue

What I liked about Tamie's work, besides the fact that she can really draw, is her use of soft and lost edges.  She uses sharp edges, strong value contrasts, and colors to draw the eye, with reduced contrasts, soft and lost edges, and muted colors (if used) to suggest the structures in other areas of the work.  In this example, the young woman's eyes are the darkest and sharpest part of the work and are the primary focus.  The secondary focus is on the junction of the hands, and here the values and sharpness are almost, but not quite, as pronounced as around the eyes.  The shirt is depicted to some extent, enough to indicate what she's wearing, but as your eye moves away from her eyes, there's less and less detail, to the point where in some places there's pretty much nothing.  If you don't think it works, imagine this drawing with all the details of the shirt, bench, jeans, and wall included.  It doesn't work, does it?  But how many artists do you know that would include all that stuff?  Most, I imagine.

Like Peggy, Tamie is very good at establishing an emotional connection in her work.  Her figures are real people.  The process of drawing them from life is long, meaning that quiet will necessarily be an important part of the image.  Tamie manages to find the quiet part of her subject's personality and capture that in the image.  I can appreciate that.  In my own figurative drawings, I try to get something of the subject's personality on paper.  I draw in a much more rapid and sketchy manner than Tamie, and that works for me.  But one thing I can take from Tamie and try to apply in my own work is a greater use of soft and lost edges.

So.  Blue Spiral has a good show up right now.  Go see Peggy and Tamie's work.  If you can't make it, at least go online to the Blue Spiral website, or to those of Peggy and Tamie.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Demsteader Follow-Up

In my last post, I wrote about Mark Demsteader and his approach to drawing and painting the figure.  I thought I'd try it out.  So I picked out a drawing from an old session with a model to copy and compare, and gave it a go.  Here's the result:

Both drawings are on the same paper (a light cream Mi-Teintes) and are done with vine charcoal.  The one on the left is descriptive and tentative.  The one on the right is bold and expressive.  I'm not Demsteader, so my drawings are clearly not his.

Oddly enough, I don't know that I could do something like the one on the right in one of our normal life drawing sessions.  When I'm working from the model, it's an exploratory session, a "get to know you" time.  I'm trying to get the model's physical appearance as well as personality captured on paper.  It is, by definition, tentative.  How is her head shaped?  Where do the shadows fall?  Is she strong-willed, bubbly, bored?  How does that show in her face and posture?  This particular model is a confident young woman and I think it comes through in the drawing.

There's nothing tentative about the approach on the right.  The marks are slammed in with confidence.  It's more of an expressive, "I know what I'm doing" approach.  It says more about the artist than the model.  I might be able to do something like this from life if I know the model well and have done enough drawings to know what I want to put the focus on.

Demsteader doesn't do most of his drawings from life.  He works from photos.  I noted that in the articles about him and now I understand it.  When working from photos, there's a greater distance between artist and model.  Rather than working with a living, breathing human being, you're working with an image.  It's easier to be expressive with an image when you're not thinking about the impression that the human presence has.

I noticed that my original drawing, as tentative as it is, has a lot of Kelly's personality.  The new drawing does not.  I can look at it and see that it was not drawn from life.  This figure is a more generic "young woman" and not "Kelly".  For some artists, that's the way they work.  The figures they draw and paint are actors to be manipulated to express whatever the artist wants to express.  For me, it's important that the figures that I draw and paint are specific individuals.  It's more about what I see in them than it is about how I'm using them to express something else.

So what's the bottom line?  I think I have a new tool in my artist toolbox: a different, more bold and dynamic way to draw the figure.  But I need to learn more about how to use it from life and to say something about the individual I'm working with.  It's a challenge.  Sounds like fun!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Looking at Artists: Mark Demsteader

This morning, one of my contacts on Facebook posted a painting by Mark Demsteader.  It's a really stunning image of a woman in a blue dress.  The woman's figure is painted minimally and fairly realistically, but the dress is really a pile of paint.  It's at least two layers, probably more, of thick impasto, dragged across the canvas from a painting knife.  The juxtaposition of the smooth figure and roughly-painted dress is beautiful.

Erin in Blue
Oil on canvas, 52"x39"
Artist: Mark Demsteader

So I found Mark's web page and had a look.  I was really impressed by the work.  Mark's drawings and paintings are beautiful.  Most of them feature a young woman in a thin dress.  They are in a strong, direct light that throws heavy shadows across their faces.  Often their eyes are completely, or almost completely, in shadow, giving them a very mysterious air.  Mark almost always focuses on the head and a very limited bit of the body - maybe just the neck or shoulders, while the rest of the figure is indicated only in very rough strokes.

You might call his approach formulaic.  Usually, when all the works from an artist are done the same way, I get bored after about the third one.  I don't get bored with Demsteader's.  They're too good.

Back in 2011, Demsteader did a series of artworks with Emma Watson (the actress from the Harry Potter movies) as the subject.  It was a collaboration, and an interesting one.  You can read about it, and see some of the images from the series, in this Vogue (UK) article.  Watson contacted Demsteader about doing an artwork of her, then Demsteader came up with the idea of doing many artworks and auctioning them off to benefit the charity of her choice.  What a wonderful thing for both of them to do.

Demsteader works in a way that I can relate to.  The model doesn't need much in the way of makeup or nice outfits.  He sets up a single large light to create strong lights and darks and then simplifies the features and clothing.  Here's an example of one of his drawings:

Study for Siren
Pastel and collage, 46"x32"
Artist: Mark Demsteader

Fantastic, isn't it?  I see a lot of things that I want to try.  First, simplify, simplify, simplify.  I tend to get caught up in getting everything recorded as accurately as possible.  That's descriptive, not expressive.  Focus on the important bits (usually the head and face), let things further away be just roughly indicated, and exaggerate value changes.  Mark's values here are black, paper white, and a medium gray.  That's three values.  When I draw, I often try to do too many.  Simplify!

Second, keep the drawing accurate.  I do that already, as much as I can, but need to focus on it.  The young lady's face in the drawing above is extremely accurate, which lets the mark-making be more expressive.  Her shoulder and arm are reduced to just the very basic contour lines, but they work because they're in exactly the right place.  The fact that they're stripped-down only emphasize the expressiveness of the marks around the face, and they work because the face is accurately drawn.  It all has to work together.

Third, in a painting, try the concept of a carefully-rendered figure with an outfit indicated by roughly scumbled paint, from a painting knife if possible.  I'm not going to try to create more "Mark Demsteader" paintings, but just want to see what I can learn out of this exercise.  (Come to think of it, I have some abandoned figure paintings in the studio already (what artist doesn't?) and can try this when I get to the studio tomorrow.

I found an interesting series of photos of one of Mark's demos of a portrait drawing.  It's really interesting to see how he develops the figure.  He doesn't just put a mark down and leave it - he builds on it through multiple layers.  Take a look - you can save the photo and enlarge it on your computer screen if you want.  You'll have to figure out for yourself what he's doing at each stage since there was no narrative to accompany it.

So I'm adding Mark Demsteader to my personal list of really cool artists.  If you like what you've seen here, then visit his site, or Google his name and look at all the images.  There's a ton of stuff online and I was really blown away by it.  I really love finding a great artist that I've never heard of before!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Still Alice

Last night, we watched the movie Still Alice.  In this movie, Julianne Moore is Dr. Alice Howland, a highly respected professor at Columbia who comes down with early-onset Alzheimer's at age 50.  Particularly for someone to whom the intellect is everything, this disease is brutal, as it slowly takes away the memories that defined their capabilities.  The film follows the disease's progression as, step by step, one thing after another is taken away from her.  And it examines, to some extent, the impact of the disease on family members.  Alec Baldwin is her husband, who is supportive but also has to watch out for his own career, since he is now the sole breadwinner.  Her children, played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristin Stewart, have to figure out their own roles in their mother's life, as well as her changing role in theirs.

Julianne Moore won an Academy Award for her role, and it was well deserved.  She really became Alice Howland.  Her gradual transformation from a leading expert in linguistics to somebody who had nothing but a vague idea of who she was, was powerful, unsettling, and not pretty.  A really tremendous performance.

For many of us, the fear of getting Alzheimer's, or something like it, is a reality, especially as we grow older.  Both of my grandmothers, one of my aunts, and my mother-in-law had dementia.  Whether they had Alzheimer's or something else, I don't know, but it doesn't really matter.  It was frightening: they could very easily get out of the house one day and disappear.  It happens all the time - we see Amber Alerts nearly every week here in western North Carolina for just that sort of thing.  Or they could run up tens of thousands of dollars of in bills if an unscrupulous salesperson hits them at the wrong time (something like this happened with my aunt).  If not that, then the bills for adequate care can bankrupt a family.  In the movie, Moore and her husband were pretty affluent and had good insurance, so the story could focus on the disease and its impact.  Money was a concern but not a driving factor.  For most of us, being able to pay for adequate care will be critical concerns.

I've left the age of 60 in the rear-view mirror and the prospect of dementia is now a constant low-level bogeyman.  I'm more forgetful now, but it seems (so far) to be just normal.  Fortunately, the men in my family have all retained their mental facilities to the end.  That's good news for me, but I'm only one half of my household.

Young people watch horror movies for a gratuitous scare.  Still Alice is a horror story for older folks, with the added twist of being a real threat.  Still, it was worth watching.  There is life with Alzheimer's.  You just appreciate it a lot more.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

To The Beach

My wife is a San Diego girl.  She grew up with the beaches not far away.  Well, here in the Asheville area, the beaches are very far away.  So to keep the peace, every now and then we head off to someplace that's on the ocean.  We went to St. Augustine, Florida, last fall and really liked it.  So we decided to return to the same little beach house.  And we invited the son, daughter-in-law, and grandson to share the experience.  

Lots of heat.  Family in close quarters.  Sounds like a recipe for a nuclear explosion, doesn't it?

Actually, we all had a lot of fun.  We were together when we wanted to be, we wandered off on our lonesome when we wanted (except the grandson), we ate too well, got too much sun, rode bikes, went shopping, did some sight-seeing, and generally had a good time.  Vacations are supposed to be like that, and this one was.

It almost didn't turn out that way.  The day before we were to leave, our car got a flat tire.  I was out running errands and came out to find the right rear corner sagging to the ground.  Fortunately, we were taking the truck to the beach, rather than the car, so it wasn't a calamity, just a real PITA that I didn't need at the moment.  I changed the wheel right there in the grocery store parking lot and went home to load up the truck.

Then, while getting stuff packed in, the garage door somehow got activated and caught on the truck, then automatically reversed, there was this horrible screech, and the garage door was jammed up and wrenched crooked.  Oh, great!  Something was obviously destroyed in a very expensive way.  So out came the toolbox.  Pretty soon I found that nothing was broken, but that one of the cables supporting the door had come off the pulley.  So with a bit of pulling and prodding, along with a massive dose of cussing, we eventually got the wire back where it was supposed to be.  Whew - disaster averted!

We were afraid that we were having bad karma and that it might carry over to the trip.  Fortunately, it didn't.  The drive to St. Augustine is long (almost 9 hours, with stops every couple of hours to stretch our legs).  We had no trouble going down or coming home.  Our truck ran like a train all day.  Good stuff.  

I was able to go off and do some painting in St. Augustine.  The most interesting places for me were over on the Matanzas River, which is the inland waterway.  Here are three from that area:

Butler Beach Inlet
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12" 

Fort Matanzas
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12" 

Oil on linen panel, 9"x12" 

These were fun little landscapes to do.  I started a portrait of my daughter in law as well.  It needs a lot of work in the studio before anybody will ever see it again, though.

We've been back for a few days and are playing catch-up.  Had to get a new tire for the car, mowed most of the lawn (amazing how weeds can grow so tall with no rain), J has gotten a lot of weeding done, I'm finding out what happened with work, had to replace the lenses in my glasses, gave the dogs their baths, had to take two watches to the repair shop ... you know, the usual stuff.  Getting back to normal.  Gotta get into the studio here pretty soon, though - there are things that need to get painted.