Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Working from Life

I run a life drawing session in my studio every week.  This is a chance to get with a bunch of other artists, share a model's expenses, and try to learn something new about working from life.  It's a lot of fun.  It's also a challenge.  I try to push myself every week so that I'm not in a rut.  I'll work in oil for a couple of weeks, then switch to charcoal and pastel.  Sometimes I'll focus on a portrait, other times I'll see if I can get the whole figure in.  I don't post all that many of the works anywhere since about half of them wind up being destroyed or painted over.  But sometimes, things click pretty well and I'm happy with what's finally on the paper or canvas.

Last week, we had a lovely young lady working with us.  She is into yoga big-time and has very well-defined muscles.  No, she's not a bodybuilder by any means - just somebody who's muscle and bone structure are very much in harmony.  We started the session with our usual 1-minute poses.  We do this to warm up both the model and the artists and to find a pose that works for both.  One of the poses highlighted the curve and muscles of her back in a striking way.  So that was the pose I chose for the rest of the evening, and here's how it came out:

If this looks like it was an uncomfortable pose to hold, it was.  The poor girl's knees and legs took a beating and we had to take several extra breaks so she could get her circulation back!

I started this with soft vine charcoal on Canson Mi-Teintes light yellow paper.  The charcoal is easily manipulated and lets me block things in, smudge things to get an area of gray, and even erase it easily.  My focus was on her shoulders, upper back, and along the spine.  Once I had a good drawing in place, I hit some areas with compressed charcoal.  This stuff is very black and doesn't lift, so when you put it down, it stays.  The last stage was the pastel.  I kept the colors soft and subtle.  There were lots of interesting colors all over due to the lighting.  My overhead lights are daylight-balanced, so they're a bit blue, while the spotlight is a tungsten bulb and so it's a warm yellow.  Normally, our eyes automatically adjust for color and we usually don't see the effects of different colored lighting, but in the studio, it's very noticeable.  With this figure, the warm light was mostly on her shoulders and upper back, while her hips and legs were picking up a lot of the blue lighting.

So I think it turned out pretty well, particularly for a drawing from life.  I love it when that happens!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Two Paintings and a Workshop

Two paintings and a workshop walk into a bar ...

No, that's not how it goes.  Since the last update here, there have been several things going on in the studio.  And yes, I have pictures this time!

In the last post, I mentioned that I was working on a new sample painting for the live event painting side of the house.  That one is now done, and here it is:

Rick and Julie
Oil on canvas, 24"x30"

This was fun to do, and a bit of a challenge, but in the end I think it came out very well.  It has certainly gotten lots of good words from people who have seen it.

I completed another painting several days after this one.  Long-time readers will know that I've been wrestling with some new (for me) concepts in figure painting.  Mostly, they revolve around the concept of completeness, meaning how complete to make the painting.  I've been working on a series of charcoal and pastel figurative works over the past year that dealt with that concept and those seem to be working pretty well.  Not so with the paintings.  Almost all the paintings in which I've tried that concept have been painted over or otherwise destroyed.  I just have not been able to translate the feeling of the charcoal and pastel works into paint.  My most recent attempt is a bit more successful and I don't mind showing this one:

Amy D #1
Oil on canvas, 24"x18"

It is definitely not where I want to be, but it's further along the path than I've been so far.  What I'm focusing on here is finer brushwork around the face, with increasingly looser brushwork the further you move away.  I'm also very conscious of edges.  The only sharp edge is along the side of the temple and cheekbone, with a slightly softer edge around the shoulder, and considerably softer edges everywhere else ... in some cases, no edges at all.  And I'm looking at value contrasts to help guide the eye.  Here the highest value contrast is in the same place: along the temple and cheekbone.  So the brushwork, edges, and value contrasts are working together to put the focus on her face.  Color isn't playing along, though.  The strongest color is the blue clothing, which draws attention away.  The background is a muted red, but it's still a bit too strong and does nothing to guide the eye.  And, finally the color in the face is the same as the color on her side.  Again, nothing to indicate what's important and what's not.  So I guess I'll have to try another painting and see if I can figure it out.

In addition to doing a couple of artworks, I ran a portrait drawing workshop a week ago.  Had a good turnout for it and they were all a lot of fun.  My focus in this workshop is less on the drawing and much more on seeing.  So we spent the first day talking about shapes of the head and different features, and drawing each other, and then talking about what we were seeing.  The second day, each of the students took a turn as a model while the others drew.  After each, we talked about what features made each individual unique, and how the different drawings were successful (or not) in capturing that.  It was really cool to see everybody develop very rapidly over such a short time.

Coming up, I've got a workshop scheduled for Saturday, March 4, to talk about a logical, easy-to-use approach to mixing color.  Lots of schools don't really teach it.  In my early days, they just wanted me to remember what all the colors would do with each other.  Right.  I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast, and you want me to remember an infinite number of color combinations?  Finally, when I was taking classes at Maryland Institute College of Art, I learned an approach that worked for me.  That's what I'll be teaching at this workshop.  Interested?  You can sign up on my website:

Friday, January 27, 2017

Business Stuff

Launching a new business line takes an unbelievable amount of time.  I started the Asheville Event Paintings service at the first of the year and it seems like everything I've done since then has been related to the business side of that.  I've been tweaking the website, contacting wedding planners, working with the Asheville tourist bureau, checking out networking possibilities, researching firms in the wedding business, getting my brochures and business cards printed, you name it.  Everything except painting.

But I'm working on that.  I've got a new painting going.  It's a sample for what I can do for clients and will be used on the web site, in ads, and other places.  And it eventually will go to the couple who are depicted in the painting.  For now, though, it's coming together pretty quickly.  I got a vision of what it should look like, prepared the canvas, drew the composition lightly in charcoal, and then hit it today with the first layer of paint.  Miracle of miracles, it got a thumbs-up from Janis, my most reliable (and sometimes frustrating) critic.  The process has been pretty cool: everything seems to be flowing easily and naturally without any major glitches.  Something in the back of my mind keeps warning "this can't last!  it's gonna crash!" but so far, the little voice has been wrong.  Keep your fingers crossed!  And no, you can't see a photo of it yet.  Be patient, it'll come.

The encouraging thing has been that the idea, and my sample paintings, have been getting a great reception.  Instead of a bland "mm hmm, nice", I'm hearing "oh, WOW, look at that, it's beautiful!"  Yes, that makes my day.  I'm even hearing this from wedding planners, which is a really good thing.  So please keep your fingers crossed for this, too!

I'm pretty excited about doing these paintings.  I really like creating something that has great meaning to people.  I've done a few commissioned portraits and other pieces that were (still are) very important to those who got them.  Knowing that something I've done will be important to others for decades, if not longer, is very rewarding.  Making paintings of a couple's wedding falls into that category.  They'll forget the band, the photos will wind up in a folder on their computer, but the painting will be on the wall.  Assuming they remain together and have a passel of kids, it stands a good chance of being handed down.  I'm good with that.

So it's back to the marketing and business side of things tonight.  Can't wait to get back into the studio to finish this new painting up!

Monday, January 16, 2017


I haven't been posting any new artworks on my studio Facebook page or anywhere else lately.  The reason?  I've been experimenting.  By definition, many (most) experiments fail, and I don't like to display my failures.  However, it's about time I posted something, and so here's a discussion about what I've been up to.

As you long-time readers know (all 3 of you), I've been looking at Mark Demsteader's figurative work for over a year.  Demsteader has a way of drawing and painting that is really intriguing to me.  He takes what could be a boring pose and turns it into something mysterious and fascinating.  Last year, I looked at his drawings, copied a few, and then found a way to adapt the lessons learned to my own way of working.  That led to the series of charcoal and pastel figures that now number about 40 and are still growing.  For reference, here's one of the most recent:

Emma #7

I really enjoy this approach.  It can say a lot without specifically saying a lot ... if that makes sense ... it makes the viewer fill in a lot of blanks and create their own story, rather than having me provide all the information needed to tell a very specific story that may or may not have any resonance with the viewer.

I should also add that this is my own work using lessons learned from Demsteader.  It is not the work of a Demsteader wanna-be.  His style is very intriguing to me, but I'm not him, and he doesn't do this style of artwork.  So I learned something of the approach from him, adapted it to my own needs, and have been playing with it ever since.

What has not worked so far, however, is adapting this approach in paint.  Almost every one of my attempts has been a complete failure.  One reason, I think, is that the charcoal/pastel approach requires only a few marks on the surface of the paper, and the fact that most of the paper is blank is an important part of the piece's concept.  Since nothing is there, it redirects your attention to the figure while providing a quiet background for the figure to work against.  Painting is different: it requires that every inch of the surface be marked in some way.  Even when the background is essentially a flat color, it's still a mark, meaning that the artist has addressed that area like he's addressed the figure.  So there's a conceptual difference between the two mediums.

Another difference is that, in the charcoal/pastel works, the color is limited to a relatively small area.  Areas of lesser focus (the lower arms and legs in Emma #7 above, for example) are only depicted in charcoal, with no color, and are a bit looser/rougher in execution.  So the difference between finished and unfinished areas is something that helps focus attention while providing a bit of tension within the work.  I haven't been able to do that in paint.  My "finish it all" instinct kicks in and I take it too far.  Here's an example:

Amy #10

This might illustrate what I've been struggling with.  As you can see, every square inch of the artwork has to be addressed, even if there's nothing really there.  Compare the background here to the background of Emma #7.  And, as you can see, the legs are just as defined as the face.  There's less differentiation between the head/face and the rest of the figure, as well as the background, so the eye just wanders around with no clear focus.  I considered this one a failure and it's now been painted over.

So, to try to understand Demsteader's approach to these figure paintings, and to reverse-engineer his process to see what I could learn from it, I copied one.  Here's one called Shallow Waters:

Beautiful, isn't it?  Lots of depth, a strong melancholy mood, mysterious figure, great composition of abstract shapes.  So here's my copy:

Yeah, it looks like crap next to his.  Still, it was a good learning experience.  Here's what I noted:
- Getting those effects requires many many layers of paint.  You can't do it all in one go, like you can with the charcoal and pastel pieces.
- The background is almost purely black, versus light backgrounds in his (and my) charcoal drawings.  There's just enough color to give it some depth.
- The figure itself is just a 3-value depiction: highlighted areas (cheekbone, forehead, nose, above the upper lip), mid-values (arm, shoulder, back), and shadowed areas (suggested, not depicted).  The highlighted areas help focus attention on the face.
- Almost all edges are soft.  The only somewhat hard edges are the cheekbone, nose, edge of upper lip, and the top of the shoulder, all of which help focus attention towards the face.  All other edges are very soft, which tell the viewer "don't focus here".
- The dress is an abstract shape and color that suggests rather than depicts.  It's just paint scumbled over darker layers underneath, with rough/soft edges with no definition.  Even though it has the strongest color in the painting, it is not the focus - its color plays a supporting role to the face.

One other thing is that the eyes in Demsteader's figures are almost always in heavy shadow.  This really gives the figures an air of mystery and pulls the viewer in.

So where do I go from here?  I'll continue to experiment with this approach.  Something is going to click soon and I'll have a new way of painting in my toolbox that will be my adaptation of this technique.  

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Asheville Event Paintings

Logan and Jen

I'm offering a new service: live paintings of special events, like weddings, mitzvahs, quinceaneras, and other important milestones in life.  I'm a people painter, and I like to see my artworks go to people who will most appreciate them.  Generally, this means going to the people who are actually depicted in the image.  This new service will do that.

It all started last summer.  I got a call from somebody who asked if I could paint her sister's wedding.  I said "sure, of course!" and then scrambled to find out exactly what that entailed.  Turns out, having a live wedding painter is A Big Thing nowadays.  It's been trending for the past five or six years.  Do a google search on "wedding paintings" and see what pops up.  Since I don't go to very many weddings these days, I had no idea.  As it turned out, this particular gig didn't come through, but the seed was planted.

I wondered if I'd really be interested in doing something like this, so I dug out some of my photos from my cousin's wedding a few years ago and did a trial painting.  "Logan and Jen", above, is the result.  I gave it to them and it's now framed and hanging in their bedroom.  They love it.  That really made my day.

So I put together a plan on how to do this in a professional manner.  The idea is that I will do live painting at the ceremony, reception, or whatever, during the event.  I'll take it back to the studio afterward to smooth it up and ensure the figures are a good likeness and that they have a lot of life.  Then I'll deliver it to the client.  There are other options, too: portraits, giclees, and so on.  All this eventually resulted in the Asheville Event Paintings website that I just launched yesterday.  Go take a look and let me know what you think.  I'm really interested in your feedback!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Putting the New Colors to Work

In my last post, I talked about two new colors for my limited-paletted experiments.  They were Gamblin's Chromatic Black and Naples Yellow Hue.  I suggested that there would be future blog post about using them for caucasian skin tones.  Well, this is that post.

I've been looking at the work of Nick Alm a lot lately.  Nick is a young Swedish figurative painter.  His figures are light-skinned, and getting those light skin tones has driven me bananas.  You can't just add a lot of white to your basic mixtures of cad red, cad yellow, and a touch of a blue, and expect to get a skin tone that doesn't look like chalk.  But if you go easy on the white, you get a darker and stronger color.  What's an artist to do?

Try different colors, for one thing.  And copy Alm's work to try to reverse-engineer his methods.  Same thing you'd do when you're trying to understand any artist's work.

Here's one of Alm's portrait sketches:

Beautiful, isn't it?  I greatly enlarged it on the computer screen so I could get a better idea of some of the colors, strokes, and structure.  I discovered that the black is a very cool color and that there's more green in the skin tones than were immediately apparent.  The figure seemed to be built up from a muted warm green underpainting, with pink lighted areas on top.  The greens remain in some shadowed or darker areas, such as on the neck, around the mouth, and on the forehead.  Nick uses very high value contrasts in his paintings, so most of the colors here are extremely dark or very light, with not much in the way of mid-values.  This helps increase the drama in the picture.

Here's my copy of it:

As you can see, I still didn't come close to his skin tones.  Mine have much more yellow and white.  I used Chromatic Black and Naples Yellow, as mentioned above, and Terra Rosa for my red.  Chromatic Black is actually a dark blue, Naples Yellow is a very muted yellow, and Terra Rosa is a slightly cool muted red.  So I had the ingredients for a good copy but missed it.

I toned the surface (gessoed paper) with a green, like Alm did, but then didn't let that green show through in the final image.  The black worked out very well.  I mixed in a bit of burnt umber in order to try to tie it in with the warmer colors of the face, but in retrospect that wasn't necessary, and Alm sure didn't do it.   I drew the face to place all the features, then did a grisaille (black and white rendition) on top of the green, then laid in the warm skin tones using Flake White, Naples Yellow, and Terra Rosa.  I could see that Alm used little or no yellow, but I just couldn't go that far and my results show it.  

That being said, these skin tones are still pretty good compared to what I have been doing.  I think I need to do another copy to pay more attention to the underpainting and dragging the lighter warms across the cooler darker ground.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

New Colors on the Palette

I don't do a lot of experimentation with new colors.  I have enough trouble trying to understand the ones that are already there and being used.  Recently, though, I tried two new (for me) tubes from Gamblin.  I've been converted: these two add a lot of capability.

The first one is Chromatic Black.  For years, I have rarely used blacks from a tube.  They are color-killers: they're often muddy and they create a dead hole wherever they're heavily used.  Instead, I've mixed my own blacks out of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber.  Now Burnt Umber is really a very dark, muted yellow, so mixing it with Ultramarine Blue produces a dark dull green, but by varying the mixtures, it can go from bluish to brownish, so it's been pretty useful.  One of the problems is that it dries to a lighter and flatter finish and requires a coat of varnish to bring out the depth of the color.

Over the past couple of years, I've been experimenting with limited palettes.  One notable palette was used by Anders Zorn, a Swedish painter, and consisted of ivory black, white, yellow ochre, and cadmium red medium.  Occasionally he added other colors, but those four were his mainstays.  This worked because he had one yellow (yellow ochre), one red (cadmium red medium), one blue (ivory black), and white.  Yes, most blacks are really dark blues - if you don't think so, then mix them with yellow.  You'll get green, almost every time.

The problem with ivory black, though, is that it's made of a carbon base of ground and burned bone.  This is what makes it muddy, and that muddiness is why I rarely used it.

Gamblin has brought out a new color: Chromatic Black.  Rather than using some sort of carbon base, it's made from blending two dark colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel.  Since they're almost exactly opposite, they largely cancel each other's color tendencies out and leave a very dark and muted "black".  The two colors are Phthalo Emerald and Quinacridone Red.  Both are synthetic colors and have a purity to them that earth and carbon colors don't.  The result is a black that doesn't suck the life out of the painting.

What's really interesting is that it is actually a dark blue.  Yes, red and green can sometimes make blue.  Mixing white with the Chromatic Black gives a clear but muted blue, quite different from the muddy blue you get from mixing white with ivory black.

So.  Chromatic Black is a pretty cool color.

The other new one is Gamblin's Naples Yellow Hue.  Naples Yellow is an old color dating back to the 1600's, but is rarely used now because it's lead-based and very toxic.  It's been replaced by a variety of other mixtures and varies greatly between manufacturers.  I'd always considered it just a convenience mixture of white plus cadmium yellow, and since I already had both, why buy a tube?  But in a recent life painting session, one of the other artists had Naples Yellow on her palette and I was intrigued.  So I got a tube and tried it out.

Turns out, it's working very well for me in the skin tones.  Gamblin's version is made with zinc white and cadmium yellow.  So it's a muted yellow with a rich texture and surprising depth.  It has given me some beautiful muted greens that are clear, quiet, and useful, with no muddiness.  Mixing the Naples Yellow with Chromatic Black gives a particularly nice green.  It's also good for pale caucasian skin tones.  I'll go into that in another post soon.

Some of you may have been using Chromatic Black and/or Naples Yellow for years and know this stuff already.  Bear with me: I'm still learning, and these two colors are going to be affecting how I paint figures from here on out.