Sunday, June 26, 2016

Scottishisms

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

Commission

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. 

Monday, June 06, 2016

New Artworks

I've continued to develop some new figurative works in my charcoal and pastel series.  There's still a lot to learn, particularly about how much to develop the figure, knowing when to stop, and how much is just enough without being too much.  Most of my paintings fall into the "too much" category, so the more I can learn about when to stop, the better.  In my last few posts, I haven't shown you very many of these works.  Time to do a little catch-up.

Amy #11
Amy has a beautiful back and you can tell that I spent a lot of time developing it in this artwork.  I may have taken it a bit too far, but so what?  I was able to restrain myself with the rest, though - notice that the skirt and (especially) the feet are only roughly indicated, which keeps the focus on her back.

Amy #14
I really focused on stopping early here!  Amy's face and shoulders are developed, but beyond that, almost nothing.  This is one of my favorites of her.

Jennifer #4
Jennifer is a lovely woman with very sharp features.  She has modeled for our life drawing group as a portrait subject several times over the years and is always fun to have in the studio.   In this piece, her pose gives her body a natural, compact shape that anchors the sharp focus on her face.

Jennifer #5
All the previous images in this series were done on light paper, usually with a warm tone.  I thought I'd try doing some on dark paper.  My first few tries wound up in the trash can, but this one came together pretty well. I really like the pose and the glow on her face and shoulders.

Troy #5
This one captures Troy's personality.  Think Robin Williams meets George Carlin, and that's what Troy's like in front of the camera.  Again, I kept things to a minimum, focusing on his face and hands.  Everything else just plays a supporting role.

Karen
Karen is the wife of an old friend of mine and I was really honored when he asked me to do her portrait.  This was a challenge, as he provided me with a bunch of snapshots to work from.  While they were great snapshots, they were extremely hard to use as source material.  The lighting, poses, environments, and clothing were very different in each one.  I used all of them to create a natural-looking pose with believable lighting and clothing.  Not easy.  For anybody thinking of asking me to do something similar from your snapshots, the answer is NO!  I love doing portraits, but I need to control the entire process!



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Insight Into Making Better Art

My long-time readers (all two of you) know that I've been working on a new series of artworks.  They were inspired by the figure drawings and paintings of Mark Demsteader.  To recap, Mark's figure drawings are really powerful, with very high value contrasts (meaning that almost everything is really light or really dark).  He focused on one small area, usually the face, and the further away from the focus area things were, the more simply they were rendered, until they were just contour lines.  The effect was to make the drawings very dramatic and the figures mysterious.  In his paintings, Mark brought very subdued detail to the faces, but the clothing was abstracted piles of bright impasto.  It's a different way of achieving a related effect.  Here's one of his drawings so you can see what I mean:


I took this concept and played with it, trying to see what I could learn from Demsteader and apply to my own work.  One of the things I discovered was that leaving lots of spaces unfinished was very hard for me to do.  I always want to clearly depict much more, so reining things in early is difficult.  When I do it, though, it usually works well.  While I could get decent black and white drawings, there seemed to be something missing.  So I tried adding just a touch of pastel color.  Boom!  That did the trick.  I've continued doing these drawings and have learned that putting too much pastel on there is as bad as putting too much detail into the drawings.  Restraint is the key, along with the appropriate level of accuracy in the drawings.  Here's one of my works:


The only color here is in Troy's head, shoulder, and a little bit of the arm.  Everything else is either blank or black charcoal.  This kind of thing really intrigues me: how to get something dramatic, strong, composed, and restrained.

I recently stumbled across a young Swedish painter named Nick Alm.  He's a phenomenal painter.  While many of his paintings are complex interactions of multiple figures, he greatly simplifies things, much more than you would think at first look.  Here's one of his paintings:


Look at how he focuses attention where he wants it and your eye fills in the rest.  The woman in white is the key figure.  Her dress and the tablecloth form one shape that's the brightest in the painting.  Her black hair contrasts with her light skin and the light background, calling attention to her face.  The two subordinate figures are both medium values that blend into the surroundings.  Neither has much to call attention to them: little color, little value contrasts, few details.  Now look at the background.  It's just the canvas tone: raw sienna slammed onto the canvas.  You don't get much more basic than that.  And the shadows along the bottom of the painting?  It's one shape, little more than a black brushed loosely over the canvas tone.  Alm's approach is related to Demsteader's: use detail, color, and value contrasts to focus attention where you want it, while simplifying the rest to as little as possible.

I have a lot to learn from these guys.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to an interview with the painter Quang Ho.  He's an American of Vietnamese origin, and is another phenomenal painter, as well as a teacher.  In this interview, he discussed a new technique he was using.  Basically, he was painting in black and white, then when it dried, he was putting color over it.  Now that's a very traditional approach, but Quang was talking about making the drawing simpler, with only two values (black and white) or three (black, white, and a middle value).  Once that dried, he said that it only needs a little bit of color to really make it pop.  That sounds like my approach with the charcoal and pastel figure drawings, doesn't it?  

So it has been an interesting few days.  It's like the universe is pounding on my head, saying NOTICE THIS!!  I've been working on a new approach, and suddenly the lessons from that are reinforced by very different and fantastic artists.  Okay, I'm listening ...

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Passwords

The world woke up the other day to the news that hundreds of millions of Yahoo, Google, and other widely-used systems had been hacked, and user names and passwords were posted on the Dark Net.  Since I have several email accounts that use Yahoo and Gmail, it meant changing passwords.  Now, the companies that market computer services are always very cheerful and glib about things like this.  "Change your password often!  It's easy and fun!  It makes you sexually attractive!"

Except, of course, that reality is quite a bit different.  First, you have to come up with a new password.  Security geeks will tell you that the longer, the better, and you should have a mixture of capitals, lower-case, numbers, and special symbols.  And you should never use the same password for more than one account.  And it shouldn't have words, birth years, names of your pets, or other easy-to-remember things.  And some sites require passwords of a certain length.  And you should never ever write them down.

Who the hell are they kidding?

Okay, so first I sat down and created a list of potential passwords.  I used a common trick of coming up with an 8-15 word sentence and then using the last letter of each word in the password.  Some of the letters are turned into numbers or special symbols - an S might become a 5, for example - and special symbols are sprinkled in here and there.  This gives me a password that might look like this: Co6^gD@md4#.  And then I (gasp) WROTE THEM DOWN because my memory is for shit.

Then I started logging into my accounts and changing the passwords.  That part wasn't too difficult.  It meant looking up the old password in my 3-ring paper binder (not connected to the interwebs, so try hacking that, Anonymous), changing the password, making sure it worked, and changing the password in the binder.  Then I had to go into all my computers (3), iPhones, and iPads to update the passwords there as well.  Very time-consuming and it took hours to go through them all.

The tricky part came with the emails associated with my two websites - one for my art, the other for my consulting business.  Spammers have long since found my email addresses on those sites and I get literally hundreds of invitations a day to enhance my manhood, refinance my house, meet dozens of beautiful women who are dying to have sex with me, or earn a tidy commission for handling million-dollar inheritances for kindly widows in Nigeria.  My web host is incapable of screening them out.  Instead, I use Gmail to retrieve the messages, and Gmail has been exceptionally effective at doing that.  The problem is, for some reason Gmail and my web host do not play well together.  Oh, they say they do, but not at my level.  The issue lies with my web host.  They are not really focused on small fry like me, they're designed for companies that have dedicated and trained system administrators that can understand words like "domain" and "DNS settings".  That is not who I am.  So every time I go in there to make changes, I have to plan on a day to re-learn the system, make the changes, then spend a considerable amount of time troubleshooting the reasons that the changes f'd everything up.  After making the changes yesterday, I still haven't gotten everything figured out yet.

I could switch to another web host provider, except that would mean doubling the cost of my web presence and having a lengthy period of trying to transfer sites, reconfigure computers, and suffer through interrupted operations.  So I keep it as is.  I'm a cheap bastard and lazy to boot.

And I'm not looking forward to having to do this again anytime soon.