Friday, November 13, 2020

A Work In Progress

 Just because I haven't posted any new work of my own in a while doesn't mean I haven't been busy.  As noted in previous posts, I'm doing a lot of experimenting.  That means a lot of experiments fail and wind up in the trash.  But I'm learning a lot, even from the fails (maybe especially from the fails) and trying to build on that.

At some point, though, you have to stop experimenting and produce something.  I do, anyway.  So there are two paintings underway in the studio right now.  They're very different, which is kinda the way I work.  One painting is a riff on the artist and model.  There's nothing deep or complex there, but I'm trying to apply some lessons learned about putting paint on canvas.  That painting went sideways pretty quickly: I tried too many different new ideas, they collided, and I was about ready to slash it with a knife.  So I covered up a lot of problem areas with white paint and it's actually much more interesting now.  Once the paint dries (white paint takes forEVER to dry), I'll get back to work on it.  Maybe you'll see it here someday.

The other painting is much more complex.  It's part of my series on what could happen if we keep going the way we're going - a cautionary tale, sorta.  It's a wedding, only not like any wedding you've ever seen.  That's all I'll say about the painting's subject for now.  Instead, I'll talk about the process of putting it together.  

I'm using a wedding theme because I've done a lot of wedding paintings for clients and have a ton of reference photos.  I've had a strong idea of what I wanted the painting to say, so I did some very rough sketches to get an idea of the basic composition, including the light/dark areas, the initial focus, and what would be needed to flesh out the story.  Then I went through my stash of images, pulling out one person from this event, another person from that one, a key item from an entirely unrelated photo shoot, and so on.  Then more rough sketches to work through ideas.  I'm pretty crappy at using Photoshop, but eventually I put all these different items into one image.  Then I did a test painting, essentially a sketch in oil paint, and found some things that worked and others that didn't.  More refinement: throw out earlier ideas, bring in new ones, make more sketches.  

One question that I know is going to pop up is, if you're using Photoshop, why make sketches?  Well, because the Photoshop construction doesn't tell you much.  By doing sketches, you see the subtleties of shape, form, light, dark, and subject matter, and you get to understand the total image, and all of its parts, much better.  

I also use sketches in an old-school pre-Photoshop way.  I draw the environment on a large sheet of paper, then cut out the sketches of people and other items from my sketchbook and tape them down on the large sheet.  Then I move them around, put new things in, take other things out and refine the composition.  Should this figure be larger?  What about perspective?  Huh, now I see a line that runs from this woman's arm through that item over there - how to use that?  Should I play up this man's face, or play it down?  I want a particular effect of light here, so how do I get it?  Those are the types of things going through my head.

So, right now, I have worked out the composition for this painting.  I have the environment drawn on the large sheet, refined the drawings of the figures as much as they needed, and have them taped down in exactly the right positions.  Then I laid a sheet of tracing paper on top and drew a grid on it.  It's in the same relative dimension as the canvas is.  That's what you're seeing in the photo.  I'll draw a similar grid on the canvas, then use light charcoal to copy the composition onto the canvas.  And then I'll start painting.  

So that's where we are now.  Obviously, I still have a loooonnnggg way to go, maybe a month or two or three.  And maybe it'll get trashed.  But hey, that's life, huh?

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Book Reports

 No, I'm not going to talk about the recent election and unfinished election business.  Too much has been written already.  Instead, I'm going to talk about two books that I just read.  Both are about the Civil War period, and both are very applicable to the country today.

The first is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  This is a long (750 pages text plus another 130 in tiny-font references) biography of Abraham Lincoln.  It covers his whole life, with particular attention to his candidacy for President and his handling of the office during the worst of the Civil War.  While we're often told that Lincoln was one of the two greatest Presidents ever, we aren't told that much about what he did.  We read the Emancipation Proclamation, his Gettysburg Address, maybe his second Inaugural Address, and then he was assassinated.  Goodwin goes into tremendous detail about the divisions of the 1850's and who Lincoln was.  He was extremely honest, especially for a politician.  He had an unmatched feeling for what the people of the country were feeling, what they would accept, how far he could or could not push things, and when to make a move.  He was against slavery, but even more, he was for holding the country together.  He knew how to take complex ideas and put them into the language that regular people could understand.  He cared incredibly deeply.  And he was a genius at keeping his Cabinet, his "team of rivals", together.  Many of them had actively run for President and been defeated by Lincoln, and some were actively angling to replace him.  And many of them were at each other's throats.  Yet Lincoln saw the value that they could bring to the country.  He was able to assuage their egos enough to keep them in their jobs and working together.  It was a truly masterful performance.

Compare that situation to today, where our country is again deeply divided.  We're not on the cusp of another civil war, but we need a President to bring us back together.  Instead, we have the most selfish, ego-driven, irrational, and dishonest President ever.  Instead of bringing us together, he's driving us apart for personal political and monetary gain.  He's the anti-Lincoln.  It will take several successors many years to undo the damage inflicted in the past four years, on top of the damage inflicted by partisan press in the decades before.  Do we have a leader of the caliber of Lincoln?  Anywhere?  I don't see it.  But I'll certainly give the Biden/Harris team a chance.

The other book is And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane.  This is an historical novel based on  events that took place right here in Madison County, North Carolina, in January 1863.  Madison County was split between Unionists and Secessionists.  Many of the Unionists lived in a remote area called Shelton Laurel, while the Secessionists lived in the county seat of Marshall.  After North Carolina seceded, the two sides ratcheted up tensions and attacks, culminating in what is known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which a local Confederate force murdered 13 men and boys.  The book follows five people on both sides of the divide.  Four were based on real people while one was created to tie the narrative together.  Ms. Lane's people speak in the way they would have at the time, whether they were uneducated farmers from the valleys or educated people from town.  She shows how the same event is seen from polar opposite viewpoints, how resentments can fester, how some people can rise above the situation and others fall to their basest instincts.  It's incredibly well-written. 

This book resonated with me for two reasons.  One, it's absolutely applicable to today, when we're so divided and unwilling to reach across to those who believe differently.  Are those on the other side absolutely wrong in their beliefs?  No, they're not.  But we behave as if they are, and if we follow those beliefs to their conclusion, the consequences will be terrible.  A second reason is that some of my great-great-grandparents lived in McNairy County, Tennessee, before, during, and after the Civil War.  McNairy County, like Madison County, was deeply divided.  My family members were very poor farmers on the Confederate side, living on farms outside a small town.  A wealthy Unionist landowner in the town raised a militia that committed a number of atrocities against Confederate sympathizers.  These acts, like the Shelton Laurel Massacre, were so out of bounds that they were condemned by both the Union and Confederate sides.  So this book brings to life the type of situation that my ancestors had to live.

So: here are two books that I strongly recommend.  They're pretty heavin reading.  I think I'm going to pick up a murder mystery next just so I can relax.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Another Pet Portrait

 Last time, I showed you a small painting I did of Soozzee one of our two little Shih Tzus, who passed away about a year and a half ago.  I just did one of her sister, Indy, who passed away just under three years ago.  Both paintings are 16"x12".  

It turned out pretty well, I think.  We'll let these two paintings dry for a bit, then I'll varnish them both and get some frames, and they'll hang here in the house somewhere.  It'll be nice to have portraits of our two daughters always with us.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Pet Portraits

 Say "pet portraits" and I roll my eyes.  Let's just say that I've never had much respect for artworks of animals in general.  Why paint lions or tigers?  About all the dogs and cats I'd seen were over-sentimentalized.  And most of the works have about as much life in them as a doorknob.  So when I stumbled across the work of Jennifer Gennari (on Instagram: @jen_art), it was a surprise.  Here was somebody who took a classical painting approach to her subjects and really made them alive.  These aren't "pet portraits", they're portraits of individuals who happen to be dogs or cats, and they have tremendous personality.  Here's a sample:


This is a beautiful painting.  The brushwork is lively and loose, but accurate.  The colors have variety.  The dog has personality.  It's well done in every respect.  And as the former daddy to two Shih Tzus, this particular painting resonated with me for both style and subject. 

As I discussed in a previous post, I'd just done a painting in the style of another artist.  One of the things that I learned was that I didn't want to work in that particular tight style.  Jennifer's painting was much more in the way that I'd rather work.  So rather than copy her painting, I thought I'd try her approach using my own reference photos.  And here's what the result was:

That's my little Soozzee, who passed away about a year and a half ago.  I still miss her, along with her sister who's been gone for almost three years.  (Guess what my next painting will be ...)

So what did I learn here?  A portrait is a portrait, regardless of the subject.  A painting is either good, or it's not, again regardless of the subject.  I really like working in a loose, wet-into-wet manner, where the brushstrokes, corrections, mistakes, and process are visible.  And doing an artwork of a critter can be rewarding.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Looking at Artists: Use of Color

 Scrolling through my Instagram feed today, I came across a post by Teresa Oaxaca.  It's a series of 3 detail shots of a face in one of her new paintings.  Here's the image that I keyed in on:

I have been focusing a lot of my attention on mixing and using rich but subdued colors.  Teresa's not that way at all: she uses rich, saturated colors.  For 99% of artists who try that approach, it results in gaudy messes.  Not for Teresa.  Her colors are vibrant and lively, everywhere.

And it's that "everywhere" that drew my attention.  Let's zoom in even more:


Do the blues jump out at you?  They should.  Look along the line between the lighted and the shadowed areas.  This area is called the intermediate zone, transition zone, and a variety of other names.  It's often darker than the shadowed area, which gets reflected light, and it's usually a bit cooler in color temperature.  Here, Teresa doesn't really make it darker.  And she doesn't just make it cooler, either.  She changes the color to a very definite blue.  Look at the lines along the cheek, just above and below the eyebrow, and along the underside of the nose: blue lines!  Now when I've done those areas, I mix some blue into the color, but it's really just been a muted cool dark, and my attention has been more on the warmer reflected light in the shadow zone.  Now I'm going to try some very definite blues for the transition zones.

And the eyes!  Look at that intense dark blue.  It's just as dark as the rest of the eye (which is disturbingly red over to the shadowed side), but the blue just reaches out and smacks you.  That's confidence in your colors.

There are subtle color shifts all over.  The skin color bounces back and forth between a cool red (alizarin with white?) and muted yellow (Indian yellow?).  They're laid next to each other, rather than mixed together, so your eye puts them together to say "flesh color".  

Great stuff.  More things for me to experiment with in the studio!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Studio Experimenting

For the past week or so, I've been experimenting with a different approach and painting technique in the studio.  One of the artists that has caught my eye is Jeremy Lipking.  His paintings have a very quiet feeling to them.  Mine generally do, too, so I wanted to see what I could learn of his approach that might  come over to mine.  

I chose two of Lipking's paintings as inspiration: Canoe and Sagebrush.  

There were lots of things that played into the feeling in both paintings:

- A solitary figure.  Most of his figures are looking away.  This anonymizes them to an extent and the viewers can imagine themselves in the painting's environment. 

- Lots of flat areas of color: the lake in Canoe and the sky in Sagebrush, for example.

- Very sharp edges - the canoe especially, but the blanket and ridgetop in Sagebrush are sharper than they look.

- Use of value contrasts to focus attention.  The figure in the canoe is almost not noticed at first, but the dark canoe against the brilliant light, especially with the sharp edges (even in the reflections) demands your attention.  In Sagebrush, the high value contrast between the light sky and dark head draws your eye immediately.  

- Use of light and dark shapes as compositional elements.  In Canoe, there are essentially two shapes: light and dark, in a horizontal arrangement.  Sagebrush has a wider range of values, but it's basically a T-shape composition, with the blanket against the darker sage, the brilliant red mountain in the distance, and then the light sky with dark head.

- And they're really finely detailed.  These are almost photographically accurate paintings, and when you enlarge the images, you see very fine detail in face, hair, even the texture of the blanket and sage.  

This exercise was "in the spirit of Lipking", not a copy, so I used a photo of one of my favorite models.  It was taken in the studio, but I wanted to put her outside, using a T-shaped composition.  And I borrowed heavily from the Canoe's setting.  Here's how it looked after day 1:

 It's okay, kinda meh.  Alright, a lot meh.  I went back the next day and reworked it:

So what did I do?  I turned her head.  It made it feel a bit more relaxed and it made her a bit more anonymous.  I darkened the hills and reflections significantly, which better matches what really happens around sunset.  I put a lot more yellow into the sky and water to both lighten them up and warm the painting.  I changed the foreground to bring more sky color to the bottom of the painting and to make it feel more real.  I darkened her shadow and worked on the reflections from the robe.  And I reworked the robe for more detail, a warmer color, and slightly darker value to make it stand out against the light from the water.

I learned a lot about Lipking's technique, even though mine comes nowhere close to his.  The sky and water, for example, are built out of lots of small strokes of blue and yellow laid down next to and also dragged over each other.  When two paint colors are thoroughly mixed together, they give one flat color.  When colors are adjacent to each other, your eye does the mixing, but the result is richer.  Kinda like chords in music as compared to single notes.  

Most importantly, though, I learned that I really don't want to put paint on canvas the way he he does.  I like a looser approach, where the individual strokes are obvious from well back.  I get more energy that way.  But the compositional items, like values and colors?  Yeah.  I can use those.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Life and the Studio

 There's so much happening, so fast, these days.  I've felt so overwhelmed with things to comment about that I haven't commented at all.  Which is probably a good thing.  Frankly, though I'm getting more and more worried about the future of our county.

A few years ago, a friend asked if I was an optimist or a pessimist.  I said that I'm a short-term optimist and a long-term pessimist.  In the short term, humanity has a remarkable ability to muddle through.  Crises come and go, things look dire, and then we move on.  But in the long term, the outlook is really grim.  We're using resources many times faster than the earth can replenish them.  Climate change is raising sea levels, reducing wildlife, reducing crop-production land, and changing weather patterns.  At a time when we need united national and international efforts, we're more polarized and divided than I can remember in my lifetime.  And all the trends are in the wrong directions.  

Until recently, I thought that the tipping point would come a few decades down the road.  Now I think we might actually be in it.  Climate change is burning down the West Coast and hitting the Gulf and East Coast with more storms than ever, one after another.  It's warming the Arctic, which is thawing the permafrost, which is releasing more methane than ever, which is significantly worse as a greenhouse gas.  The world's population is still expanding.  The World Wildlife Federation this week announced that 68% of the world's wildlife has disappeared since 1970.  And if you wear a mask in this country, you're a damned Democrat, and if you don't, you're a damned Republican.  And Trump is destroying what little unity is left.

No good news there.  And I don't know what I can do about any of it except take care of myself and Janis.

So, yeah, writing about my activities in the studio seems so out of it.  But it's my refuge of sanity.  Even when I was creating my last two paintings, Say Their Names and Portland 2020, which are both political pieces, they were still cathartic.  Now, though, I'm working on two new ones that have no politics in them at all.  Time to clear my brain.  Yes, I'll post them here when I can.  No, you can't see them now.

So stay safe, try to keep calm, and take care of yourself.