Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Shows and Color

Has it really been two weeks since I last posted?  Evidently it has.  Sorry for the absence, as if anybody noticed.  Most of the absence has been due to real-world activities.  But I've been kinda/sorta busy in the studio as well, and have a few things to report.

First, my "Faces of Afghanistan" artworks are on exhibit at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina.  This was one of those things that came together quickly.  Basically, I was talking with one of the art teachers about the drawings.  He asked, "How long would it take you to get them ready for an exhibit?"  My answer: "Oh, maybe two hours to get 'em all packed up."  That was on a Saturday.  A few days later, on Wednesday, we hung the show in the Student Center.

Here's part of the show.  More is on the opposite wall.  "Faces" will be up until September 26.  Since it's in the Student Center, it's open every day, so go see it if you're in the Banner Elk area.

Later that week, I got some more good news.  "Faces" will be shown at a college in Ohio in November.  More details to follow.  I'm really excited to have the drawings shown up north!

Meanwhile, I've continued to work on how I apply paint to canvas.  In one of my earlier blog posts, I posted a picture of this cloudscape study:

It was pretty ... meh.  Fairly accurate but about as exciting as a roll of toilet paper.  So I revised it:

That's better.  Still not great, but a big improvement over its "Mr Blah" earlier stage.  I based the revisions on some ideas from some of my reading.  And I'm still reading: just started another book about color and light.  Neither one of those topics is a strong suit of mine, so any improvement is welcome!

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Gallery Closing

Bella Vista Art Gallery, in Biltmore Village, Asheville, closed today.  Bella Vista was the only gallery that carried my artworks.

Its closure wasn't a surprise.  The owners, Glenn and Christin, had told me several months ago that the gallery would close at the end of July.  Unlike most galleries, its closure wasn't due to lack of sales.  Christin and Glenn were from New Orleans.  They wound up in Asheville after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and destroyed their gallery.  They rebounded, opening Bella Vista in the River Arts District and then, later, moving to Biltmore Village.  And they turned it into one of the best galleries in Asheville.  They had really good artworks, beautifully displayed, and cared very much about presenting the artworks well.  Bella Vista survived the economic downturn of 2008 and was still doing well up until today.

Family issues were what drove the decision.  Glenn and Christin still have family in Louisiana, and it was time to go back and be near them.  So they made their plans and are leaving Asheville on a high note.

For an artist like me, Christin and Glenn were the gold standard for gallery owners.  Christin was the artistic director and primary sales person; Glenn provided the back-room support.  Christin has a sharp eye for artworks.  She educated me about buyers, what different people look for, and how they might respond to my works.  She focused on my drawings and etchings.  When she took one of my works, she framed it beautifully and presented it in its best light.  Even when my sales were slow (meaning more than a year between sales), she never wavered.  "I like your work, it's good, and it will sell!"  And, eventually, it did.  Whenever Christin sold one of my works, she was on the phone to me within ten minutes, excitedly telling me about the person who bought it, and why.  When I was deployed overseas, she shot me an email.  Christin and Glenn were more excited about the sales than I was!  And even though our contract only called for them to pay me after the end of the month, they always sent a check within just a few days.  Amazing.

I've been with galleries that just used my work as filler, or forgot who I was even though they had three of my paintings, or tried to tell me what to paint.  Glenn and Christin, on the other hand, were my trusted partners.  I'm very sad to see them go.  It's the best thing for them, but not for me and all their other artists.  They will be missed.

And after my experience with Bella Vista, I'm really spoiled when it comes to galleries.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Art Studies

I've continued to do mostly studies about art, rather than making new paintings.  Work and home have demanded a lot of my time.  I've got a couple of new clients for my consulting business, and I'm trying to make sure they're happy.  And at home, a combination of ongoing projects and decent weather has required a lot of labor outside.  We had a new propane tank installed in the yard, which meant they had to dig a big hole to bury it, which required me to smooth over the ground, spread grass seed and fertilizer, cover it all with straw, and restore a stacked rock wall.  Sounds simple but it required a lot of time and I was a whipped puppy at the end.

So the studio has gotten short shrift lately.  I've used my limited time to work on several different studies.  One of them is landscape.  I've continued to go thru the landscape book mentioned in a previous posting, taking lots of notes, and learning a good bit.  One of my studio efforts was a cloudscape.  Here's how it turned out:

Great art?  Hell, no.  But it's paint on canvas and gave me a chance to work with the play of late-afternoon sunlight.  I've always loved looking at those big summer afternoon thunderclouds.  Sometimes the light catches them just right and stops me in my tracks.  But painting them is a difficult thing to do.  Painters work with a very limited range of colors that reflect light, whereas a thundercloud and the surrounding sky comprise an infinite range of colors and light.  With this particular study, I looked at how the range of colors in the sky (an ultramarine in the upper left corner, to a light green in the bottom right), as well as the range in the cloud (bluish purple shadows, light rose highlights near the bottom, gradually shifting to orange and yellow up high).  The mountains are, to me, a disaster, but that just shows what I need to focus on next.  Lots of lessons learned here.

I've been going to sessions with a model on Wednesday evenings.  Last week was my third session.  We had a lovely young lady who took a pose leaning against the wall.  She was very tanned and athletic, which gave her skin a rich warm glow, and the strong lighting gave sharp contrasts in light and dark.  I was pretty happy with the way this study turned out.  Titled "Megan Standing", it's now up in my Etsy gallery.  With this study, I put into practice some of the things I've picked up from my figure studies.  Specifically, I do an underpainting using only burnt umber.  This lets me work out the composition and light/dark structure.  Once it looks acceptable, I go in with a very limited range of colors.  This one used primarily yellow ochre and cad red, with a little bit of cobalt blue in various places, some ultramarine in the very dark darks, and a tiny bit of cad yellow in some of the highlighted areas.

Last week, I visited one of our local used-book stores and found a thick book on Anthony Van Dyke.  I never knew much about him, besides that he could paint a helluva fine portrait.  I've been going thru the book and studying the images, taking notes on the compositions, colors, metaphorical representations, and other things as they pop into my head.  My method of taking notes is to do a thumbnail sketch of the image and then scribble things down as they pop into my head, in a stream-of-consciousness way.  Here's a page from the notebook:

After this afternoon's session, I have quite a few things that I want to try out in the studio.  Lots of lessons learned, I think ... if I can remember them!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Exhibit Review

Aperture Magazine published a review of the show I was in at Western Carolina University.  "Remote Sites of War" was a 3-man show curated by David Brown, the Director of the Fine Arts Museum there.  The other two artists were photographers Todd Drake and Chris Sims.  The show ran from April 10 to May 30 and the review was just published today.  Here's the link:

Monday, July 07, 2014

Early July Update

It's been busy times here since my last post.  Very little of it has to do with art.  We finally had our heat pump replaced.  That was a big deal, about 3 days worth of work for the crew from Bullman Heating and Air, but they did a really good job.  The new system pumps more air than the old, and it cooled the house down quickly, so we're happy.  The next stage will be next week when we have the propane guys come out and install a big tank.  Since our heat source in the winter will now be propane rather than electricity, it will be needed.

One of my business clients had a big project come up, and I spent about ten days going full-bore on it.  No studio time for this boy.  But we got it done and met the deadline.  And then I was able to catch up on other things.  Art, for instance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm going through another stretch of training myself in better painting techniques.  I had studied some classical figure painting techniques and applied them to a couple of copies of master paintings - one by Odd Nerdrum and another by Rembrandt.  Subsequently, I did a couple of life studies.  One will never, ever, see the light of day again.  The other was done from an old drawing session and it actually turned out okay.  Here it is:

Blue Shawl
Oil on linen panel, 20"x16"

This was done in a classical style, with warm underpainting and glazes on top.  I learned a good bit from this exercise.  The painting is now up in my Etsy gallery.

In addition to working on techniques for the figure, I'm also looking at landscapes.  This is a subject that I've typically avoided.  I don't do landscapes well, except for a very few that were really "portraits" of specific things.  And since I don't do landscapes well, I just don't do them.  But that's not a responsible attitude to have if I want to consider myself professional.  So it's time to learn how to up my game with landscape paintings in addition to figure paintings.

To that end, I'm overhauling my outdoor kit.  My French easel is permanently loaded now with a decent selection of paints, brushes, and other equipment.  And it's in my truck, where it's readily available when I can get away from work.  I've done some plein-air studies that, like the figure study mentioned earlier, will never see the light of day again.  But that's fine: you gotta whiff a lot of pitches before you start getting some hits.

And I'm doing some reading.  One of my plein-air painting friends told me to not worry about technique, just paint with passion and it'll happen.  Well, no, it doesn't, not for me.  I'm the kind of guy who needs a structured approach.  When I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm winging it, the result has invariably been a disaster.  But if I understand the approach, then I can take deliberate risks with when and where to wing it.  And it generally works out better.  The result may still be a disaster, but at least I have an idea about what happened and can learn from it.

Oh, yeah, the reading.  I got the book Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala.  I'm working my way through it and finding it to be quite good.  His style of working, from color choices to drawing to basic approach, is very similar to what I've already worked out for myself.  So I have pretty good confidence that the things I'll learn later will mesh with what I'm already doing.  Good stuff.

This doesn't mean I'm turning into a landscape painter.  Far from it.  But I do feel that I have to be reasonably competent in that genre.  So it's time to get to work and learn something.  Hopefully, by the time I make my next post, I'll have a landscape or two that are worth showing.  Or not.  Don't hold your breath.  But sooner or later, you'll see some here.  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Studying the Masters

In my extremely limited studio time recently, I've been focused on learning better ways to put paint on canvas.  You may recall (if you're one of the 3 readers who've been with me a while) that last fall and winter, I stopped all new work and focused on re-learning the basics.  At least, high-quality basics.  I studied the techniques of several artists, took a workshop, got a DVD from a really strong painter, did some studies, and finally applied it all in a new painting, "Saddle Up", which was featured in a recent post.

A couple of things have blocked my development of new paintings.  Outside life events in general over the last month (the heat pump, the car, the cat, and lots of other nitnoid things) have demanded an inordinate amount of time.  The other is that my consulting business has been very busy in an unpredictable way lately.  Two clients have hit me with some very time-intensive projects.  Fortunately, they didn't come at the same time, but between the business and life events, I haven't been able to spend a sufficient amount of time in the studio to think about new works.

So I've focused instead on developing my techniques.  I got a new DVD on making a "classical" portrait from Robert Liberace.  The earlier one I got from him was on making an alla prima portrait - meaning a portrait done in essentially one sitting.  The "classical" approach is different in that it is done by carefully building up the painting in layers over a period of time.  This approach seems to fit my way of working: it's slower, more deliberate, and really rich when done properly.

Robert has an extremely well-developed sense of color, much better than mine can ever be, because my eyes just don't see color the way his do.  But that's okay, even very restricted color selections can have strong impacts.

Let me drop back a bit here.  For many years, I had no understanding of how color worked.  You mix one blue and one yellow, and you get a bright green; you mix a different blue and you get a dull green, and I never understood why that happened.  It was like I was supposed to memorize all the different color combinations.  Well, anybody that knows my memory knows that just won't fly.  Finally, in the mid-90's while studying at Maryland Institute College of Art, I was exposed to the book Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green, by Michael Wilcox.  At last, here was a reference that explained why mixtures made strong or muted colors.  Rather than making me memorize things, now I had a logical understanding of how to deliberately select and mix colors for specific effects.  Finally, I could paint!

But there were also some side effects from Wilcox's book.  (There are always side effects to everything.)  One was that my palette was now made up of a lot of strong colors such as cadmium red, cobalt blue, and phthalo green.  When you use strong colors, they tend to stay strong.  In painting a face, for example, your reds tend to be RED, your yellows YELLOW, and so on.  It's like driving your car with wild swings at the steering wheel and going all over the road.  Strong colors are great, but learning how to use them with subtlety is difficult.

In some of my studies recently, I've seen that many of the great artists used very restrictive color choices.  Sorolla, for example, used primarily yellow ochre, cadmium red, ivory black, and white.  Occasionally he used a small touch of a blue, but not often.  Yet he was able to achieve remarkable skin tones.  So I did a study using the Sorolla palette and, while the painting itself is kinda blah, I learned a lot.

The new Liberace video built on that approach.  While his colors were definitely more varied and stronger than Sorolla's selection, Liberace used them with restraint.  He mixed up a basic skin tone, then made a couple of variations on it, one warmer and the other cooler.  The differences in color temperature (meaning how warm or cool it is), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity were generally very small.  Certainly much smaller than my clumsy attempts.

I decided to put Liberace's approach into practice.  Rather than copy the painting from the DVD, I decided to copy an Odd Nerdrum portrait.  Here's how it turned out:

This was an interesting and fun exercise.  Nerdrum and Liberace don't paint the same way.  They use the same fundamentals (underpainting, layers of color, and so on) but their color choices and methods are different.  Liberace uses burnt umber for an underpainting, which is a warm muted brown.  Nerdrum uses a blue-black for an underpainting, which is much cooler.  Generally, blue is not a color you want in a face, but Nerdrum's is very muted and he makes it work. So, by using one painter's approach to copy another painter's portrait, I learned a lot.

In fact, I had so much fun, I did it again.  This time, I copied a Rembrandt self-portrait from the cover of The Rembrandt Book by Gary Schwartz.  Here's the result:

What I learned from this one is just how amazingly observant and good Rembrandt was.  There was no attempt to pretty himself up.  He showed all his wrinkles, pits, and sags.  There was no overstatement of anything - all his strokes are small, efficient, accurate, and lively.  As I was working on his forehead, for example, I was blown away by his attention to detail in each and every fold.  Usually, "attention to detail" in a painting means that it's way overworked and the artist should have stopped long before he really did.  Not with Rembrandt - with him, the detail provides additional support for the overall story in the painting.  My copy is just a poor cousin to the richness, vitality, and life in the original.

But still, my copy is a decent painting.  I learned a lot about subtlety, paint application, and a bit about "trusting the paint".  I'm going to make another copy or two.  And then I'm going to do some new paintings using what I've learned.  Can't wait!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Oil on canvas, 60"x60", 2006

"Lament", one of the paintings from my Meditation on War series, is now in a curated exhibition in Tipton Gallery in Johnson City, Tennessee.  The show is "Colors of Aspiration: The Flag in Contemporary Art".  As the curator, Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, stated:

"The exhibition features works by contemporary artists who employ the symbolic image of the flag to address social issues and its manipulation as visual dialogue.  The American flag has been a potent symbol of patriotism as well as powerful icon for social agency.  Artists, most prominently Jasper Johns, have employed the Stars and Stripes in various configurations and materials to pursue artistic ambivalence and encourage discussions in the nature of art.  The artists in the exhibition continue on this trajectory."

I painted "Lament" in 2006, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were getting worse.  I was angry about how the administration had led us into two wars, and angry about how so many people callously disregarded the costs.  I wanted to make a statement that reminded people that, when you go to war, there is a tremendous cost to pay.  People die.  People get hurt.  Irreplaceable things are destroyed.

But people don't want to think of that at the start of the war.  Then, it's parades and speeches and a grand adventure where our boys are going to go kick the other guys' asses and be home in time for dinner.  Only it never turns out that way.  As our forebears learned in the Revolutionary War, and again in the War of 1812, and the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, and World War 1, and World War 2, and the Korean War, and Vietnam, and any number of "police actions", it never goes as planned, and Johnny doesn't always come marching home again.

We need to be reminded of that anytime our politicians start talking about sending in military forces.  It's always, always, going to be worse than they say.