Wednesday, February 25, 2015

20 Feet from Stardom

The other night, we watched the movie "20 Feet from Stardom".  This is an Oscar-winning documentary film that focuses on background singers who stand, literally, 20 feet from the star of the show.  It features a few legendary singers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, the Waters family, and Lisa Fischer, as well as the emerging artist, Judith Hill.  It's a powerful discussion of the music industry, artists clawing their way to the top, and what their definition of "the top" is.  I recommend the New York Times review for an in-depth discussion of the film.

Although the focus is on singers, the discussion is really about finding success.  And in this way, it is directly applicable to theater, visual art, and many other fields of endeavor.  It presents us with several women with phenomenal voices.  They live to sing, and the things they can do with their voices will bring tears to your eyes: the power, spirit, joy, and pain are unbelievably rich, sometimes raw, sometimes both.  They are incredibly powerful artists who can sing better than many (most?) big-name stars.  Yet none of them became a music star in her own right.

So you have to wonder, why is that?  How can somebody who can sing like that not be a star?  Part of it, I think, is the music industry, part is our culture, part is luck, and a big part is the individual artist's personal character.  And there's another question: does success always require being a star?  Or is there another way to define success?  Let me ramble on those thoughts for a few moments.

It's well-known that the music industry is cut-throat.  There was a bit of discussion in the film about Phil Spector's handling of Darlene Love and others back in the '60's, in which Darlene and others recorded songs that were then released under other groups' names.  Actions like this weren't uncommon and were cold marketing decisions.  Unstated in the film, but certainly true then and now, is that we expect our star singers to be really good-looking.  A singer may have a phenomenal voice, but if he or she is a bit pudgy or plain-looking, they don't get the attention.  (Adele is the current exception that proves the rule).  The music industry makes decisions on artists that will be promoted, get the press, get on late-night TV, and so on, based on what their money-making potential is perceived to be, and singing is only part of it.  I used the impersonal term "the music industry" deliberately, because it is an impersonal process.  Yes, there are people in it who are passionate about particular artists, but the the process as a whole is impersonal.

And it's not unique to music.  Think about baseball, for instance.  Every baseball player wants to get to the major leagues.  Few do.  For every major-league short stop, there are dozens in the minor leagues, and hundreds of good college players who didn't make the transition.  Why?  Well, some of the things discussed in this movie are the same things happening in baseball, just described with different words.

I mentioned culture earlier.  We live in a culture that is constantly bombarding us with things demanding our attention.  We can't possibly listen to every musician out there.  So we ignore most of them and listen to those we know we like.  Your iPod will probably show you that you listen to the same few artists, songs, and albums a lot more than you listen to most of the stuff that's on there.  So even though Darlene Love and the rest have pipes that can blow you out of your car, you're not going to listen to them if you don't know their names.

A comparison might be restaurants.  Say you're rolling down the interstate and getting hungry.  You get off at the next exit and there are two places to eat: one named Joe's and the other a McDonald's.  Which one will you go to?  You go to the one you know.

Another part of making it to the "star" level is luck.  Pure and simple: being in the right place at the right time, with the right sound, and being heard by the right person, is critical.  All the big stars, if they're honest, will tell you that.  And most of them are a bit nervous, because they know that there are lots of people out there with equal or better talent that have not been discovered yet, and they could be dethroned by the Next Big Thing.

But the major factor in whether an artist makes it to the top is the individual artist's character.  Talent and ability is the foundation, of course: if you don't have the pipes, you're not going to be a singer.  Having the will and the drive is the difference between the club singer and the star.  In the film, more than one person mentioned the "killer instinct" - that ability to go for the jugular when necessary, and putting the goal of being a star singer above all other goals.  But being the star means making lots of tradeoffs.  I've seen that first-hand in other career fields when people put their career first.  Families and relationships often pay the price.

One of the things that made "20 Feet to Stardom" so powerful was the exploration of what being a success was all about.  Most of the singers wanted the spotlight for themselves and thought of backup singing as second-tier.  One singer, though, thinks differently.  Lisa Fischer has a voice so powerful that she tours with the Rolling Stones to sing "Gimme Shelter".  She has a world-class voice.  Yet Lisa isn't interested in pursuing the solo dream.  She loves singing for itself, she loves singing with others, and loves building something beautiful on stage.  Other singers in the film said that Lisa doesn't have the killer instinct.  And Lisa will agree with that.  She found a niche that she loves.  She found her own definition of success and, with that, found her own happiness.  Lisa's not chasing a dream that somebody else defined for her.

And this translates directly to my own experience with art.  I've got a pretty good set of artistic pipes with my ability to paint and draw.  I've got things that I want (need) to say with those skills.  I tried pursuing the "successful artist" standard - which is generally defined as selling your work through lots of galleries, making lots of money doing it, and so on.  Turned out it wasn't for me.  The things I wanted to paint didn't sell, and the things that sold, I didn't want to paint.  I was like a folk singer being told that I had to record pop songs if I wanted to be a "success".  So, like Lisa, I redefined what success meant to me.  I'm never going to have a retrospective exhibit at the Met and none of my works will ever sell at a Sotheby's auction.  I'll be the painter's equivalent of a backup singer.  And I'm really cool with that.  

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Creativity in Different Forms

Shortly after my last post, back at the end of December, my consulting business had a major project come in.  It wound up requiring a 7-day-a-week effort that is just now coming to completion.  I wasn't able to even go to the studio for a month.  One day, when I was a bit frustrated over the lack of time for making art, I saw a Facebook post from a friend that helped put it in perspective.  It was a quote from an anonymous source:

"I think everything in life is art.  What you do.  How you dress.  The way you love someone, and how you talk.  Your smile and your personality.  What you believe in, and all your dreams.  The way you drink your tea.  How you decorate your home.  Your grocery list.  The food you make.  How your writing looks.  And the way you feel.  Life is art."

Things have a way of slapping you in the face when you're ready for them, and I was ready for this bit of wisdom at that particular moment.  I realized that all my work on this project was, in fact, art.  And more than that, it was going to directly affect the lives of a great many people over the next five years, and many more indirectly for many more years in the future.

Okay, to back up a little and set the stage.  In my consulting work, I'm helping a couple of client companies put together contract proposals.  This particular proposal was in response to a call by a US government agency for companies who could provide specific services in developing nations around the world over the next five years.  One of my client companies is pretty well-positioned to do much of what was needed.  We brought in two other companies to fill in the capabilities that they lacked.  I wound up driving the effort to put the proposal together.

This was no small task.  The proposal had very specific requirements for what had to be addressed, which forms had to be filled out, what typeface and font size had to be used, the maximum number of pages, and so on.  Some of the requirements were contradictory: one form could not be filled out using the typeface and font size specified, for example.  And, since we were working with two other companies, I had to take their inputs and edit them into the required format and structure.

So how is this art?  Well, when I'm working in the studio on a "serious" painting, I've got something specific in mind regarding what I want the artwork to say.  Everything is crafted around that goal: the composition, things depicted, their relationships to each other, the play of light and dark, color choices, and on and on.  Everything is constantly being compared to everything else and tweaked to make the whole painting sing one harmonious song.  I'm not an impulsive painter, never have been, and cannot work that way, although I have great admiration for artists who can do it well.  I'm a linear thinker in the first place, and that trait was honed over 20 years in the Navy.

My proposal writing uses the same approach.  I had something very specific in mind, along with some given limitations of what I could and couldn't do.  Everything was crafted around the story that our team could do a fantastic job with any tasks that the government agency might need.  I built an outline (like building the composition in a painting), started filling in the major areas, added details, deleted less-valuable stuff to give more emphasis to more-important stuff, and in general made it as strong as I possibly could.  Then I sent it off to the client and partners for review.  When I'm creating a painting, I'll often ask a few people (my wife, for one) for their thoughts on the work-in-progress as I want to see if it says what I want it to.  In this case, it was very important that the experts in the client company and the two partners ensure that the proposal was (a) accurate and (b) compelling.  Then it went through revision after revision.  Again, this is something I do in a painting - there are many works where every square inch has been repainted multiple times.

So now we're down to the final few changes.  When it gets down to very minor wordsmithing, you know it's done.  And this one is very strong.  I'm extremely confident that we're going to get it.

I came to the realization a number of years ago that my goal in life is not necessarily to make a lot of paintings, but to create things that make a positive change in the world.  If I can do that through paint, wonderful, but it's not the only way.  This proposal we're finishing up will make a huge difference to the people who will actually do the work.  They're going to get the opportunities to work in places they've never worked before, and they'll be helping people who really need their services.  Even after the contract is over, the results of those services will be making a positive impact.  And this wouldn't happen if I did a crappy job with that proposal.

So I'm happy with the results of my work for the past month.  It was creative and it will have an impact.  But now I want to spend some make-up time in the studio!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Last Painting of the Year

Abdul Mahmood
Oil on linen panel, 16"x12"

Here's my last painting of 2014.  Obviously, it's not done from life - I based it on one of my "Faces of Afghanistan" drawings fleshed out with stuff pulled from a raggedy photo.  It captures the feeling of a real farmer that I knew in Afghanistan.

I did this as an experiment.  A few days ago, I saw some really powerful portraits from another artist.  I noticed some techniques he used that made the paintings so effective and wanted to try them out.  That artist was also a caricaturist.  As I've said before, doing caricatures is a great way to learn how to do portraits, because you zero in on the things that make each individual unique.  Caricatures greatly exaggerate those features, of course, but if the features are only slightly exaggerated, the result could be a really good portrait.

This farmer has a very narrow face in real life.  I played up the narrowness a little bit, and lengthened it just a smidge, and the result turned out pretty well.  I also paid a lot of attention to the colors, planes, and folds of his face.  These details seem to obscure the fact that the structure of the face is slightly exaggerated.

There were some other techniques that the other artist used that I tried to do, but couldn't.  They worked very well for him, but just felt wrong to me.  I've had that experience many times.  Copying another artist's work, or imitating his style, is a great way to add new tools to your painting toolkit.  But if the tool doesn't work for you, don't use it.

I hope you have a great New Year's!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


As mentioned in one of my previous posts, I've been doing a lot of small landscape paintings lately.  They're quite different from my usual narrative figurative paintings.  Those are usually developed over a period of several weeks, with lots of thought given to what's depicted, how it's depicted, and what's left out.  Things may get repainted several times.  I've been known to repaint everything in order to change the direction of the light.  Little or nothing is spontaneous.  I probably over-think them.

These small landscapes, though, are very different.  I started doing them because they were something that worked well with my schedule.  I could jump in, do a painting in the time available, and drop it when my time wasn't available any more.  I've found that this approach has its own demands, charms, and rewards, and I'm getting a kick out of it for its own sake.

These small landscapes are much more about the activity of painting.  When you don't have much time, you go for the important things and try to get them as right as possible as fast as possible.  They're kinda like gesture drawings: you're going for the essence, not the details.  The result is generally a liveliness that isn't in my larger paintings.

Late Afternoon Rest
Oil on paper, 7.5"x10.5"

This one shows something of what I'm talking about.  I did a quick pencil sketch to understand the values and composition, then went to work on gessoed paper that had been toned with a slightly warm brownish-gray tone.  You can see it along the bottom of the image.  There were actually two cows in the field, but in the spirit of keeping things simple, I just painted one.  The head and neck were blocked in first with burnt umber, then the shadow of the body.  Then I slammed in the green hill behind the cow, keeping it light to make the cow stand out, and throwing in a lot of cad yellow to show the late afternoon light hitting the field.  The tree line is largely just vigorous strokes of different dark greens and umbers.

Autumn Blossom
Oil on panel, 12"x9"

Here's another example.  This pink weed caught my eye.  It was the only spot of strong color in a bunch of dead weeds.  Basically, I laid in a bunch of vertical, light yellow ochre to provide a background for the dark stem, and laid in a dark muted green to provide a background for the pink blossom.  I wasn't sure how to do that blossom, but in playing around with it, I did a quick stroke and it worked.  So I did a bunch more, touched it up with a few darker reds around the center and bottom, and there it was.

So what's the point of these landscapes?  Well, what's the point of figure sketches?  It's all about seeing, and about getting the hand and eye to work together, and at the same time trying to get the essence of the thing captured in paint.  I've learned a lot about paint handling and decision-making from these little works.  And had a helluva lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve

It's Thanksgiving evening.  We're at home, safe and warm, with our dogs for company and things to do.  Janis has been wrapping Christmas presents.  I did some work for one of my clients, ran some errands, and got frustrated with the company that hosts my web site.  It was a pretty quiet and routine day.

This evening, I watched the documentary movie "Korengal".  It's a follow-up to the movie "Restrepo", about a platoon of soldiers in the Korengal valley in Afghanistan.  Where "Restrepo" showed what life was like on a mountaintop outpost under constant attack, "Korengal" delves much deeper into the soldiers' minds.  It is a timeless film.  The way combat affects an American soldier or Marine now is not really different from the way combat affected them in wars past.  There is the adrenaline, the excitement of combat, the bonding among those whose survival depends on each other, the earth-shattering grief of losing a brother, the horror of some of the things that have to be done, and the almost wistfulness of veterans who miss the intensity of the experience once it's over.  "Korengal", far more than any other war movie I've ever seen, brings an understanding of the experience of combat, and an understanding of those who live through it.

It may seem to be an odd choice of a movie right before the Thanksgiving holiday.  Actually, it's the reverse.  "Korengal" brings a fresh appreciation for the quiet, normal life we have.  Janis and I are able to wrap Christmas presents, do some work for clients, get in the car and drive around to do minor errands, pound on a computer, and eat Thanksgiving turkey until we burst, because of men like these soldiers in Korengal.  They are the same as those warriors of all services who were in the jungles of Viet Nam, in the snows of Korea, on the beach at Normandy, in Belleau Wood, and all previous wars.  And they're just like the ones who are out there right now.

So this Thanksgiving, I'm giving thanks to them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Exhibition in Ohio

As mentioned in a previous post, my "Faces of Afghanistan" drawings were shown at two branches of Ohio University.  I took the drawings up to OU Zanesville in mid-October, installed them, and gave an artist talk.  The exhibition was up for almost three weeks.  The curator then took the drawings down and installed them at OU Eastern.  The drawings were there for another three weeks.  I went up last week, gave an artist presentation, and talked to a lot of people at the closing reception afterward.  The next morning, I took the drawings down, loaded 'em into the truck, and drove home.

It's always great to get my work out of the studio and up on somebody else's wall.  Getting this series of drawings into colleges and universities is really good.  The drawings provide an insight into a world far different than the one the college students are living in.  I've had some interesting discussions with people as a result.  It seems like the initial questions are pretty basic, but quickly move into more complex territory.  Very stimulating.

I don't have any other exhibitions scheduled right now.  There are a few proposals out and I'm working on one or two more, so I'm optimistic that something interesting will pop up over the next few months.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Different Figure Drawing Styles

Since my last post, I've been to a number of life drawing sessions and, in between, have been painting the fall colors.  These are two very different subjects that can't be tackled in the same post.  So I'll talk about figure drawings today and talk about fall landscapes next time.

The Asheville area is fortunate to have a lot of life drawing sessions going on every week.  On Monday evenings, David Lawter has a two-hour session that is entirely short poses.  He starts with 1-minutes and ends with a 5-minute.  That's quick.  Because of that, it's lots of fun: you have to have to keep moving because the next pose isn't going to wait.  My drawings usually have a lot of life to them because of that.  On Wednesday evenings, Frank Lombardo runs a 3-hour, single-pose session in Marshall.  This is the polar opposite of David's session and is great for painting.  On Thursday evenings, David has a two-hour session that is mostly 20-minute poses - great for drawings that have some development to them.  Yes, that means David runs two sessions a week.  The guy is dedicated.  If you're interested in either Frank's or David's sessions, contact me and I'll put you in touch with them.

I'm constantly trying to improve my skills, so going back and forth between the different sessions is good.  It doesn't let me get into a rut.  I'm also constantly looking at other artists and seeing what I can learn from them.  One I'm looking at pretty hard now is Steve Huston.  Steve lives/works out west and is associated with the New Masters Academy in Huntington Beach, in the Los Angeles area.   I took an online workshop with him early this year (here's the post).  He's done a number of videos about his technique, some of which are on YouTube and others on the New Masters website.  I watched a video and decided to try out some of the ideas at the 3-hour life drawing session.  Here's what resulted:

This didn't come out at all like I intended and looks nothing like a Huston drawing.  However, it was an interesting exercise.  I did a rough line block-in of the figure in vine charcoal on a pale toned paper, then smudged charcoal all over the place,  Then, in addition to laying in the darks with more charcoal, I drew just as much with the kneaded eraser to pull out the lights.  The result has a lot of heft and volume.  It's more like a traditional style of drawing, I think - slow and deliberate.  Yes, it's probably overworked, and some parts need more development (which they've gotten since this photo was taken).  Still, I got to try some new ways of working, and added some new tools to my drawing tool chest.

After this, I went back to Huston's work to figure out where we were different.  I saw that Huston is very concerned with the form, and builds it up with fluid, flowing, gestural lines (like what I do with the very short poses).  He then focuses on three lines: the two outside edges of the figure, and the intermediate shadow in between.  The "intermediate shadow" is the one at the boundary between the lighted and shadowed area.  Getting this one right is really critical to getting the feel for volume in the figure.  You have to pay close attention to where it is wide and narrow, where it has soft edges and sharp, and how light or dark it is.  Huston also works with a small range of light values and a small range of darks, not a full spectrum of values like I did in the drawing above.

So I went to a session with shorter, 20-minute poses, and here's one of the results:

This one started with more gestural strokes and then was gradually developed using both the vine charcoal and kneaded eraser.  I tried to keep both tools working quickly and not get bogged down in detail.  I also tried to limit the values to a small range of lights and a small range of darks.  Most importantly, I paid close attention to the outside lines of the form as well as the intermediate shadows.  You'll see that some of the outside lines are pretty heavy.  A heavy, dark line accentuates the light volume of the form next to it.  Mostly, though, it's the intermediate shadows that define the volumes of the form.  Follow the intermediate shadows down from the shoulders, through the hips, and down the legs, and you'll see how their movement back and forth shows how she's standing and twisting.

Finally, here's a detail from a sheet of figure drawings from Monday's short-pose session.  I used the same principles here as in the drawing above.  Quick gestural lines establish the figure, while hatched areas indicate the shadowed areas and create the figure's volume.  This was done with a mechanical pencil on a Strathmore sketchbook.

This is actually a pretty similar approach to the one I talked about in a post last month, in which I used a Sharpie pen during the 20-minute poses.  As a refresher, here's one of those drawings:

This is quick and gestural, but it doesn't have the same focus on the intermediate shadow.  It's still a pretty decent drawing.  Different tools and different approaches are needed for different drawings.  I feel like I've expanded my capabilities a bit over the past month or so.  Cool stuff.

By the way (crass commercialism alert), several of these drawings are available on my Etsy gallery at ridiculously reasonable prices.  Just sayin'.