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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Tale of Two Complaints

Complaints aren't necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes they reveal an issue that the person responsible didn't know about.  They also give the party responsible an opportunity to do some corrective action.  I had two incidents lately where I had to complain and the responses said a lot about the companies involved.

The first one involved my truck.  I have a 2008 Nissan Frontier.  It's been a good truck with no real issues so far beyond scheduled maintenance.  It was just short of 60,000 miles when I took it in to Anderson Nissan in Asheville for a rather extensive list of scheduled items.  A faint whine had recently started in the engine compartment.  Didn't sound like much and I thought a bearing might be going bad somewhere, so I asked them to check on it.

That afternoon, I got a call from the dealer.  In addition to the regular maintenance items, they'd found a few more things that needed to be done, and I told them to go ahead.  Then the kicker: the whine was due to bad timing chain tensioners and it was going to cost over $2,100 to repair, in addition to the $1,000+ that I had already expected.

Holy cow.  I hadn't budgeted for that.  I stammered around for a bit and then told 'em no, don't do that repair, not yet.  I had to calm down.  After a bit, I got on the interwebs and started researching the problem that they described.  The results were interesting.  It turned out that the failure of the timing chain tensioners was a well-known issue and that Nissan had issued a technical service bulletin about the problem, along with the fix, in 2004.  Yet they continued to use the failure-prone parts until maybe 2010.  The problem was bad enough that there are at least three class-action lawsuits pending against Nissan.

Ignoring the issue would definitely be the wrong answer.  The timing chains would eventually break, leading to destruction of the engine and an $8,000 bill for a new one.  Frontier owners on various Nissan discussion boards reported that their timing chain repairs had cost $1400-1800, considerably less than my price quote.

So the next morning, I walked into Anderson Nissan and had a discussion with the service manager.  I told her to go ahead with the repairs, but that I was extremely unhappy with having this repair come out of my pocket.  This was a widespread problem that was clearly the result of a design or manufacturing defect that should be covered by warranty by corporate Nissan.  Yes, my Frontier was out of warranty due to time, but it had less than 60,000 miles.  I didn't yell or scream: I stayed calm and let her know that I was unhappy and that I had very rational reasons for being that way.

This approach paid off.  She could see from her records that I'd followed the maintenance schedule religiously and I wasn't an asshole.  So she did what she could, which was knock $300 off the cost and recommended that I contact Nissan USA.  She said they were more helpful than most people realized.  So $300 wasn't enough, but it was a start.

I then contacted Nissan USA and described the problem and why I was unhappy.  The next day, I got a call from a very nice lady who asked me to send in a bit more information, which I did immediately.  A couple of days later, she called me back to say that Nissan recognized that this was a problem, but that my truck was well out of warranty; however, they offered over $900 to cover half the remaining bill.

I took it.  Could I have argued for more?  Maybe, but as they noted, my truck is 8 years old and stuff happens.  In the end, I paid $900 for a very extensive repair that is guaranteed for the life of the vehicle.  All in all, I think both Anderson Nissan and Nissan USA treated me fairly.

The second complaint also had to do with cars.  I rent a car from Avis periodically when I go to Indiana to train people heading to Afghanistan.  I'm on Avis' frequent-renter program that supposedly gives better service.  Two weeks ahead of time, I made a reservation for a full-size car.  Three days prior to the scheduled pick-up, Avis sent me an email to remind me of my reservation.  So far, so good.  Then I showed up at the Avis counter at 9 a.m., as scheduled, and they didn't have my car.  Not even close.  Instead, the best they could offer was a Nissan Sentra, which is at least three steps down.  I was not at all happy, particularly when I got a look at the Sentra in question.  It had 30,000 miles on it, along with a ton of dents, dings, and scrapes.  But there was nothing else on the lot and the closest alternative lot was 40 minutes away.  Since I needed to get started on the drive, I took it.

I got five miles down the road and turned around.  The Sentra was a piece of junk.  It was uncomfortable, noisy, felt used-up, had a rumbling coming out of the rear end like a wheel bearing was going bad, and had the worst radio I've encountered since a high-school buddy's 1965 Rambler.  I wouldn't have accepted it from Rent-A-Wreck even for a day of around-town driving, much less for a week and 1000 miles.  The original Avis counter couldn't help me, so I wound up driving to the airport.  There, an extremely helpful Avis representative swapped it for a nearly-new Volkswagen Jetta.  I wound up hitting the road over an hour late, but the Jetta proved to be the perfect car for a long-distance drive.  I loved it.

After the trip was over, I sent a note to Avis detailing the events and telling them how unhappy I was.  I'd made the reservation two weeks in advance, they had acknowledged it three days prior, and then failed to deliver.  Not only that, they gave me a car that shouldn't be rented to anybody.

The next day, I got a note from Avis saying that they had documented my case and "escalated it to the proper department for the necessary feedback."

And that's it.  Over a week later, they have yet to get back to me.  Not even a meaningless assurance that they will do their best to fill my reservation next time.

However, they did send me two requests to fill out a customer survey form to let them know how well they performed.  I ignored the first request, thinking that I'd give 'em some time for the "proper department" to get back to me.  The second request, though, was too much.  So I gave 'em an earful.  Or an email full, depending on how you look at it.

So there you are.  Two problems.  Two well-reasoned complaints.  Anderson Nissan and Nissan USA took my issues seriously and responded.  Good on them.  Avis blew me off, even though I'm a frequent renter.  Screw them.

Late Note: The day after publishing this post, I heard back from Avis.  They said, in part: "Any difficulties or problems encountered by a customer are a concern to us and we apologize most sincerely for any inconvenience you may have been caused.  Please be assured that your experience was not typical and the appropriate management teams have been advised.  Although we realize that we cannot make up for a disappointing experience such as this, we do appreciate your contacting us.  Only by being made aware of a problem can we correct it and offer the high quality of service that Avis customers expect and deserve."

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Figure Painting Workshop

I ran a figure painting workshop in my studio this weekend.  We had a full class of six students - the maximum I want in my studio so they're not falling all over each other.  The workshop ran for four hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

I divided the effort into two parts.  On Saturday, the students worked on a monochrome painting of the figure.  This was a value study done in only one color.  A painting done this way is often called a "grisaille" (pronounced "griz-I").  Grisaille means "gray", and a grisaille painting is technically in black and white, but since we used burnt umber or other colors, I prefer the term "monochrome".  (Okay, enough nerdiness, on to the rest of the story ...)

On Sunday, the students took the monochrome painting and went over it in color.  We focused on skin tones, warm and cool tints, reflected lights, shadow colors, background colors, and matching the values of the colors to the values of the monochrome.

Dividing the painting process this way might seem roundabout, but it's actually easier for many artists, including me.  It separates the decisions associated with the composition, drawing, and light/dark values from the decisions associated with color, warm/cool, reflected lights, and intensity.  The idea is to use a simple approach first to make the fundamental decisions about the composition of the painting, and then gradually add more light/dark values and then color until you get something you can consider done.  (Or until it's so badly messed up that you throw it away.  One or the other.)

I had a great time with the students.  This was the first time I'd put on this particular workshop and I didn't know how it would go.  When you have good students, it always goes well.  They all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the class as well.  I paused the painting process a couple of times each session so we could see each other's work, talk about what was working and not working, get the students to talk about what they were experiencing, and compare notes.  All of them had different approaches.  By talking about their issues, and about what they saw in each other's work, they could learn a lot more than if everybody was doing the same thing.

So here are a few images from this weekend:

Some of the students, hard at work ...

And here are their paintings:

I'm proud of the way all six of them developed over just two days in the studio!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Training Again

This past week, I was up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana to train another group of Defense Department civilians who are heading to Afghanistan.  My part of the training program was to serve as a mentor to a team of ten people as they went through several days of increasingly complex immersive scenarios.  We put them into situations where they have to put their classroom training into practice.  They coordinate movements with their military security team, go to meetings with Afghan officials, try to establish relationships, try to figure out the underlying issues, respond to rapidly changing circumstances, get shot at, and report what they learned back to the senior military officer in charge.

It's always rewarding to see the teams develop, and this one was no exception.  Their approach to their first event was pretty lackadaisical - they thought of it as just another class and showed up late.  By the end of the event,  though, we were beginning to get their attention.  During the next day's events, they weren't quite on board yet and I would've only given them a C or a C-.  But after that, they understood what was going on and they dove into it.  One student told me "I was convinced I wasn't in Indiana, I was in Afghanistan!"  They played it for real and they did a great job.  At the end of the last event, the senior Afghan told them that they were fully ready to be advisors.  I've never heard him tell a team that before.

This photo shows part of the training.  The team had to go to a bazaar and talk to some local Afghan merchants about the local issues.  There was a lot to hear, learn, and respond to.  Then they had to get out of the bazaar when things went bad.  

I love doing this training.  It's so rewarding to see the light come on in their eyes, to see how far they come in just a short period of time, and to help them internalize concepts that will enable them to fully understand their role and possibly save their lives.  It's rewarding to know that I have the background and skill set to help them through this period.  I'll keep doing this as long as I possibly can.