Friday, July 24, 2015

Demsteader Follow-Up

In my last post, I wrote about Mark Demsteader and his approach to drawing and painting the figure.  I thought I'd try it out.  So I picked out a drawing from an old session with a model to copy and compare, and gave it a go.  Here's the result:

Both drawings are on the same paper (a light cream Mi-Teintes) and are done with vine charcoal.  The one on the left is descriptive and tentative.  The one on the right is bold and expressive.  I'm not Demsteader, so my drawings are clearly not his.

Oddly enough, I don't know that I could do something like the one on the right in one of our normal life drawing sessions.  When I'm working from the model, it's an exploratory session, a "get to know you" time.  I'm trying to get the model's physical appearance as well as personality captured on paper.  It is, by definition, tentative.  How is her head shaped?  Where do the shadows fall?  Is she strong-willed, bubbly, bored?  How does that show in her face and posture?  This particular model is a confident young woman and I think it comes through in the drawing.

There's nothing tentative about the approach on the right.  The marks are slammed in with confidence.  It's more of an expressive, "I know what I'm doing" approach.  It says more about the artist than the model.  I might be able to do something like this from life if I know the model well and have done enough drawings to know what I want to put the focus on.

Demsteader doesn't do most of his drawings from life.  He works from photos.  I noted that in the articles about him and now I understand it.  When working from photos, there's a greater distance between artist and model.  Rather than working with a living, breathing human being, you're working with an image.  It's easier to be expressive with an image when you're not thinking about the impression that the human presence has.

I noticed that my original drawing, as tentative as it is, has a lot of Kelly's personality.  The new drawing does not.  I can look at it and see that it was not drawn from life.  This figure is a more generic "young woman" and not "Kelly".  For some artists, that's the way they work.  The figures they draw and paint are actors to be manipulated to express whatever the artist wants to express.  For me, it's important that the figures that I draw and paint are specific individuals.  It's more about what I see in them than it is about how I'm using them to express something else.

So what's the bottom line?  I think I have a new tool in my artist toolbox: a different, more bold and dynamic way to draw the figure.  But I need to learn more about how to use it from life and to say something about the individual I'm working with.  It's a challenge.  Sounds like fun!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Looking at Artists: Mark Demsteader

This morning, one of my contacts on Facebook posted a painting by Mark Demsteader.  It's a really stunning image of a woman in a blue dress.  The woman's figure is painted minimally and fairly realistically, but the dress is really a pile of paint.  It's at least two layers, probably more, of thick impasto, dragged across the canvas from a painting knife.  The juxtaposition of the smooth figure and roughly-painted dress is beautiful.

Erin in Blue
Oil on canvas, 52"x39"
Artist: Mark Demsteader

So I found Mark's web page and had a look.  I was really impressed by the work.  Mark's drawings and paintings are beautiful.  Most of them feature a young woman in a thin dress.  They are in a strong, direct light that throws heavy shadows across their faces.  Often their eyes are completely, or almost completely, in shadow, giving them a very mysterious air.  Mark almost always focuses on the head and a very limited bit of the body - maybe just the neck or shoulders, while the rest of the figure is indicated only in very rough strokes.

You might call his approach formulaic.  Usually, when all the works from an artist are done the same way, I get bored after about the third one.  I don't get bored with Demsteader's.  They're too good.

Back in 2011, Demsteader did a series of artworks with Emma Watson (the actress from the Harry Potter movies) as the subject.  It was a collaboration, and an interesting one.  You can read about it, and see some of the images from the series, in this Vogue (UK) article.  Watson contacted Demsteader about doing an artwork of her, then Demsteader came up with the idea of doing many artworks and auctioning them off to benefit the charity of her choice.  What a wonderful thing for both of them to do.

Demsteader works in a way that I can relate to.  The model doesn't need much in the way of makeup or nice outfits.  He sets up a single large light to create strong lights and darks and then simplifies the features and clothing.  Here's an example of one of his drawings:

Study for Siren
Pastel and collage, 46"x32"
Artist: Mark Demsteader

Fantastic, isn't it?  I see a lot of things that I want to try.  First, simplify, simplify, simplify.  I tend to get caught up in getting everything recorded as accurately as possible.  That's descriptive, not expressive.  Focus on the important bits (usually the head and face), let things further away be just roughly indicated, and exaggerate value changes.  Mark's values here are black, paper white, and a medium gray.  That's three values.  When I draw, I often try to do too many.  Simplify!

Second, keep the drawing accurate.  I do that already, as much as I can, but need to focus on it.  The young lady's face in the drawing above is extremely accurate, which lets the mark-making be more expressive.  Her shoulder and arm are reduced to just the very basic contour lines, but they work because they're in exactly the right place.  The fact that they're stripped-down only emphasize the expressiveness of the marks around the face, and they work because the face is accurately drawn.  It all has to work together.

Third, in a painting, try the concept of a carefully-rendered figure with an outfit indicated by roughly scumbled paint, from a painting knife if possible.  I'm not going to try to create more "Mark Demsteader" paintings, but just want to see what I can learn out of this exercise.  (Come to think of it, I have some abandoned figure paintings in the studio already (what artist doesn't?) and can try this when I get to the studio tomorrow.

I found an interesting series of photos of one of Mark's demos of a portrait drawing.  It's really interesting to see how he develops the figure.  He doesn't just put a mark down and leave it - he builds on it through multiple layers.  Take a look - you can save the photo and enlarge it on your computer screen if you want.  You'll have to figure out for yourself what he's doing at each stage since there was no narrative to accompany it.

So I'm adding Mark Demsteader to my personal list of really cool artists.  If you like what you've seen here, then visit his site, or Google his name and look at all the images.  There's a ton of stuff online and I was really blown away by it.  I really love finding a great artist that I've never heard of before!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Still Alice

Last night, we watched the movie Still Alice.  In this movie, Julianne Moore is Dr. Alice Howland, a highly respected professor at Columbia who comes down with early-onset Alzheimer's at age 50.  Particularly for someone to whom the intellect is everything, this disease is brutal, as it slowly takes away the memories that defined their capabilities.  The film follows the disease's progression as, step by step, one thing after another is taken away from her.  And it examines, to some extent, the impact of the disease on family members.  Alec Baldwin is her husband, who is supportive but also has to watch out for his own career, since he is now the sole breadwinner.  Her children, played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristin Stewart, have to figure out their own roles in their mother's life, as well as her changing role in theirs.

Julianne Moore won an Academy Award for her role, and it was well deserved.  She really became Alice Howland.  Her gradual transformation from a leading expert in linguistics to somebody who had nothing but a vague idea of who she was, was powerful, unsettling, and not pretty.  A really tremendous performance.

For many of us, the fear of getting Alzheimer's, or something like it, is a reality, especially as we grow older.  Both of my grandmothers, one of my aunts, and my mother-in-law had dementia.  Whether they had Alzheimer's or something else, I don't know, but it doesn't really matter.  It was frightening: they could very easily get out of the house one day and disappear.  It happens all the time - we see Amber Alerts nearly every week here in western North Carolina for just that sort of thing.  Or they could run up tens of thousands of dollars of in bills if an unscrupulous salesperson hits them at the wrong time (something like this happened with my aunt).  If not that, then the bills for adequate care can bankrupt a family.  In the movie, Moore and her husband were pretty affluent and had good insurance, so the story could focus on the disease and its impact.  Money was a concern but not a driving factor.  For most of us, being able to pay for adequate care will be critical concerns.

I've left the age of 60 in the rear-view mirror and the prospect of dementia is now a constant low-level bogeyman.  I'm more forgetful now, but it seems (so far) to be just normal.  Fortunately, the men in my family have all retained their mental facilities to the end.  That's good news for me, but I'm only one half of my household.

Young people watch horror movies for a gratuitous scare.  Still Alice is a horror story for older folks, with the added twist of being a real threat.  Still, it was worth watching.  There is life with Alzheimer's.  You just appreciate it a lot more.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

To The Beach

My wife is a San Diego girl.  She grew up with the beaches not far away.  Well, here in the Asheville area, the beaches are very far away.  So to keep the peace, every now and then we head off to someplace that's on the ocean.  We went to St. Augustine, Florida, last fall and really liked it.  So we decided to return to the same little beach house.  And we invited the son, daughter-in-law, and grandson to share the experience.  

Lots of heat.  Family in close quarters.  Sounds like a recipe for a nuclear explosion, doesn't it?

Actually, we all had a lot of fun.  We were together when we wanted to be, we wandered off on our lonesome when we wanted (except the grandson), we ate too well, got too much sun, rode bikes, went shopping, did some sight-seeing, and generally had a good time.  Vacations are supposed to be like that, and this one was.

It almost didn't turn out that way.  The day before we were to leave, our car got a flat tire.  I was out running errands and came out to find the right rear corner sagging to the ground.  Fortunately, we were taking the truck to the beach, rather than the car, so it wasn't a calamity, just a real PITA that I didn't need at the moment.  I changed the wheel right there in the grocery store parking lot and went home to load up the truck.

Then, while getting stuff packed in, the garage door somehow got activated and caught on the truck, then automatically reversed, there was this horrible screech, and the garage door was jammed up and wrenched crooked.  Oh, great!  Something was obviously destroyed in a very expensive way.  So out came the toolbox.  Pretty soon I found that nothing was broken, but that one of the cables supporting the door had come off the pulley.  So with a bit of pulling and prodding, along with a massive dose of cussing, we eventually got the wire back where it was supposed to be.  Whew - disaster averted!

We were afraid that we were having bad karma and that it might carry over to the trip.  Fortunately, it didn't.  The drive to St. Augustine is long (almost 9 hours, with stops every couple of hours to stretch our legs).  We had no trouble going down or coming home.  Our truck ran like a train all day.  Good stuff.  

I was able to go off and do some painting in St. Augustine.  The most interesting places for me were over on the Matanzas River, which is the inland waterway.  Here are three from that area:

Butler Beach Inlet
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12" 

Fort Matanzas
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12" 

Oil on linen panel, 9"x12" 

These were fun little landscapes to do.  I started a portrait of my daughter in law as well.  It needs a lot of work in the studio before anybody will ever see it again, though.

We've been back for a few days and are playing catch-up.  Had to get a new tire for the car, mowed most of the lawn (amazing how weeds can grow so tall with no rain), J has gotten a lot of weeding done, I'm finding out what happened with work, had to replace the lenses in my glasses, gave the dogs their baths, had to take two watches to the repair shop ... you know, the usual stuff.  Getting back to normal.  Gotta get into the studio here pretty soon, though - there are things that need to get painted.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Carolina's Got Art!

Years ago, the Fayetteville Museum of Art had an annual competition for artists from North and South Carolina.  I was fortunate to be juried in several times, and to win awards a couple of times.  Unfortunately, the museum didn't survive the economic downturn of the late "aughts" and had to close.  This year, the Elder Gallery in Charlotte stepped up with a replacement: the "Carolina's Got Art!" competition and exhibit.  One of my paintings, "Returning to Base", was selected for the show.  Last night was the opening, and I went down to Charlotte to take a look.

The Elder Art Gallery is very large, at least for a gallery.  They had a number of sponsors who helped provide the funding to make this show first-rate.  Artwork filled the walls, stood on pedestals, and filled nearly every available space.  I wouldn't say it was salon-style (in which artwork covers every inch of wall space, both vertically and horizontally), because it wasn't, but there was a lot of work.  And what I saw was very, very good.

As you can see, there was quite a turnout for the opening last night.  Seemed like anybody who was anybody in the Charlotte art scene was there.  I saw a lot of artists there as well, which was good.  My painting is way back in one of the nooks, as far back as is possible to go, but what the heck, it's on a gallery wall, so I'm happy.  I saw a number of people taking their time in looking at it.

I also ran into somebody that I hadn't seen in over 16 years.  Julie and her husband were stationed with us in Misawa, Japan, in the late '90's during my last tour in the Navy.  It was good to see her again and spend some time catching up.

Other than Julie, I didn't know a soul there, so I went walking around the gallery, looking at all the art.  There are a lot of really good artists in North and South Carolina and it was great to see such a wide range of styles, subject matter, and visions.  Here are some that caught my eye.

Mark Poteat had one of his "Factory Series" paintings in the show.  It was a really interesting abstraction based on factory shapes: architecture, pipes, cranes, and so on.  He's an art instructor at Western Piedmont Community College.  No web site that I could find, but there are some images on the web.

I'm a sucker for good figurative work, and Pamela Freeman is good.  She had a small, quiet painting of two women in conversation.  Her figures are abstracted a bit, which made them more universal in nature, rather than identifiable people.  And I really liked her paint handling: confident, subtle, nuanced, and beautifully done.

Robert Maniscalco is a portrait artist in Charleston.  He submitted a beautiful painting of an older woman, very strong, well-structured, and well-painted.

John Stennett is an Asheville-based artist.  He had a large, abstract, very atmospheric piece.  Although I'm not an abstract painter, I can greatly appreciate when an abstract is well done.  This one had a calm, quiet, and intriguing presence.

Tyrone Geter's large drawing was, for me, the strongest piece in the show.  It was a mixed-media drawing in charcoal on paper torn paper, assembled into a striking composition.  Tyrone is really, really good at this.  His figures had immense internal strength and depth.  The torn paper can be a gimmick in other hands, but here it both hid and revealed, which added significantly to the work.  Check out his web site, particularly his drawings, and go see the works in person if you can.

Landscape paintings can be so ... what, overdone, common, bland?  Everybody does them.  However, I was drawn to Joy Moser's landscape.  Really strong and well done, it pulled me in.  And she lives in Weaverville, so I can check out her work around here.

Jeremy Russell is a friend of mine.  He and I studied art at UNCA at the same time.  Jeremy's work spills over with more energy and vibrancy than can possibly be expressed in one sitting.  He had a moderate-sized abstract work that dominated the wall on which it was hung.  And I got a kick out of it: if you know Jeremy, that picture was essentially a self-portrait.

I met the owner of the gallery, Larry Elder.  Very nice guy, very personable.  He and his gallery did a bang-up job with this exhibition.  I'm glad to be a small part of it.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Rules

I got to spend some time today leading a drawing class at the Warrior's Canvas and Veterans Art Center in Johnson City, TN.  This was my second time leading the class and, like the first time, it was a lot of fun.  The students, all vets from all services, were enthusiastic, game for whatever I threw at them, and highly irreverent.  Everybody in the room was fair game for pointed but good-natured abuse, including me.  I'm looking forward to the next class already.

The Warrior's Canvas is not your typical gallery and art center.  Most art centers seem to cater to hobbyists and are about as edgy as a beach ball.  The kind of place that your Aunt Zelma would think was "nice".  The Canvas, though, was created by and for veterans and their families - people who have been through quite a few wringers in life, have heard every kind of BS you can think of and many more you can't, and who developed appropriate coping skills.  Like the irreverence that I mentioned earlier.

I noticed the Center's rules today, posted on a chalkboard.  A normal art center might have rules that say something like "Please be considerate.  Please remove your trash.  Please do not bring animals into the studio."  Rules that Aunt Zelma would understand.  They don't apply at the Canvas.  Not only were there two dogs present and occasionally participating in the class, the rules were geared toward a very different audience.  Here, then, are the
Rules of the Canvas:
- Keep it positive.  If you are negative, you will be removed forcibly to the curb.
- Clean up after yourself.  I am not your mother.
- You have trust and respect until you Bravo Foxtrot us, then you will see my war face!  (Editor's note: don't ask what "Bravo Foxtrot" means.)

Aunt Zelma would not approve of the tone, she'd be horrified at the idea of actually shooting arrows inside, and she'd faint if she knew what Bravo Foxtrot meant.  But veterans?  Vets would read the Rules, nod, say something like "Fuckin' A", and get to work.  And probably go outside to shoot the arrows.  But not always.

There's an understanding that vets have with each other that comes from shared and similar experiences.  We rib each other unmercifully, cut each other a good bit of slack, and jump to each other's aid when needed.  David Shields and Jason Sabbides, the two vets who created the Warrior's Canvas, have built a remarkable veterans' center in Johnson City.  I'm very proud and humbled to be able to participate in this project.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In the Studio

Time for an update on my studio work, isn't it?  A while back, I wrote about a painting in progress.  One of my models also makes her own line of clothes.  This new painting is about her creative process of turning random bits of cloth into a wearable work of art.

Initially, I was looking at one of my favorite artists, Jerome Witkin, for inspiration on how to put this painting together.  Witkin is a fabulous story-teller and you really can't go wrong in borrowing ideas from a master like him.  So I started working on ideas for the composition.  For a painting of this type, my routine is to do a lot of drawings, cut them apart, recombine them in different ways, take things out, and add things in, until something starts to happen.  This one had maybe 15 different drawings, and parts of drawings, taped together to create one image.  Then I put tracing paper over it, traced the lines to create a smooth version, and then filled in more details.  Here's what it looked like:

The next step is to do a color study.  I transferred the drawing to a 20"x16" panel and painted it in oil.  Here's the first stage, a warm grisaille; I later went over it with brighter colors:

As soon as it was done, I realized that this particular composition wasn't going to work.  It looked too jammed-in, the light was coming from the wrong direction, the workbench wasn't the right height, the ironing board in the background was too confusing, and the stuff in the foreground was just clutter.  Further, it was too literal - there was nothing to suggest the larger theme of creativity.  I had to come up with something different.

Although Witkin is one of my favorite artists of all time, I have a hard time using him as an inspiration.  Witkin's works are beautiful little stage settings.  "Stage" is the applicable word as most of his works are constructions within the very small area of his canvas, just like stage settings are constructions within a very small area in an auditorium.  I have a hard time with that idea, for some reason, and my efforts to create a stage setting looked like a high school effort, when what I'm shooting for is something more natural.

So I shifted the source of my inspiration from Witkin to Vermeer.  Vermeer's works are probably much closer to my nature.  They're quiet (Witkin's most decidedly are not), carefully constructed, narrative, and take place in a natural interior setting.  They also have a strong metaphorical character, as well, which is often only apparent after considerable study.  So after another session with the drawing paper, scissors, and tape, here's the compositional study that I came up with:

 The light is coming from the left side and shining on the dress.  The young lady's face is in shadow - this painting is not about her as a person, but about the idea of the hard work of creating something, so her particular identity is not important.  The workbench is now an appropriate height and the ironing board is now in the foreground, providing a bit of a visual block between the viewer and the dress.  Then I worked it up into a color study on gessoed paper:

This version made me realize that the composition needs even more work.  It still has a bit of a jammed-in feeling.  So I extended the painting to the left and down (I taped another piece of gessoed paper on the bottom).  This had the effect of pushing the viewer back a bit and giving the seamstress a little more breathing room.  I can also use the window and light/shadow to define her work area and frame the composition.  I've also increased the light/dark differences so make it have a bit more of a dramatic presence.  This would make more sense if I had a photo of the current version, but I don't right now, so use your imagination!

But there's still a lot to be done.  I need to decide what's going to be on the wall.  I have a few ideas, none of which have really grabbed me as the "right" one.  There are some things I need to do around the window.  The fabric on the workbench isn't right yet.

But it's getting there.  Meanwhile, I have a 48"x48" canvas stretched and primed and ready to go.  I'm looking forward to getting to work on it!