Monday, October 12, 2020

Pet Portraits

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Looking at Artists: Use of Color

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Studio Experimenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Life and the Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 14, 2020

"Portland 2020"

Portland 2020
Oil on canvas, 45"x45"

In my last post, I mentioned a painting that was underway that would address the issue of federal agents, dressed and equipped like combat soldiers, being deployed to deal with Black Lives Matter protesters.  That painting is now completed.

I was against the very idea of deploying these soldiers from the very beginning.  In America, we don't use soldiers against our own people.  Only dictatorships and failed states do that.  The cities didn't want them, but the federal government sent them anyway.  Some argue that they're not soldiers.  But anybody that's wearing Army uniforms, with Army helmets, Army body armor, Army equipment, and Army weapons, is a soldier.

What set me off was the incident in Portland when a Navy vet walked up to a group of these soldiers to talk with them.  While he was doing that, one of them suddenly began beating him with a baton, and another pepper-sprayed him.  This was a totally unprovoked attack by US federal goons.  We don't do that here in this country.  Yet ... these assholes did.

As an artist, this painting is my response to to the Portland attack and similar incidents around the country.  And if these federal agents come to my town, I'll be down there to protest them.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Behind the Canvas

I recently completed the painting “Say Their Names”, which consists of portraits of 13 unarmed black men, women, and children who were killed by police or vigilantes.  This was the first political painting that I’ve done in maybe 15 years.  And I have another political painting on my easel right now.  So what brought this on?

Well, this is a very political time right now.  The country is divided over pretty much everything: right/left, Democrat/Republican, mask/no mask, reopen schools/keep kids home, deficits are bad/deficits are good, you name it.  So people have to take a stand on something every time we turn around.  But one thing that is lost in all the shouting is that the stands we’re being asked to take are never as simple as they appear.

In “Say Their Names”, I am explicitly taking a stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  I think this is important.  For all my life, and for well beyond that, blacks have suffered under prejudices that should never have existed in a country founded on “all men are created equal”.  Blacks have never been treated as equal.  They are disproportionately in poverty, subject to less support in education, have higher unemployment, are discriminated against in employment, have worse medical care if they have it at all, are pulled over by police at higher rates, and are killed by police and vigilantes at much higher rates than whites.  This is intolerable.  It must change.  This is what the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s was all about and it still has not been resolved.  I think the BLM movement and general unrest of the past couple of months may finally be moving the needle a bit in the right direction.  My painting is a way of supporting that effort.

Some people respond to "Black Lives Matter" with “All Lives Matter” or similar phrases.  They miss the point.  Of course, all lives matter.  But when some lives don’t matter as much as others, it’s time to focus on correcting that imbalance. 

And you can say “Black Lives Matter” while still supporting the police.  Yes, there is prejudice and racism built into our society, meaning it’s built into police forces everywhere.  But I firmly believe that the vast majority of our police officers are truly committed to doing the best they can for the citizens they deal with, no matter the race.  It’s only a small minority of officers who are causing the problems.  That small minority should be corrected, or rooted out and dismissed.  The rest of the officers deserve our utmost respect and admiration.  These are people who go to work every day and never know when the shit is going to hit the fan.  They could get killed in a traffic stop for a broken taillight, or gunned down when responding to a fight between a husband and wife.  They put their lives on the line for us every day and deserve our support.

So when I hear the cries to “defund the police”, that ticks me off.  That’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard in a long time, including in the time of Donald Trump.  Our police don’t need to be defunded at all; if anything, they need more resources.  But the resources and police forces need to be better aligned to the missions that they’re having to deal with.  A husband-wife fight doesn’t necessarily need a police officer, it may need a social worker.  So maybe police forces need to shift some resources from violent responses to softer people skills.  But at the same time, these different types of responses need to be tightly integrated.  Situations can go from talking it out to shooting it out in a flash, so we need to have the ability to have a variety of responses available at all times.  You can’t do that if the police departments are defunded. 

One response that has been utilized quite a bit over the past month or two is that of sending “federal agents” into the streets of our cities, regardless of whether the cities want them or not.  I put the term in quotes because these are NOT police officers.  Anybody who’s wearing an Army camouflage uniform, Army helmet, Army boots, Army body armor, and using Army weapons, is not a police officer.  They’re soldiers.  Only dictatorships use soldiers against their own people.  The United States is not a dictatorship, but many of our highest ranking government officials are behaving as if it is.  I remember the Kent State shootings of 1970, when armed National Guard troops fired on a large group of protesting students, killing four and wounding nine.  That was wrong then, and the approach is wrong now.  I will fight any attempt to deploy armed soldiers in my city.  Meanwhile, this issue is the subject of the painting that’s on my easel right now.

So I’m taking a stand in support of Black Lives Matter with my painting “Say Their Names”.  But there are many other aspects to that support that are not covered by just those three words.  And I’m taking a stand against soldiers in American streets with my new painting.  But there are many other aspects of that stance that are not covered in just a few words.

Take a stand.  But don’t let the sound bites define you.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Say Their Names

Say Their Names
Oil on canvas, 36"x48"

"Say Their Names" is finally done.  This painting is of 13 blacks who were killed by police or vigilantes.  All were unarmed.  One of them was killed after this painting was already well under way.  This useless killing is the antithesis of what the United States is all about and it must stop. 

In the back row, left to right:

  • George Floyd, 36, was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin.  Chauvin and his partners were investigating a complaint that Floyd had passed a counterfeit $20 bill.  Chauvin had a previous bad history with Floyd dating back to their time when both worked as bouncers at a bar.  Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes, choking him to death.  
  • Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was jogging near his home in Georgia.  He was chased down by three white vigilantes and shot.  Local police refused to arrest them.  It wasn't until a video of the encounter was released to a news station and an international outcry forced the state to step in.  The vigilantes, Travis and Gregory McMichael, along with Roddie Bryan (who made the video) were arrested two and a half months after the event for felony murder and other charges.  
  • Rekia Boyd, 22, was killed by a Chicago police officer, Dante Servin, who was responding to a noise complaint in a park.  Rekia and three others were partying.  One of them pulled out a cell phone.  Servin claimed he thought it was a gun and he fired, striking Rekia in the head.  Servin was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter but the case was dismissed by a judge.  Subsequently, Servin was forced out of the police department and the city paid $4.5M in damages to Rekia's family.
  • Sean Reed, 21, had been in the US Air Force before returning home to Indianapolis.  He was observed to be driving recklessly and led police on a vehicle and foot chase.  Reed was live-streaming the event on Facebook Live to a large audience.  Police tased him and then shot him 13 times.  One was heard on the livestream to say "It looks like a closed casket, homie."  The police officers were placed on administrative leave.
Middle row, left to right:
  • Eric Garner, 43, was approached by New York city police and accused of selling single cigarettes from a package without tax stamps.  The situation escalated and one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put Garner in a prohibited choke hold.  Garner said "I can't breathe" 11 times before losing consciousness.  He lay on the sidewalk an additional seven minutes without medical attention while the officers waited for an ambulance.  Garner was declared dead at the hospital.  A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.  Eventually, public pressure forced the city to fire Pantaleo five years later and reach a $5.9M settlement with Garner's family. 
  • Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested by Baltimore police during a neighborhood counter-drug campaign for carrying a knife.  The knife was legal under Maryland law.  Gray was loaded into the back of a police van without being strapped in, then given a "rough ride".  When the ride ended, Gray was in a coma with his spinal cord 80% severed at the neck.  He died a week later.  Some of the officers were tried, none were found guilty of any charges, and many charges were dropped.
  • Walter Scott, 50, a US Coast Guard veteran, was stopped for a broken tail light by Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer.  A confrontation ensued and Slagle tased Scott.  Scott ran from the scene and Slagle shot him in the back five times.  Slagle was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
  • Yvette Smith, 47, called 911 for help in de-escalating a confrontation between two men that involved a gun.  After police officers arrived, the situation calmed.  A police officer, Daniel Willis, called for Smith to come outside.  When she did, he shot her twice with his personal AR-15.  Willis was fired and charged with murder, but was acquitted.  The county settled a civil lawsuit for $1.2M.
Lower left:
  • Dontre Hamilton, 31, had a history of mental health issues.  He was sleeping in a Milwaukee park when he was approached twice by two police officers who found nothing wrong.  Shortly afterward, another police officer, Christopher Manney, approached Hamilton.  A scuffle ensued, Hamilton got control of Manney's baton, and Manney shot Hamilton 14 times.  Manney was fired but never charged.  A civil suit resulted in a $2.3M settlement.
  • Breonna Taylor, 26, was an Emergency Medical Technician in Louisville, Kentucky.  She was sleeping at home when police executed an unannounced, no-knock search warrant targeted against two men who knew Taylor but did not live there.  Taylor's boyfriend thought the police were intruders and fired once.  The officers fired over 20 times, hitting Taylor eight times.  One of the officers was fired and the police chief was fired after a black business owner was killed by police.  Other investigations are ongoing.
  • Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, was killed by Detroit police when they raided her home, looking for a murder suspect.  The officer, Joseph Weekley, was charged with involuntary manslaughter.  Two trials ended in mistrials and charges were dismissed before a third trial.  Weekley is still on duty.  A civil lawsuit is in progress.
Lower right: 
  • Elijah McClain, 23, was walking home from the store in Aurora, Colorado, when he was stopped by police.  They had received a call about a "suspicious person" and Elijah was wearing a ski mask.  Police wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, and put him into a chokehold.   Elijah repeatedly said that he couldn't breathe.  When paramedics arrived, they injected him with ketamine, a sedative.  He went into cardiac arrest and died three days later.  Three of the officers have been fired and one more has resigned.  No action has been taken against the paramedics.  
  • Tamir Rice, 12, was playing in a park in Cleveland with an Airsoft pistol, a highly accurate toy gun.  Police officers arrived and, thinking it was a real pistol, immediately shot him twice.  The officers faced no charges, although Cleveland later settled a civil lawsuit for $6M.