Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Nature of Figurative Work

This will be a kinda stream-of-consciousness post here as I'm still thinking this through.  As is pretty obvious by now, I'm a figurative painter.  I've always been interested in the figure.  Way back in the mid-70's (yes, I'm that old), I was an art major at Memphis State University taking a bunch of required courses, including ceramics.  The instructors wanted me to throw pots, but pots bored the stink out of me.  Instead, all my creations were figures of some sort: a "vase" shaped like a head (it was really hideous), various figurines, that sort of thing.  Years later, in a continuing-ed painting course at Maryland Institute College of Art, the teacher had us doing abstract and non-objective works so that we could have a better understanding of basic composition, color, and other issues.  I learned about that stuff, but the figures kept creeping back in.  My senior show at UNC Asheville was all figures.  After I established my own studio, I did a series of still lifes using old children's toys and stuffed animals.  They were really figure works using stuffed animals as stand-ins.

Okay, so I'm a figurative artist.  The next question is, which artists are my influences?  Which ones do I want to emulate to a greater or lesser extent?  That's a bit trickier to answer than it first appears.  It gets into the purpose behind the art.

Some artists use figures as a way to tell their own story.  The figures in the painting may or may not be realistic and recognizable, but their identity is not that important.  Instead, it's all about the context in the picture, and the context is the artist's story.  Think of the Renaissance paintings, for example, in which individual figures are used to tell biblical stories.  More recently, Norman Rockwell's paintings are narratives that use his neighbors as role-players.  The figures are recognizable, but their role in the painting has nothing to do with who they really are.  Currently, Jerome Witkin is using this sort of approach to make some unbelievably powerful images about the Holocaust and other social issues.  I do this sometimes to tell a specific story, as in these paintings:

You Don't Understand
Oil on canvas, diptych, 40"x62"

Dancers
Oil on panel, 52"x40"

Another approach is to use the figure as an object of beauty, or of study.  In this case, the identity of the individual isn't important, nor is there a story.  It's more about making an interesting image, or of showing the beauty of an individual form.  There's a lot of this type of work out there.  Google "figure painting" and look at the images and this is the type of work you're going to see.  It's most often a pretty young nude woman and could come out of any life drawing and painting session.  One artist who takes it to an extreme conclusion is Philip Pearlstein.  I gotta say, I can't stand his work.  Why?  Because Pearlstein may as well be painting a slab of meat.  His paintings are studies of formal compositions using people and other objects.  There's no story to tell, and there's no interest in the figures as individual people.  Take this painting, for example:

Two Nudes and Four Duck Decoys
Philip Pearlstein

You know a lot about the bodies of these two women, but you have no idea about them, personally.  And there's no reason they should be hanging over some duck decoys except that it makes for some interesting shapes and color contrasts.

Let's contrast Pearlstein with another artist who did a lot of nudes lying around in the studio, but who had a very different approach.  Lucian Freud seems to have channeled his grandfather in order to dive into the psyche of the people he painted.  Even though his sitters had poses similar to Perlstein's, and Freud's color palette was very similar, Freud's subjects are very real and very individual people.  This painting, for example:

Two Women
Lucian Freud

I feel like I know something about these two women, just from the way Freud painted them.  They have life in them, there's a relationship between them, and I get a sense that there's a lot going on behind their eyes.  They're not just two people arranged in a composition.

This is the approach that appeals most to me: getting something of the subject's personality, character, and individuality into the image.  These days, I'm not so much interested in telling my own stories because I don't find my own stories that interesting.  It's more interesting to learn something about the person I'm working with, even if I don't know them or even speak to them.  As an example, here's a drawing of an Afghan bazaar merchant who was sitting in one of our meetings in Kandahar province:

Bazaar Merchant

What struck me about this guy was his dignity and composure.  He seemed like an honest, hard-working guy, intelligent, and reserved.  That's what I was trying to get in this drawing, not just an interesting face.  I think it was successful.

That's the same kind of approach that underlies most of my work.  Over the past couple of years, I've been experimenting a lot with new technical approaches.  I've been looking at several artists, particularly Mark Demsteader and Nick Alm, because their chiaroscuro lighting and compositions are technically excellent and have a lot of dramatic impact.  I've been experimenting with this chiaroscuro with the models who've worked with me in the studio.  But what has really driven my work is trying to get some of the models' personalities.  The dramatic lighting and compositions are tools to help the story but they're not the end in themselves.

Jennifer #5
Charcoal and pastel on toned paper

I can explain a lot of my technical approach when I run a workshop, including lighting, anatomy, and connecting your eyes with your hands in getting the image on canvas or paper.  One thing that I cannot explain is capturing the personality.  When I'm working with a model, I am always conscious of that individual as a person.  I can clinically look at them to analyze the shape of their skull or the way the shadow of the jaw falls across the neck, and I can explain that to students.  What I haven't figured out is how to explain that I'm aware of them as Jennifer, or Amy, or James, or whoever.  That part is the filter that processes the analytic stuff.  I don't know how it works, it just does.

Last week, I had a new model work with me in the studio.  You're going to see a lot of new artworks come out of that session over the next few weeks.  Here's one in progress to whet your appetite:



Saturday, June 03, 2017

Courtroom Art

I'm working as a courtroom artist with WLOS TV (the ABC station in Asheville) on the trial of the minister of the Word of Faith church in Spindale, NC.  This is a real horror story of a cult that demands obedience to church leaders in matters as major as choosing your partner in marriage, to as minor as the proper way to manage a roll of toilet paper.  They practice communal living with multiple families in a house so that everybody will be under observation at all times.  These people are a Christian equivalent of the fundamentalist Wahabi sect of Islam, which features rigid adherence to strict rules for everyday matters, intolerance of individual thought, and hostility to outsiders.
The more I heard, the more I was stunned that this kind of behavior can go on in this country.

But go on it did, for many years.  Two Assistant District Attorneys were members of the church, along with several sheriff's deputies, and they killed any attempt to file charges against the church.  Additionally, I was told that two officials in the county clerk's office were members, and they would pass on anything they heard to church leaders within minutes.

One of the church's practices was something called "blasting".  The official name for it was a "prayer session", a much more innocuous term, and I noticed that is the only way that the defense attorney refers to it.  Basically, in a "prayer session" or "blasting", a person who is deemed to need help with staying on the right road is surrounded by many other church members who scream at the individual, hit, push, shake, and otherwise use very violent means to drive out any demons.  That anybody would voluntarily submit to this just boggles my mind.

This trial is about one particularly violent blasting.  The church minister, Brooke Covington, learned that one young member, Matthew Fenner, was gay.  This is a major sin in the Word of Faith church.  She called for a blasting on him and it went on for 2-5 hours, depending on the witness.  He was choked, pounded, bruised, shaken, and screamed at over that entire time.  He could not ask for it to stop because that would just make it worse.  When it was over, he was taken back to his church group house.  The next night, he was able to sneak out of the house and get to safety.

The minister is now on trial for assault and kidnapping.  The assault charge is for the particularly brutal "blasting" that Matthew endured.  The kidnapping charge is based on the fact that he was under constant control of other members of the church and not allowed to leave.  Four other people have been charged in this case and their trials will come later.  From what I have heard, I fully expect other charges to come down.  The FBI is apparently still investigating the group, so possibly some federal charges will be pending.

How much of this did I know beforehand?  About zilch.  I had heard of a cult in the area that had been in trouble with the law over the years and that was about it.  On Wednesday, I got a call from WLOS asking if I could be a courtroom artist for them.  The judge had prohibited cameras from the courtroom, so an artist was the only option.  I jumped at the chance, since I find courtroom artist duties to be challenging and fun.

So here are some of the drawings from two days in court:

Judge Gary Gavenus and the defendant, Brooke Covington, the minister of the Word of Faith church.  The judge is outstanding: he runs a tight courtroom.  He's done some things that I've never seen a judge do, but he's keeping both the prosecutor and defense attorneys on their toes.

This is Matthew Fenner, the young man who survived the "blasting" session brought on by Covington.

Sarah Anderson was one of the participants in the blasting.  She was supposed to be "in authority over" Matthew - a church term meaning that she was responsible for keeping him on the straight and narrow.  She and her husband lived in the group home with Matthew and many other people.  Since then, she has left the church and divorced her husband.  She's one of the others facing charges in this case.  The fact that she voluntarily gave testimony that could be used against her in her own trial was an indication to me that she's trying to make things right.



Danielle Cordes is another former church member who participated in the blasting.  She was a close friend of Matthew's and she left the church just a few weeks after the event.  The stories that Sarah and Danielle told fully corroborated Matthew's claims of really horrific treatment.


For more information on the case, check the first day and second day of WLOS reports that include my drawings.  An AP report that has a bit more informatio has been printed in multiple newspapers around the country; try the one at the LA Times.  For much more information, check the blog of John Huddle, a former member of the church who has been providing many details of church operations over many years.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Who's Your Teacher?

Had an interesting discussion with a couple of artists before tonight's life drawing session in the studio.  One had taken some painting lessons from me and then had taken a workshop with two more well-known artists.  The other has taken a couple of my workshops and has studied with a lot of other artists.  Some of her friends couldn't understand why she studied with so many different people.  "Why don't you just stay with one teacher?" they asked.

I was a bit surprised at that question.  In my experience, when you study with a new teacher, you learn a lot in the beginning.  Then the amount of "new" begins to taper off until you're just getting old lessons reinforced.  There's a good bit of value in that, particularly when your natural style, subject matter, and ways of working mesh with your teacher.  And there's a lot of value in having a long and deep mentor relationship.

But taking classes and workshops from a lot of different teachers has value as well.  You learn a lot of different approaches.  The way I paint a figure is completely different from the way a good friend of mine paints a figure.  My way isn't the "right" way any more than his is.  My way is just right for me.  So when I teach, I show the students my way of working.  I tell them why it works for me, but it's certainly not the only way, and they may find another artist's approach that is better for them.  In the meantime, here's a way that may have some value for you.

When I was working on my senior show at UNC Asheville, I had two instructors whose work was very different from each other.  One is a figurative artist who  does a lot of allegorical work.  The other does some fantastic trompe l'oeil paintings.  ("Trompe l'oeil" means "fool the eye" - the paintings are so hyper-realistic that you think the yardstick and apple hanging in front if it are real).  One would beat me up over what the paintings meant, while the other beat me up over the way they were painted.  I learned a tremendous amount from those two artists.  I could not have learned nearly that much from just one.

So my advice to all budding artists: learn from all of us.  Take workshops and classes from different artists.  Find great works that resonate with you and copy them.  When you find a teacher who meshes well with your natural way of working and your personality, then you can stay with them for a long period of time.  But no one artist has THE ONE answer.  You have to find your own way.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mountain Music - The Painting

Mountain Music
Watercolor on paper
(Click on the image for a larger view)

In my last post, I wrote about the experience of drawing a group of North Carolina mountain musicians while they were playing together at a friend's birthday party.  Mountain music has very deep roots, and the act of playing it brings together people of all skill levels.  Some of the people at this party were world-class musicians while others are still taking classes.  Didn't matter: as long as your heart was in it, you were accepted.  The goal wasn't to show off individual skills, it was to work with everybody else to make something beautiful.

I did most of the drawing for this painting right there, sketching with my pencil, trying to capture the likenesses and capture the feeling.  Later, in the studio, I added some more people, refined the sketches, then brought in some ink, and then the watercolor.  This approached stressed liveliness, which matched the feeling I got from the musicians.  And here's how it turned out.  If you click on the picture, it'll bring up a larger version.

This is part of my series of artworks done live at weddings, birthdays, and other events.  It's really fun to do them, and very rewarding to make something that will be treasured for years.  More information about this line of work is on my Asheville Event Paintings website.  So what do you think - success, or no?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mountain Music!

The father of my neighbor Patrick had a birthday yesterday.  He's lived here in Madison County pretty much his whole life.  And he's a musician.  Now, Madison County is home to a very old tradition of mountain music whose roots go back to Scotland and Ireland in the 1700's and beyond. The earliest settlers here brought their music over with them.  Over the centuries, it changed very slowly, since the mountain hollers were remote and somewhat isolated.  There was the introduction of the banjo, for instance, but otherwise the instruments were much the same as the early settlers.  And many of the songs sung now originated Back Then and Over There.

Don't confuse bluegrass with mountain music.  Bluegrass grew out of mountain music roughly after World War II, with Bill Monroe credited as its creator.  Bluegrass is generally a faster and flashier style, whereas mountain music has a different sound.

Anyway, Patrick's father is friends with all the mountain musicians here in Madison County.  He's been playing with them his whole life.  So when Patrick decided to throw a birthday party for his dad, it was natural that there was going to be a good bit of music being played.  And Patrick wanted to do one more thing to memorialize the event: he asked me to do an artwork at it.  He knew about my Asheville Event Paintings sideline and wanted to put it to good use.  I jumped at the chance - one, because he was my neighbor, and two, because it promised to be a helluva lot of fun.

I went over to Patrick's house around 6:30 last night.  I didn't set up immediately because I wanted to scope it out and see who was there and what was going on.  It was quite a crowd.  Everybody seemed to know everybody else very well.  I only knew a few people, but everybody made me feel perfectly at home.  If you're at Patrick's party, you're a friend of Patrick's, and therefore, you're a friend of mine.

Around about 8 pm, the guitars and banjos and fiddles started coming out.  I went back to the truck, grabbed my art stuff, and set up on the porch next to a one of several groups.  I decided to do this artwork in watercolor rather than my usual oils.  The reason was that mountain music is very lively, and people are always coming in and out of the group, and I wanted a way of working that was equally lively and very adaptable to changing circumstances.  Damn good thing I did it this way, too.  Daylight only lasted another half hour, with light coming from the overhead porch light after that, and everybody started packing up around 9 pm.  So there was much less working time available than I had hoped for.  Still, I got the basics of the drawing in place.  Today I did some refinement and additions in the studio, and here's how it looks on the easel right now:


There is still a ways to go.  Tomorrow I'm going to hit it with some ink to strengthen things up and follow with watercolor.  It's going to be fun.

Some people make fun of mountain music and the "hillbillies" who make it.  I'll confess, I had no appreciation of either the music or the culture when I was growing up and listening to Led Zeppelin.  But there's quite a lot to both.  You don't learn either by playing video games or reading books - you learn by interacting with other people.  When you're making music, you have to be attuned to what everybody else is doing and fit yourself in.  With this group, it's not about showing off your own special skills, it's about working as a team to make something beautiful.  And if you're honestly trying, you're going to be accepted.  Some on Patrick's porch are among the best in the world at this kind of music and others have barely gotten beyond basic lessons, but it didn't matter.  It was all about friendship, community, and making music together.  It was beautiful.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On Families

I just got back from a trip up to Baltimore for a family event.  My Aunt Bobbi turned 95 this year and we had a big family get-together to celebrate. This was the first time in about 25 years that we had all been together in one spot, and it was pretty cool.

Aunt Bobbi is in amazing shape.  To look at her, you'd think she was 20 years younger.  She's very sharp with a strong sense of humor.  She still drives herself around Baltimore, takes trips to Florida, cooks, and takes care of herself.  She works at the Maryland State Fair every year and does smocking so well that she wins blue ribbons for her work pretty much every year.  Wheelchairs and nursing homes are NOT in her vocabulary.  But then, she has always been a go-getter, and that mindset (plus a good set of genes) is keeping her going.  I'm impressed.  I want to be like her when I grow up.

So the family that got together this past weekend included her three daughters, their husbands and kids, their kids' spouses, THEIR kids, myself, and another cousin.  Plus the parents of one of the spouses.  Seventeen people - quite a menagerie.

I was struck by some of the family resemblences.  The 2-year-old was a tiny version of her grandmother.  One of my cousins looked just like her father - no, I mean JUST LIKE her father, down to the facial expressions.  Another cousin looked nothing like her mother but had her mother's sharp and quick wit.  Once I started noticing some of these likenesses, I looked for them even more and just kept finding them.

Families are different than friends.  You can choose your friends, but your family is for life.  These people have been in my life for almost 64 years now.  We don't get together very often - as I said earlier, some of these I hadn't seen in 25 years - but we are still connected.  There is both a depth to the relationships that is surprisingly deep, and also a shallowness, since we see various members of the clan only rarely.  So we get together, catch up on news, pick up old jokes and stories right where we left off, meet the new spouses or kids, and share some of what we've been doing.  And we read between the lines to try to understand what led up to this or that event, or notice what was not said.  It's all part of trying to understand who your family is, which helps you understand your place in the group.

So here's to my Aunt Bobbi, a wonderful lady who will be going strong for many more years.  And here's to my family, all of 'em.  I'm glad you're in my life.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Looking at Artists: Constance Bosworth

I stumbled across an interesting artist tonight.  I spotted an article about an artist, Constance Bosworth, who does paintings about weddings.  This is a subject that is in my ballpark now.  However, she doesn't do live paintings of the ceremony or reception, like I do.  She paints portraits (which I do, too), but also the wedding cake, bouquets, the bride's dress, and other items related to the event.  That's pretty cool.  Most of that stuff means a lot to somebody for a very short period of time but is then forgotten.  Even when it's immortalized by the photographer, those photos usually wind up in a box, or in a folder on your computer, and rarely if ever seen.  A painting, though, is a different matter.  Paintings tend to get framed and hung on a wall.  Yes, they may become background noise after a while, but they're still being seen on a daily basis, and every once in a while, you stop and look.

Constance had some interesting things to say about what she does and why she does it.  Rather than repeat her comments, here's the link to the article.  Go read it for yourself.

The small images in the article were interesting, so I found her website and took a look.  And I was quite impressed.  Constance knows what she's doing.  She has some very sensitively-done portraits, some beautiful still lifes (and I don't typically care for still lifes), some paintings done as medieval icons, and some companion animal portraits.  That last category got me.  Normally, you say "pet portraits" and I gag.  These, though, are different.  The animals have character, personality, thoughtfulness, and individuality.  They're not just blown-up versions of somebody's snapshots, which is normally the case.  No, they're very carefully considered portraits of some very caring individuals that you would want to know.  They just happen to be hairy and have four legs.

While she's at it, she does some amazing things with little kids.  Now, young kids are hard, at least for me.  Their faces and body proportions are very different from adults.  You can't just shrink an adult and say it's a child because your eyeballs would tell you you're lying.  Constance not only gets them to be children, they're individual children, with their own personalities and identities.  Quite impressive.

Usually, when I do a "Looking at Artists" post, I'll grab an image from their website and post it here so you get an idea of what I'm talking about.  I'm not doing that this time.  Go look at her website, www.constancebosworth.com.  And let me know what you think.