Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Trying to Title a Painting

I completed a new painting a bit over a week ago and have not been able to come up with a good title for it.  Sometimes titles are easy.  For my charcoal and pastel portraits and figures, I've just used the subject's name plus the number in the sequence.  "James #4", for example.  These artworks are studies of the specific individual, so titling is easy.

This painting, however, is different.  Here's an image (click on it for a larger version):


The subject here is more ambiguous.  Everybody I've talked with has seen something different in it.  I know what I was thinking about when composing and painting it, but nobody else has interpreted it that way yet.  And that's not a bad thing at all. 

Many years ago, I was taking a painting class, and our homework assignment was to paint a still life.  So I went home, threw a bunch of things together, then winnowed them down to just two things: my Navy officer's hat and the old teddy bear from when I was a kid.  I liked them because of the contrast in colors and textures.  The hard black, white, and gold of the hat contrasted with the soft texture and warm browns of the teddy bear.  Here's how that painting turned out:


I thought it was an interesting study, certainly more so than the usual apples or flowers, but that was about it.  Then, in class, we critiqued each other's work.  When they got to this one, one of the other students said that he saw a military father who was going off to war and wasn't coming back, and the kid was going to have to grow up without a father, and it was one of the saddest paintings he'd ever seen.  Holy cow.  I thought "damn, it was just a still life ... ".  But I also learned that I can't control what others see in an artwork.  Everybody else comes to the viewing with a very different background, mood, likes/dislikes, and outlook, so everybody is going to see each artwork through their own lens. 

And so it is with my newest painting.  I expected that people would have different interpretations and I wasn't disappointed.  But I also realized that an artwork's title has a lot to do with how people interpret it.  Had I told these other people what the title was beforehand, I would not have heard some really interesting ideas.  Some of the interpretations:
   - The young woman has been through some very bad experiences, but she has come out on the other side and is moving forward with her life.
   - Civilization has collapsed and those left are learning to live with the results.
   - The girl represents innocence, and she's coming to realize the world as it really is.
   - The girl represents strength and confidence, able to handle anything the world can throw at her.
   - Hard times are coming.
And there are more.

So how do you come up with one title that can accommodate all those interpretations?  I haven't been able to.  I tried crowd-sourcing the title in a Facebook artist group and got a wide range of suggestions.  Most were simple and descriptive.  None covered all the interpretations I've heard so far.  I'd done this once before (written about in this post from 2018) and got a great title.  Not this time. 

At the moment, just for my records, I have a title.  But I'm not sharing it here.  I'd rather hear more new interpretations from others. 

Friday, January 03, 2020

Year In Review

About this time of the year, people often take a look back over the past year.  Well, okay, normal people do it sometime in December.  I'm lazy and held off until early January.  But hey, better late than never, right?

A few statistics.  Over the past 12 months, I've done 23 oil paintings that survived to get a title.  There were probably half as many again that got wiped out or otherwise destroyed.  Of the survivors, 8 were commissioned wedding paintings.  That's a good number for me, I think.  Any more and making the wedding paintings would be too much like a real job.  As it is, they're still a lot of fun and a great creative challenge.  Of the other paintings, ten were oil on panel figure and portrait studies, done during our weekly life sessions, most with some touchup work over the next day or two.  Another painting was a revision to a portrait from a few years ago - it was enough of a revision that I considered it a new work.  The remaining four paintings were total creations: "Reflection" is a psych study of a young woman, "The Conversation" is two people not having one, "Siren on the Styx" was a total invention from my subconscious (I think, but damned if I know for sure), and "Moving On" was my last painting of the year.

Oil painting wasn't my only medium.  I did 31 charcoal and pastel works on paper that survived to get titled, and maybe half again that number that went into the garbage.  All were figurative works.  I started the year doing two portraits for a couple who really deserved them.  I also did several portrait and figure works based on photo sessions with the lovely Natalie and Jazmin, both of whom are great models with a real talent for projecting their personality.  When I'm working from photos, I don't just copy the image, I try to find something that goes beyond what the camera saw.  In one case, finding that "something" required using Natalie's head from one image, arms from a second, and body from a third! 

Two more of my charcoal and pastel pieces were commissioned portraits.  Almost all the rest were studies that I began in our regular life sessions and then completed later.  At one point during the year, I did a big cleanup in the studio and found a bunch of old charcoal drawings from my life sessions between 2004 and 2010.  Some of those were fairly decent (maybe that says that I haven't learned anything since then?) and I thought I'd touch them up with pastels.  Most of those turned out well while some went in the trash. 

I also got to work with the WLOS TV news crews this year for another courtroom session.  Those are always interesting and fun.  Cameras are not allowed in federal courthouses, so news outlets will use artists to capture something of the proceedings.  This year, it was the sentencing of several county employees convicted of corruption.  I've written about the experience before.  Courtroom proceedings can be enjoyable as long as you're not one of the participants in the proceedings!

So that was a pretty good year.  For this year, I'm hoping to do about the same number of wedding paintings.  I want to see if I can do something more with the charcoal and pastel works (not sure what "more" means yet), and I want to develop a series of oil paintings along the lines of the last one completed.  It's ambitious, but if you're not striving for something, then what are you doing?

Friday, December 20, 2019

Life Drawing, Short Poses

I run a life drawing session in my studio once a week.  It's geared towards painters and others who want a long pose.  I hadn't been to a session with short(er) poses in a long time, but the other night, the Blue Spiral gallery hosted one.  As it turns out, I had a great time.  It was fun to just use a pencil and paper, work fast, and let it flow.  When things are really flowing, it's wonderful.  And my drawings were working.  So here are a few of the images.  Click on them for larger versions.

 These were quick, 1-minute sketches.

 This was longer, maybe 2 minutes.

 Another 2-minute sketch.

 A 5-minute one. 

 Turns out, the other artists made great models, too!

Portrait study of one of the models ...

And a portrait study of the other.

So now I'm thinking of running maybe one session a month in my studio of just short poses.  Could be fun!

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Development of a Wedding Painting

When creating a painting, they usually seem to fall into either a "flow" or "fight" category.  By that, I mean that a painting seems to flow and develop easily, or else it wants to fight me from the very first day.  Last week, I completed a wedding painting that was definitely a fight.  Here's how it developed.  You can click on the images to see larger versions.

 This was how the painting looked at the end of the reception.  Pretty rough, huh? Most of my paintings are pretty rough at this stage.  I mean, here's a 24"x30" canvas that I've only been working on for maybe 2-3 hours, and much of that time is on trying to determine a basic composition.  This couple, two really wonderful people, wanted the painting to depict the return walk down the aisle.  One problem, for me, was that they didn't look at each other during that walk, and I wanted to show their interaction.  So I chose a good photo of them walking, then chopped off their heads and replaced them with heads from other photos.

 I developed the couple a bit and worked on the guests.  The guests were a real time sump: because of perspective, they were all different sizes, and getting them the right size ate up a lot of time.  The chairs, since they were all the same, had to be exactly the right size and position, or your eye would pick up on it immediately as something wrong.  Worst of all, the guests were all facing away, so you just saw the backs of heads.  And the parents and wedding party were partially hidden. 

 So I eliminated all the guests.  Two smoke bombs, left and right, and off they went.

 In place of the guests, I blocked in the floor and changed the position of the parents.  This composition simplified things greatly, putting more attention on the couple and allowing development of all the important people.  Now we're cooking. 

More development of the important people.  The floor was brick in a herringbone pattern, which had to be done well enough that the eye would read "brick floor", but not over-developed and pulling attention to itself.  The lines are guides to get the perspective right.  Since they're only guides, they'll soon go away.

 The brick floor was developed a bit, just enough to indicate the color and texture.  The hanging curtains along the top of the canvas bothered me because they were just a dark gray shape going straight across the image.  It needed to be broken up, so I added a couple of hanging lamps.  The foreground looked a little too empty.  There were a couple of decorations, with candles, flowers, and fabric, that were actually next to the curtain in back, so I wondered how they might look if they were in front. 

The decorations in front seemed to work pretty well.  Now we're starting to do the finishing touches.  I added a couple of hanging drapes in back, the same color as the center curtains, just to bring the color out in to a gray area.  Red, pink, and white flower petals were spread around the floor.  And I went around the whole painting, bringing everything up a notch or two.  I sent this image off to the clients for approval.

The clients loved the painting but requested a few changes.  One was to add the two flower girls.  I put them on the right, interacting with each other.  Another was to have some kind of art deco element, so I changed the yellow curtains to a more prominent shape with art deco design on it.  Then I went around the painting one more time, adding flower petals to make them more random, touching up the couple and others, touching up the decorations in front, and generally bringing things up to where they should be.  And we're done!

So that's how this particular painting worked out.  It was a struggle, but it got there.  By now, I know that I can get these paintings across the finish line, no matter how much trouble they give me.  And I know that if it's really not working, I can always grab a new canvas and start from scratch.  Yes, I've done that, and it turned out pretty well.  On the other hand, some paintings develop quickly and naturally.  But those paintings wouldn't make a good blog post, now, would they?

Monday, November 25, 2019

Italy, 1999

Since my last post, I've been busy with a training trip to Muscatatuck, two wedding paintings, and a proposal-writing project.  None of those things would make a memorable blog post.  So, instead, here's another post from our Great European Adventure in 1999.  We had just left Germany and driven down to Camp Darby, a US military base outside of Pisa, Italy.  So enjoy ...

CHAPTER 27        PISA, ITALY
                Thursday, November 18

We made it safely to Italy.  We're staying at a small Army base called Camp Darby, near Pisa.  The drive down from Germany was the worst of the entire trip.  It is a long drive (8 hours) from Chiemsee.  It was snowing slightly when we left and got progressively worse as we went past Innsbruck and up over the Brenner Pass.  At the top, it was coming thick and hard.  Traffic was heavy, roads were slick, and we did not have a good time.  When we got below the snow line, it turned to rain that remained heavy all the way to Pisa.  During that one trip we had snow, sleet, hail, rain, fog, thunder, lightning, and heavy winds.  Yuck! 

When the weather eased up every now and then, the alpine countryside was spectacular.  The mountains are steep, rocky, and have lots of pine forests.  Every few miles there is a castle perched on a rock.  The route has been a strategic gateway between north and south for thousands of years and it was quite impressive to see the historic reminders of the past.  Particularly when the clouds would part a little bit to allow a glimpse of a sheer mountainside rising thousands of feet above the road.

Camp Darby looks like the Base That Time Forgot.  I don't know what their mission here is (might just be an ammunition storage facility) but it has two parallel main streets about a half mile long, and that's about it.  There is not much in the way of facilities.  Our room is a dump.  I've never stayed in a worse place that I've actually had to pay for.  It's an early-'70's plastic prefab unit.  They covered the plastic walls with plastic wallpaper and every sheet is peeling off.  All the plumbing and electrical wires are external to the wall.  The room has one (1) table lamp which is carefully situated so that it doesn't really shed any light on anything.  There is a TV in the corner which is all of 13" in size .... well, maybe 15" if you include the plastic casing.  We have, by actual count, one Armed Forces Network channel, one BBC channel, one Sky News channel, and 88 Italian channels.  The bathroom is particularly onerous.  The walls are covered with old tile, many of which had holes drilled in them for previous "renovations" which have since been removed.  The bathtub not only has running rust under the tap, it also has big patches of red scaly rust on the bottom.  And you have to run the tap for about five minutes to ensure the water coming out is clean.  When they have two roach motels in the bathroom, you know that's not a good sign!  Fortunately we haven't seen any creepy crawlies, at least not yet.  Of course, we can't get on the net from our room, so we're using the base library, which actually has some very nice computers.

Thursday, however, was a BEAUTIFUL day.  Absolutely crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, chilly but not too cold.  It was the first really nice day we've seen since we left Prague.  We decided to head into Florence to take advantage of the good weather.  I was here almost four years ago and said then that Florence pegged my "wow"-meter.  It's still awesome.  Mostly we just wandered around and got a feel for the city.  Janis went ape over all the fashions and jewelry and shopping. 

Florence is a city that defines "class".  The old city streets follow medieval patterns and wind in and out between buildings that are hundreds of years old.  Italian buildings are quite a bit different from German ones: they're big, square, usually some variation of gray, tan, yellow, or red stucco that's flaking off, and have green or brown shutters.  Most look a bit worn and shabby.  The exception to all this is the Duomo, which is Italian for "damn big church with a dome the size of Montana".  This church is built with black and white marble laid in intricate patterns, and covered with statues.  We didn't go inside on the first visit (we will on our next visit) but it was beautiful to see. 

Another find, for Janis at least, was the Ponte Vecchio.  This is a centuries-old bridge over the Arno River.  It is lined with jewelry stores on both sides, and has been this way for several hundred years.  Janis went into sensory overload halfway along the bridge.  I never thought I'd see the day when she couldn't look at one more jewelry store window, but friends, it happened on the Ponte Vecchio!

Transportation was easy.  We drove the Range Rover into Florence, which took about 45 minutes through the Tuscan mountains.  We parked below the train station and then walked all over the city from there.  Manned parking garages are the only way to go if you want to see your car, or the stuff in your car, again.

While wandering the city, we came across an archaeological dig in a city street.  It appears that, while digging a trench for utilities, construction workers found some old city walls.  Florence has full-time historians and archaeologists on its staff for just this sort of thing.  They swoop in, dig, take photos, measure everything, then carefully cover it up again.  This preserves the past and allows modern life to continue.  I was impressed.

On Friday, we went into Pisa.  This was a just a short drive from Camp Darby, but of course we got lost both going and coming.  The first thing we saw was the Leaning Tower.  I cannot believe the thing is still standing, it's over so far.  Pisa has a major effort ongoing to keep the tower upright: they're digging around and under it to solidify the base, and meanwhile they've strapped huge steel cables around the tower and anchored them to several supports.  Only the Italians would screw up a site survey, build a big tower on marshy ground, and when the building that never should have been built starts to fall over, turn it into a tourist attraction.  That's like Pennsylvania making a tourist attraction out of Three Mile Island.  Be that as it may, the Duomo, Baptistry, Memorial Cemetery, and Leaning Tower were all beautiful and interesting.  We also wandered around the rest of the town and found it to be quite charming.  Streets in the old city, of course, were narrow, cobblestone, and lined with shabby and colorful old buildings.  People are friendly and except for the Leaning Tower area, it is not a tourist trap.  It was quite lively in the early evening.  Christmas decorations are starting to appear and people packed the streets in the shopping areas.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets ever as we crossed the river: the thin clouds were brilliantly lit by the setting sun, with the silhouettes of ancient towers in the foreground, and it all was reflected in the river surface. 

Driving in Italy is certainly an experience.  Speed limit signs, stop signs, lane lines, and other such official proclamations are merely advisory.  It's normal to see three cars abreast on a two-lane road.  When the light turns green, you have 0.5 seconds to get moving or everybody behind you lays on the horn.  In keeping with the Italian nature, driving is an art form, not something that can be regulated.  You want the movement of the cars to flow beautifully, particularly if "beautifully" means that you can pass everything else on the road.  (Note: you don't pass a car in Italy, you surpass it, with all the emotional baggage that such a phrase entails).  In Amsterdam, most people get around on bicycles.  By contrast, Florentines use motor scooters and mopeds.  Herds of them rip along the city streets, dodging cars and buses and pedestrians (usually), and sounding like swarms of angry hornets.  You better stay alert on Italian city streets, or you’ll quickly wind up as road kill.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Wrapup of our Prague, 1999, Adventure

My last post a couple of days ago was a reprint of our travelogue of Prague during our European trip in 1999.  It included the story of Janis's billfold being stolen by pickpockets.  Here's how that adventure turned out.

CHAPTER 22        PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
                Wednesday, November 3


The day after Janis's billfold was stolen, we were discussing the event with our landlord.  She said that we should go report it to the police because sometimes the pickpockets just wanted cash, and would dump the ID cards and rest of the billfold.  Later, American Express said that they would need a copy of the police report if we were going to claim the replacement cost of the billfold (Louis Vuitton and very $$$, so we damned well were going to claim it).  So after we took care of business with American Express and other places, we hoofed it over to the polizei to do our duty.

Oh, how naive!  You must remember, these are Soviet-trained officials we're talking about.  The words "courteous, quick, friendly, and efficient customer service" do not exist in their universe.  The police station was the most run-down building on a run-down block.  The anteroom was built about 150 years ago, and evidently the last time it was painted (or even cleaned) was to welcome the Russians after WW II.  There's no reception desk, only a window cleverly placed about waist-high so that you have to bow down to them in order to carry on any kind of conversation.  Which, of course, you can't, because none of them deign to have anything to do with the English language.  They simply aren't interested in anything you have to say in English, and they aren't much more interested if you speak Czech.  Eventually, the one and only English interpreter on the entire Prague police force (no kidding) arrived and we made our report.  She made it clear that if we wanted to report Janis's billfold as "missing", why, she'd be happy to help.  However, if we wanted to report it as "stolen", oh, now that is much more complicated, and would require much filling out of forms.

By this time, we had our dander up, and forms or no forms, these police were going to have to deal with the fact that three guys had ripped off Janis's - Janis's - one and only billfold.  So the interpreter rolled her eyes and put us in the "waiting room" while she sorted out the details with the duty staff. 

Now there is nothing more depressing than a Communist-era waiting room.  It was really a short hallway that was painted a putrid institutional green, with several mysterious doorways leading off it.  One of the "doorways" was a heavy metal barred jail cell door.  One wall had a Rube Goldberg electrical contraption mounted high up featuring a transformer the size of my suitcase and wires leading into a room behind one of the mysterious doors.  Electro-shock therapy, perhaps?   The same wall had two large electrical fuse boxes tastefully decorated with pornographic ads.  There were no chairs, only one long wooden bench, on which were sitting three people who had clearly been there quite a while and were still waiting when we left.  No reading material, of course, except for the pornographic ads, and to keep ourselves entertained, we tried to figure out what the electrical contraption was, and also what was behind Doors #1, #2, and #3.  We were kept in the room for about half an hour.  Then the interpreter burst back in and gave us a police report - in Czech, of course - which she claimed was a summary of everything we'd told her and would we please sign it?  It could've said that we were the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for all we knew, but by that time we weren't at all interested in finding out what was behind Door #3, so we signed it and said goodbye to our cheerless waiting-room companions. 

As for American Express, well, they wanted a police report and that's what they're getting.  They didn't say it had to be in English.  If they want to know what it says, then they can find their own damn interpreter.

So ends our experiences in the Czech Republic.  We had a good time here, all things considered.  This is a beautiful city with superb food, great art and music, low prices, friendly people (most of 'em), and fabulous weather.  The only drawback was our run-in with the pickpockets (which the interpreter said were "all Rumanian and Bulgarian, definitely not Czech" ..... sure, lady).  Whatever.  We won't be back, but I still think it's a great place to visit.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Adventures in Prague, 1999

Time for another one of our "greatest hits from the goldie oldie '90's" ... in this case a discussion of our experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during our European trip in 1999.  So without further ado ...

CHAPTER 21        PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
                Tuesday, November 2

Our big news is that Janis had her billfold lifted by pickpockets last night.  These guys were pros.  We were in a big crowd of people getting onto a tram.  The three pickpockets got in between Janis and me and blocked her way.  When she pushed through them, they unzipped her purse and lifted the billfold.  It had all her credit cards, driver's license, military ID, checks, the whole works.  There was no cash at all in her billfold, and her passport was back in the room.  Fortunately, she noticed it pretty quickly (too late to catch the guys, who had already gotten off), and we canceled the credit cards and checks within 30 minutes of the heist.  One of the credit card people reported that the thieves had already tried to use at least one of the cards in an ATM but couldn't guess the PIN. 

True to their advertisements, American Express is issuing her a new card today.  My card and Janis’s card had different numbers, so mine is still good.  Visa and MasterCard will be more of a pain.  We now have no valid Visa/MasterCards with us, which will put a crimp on our spending ability.  Unlike American Express, they have no offices that will issue new cards on the spot.  Instead, they send new cards to our "home" address (one of Janis's friends in San Diego, who is a saint) in seven to ten days.  Then we have to get the cards express mailed from San Diego to wherever we are in Europe.  The whole process will take two to three weeks.

Our landlord told us that pickpockets are, unfortunately, very common here, but they're not too sophisticated.  Most of the time they just want the cash, and won’t mess with stolen credit cards because they’re a bit of a hassle.  So it looks like this theft may just be a pain in the ass and not a disaster.

In the spirit of "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”, here are the rest of our adventures before we met up with the pickpockets. 

We drove up to the town of Terezin to visit Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi concentration camp.  The camp is inside an old brick fortification built in the mid-1700's that was pretty much abandoned by the time the Nazis rolled in.  The place is largely unchanged since the end of the war.  It has not been restored and there has not been much money for upkeep, either.  Consequently, what you see is what was there during the war: the original wooden sleeping racks (no mattresses, of course), original sinks, original toilets (one each to serve 100 people), original barbed wire hanging from dilapidated posts ... "Chilling" is the best word to describe it.  I walked around a corner and saw the entry gate with the Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes You Free") painted over it, and my blood ran cold.  They have a museum and quite a number of displays such as prison clothes, drawings, tools, utensils, and other everyday items (all original of course), as well as photos of camp officials and many prisoners, which put a very human face to it all.  Theresienstadt was primarily a transportation waystation and not an extermination camp like Dachau or Auschwitz; still, over 150,000 people went through there in four years and several thousand died.  The town of Terezin is a very short walk away from the fortress grounds.  During the war, the Nazis emptied the town of its regular inhabitants, crammed it full of Jewish prisoners, threw a quick coat of paint on everything, and fooled the Red Cross into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model "retirement" community.  Once the Red Cross left, the Nazis went right back to loading the prisoners onto trains bound for the gas chambers.  We left Theresienstadt with a new appreciation of what people can do to people.  (I wrote this before the pickpockets, so now we've got still another new appreciation of what people can do to people).

Eating out in Prague is bliss.  The other night we each had a salmon steak, with salad, delicate potato croquettes, fresh bread, wine (Janis) and beer (me), and two crepes the size of dinner plates with ice cream, fruit, thick whipped cream (the real stuff, not Cool Whip), and chocolate topping.  Total cost for everything, including tip: $15.  Eating here is cheap and almost all the restaurants we've found are excellent.

Janis wrote some observations prior to the pickpockets:

Okay, so I know I have to live with some inconveniences like no TV, no radio, and no phone in the room, but these towels are ridiculous.  What this penzion gives us for bath towels, I would call “kitchen” towels, and very old, worn-out ones at that.  I guess you could say they have a two-fold purpose: they dry you (sort of), and they exfoliate your skin. 

I’ve gotten used to having to pay to use the toilet (however, better have the right change or you're "piss" out of luck), but I hate paying for recycled toilet paper that also exfoliates!  Thanks but no thanks.  Prague’s buses are relics but, hey, they work and they are pretty much on time.  Trams, for the most part, have single rows of seats; after that you stand and you best hold tight as they aren't known for a smooth ride.  The BEST thing about the tram is that the seats are heated.  It helps heal the raw skin on your bottom from all that exfoliating, and I ask you, could you want anything more for thirty cents than to ride for an hour and a half to anywhere the bus, tram, or underground goes to?  (Skip's note: Well, you might want to have your own bodyguard).

The Czechs have discovered hair coloring in a big way, and the women dress and use makeup in a very up to date way.  I mean, in ten years they go from Communism to Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, and Hermes.  Really, they’ve grown leaps and bounds in a very short period of time.  The guy that owns the internet place we've been using was born here in Prague and then lived in South Africa.  After the fall of communism he returned (as according to him SoAfrica is "going down the tubes"; well, he's white so you can figure why he feels that way) to open this business.  He says most of the changes in the Czech Republic are cosmetic only and the bureaucracy is as bad as ever, but who knows.

Hey, they even have ice here, unlike some of the other "first world" places we've visited.