Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Seeing Colors

I was recently listening to a podcast of a great interview.  The podcast is the Savvy Painter; the interviewer is Antrese Wood, and the interviewee was Frank Lombardo.  Frank is an outstanding artist who lives and works right here in my county (see his work on his web site), so it was cool to hear him on a national podcast.  Among the interesting things that came out in the interview is that he's somewhat colorblind.  Yes, you read that right: a fantastic artist is color-challenged.  That hits home with me because I am, too.  I'm what they call a "mild deutan", which is a type of red-green color blindness that makes it difficult to tell some colors apart.  This is particularly true when they're the same light/dark value.  Put a yellow and green, or blue and purple, of the same value next to each other, and my eyes won't see much (any) difference.  Change the value of one or the other slightly, though, and I see them clearly.  Not only that, but I can mix up paint to match the colors.

After hearing Frank talk about his color blindness (which is evidently much worse than mine), I've been thinking about how we see colors.  Frank noted that color vision comes from the cones in the eyes.  Most people have three sets, generally called the red, blue, and green cones.  A very few women have four sets: red, blue, green, and yellow.  Their color vision is really good.  But other animals have even more.  A mantis shrimp, for example, has 16 types of receptors and can see visible, UV, and polarized light (wow).

Having the physical ability to see colors, though, and actually seeing them, are two different things.  I've learned over the years that the more I paint, and have to see and match colors, the more colors I see.  Sometimes I'll see a range of colors in something that, years ago, I would've just passed by.  It's the same as any other physical ability: if you don't exercise it, it won't work for you.

So the other day, I was walking my dogs.  The sky was perfectly clear and the snow was on the ground reflecting the colors around it.

This is the scene that first caught my eye.  There was a brilliant blue sky, a seemingly equally brilliant blue reflection in the show, with bright highlights from the late afternoon sun.  But look at the colors a bit more closely.  Yes, the sky is brilliant, a cobalt blue higher up (maybe with a trace of red?), getting lighter and slightly more cerulean blue toward the treeline.  The reflection on the snow, though, is not as saturated as the sky.  It can't be: the sky is pure light, while the snow is a reflection, meaning that some light is lost in the process.  So the blue on the snow is a bit grayer and, to my (color-blind?) eyes, a touch redder, too.  And the highlights on the snow?  They're not white, they're actually very light yellow-orange, which is the color of the light coming directly from the sun. So if you want an extreme example of what can happen with a warm/cool color shift, here you are!

Once I saw that, I started looking around more to see what other colors jumped out at me.  Here's a shadow on the side of the hill:

I think you can see the orange light more clearly here.  Look at the shadow, though: how strong is that blue, and what color is it?  Okay, I'll help: here's a blown-up section of that shadow:

Pretty dark, darker than I would have thought.  And here's a clip of the sky that was directly above this blue shadow:

As you can see, the sky is a much clearer blue because it's pure light.  To paint the sky, I'd use cobalt blue.  To get the reflection, I'd use cobalt blue plus a warmer earth tone, maybe a touch of burnt umber or burnt Sienna.  

And then, finally, here is the bank above the shadow:

This was just beautiful to me: the yellow-orange light, the blue shadows, the bright blue sky, and I'm even seeing some reds along the top of the ridge line.

Cool stuff, isn't it?  The more you use your eyes, the more things you learn to see.  And the more I can see, the more pleasure I have in just looking at the world.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

New Wedding Painting

Steven and Marissa
Oil on canvas, 24"x30"
(Click on the image for a larger view)

I just finished a new wedding painting commission for a wonderful couple.  Steven and Marissa asked me to do a painting of the first dance at their reception.  I went to the hotel (quite fancy) in Charlotte last month, set up my easel a couple of hours in advance, and continued to paint throughout the event.  And it was quite the event!  Steven, Marissa, and all their friends and family came to party.  Everybody had a great time, even me.  I was bopping away at my easel while the dance floor was jammed.  Just about everybody came over to see what I was doing, many of them quite frequently, and it was fun talking with them.  Some of the people in the final painting are there specifically because they came over to chat!  Yes, it was a great time.

Painting at a wedding is kinda/sorta like being an outdoor landscape painter in the middle of a hurricane.  Everything is changing and moving at high speed.  People come and go.  The noise level picks up and quiets down.  One minute nobody is around you, the next there are 20 people looking over your shoulder and asking questions.  All of which, really, made it fun.

And doing a live painting at a wedding reception builds on things I've done previously.  I started surreptitiously sketching other people many decades ago (don't ask) and have continued to draw and paint people ever since.  I work as a courtroom artist for our local TV station on occasion.  In Afghanistan, I sketched the locals during our frequent meetings, and all those drawings wound up in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington.  All of that was a great preparation for this line of work.

Some wedding artists give the couple the painting at the end of the event.  I can't, no way.  The first day just gets the basic idea down.  It takes a lot of work to go from the first very very rough painting to something that I'm ready to put my name on.  Over the past several weeks, I've continued to work on the painting, getting feedback from Steven and Marissa as well as my Primary Critic, my wife, who is NOT SHY about sharing her ideas.  That can sometimes be frustrating, but she's almost always right, or at least on the right track, so I value her opinion.  Finally, a few days ago, I got the thumbs-up from Janis and from Steven and Marissa.  Done!

So now I need to play catch-up on all the other artwork that's been waiting in the studio.  There are four or five pieces that are partially finished that each need another day or two.  I've had an idea in the back of my mind for a larger painting and even have the canvas stretched, toned, and ready to go, but haven't been able to get to it yet.  And I've been looking at two other artists whose work I want to study.  One is a new (to me) artist whose work is much more free and expressive than mine.  I want to study his work, reverse-engineer it to learn the process, and then see how much of that can be applied to mine. The other is an artist I've known of for some time.  I found a book of his in our local Barnes and Noble and want to go through some of the exercises and do some learning.  So: more to do than there is time to do it in.  Yep, I'm happy.

If you'd like to know more about my wedding paintings and how that process works, visit the website I built for it: www.ashevilleeventpaintings.com.  I think you'll enjoy it!

Monday, November 06, 2017

A Bit of Success

I had a bit of success this past week and wanted to share it here.  Two of my paintings were juried into the Grace Center's annual juried art exhibition.  They're very different paintings, although they are both figurative paintings about real people.  

Cinderella's Seamstress
Oil on canvas, 48"x48" 

Saddle Up
Oil on canvas, 50"x40"

I went to the opening reception on Saturday night and was blown away when both of them won awards.  Saddle Up got an Honorable Mention while Cinderella's Seamstress was awarded Best of Show!  Absolutely amazing.  There is a lot of really good work in the show, so I was happy just to be in it, but to have both pieces recognized like that is something out of this world.

I had a great time talking with some of the other artists as well as other art professionals.  One woman had a beautiful collage in the show that had so much to say in addition to being so wonderfully made.  We had a short conversation but I'm hoping to talk with her in more depth sometime soon as I'd love to have some insight into the way she puts her pieces together.  Something tells me that her basic process is not that different from mine, but the medium and end results are so very different.

The show will be up until the first week of January.  If you're in the Mills River area, I recommend stopping by to see it!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Painting a Wedding Reception

This past Saturday night, I was the live painter at the wedding reception in Charlotte for two lovely people.  Yes, I painted.  Live.  At the reception.  And I have to say: it was a blast!

I've posted on here before about being a live event painter.  This time, I thought I'd share some thoughts about how I go about it and what the experience is like.  I was contacted a while back by the couple who had a general idea about what they wanted.  We talked on the phone about some of the different options, along with the pros and cons of each, and decided that we would focus on the couple's First Dance.  This is my favorite subject for an artwork as it allows for greater creativity in composition and subjects.  I coordinated with their wedding planner, the venue manager, and the photographer to ensure that we were all on the same sheet of music.  The venue manager had a few specific requirements that were quickly taken care of and we were ready to go.

On Thursday, I put my painting rig together and got it ready to load into the car.  There's quite a bit of stuff needed, and I've made up a checklist to make sure nothing gets left behind.  There's the easel, canvases (two: one with a cool tone and one with a warm tone), paints, brushes, palette, rags, medium, and solvent, of course.  I need an easel-mounted LED lamp to ensure there's enough light to paint by, which also requires an extension cord, which also requires gaffer's tape (not duct tape) to prevent tripping.  Then there's an industrial mat to protect the hotel's expensive carpet.  I also have my camera and ancient MacBook so I can photograph important things (like the first dance) and then work from the photos later.  Trash bags, baby wipes, brush soap, lots of business cards and flyers, a copy of the contract and other important details, scissors, and a few other odds and ends.  All of it needs a rolling toolchest (thanks, Lowe's) to haul it around.

On Saturday afternoon, I drove down to Charlotte.  I checked into my hotel, changed clothes, and headed out to the Marriott City Center.  I only went to one wrong floor before finding the right location, then quickly set up my stuff.  The Marriott staff was extremely helpful and went out of their way to make sure I had what I needed.  They'd never worked with a live wedding painter before, so my rig and I got a lot of attention.  The wedding planner, Lauren Kelley, owner of Kelley Event + Design, and her staff, had all the details well under control.  The DJ was Mike with Split Second Sound, and he turned out to be an outstanding MC and DJ - he had that place moving all night long.  And I enjoyed working with the photographers of Capture Me Candid - they were very creative and easy to work with. 

Once we were set, I started painting.  My goal was to have something on the canvas before the guests started coming into the room.  That meant I had to decide on the composition and get it and the newlyweds roughed in before they even arrived.  Not a problem, really: a few small sketches to try out some options and a workable composition presented itself.  And I was off and running.

To say that the guests were intrigued by the idea of a live artist is an understatement.  None had ever seen anything like it at a wedding, and only one had even heard of the idea.  People came by the easel continually all night long, asking questions and keeping an eye on how it developed.  I had a great time talking with all of them.  This was a great crowd, really enthusiastic, and with some sharp questions and observations.

The painting itself developed over about five hours into a very rough first draft.  I decided to put the couple over towards the right side with the crowd circling behind them and to the left.  Actually, the last time I was at a reception, everybody was sitting during the first dance, and I'd planned on something similar, but this crowd was on their feet, and that necessitated a few changes!  I also included the parents of the groom and the mother of the bride.  My goal for the first night was to establish the lights and darks, keep the brushwork lively, and capture the spirit of the evening.  Here's how the painting looked at the end of the night:

The painting is now back in the studio to be brought up to a much higher level of finish.  Today I worked on correcting the perspective (it was way off, but that's to be expected when you're winging it) and developing the walls and ceiling.  Then it's on to the figures: first the couple, then the parents (not to the same level of detail) and then the rest of the crowd.  I estimate it will be a 2-4 week process.

So stay tuned - I'll post the finished version here as well!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Workshop on Drawing Portraits

I ran another of my Portrait Drawing Workshops this past weekend.  I've done this one several times before and we've always had a good time.  This class was no exception.  It's a 2-day workshop that goes for about 4 hours in the afternoon.  We don't hire models as we already have enough in the room already.  I have a format that seems to work pretty well.  And I use an unexpected book as a primary reference.  Each of these statements needs a bit of explanation.

These workshops go for no more than four hours because I've found that my students tend to hit the wall at that point.  At three hours, they're still going strong; at four, their eyes start glassing over and the enthusiasm takes a marked downward turn.  So rather than flog a dead horse, I wrap things up while there's still life left in them.  A couple of weeks ago, Robert Hagan ran a workshop in my studio that went from 9-5 for three days with one hour off for lunch.  I saw that the students came close to the saturation mark about the time we broke for lunch.  The break restored our enthusiasm and we wrapped up in the afternoon before we ran out of steam altogether.  So four hours seems to be the maximum amount of time to keep people cooped up and focused on something before they need a break.

I run my workshops in the afternoon.  The reason is simple: I don't like to get up early in the morning!  I did that for many years and don't want to do it again if there's any way around it.  And since I'm the one setting the schedule for my own workshops, there's definitely a way around it.

My portrait workshops don't use hired models.  Instead, all of the students model for each other.  This exposes them to a wide variety of differences in features.  They all have different eyes, noses, mouths, chins, hair (including a lack of), head structures, proportions, and so on.  I shift them around so they don't draw the same individual twice in a row.  And they all get to experience being a model for a bunch of artists and having their features analyzed in a class discussion.  So far, everybody has had a good sense of humor about it. 

For the format of the workshop, I start with a discussion of the basic structure of the head.  I don't break out a skull and have them draw it as that approach never really did much for me.  Instead, I show them a way to quickly build an armature for the head, a quickly sketched basic structure that they could stretch, compress, turn, and arrange as needed.  Then we look at all the various features: eyes, nose, and so forth, and talk about how they're formed and what to look for in each individual.  We also talk about proportions: the relationships between all the different features, some ways to analyze them, and getting them down on paper.  And then we draw each other, one at a time.  These are generally quick drawings, about 15 minutes to draw and then maybe 10 minutes or so to do a group critique.  This is a portrait DRAWING workshop, after all, so they should be drawing as much as possible.

As for my primary reference book, it isn't one about drawing portraits at all, at least not in the traditional sense.  It's The Mad Art of Caricature! A Serious Guide to Drawing Funny Faces, by Tom Richmond.  Yes, my portrait reference is a book about caricatures.  Tom Richmond is one of the best in the world in this field.  You look at one of his figures and you know instantly who it is.  In caricature, you have to identify what makes an individual face unique and then exaggerate it so it's (a) recognizable and (b) funny.  In portraiture, you have to identify what makes an individual face unique and then render it at least somewhat realistically so it's recognizable.  The actions are very similar.  Richmond's book does a much better job at describing everything that goes into capturing the essence of an individual than any fine-art portrait drawing book I've ever seen.  I found my copy at my local Barnes & Noble, but you can get it at Amazon too (of course).

So we had a successful workshop.  I was really and truly impressed by how far the students came in just two days.  Everybody, and I mean everybody, showed improvements in their abilities to see the differences in features and to accurately capture the features in pencil on paper.  It really felt good to see that.  One of the students even asked if I could do this workshop once a month!  Umm, no, but I do give it about two or three times a year.  Maybe I'll do one that's a bit more advanced next time, or focus more on the "drawing" aspect rather than the "seeing".  

Monday, October 09, 2017

A Workshop with Robert Hagan

Last week, my studio was the site of a workshop by Australian artist Robert Hagan.  As you can see from the photo (taken on Day 1), we had a full house of students to soak up whatever this popular artist could teach.  I took the workshop, too, and learned a lot while having a good time.

So how did this come about?  Last summer, I saw a posting on a local artist board, looking for a place that could host the workshop.  I didn't know anything about Robert, but looked him up and discovered that he has a very different style of painting from mine.  And he travels around the world giving these workshops.  So the combination of learning some very different painting techniques while seeing how a pro runs a workshop was too much to pass up.  I volunteered my studio as the location and we took it from there.  It required a good bit of coordination to get everything lined up, but we did it, and Wednesday morning we kicked off the workshop.

Robert is quite the personality.  He is a largely self-taught painter focusing on popular subjects such as people on the beach, cowboys, horses, cattle drives, and similar themes.  Things that I just don't paint.  And as a self-taught artist, he has a very different way of putting paint on canvas.  Many of the things he did are variations on traditional techniques, such as scumbling, but his approach and tools were not at all traditional.  I found it to be quite liberating.  In fact, I have a commission coming up in a couple of weeks and had been wondering how I was going to make it livelier than my usual working style.  Now I have a pretty good idea of ways that I can loosen this commission up.

The other aspect that I wanted to focus on was how he ran the workshop.  I run art workshops several times a year and am still figuring out how to make them effective and fun.  Robert certainly hit it on both counts.  He had us all working from photos so that everybody was making the same paintings.  It was very interesting to see how each student developed their own images.  He's very energetic and personable, too.  No big or sensitive ego.  He's good at what he does, knows it, and wants to share his skills with the students.  He spent a lot of time one-on-one with each one of us, making sure we understood what we were doing.  Very effective and enjoyable.

Robert worked our tails off, too.  We started at 9 am and continued, with a lunch break, until 5 pm each day.  Which meant that I had to be up at 6 am every day in order to get the studio open shortly after 8 for all the early birds.  At the end of the day, the last people trickled out around 6 or later.  Long days.  Now, I am NOT a morning person.  I spent many years in the Navy getting up at 5:30 or 6 and I just don't do it anymore unless it's absolutely necessary.  Not only that, but I was on my feet all day.  I can't paint sitting down.  So three long days of standing wore me out.

At the end, I'd achieved my goals: I'd learned some new techniques and learned a lot about how to run a good workshop.  And we all had a good time.  It took me two days to get my studio back to normal and I just finished today.  So tomorrow, I can start playing with new paintings and try some of these techniques.  Lookin' forward to it!

Monday, September 25, 2017


My last post was about the sorry state of affairs regarding the surface Navy, with a particular focus on the non-existent training of new surface warfare officers.  This post is about a bright spot in training.  Last week, I went to the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center to train another group of civilians who are headed to Afghanistan for a year.  (Muscatatuck, by the way, is pronounced "mus-CAT-a-tuck").  This is something I've been very fortunate to be involved with since my return from Kandahar five years ago.  I've written about this training several times and you can click on the "Muscatatuck" label on the right for photos of the place and comments about previous classes.

There was an interesting twist to this group of students.  Of the seven in my group, two are heading out to support our goals in Syria.  They won't spend their entire tours in Syria; rather, they'll be based in one of the neighboring countries and will go into Syria when and as needed.  Both of these individuals have tremendous experience.  Both were a lot of fun to work with as well.  Neither came in with the attitude of "I've been there, you don't have anything to tell me" - no, they came to learn.

One of the key things that I try to stress with students is working as a team.  No single member has all the answers, and success in each of these training scenarios requires all the team members to be present, in the game, and ready to jump in with the appropriate question, answer, or suggestion at any moment.  The Lone Rangers will fail downrange.  Fortunately, with this group, there were no super egos.  Everybody pulled together.  The two with the most experience did something even better: they deliberately played supporting roles, rather than leading roles.  This gave the students with less real-world experience the chance to be the team leaders.  As one who was in that situation six years ago, learning by doing is the best way to internalize the lessons.

So my team did a super job.  The mistakes that were made were due to breakdowns in communication by those outside the team, and they learned from the experiences.  The last scenario is the most complex of all and the young lady serving as team leader was the quietest and most reserved of the group.  But she knocked it out of the park.  I couldn't have been more proud.

So to those who complain about "government bureacrats" being lazy, I say stuff it.  You haven't seen them do what I've seen them do.  And to those seven who are, as I write this, on their way to war zones, I say well done, work hard, and come home safe!