Monday, August 27, 2018

A New Job

I just started a new part-time position as the director of Weizenblatt Gallery for Mars Hill University. MHU is a private college right here in the town I live in, about 15 miles or so north of Asheville.  The gallery hosts about ten shows a year.  Last week, I spent a lot of time hanging my first show there: the biennial Faculty Show.  It took way too long, of course, because I'm still learning the ropes, where the tools are, what they expect to see in the gallery, what to do with the student work-study people, who to talk to about publicity, and so on.  Tomorrow, I have to put together the plan for the reception on Wednesday.  Once the reception is over, I gotta do the planning for the next show so that thing go smoother.

Some people wonder why I agreed to do this.  After all, in addition to my studio activities, I still work  as a proposal writer for small firms trying to get federal contracts.  And I'm on the board of a small Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) focused on the Kurdish region of Iraq.  And I've been working with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which is a volunteer organization that mentors small businesses that are trying to get started, or grow, or whatever.  At the same time, I have a lot of "life" stuff to do: chores, walk the dog, mow the yard, fix this or that, you know the drill - lots of things that just eat up time.  I needed one more activity like I needed a hole in the head.

But this gives me an opportunity to work with the Art Department students.  I really enjoy working with the young ones just starting out: build their capabilities some, give them confidence that they can do it, show that there's a helluva lot more to art than they can comprehend right now, and help them learn how to find their voice.  I love seeing the flash of sudden insight, especially when it's something that I know will stay with them and not be forgotten in two weeks.

So to make time for the gallery, I'm cutting back on my SCORE functions and one of the tasks associated with proposal writing.  My focus is going to be more on art and art-related functions going forward.  I'm still figuring out what that means.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Living with an Old Dog


My little Soozzee turned 15 years old last month.  She's been with us since she was a tiny pup.  To say that she owns my heart is both accurate and an understatement.  She's the sweetest little dog that was ever born.  Yes, I know, yours is too, but I'm absolutely certain that Soozzee is the queen.

But she's getting old and I'm acutely aware that her time with us is limited.  Over the past year, especially, her age is dragging her down.  Her walks are a bit shorter these days and much slower than they were a year ago.  Her hearing is pretty much gone.  She's totally blind in one eye and almost blind in the other.  She bumps into things around the house.  Her hair has gone from thick and honey-colored to thin and white.  She has old-dog skin bumps, bad skin flakes, and dry eye in both eyes.  Often when she stands in one place, one or more of her legs shake.  The dog formerly known as "Piglet" has to be hand-fed.  She's gone from a hefty 20 pounds to a thinner 16.8 and may not be done yet.  She used to chase The Light (a laser pointer) around the house every single evening.  Now, I'm not sure she can see it anymore, and she only does about a half lap around the house anyway.  She has always been a world-class nap-taker, but her nap times have increased to where she's only awake maybe two or three hours a day, spread over a 12-hour period.

Still, Soozzee is hanging in there.  She still has control of her bowels, thank God, so unlike some other older dogs, she doesn't need diapers.  When she hits her favorite field on her afternoon walk, she still likes to run.  True, what once was one long run is now a series of short and slow runs broken up with rest stops, but she runs.  She likes to go for her daily ride in the car.  She still pounces on The Light when she can see it.  She can rattle the windows with her snoring.  Occasionally we'll get a good tail wag, and every once in a while, the dog that rarely gave us slurps during her whole life will give us one.

I was an emotional wreck when we had to put her sister Indy down shortly after Christmas.  I know I'm going to be an even worse wreck when Soozzee goes.  It may not be that much longer.  But I'm going to treasure every moment I have with this little dog.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Struggling With a Painting

I recently completed another wedding painting and sent it to the client.  That statement sounds routine, but getting to that point was anything but.  This painting was a fight from almost the very first brushstroke to very close to the end.

About halfway through, I sent an in-progress photo to the client and talked a little about the process, especially since it was VERY different from the last time he'd seen it.  I told him that starting a new painting is like starting a conversation with somebody you've never met.  Sometimes you hit it off like you've known each other your whole lives, and other times you struggle to find a connection.  This time, the painting had a very different mindset than I did, and trying to get on the same wavelength was a never-ending process.

So here's how the painting looked at the very beginning, when I was just starting to position things on the canvas:


The couple wanted a painting of the first dance.  The room was long and somewhat narrow, with glass walls that opened to a lot of trees outside.  The ceiling was very dark brown-stained wooden rafters, the dance floor was the yellow of oak, and there were peach-colored draperies around the room.  As in most first-dance paintings, I wanted to get both the couple and the room a bit off-center.  I also wanted to use the perspective of the room to help guide the eye to the couple.  Getting the perspective to support the couple took some thinking, but here's what I came up with.  And, as you'll see, this structure held true throughout the painting's progress.

Here's how the painting looked at the end of the reception:


I'd taken several dozen photos of the first dance.  My initial thought was to go with one that showed them in a fairly dynamic position and this seemed to be the liveliest choice.  The ceiling has a very thin coat of burnt umber since I didn't want to go too dark too early.  Darks tend to go dead if the paint is applied too thickly and you can't really recover from that.  The dance floor is roughed in and the background is beginning to be populated with the crowd.  Outside the windows, I just put in some washes of green to indicate the lighting and color outside the glass.  It doesn't look like it here, but deciding how to handle the glass walls involved a lot of choices.  The reason is that I arrived early and took a bunch of reference photos of the room, including the windows, but that was in the afternoon.  By the time they actually got to the first dance, they were running a bit late and the light was very dim.  So: go light on the outside, or go dark?  I went with light for now, for the same reason as the ceiling: you can always go darker, but making it lighter can be hard.


Here's the painting after some development.  My wife took one look at the post-reception version and declared that no bride is going to want a painting of her butt, so I had to change their position.  She's right, of course.  I didn't have any decent "lively" shots of them dancing where you could clearly see both of their faces, so I went with one that had them in profile and showed some tenderness.

What you don't see here is the version where it was dark outside the windows.  I blocked in the dark of early evening outside, but it was too gloomy and eliminated a lot of the event's color.  So I repainted the outside in afternoon sun, resulting in lots of greens and other cheerful colors.

The architecture of the place was important and I spent a lot of time working and re-working it.  I had to get something to indicate the rafters in the darkness overhead, and also block in three chandeliers.  The peach-colored curtains , the various verticals and horizontals of the supporting beams and outside railings, the dark wood floor, the architecture of the adjacent building, and some idea of the plantings around the outside, all had to be worked up.  All of this meant painting over bits and pieces of the crowd, resulting in odd things like the decapitated lady just to the right of the dance floor!

By the time I got to this stage, though, the creative decisions and directions had been made.  Most everything after this was refinement and bringing everything up to spec.  The painting and I were more or less on the same page and communicating fairly well.  It still threw me some curve balls every once in a while, though.


And here's the finished version.  The crowd has been added in and turned into specific people.  Both sets of parents are at the table on the left, while the tables in the center and on the right have the bridesmaids and groom's men.  The decapitated lady was hauled off to the morgue.  I worked on the floors to get the right level of reflected lights.  The venue is the LionCrest pavilion at the Biltmore Estate.  They have a unique crest that the client wanted me to include.  Its real location is between the curtains at the far end of the room.  However, when I tried to put it in there, it looked like something was growing out of the bride's head!  So I moved the crest over to the window just to the curtain's left.  (Point of fact: that corner is where I set up my easel at the reception!).  I had to get the little lights that were all over the beams and roof, and also finished the chandeliers.  And there it is - done.

After all that, I think it turned out pretty well.  There are a lot of things I really like about it.  The bride and groom, for example, are really good likenesses, and they show a true connection to each other.  The other figures have pretty good likenesses.  I don't try for perfection in these figures because doing so would pull attention away from the bride and groom.  The architecture turned out well, especially the floors with their reflected lights and colors.  The outside colors provide good lighting and cheerfulness.  All in all, I think it works.  Most importantly: the bride and groom approve!



Monday, July 02, 2018

Painting Composition

I've been following the Norwegian artist Nick Alm for a couple of years now.  Nick is a young guy who is a phenomenal figure painter.  There's a lot to look at in his paintings: his compositions, his use of light and dark, the way he paints the figure, his skin tones, the way he paints (or doesn't paint) backgrounds, the expressions of his people, and on and on.  This time, I'm going to take a look at a painting he just posted called "Cafe Scene".

Quick notes on terminology: "warm" colors are those in the red to yellow range; "cools" are blues and greens.  Not only that, but warm and cool are really only warmer or cooler than the colors around them.  "Value" refers to the lightness or darkness of a color.  A high-value area is one that's light, a low-value area is one that's dark.

Cafe Scene, oil on canvas, 47"x43"
Nick Alm

Click on the image for a larger view - please, it's worth it.

This painting is fairly large at 47"x43".  There are a lot of figures (12), all of them exceptionally well-rendered.  Now, the subject matter of a bunch of people sitting around drinking wine, and not having a particularly good time of it, doesn't float my boat.  Doesn't matter: look at how beautifully this thing is put together.  Squint and you'll see that the lower left is basically one large dark cool area, the top third is a cool mid-value gray, and the figures form a warm, light arch going from the lower right towards the upper left.  It's a very dynamic composition of light/dark and warm/cool even without recognizable figures and objects.

The arc formed by the figures is reinforced by the three tables.  Here again is a warm/cool balance: the warm figures against the cool tables.  The tables are all horizontal while the figures are vertical, except for maybe the girl at the peak who's apparently about to jump out of the guy's arms.  And each of the tables has a horizontal dish on it, with the tables and dishes in the upper left and lower right going off their respective edges.

Now look at the light, mid-value, and dark areas.  If this was a real cafe, everybody's clothes would be all different colors and values.  Alm tied the colors and values together so that they guide the eye.  The people in the dark area of the canvas are all wearing clothes that are pretty much the same color, a dark muted blue.  The mens' jackets are the same color, while the woman with her back to us is wearing a dress of essentially the same color, only lighter and bluer.  Her dress's specific color is echoed in the ties of the two men on the left side of the canvas.  The woman in the middle of the composition is wearing a dress of, again, the same basic color, only lighter and more muted.  The woman in the lower right is wearing a dress that is also the same basic color, only still lighter and more muted, but it transitions toward her shoulders toward a warmer color.  Then the outfits of the two women, the standing man, and woman are all warm tones, very similar in color.  They're all set against a background that is a neutral gray that is based on the very same colors used in the dark area.  

Over the past few years, I've become more of a proponent of using a limited palette of colors.  Alm's use of a very limited palette here shows how it can be used to help hold a painting together.

You can see how even the skin tones help guide the eye.  The skin tones are all warm against a cooler background, but he uses darker and paler tones to focus attention.  Look at the guy on the far left: he's darker and the skin colors are muted.  The gentleman next to him is also dark, but his color is a bit stronger, with a bit more variation between the lightest and darkest areas.  The angle of his head picks up the angle on the young lady's dress as it goes over her shoulder.  Her skin tones are very light on her shoulder and neck, but look at how dark her elbow is.  Most painters I know (including me) would not have made that strong a value contrast, but it's the right call here.  The woman next to her, with the light brown hair, also has light skin, but Alm covers up her shoulders so that they don't pull attention away from the other young woman.  Plus, her light brown hair does not present a strong value contrast against her skin, while the woman with her back to us has almost black hair against very pale skin.  The woman on the far right is not one of the focal points in the composition, so even though she's the closest person to the viewer, her skin colors are not as strong as others in the painting, and the light/dark range is smaller.  The woman whose head is sharply turned actually has the strongest coloring of all in the painting.  Her cheeks and lips have more red than anybody else's, which helps draw the eye to her.  

Another detail that Alm uses to guide the eye is, well, detail.  Alm uses details only in the figures that are most important: the man at the table, the girl in the blue dress, the woman with light brown hair, the woman whose head is sharply turned, the man who is holding up the celebrating girl, and of course the girl raising the glass.  And those figures are only detailed in the places where the details contribute to the story.  Look at the woman whose head is turned, for example: her face is detailed and the light/dark contrast of her eye tells us to look the way she's looking.  The man in the light suit is slightly detailed around the face and hair, but also the arm of the coat, just enough to show he's lifting her.  By contrast, look at his left shoulder: his jacket just bleeds off into the background.  The woman in the lower right?  She's closest to us, but the details aren't as apparent here because Alm doesn't want you spending much time on her.  Yes, her face is developed, but the paint strokes have generally softer edges, and her eyes are almost closed, so we don't look there.  

Speaking of detail, look at the background.  You get the idea that these people are in a room with a column on the left and a mural on the right.  But look at the wall: it's really just paint slammed onto the canvas with thick, juicy brush strokes.  The "column" is just a couple of vertical lines.  The "mural" is a slight bit of yellow and maybe burnt umber, slammed in at the same time the wall was done.  The looseness of the paint handling here tells your eye that (a) it's a wall and (b) nothing to see here, move along.  

I could go on.  Look at the wine glasses: all three that are being held are tilted at almost the same angle.  Look at how the edges of shapes are very sharp in some areas (where they're important) and almost non-existent in others (where they're not).  Look at where the colors are strong and where they're muted.  Look at how the direction of the light is consistent throughout the painting.  Alm had to have used photo references to put this together, since all the figures are anatomically perfect, but he had to have carefully staged each individual to get the photos he needed.

Bottom line: this painting is brilliantly put together.  The specific storyline means little to me, but I don't care: I could study this painting for a long, long time and still see something new in it.  I've done some paintings that are complex enough to require a lot of time spent on studies and putting lots of bits together.  But, in those, I see now that I was painting each item as a separate "thing".  I wasn't tying them together into broader shapes, or using detail to guide the eye, or even paying much attention to edges.  So now I want to put together a more complex painting using some of these techniques and see what happens.  Wish me luck!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Wedding Painting Progress

I recently had four wedding paintings on successive Saturdays.  Sounds great, right?  Well, yes, it is, but I'm a slow painter.  I don't complete the paintings at the event, I take 'em back to the studio to bring them up to my standards.  Since my paintings are advertised as being completed 2-4 weeks after the event, they kinda piled up on me.  However, that backlog is over.  One painting (a watercolor) was delivered a couple of weeks ago.  Another painting was delivered today.  A third will go out as soon as the notecards come back from the printer so I can include them in the box.  And the fourth painting is nearing completion.  Whew!

I thought it would be interesting to show the difference between the way a painting looks at the end of the reception and the way it looks when it is finally sent to the bride and groom.  Here's the "end of reception" one for Sara and Brenton:


Really, this is just a rough block-in.  I've got the composition determined, poses suggested, and enough indicated to get going in the studio.  None of the figures have faces - most are just a quick stroke of paint to mark the approximate location and size.  It needed a lot of work.  And here's how it looks now:


Quite a difference, huh?  The fundamentals didn't change: the composition, color scheme, and positions of the people.  But now the bride and groom, both sets of parents, the officiant, bridesmaids and groomsmen, all are recognizable.  There was a good bit of back-and-forth with the bride and her mom to get some of the details right, but that's great, because it resulted in a better and more meaningful painting.  They're happy, I'm happy that they're happy, and this one will be on it's way to its new home in a day or so.

Let's look at the one for Cindy and Bill.  Here's how it looked at the end of the first evening:


Again, it's just a rough block-in.  Cindy and Bill are in good positions but there's no detail: nothing in the faces, and the clothes and hands are just quick strokes of paint. The gazebo is barely indicated.  The crowd is only roughly indicated and, in fact, only one of them survived.  Yep, I killed all the others and replaced them with figures better suited to the situation, as you can see:


In the final version, I kept the positions of the bride and groom and developed their faces, clothing, and postures.  The bridal bouquet is now more than just a few blobs of paint and the dress has folds and texture.  I paid a good bit of attention to the environment: the trees in the background needed that early-spring green, for example, but I deleted some plants because they detracted from the people.  And I developed the gazebo into a real 3-D building.  The biggest changes were the people in the crowd.  Bill's parents and brother are in the back right (they weren't in the first version).  Cindy's parents are in the back left.  They are both deceased, but since they were there in spirit (Cindy had chairs set aside for them), I added them in.  Then I had to create additional people to fill in the chairs and throw the petals, but not to block the families.  All in all, I think it worked out pretty well.  This painting was delivered today.  Yay!

And there's still one wedding painting on my easel right now.  This one was more complicated than both of the two above, so maybe I'll make a blog post about its development when it's done.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Wedding Landscape

In my last post, I mentioned that I was going to do a small watercolor at a wedding near Cashiers, NC.  That turned into an interesting experience.  Cashiers is in a spectacularly beautiful region high in the mountains of southeast North Carolina.  The area is filled with golf courses, vacation homes, and seasonal businesses.  The couple getting married had asked me to do a small watercolor of the setting for their wedding.  It wasn't to include the bride, groom, or other wedding participants.  I told them that I could do a plein air landscape and have it matted for them during the reception.

Once I arrived at the site, I saw why they wanted the location.  It's a place called Lonesome Valley, which I learned is the largest box canyon east of the Mississippi.  The valley floor was lush with the early-spring light greens of the trees, while the canyon walls to the northeast were sheer granite walls hundreds of feet high.  Wow!  I set up in a place where the wedding guests could come by to see what I was doing, while still giving me a clear view of the valley and the granite walls.  When I started, it was a beautiful day.

That changed.  The wedding was scheduled for 5 pm, but at 4:30 some thick clouds rolled in.  I checked the weather radar and, of course, there was a single cell of rain coming right towards us.  Just before 5, it opened up.

I took down my easel and quickly relocated to the shelter of the reception hall to finish up the artwork.  The rain eased up and the ceremony went off a half hour late.  Not too bad, considering.  The bride, groom, and guests all seemed to love the artwork ... at least, I had lots of questions and compliments on it.  So here's the finished work:


The good people at Lonesome Valley said that they welcome artists to come paint the valley.  I'm not a landscape artist, but this is definitely a place I'd like to go back to and paint!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Wedding Season

The spring wedding season is on us and I've been busy.  On Saturday, April 21st, I went to Cary, NC (outside Raleigh) to do a live wedding painting for a wonderful young couple.  A week later, I was in Pilot Mountain, NC (north of Winston-Salem) to do another live wedding painting, this time for the owner of the venue.  The next weekend, I was at the Biltmore, here in Asheville, to do a live painting of the first dance at the reception for another young couple.  This coming Saturday, I'll be doing a small watercolor at a reception near Cashiers, in southwest North Carolina.

That's a lot of painting!

So, are the first three done yet?  No.  The first one is very near completion.  I'm making small changes to bring the overall finish up to where I'm comfortable with signing it.  Two or three days of work and I think it'll be done.  The second painting is about midway there, but it has a long way to go.  The third is still at the starting line: it has a rough block-in done at the reception, but that's it.

Every painting is different.  It has its own personality, it has its own things it wants to say, and it comes together in its own unique way.  The first of these paintings has been very cooperative from the get-go.  It has a very formal structure and things naturally fell into place.  It seems like my job has been to make sure all the details are executed properly.  The second painting is a bit more exuberant and lively.  I feel like it needs some guidance and creative suggestions to bring out the best in it, but it really wants to come to life.  The third?  It's been fighting me since the first marks on paper, even before the paint.  Everything has been a struggle: the composition, perspective, placement of the bride and groom, the lighting, the selection of photos to use for their poses, color, everything.  However, by the end of the reception, the painting started to come together, and I have a plan for how I want it to develop.  But since paintings are living things, and this one seems to have a rather independent mind, it may go in an entirely different way.  We'll see.

And NO, you can't see any progress photos.  Sometimes making a painting is like making sausage: the process is ugly but the end result is delicious.

So I'm off to the studio to sling some paint.  I'll post photos of the completed paintings when they're done.