Monday, May 20, 2019

The Wedding Season Has Begun!

My 2019 wedding season kicked off yesterday.  I was the live event artist at the wedding of a lovely couple who got married at the Dennis Vineyards near Albemarle, North Caroline, which is a bit east of Charlotte.  It was a lot of fun to get back into the swing of the wedding painting thing again.

When the bride and I were planning what to put on canvas, she was torn.  She wanted it to show the first dance, but she also wanted to see the beautiful vineyards.  Well, this is a painting, and I can put anything I want anywhere I want.  So our idea was to show the first dance outside, on the lawn, with the vineyards in the background.  Good plan.

All went normally for me for a while.  I arrived early, talked with the event planner and venue manager, got set up, met the bride and groom, and started taking reference photos of everything.  I continued taking photos all during the ceremony.  Since the ceremony was outside, this gave me an indication of the direction and color of the light, how any breezes affected hair and dresses, and some idea of how the people looked in the landscape.  After the ceremony, I tagged along with the photographer and videographer as they worked with the newly-married couple and got some really good references.  Then we moved inside and I shot a ton more photos during the first dance.  Then it was time to get to work on the painting.

My approach was to do a very rough block-in of the landscape, then put the various figures into it.  Sounds like a good idea, right?  Well, I took it too far.  When I started putting figures into the landscape, the landscape had a lot to say about where the figures went, which wasn't necessarily where I wanted them to be.  Not only that, but I had to wipe out the landscape underpainting (which was still very wet) to paint the figures in.  And the brushstrokes for my figures picked up the remnants of the green paint and tinted everything.  To top it all off, I thought my figure drawing was for crap.  Sheesh.

Fortunately, the couple and guests were quite impressed by what I managed to get done in a fairly short amount of time.  I had a great time talking with many people, from the 4-year-old flower girl to an 80-something gent.

Back in the studio today, I plopped the painting on my easel and studied it.  I decided that the basic idea and composition were fine, but execution was sub-par.  So a lot of thinner and some scrubbing with a stiff brush removed most of the still-wet paint.  Next was to block in the dancing couple, and that went much better than the first effort.  Then I did a good bit of thinking and planning on how to put in the rest of the key figures, and how to get the landscape to support the composition.

Result?  A much improved structure in which to paint the people, while showing relationships, emotions, and activity.  Lesson learned: don't paint the background first!  Indicate the setting, but only roughly.  Then block in the key people.  THEN develop the painting all over.

So NO, you can't see it right now.  I'll show a work-in-progress when it's a bit further along. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A New Toy

I've liked sports cars almost all my life.  I've had a few, too: '70 Opel GT, '69 Alfa Romeo Spider, '80 Triumph TR7, '68 Triumph GT6+, '76 MG Midget, and an '85 Porsche 944.  And I had a '91 Taurus SHO, which was the factory hotrod version with a screaming Yamaha engine and a 5-speed manual transmission.  The last of the sports cars was the 944, which we sold in about 2001.  I've had small trucks and a Volvo ever since.

But the sports car bug never left.  I have subscriptions to a couple of car magazines that kept the fire going, and periodically I'd look at eBay, Craigslist, or Bring A Trailer, just to see what was there.  The fire really got stoked last year when one of my magazines started a series on a '71 Alfa Romeo Spider that they bought and began fixing up.  I've always had a soft spot for the Spiders.  I think they're one of the most beautiful production cars ever made, with sleek and elegant lines.  So most of my eBay, Craigslist, and Bring A Trailer perusals focused on Alfas.  Just to, y'know, see what's out there.  That's all.

Last year, a Spider popped up on Bring A Trailer and it was right here in the Asheville area.  It sounded pretty good, so, y'know, just to see what's out there, I connected with the guy to check it out.  Well, his definition of "pretty good" and mine weren't the same.  The Alfa was completely worn out.  The paint was faded, top was shot, steering vague, oil pressure near zero, it smoked, interior needed to be replaced, wires hanging down from the dash, you get the picture.  I didn't bid.  It wound up selling for about $9,500, and needed that much more work in order to be a $10,000 car.

A couple of weeks ago, I just happened to be on eBay (not looking for anything, I swear) and there was a really nice '87 Alfa Spider.  From the photos, it looked like it had been well cared for: the paint was in good shape, advertised with no rust (a BIG issue with Alfas), had the original top with a clear rear window, and supposedly ran well.  The seller's writeup said all the right things that an Alfa owner would recognize and it looked to me like he was (a) honest and (b) really knew what he was talking about.  I thought, dang, that's nice, it's gonna go for big bucks.  The opening bid was really low at $5250, and I expected it would sell for at least double that.

As the week went on, nobody bid.  Nobody.  Finally it was an hour before the auction was due to end and there were still no bids.  My stress level went off the scale - should I bid on it?  Yes? No? Yes?  Finally Janis said, look, you know you want it, just buy the damn thing.  So I waited until the last minute, in case there were other goobers like me watching, and threw in my bid for the opening amount.

I won the auction.

So now I own a 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce (pronounced "vel-OH-chee").  As it turned out, the seller was a fantastic guy who gave me what he knew of the history of the car.  He had only put maybe 300 miles on it during 8 years of ownership, and kept it in his garage, where it was usually blocked in by his family's other cars.  There was a good bit of recent work that fixed some common Alfa problems.  He and I hit it off really well - we both saw ourselves as caretakers of the Alfa.  Nobody's a "caretaker" of a Toyota.

I arranged to have the car shipped from Annapolis, Maryland, here to Mars Hill, North Carolina.  The car arrived late Friday afternoon.  I spent the weekend fiddling with the car and going through all the spares, accessories, parts, manuals, and other items that the previous owner included.  On Monday, I got the car licensed and put the tags on.  On Tuesday, it got a new set of tires, since the old ones were around 12 years old.  Then I went ripping up and down some of the winding back country roads around my home.  Just to test it out, you know.

Impressions?  This is a really nice survivor.  It's certainly not perfect, but it has been driven, maintained, and lived with by owners who took good care of it.  It's a very physical car to drive.  By that, I mean that it does not have power steering, so it takes a lot of effort to crank the wheel.  It has a manual transmission that, in typical Alfa fashion, has synchronizers that quit working in probably the first year.  It's loud, it vibrates, it's immediately responsive to every steering/throttle/brake input, and it demands that you PAY ATTENTION to what you're doing.  But if you do that, damn, it is such a sweet car!

That drive exposed a few things that need to be addressed.  But then, I expected no less.  None of the issues are serious and I can take care of all of them but one - I gotta have a shop replace the rear wheel bearings.  Other than that, the car is eager to go play on these back roads.

I needed a car like this like a hole in the head.  But boy, I really LOVE this car!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Studio Projects

I've got a whole bunch of projects going on in the studio right now.  They keep lining up in the queue and piling up faster than I can get 'em done.  It's frustrating in that there's so much that I want to do, but it's also exciting, in that I already have enough to keep me busy full-time for months.  And that's without new projects that are going to crop up.  So here's a look at what I've got going.

First off, I have a double-portrait commission.  A wonderful couple from Greensboro recently got married and wanted an artwork to commemorate the occasion.  What we decided on was a charcoal and pastel portrait of the two of them together.  I got with them for a photo session, figured out which photos told the story the best, and got started.  Double portraits are usually tricky.  The first figure usually goes in without too much trouble, but the second will kick my butt.  That's because I have to match the size, lighting, and technique to the first figure.  So in addition to getting a good likeness and bringing life to the image, there are these other issues that have to be considered.  It can be frustrating, but it's also fun.

I'm doing a series of portraits of a wedding planner.  Mary Bell is one of the very best wedding planners I've worked with.  She's on top of every detail about any event, keeping vendors like me in line, and making sure everything goes off like clockwork, all while making it easy and stressless for the couples and guests.  I had Mary in the studio recently for a photo session.  Two charcoal and pastel artworks are now done.  The first image is in line with my series of figurative works: high-contrast lights and darks, very dramatic.  The second is more like a portrait, with the value contrasts dialed back and better lighting on her face.  Here are the two images for comparison.  You can click on the images to see larger versions.

Mary #1

Mary #2

Another new figure series is in the queue.  Jazmin, one of the regular models for my Wednesday night life sessions, came to the studio for a photo session a while back.  Jazmin is a lively young lady, very spirited, a bit of a show-off (in a good way), and a natural in front of a camera.  There are a lot of images that are just screaming to get caught on paper or canvas.  I haven't done one from these photos yet, but here's one from one of her life sessions last year.

Jazmin #4

Meanwhile, as I've noted in previous posts, I've been looking at the artwork of Nick Alm for quite some time.  The way he puts multi-figure compositions together is pretty incredible.  They are based on a strong abstract composition that underlies the whole canvas, and the figures are placed so that they comprise the structure and tell the story.  Here's one example:

Nick Alm: "Bacchanal"

Here you can see that the figures in white form an upside-down triangle.  The figures on the right merge into one large dark shape, while on the left, the wall, chair, man's trousers, and shadows all blend into another single dark shape.  The girl in the center is set off by her long dark hair and the detail in her face and figure.  This is only one example - Google "Nick Alm" and you'll see dozens of examples.

I wanted to try to put some of his approach into practice and see how it works for me.  I have several thousand photos of weddings and receptions, so I raided my stash for reference images and am putting together a test painting.  Here's what it looked like a week ago:

This was okay, but there were some serious issues.  One, I used Alm's muted palette of largely black, white, and grays.  That works in paintings of a bunch of people sitting around cafes getting drunk, but doesn't work in a celebratory situation like a wedding.  It needed to feel lighter and happier - it needed bright colors.  Two, although the three bridesmaids were facing the viewer, none of the men were.  In fact, three had their backs to us.  In a painting that's meant to memorialize an event, you want to memorialize the people who were there, so you need to see their faces.  So I made some changes.  Here's how it looks now:

Obviously, I blew up the reception hall and moved everybody outside.  Were they really outside?  Who cares?  It's a much more cheerful picture.  I reversed the guy on the right, changed the guy he was talking to into a grandmother, and revised the figures on the left.  Much better.  Now I need to add some more figures: at least one, maybe two, around the guy sitting on the left, and another sitting on the right.  But what I've learned is that I can take Alm's approach of creating a large abstract composition, featuring large areas of light and color, make them into people, and the painting will work.

This still has a VERY long way to go, but it's been an interesting trip so far.  I've been learning a lot about composition and tying things together - all lessons that I can carry into this year's crop of wedding paintings.

In addition to all this, I've been keeping my Wednesday night life group going.  It's not always successful for me.  I had a string of three weeks in a row where my works were not just substandard, they were pretty bad:

And we had a beautiful model that night.  Sheesh.  Since then, though, things have been going better.

So that's what's going on in the studio right now.  Lots of stuff to do and I'm excited about digging into all of it even more over the next few months!

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Losing a Dog

Our little Soozzee has left us.  As I've described in several recent posts, she was suffering from a variety of ailments: deaf, blind in one eye and almost blind in the other, Addison's disease, arthritis, bladder stones, a thyroid condition, a skin condition, and worst of all, dementia.  Since my post last month, the dementia took more and more of a toll.  She got lost in the house pretty much all the time. She used to bark when she wanted us to get her down from the bed, but she stopped doing that.  We think she probably just forgot about barking.  Her inner GPS (the primary subject of my last post) got significantly worse.  She just seemed lost all the time.  She had often had trouble standing up and would stumble more on her walks.

Soozzee still had her happy moments, though.  She enjoyed parts of her walk: she'd stop and sniff at anything, even if she didn't know which way to go.  If we got out "the light" in the evening (a laser light that she has chased around the house since she was a little pup), she'd still pounce on it, but only for a minute and then she'd forget it was there.  And she liked to have some reassuring pettings.

But it was clear that she wasn't going to last long.  And on Saturday, April 6, that day came.  We did the morning walk and she kept going off the wrong way.  After getting back in the house, she wandered around lost, and while walking down the hall, she pooped without breaking stride.  The poor girl would never, ever, have pooped in her own house if she was at all aware.  The fact that she didn't know enough to control her own body was our signal that she was, to all intents and purposes, gone.

We called our vet, the Animal Hospital at Reems Creek, and made an appointment.  The people there have taken wonderful care of our dogs for almost 15 years and were almost as torn up about it as we were.  So just after noon last Saturday, they gave little Soozzee the injection and she passed away in my arms.

Good God, I wanted to die.

We're trying now to adjust to life post-dogs and, damn, it's hard.  For years, our lives have been largely structured around Soozzee and her sister Indy, who passed away a bit over a year ago.  At 9 am, it was time to wake up the dogs (yes, you read that right) and take 'em on their morning walk, then give 'em their meds.  Around noon, it was a ride in the car to take care of errands.  Around 4-5 pm, it was their evening walk and then dinner.  At about 7 pm, it was play time, usually with "the light".  Around 11 pm, one last time outside to do their business, take their evening meds, and off to bed.

Now, I'll be thinking "oh, it's 4 pm, gotta take Soozzee on her walk .... uh, damn ..."  It's a great big emptiness where Soozzee and her sister used to be.  Janis and I don't quite know how to fill it.  We'll get there, but it's going to take a while.  I still tear up over Indy's passing and that was well over a year ago, so it'll probably take at least another year or so to get over Soozzee.

I've been asked several times if we're going to get another dog.  No, we won't.  For one, it's unfair to any dog to be asked to fill in the hole left by another.  For another, there are things that we want to do, mainly travel, that were difficult or impossible with two dogs that were special needs.  And we just need to figure out life as empty-nesters.

Ever since I started writing this blog, there have been occasional posts about our two sweet Shih Tzus.  This is probably the final one.

Goodbye, little Soozzee.  You have my heart forever.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Dog, Dementia, and Directions

I've posted before about my dog.  She's a sweet little Shih Tzu who's going on 16 years old.  For the past year or so, dementia has gradually been taking hold in her little brain.  She's not gone, not yet, but the dementia is slowly taking her capabilities.  One of them is her sense of direction.

Now, Soozzee has never been much of an outdoor dog.  She's always been a bed potato.  That's like a couch potato, only her happy place is our bed.  Walks are not something she looks forward to.  From middle-age on, she got more and more resistant to heading out.  Dragging her along on her leash wasn't fun for either of us.  So we got a dog stroller.  I put her in the stroller for the outbound trip, take her out to the farthest point, put her on the ground, and she will trot, or even run, back home.  And it got to where she seems to enjoy the outbound trip.  She'll stand there, looking forward, sniffing the air, taking it all in.  Then at some point she'll say "enough", and turn around in the stroller and start pawing at the back.  Time to head home, Dad.

Lately, though, dementia seems to be hitting her internal GPS.  After a stop to do her business, or just sniff, or whatever, she'll forget which way is home.  She'll look both ways and then head out in the wrong direction.  I'll turn her around, and she'll say "nope, home is THIS way", and head off in the wrong direction again.  This will happen over and over.  "C'mon, Soozzee, home is THAT way."  "No, Dad, it's THIS way."  "Soozzee, it's THAT way."  "No, THIS way."  Aaarrggh.

But I found a trick.  I put her back in the stroller and turn her around a couple of spins one way, then a spin the other way.  That seems to hit the reboot button on her inner GPS.  Then I head away from home for maybe 10-15 feet.  That's like the outbound leg for her, so when I put her down again, she heads off in the correct direction.  At a trot, tail up, heading for home.

Does it work all the time?  No.  But it usually does.  And sometimes I have to do it two or three times on a walk.  But a Dad's gotta do what a Dad's gotta do.

It's sad to see her slowly going downhill.  Her diminished capabilities mean that our social lives are very limited - we rarely get to go out to dinner, don't go to movies together anymore, and don't take trips.  Soozzee gets really stressed when she's left alone in the house now, and somebody has to be around to watch her when she wanders, or be there to give her her meds, or take her on the walks.  Sometimes she's a pain in the butt, sometimes she's funny, and sometimes she's frustrating.  But this old dog has earned every bit of consideration we can give her.  And I'm just happy she's still with us.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Different Meanings in Artworks

Ever noticed that different people see different things in artworks?  One person will look at a painting and see something very peaceful, while the next person will wonder what demons are eating at the artist.  What's worse is when a critic writes a review that pontificates on the artwork's meaning and you've got no clue where this critic, who supposedly is enlightened, comes up with that interpretation.  And the worst thing is when said critic says that his/her meaning is the only one there is, leaving you and your very different interpretation out in the cold.

The truth is that we all come to an artwork with our own biases, likes, dislikes, viewpoints, personal histories, experiences, random mood of the day, and all the other baggage that goes along with being human.  So we all will react differently to the same piece of art.  While it's true that some people will be able to make more educated guesses at what the artist might have meant, or some people may be able to better identify which artworks are of higher quality than others, it's still true that each individual's experience of an artwork is unique to them.  As an artist, I can't control how you respond to something I painted.  I can only do my best to put my own intentions on canvas.  After that, the artwork is on its own, and you will see what you will see.

This hit home to me many years ago.  I was a continuing-education student at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.  This was a place where even the continuing-ed students were very serious about their work.  Our painting instructor gave us an assignment of doing a still life at home.  Sounds pretty simple, right?  So I went home and got to work.  My approach was to put a bunch of stuff into a pile and start re-arranging, tossing things out, and simplifying, until I got to something that was visually interesting.  Then I slung some paint.  Here's the result:

I was a Navy officer at the time, so that was my cover ("hat" in civilianese).  The teddy bear was mine from when I was one or two years old.  I liked the fact that there was a strong black/white contrast with interesting yellow shapes, all very harsh compared to the soft texture and color of the teddy bear.  Mission accomplished - there was the homework still life painting.

In the next class, the instructor had us critique each other's work.  When they got to mine, nobody said a word about the "strong black/white contrast with interesting yellow shapes, all very harsh compared to the soft texture and color of the teddy bear."  Instead, I heard a backstory about how the father had gone off to war and left a child at home, and the father wasn't coming back and the child was going to grow up without a dad, and this was one of the saddest paintings ever made.

Say what?

I could see that trying to explain what I'd been thinking about when putting the painting together didn't matter one iota to the people looking at it.  They created a much more interesting story than I ever could, and who am I to mess with that?  Since then, I don't worry too much about what others might see in a work.  In fact, when I do an artist talk, I try to get the audience to tell me what they see in the work.  Depending on the responses, they may never hear my own thoughts.  The only time it concerns me is when the predominate opinions are way off the mark from my own intention, which means my execution didn't match my intention.  I've learned a lot about my own works from hearing what people say about them.

Going back to the sample painting above, I eventually decided that the choice of the hat and teddy bear were not random and not just about colors and textures.  The teddy bear was the very young innocent me, while the hat was the grown-up me, and I was saying something about both of them being present at the same time.  I gave the painting the title "Now and Then".

So when you look at some of my artwork, don't ask me what I was trying to say.  Tell me what you see in the painting.  That's much more interesting.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

More New Works

I've been fairly productive in the studio this month.  I've been able to do quite a few charcoal and pastel works, both from life and from a photo session with Natalie.  I've also done a couple of oil paintings, started work on an experimental oil painting, had a photo session with another model, and this afternoon had a photo session for a commissioned portrait.  That's a lotta studio activity!

I'm not going to snow you under with a whole bunch of artworks all at once.  So to start with, here are five charcoal and pastel works of Natalie.  She's a wonderful model - a tiny young woman, beautiful, fairly reserved, but with a wild child buried inside.  She has worked with my Wednesday night life group quite a few times.  I've found life sessions to be invaluable - a critical exercise for anybody who calls themselves a figurative artist.  But one thing that life sessions can't do, at least not in a single 2-hour session, is probe much below the surface.  The model gets in a position and then holds it.  All facial expression goes away.  Don't believe me?  Try to hold a smile or frown or whatever for more than a few seconds.  It doesn't work.  Besides that, if you try, it comes across as false.

That's where photo sessions can be valuable.  Photos can capture momentary facial expressions or body positions that can't be held for more than a fraction of a second.  That's where a lot of personality is really revealed.  So, to try to capture some of Natalie's spirit, we did a photo session in the studio late last fall.  Here are several artworks resulting from that session as well as one Wednesday night life session.

Natalie #4
 I love the hand positions in this one.  She was just turning around, not even trying to pose, and there was some of her natural elegance.  In the artwork, I played up the elegance and simplified a few things to keep the focus on the pose and hands.

Natalie #5
 The reference photo had a good bit to recommend it: an interesting composition between her torso and arm, and the heavy shadows, particularly covering her eyes, gave her a mysterious air.  So that's what I worked with.  The charcoal and pastel dust trickled down the paper and I decided to leave it.  Hey, this is an artwork, not a photo!

Natalie #6
 Natalie is a lively young lady and I wanted to try to capture that aspect of her as well.  Smiles and laughter can be very hard.  That was certainly true here: getting the right balance of likeness and spirit kicked my butt.  But I think it got there.

 Natalie #7
This was another butt-kicker.  For one, it was done on black Canson paper.  This was the first time I'd used a black, and it required some different thinking.  All my other works have been on Canson papers with a mid-value tone.  With those, I could go both lighter and darker.  With black paper, you can only go lighter.  And black paper has NO depth.  I quickly learned that it required a pastel treatment over the whole surface to give it any kind of life at all.  And the pose turned out to be a problem.  In the original reference, she was sitting on a stool, but that didn't look right, so I wiped it out and decided to have her standing.  The upper torso, shoulders, and upper arms worked okay, but the first attempt at a face failed.  So I decapitated the poor girl (NOT REALLY) and replaced it with a head from another image.  And the hands came from a different photo session with another model entirely.  But in the end, it works.

Natalie #8
This one didn't come from the photo session, it was done during our Wednesday night life session a few weeks ago.  This pose was a challenge: visually, she's upside down and foreshortened.  And the light was coming from over my left shoulder, so there was almost nothing in the way of shadow to help give depth.  All of which made this one kinda fun.  I did 90% of it that night, then worked on her face and arms the next day.

Not everything is a winner, though.  There was one image of Natalie that I worked on, off and on, for weeks.  It finally went into the trash.  Sometimes you just gotta recognize when a composition isn't going to work and move on.

There are quite a few other artworks that I've done and would like to talk about, but will save that for the next post.  Oh, and all of these are available, if you'd like to have one for your own collection.  Just sayin' ...