Monday, September 30, 2013

"Returning to Base"

Returning to Base
Oil on canvas, 36"x40"

Here's my newest painting.  It's part of my ongoing "Meditation on War" series.  I wanted to address an experience that almost anybody who has been in a conflict zone has had: fighting a war in a place that can be spectacularly beautiful.  Now, most westerners who have been to southern Afghanistan wouldn't call it "spectacularly beautiful", but occasionally it is.  My little base in Maiwand district had a mountain just to the north.  Normally it was gray and dusty, like everything else, but sometimes when the late afternoon sunlight caught it just right, it glowed.  That's what I was trying to achieve here.

Since signing this painting, I've been busy getting six works ready for an exhibition in northern Indiana.  I mentioned it in one of my previous posts.  It's the Citizen - Soldier - Citizen exhibit at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City, Indiana.  The exhibit is of artworks by veterans.  I'm familiar with several of the other invited artists and they are all top-notch.  I'm really honored to be included in their company.  My works will include two of the pastels from "Faces of Afghanistan", two oils from the "Portraits from Iraq" series, and two landscapes from the "Meditation on War" series.  The exhibition will be open from Nov 2 to Feb 9, which is quite a long run.  The Lubeznik Center is in downtown Michigan City, about an hour east of Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan.

I've also continued to work on my studies of color.  Yesterday, I found a really good article on artists colors in a technical newsletter.  Golden Paints, which produces really top-quality acrylic paints, puts out the Just Paint newsletter periodically, and they always have lots of good information for painters of all types.  This particular issue (#26) has a lengthy article on different types of pigments, and how and why they differ from each other.  After experimenting with using Robert Liberace's approach to color (primarily with color choices I had not used before), the article was really useful.  Learning is like building a brick wall: everything new builds on what you learned before.  Things I read in the "Just Paint" article made sense because I'd been experimenting with related items just a few days earlier.  I love it when things like that come together!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Two Interesting Movies

I watched two really interesting films over the weekend that had some very insightful things to say.  Both of them had to do with the Middle East, the Muslim world, and the conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds.

The first of these was "The Gatekeepers".  This is a surprising documentary film from Israel that is structured around interviews with the six surviving heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service.  Frankly, I was amazed that these men agreed to do the interviews in the first place, given the secretive, dangerous, and controversial nature of their work.  I was even more surprised by some of the things they had to say.

"The Gatekeepers" provides insight into Shin Bet's activities ever since the 6-day war in 1967.  The men discuss things that they were involved with first-hand, such as the first and second intifada, the growth of Jewish settlements in occupied territories, targeted assassination, the various peace processes, and more.  Some of their comments were hard-line, as you might expect.  Other comments were not.  They showed a respect and understanding of their Palestinian opponents that was not what I would have thought to hear.  In retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise: these men needed to deeply understand the Palestinian (and also the later Jewish underground) movements in order to effectively counter them.  They also made clear that they thought Israeli leadership - from the Prime Minister and President to the Knesset - were on the wrong track and had squandered many opportunities for improved relations with the Palestinians, if not outright resolution of the issues.

The Israel-Palestinian issue is going to remain a flashpoint for Middle Eastern politics and policies for the foreseeable future.  This film provides some insight and understanding that will help shape your views, regardless of where you currently stand.

The second film was "The Reluctant Fundamentalist".  Based on a novel of the same name, it is a story about the evolution of a bright young Pakistani man from a poor-but-privileged family in Lahore, to a rising star in a high-end Wall Street investment firm, to his experiences in America after 9/11, to his abandonment of Western life and return to Lahore and new life as a college professor.  It is a tale that gradually unfolds as he is talking with an American journalist in tea bar.  And it is full of surprises: as the protagonist notes early, "nothing is as it seems".

The acting was superb.  Riz Ahmed played the leading role as the young Pakistani, Liev Shrieber the role of the journalist, and Kate Hudson as the Pakistani man's American girlfriend.  They all brought their A-game to roles that were powerful, layered, and nuanced.  The story was a thriller with something important to say, which is something that doesn't happen very often.

Two films in one weekend.  That never happens for me as I'm not much of a movie watcher.  But these were exceptional and I highly recommend them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

More Experiments with Color

Oil on panel, 12"x16"

I've continued to study Robert Liberace's approach to color.  I went back through his DVD and my notes to try to understand, in a systematic way, what he was doing and why it worked.  That's the way my brain works: it has to be logical and systematic, rather than intuitive, before I understand it.  Once I understand it, it can then be intuitive.

What I came up with, in a nutshell, is that the basic skin tones in the lighted area were warm colors, slightly neutralized so they're not too intense.  As the planes of the face turn away, they shift to cooler colors.  The intermediate shadow (the dark line between the lighted and shadowed areas) is definitely cool.  Robert uses green or greenish blue and I've seen other artists use something comparable.  The shadowed areas are basically green.  Then there are the reflected lights.  These are in the shadows but are light reflected from something nearby.  They contain the color of whatever reflected them.  A purple shirt, for example (as in Robert's DVD) reflects purple light.  Skin tones generally reflect red or orange.  Highlights are basically white with a touch of whatever the color of the light source is.

At last night's life drawing/painting session, I had a chance to put those theories to work.  I put aside my normal selection of colors and went with a much more varied one with purples, magentas, stronger yellows, and greenish-blues.  I started with umber to sketch the figure and put in the shadowed areas.  Then it was on to the brighter and more varied palette.  The result is Bobbi, above.  I'm quite happy with the way it turned out.  The figure feels full and rounded, the colors are brighter yet not overpowering, and the variety in colors is interesting in itself.

I was also more careful in my brushwork.  I put down some pretty heavy strokes in places so that the strokes would help define the form.  Sometimes they were blended into surrounding areas, sometimes not.  I made a conscious effort to hold the brush toward the back, rather than closer to the ferrule, as it keeps me from getting too tight, and also focused on using a lighter touch, trying to "dance" my brush across the canvas.

One final change was to put my palette between myself and the easel.  My normal stance has been to have the easel in the center, with a small table on the left holding paper towels and other random supplies, and my taboret (which is really a Sears rolling tool chest with a glass top) on the right.  But this had a couple of consequences.  One, it allowed me to stand too close to the painting.  I studied that yesterday and found that I stood maybe 12" from the canvas, and sometimes even closer.  By standing further back, I could get a better idea of the painting as a whole.  Two, it put the color mixing surface far away from the painting.  I had a triangle that my eyes would bounce around: subject in the middle, palette down and to the right, and painting up and to the left.  By putting the palette in front of the painting, this triangle is much smaller.  And it prevents me from standing too close.  Last night's arrangement was a bit of a jerry-rig to test the idea and it worked, so now I'm looking for a more permanent solution.

So it's experimentation time.  I'm having fun and learning a lot.  More experiments to follow.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Working on my Color Sense

White Tutu
Oil on linen panel, 12"x9"

We did something a bit different at last week's life drawing session.  We had Whitney, one of my favorite models, sit for a single pose for the whole 2-hour session.  This was the result.  I think it turned out fairly okay.  One of the fun (and frustrating) things I did was to experiment with my use of color.

A while back, I bought a DVD demonstration of an alla prima portrait done by Robert Liberace.  I've been going through it, slowly, and learning quite a bit.  One of the things that I'm wrestling with right now is his use of color.  To say that it's far beyond mine is an understatement ... by comparison, he's building the Brooklyn Bridge while I'm playing with tinker toys.  Still, I can learn enough to make better things with my tinker toys.

Some background.  For many years, I stayed away from color.  I could never understand how you could mix this blue and that yellow and get a bright green, or a slightly different blue or yellow and get a very muted green.  It was just PFM (pure frickin' magic) to me.  Then, while I was taking night classes at Maryland Institute College of Art, I read "Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green", by Michael Wilcox.  It was a revelation.  For the first time, I understood why painter's colors act the way they do.  I could finally choose my colors deliberately in order to get strong or muted effects.  It was great.  I highly recommend the book.  Ever since, I've had a pretty standard palette: three blues, two reds, two yellows, three earth tones, and white.  (Okay, for you painters: ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson permanent, cadmium yellow light, lemon yellow, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and burnt umber).  It's a pretty versatile, one-size-fits-all selection.

Except it doesn't quite fit all.  There are times when I've needed stronger tints, or don't want to keep mixing up a particular color, or just need some more variety, so I've gradually built up a secondary selection of colors over the years.  They've helped on the occasional painting, but they've never had a starring role on my palette.

But while watching Liberace, I saw that he uses lots of colors that I've never (or rarely) touched: magentas, violets, greens, rose, and purples.  He uses them instinctively, mixing in a magenta for a cooler red, or violet for a warmer blue.  Drives me nuts.  I don't see the subtle color shifts on the model, but on the painting, it makes perfect sense.  At least, it does after the fact.  No way would I have seen that particular combination coming.

I know that my color perception is deficient.  Back when I was taking my physical in order to go into the Navy, they gave me the PIP color tests - you know, the ones where they show you a circle made up of all these colored dots, and you're supposed to see the number.  Except I never did.  I still can't.  I found a short version online tonight and proved once again that I just don't see the numbers.  The funny thing is, I can see all the different colors and could probably mix up some paint to match any one of them, but I can't see the overall number pattern to save my soul.

Nothing like a color-blind painter, huh?

So I'm probably starting from behind the 8-ball.  Oh, well, that's life.  That doesn't mean that I don't see color - I see lots of color, and the more I paint, the more colors I'm aware of.  And I don't get a whole lot of criticism about my color choices, so they must not be too far off the mark.

I decided to look at how some other painters use color.  Lucian Freud, one of the greatest recent figurative painters, used a very limited palette - apparently earth tones (yellow ochre, raw and burnt sienna) plus a tiny bit of ultramarine blue and a lot of Cremnitz white.  Another of my favorites, Peter Howson, had a palette that was all over the place but consistent within each painting.  By that, I mean that the paint scheme in one work (as well as how the paint was applied) would be completely different in another.  However, his color use in general was much broader than Freud's but still not as far out as Liberace's.  I recently got a great book on El Greco, but he was on a different planet with his colors.  And subject matter.  And pretty much everything else.

So.  All that being said, I've got a lot to learn to take my use of color to the next level.  And despite my apparent "color deficiency" according to the eye tests, I think I have the capability to do a lot better.  So I'm going to continue to work on it.  This sounds like something I'll be working on for the rest of my life.

Sounds like the life of an artist.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

One Show Up, Another Coming Up

The painting that I discussed in my last blog post is now finished and on exhibit at the Asheville Area Arts Council.  It wasn't quite down to the wire, but kinda close - I signed it about 24 hours it was hung.

Oil on canvas, 40"x50"

It was quite a lot of fun to do this painting.  I built it using my old picture-development techniques.  I thought about what I'd want to communicate, I searched through images looking for ideas, did some sketching, and then cut out, recombined, altered, added, deleted, and changed things until I had something to work with.  Then I transferred the rough outline to canvas and started painting.  You can see some of the process in a series of photos on my website at

You don't see the whole story there, though, particularly what went into the overall concept.  I started with the idea of painting something that reflected my experiences in Afghanistan.  For some reason, I connected with the image of the guy in green in this painting.  He had been at an evening meeting we had with our district governor.  I never saw him before or after.  He seemed to be pretty sharp, paid close attention to what was being said, had a good sense of humor, but never said a word.  I knew then that I wanted to draw him, but that wasn't in the cards that night.  Fortunately, we had somebody with us who took a whole lot of photographs, so I had about two dozen to work with.

But a single guy didn't tell much of a story.  I added in the elder, who is based on one that we worked closely with, a really neat guy who was a mujahedeen leader against the Russians many years ago.  But two guys wasn't enough, either.  Since I had an elder and an adult, I tried adding a young man, somebody whose age made him susceptible to Taliban recruitment.  I worked on their expressions and finally settled on having the elder be the one to be actively engaged, the adult to be open but a bit skeptical, and the youth to be potentially hostile.  That pretty much mirrored my experiences.  To further confuse things, I thought that the Afghans should be offering hospitality (symbolized by the tea and plate of nuts), but also show a potential threat symbolized by the AK47 leaning against the wall.

Next was a setting.  I tried it outside in a courtyard, surrounded by villagers, but that was just too busy, so I moved it indoors.  Initially, the door was closed, but then I thought that it would be good to open the door and establish a connection with the local environment.  That lasted a while until I realized that the open door pulled the viewer's attention away from the Afghans, and it also messed with the lighting.  So I closed it again.  That was the last "creative" decision in the painting.  Everything after that was in trying to execute the painting to the best of my ability.

I learned a lot out of this exercise.  Probably the most important thing is that I need to go a lot further with the drawing stage and work out a lot of issues long before a brush goes on canvas.  The question of whether the door should be open or closed, for example, should have been determined that way.  There were a lot of questions about lighting, colors, and values that I was wrestling with unnecessarily in the later stages.  So I need to stay with the drawing much longer.

It also seems to me that the painting is a bit stiff.  I over-painted too many areas with too great a level of detail.  I kept thinking of how somebody like Sargent would indicate a hand, which is with amazingly few strokes of the brush, or how he'd depict the plate or glasses.  I spent way too much time and paint on mine; his would have been done with a few flicks and looked much better.  So I need to work on that.

But the painting is done and in an exhibit.  We had a good turnout for the opening on Friday night.  I got to see a lot of old friends that I hadn't seen in a long time (years, in some cases).  Two of the other artists sold their work, which is always cool.  I had several good discussions about mine.  In this picture, mine is the one that's catching the full blast of sunlight on the left wall.

But the title of this post alludes to another show coming up.  That's true: I've been invited to participate in an exhibition of veterans' artworks in November.  The show is being curated by somebody out of Washington and will actually be shown in Michigan City, Indiana, which is on the coast of Lake Michigan, a bit east of Chicago.  The actual works that will go are still to be determined.  I'll keep you posted.