Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back In Time

I've been going through a period of looking backward.  No, not at my own artworks, although that's a good thing to do from time to time.  No, this has been a period of looking way back in history.  There's been an odd confluence of three unrelated things that all seemed to hit at once.  They are, in no particular order, a podcast, a book, and a TV show.

The podcast is "Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality, and 21st Century Archaeology", by Dr. Joe Schuldenrein.  He's a professional archaeologist.  His podcast is a series of interviews with other archaeologists about the work that they're involved with.  It runs the gamut: new studies of the Battle of Little Big Horn, what really happened in the Maya collapse, excavating the ruins in Chaco Canyon, a community-involved dig in Baltimore, how state Departments of Transportation handle archaeology, and on and on.  He's been doing this once a week for several years, so there are a ton of things to listen to.  Archaeology has always interested me, and it's great to hear some of the fascinating stories of things that are going on today.  One of the things that many of the guests have brought up, independently of each other, is that people throughout history have been very good at adapting to their particular situations, be it desert, swamp, forest, cities, complex and stratified civilizations, or whatever.  I think that contemporary people tend to be a bit condescending towards people of earlier times - the attitude that "we're so much smarter now and know better".  Well, no, we don't.  We didn't live in those times and cannot possibly internalize everything it meant to be, say, one of the tribes that built the pueblos in the American southwest.  Hell, we have a hard enough time with people of other cultures in the here and now!  But by and large, people within a culture of a particular time and place are often very well adapted to it.  And people throughout history are smart.

Which brings up the book.  I read "Shaman" by Kim Stanley Robinson.  He's generally thought of as a science fiction writer and one of the best at doing serious research to support the details in his books.  While science fiction usually entails some time in the future, "Shaman" is actually set about 33,000 years ago in what is now southern France.  It was during the Ice Age, when the glaciers extended far south and Neanderthals co-existed with early humans.  The book picks up the story of a young boy at puberty and follows him as he is trained to be the tribe's shaman and grows into a young man.  What struck me was how smart a person had to be to survive in an environment like that.  You had to know how to find materials to make your own clothes, make fire, find food and water, find or make shelter, deal with different types of animals either for food or to escape, make weapons, interact with other tribes, manage the petty intrigues of any small society, and on and on.  A modern man like me wouldn't last a day.  Robinson is a really good writer and puts all this great detail into a compelling storyline.  Well worth the read.

Finally, the TV show is "Barnwood Builders".  It's one of the Discovery channel's real-life series, most of which are excruciatingly bad.  This one, though, is pretty good.  It follows a team of West Virginia guys who dismantle old log cabins and barns and repurpose them into new homes.  Fortunately, the "new homes" bit receives very little attention, and the focus is on the old structure.  We often think of log homes from the 1800's as crude structures built by people who didn't know any better.  Not true at all.  The homes were often built from trees that had grown right there on the property, and they put them together in very ingenious ways.  The logs may look rough-hewn, but the notches are often precision-made so that the structures are stable.  Foundations may look like random stones, but they're actually carefully sourced, cut, and placed to provide a solid base to build on and to protect the wood from bugs and critters.  Roofs overhang a certain amount to make sure the rainwater runs off.  Sides are often covered with planks fixed to battens, which keeps the water off the logs and provides a bit of air circulation to help insulate the cabin.  All of this was done with hand tools.

Now I'm a guy with a few modern tools like electric drills and saws, but I have zero woodworking ability.  I made my first big easel back in the early 80's and it looks okay, but it isn't straight, and if you tighten down all the screws, it warps it all out of shape.  These old frontier guys did better with their hand axes.

So what all this is getting to is that our predecessors were pretty smart people.  They had to be, to survive and thrive in their worlds.  Just because we live in a higher-tech world does not mean we are one lick smarter than they were.  We just have higher-tech toys.

Monday, January 25, 2016


This evening, I received a note via my web site.  It came from somebody that I've never met.  It made my day.  Here is what he said:

I just wanted you to know something. I was asked as an assignment to pick my favorite art piece. I chose your piece Warrior. I am a vet myself, a former Scout. This piece spoke to me in a way I have never experienced. I have never been one for paintings, honestly. This one brought me to tears. It is a symbol of what Americans have forgotten. A symbol of why freedom is not free. I honestly don't know why you painted this particular piece but I wanted to thank you for it. I needed a wake-up call and it has been received, sir. Keep doing what you are doing and I may buy one someday if I can afford it. HA. I wanted to compliment you on your outstanding painting anyway. The impact your work has had on me is nothing short of ball busting. I've slipped into a time in my life where I have felt it is okay to complain. Seeing Warrior reminded me of the constant sacrifice our servicemen and servicewomen make daily and also reminded me that people don't appreciate it. 

Again, thank you.

"All gave some, some gave all." 

Oil on canvas, 60"x60"

This note just blew me away.  I painted Warrior during the heyday of the Iraq buildup.  I wanted to remind people that wars have consequences, and if you want to go to war, you better have a damn good reason that justifies all the hurt, pain, death, and destruction that's going to come out of it.  Not many people were thinking of that then.  Now, with all the publicity about PTSD, traumatic brain injury, the collapse of Iraq into fighting again, and the near-collapse of Afghanistan, people are very aware of the costs of war.

I've seen the effect that this painting has on some people.  I've seen people walk away from it because it hit something too deep inside.  And I've seen people just glance at it once and move on.  That's life.

On rare occasions, though, I get something like this note.  This lets me know that my work has had an impact on somebody.  It's a powerful feeling.  

I consider Warrior to be the best painting I've ever done.  Maybe it's the best I'll ever do.  Even if I never do anything else, I know that I've done one thing that's good.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Putting On a Workshop

This past weekend, I held the first artist workshop in my studio.  It was about drawing portraits.  It went really well.  Five people participated, ranging from complete newbie to fairly advanced, and they all seemed to come away with new skills and capabilities.  And we all had a heckuva lot of fun.

Planning for this event took some thought.  I started advertising it in December, long before I had an idea of how it should be taught!  Nothing like committing yourself to a course of action to spur yourself into figuring out how to do it.  My basic course of action was to start with the basic structure of the head, then to discuss the various features, and finally to do several exercises to tie it all together.  I'd scheduled the workshop to run for two days (Saturday and Sunday), for 3 hours each day.  Was this too much?  Not enough?  I didn't know.

But I need not have worried.  Learning how to do portraits is a life-long endeavor.  No matter how long a workshop is scheduled for, it won't be enough.  There's always something to work on.

I put together a handout for the students that discussed my major points and gave them some illustrations that were cribbed from the interwebs and other places.  My approach was to show the "standard" structure of the head: normal proportions, features, and shapes, as well as typical things to look for.  The upper lip, for example, has three parts: the tubercle, which is the dip or V-shaped form in the center, flanked by two wings, while the lower lip has two wings with a central furrow.  Once the students knew what the standard structure was, they could look for the individual differences in their particular subject.  Their model might have a very thin upper lip with almost no tubercle that protrudes slightly over a slightly more full lower lip with short wings.  We discussed this same process for the shape of the skull, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, forehead, ears, neck, and hair.

Some of the illustrations I used came from fine art: drawings by old masters, or from "how to" portrait courses and books.  But some came from a genre that many might find surprising: caricature.  Why?  Caricature is just an exaggerated form of portraiture.  A good caricature is instantly recognizable, even though it is completely unrealistic.  The artist has to be able to look at the subject and determine what features are different from the "standard" head and face, and then exaggerate the difference in a way that is convincing.  If a nose is just slightly bigger than normal, the caricaturist makes it BIG.  But something has to give: if the nose is big, something else has to be small to compensate.  The eyes, maybe, or the jawline - something.  And the differences have to be those that anybody can see.  The typical fine art courses don't say that - they typically take a "draw what you see" approach without talking about the tradeoffs like caricaturists do.

The artists in the class understood all that.  As a result, we had a good time talking through the issues and drawing each other.  Every one of them was doing a better job at the end than at the beginning.  So I'd say it was a success.  I came away with a laundry list of things to change for the next class, but the structure of the class turned out to be sound, so the changes are in the details.

I'm running a different workshop next week.  It will be on mixing colors.  I stayed away from painting for years because I didn't understand anything about color mixing.  Eventually, while taking a painting course at Maryland Institute College of Art, I learned a very logical and easy-to-understand method for mixing up the colors I needed.  We'll discuss this in the workshop and do a lot of experimentation.  Interested?  You can read more on my web site and sign up there as well.

So I'm having fun teaching, and I'm going to do more of it this year!

Friday, January 01, 2016

Another New Year

All my New Years are good.  The fact that I have another New Year means I'm still going, at least for another day!  As the saying goes in the Navy, it's "another day to excel".  Another day to spend in the studio, or on my consulting business, or on projects around the house, whatever needs attention the most.  Another day, period.

My goal for this year is to focus less on my consulting business and more on my studio.  Specifically, I want to teach workshops in my studio, find at least one new gallery in a larger market, and do a lot more artworks than I did in the past year.  Sounds like some reasonable goals, but they're all going to take a lot of work.

Speaking of artwork, I just repainted a studio landscape from earlier in the year.  "Clouds over the French Broad River" (below) was a study of the way summer clouds glow in that brief moment right at sunset.  

It was an okay start, but there were a number of things that didn't work.  The blues and purples in the sky and in the reflections in the water were way too strong and overpowered the reds and oranges in the clouds.  The line of trees was too flat and unconvincing.  The shoreline in the lower left was too bright and drew attention away from the clouds.  The trees on the far right were just flat.  So, basically, everything needed to be repainted.

Here's the revised version.  The clouds have been changed to extend the crimsons and magentas further to the left.  The colors in the sky and water reflections have been toned down quite a bit and don't dominate the clouds.  The treeline has been changed and feels more like a real riverbank now.  The lower left corner has been darkened and the trees on the far right have been reworked.  All in all, it feels much better.

In addition to reworking this painting, I've destroyed three others.  Two were failures and I just painted over them.  Now I have two more boards ready to throw paint on.  The third painting was one of my old political satire paintings.  I had recently started to update it to address some of the political events of today, but realized that I didn't want to go down that particular road again.  So I stripped the painting off the stretcher bars.  I'm going to rework the frame and stretch new canvas over it since I've learned a lot about making better canvases in the last ten years.  Actually, there are several other large paintings on my storage rack that are just begging for the same treatment.  And when I get done with all of them, I'll have several new, large canvases ready for some kind of new effort, as well as several old canvases that will make a good bonfire.

Bring it on!