Saturday, July 23, 2016


I spent last week up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana.  I was part of the team that trained a group of US government civilians heading to Afghanistan for a year.  Last month, my role was as a mentor for a team of students.  This time, I was what we call a "subject matter expert".  This meant that I worked with our Afghan role-players to ensure that the training events were well coordinated, the role-players had an idea as to how the students might react, and the events went off on schedule.  It can be a nerve-wracking job, but it's a lot of fun.

You could think of my role as the director and stage manager of a play in which only half the participants know what the script is.  Yes, there is a script: we have very definite goals in mind for each event.  These goals are increasingly complex as the training progresses and build on previous events.  In the first event, the student teams meet a local Afghan official.  It's a basic meet-and-greet.  The students are informed on very short notice of the meeting and have to learn something about the official, try to figure out what his interests are, prepare the meeting room as best they can, and determine which team member is going to fill each role.  Then they have to do the meeting.  It usually goes well, but it can go south in a hurry.  Last month, the official asked my student team about Donald Trump's veracity (a very realistic question as many Afghans watch American politics).  One of the students replied that "all politicians are liars".  This, to an Afghan politician.  Ooops!  Fortunately, the other team members helped the guy recover from his faux pas.  That's why we do this training: put the students in a safe environment where they have to put their training into practical use, and where mistakes aren't going to result in permanent damage.

Our Afghan role-players are wonderful people.  Many of them were driven out of their homes by the Soviets, or warlords, or the Taliban, and are eager to help the US rebuild the country.  Some were diplomats, some were officers or soldiers in the Army or Air Force, several were police officers, others were businessmen, teachers, village elders, scholars, and farmers.  One was a smuggler.  One has gone back to Afghanistan and put his life on the line three times as an interpreter with US forces.  Most have lost family members - wives, husbands, parents, sons, daughters, or other close relative - to the fighting that has raged in the country for 30 years.  Many still have family in Afghanistan.  I won't post any photos of them as that might endanger their family members still in-country.  But they have an amazing dedication to this job.  They bring insight, intelligence, and wit to their interactions with our students.  And, as one who was trained by these very same people five years ago, I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that their efforts are invaluable.

Outside of Muscatatuck, these men and women get little respect.  They are treated with suspicion because they're Muslims and Afghans.  They get told to "go home" way too often, even though many of them are now US citizens.  Extra attention and pat-downs in airports are a given.  Yet they still continue to show up, every time, to train people heading to Afghanistan.

So the next time you hear some idiot condemning all Muslims and Afghans as terrorists or worse, tell them to sit on it.  I work with Muslims and Afghans.  We are damned lucky to have them!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Taborets and Palettes

One of the things I do when I visit another artist's studio is study their taboret and palette.  It really gives me an insight into how they work.  Mechanics will check out another mechanic's tool set and shop layout, and for an artist, it's the same exact thing.  I get a lot of good ideas that way.

A taboret (pronounced "ta-bo-ray") is basically a table next to the easel that holds the artist's stuff.  It's a combination workbench and tool chest.  If you look in art catalogs, you'll probably notice that they're often fancy, made out of wood, and very expensive.  You won't find one of those in my studio.  I use a rolling tool chest that I got from Sears.  They still have a similar one in their catalog.  Mine is basically a steel 5-drawer unit on heavy-duty casters with a plastic top.  I tossed out the fiberboard top insert that came with it and replaced it with thick coffee-table glass for use as a palette.  On the left side, I added a shelf from scrap wood.  There's a recess in the top where I keep my mediums and the brushes I'm currently using.  I've got some small cardboard boxes attached to the back that hold my full selection of brushes.  Here's what it all looks like:

I'm right-handed, so I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  The wooden shelf holds the paper towel where I scrub my brushes.  Next to it is the recess.  From top to bottom you'll see the jar that holds the brushes in current use, then the large jar with dirty solvent (I use Gamsol), then a small jar with clean Gamsol, then a small jar with my medium (50% Gamsol, 50% linseed oil), and then a small jar with Liquin when needed.  To the right of the recess is the glass palette.  For me, this provides a natural flow, and I've been doing it for so long that I can't change now.  Some artists would want the palette to be as close as possible to the painting on the easel, but that hasn't worked for me.

Regarding the unused brushes, they're arranged according to size: small 0's to 2's to the left up to 12's on the right.  That way I can quickly find the size and shape I need.

The glass palette has to be backed with something so you can see and evaluate your paint.  Many artists use a white background, but I use a medium gray.  This allows me to see how light or dark the paint is.  If you use a white palette, then everything is darker, even a light yellow.  A medium gray background lets me get a good idea whether the paint is light or dark enough, and also whether it's strong or muted.  

The other good thing about glass is that it's easy to clean.  When I'm done for the day, I scrape off all my used paint, then wipe it down with Gamsol to clean it even more, and finally wipe it down with alcohol.  This removes all the remaining Gamsol and paint and leaves it clean enough to eat off of.

I mentioned earlier that I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  When I'm working from life, I position my easel so that it's just to the left of the subject and the taboret so it's just to the lower right of the subject.  This results in a small vision triangle and I can shift quickly from subject to painting to taboret, compare the paint mixture on the taboret to the subject, and back to the easel.  When I'm just drawing, though, I have the easel to the right of the subject, since I'm right-handed.

So that's how I set up my easel and taboret.  How do you set up yours?

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Figurative Paintings: Alla Prima versus from Photographs

A previous post talked about painting landscapes from life versus from photographs.  Many artists, especially the hard-core traditionalists, say you should never work from photos.  Other artists copy photos in so much detail that they've spawned the Photorealist movement.  I'm not in either of those camps.  I find that photos and life are complementary: there are things that come with working from life, and there are different things that come with working from photos.

In working from life, I'm really open to the person in front of me.  I see their natural posture, the way they move, how they speak, their manner, their personality, their humor, and their humanity.  I see the way their clothes hang on them, the way their skin is different colors in different areas, and get a 3-D sense of how their body is formed.  When I'm drawing or painting a person, I'm trying to get a sense of who they are as a person.  You can't really get that from photos.

There are limitations, though.  A person can't hold a pose for very long.  They need to move every so often, which interrupts the process.  Then they never get back in exactly the same position.  The result is that a painting done strictly from life is an average of many poses.  Also, the more interesting the pose, the shorter the time they can hold it.  If you twist your torso 90 degrees, for example, you're going to un-twist over the next few minutes.  Think you can hold it for 20 or 30 minutes?  Hah!

Another limitation: time.  The person being drawn or painted has a life outside the studio.  Sitting in one position for hours while I mess around on canvas is not an option.  As an artist, I have to respect that.  Furthermore, a professional model is paid by the hour.  That rapidly gets quite expensive.

So: working from life has some good aspects, and some limitations.  Just like everything else in life.

Photos have their own characteristics.  For one, the subject can hold the pose forever without moving.  That's pretty valuable in itself, particularly in those cases where the pose is difficult or impossible to sustain.  Since the subject isn't moving, the artist can focus on important things like the structure of the face.  It's often the little details that I catch: the way the shadow of the jaw falls on the neck, for example, or the dip of a lower eyelid.  Things that would be easy to miss in working from life because the subject is always slightly moving.

On the flip side, photos are flat 2-D representations.  When you and I look at something, we see it in 3-D because we have two eyes that provide depth perception.  That matters a lot more than you might think.  When I'm painting an arm, for example, I need to know what that arm is shaped like, so I can convincingly paint it so it appears to curve toward you or away from you.  Photos don't give you that information.  Also, photos don't tell you much about the person.  They give you an image of what that person looked like at a specific moment in time, but you can't interact with that image to find out who they are as a person.

Given all this, I find that working from life and from photos are complementary.  I see things while working from photos that I can then look for when I work from a real person.  When I'm with a person, I can learn a lot about them, and carry that into later work from a photo.  The lessons learned flow both ways.

When I'm working on a large painting of a specific person, I use a combination of both in-person and photo techniques.  I generally have the individual come to the studio.  I'll have my camera set up on a tripod near me with a remote to take the exposures.  We'll talk and I'll be taking photographs like crazy.  We'll move the individual around, move the lighting around, have them stand or sit or whatever, and I'll continue to take photos.  I can shoot a thousand pictures in an hour.  Sometimes I'll do some sketches, sometimes not.  By keeping the camera to the side, I can engage the individual in a discussion.  The camera is not front and center between us, so much of their camera shyness goes away.  We just talk. Meanwhile, I'm punching the button on the remote to take photos like crazy.  That's the great thing about modern cameras: you can shoot a thousand photos and not break the bank getting them developed!

What this does is give me a lot of exposures, all with controlled lighting, along with a sense of their personality.  I can then choose which photos to use to create the story of that person.  Often it'll be a combination: the position of the head from this one, the expression in the eyes from another, the hand from a third.  Since the lighting is pretty much the same, this is pretty easy.

I really don't like working from snapshots.  It's common for figurative artists to have people ask them to do a portrait from a snapshot.  Hey, it's easy, you've already got the image, right?  Well, no, it's actually pretty hard.  The person's expression may be great, but the lighting, pose, environment, and color will be terrible.  And if they give you a bunch of snapshots, they're all taken at different times of the day or year, lighting is completely different and usually very harsh (flashes on mobile phones are NOT good light sources!), clothes are different, and so on.  No, it's much better if I take my own photos, thank you very much!

Okay, so this has turned into a tome.  Time to wrap it up.  Bottom line: working from photos and working from life are two different, and complementary, things.  Each can bring information to the table that the other can't.  Just don't rely exclusively on one!