Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Nature of Figurative Work

This will be a kinda stream-of-consciousness post here as I'm still thinking this through.  As is pretty obvious by now, I'm a figurative painter.  I've always been interested in the figure.  Way back in the mid-70's (yes, I'm that old), I was an art major at Memphis State University taking a bunch of required courses, including ceramics.  The instructors wanted me to throw pots, but pots bored the stink out of me.  Instead, all my creations were figures of some sort: a "vase" shaped like a head (it was really hideous), various figurines, that sort of thing.  Years later, in a continuing-ed painting course at Maryland Institute College of Art, the teacher had us doing abstract and non-objective works so that we could have a better understanding of basic composition, color, and other issues.  I learned about that stuff, but the figures kept creeping back in.  My senior show at UNC Asheville was all figures.  After I established my own studio, I did a series of still lifes using old children's toys and stuffed animals.  They were really figure works using stuffed animals as stand-ins.

Okay, so I'm a figurative artist.  The next question is, which artists are my influences?  Which ones do I want to emulate to a greater or lesser extent?  That's a bit trickier to answer than it first appears.  It gets into the purpose behind the art.

Some artists use figures as a way to tell their own story.  The figures in the painting may or may not be realistic and recognizable, but their identity is not that important.  Instead, it's all about the context in the picture, and the context is the artist's story.  Think of the Renaissance paintings, for example, in which individual figures are used to tell biblical stories.  More recently, Norman Rockwell's paintings are narratives that use his neighbors as role-players.  The figures are recognizable, but their role in the painting has nothing to do with who they really are.  Currently, Jerome Witkin is using this sort of approach to make some unbelievably powerful images about the Holocaust and other social issues.  I do this sometimes to tell a specific story, as in these paintings:

You Don't Understand
Oil on canvas, diptych, 40"x62"

Oil on panel, 52"x40"

Another approach is to use the figure as an object of beauty, or of study.  In this case, the identity of the individual isn't important, nor is there a story.  It's more about making an interesting image, or of showing the beauty of an individual form.  There's a lot of this type of work out there.  Google "figure painting" and look at the images and this is the type of work you're going to see.  It's most often a pretty young nude woman and could come out of any life drawing and painting session.  One artist who takes it to an extreme conclusion is Philip Pearlstein.  I gotta say, I can't stand his work.  Why?  Because Pearlstein may as well be painting a slab of meat.  His paintings are studies of formal compositions using people and other objects.  There's no story to tell, and there's no interest in the figures as individual people.  Take this painting, for example:

Two Nudes and Four Duck Decoys
Philip Pearlstein

You know a lot about the bodies of these two women, but you have no idea about them, personally.  And there's no reason they should be hanging over some duck decoys except that it makes for some interesting shapes and color contrasts.

Let's contrast Pearlstein with another artist who did a lot of nudes lying around in the studio, but who had a very different approach.  Lucian Freud seems to have channeled his grandfather in order to dive into the psyche of the people he painted.  Even though his sitters had poses similar to Perlstein's, and Freud's color palette was very similar, Freud's subjects are very real and very individual people.  This painting, for example:

Two Women
Lucian Freud

I feel like I know something about these two women, just from the way Freud painted them.  They have life in them, there's a relationship between them, and I get a sense that there's a lot going on behind their eyes.  They're not just two people arranged in a composition.

This is the approach that appeals most to me: getting something of the subject's personality, character, and individuality into the image.  These days, I'm not so much interested in telling my own stories because I don't find my own stories that interesting.  It's more interesting to learn something about the person I'm working with, even if I don't know them or even speak to them.  As an example, here's a drawing of an Afghan bazaar merchant who was sitting in one of our meetings in Kandahar province:

Bazaar Merchant

What struck me about this guy was his dignity and composure.  He seemed like an honest, hard-working guy, intelligent, and reserved.  That's what I was trying to get in this drawing, not just an interesting face.  I think it was successful.

That's the same kind of approach that underlies most of my work.  Over the past couple of years, I've been experimenting a lot with new technical approaches.  I've been looking at several artists, particularly Mark Demsteader and Nick Alm, because their chiaroscuro lighting and compositions are technically excellent and have a lot of dramatic impact.  I've been experimenting with this chiaroscuro with the models who've worked with me in the studio.  But what has really driven my work is trying to get some of the models' personalities.  The dramatic lighting and compositions are tools to help the story but they're not the end in themselves.

Jennifer #5
Charcoal and pastel on toned paper

I can explain a lot of my technical approach when I run a workshop, including lighting, anatomy, and connecting your eyes with your hands in getting the image on canvas or paper.  One thing that I cannot explain is capturing the personality.  When I'm working with a model, I am always conscious of that individual as a person.  I can clinically look at them to analyze the shape of their skull or the way the shadow of the jaw falls across the neck, and I can explain that to students.  What I haven't figured out is how to explain that I'm aware of them as Jennifer, or Amy, or James, or whoever.  That part is the filter that processes the analytic stuff.  I don't know how it works, it just does.

Last week, I had a new model work with me in the studio.  You're going to see a lot of new artworks come out of that session over the next few weeks.  Here's one in progress to whet your appetite:

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Courtroom Art

I'm working as a courtroom artist with WLOS TV (the ABC station in Asheville) on the trial of the minister of the Word of Faith church in Spindale, NC.  This is a real horror story of a cult that demands obedience to church leaders in matters as major as choosing your partner in marriage, to as minor as the proper way to manage a roll of toilet paper.  They practice communal living with multiple families in a house so that everybody will be under observation at all times.  These people are a Christian equivalent of the fundamentalist Wahabi sect of Islam, which features rigid adherence to strict rules for everyday matters, intolerance of individual thought, and hostility to outsiders.
The more I heard, the more I was stunned that this kind of behavior can go on in this country.

But go on it did, for many years.  Two Assistant District Attorneys were members of the church, along with several sheriff's deputies, and they killed any attempt to file charges against the church.  Additionally, I was told that two officials in the county clerk's office were members, and they would pass on anything they heard to church leaders within minutes.

One of the church's practices was something called "blasting".  The official name for it was a "prayer session", a much more innocuous term, and I noticed that is the only way that the defense attorney refers to it.  Basically, in a "prayer session" or "blasting", a person who is deemed to need help with staying on the right road is surrounded by many other church members who scream at the individual, hit, push, shake, and otherwise use very violent means to drive out any demons.  That anybody would voluntarily submit to this just boggles my mind.

This trial is about one particularly violent blasting.  The church minister, Brooke Covington, learned that one young member, Matthew Fenner, was gay.  This is a major sin in the Word of Faith church.  She called for a blasting on him and it went on for 2-5 hours, depending on the witness.  He was choked, pounded, bruised, shaken, and screamed at over that entire time.  He could not ask for it to stop because that would just make it worse.  When it was over, he was taken back to his church group house.  The next night, he was able to sneak out of the house and get to safety.

The minister is now on trial for assault and kidnapping.  The assault charge is for the particularly brutal "blasting" that Matthew endured.  The kidnapping charge is based on the fact that he was under constant control of other members of the church and not allowed to leave.  Four other people have been charged in this case and their trials will come later.  From what I have heard, I fully expect other charges to come down.  The FBI is apparently still investigating the group, so possibly some federal charges will be pending.

How much of this did I know beforehand?  About zilch.  I had heard of a cult in the area that had been in trouble with the law over the years and that was about it.  On Wednesday, I got a call from WLOS asking if I could be a courtroom artist for them.  The judge had prohibited cameras from the courtroom, so an artist was the only option.  I jumped at the chance, since I find courtroom artist duties to be challenging and fun.

So here are some of the drawings from two days in court:

Judge Gary Gavenus and the defendant, Brooke Covington, the minister of the Word of Faith church.  The judge is outstanding: he runs a tight courtroom.  He's done some things that I've never seen a judge do, but he's keeping both the prosecutor and defense attorneys on their toes.

This is Matthew Fenner, the young man who survived the "blasting" session brought on by Covington.

Sarah Anderson was one of the participants in the blasting.  She was supposed to be "in authority over" Matthew - a church term meaning that she was responsible for keeping him on the straight and narrow.  She and her husband lived in the group home with Matthew and many other people.  Since then, she has left the church and divorced her husband.  She's one of the others facing charges in this case.  The fact that she voluntarily gave testimony that could be used against her in her own trial was an indication to me that she's trying to make things right.

Danielle Cordes is another former church member who participated in the blasting.  She was a close friend of Matthew's and she left the church just a few weeks after the event.  The stories that Sarah and Danielle told fully corroborated Matthew's claims of really horrific treatment.

For more information on the case, check the first day and second day of WLOS reports that include my drawings.  An AP report that has a bit more informatio has been printed in multiple newspapers around the country; try the one at the LA Times.  For much more information, check the blog of John Huddle, a former member of the church who has been providing many details of church operations over many years.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Who's Your Teacher?

Had an interesting discussion with a couple of artists before tonight's life drawing session in the studio.  One had taken some painting lessons from me and then had taken a workshop with two more well-known artists.  The other has taken a couple of my workshops and has studied with a lot of other artists.  Some of her friends couldn't understand why she studied with so many different people.  "Why don't you just stay with one teacher?" they asked.

I was a bit surprised at that question.  In my experience, when you study with a new teacher, you learn a lot in the beginning.  Then the amount of "new" begins to taper off until you're just getting old lessons reinforced.  There's a good bit of value in that, particularly when your natural style, subject matter, and ways of working mesh with your teacher.  And there's a lot of value in having a long and deep mentor relationship.

But taking classes and workshops from a lot of different teachers has value as well.  You learn a lot of different approaches.  The way I paint a figure is completely different from the way a good friend of mine paints a figure.  My way isn't the "right" way any more than his is.  My way is just right for me.  So when I teach, I show the students my way of working.  I tell them why it works for me, but it's certainly not the only way, and they may find another artist's approach that is better for them.  In the meantime, here's a way that may have some value for you.

When I was working on my senior show at UNC Asheville, I had two instructors whose work was very different from each other.  One is a figurative artist who  does a lot of allegorical work.  The other does some fantastic trompe l'oeil paintings.  ("Trompe l'oeil" means "fool the eye" - the paintings are so hyper-realistic that you think the yardstick and apple hanging in front if it are real).  One would beat me up over what the paintings meant, while the other beat me up over the way they were painted.  I learned a tremendous amount from those two artists.  I could not have learned nearly that much from just one.

So my advice to all budding artists: learn from all of us.  Take workshops and classes from different artists.  Find great works that resonate with you and copy them.  When you find a teacher who meshes well with your natural way of working and your personality, then you can stay with them for a long period of time.  But no one artist has THE ONE answer.  You have to find your own way.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mountain Music - The Painting

Mountain Music
Watercolor on paper
(Click on the image for a larger view)

In my last post, I wrote about the experience of drawing a group of North Carolina mountain musicians while they were playing together at a friend's birthday party.  Mountain music has very deep roots, and the act of playing it brings together people of all skill levels.  Some of the people at this party were world-class musicians while others are still taking classes.  Didn't matter: as long as your heart was in it, you were accepted.  The goal wasn't to show off individual skills, it was to work with everybody else to make something beautiful.

I did most of the drawing for this painting right there, sketching with my pencil, trying to capture the likenesses and capture the feeling.  Later, in the studio, I added some more people, refined the sketches, then brought in some ink, and then the watercolor.  This approached stressed liveliness, which matched the feeling I got from the musicians.  And here's how it turned out.  If you click on the picture, it'll bring up a larger version.

This is part of my series of artworks done live at weddings, birthdays, and other events.  It's really fun to do them, and very rewarding to make something that will be treasured for years.  More information about this line of work is on my Asheville Event Paintings website.  So what do you think - success, or no?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mountain Music!

The father of my neighbor Patrick had a birthday yesterday.  He's lived here in Madison County pretty much his whole life.  And he's a musician.  Now, Madison County is home to a very old tradition of mountain music whose roots go back to Scotland and Ireland in the 1700's and beyond. The earliest settlers here brought their music over with them.  Over the centuries, it changed very slowly, since the mountain hollers were remote and somewhat isolated.  There was the introduction of the banjo, for instance, but otherwise the instruments were much the same as the early settlers.  And many of the songs sung now originated Back Then and Over There.

Don't confuse bluegrass with mountain music.  Bluegrass grew out of mountain music roughly after World War II, with Bill Monroe credited as its creator.  Bluegrass is generally a faster and flashier style, whereas mountain music has a different sound.

Anyway, Patrick's father is friends with all the mountain musicians here in Madison County.  He's been playing with them his whole life.  So when Patrick decided to throw a birthday party for his dad, it was natural that there was going to be a good bit of music being played.  And Patrick wanted to do one more thing to memorialize the event: he asked me to do an artwork at it.  He knew about my Asheville Event Paintings sideline and wanted to put it to good use.  I jumped at the chance - one, because he was my neighbor, and two, because it promised to be a helluva lot of fun.

I went over to Patrick's house around 6:30 last night.  I didn't set up immediately because I wanted to scope it out and see who was there and what was going on.  It was quite a crowd.  Everybody seemed to know everybody else very well.  I only knew a few people, but everybody made me feel perfectly at home.  If you're at Patrick's party, you're a friend of Patrick's, and therefore, you're a friend of mine.

Around about 8 pm, the guitars and banjos and fiddles started coming out.  I went back to the truck, grabbed my art stuff, and set up on the porch next to a one of several groups.  I decided to do this artwork in watercolor rather than my usual oils.  The reason was that mountain music is very lively, and people are always coming in and out of the group, and I wanted a way of working that was equally lively and very adaptable to changing circumstances.  Damn good thing I did it this way, too.  Daylight only lasted another half hour, with light coming from the overhead porch light after that, and everybody started packing up around 9 pm.  So there was much less working time available than I had hoped for.  Still, I got the basics of the drawing in place.  Today I did some refinement and additions in the studio, and here's how it looks on the easel right now:

There is still a ways to go.  Tomorrow I'm going to hit it with some ink to strengthen things up and follow with watercolor.  It's going to be fun.

Some people make fun of mountain music and the "hillbillies" who make it.  I'll confess, I had no appreciation of either the music or the culture when I was growing up and listening to Led Zeppelin.  But there's quite a lot to both.  You don't learn either by playing video games or reading books - you learn by interacting with other people.  When you're making music, you have to be attuned to what everybody else is doing and fit yourself in.  With this group, it's not about showing off your own special skills, it's about working as a team to make something beautiful.  And if you're honestly trying, you're going to be accepted.  Some on Patrick's porch are among the best in the world at this kind of music and others have barely gotten beyond basic lessons, but it didn't matter.  It was all about friendship, community, and making music together.  It was beautiful.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On Families

I just got back from a trip up to Baltimore for a family event.  My Aunt Bobbi turned 95 this year and we had a big family get-together to celebrate. This was the first time in about 25 years that we had all been together in one spot, and it was pretty cool.

Aunt Bobbi is in amazing shape.  To look at her, you'd think she was 20 years younger.  She's very sharp with a strong sense of humor.  She still drives herself around Baltimore, takes trips to Florida, cooks, and takes care of herself.  She works at the Maryland State Fair every year and does smocking so well that she wins blue ribbons for her work pretty much every year.  Wheelchairs and nursing homes are NOT in her vocabulary.  But then, she has always been a go-getter, and that mindset (plus a good set of genes) is keeping her going.  I'm impressed.  I want to be like her when I grow up.

So the family that got together this past weekend included her three daughters, their husbands and kids, their kids' spouses, THEIR kids, myself, and another cousin.  Plus the parents of one of the spouses.  Seventeen people - quite a menagerie.

I was struck by some of the family resemblences.  The 2-year-old was a tiny version of her grandmother.  One of my cousins looked just like her father - no, I mean JUST LIKE her father, down to the facial expressions.  Another cousin looked nothing like her mother but had her mother's sharp and quick wit.  Once I started noticing some of these likenesses, I looked for them even more and just kept finding them.

Families are different than friends.  You can choose your friends, but your family is for life.  These people have been in my life for almost 64 years now.  We don't get together very often - as I said earlier, some of these I hadn't seen in 25 years - but we are still connected.  There is both a depth to the relationships that is surprisingly deep, and also a shallowness, since we see various members of the clan only rarely.  So we get together, catch up on news, pick up old jokes and stories right where we left off, meet the new spouses or kids, and share some of what we've been doing.  And we read between the lines to try to understand what led up to this or that event, or notice what was not said.  It's all part of trying to understand who your family is, which helps you understand your place in the group.

So here's to my Aunt Bobbi, a wonderful lady who will be going strong for many more years.  And here's to my family, all of 'em.  I'm glad you're in my life.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Looking at Artists: Constance Bosworth

I stumbled across an interesting artist tonight.  I spotted an article about an artist, Constance Bosworth, who does paintings about weddings.  This is a subject that is in my ballpark now.  However, she doesn't do live paintings of the ceremony or reception, like I do.  She paints portraits (which I do, too), but also the wedding cake, bouquets, the bride's dress, and other items related to the event.  That's pretty cool.  Most of that stuff means a lot to somebody for a very short period of time but is then forgotten.  Even when it's immortalized by the photographer, those photos usually wind up in a box, or in a folder on your computer, and rarely if ever seen.  A painting, though, is a different matter.  Paintings tend to get framed and hung on a wall.  Yes, they may become background noise after a while, but they're still being seen on a daily basis, and every once in a while, you stop and look.

Constance had some interesting things to say about what she does and why she does it.  Rather than repeat her comments, here's the link to the article.  Go read it for yourself.

The small images in the article were interesting, so I found her website and took a look.  And I was quite impressed.  Constance knows what she's doing.  She has some very sensitively-done portraits, some beautiful still lifes (and I don't typically care for still lifes), some paintings done as medieval icons, and some companion animal portraits.  That last category got me.  Normally, you say "pet portraits" and I gag.  These, though, are different.  The animals have character, personality, thoughtfulness, and individuality.  They're not just blown-up versions of somebody's snapshots, which is normally the case.  No, they're very carefully considered portraits of some very caring individuals that you would want to know.  They just happen to be hairy and have four legs.

While she's at it, she does some amazing things with little kids.  Now, young kids are hard, at least for me.  Their faces and body proportions are very different from adults.  You can't just shrink an adult and say it's a child because your eyeballs would tell you you're lying.  Constance not only gets them to be children, they're individual children, with their own personalities and identities.  Quite impressive.

Usually, when I do a "Looking at Artists" post, I'll grab an image from their website and post it here so you get an idea of what I'm talking about.  I'm not doing that this time.  Go look at her website,  And let me know what you think.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Results from a Limited Palette

I have an open life drawing and painting session in my studio every Wednesday evening.  In the most recent session a couple of days ago, we had a lovely young lady as a portrait model.  I decided to try two things: one, use a very limited oil palette, and two, to try to approach the painting as much like my charcoal and pastel works as possible.  Long-time readers (all three of you) will know that I've been struggling with this second issue.  My charcoal and pastel works have been, I think, very successful, but I haven't been able to carry that feeling over into paint.  At least not yet.

So here was the result:

I think this was pretty much a success as a painting.  For one, it's a good likeness, and for another, there's a lot of fresh brushwork.  It doesn't have the same feel as the charcoal and pastel works, but as I was working on it, there was much more of the same kind of thought process than there has been in previous attempts.

One of the reasons was the limited palette.  I used:
   Terra Rosa (a muted, slightly cool red)
   Yellow Ochre (a muted yellow)
   Chromatic Black (a new Gamblin product)
   Burnt Umber (a dark brown)
   Flake White Replacement (a slightly warm white)

This choice of colors is similar to the famous Zorn palette of one red, one yellow, one blue, and white.  To this, I added a dark brown.  Where's the blue, you say?  It's the Chromatic Black.  Yes, if you add white, you'll see that it really is a muted dark blue.  And to make things really odd, Chromatic Black is actually made up of Quinacridone Red plus Phthlao Emerald, two colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel.  And when you mix this red and that green, and add white, you'll see you have a blue.  Go figure.

So work on a figure is what I did.  I started by choosing a 16x12 panel with a slightly warm tone.  Then I blocked in the figure with a mixture of the black and burnt umber.  The umber knocked down the blueness, so it was even more neutral.  Then I refined it into a pretty-well-developed 2-value rendering.  Actually, it wasn't strictly two values; there were slight variations in the very lights and very darks, just enough to add some volume.  When I was satisfied with the black and white, I started applying color.  The skin tones were the terra rosa, yellow ochre, and white, all with a little variation in the mixtures to lean toward one color or another.  Her shirt was just the chromatic black, a bit of white, and a touch of the terra rosa.

And that was it.  The result, I think, came out pretty well.  The more I use limited palettes, the more I like them.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

New Works

I've continued to work on figurative works using charcoal and pastel over the past few weeks.  My spousal unit wanted a portrait done in that style.  That was a surprise to me.  She has refused to sit for me for quite a few years now because she says I make her look "old", and she gets bored after sitting still for more than 33 seconds.  So I had her come to the studio and we spent an hour shooting a bunch of photographs that I could then use for a portrait.

Doing the first portrait took quite a while.  There was a little pressure there ... okay, a LOT of pressure, knowing that if anything didn't quite measure up to her satisfaction, I'd hear about it for as long as the artwork existed.  And I wanted to get it right, anyway.  I started one, got pretty far along, and wiped it all out.  Then I started another on the same paper, got pretty far along, and wiped it out, too.  Then a third time.  Finally, on the fourth try, things started coming together.  Oddly enough, it owed a lot of its success to the three failures that had left their mark on the paper.  Here's how it turned out:

This one is definitely Janis.  I think I got her strength along with a really good likeness.  Yeah, I'm happy with it.

The three failures contributed to this by leaving something of their marks on the paper.  You can see that on the left and right sides, where there are dark areas with lighter streaks.  They hinted that I should leave those areas soft and roughly done.  I focused the color on her face and hair, with the highest value contrasts and sharpest edges right around her eyes and nose.  That kept the viewer's attention, while further away, the blacks transitioned to grays, sharp lines went soft, and those areas played a supporting role to the face.

Most importantly, she likes it and it's at the frame shop as I write.

I did another portrait of her after that.  This time, I based it on a very different photo, one of her laughing.  It was also difficult, but for different reasons. than the first  Laughing is something that is very hard to capture in an artwork.  Faces deform: the eyes scrunch up, mouths stretch, folds appear where normally there are no folds, muscles in the neck pop out, and the whole face basically goes out of whack.  It's hard enough to get a good likeness when they're normal - getting a good likeness when it's a dynamic situation and everything has changed is harder, and then making the figure look alive on top of that is really tough.  But I think it came out well.  I really like this portrait of her.

She hates it.

Oh, well.  One out of two isn't bad at all.  But for the sake of harmony at home, that image will not be shown.  Sorry!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Working from Life

I run a life drawing session in my studio every week.  This is a chance to get with a bunch of other artists, share a model's expenses, and try to learn something new about working from life.  It's a lot of fun.  It's also a challenge.  I try to push myself every week so that I'm not in a rut.  I'll work in oil for a couple of weeks, then switch to charcoal and pastel.  Sometimes I'll focus on a portrait, other times I'll see if I can get the whole figure in.  I don't post all that many of the works anywhere since about half of them wind up being destroyed or painted over.  But sometimes, things click pretty well and I'm happy with what's finally on the paper or canvas.

Last week, we had a lovely young lady working with us.  She is into yoga big-time and has very well-defined muscles.  No, she's not a bodybuilder by any means - just somebody who's muscle and bone structure are very much in harmony.  We started the session with our usual 1-minute poses.  We do this to warm up both the model and the artists and to find a pose that works for both.  One of the poses highlighted the curve and muscles of her back in a striking way.  So that was the pose I chose for the rest of the evening, and here's how it came out:

If this looks like it was an uncomfortable pose to hold, it was.  The poor girl's knees and legs took a beating and we had to take several extra breaks so she could get her circulation back!

I started this with soft vine charcoal on Canson Mi-Teintes light yellow paper.  The charcoal is easily manipulated and lets me block things in, smudge things to get an area of gray, and even erase it easily.  My focus was on her shoulders, upper back, and along the spine.  Once I had a good drawing in place, I hit some areas with compressed charcoal.  This stuff is very black and doesn't lift, so when you put it down, it stays.  The last stage was the pastel.  I kept the colors soft and subtle.  There were lots of interesting colors all over due to the lighting.  My overhead lights are daylight-balanced, so they're a bit blue, while the spotlight is a tungsten bulb and so it's a warm yellow.  Normally, our eyes automatically adjust for color and we usually don't see the effects of different colored lighting, but in the studio, it's very noticeable.  With this figure, the warm light was mostly on her shoulders and upper back, while her hips and legs were picking up a lot of the blue lighting.

So I think it turned out pretty well, particularly for a drawing from life.  I love it when that happens!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Two Paintings and a Workshop

Two paintings and a workshop walk into a bar ...

No, that's not how it goes.  Since the last update here, there have been several things going on in the studio.  And yes, I have pictures this time!

In the last post, I mentioned that I was working on a new sample painting for the live event painting side of the house.  That one is now done, and here it is:

Rick and Julie
Oil on canvas, 24"x30"

This was fun to do, and a bit of a challenge, but in the end I think it came out very well.  It has certainly gotten lots of good words from people who have seen it.

I completed another painting several days after this one.  Long-time readers will know that I've been wrestling with some new (for me) concepts in figure painting.  Mostly, they revolve around the concept of completeness, meaning how complete to make the painting.  I've been working on a series of charcoal and pastel figurative works over the past year that dealt with that concept and those seem to be working pretty well.  Not so with the paintings.  Almost all the paintings in which I've tried that concept have been painted over or otherwise destroyed.  I just have not been able to translate the feeling of the charcoal and pastel works into paint.  My most recent attempt is a bit more successful and I don't mind showing this one:

Amy D #1
Oil on canvas, 24"x18"

It is definitely not where I want to be, but it's further along the path than I've been so far.  What I'm focusing on here is finer brushwork around the face, with increasingly looser brushwork the further you move away.  I'm also very conscious of edges.  The only sharp edge is along the side of the temple and cheekbone, with a slightly softer edge around the shoulder, and considerably softer edges everywhere else ... in some cases, no edges at all.  And I'm looking at value contrasts to help guide the eye.  Here the highest value contrast is in the same place: along the temple and cheekbone.  So the brushwork, edges, and value contrasts are working together to put the focus on her face.  Color isn't playing along, though.  The strongest color is the blue clothing, which draws attention away.  The background is a muted red, but it's still a bit too strong and does nothing to guide the eye.  And, finally the color in the face is the same as the color on her side.  Again, nothing to indicate what's important and what's not.  So I guess I'll have to try another painting and see if I can figure it out.

In addition to doing a couple of artworks, I ran a portrait drawing workshop a week ago.  Had a good turnout for it and they were all a lot of fun.  My focus in this workshop is less on the drawing and much more on seeing.  So we spent the first day talking about shapes of the head and different features, and drawing each other, and then talking about what we were seeing.  The second day, each of the students took a turn as a model while the others drew.  After each, we talked about what features made each individual unique, and how the different drawings were successful (or not) in capturing that.  It was really cool to see everybody develop very rapidly over such a short time.

Coming up, I've got a workshop scheduled for Saturday, March 4, to talk about a logical, easy-to-use approach to mixing color.  Lots of schools don't really teach it.  In my early days, they just wanted me to remember what all the colors would do with each other.  Right.  I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast, and you want me to remember an infinite number of color combinations?  Finally, when I was taking classes at Maryland Institute College of Art, I learned an approach that worked for me.  That's what I'll be teaching at this workshop.  Interested?  You can sign up on my website:

Friday, January 27, 2017

Business Stuff

Launching a new business line takes an unbelievable amount of time.  I started the Asheville Event Paintings service at the first of the year and it seems like everything I've done since then has been related to the business side of that.  I've been tweaking the website, contacting wedding planners, working with the Asheville tourist bureau, checking out networking possibilities, researching firms in the wedding business, getting my brochures and business cards printed, you name it.  Everything except painting.

But I'm working on that.  I've got a new painting going.  It's a sample for what I can do for clients and will be used on the web site, in ads, and other places.  And it eventually will go to the couple who are depicted in the painting.  For now, though, it's coming together pretty quickly.  I got a vision of what it should look like, prepared the canvas, drew the composition lightly in charcoal, and then hit it today with the first layer of paint.  Miracle of miracles, it got a thumbs-up from Janis, my most reliable (and sometimes frustrating) critic.  The process has been pretty cool: everything seems to be flowing easily and naturally without any major glitches.  Something in the back of my mind keeps warning "this can't last!  it's gonna crash!" but so far, the little voice has been wrong.  Keep your fingers crossed!  And no, you can't see a photo of it yet.  Be patient, it'll come.

The encouraging thing has been that the idea, and my sample paintings, have been getting a great reception.  Instead of a bland "mm hmm, nice", I'm hearing "oh, WOW, look at that, it's beautiful!"  Yes, that makes my day.  I'm even hearing this from wedding planners, which is a really good thing.  So please keep your fingers crossed for this, too!

I'm pretty excited about doing these paintings.  I really like creating something that has great meaning to people.  I've done a few commissioned portraits and other pieces that were (still are) very important to those who got them.  Knowing that something I've done will be important to others for decades, if not longer, is very rewarding.  Making paintings of a couple's wedding falls into that category.  They'll forget the band, the photos will wind up in a folder on their computer, but the painting will be on the wall.  Assuming they remain together and have a passel of kids, it stands a good chance of being handed down.  I'm good with that.

So it's back to the marketing and business side of things tonight.  Can't wait to get back into the studio to finish this new painting up!

Monday, January 16, 2017


I haven't been posting any new artworks on my studio Facebook page or anywhere else lately.  The reason?  I've been experimenting.  By definition, many (most) experiments fail, and I don't like to display my failures.  However, it's about time I posted something, and so here's a discussion about what I've been up to.

As you long-time readers know (all 3 of you), I've been looking at Mark Demsteader's figurative work for over a year.  Demsteader has a way of drawing and painting that is really intriguing to me.  He takes what could be a boring pose and turns it into something mysterious and fascinating.  Last year, I looked at his drawings, copied a few, and then found a way to adapt the lessons learned to my own way of working.  That led to the series of charcoal and pastel figures that now number about 40 and are still growing.  For reference, here's one of the most recent:

Emma #7

I really enjoy this approach.  It can say a lot without specifically saying a lot ... if that makes sense ... it makes the viewer fill in a lot of blanks and create their own story, rather than having me provide all the information needed to tell a very specific story that may or may not have any resonance with the viewer.

I should also add that this is my own work using lessons learned from Demsteader.  It is not the work of a Demsteader wanna-be.  His style is very intriguing to me, but I'm not him, and he doesn't do this style of artwork.  So I learned something of the approach from him, adapted it to my own needs, and have been playing with it ever since.

What has not worked so far, however, is adapting this approach in paint.  Almost every one of my attempts has been a complete failure.  One reason, I think, is that the charcoal/pastel approach requires only a few marks on the surface of the paper, and the fact that most of the paper is blank is an important part of the piece's concept.  Since nothing is there, it redirects your attention to the figure while providing a quiet background for the figure to work against.  Painting is different: it requires that every inch of the surface be marked in some way.  Even when the background is essentially a flat color, it's still a mark, meaning that the artist has addressed that area like he's addressed the figure.  So there's a conceptual difference between the two mediums.

Another difference is that, in the charcoal/pastel works, the color is limited to a relatively small area.  Areas of lesser focus (the lower arms and legs in Emma #7 above, for example) are only depicted in charcoal, with no color, and are a bit looser/rougher in execution.  So the difference between finished and unfinished areas is something that helps focus attention while providing a bit of tension within the work.  I haven't been able to do that in paint.  My "finish it all" instinct kicks in and I take it too far.  Here's an example:

Amy #10

This might illustrate what I've been struggling with.  As you can see, every square inch of the artwork has to be addressed, even if there's nothing really there.  Compare the background here to the background of Emma #7.  And, as you can see, the legs are just as defined as the face.  There's less differentiation between the head/face and the rest of the figure, as well as the background, so the eye just wanders around with no clear focus.  I considered this one a failure and it's now been painted over.

So, to try to understand Demsteader's approach to these figure paintings, and to reverse-engineer his process to see what I could learn from it, I copied one.  Here's one called Shallow Waters:

Beautiful, isn't it?  Lots of depth, a strong melancholy mood, mysterious figure, great composition of abstract shapes.  So here's my copy:

Yeah, it looks like crap next to his.  Still, it was a good learning experience.  Here's what I noted:
- Getting those effects requires many many layers of paint.  You can't do it all in one go, like you can with the charcoal and pastel pieces.
- The background is almost purely black, versus light backgrounds in his (and my) charcoal drawings.  There's just enough color to give it some depth.
- The figure itself is just a 3-value depiction: highlighted areas (cheekbone, forehead, nose, above the upper lip), mid-values (arm, shoulder, back), and shadowed areas (suggested, not depicted).  The highlighted areas help focus attention on the face.
- Almost all edges are soft.  The only somewhat hard edges are the cheekbone, nose, edge of upper lip, and the top of the shoulder, all of which help focus attention towards the face.  All other edges are very soft, which tell the viewer "don't focus here".
- The dress is an abstract shape and color that suggests rather than depicts.  It's just paint scumbled over darker layers underneath, with rough/soft edges with no definition.  Even though it has the strongest color in the painting, it is not the focus - its color plays a supporting role to the face.

One other thing is that the eyes in Demsteader's figures are almost always in heavy shadow.  This really gives the figures an air of mystery and pulls the viewer in.

So where do I go from here?  I'll continue to experiment with this approach.  Something is going to click soon and I'll have a new way of painting in my toolbox that will be my adaptation of this technique.