Monday, January 16, 2017

Experimenting

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.  

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