Thursday, October 17, 2019

Traveling Around Europe Like It's 1999

As I noted in an earlier post, exactly 20 years ago, Janis and I were traveling around Europe on our Grand Adventure.  In this pre-blogosphere, pre-Facebook era, we sent emails back to our friends and family with stories of our shenanigans.  I'm occasionally sharing some of those stories, and here's what we were doing 20 years ago today ...

                Monday, October 18

We made it to Holland and are now safely settled into our newest temporary home.  It's a "vacation park", which is a property with a bunch of small bungalows, a restaurant and bar, laundromat, and small store.  We're in the woods near a couple of small villages.  In all, it’s a pretty nice place to stay for a while.

We left London early last Wednesday and drove to Dover.  We took a ferry across to Ostend, Belgium.  The ferry was pretty neat.  It's a catamaran with two vehicle decks and two people decks.  It moved out pretty good, too.  The trip took three hours and the seas were flat calm.  Immediately upon arrival, they dumped us off the boat and onto Ostend’s streets.  Ostend's signs leave a lot to be desired, both in quantity and it accuracy.  At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.  We first took a rather creative way out of town but quickly found the right road .... at least, we found one that went in the direction we wanted to go.  Unfortunately, we wound up traversing Antwerp right at rush hour.  Somehow we got back onto the freeway (don't know what they call it here yet), then the last 50 km (36 miles) to our park took us two hours because traffic was awful.  There weren’t any accidents, there were just too dang many cars on the roads.  We now hear that's true all over the Netherlands.

Our bungalow is small and cute.  The whole thing is about 20 feet square.  It has a small kitchen, living room, and bathroom.  There isn't a bedroom per se.  You open up what looks like a cabinet in the wall (with little heart-shaped holes cut into the doors, no less) and find a queen-size bed tucked away in there, along with a window looking outside.  The whole thing is comfortably furnished.  It has Dutch TV, which means a bunch of stuff in a language we can't understand, but it also means CNN.  Yes!  Real news!!  No more BBC!!!  On the outside, our bungalow has stucco walls painted white and a real thatched roof.  It's set in a wooded area and cars are parked in an area out near the front of the facility.  It’s very quiet and very nice.  We have enjoyed our stay here.

The only drawbacks are that there was no phone in the bungalow and we've not been able to find any internet access.  This has been a bit frustrating, but I guess that's life.

We have explored a couple of towns near here.  The Netherlands is very different from England.  The Dutch go to great extremes to make sure that their houses, streets, villages, yards, and towns are attractively designed, clean, neat, and well presented.  Things here are immaculate.  Houses are usually brick and have flower boxes in the windows.  Most yards are small but extremely well landscaped.  We've seen a number of people out washing their windows ... now how often do you see that in the States?  Stores are very attractive and look well stocked.  There is little, if any, outdoor advertising.  Most streets in the villages and towns are brick, and the bricks are laid in attractive patterns.  Roads are often bordered with trees set equidistant apart (many with their bark ripped off by errant automobiles).  The Dutch are big into plants: we've seen tree farms everywhere, and there were more nurseries and garden shops in the village than there were grocery stores. 

Village life seems to be a bit slower than in England.  Everybody rides bicycles, much like in Japan, only here they ride a variety of different types of bikes.  We had a wonderful lunch in a restaurant in Oss, and I noticed that there was a group of businessmen in there spending the afternoon playing cards, while another group was having a very loooonng lunch.  We even found a good art gallery in Oss, which surprised the heck out of me since finding a good gallery in London (a major art market) was so difficult.  Nobody seems to be in a hurry unless they're driving, at which time they're all trying out for the Ferrari Formula 1 team.  (Our Range Rover is outclassed: it has all the responsive handling and acceleration of a Chevy Suburban, so we can often be found leading a long train of impatient cars).  Drivers aside, the Netherlands is a classy, civilized, and friendly country.  All this comes with a price: land and houses are expensive, apparently starting at around $200,000 and going up. 

Dutch is an interesting language.  It sounds like a cross between German and Swedish, and you'd be surprised at how much you can understand once you get the hang of it.  "Huis" means house, for example; and "eet huis" is .... well, you figure it out.  Most Dutch speak excellent English, and we have had no problem with language barriers.

If people in the Netherlands speak Dutch, and people in France speak French, does that mean that the people in Belgium speak Belch?  Just a thought.

We spent two days wandering around Amsterdam.  We took the train there and back.  Trains run on time and are pretty well equipped.  Amsterdam itself is a great city.  The old town and city center are easy to get around in.  It's laid out in a rough semicircular fashion with roads and canals running everywhere.  Many buildings are old, up to 400 years, and there are ancient buildings side by side with new ones ... which more or less are in harmony with their older brethren.  There are no skyscrapers in downtown as there seems to be an upper limit of about five or six stories in height (more for church towers and domes).  Amsterdam is essentially built on landfill and over the years many of the old buildings have settled in rather odd ways, so many of them lean forwards or backwards, and there are even whole blocks where they all lean sideways.  Maybe that's why Amsterdam is so lenient on drugs: their whole city is a bit wonky, so maybe the drugs help straighten it up? 

Streets in the old section are narrow.  Many are in use by trams.  There were surprisingly few cars in town; most people get around by public transportation or by bicycle.  (Trivia: there are 700,00 people living in Amsterdam and there are 600,000 registered bicycles).  Tour boats make up most of the traffic in the canals, but canals are also used by regular people for daily comings and goings.  Houseboats are everywhere.  These got their start after WWII when there was a shortage of housing.  Now people live on everything from old canal boats to modern-style houses built on barges to what looks like a West Virginia tar shack on floats. 

We spent one day just wandering around sightseeing, and another day visiting the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums.  The Van Gogh museum was outstanding: well laid out, well lit, with over 200 of his paintings on display at any one time.  I could've spent all day there.  The Rembrandt museum wasn't as good.  They had restored his house to the way it might have looked when he lived there.  They didn't have very many of his paintings, etchings, or drawings there, and the displays were poorly lit and difficult to look at.  Janis visited the diamond museum while I was looking at Van Gogh's - she said it was pretty good.

Amsterdam's tourist industry is huge, and two big draws are drugs and sex.  Marijuana and associated cannabis drugs are legally available in cafes and other places.  We wandered into a number of places where the smoke raised our blood THC levels a couple of notches just by breathing the air.  We don't know whether this "let it be" approach is keeping other drug problems under control.

But the most interesting thing about Amsterdam was the people.  You could spend all day sitting on a bench watching the people go by, and it would be a day well spent.  The most entertaining ones were the druggies. 
- We walked by a cafe/cannabis bar where a couple of wasted dopeheads were having great difficulty rolling another joint.  Right then an even more wasted waitress stumbled out and said something like "yeeaahooomogalaaaagumdum" to them (they didn't appear to understand it, either) and then she turned around and stumbled back into the cafe.
- We found a nice little place with a deck on a canal to have lunch in.  The waitress was a very pretty girl who's smoked one too many funny cigarettes.  Nice girl, just a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  The name of the place was the Grasshopper .... duh, don't you think we should've had a clue?
- Our tour boat guide was multi-lingual.  He had to say everything four times: once each in Dutch, English, French, and German.  He couldn't really pass along too much information since it took forever to say it!
- We walked through part of the red-light district and it really does have red lights.  It also has some hideous practitioners.  They might be attractive if you (a) hadn't had any in the past six years and (b) were blind.  Woof!
- Amsterdam has the same street mimes that Edinburgh and London had.  Come to think of it, they have the same Peruvian bands on the street, too.

Tomorrow we’re going to take the train in to Brussels.  Then on Wednesday, we’re going to leave for Germany.  We’ll stay at an American military hotel in Wiesbaden for a week. After that, we'll head to Prague in the Czech Republic. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

An Experiment

I'm forever trying new experiments in creating artworks.  Sometimes they play out pretty well.  For the past three years, I've been doing a series of charcoal and pastel portraits and figures.  That started with an experiment and is still going on.  Other experiments are outright failures.  And that's fine, because then I learn about something that doesn't work, at least for me, and I can take that knowledge and move on.

Lots of artists work in a very intuitive way.  They start with some little nugget of an idea, it gets put on canvas, and then other ideas pop up and are incorporated, or deleted, or changed, until the artist is satisfied with what's there.  They could not have told you, at the beginning, what was going to happen.  They had no idea.

I don't work that way.  I'm pretty deliberate: the painting has to have an end goal in mind with a plan for how to get there.  Then it's a matter of executing the plan.  Yes, there are adaptations along the way as new ideas pop up, or something doesn't look right, or whatever, but the end result is pretty much along the lines of my initial goal.  "Intuitive" is not a way of working that I'm comfortable with.  I've done it before, usually as a class assignment, and have never been happy with the results.

So I thought it might be time to try it again.  The idea was to start with a figure, since I'm a figurative artist, and then see where it would go.  And here's what happened (click on it to see a larger version):

Siren on the Styx
Oil on panel, 16x20

Is it a success?  I don't know.  I have no idea if this painting means anything.  It just developed.  I started with the figure - it came from a photo session with one of my regular studio models.  Then she had to be in some sort of environment, and a river or lake came to mind.  At first, she was on a grassy slope with a blue sky above, but that didn't feel right.  Maybe a threatening storm would counterbalance the liveliness of the dance.  But then the green grassy slope went away and turned into rocks in the foreground.  The trees on the far side of the lake/river were too green, so I changed the lighting and grayed them down.  That meant the trees on the left had to be toned down, too.  The composition needed something on the right, something that she might be looking at.  Her drapery gave me the idea of a sailboat, specifically a gaff-rigged sloop, a style that was obsolete 150 years ago.  Then the left side needed something else, since the green slope was just kinda blah.  So now there's a promontory with a castle tower overlooking the lake/river.  Then it was a matter of going around, cleaning things up, and tying them together.

So this is a question for you.  What do you think of it?  Success?  Fail?  What works and what doesn't?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Ulysses S. Grant

I just finished reading the Autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.  When I was growing up, the common knowledge was that Grant was a brutal but effective general, a drunkard, corrupt, and one of the worst Presidents we've ever had.  My own research into my family history, which includes two great-great-grandfathers who fought on the Confederate side, had shown me some indications that this common knowledge may not have been accurate.  So I picked up a copy of his memoirs to learn a bit more.

What I found was a very different man.  Grant was a good writer.  His Autobiography turned out to be surprisingly readable, giving an easy-to-follow first-person narrative of the world from his single perspective.  He was also very honest, owning up to his own limitations and failures as well as successes.  And rather than being personally corrupt, he came across as having high moral and ethical standards.  He did not appear to be a drunkard at all.

Grant's military style is still the gold standard today.  He clearly saw the strategic battlefield, far beyond the geographic limitations of his particular unit, even when that "unit" was the entire Union Army.  And he was very aggressive.  "Move fast, hit hard, move fast again, and keep your enemies off balance" seemed to be a mantra.  That's the same mantra that our most effective military leaders use today, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Speaking of which, my experience in both those countries gave me a much better understanding of his treatment of local civilian people, even those who sympathized with the Confederates.  Grant prohibited looting, stealing, and pillaging.  Yes, his soldiers took what they needed, but it was within the norms of the day.  He demanded that his soldiers treat civilians with respect, and to a great extent, they did.

The descriptions of several battles were really interesting for me.  Shiloh, for example.  I grew up largely in Memphis and we went to the battlefield park many times when I was a kid.  My sister, cousins, and I never really understood what it was all about, we just wanted to climb on the cannon and memorials.  Much later, I discovered personal connections.  One of my great-great-uncles had fought there.  My mother's family was from Corinth, Mississippi, which was a major Confederate rail transshipment center and the goal of Grant's advance through Tennessee.  So reading Grant's thoughts and activities leading up to the battle, during the fight, and the subsequent advance on Corinth, was fascinating.  I had already been in the places he described. 

The Autobiography ended at the close of the Civil War.  I had hoped it would cover his Presidency, but no.  Additional research showed that he had a very progressive agenda, even for today.  His weakness was in selecting his administration's officials as way too many of them turned out to be corrupt.  The "drunkard" bit that was common knowledge turned out to have been fake news.

One of the things I've found while reading this and other books on history, as well as listening to several podcasts on history, and while researching my own family history, is that a lot of the things going on today have been seen before.  Some of the things contributing to the rise and also the fall of Rome are true today.  Many of the things that Grant had to deal with as an Army leader are applicable today as well.  I never realized this as a young high school and college student, but yes, you really can learn from the past.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

20 Years Ago ...

I just realized this morning that I retired from the Navy 20 years ago.  Janis and I then went to bum around Europe for several months.  This was before the interwebs were big and people had discovered blogs.  So we kept up a string of emails to friends and family to let them know (a) we were still alive and (b) what we were up to.

So through the end of the year, I'll periodically be posting these old notes.  We had a good time and I think a lot of our experiences are worth sharing.  So here we go:

Saturday, September 25

We're getting to be quite proficient at using the London Tube.  That’s their term for their subway system.  Once you get the hang of it, it's fairly simple.  Some of the trains are modern, while others look like rolling antiques.  Our phrase of the day is "MIND ... THE GAP".  Imagine it in a very loud, very stern British public school headmaster voice.  You hear it in a lot of Tube stations where they're telling you to be careful of the gap between the train and the platform.  "MIND ... THE GAP", over and over again.  I always figured that Hell would like being trapped in Disney's "It's A Small Small World" ride, where you're stuck in a little boat with no steering control and have to listen to thousands of saccharine kids voices endlessly singing "It's A Small Small World".  Now I picture it as the same thing, only punctuated occasionally with the ear-splitting screech of ancient London subway trains and an angry Voice of God telling me to MIND ... THE GAP. 

Last Saturday we walked for miles.  We found the shopping districts of Oxford Street and Regent Street.  Then we followed them down to Piccadilly Circus and found huge crowds roaming around.  We wandered into Leicester Square (pronounced "Lester") and it was awesome.  There were quite a number of live bands on the street vying for attention, dozens of street artists, jugglers, Bible-belters, families, people on their way to the theater, homeless panhandlers, and chippies dressed to kill (or just show off as much skin as legally permissible).  We got some ice cream cones and sat and people-watched for an hour.  Fabulous!  Sunday we went to a local movie theater for a matinee performance and were practically the only ones in there.  Unfortunately, the movie (Hollywood’s "The General's Daughter") was a waste of perfectly good celluloid.  Monday we went exploring in London again.  I swear, Janis can find an exclusive shopping district with her eyes closed.  This time we stumbled onto Bond Street, with shops like Cartier, Tiffany's, and tons of others.  I was looking for the good art galleries, but they're evidently in another part of town.

We've alternated between touring and getting business/chores done.  Touring is easy ... getting the business/chores done can be a bit more difficult.  Once you're away from your familiar American stores and have to conduct all your business affairs on the local foreign economy, things can get difficult.  Not impossible, just more complicated.  Things that can be done with one or two quick phone calls in the States now require six to eight calls plus an office visit or two.  And since we don't have a phone in the room, we have to use pay phones which might not let us make the call, or we may not have the change .... you get the idea.  It all takes a bit of extra work, but we think this experience is worth it.

Diana Ross got arrested at Heathrow the other day.  The Brits loved it, and the news was all over London within minutes (literally).  Janis and I are not Diana Ross fans at all, and we found both Ross’s predicament and the British reactions highly amusing.

A couple of days ago we took a tour of Buckingham Palace.  I tell you what, ol' Liz knows how to live!  We didn't see a thing in there from Wal-Mart.  My favorite room was the Gallery, where many old master paintings by some of the most important artists that ever lived were hanging: Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Vermeer, Franz Hals, and Rubens, to name a few.  Gold, gold leaf, silver, marble, and bronze were everywhere, and everything was ORNATE (in capital letters).  I also visited the Queen's Gallery, where they had a showing of some (just some) of her collection of drawings by Raphael, his teachers, and his students.  This was a very interesting show which highlighted Raphael’s background, development, and influences.

We passed by a place advertising itself as "The American Cafe and Bistro" yesterday.  A big chunk of its menu advertised no less than six different kinds of fish and chips.  They only had one kind of burger and it was advertised in little letters over in a corner of the menu.  I ask you, what do they think constitutes an"American Cafe"?  The only fish and chips I ever saw in America were in the Arthur Treacher's fast-food restaurants and they went bankrupt many years ago.  I guess the Brits never got the word.  They probably think we still drink tea, for chrissakes!

Last night we went to our first theater show in London: Les Miserables.  We thought it was a good, but not great, show.  The songs weren't as memorable as those in some other shows we've seen, but the presentation was super.  We thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Traditional Indian Wedding

I just completed a painting for a couple married in a traditional Indian Hindu ceremony, right here in Asheville.  They were married at the Crowne Plaza, which is one of the few places in town able to accommodate the roughly 650 attendees, plus vendors like me and the staff.  This was the second time I've done a painting of such an event and, I gotta say, they know how to have a good time!  In Indian tradition, the groom travels in a big procession to the bride's village.  Well, we're not going between villages, not here, but we can still have a procession, with music, dancing, a couple hundred people, more music, and more dancing.  Yes, we can.  And did.  It took about an hour to go from one side of the building to the other.  You can walk it in three minutes, but hey, this wasn't about walking, it was about music and dancing! 

The ceremony itself started about 10 am ... well, maybe a bit later, because, y'know, music and dancing.  The groom came in and was welcomed by the bride's family.  Then the bride arrived.  "Beautiful" is not a good enough word ... "STUNNING" is more appropriate.  The young lady is quite beautiful in her own right and had a custom dress with peacocks embroidered on the front, and more jewelry than your average jewelry store (and more beautiful, too).  There's a lot of movement in these ceremonies: people getting up and down, moving around, coming in and going out, and I can't tell you what was going on since I don't know the language.  I focused on taking a ton of photos so I'd have sufficient visual resources to do whatever it was I was going to do with the painting.  Finally, after maybe an hour and a half, it was done, and there were more photos and lunch and mingling.  Then there was a break until the reception in the evening.  I went back to my studio, which was just a very few miles away, loaded the photos from the camera into the laptop and studio iMac, and began figuring out the new painting's composition.  Then I began blocking things in.  Later that afternoon, I went back to the Crowne Plaza, set up the easel, and really got to work.  I painted all through the reception.  There was a LOT of interest from the guests.  Many came over repeatedly to see things develop.  I had some really good conversations with quite a few of them.  Meanwhile, there was more music, dancing, eating, more music, and more dancing.  Did I say that this crowd knew how to party?  And have you ever heard Hindu hip-hop?  Yeah, it'll get you moving!  Everybody - young, old, grandparents, little kids, EVERYbody was moving.  And kept moving.  They were still going strong long after the advertised end time.  And, I suspect, they kept going after they finally had to leave the place.

The next day I worked on the painting in the studio to bring it from a crude sketch to something I could develop.  Here's how it looked (click on the image for a larger view):

The bride's family is on the left, groom's on the right.  Their stage setup had a big circle of flowers overhead and a red red red curtain for a backdrop.  I was afraid that the bright strong red was going to overpower everything else, and at this early stage, it was still a danger.  But that's what they had as their backdrop, so it needed to be there.  I gave a lot of thought to what the curtain should look like by the end, then reverse-engineered to figure out how to get there.  Another thing that had to change was the couple.  In this initial version, they're sitting side by side, looking straight out at the viewer.  That struck me as wrong.  The ceremony is about them, and their union, so they should be engaged with each other rather than us.  So I painted them out completely, let that part dry, and then repainted them in a much better arrangement.  Then it was a matter of going around and bringing each individual, and each part of the painting, up to my standards.  And here's how it turned out:

Yes, I'm very happy with the finished painting.  The red curtain is strong but does not overwhelm the people.  They're looking and smiling at each other, which is as it should be.  I managed to get good likenesses of all the people.  And there's a lot of life in the figures.  Most importantly, the couple LOVE the painting!

Going to a traditional Hindu wedding is an amazing experience.  I really hope to do it again sometime soon.  To this wonderful couple, I say thank you for this opportunity!

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Wedding Painting Updates

I've completed the wedding painting for Julianna and Andrew.  Julianna was probably the most excited client I've ever had.  During the reception, as I was busily getting the painting blocked in, several of her friends told me, independently of each other, that Julianna had been telling people "I'm getting married!" followed very quickly by "and I'm having a live wedding painter at the ceremony!"  She really wanted a good artwork of her wedding.  And she chose me.  Wow, no pressure there, huh?

Julianna and Andrew were married at the Vineyard Estate at the New Kent Winery, a bit east of Richmond, Virginia.  It's a really beautiful venue for an outdoor ceremony.  The couple decided that they wanted the painting to focus on their return walk down the aisle as a brand-new married couple.  So I coordinated with the photographers (Turtle & Hare Photography, a husband-wife team, very good, very professional) and took a ton of my own reference photos alongside them.  Then I loaded my photos into my laptop and got to work in the reception hall.

But getting a painting up to my standards of finish takes a lot more than just the couple of hours that the reception provides.  No, it takes two to four weeks.  And with a client like Julianna, for whom the painting is a Really Big Thing, it would probably be a four-weeker.  Which it was.

But I finished it last week, she approved it, and the painting is off to its new home.  And here's how it turned out (you can click on it for a larger image):

I'm working on another wedding painting right now and believe it'll be wrapped up in a few days.  Once it's approved, I'll post it here.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Road Trip

I just got back from a road trip for combined personal and business matters.  I enjoy being on the road, but it's also good to be home again.

Janis and I went up to northern Baltimore first to visit family.  I have a 97-year-old aunt up there, along with a cousin, her son, and his family.  We hadn't all been together in quite a few years, so it was good to see everybody again.

The big reason we went at this time was my aunt.  She's still in good physical condition and living in an assisted living facility.  She gets around really well with a walker, which she thinks she doesn't need.  She's definitely not bed-ridden.  And she can carry on a conversation with you all day long.  It may not always be fact-based, but she's a full participant.  For example, she told us about how the man in the apartment below hers didn't like it when she walked around in her room.  The problem is that she lives in a one-story building.  But if you just go with the flow, she's right there with you.  Kinda/sorta.  We took her out to lunch one day and dinner another and she had a great time. 

Catching up with the cousin and other family members was really good, too.  Spent lots of time talking, getting to know the two small kids, checking out modifications to the house, that sort of thing.  Janis and my cousin went to Nordstrom's one day, a treat for J since there aren't any within a couple hundred miles of home.

I went over to the Baltimore Museum of Art one day to get my art fix.  Spent all my time looking at their collection of paintings from old masters like Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, and van Dyck, to Matisse and Picasso.  There's a painting by Rembrandt of his son that I really enjoyed.  It was in a room full of formal portraits that were all perfectly finished, so perfectly that there wasn't a whole lot of life in them.  Rembrandt's portrait of his son was very casual.  He was sitting in an awkward position with his head tilted and a slight smile on his face.  You could see where Rembrandt tried three different positions for his thumb, but never really resolved it.  As I was looking at the face, something was a bit off.  When heads are tilted, artists have a natural inclination to try to straighten things out.  I certainly do.  So when looking at a tilted head, we'll draw the head at an angle, but the eyes will be level with the canvas or paper.  Same the nose, only over a little bit.  The mouth, too: level with the canvas/paper, not with the tilt of the head.  I do it all the time and it drives me nuts when I realize what I'm doing.  So I'm looking at Rembrandt's painting, and see that he painted the nose straight up and down, not tilted like the head.  What a revelation: the greatest portrait painter of all time can screw up just like I do!  And here's the painting to show what I'm talking about.  Click on the image to see it larger.

At the end of our visit, Janis flew back to Asheville and I headed south.  I spent the night with old friends in Annapolis.  The next day, I drove down to Richmond, Virginia, to get ready to do a painting at a wedding.  That afternoon, I visited the Gaines Mill Battlefield Park.  One of my great-great-grandfathers fought there in the Civil War and I was able to find the area in which his unit operated.  He was a brave (and lucky) man to have gotten through that battle unscathed.  On Saturday morning, I visited the Petersburg National Battlefield.  A different great-great-grandfather participated in the defense of the city during the Union siege.  Nobody has a very clear understanding of where his unit was stationed, since they moved around a good bit, so I wasn't able to say "he fought here".  But I did get a much better understanding of what he endured.  It was hell.

The wedding went really well.  The bride was SUPER excited about having me create her wedding painting.  I had at least a dozen people tell me variations of "she told me she's getting married and she's having a wedding painter at the reception!"  Wow, no pressure there, huh?  But all went well.

So I'm back home and getting back in the swing of things.  Got the Alfa out of the garage again and it was happy.  Got the wedding painting going in the studio.  Got a lot of catch-up paperwork to do.  Life is good!

Thursday, August 01, 2019


During my recent effort to inventory my artworks, I rediscovered a bunch of old charcoal drawings.  They had been stacked up years ago and left to get moved, smudged, and eventually ruined.  Some of them, I immediately tore up and threw away.  But some others weren't too bad.  I wondered if they could be reworked with pastel into "keepers".  So I gave it a shot.

And learned something interesting.  My way of working in charcoal and pastel lately has been to do a rough sketch in charcoal and then do most of the development with pastel.  It's an impatient method that assumes the black-and-white structure of the drawing is solid.  If it is, great.  If not, then making necessary changes is very difficult.  A lot of my works have gone into the trash because the architecture of the drawing and the accuracy of the likenesses weren't strong.  Adding color on top of that just gilded a pig.

By contrast, these old figure drawings were already fully-formed.  They're all done with vine charcoal with white highlights on toned Canson paper.  Vine charcoal is very easy to work with: it lays down a gray line or area and is very easy to erase and correct.  I had already worked out the composition, structure, and likenesses with all these drawings and they were good enough at one time for me to keep them.  So all they needed was some pastel to bring out the color.

Almost all of them came out well.  One was totally unsuccessful and is now in the trash can, but four look pretty good.  Here they are:

I took the lessons learned from this approach and applied them at our weekly life session last night.  Rather than dive into the pastel at an early stage, I worked for most of the session on the charcoal drawing, then only used the pastel during the last 45 minutes or so.  It looked pretty good when I left the studio last night.  Now I need to see it with fresh eyes before deciding whether it's a keeper or not.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Photographing Artworks

The subject of photographing artworks popped up this week in my discussions with other artists.  I thought it would be good to put down my procedures and see if anybody else was doing things in a similar manner, or had other ideas.

When I say "photographing artworks", I mean (for me) paintings, drawings, and charcoal/pastel works.  So, 2D stuff.  Good photos are important for documenting your work, entering shows, and approaching galleries.  Lots of professional artists take their completed artworks to professional photographers to get high-quality images.  Since I'm a cheapskate and more of a do-it-yourselfer, I do my own photography.  They may not be as high-quality as a pro will give you, but they do the job for me.

My equipment is fairly basic: a decent digital SLR camera (mine's a Canon T3i, several years old now but does fine), a photographer's gray card, an easel with a piece of white tape, and my trusty old (circa 2008) Apple iMac.  The software is the old iPhoto that came with the computer, and Photoshop Elements.  I use iPhoto as the storage manager for all my studio photos, and Photoshop Elements to do the minor tweaking needed to make the image files correct.

I shoot my photos outside, in the shade.  The light there is very even, so there are no hot spots on the artwork.  For works that are on paper, I tape them to a panel with artist tape, which is basically white drafting tape that is pH-neutral.  For works on panels or canvas, I put them on an easel that has a piece of that artist tape adjacent to the painting.  So what's with the white artist tape?  Well, it gives me a reference in adjusting the color and lighting.  More on that in a minute.

Now that the artwork is ready, it's time to set up the camera.  The better your setup, the better your camera's photo, and the better your camera's photo the better the ultimate result will be.  As mentioned, I use a digital SLR camera with all sorts of adjustments.  Yes, it has a lot of automatic features, too, but I've found that I can get consistently better results by carefully controlling the setup and exposure manually.

First, I set the white balance to "shade" or, if I'm lazy, to "automatic".  That will get the color balance close to correct.  Then I set the ISO, which is basically the speed at which the camera receives and processes light.  A slow ISO gives smoother grain and more detail.  A high ISO (like 1600) is really grainy, fuzzy, and with colors that only have a vague reference to reality.  Even a moderate ISO (like 400) is noticeably less sharp and color-correct.  Typically, I set my ISO at 100.

Next, I set the exposure, which means adjusting the f-stop and shutter speed.  I hold my photographic gray card in front of the artwork and take a reading through the lens of the camera.  Setting the f-stop and shutter speed is a trade-off as they directly affect each other.  Generally, I go for a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second, which allows me to hold the camera in my hands instead of using a tripod.  Then I set the f-stop to get the proper exposure.

Does all this fiddling with the camera sound like overkill?  Well, it's necessary.  Light from different sources can vary tremendously in color.  Human eyes automatically compensate, so we typically don't notice.  An incandescent bulb gives a yellow light, many old fluorescents give a greenish light, and LED's can provide a variety of colors (go to a Home Depot or Lowes and look at the examples in their lighting section).  Blue skies provide a blue color.  So by setting the white balance to "shade", I'm telling the camera to adjust for a bluish light.  In other words, dial back the blue, dude.

Regarding exposures, digital cameras look at the amount of light they see coming through the lens and then adjust their automatic settings so that the light averages out to a medium gray.  If my artwork is dark or light, that will throw the automatic settings off.  The light artworks will come out too dark and the dark ones too light.  So by using the photo gray card and manually adjusting the exposure, the camera will get an image that is closer to being correct.

Okay, now for the actual photo.  As indicated earlier, I don't like to use a tripod because it takes a long time to get it adjusted right.  I center the artwork in the camera's viewfinder and then adjust my body position up, down, left, and right so that the artwork's top, bottom, and sides are parallel to, and close to, the top, bottom, and sides of the viewfinder edges.  Snap!  Then I may make slight adjustments to my position, or to the exposure, and take a few more snaps.  There's no penalty with digital images.

Here's an example, shot in the parking lot at my studio.  Yes, the lot has a slant, which is why the bricks aren't level, but they're not important - the painting is.  You can see the tape just above the canvas, and you can see that the artwork needs to be rotated clockwise just slightly.

Great, now I have images in my camera.  Now to edit them so that they can be useful.

I plug the camera into my ancient iMac, open up iPhoto, and download the images.  A quick look will show which image seems best, so then I'll open up that image in Photoshop Elements.  The first step is to color-correct.  I point at the white artist tape and hit the "remove color cast" selection.  That tells the computer that the white tape is supposed to be white, so if it sees other colors (like blue from the sky), then dial back that color over the whole image until the tape reads as "white".  Then I adjust the exposure balance.  I adjust the highlights so that the white is white without being blown out, and the black is black without losing any detail.  It's easier than it sounds here.  And I adjust the midrange if necessary.

Now it's time to crop out all the non-art stuff: the bricks on the wall behind the easel, the artist tape, all that stuff around the edges.  To do this, I first rotate the image as needed.  If I did a decent job outside, then it may require 1/4 to 1/2 degree rotation left or right.  Then I use the crop tool to set the boundaries, hit the button, and there we are: one new art image.

Sounds ridiculously complicated, doesn't it?  It's not.  I can do the whole thing in less than five minutes, from walking out the door with the easel to looking at the finished image on the computer screen.  Basically:
- Set up the easel, artwork, and tape.
- Set the ISO, white balance, and manual exposure.
- Grab the photo gray and set the exposure.
- Take the photo.
- Take everything back to the studio.
- Plug the camera in and download the photos.
- Choose the best photo and make the adjustments to color and lighting, then rotate and crop it.
- Done.

One question that comes up more and more is, can you use your phone to take the photos instead of a DSLR?  Sure you can.  My iPhone takes pretty damn good pictures, including some of the artwork photos on my website.  The images won't be quite as sharp because the lens isn't nearly as good, the images will have fewer pixels, and they'll come out of the phone at a lower resolution.  But for websites, Facebook, and Instagram, they'll do just fine.

Okay, this turned out to be ridiculously long, much longer than I thought it would.  A 5-minute task takes a lotta words to describe, doesn't it?  I hope this helps some artists in taking your own photos and saving a few bucks.

Friday, July 12, 2019


Inventory.  Boy, that sounds exciting, huh?  Yeah, baby, there's nothing like curling up with a good spreadsheet or database and checking things off to really make your day exciting!

So, yeah, I've been doing an inventory of what's in my studio.  I'm not really sure how or why it got started, but the next thing I knew, I had the inventory on my computer and was trying to match entries to the artworks stacked around the room.  And it wasn't going all that well.  Here's a painting on the list, but where is it?  And there's a painting against the wall, but is it even on the inventory?  Sheesh.

I've been keeping an inventory using a spreadsheet (Apple's Numbers, if you want to be precise) for years.  I add new works to it, or update entries, whenever it occurs to me.  But I haven't really gone through and matched entries to artworks in, well, forever.  Not a good thing to do if you're in business.  So I got serious and spent quite a bit of time over the past four or five days trying to get everything as accurate as possible.  That included making labels for all the artworks and getting them stuck on all the right works.  I'm reasonably sure that everything in my studio is now labeled correctly and that the list of artworks on the computer is pretty accurate.  But not 100% positive.

So what did I learn?  Well, I've felt confident enough to sign my name to about 400 artworks and consider them "keepers", either by me or someone else.  The earliest is from 1973 and the most recent was signed yesterday.  Of these, I've actually sold 49, or 12%.  I've destroyed or painted over 62 (15%) of them, so for whatever reason, I decided that they really weren't keepers.  Note that more of my paintings have died than have been sold.  And about 23 more have been given away or donated.  So I still have about 250 on the shelves and racks in the studio.

Oh, and that's only the paintings and charcoal/pastel works.  It doesn't include the etchings and photographs.  I've got a lot of those, too.

My spreadsheet has a lot of information, including the artwork's title, inventory number, medium, size, pricing information, status (in the studio, destroyed, etc), exhibitions (if any), and notes.  A gallery owner told me that I should have everything in a special database program for artists, rather than a spreadsheet.  The program allows images to be attached to each record, which makes it a helluva lot easier to match artwork with data.  I haven't gotten around to doing that yet.  A Google search for artist inventory software shows that there are some at the freebie level, some that want $10-$80 a month, all the way up to a one-time fee of nearly $2,000 for a permanent license.  I can tell you, most of those are definitely out.  I'm a dedicated cheapskate.  I may just build my own database in Microsoft Access.

If I ever get around to it, that is.

Friday, July 05, 2019

So How Did They Turn Out?

My last post about Works In Progress showed three wedding paintings that were in various stages of development, and mentioned a fourth that was nowhere near ready to be seen.  They're all done and shipped off to their new owners now.  Here's how they turned out:

John and Janie

Kate and Ben

Lyndsie and Michael

Meghan and Bill

Four very different weddings, four very different paintings.  Three focused on the first dance, but I can tell you, they didn't look that way!  In two of them, the dances actually took place inside, but I moved them outside.  One of those was moved because it was POURING rain, but that shouldn't happen on somebody's wedding, so I made it a sunny day.  None of the families and friends were really standing around like they appear.  I used a ton of photos to rearrange people and things so that they better reflected the experience of the events.  These four couples gave me plenty of artistic license to arrange things as I felt best.  They really trusted me, and that trust is a great thing for an artist to have.

I have a bit of a break before my next event in August.  I'll be working on several studio projects that have been hanging while these were on the easels.  You might see some of them in the coming weeks.  Or, if they don't work out, maybe not.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

"-Isms" and Art

I was listening to a podcast today in which four artists were talking about art.  Not so much about their art, but rather, the bigger art world.  They talked about modernism, post-modernism, post-post modernism, photo realism, abstraction, surrealism, representationalism, and a lot of other "isms" that have come and gone.  And they talked about where their art fit into not just these "isms" but also the meta-picture - and by that they meant the bigger world of art in which all these isms were specific factions.  And they talked about what it meant to be working in all/any of these -isms in a time in which all can be considered equally valid.

After a while, I got pissed off.  These guys were talking about making and doing art like political analysts talk about politics.  Everything has to fit into some faction or another, and there can't be any overlap.  So you choose your big faction - say, realism versus abstraction - then you decide which sub faction and sub-sub-faction you want to work in, all the while keeping in mind the Big Picture of where your art fits in (or not) with everything else being produced today or over the course of all eternity, and what statement you're making by working in your particular style.


I couldn't care less about factions.  I have friends who create beautiful and loose landscapes, others who make wild abstractions, and others who make small figurative sculptures.  I like their work because the artists are good at expressing themselves in their chosen media.  I look at the work and see, not just paint on canvas, but something of the artists themselves.  Richard's work is completely different from Genie's, and both are worlds apart from Margaret's.  But each one is working in a unique way that they developed in order to see their worlds and make their own statements.  They are working in ways that they HAVE to work, because nothing else will do it for them.

And that's what I do.  I make art about people, and I want to tell their stories on paper or canvas.  That's what I seem to be called to do.  And Richard and Genie and Margaret are all called to do different things.  We can't help ourselves - we're doing what we have to do.

But these guys in the podcast were talking about art as if they were choosing a style of art to make in order to be "relevant" to the art world.  That's art-making as art-world ladder climbing.  It's not art as personal expression.

Years ago, I saw an exhibition of student art at one of the country's premier art colleges.  I saw a lot of stuff that was clearly intended to be "artier" than the next guy.  I saw lots of personal styles and lots of high-quality execution, but not a lot of personal expression.  A similar exhibition at my alma mater, UNC Asheville, showed artworks that were sometimes crude in concept or technique, but also expressed raw feeling.  Give me that kind of work any day.  Keep your "isms".

Saturday, June 08, 2019


When I was young, I thought ceremonies were a waste of time.  "Just do it and get it over with."  Mention of an upcoming ceremony would prompt some serious eye-rolls.  Who has time for that?

After being in the Navy for a bit, though, I began to see ceremonies in a new light.  The military has a lot of them: awards, promotion, retirement, change of command, you name it.  These events weren't just something to get through as fast as possible, they were major milestones in people's lives and careers.  Ceremonies put a marker on the occasion and recognized its importance.  They put a dividing line on the "before" (say, when somebody was an Ensign) and "after" (when they were a Lieutenant jg).  At that moment, somebody's life changed.  And ceremonies put a public face on it.

So ceremonies had a value in themselves.  But some ceremonies really meant something, while others were just pro forma events.  The difference lay in how the ceremony was conducted.  When those carrying out the event knew what they were doing, and really meant what they were saying, ceremonies could be surprisingly powerful.  When they were just ticking off boxes, because "that's the way it's done", then they could be a waste of time.

I remember one retirement ceremony that followed all the accepted protocols.  Say this, present that, salute, say another thing, because that's in the script.  The individual went off to life as a retired Navy officer and we went back to work.  It had all the emotional impact of a Geico commercial.  A few weeks later, we had another retirement ceremony.  Same basic script, only this time, the officer conducting the ceremony and the retiree knew what each element in the script was all about, how it was relevant in this particular case, and they conveyed that to all of us in attendance.  It was incredibly powerful.  And it totally changed the way that I conducted military ceremonies for the rest of my career.

Fast forward to today and I find myself in the wedding ceremony business.  I'm seeing the same concepts here that I did in the Navy.  In some weddings, the couple, officiant, planners, and others follow a rote script.  They do this, that, and the other thing because "that's the way it's done", not because it has meaning to the couple.  It's just something to get through.  Tick enough boxes and boom, you're married.  Another Geico commercial.  Let's go eat.

I feel sorry for those who are just ticking the boxes.  They seem to be outside the event, watching it, rather than immersing themselves in a major change-of-life moment.  Are we doing the First Dance correctly?  Do I have any new emails on my phone?  Is the caterer skimping on the roast beef?  The DJ wasn't supposed to play that song.  Who's on the dance floor and who's sitting it out?

But those that really put a lot of thought into what they're doing, and why they're doing it, have some extremely moving ceremonies.  The officiant says things that apply directly to the bride and groom.  The bride and groom say things to each other that reach deeply into their relationship.  The bride may wear a piece of jewelry that belonged to her much-loved grandmother.  The father-daughter and mother-son dances aren't just something on the agenda, they mark a permanent change in the relationship between people who still love each other very much.  For those of us who are bearing witness, these moments can bring tears to your eyes.

For those who are planning a wedding, or any major life-event ceremony, put some thought into what you're doing.  Just do the things that mean something to you.  And throw yourself into it.  You don't get that many chances for a major celebration.  Enjoy it!

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Works In Progress

Four weeks.  Four wedding paintings.  That's the spring wedding rush in this studio.  At the moment, three of the paintings are underway and the fourth will start this weekend.

As mentioned in my last post, the first of these paintings didn't start very well.  The concept was good, but my execution wasn't.  While waiting for the first dance, I had started putting in the outdoor environment, with the idea of putting the bride, groom, and others in later.  That method didn't really fit with the way my brain works and I ran into all sorts of issues once the people started going in.  So the next day in the studio, I wiped it out and started over.  This let me get the important parts of the painting - namely, the couple and family members - positioned where they made the most compositional sense.  That painting is now nearly finished and here's how it looks right now (click on the images to enlarge):

The second painting got off to a great start.  It was a surprise for the bride and groom - they wanted an artist but the bride's mom said "nope, too expensive, not in the budget", while at the same time already having me lined up to do just that.  I love surprises like that!  We decided that the subject of the painting would be the return walk down the aisle at the end of the ceremony.  And the bride and groom gave us the perfect setup.  So when they spotted me painting away at the reception, they were over the moon.  This was one of those paintings where everything was working from the get-go, which made it loads of fun.  No wiping it out in the studio the next day!  Instead, I've made some progress on it and here's how it stands right now:

Last weekend's painting required a road trip to Atlanta.  I am NOT a fan of driving in Atlanta.  So I hit the road way early and took the scenic route down through Sylva and Franklin, rather than driving interstates all the way.  Got to Atlanta and ran into seven lanes of traffic slowed to a 5 mph crawl because an 18-wheeler was parked on the side of the road.  Yep, it wasn't blocking anything.  Sheesh. But I'm glad I gave myself plenty of time.  And this painting was a Special Case.  The couple had booked another artist, but she backed out with just a few weeks to go.  So in order to uphold the honor of wedding painters everywhere, I took on the job.  The couple wanted the subject to be the first dance.  To liven up the composition and color, we decided to place them outside in the courtyard, which was the bride's favorite part of the facility anyway.  So here's how the third painting stands right now:

So one painting is almost done, two are in about the same level of completion, and a fourth starts Saturday.  I'm spending a lot of time in the studio and really having a good time.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Wedding Season Has Begun!

My 2019 wedding season kicked off yesterday.  I was the live event artist at the wedding of a lovely couple who got married at the Dennis Vineyards near Albemarle, North Caroline, which is a bit east of Charlotte.  It was a lot of fun to get back into the swing of the wedding painting thing again.

When the bride and I were planning what to put on canvas, she was torn.  She wanted it to show the first dance, but she also wanted to see the beautiful vineyards.  Well, this is a painting, and I can put anything I want anywhere I want.  So our idea was to show the first dance outside, on the lawn, with the vineyards in the background.  Good plan.

All went normally for me for a while.  I arrived early, talked with the event planner and venue manager, got set up, met the bride and groom, and started taking reference photos of everything.  I continued taking photos all during the ceremony.  Since the ceremony was outside, this gave me an indication of the direction and color of the light, how any breezes affected hair and dresses, and some idea of how the people looked in the landscape.  After the ceremony, I tagged along with the photographer and videographer as they worked with the newly-married couple and got some really good references.  Then we moved inside and I shot a ton more photos during the first dance.  Then it was time to get to work on the painting.

My approach was to do a very rough block-in of the landscape, then put the various figures into it.  Sounds like a good idea, right?  Well, I took it too far.  When I started putting figures into the landscape, the landscape had a lot to say about where the figures went, which wasn't necessarily where I wanted them to be.  Not only that, but I had to wipe out the landscape underpainting (which was still very wet) to paint the figures in.  And the brushstrokes for my figures picked up the remnants of the green paint and tinted everything.  To top it all off, I thought my figure drawing was for crap.  Sheesh.

Fortunately, the couple and guests were quite impressed by what I managed to get done in a fairly short amount of time.  I had a great time talking with many people, from the 4-year-old flower girl to an 80-something gent.

Back in the studio today, I plopped the painting on my easel and studied it.  I decided that the basic idea and composition were fine, but execution was sub-par.  So a lot of thinner and some scrubbing with a stiff brush removed most of the still-wet paint.  Next was to block in the dancing couple, and that went much better than the first effort.  Then I did a good bit of thinking and planning on how to put in the rest of the key figures, and how to get the landscape to support the composition.

Result?  A much improved structure in which to paint the people, while showing relationships, emotions, and activity.  Lesson learned: don't paint the background first!  Indicate the setting, but only roughly.  Then block in the key people.  THEN develop the painting all over.

So NO, you can't see it right now.  I'll show a work-in-progress when it's a bit further along. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A New Toy

I've liked sports cars almost all my life.  I've had a few, too: '70 Opel GT, '69 Alfa Romeo Spider, '80 Triumph TR7, '68 Triumph GT6+, '76 MG Midget, and an '85 Porsche 944.  And I had a '91 Taurus SHO, which was the factory hotrod version with a screaming Yamaha engine and a 5-speed manual transmission.  The last of the sports cars was the 944, which we sold in about 2001.  I've had small trucks and a Volvo ever since.

But the sports car bug never left.  I have subscriptions to a couple of car magazines that kept the fire going, and periodically I'd look at eBay, Craigslist, or Bring A Trailer, just to see what was there.  The fire really got stoked last year when one of my magazines started a series on a '71 Alfa Romeo Spider that they bought and began fixing up.  I've always had a soft spot for the Spiders.  I think they're one of the most beautiful production cars ever made, with sleek and elegant lines.  So most of my eBay, Craigslist, and Bring A Trailer perusals focused on Alfas.  Just to, y'know, see what's out there.  That's all.

Last year, a Spider popped up on Bring A Trailer and it was right here in the Asheville area.  It sounded pretty good, so, y'know, just to see what's out there, I connected with the guy to check it out.  Well, his definition of "pretty good" and mine weren't the same.  The Alfa was completely worn out.  The paint was faded, top was shot, steering vague, oil pressure near zero, it smoked, interior needed to be replaced, wires hanging down from the dash, you get the picture.  I didn't bid.  It wound up selling for about $9,500, and needed that much more work in order to be a $10,000 car.

A couple of weeks ago, I just happened to be on eBay (not looking for anything, I swear) and there was a really nice '87 Alfa Spider.  From the photos, it looked like it had been well cared for: the paint was in good shape, advertised with no rust (a BIG issue with Alfas), had the original top with a clear rear window, and supposedly ran well.  The seller's writeup said all the right things that an Alfa owner would recognize and it looked to me like he was (a) honest and (b) really knew what he was talking about.  I thought, dang, that's nice, it's gonna go for big bucks.  The opening bid was really low at $5250, and I expected it would sell for at least double that.

As the week went on, nobody bid.  Nobody.  Finally it was an hour before the auction was due to end and there were still no bids.  My stress level went off the scale - should I bid on it?  Yes? No? Yes?  Finally Janis said, look, you know you want it, just buy the damn thing.  So I waited until the last minute, in case there were other goobers like me watching, and threw in my bid for the opening amount.

I won the auction.

So now I own a 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce (pronounced "vel-OH-chee").  As it turned out, the seller was a fantastic guy who gave me what he knew of the history of the car.  He had only put maybe 300 miles on it during 8 years of ownership, and kept it in his garage, where it was usually blocked in by his family's other cars.  There was a good bit of recent work that fixed some common Alfa problems.  He and I hit it off really well - we both saw ourselves as caretakers of the Alfa.  Nobody's a "caretaker" of a Toyota.

I arranged to have the car shipped from Annapolis, Maryland, here to Mars Hill, North Carolina.  The car arrived late Friday afternoon.  I spent the weekend fiddling with the car and going through all the spares, accessories, parts, manuals, and other items that the previous owner included.  On Monday, I got the car licensed and put the tags on.  On Tuesday, it got a new set of tires, since the old ones were around 12 years old.  Then I went ripping up and down some of the winding back country roads around my home.  Just to test it out, you know.

Impressions?  This is a really nice survivor.  It's certainly not perfect, but it has been driven, maintained, and lived with by owners who took good care of it.  It's a very physical car to drive.  By that, I mean that it does not have power steering, so it takes a lot of effort to crank the wheel.  It has a manual transmission that, in typical Alfa fashion, has synchronizers that quit working in probably the first year.  It's loud, it vibrates, it's immediately responsive to every steering/throttle/brake input, and it demands that you PAY ATTENTION to what you're doing.  But if you do that, damn, it is such a sweet car!

That drive exposed a few things that need to be addressed.  But then, I expected no less.  None of the issues are serious and I can take care of all of them but one - I gotta have a shop replace the rear wheel bearings.  Other than that, the car is eager to go play on these back roads.

I needed a car like this like a hole in the head.  But boy, I really LOVE this car!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Studio Projects

I've got a whole bunch of projects going on in the studio right now.  They keep lining up in the queue and piling up faster than I can get 'em done.  It's frustrating in that there's so much that I want to do, but it's also exciting, in that I already have enough to keep me busy full-time for months.  And that's without new projects that are going to crop up.  So here's a look at what I've got going.

First off, I have a double-portrait commission.  A wonderful couple from Greensboro recently got married and wanted an artwork to commemorate the occasion.  What we decided on was a charcoal and pastel portrait of the two of them together.  I got with them for a photo session, figured out which photos told the story the best, and got started.  Double portraits are usually tricky.  The first figure usually goes in without too much trouble, but the second will kick my butt.  That's because I have to match the size, lighting, and technique to the first figure.  So in addition to getting a good likeness and bringing life to the image, there are these other issues that have to be considered.  It can be frustrating, but it's also fun.

I'm doing a series of portraits of a wedding planner.  Mary Bell is one of the very best wedding planners I've worked with.  She's on top of every detail about any event, keeping vendors like me in line, and making sure everything goes off like clockwork, all while making it easy and stressless for the couples and guests.  I had Mary in the studio recently for a photo session.  Two charcoal and pastel artworks are now done.  The first image is in line with my series of figurative works: high-contrast lights and darks, very dramatic.  The second is more like a portrait, with the value contrasts dialed back and better lighting on her face.  Here are the two images for comparison.  You can click on the images to see larger versions.

Mary #1

Mary #2

Another new figure series is in the queue.  Jazmin, one of the regular models for my Wednesday night life sessions, came to the studio for a photo session a while back.  Jazmin is a lively young lady, very spirited, a bit of a show-off (in a good way), and a natural in front of a camera.  There are a lot of images that are just screaming to get caught on paper or canvas.  I haven't done one from these photos yet, but here's one from one of her life sessions last year.

Jazmin #4

Meanwhile, as I've noted in previous posts, I've been looking at the artwork of Nick Alm for quite some time.  The way he puts multi-figure compositions together is pretty incredible.  They are based on a strong abstract composition that underlies the whole canvas, and the figures are placed so that they comprise the structure and tell the story.  Here's one example:

Nick Alm: "Bacchanal"

Here you can see that the figures in white form an upside-down triangle.  The figures on the right merge into one large dark shape, while on the left, the wall, chair, man's trousers, and shadows all blend into another single dark shape.  The girl in the center is set off by her long dark hair and the detail in her face and figure.  This is only one example - Google "Nick Alm" and you'll see dozens of examples.

I wanted to try to put some of his approach into practice and see how it works for me.  I have several thousand photos of weddings and receptions, so I raided my stash for reference images and am putting together a test painting.  Here's what it looked like a week ago:

This was okay, but there were some serious issues.  One, I used Alm's muted palette of largely black, white, and grays.  That works in paintings of a bunch of people sitting around cafes getting drunk, but doesn't work in a celebratory situation like a wedding.  It needed to feel lighter and happier - it needed bright colors.  Two, although the three bridesmaids were facing the viewer, none of the men were.  In fact, three had their backs to us.  In a painting that's meant to memorialize an event, you want to memorialize the people who were there, so you need to see their faces.  So I made some changes.  Here's how it looks now:

Obviously, I blew up the reception hall and moved everybody outside.  Were they really outside?  Who cares?  It's a much more cheerful picture.  I reversed the guy on the right, changed the guy he was talking to into a grandmother, and revised the figures on the left.  Much better.  Now I need to add some more figures: at least one, maybe two, around the guy sitting on the left, and another sitting on the right.  But what I've learned is that I can take Alm's approach of creating a large abstract composition, featuring large areas of light and color, make them into people, and the painting will work.

This still has a VERY long way to go, but it's been an interesting trip so far.  I've been learning a lot about composition and tying things together - all lessons that I can carry into this year's crop of wedding paintings.

In addition to all this, I've been keeping my Wednesday night life group going.  It's not always successful for me.  I had a string of three weeks in a row where my works were not just substandard, they were pretty bad:

And we had a beautiful model that night.  Sheesh.  Since then, though, things have been going better.

So that's what's going on in the studio right now.  Lots of stuff to do and I'm excited about digging into all of it even more over the next few months!

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Losing a Dog

Our little Soozzee has left us.  As I've described in several recent posts, she was suffering from a variety of ailments: deaf, blind in one eye and almost blind in the other, Addison's disease, arthritis, bladder stones, a thyroid condition, a skin condition, and worst of all, dementia.  Since my post last month, the dementia took more and more of a toll.  She got lost in the house pretty much all the time. She used to bark when she wanted us to get her down from the bed, but she stopped doing that.  We think she probably just forgot about barking.  Her inner GPS (the primary subject of my last post) got significantly worse.  She just seemed lost all the time.  She had often had trouble standing up and would stumble more on her walks.

Soozzee still had her happy moments, though.  She enjoyed parts of her walk: she'd stop and sniff at anything, even if she didn't know which way to go.  If we got out "the light" in the evening (a laser light that she has chased around the house since she was a little pup), she'd still pounce on it, but only for a minute and then she'd forget it was there.  And she liked to have some reassuring pettings.

But it was clear that she wasn't going to last long.  And on Saturday, April 6, that day came.  We did the morning walk and she kept going off the wrong way.  After getting back in the house, she wandered around lost, and while walking down the hall, she pooped without breaking stride.  The poor girl would never, ever, have pooped in her own house if she was at all aware.  The fact that she didn't know enough to control her own body was our signal that she was, to all intents and purposes, gone.

We called our vet, the Animal Hospital at Reems Creek, and made an appointment.  The people there have taken wonderful care of our dogs for almost 15 years and were almost as torn up about it as we were.  So just after noon last Saturday, they gave little Soozzee the injection and she passed away in my arms.

Good God, I wanted to die.

We're trying now to adjust to life post-dogs and, damn, it's hard.  For years, our lives have been largely structured around Soozzee and her sister Indy, who passed away a bit over a year ago.  At 9 am, it was time to wake up the dogs (yes, you read that right) and take 'em on their morning walk, then give 'em their meds.  Around noon, it was a ride in the car to take care of errands.  Around 4-5 pm, it was their evening walk and then dinner.  At about 7 pm, it was play time, usually with "the light".  Around 11 pm, one last time outside to do their business, take their evening meds, and off to bed.

Now, I'll be thinking "oh, it's 4 pm, gotta take Soozzee on her walk .... uh, damn ..."  It's a great big emptiness where Soozzee and her sister used to be.  Janis and I don't quite know how to fill it.  We'll get there, but it's going to take a while.  I still tear up over Indy's passing and that was well over a year ago, so it'll probably take at least another year or so to get over Soozzee.

I've been asked several times if we're going to get another dog.  No, we won't.  For one, it's unfair to any dog to be asked to fill in the hole left by another.  For another, there are things that we want to do, mainly travel, that were difficult or impossible with two dogs that were special needs.  And we just need to figure out life as empty-nesters.

Ever since I started writing this blog, there have been occasional posts about our two sweet Shih Tzus.  This is probably the final one.

Goodbye, little Soozzee.  You have my heart forever.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Dog, Dementia, and Directions

I've posted before about my dog.  She's a sweet little Shih Tzu who's going on 16 years old.  For the past year or so, dementia has gradually been taking hold in her little brain.  She's not gone, not yet, but the dementia is slowly taking her capabilities.  One of them is her sense of direction.

Now, Soozzee has never been much of an outdoor dog.  She's always been a bed potato.  That's like a couch potato, only her happy place is our bed.  Walks are not something she looks forward to.  From middle-age on, she got more and more resistant to heading out.  Dragging her along on her leash wasn't fun for either of us.  So we got a dog stroller.  I put her in the stroller for the outbound trip, take her out to the farthest point, put her on the ground, and she will trot, or even run, back home.  And it got to where she seems to enjoy the outbound trip.  She'll stand there, looking forward, sniffing the air, taking it all in.  Then at some point she'll say "enough", and turn around in the stroller and start pawing at the back.  Time to head home, Dad.

Lately, though, dementia seems to be hitting her internal GPS.  After a stop to do her business, or just sniff, or whatever, she'll forget which way is home.  She'll look both ways and then head out in the wrong direction.  I'll turn her around, and she'll say "nope, home is THIS way", and head off in the wrong direction again.  This will happen over and over.  "C'mon, Soozzee, home is THAT way."  "No, Dad, it's THIS way."  "Soozzee, it's THAT way."  "No, THIS way."  Aaarrggh.

But I found a trick.  I put her back in the stroller and turn her around a couple of spins one way, then a spin the other way.  That seems to hit the reboot button on her inner GPS.  Then I head away from home for maybe 10-15 feet.  That's like the outbound leg for her, so when I put her down again, she heads off in the correct direction.  At a trot, tail up, heading for home.

Does it work all the time?  No.  But it usually does.  And sometimes I have to do it two or three times on a walk.  But a Dad's gotta do what a Dad's gotta do.

It's sad to see her slowly going downhill.  Her diminished capabilities mean that our social lives are very limited - we rarely get to go out to dinner, don't go to movies together anymore, and don't take trips.  Soozzee gets really stressed when she's left alone in the house now, and somebody has to be around to watch her when she wanders, or be there to give her her meds, or take her on the walks.  Sometimes she's a pain in the butt, sometimes she's funny, and sometimes she's frustrating.  But this old dog has earned every bit of consideration we can give her.  And I'm just happy she's still with us.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Different Meanings in Artworks

Ever noticed that different people see different things in artworks?  One person will look at a painting and see something very peaceful, while the next person will wonder what demons are eating at the artist.  What's worse is when a critic writes a review that pontificates on the artwork's meaning and you've got no clue where this critic, who supposedly is enlightened, comes up with that interpretation.  And the worst thing is when said critic says that his/her meaning is the only one there is, leaving you and your very different interpretation out in the cold.

The truth is that we all come to an artwork with our own biases, likes, dislikes, viewpoints, personal histories, experiences, random mood of the day, and all the other baggage that goes along with being human.  So we all will react differently to the same piece of art.  While it's true that some people will be able to make more educated guesses at what the artist might have meant, or some people may be able to better identify which artworks are of higher quality than others, it's still true that each individual's experience of an artwork is unique to them.  As an artist, I can't control how you respond to something I painted.  I can only do my best to put my own intentions on canvas.  After that, the artwork is on its own, and you will see what you will see.

This hit home to me many years ago.  I was a continuing-education student at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.  This was a place where even the continuing-ed students were very serious about their work.  Our painting instructor gave us an assignment of doing a still life at home.  Sounds pretty simple, right?  So I went home and got to work.  My approach was to put a bunch of stuff into a pile and start re-arranging, tossing things out, and simplifying, until I got to something that was visually interesting.  Then I slung some paint.  Here's the result:

I was a Navy officer at the time, so that was my cover ("hat" in civilianese).  The teddy bear was mine from when I was one or two years old.  I liked the fact that there was a strong black/white contrast with interesting yellow shapes, all very harsh compared to the soft texture and color of the teddy bear.  Mission accomplished - there was the homework still life painting.

In the next class, the instructor had us critique each other's work.  When they got to mine, nobody said a word about the "strong black/white contrast with interesting yellow shapes, all very harsh compared to the soft texture and color of the teddy bear."  Instead, I heard a backstory about how the father had gone off to war and left a child at home, and the father wasn't coming back and the child was going to grow up without a dad, and this was one of the saddest paintings ever made.

Say what?

I could see that trying to explain what I'd been thinking about when putting the painting together didn't matter one iota to the people looking at it.  They created a much more interesting story than I ever could, and who am I to mess with that?  Since then, I don't worry too much about what others might see in a work.  In fact, when I do an artist talk, I try to get the audience to tell me what they see in the work.  Depending on the responses, they may never hear my own thoughts.  The only time it concerns me is when the predominate opinions are way off the mark from my own intention, which means my execution didn't match my intention.  I've learned a lot about my own works from hearing what people say about them.

Going back to the sample painting above, I eventually decided that the choice of the hat and teddy bear were not random and not just about colors and textures.  The teddy bear was the very young innocent me, while the hat was the grown-up me, and I was saying something about both of them being present at the same time.  I gave the painting the title "Now and Then".

So when you look at some of my artwork, don't ask me what I was trying to say.  Tell me what you see in the painting.  That's much more interesting.