Sunday, December 01, 2019

Development of a Wedding Painting

When creating a painting, they usually seem to fall into either a "flow" or "fight" category.  By that, I mean that a painting seems to flow and develop easily, or else it wants to fight me from the very first day.  Last week, I completed a wedding painting that was definitely a fight.  Here's how it developed.  You can click on the images to see larger versions.

 This was how the painting looked at the end of the reception.  Pretty rough, huh? Most of my paintings are pretty rough at this stage.  I mean, here's a 24"x30" canvas that I've only been working on for maybe 2-3 hours, and much of that time is on trying to determine a basic composition.  This couple, two really wonderful people, wanted the painting to depict the return walk down the aisle.  One problem, for me, was that they didn't look at each other during that walk, and I wanted to show their interaction.  So I chose a good photo of them walking, then chopped off their heads and replaced them with heads from other photos.

 I developed the couple a bit and worked on the guests.  The guests were a real time sump: because of perspective, they were all different sizes, and getting them the right size ate up a lot of time.  The chairs, since they were all the same, had to be exactly the right size and position, or your eye would pick up on it immediately as something wrong.  Worst of all, the guests were all facing away, so you just saw the backs of heads.  And the parents and wedding party were partially hidden. 

 So I eliminated all the guests.  Two smoke bombs, left and right, and off they went.

 In place of the guests, I blocked in the floor and changed the position of the parents.  This composition simplified things greatly, putting more attention on the couple and allowing development of all the important people.  Now we're cooking. 

More development of the important people.  The floor was brick in a herringbone pattern, which had to be done well enough that the eye would read "brick floor", but not over-developed and pulling attention to itself.  The lines are guides to get the perspective right.  Since they're only guides, they'll soon go away.

 The brick floor was developed a bit, just enough to indicate the color and texture.  The hanging curtains along the top of the canvas bothered me because they were just a dark gray shape going straight across the image.  It needed to be broken up, so I added a couple of hanging lamps.  The foreground looked a little too empty.  There were a couple of decorations, with candles, flowers, and fabric, that were actually next to the curtain in back, so I wondered how they might look if they were in front. 

The decorations in front seemed to work pretty well.  Now we're starting to do the finishing touches.  I added a couple of hanging drapes in back, the same color as the center curtains, just to bring the color out in to a gray area.  Red, pink, and white flower petals were spread around the floor.  And I went around the whole painting, bringing everything up a notch or two.  I sent this image off to the clients for approval.

The clients loved the painting but requested a few changes.  One was to add the two flower girls.  I put them on the right, interacting with each other.  Another was to have some kind of art deco element, so I changed the yellow curtains to a more prominent shape with art deco design on it.  Then I went around the painting one more time, adding flower petals to make them more random, touching up the couple and others, touching up the decorations in front, and generally bringing things up to where they should be.  And we're done!

So that's how this particular painting worked out.  It was a struggle, but it got there.  By now, I know that I can get these paintings across the finish line, no matter how much trouble they give me.  And I know that if it's really not working, I can always grab a new canvas and start from scratch.  Yes, I've done that, and it turned out pretty well.  On the other hand, some paintings develop quickly and naturally.  But those paintings wouldn't make a good blog post, now, would they?

Monday, November 25, 2019

Italy, 1999

Since my last post, I've been busy with a training trip to Muscatatuck, two wedding paintings, and a proposal-writing project.  None of those things would make a memorable blog post.  So, instead, here's another post from our Great European Adventure in 1999.  We had just left Germany and driven down to Camp Darby, a US military base outside of Pisa, Italy.  So enjoy ...

CHAPTER 27        PISA, ITALY
                Thursday, November 18

We made it safely to Italy.  We're staying at a small Army base called Camp Darby, near Pisa.  The drive down from Germany was the worst of the entire trip.  It is a long drive (8 hours) from Chiemsee.  It was snowing slightly when we left and got progressively worse as we went past Innsbruck and up over the Brenner Pass.  At the top, it was coming thick and hard.  Traffic was heavy, roads were slick, and we did not have a good time.  When we got below the snow line, it turned to rain that remained heavy all the way to Pisa.  During that one trip we had snow, sleet, hail, rain, fog, thunder, lightning, and heavy winds.  Yuck! 

When the weather eased up every now and then, the alpine countryside was spectacular.  The mountains are steep, rocky, and have lots of pine forests.  Every few miles there is a castle perched on a rock.  The route has been a strategic gateway between north and south for thousands of years and it was quite impressive to see the historic reminders of the past.  Particularly when the clouds would part a little bit to allow a glimpse of a sheer mountainside rising thousands of feet above the road.

Camp Darby looks like the Base That Time Forgot.  I don't know what their mission here is (might just be an ammunition storage facility) but it has two parallel main streets about a half mile long, and that's about it.  There is not much in the way of facilities.  Our room is a dump.  I've never stayed in a worse place that I've actually had to pay for.  It's an early-'70's plastic prefab unit.  They covered the plastic walls with plastic wallpaper and every sheet is peeling off.  All the plumbing and electrical wires are external to the wall.  The room has one (1) table lamp which is carefully situated so that it doesn't really shed any light on anything.  There is a TV in the corner which is all of 13" in size .... well, maybe 15" if you include the plastic casing.  We have, by actual count, one Armed Forces Network channel, one BBC channel, one Sky News channel, and 88 Italian channels.  The bathroom is particularly onerous.  The walls are covered with old tile, many of which had holes drilled in them for previous "renovations" which have since been removed.  The bathtub not only has running rust under the tap, it also has big patches of red scaly rust on the bottom.  And you have to run the tap for about five minutes to ensure the water coming out is clean.  When they have two roach motels in the bathroom, you know that's not a good sign!  Fortunately we haven't seen any creepy crawlies, at least not yet.  Of course, we can't get on the net from our room, so we're using the base library, which actually has some very nice computers.

Thursday, however, was a BEAUTIFUL day.  Absolutely crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, chilly but not too cold.  It was the first really nice day we've seen since we left Prague.  We decided to head into Florence to take advantage of the good weather.  I was here almost four years ago and said then that Florence pegged my "wow"-meter.  It's still awesome.  Mostly we just wandered around and got a feel for the city.  Janis went ape over all the fashions and jewelry and shopping. 

Florence is a city that defines "class".  The old city streets follow medieval patterns and wind in and out between buildings that are hundreds of years old.  Italian buildings are quite a bit different from German ones: they're big, square, usually some variation of gray, tan, yellow, or red stucco that's flaking off, and have green or brown shutters.  Most look a bit worn and shabby.  The exception to all this is the Duomo, which is Italian for "damn big church with a dome the size of Montana".  This church is built with black and white marble laid in intricate patterns, and covered with statues.  We didn't go inside on the first visit (we will on our next visit) but it was beautiful to see. 

Another find, for Janis at least, was the Ponte Vecchio.  This is a centuries-old bridge over the Arno River.  It is lined with jewelry stores on both sides, and has been this way for several hundred years.  Janis went into sensory overload halfway along the bridge.  I never thought I'd see the day when she couldn't look at one more jewelry store window, but friends, it happened on the Ponte Vecchio!

Transportation was easy.  We drove the Range Rover into Florence, which took about 45 minutes through the Tuscan mountains.  We parked below the train station and then walked all over the city from there.  Manned parking garages are the only way to go if you want to see your car, or the stuff in your car, again.

While wandering the city, we came across an archaeological dig in a city street.  It appears that, while digging a trench for utilities, construction workers found some old city walls.  Florence has full-time historians and archaeologists on its staff for just this sort of thing.  They swoop in, dig, take photos, measure everything, then carefully cover it up again.  This preserves the past and allows modern life to continue.  I was impressed.

On Friday, we went into Pisa.  This was a just a short drive from Camp Darby, but of course we got lost both going and coming.  The first thing we saw was the Leaning Tower.  I cannot believe the thing is still standing, it's over so far.  Pisa has a major effort ongoing to keep the tower upright: they're digging around and under it to solidify the base, and meanwhile they've strapped huge steel cables around the tower and anchored them to several supports.  Only the Italians would screw up a site survey, build a big tower on marshy ground, and when the building that never should have been built starts to fall over, turn it into a tourist attraction.  That's like Pennsylvania making a tourist attraction out of Three Mile Island.  Be that as it may, the Duomo, Baptistry, Memorial Cemetery, and Leaning Tower were all beautiful and interesting.  We also wandered around the rest of the town and found it to be quite charming.  Streets in the old city, of course, were narrow, cobblestone, and lined with shabby and colorful old buildings.  People are friendly and except for the Leaning Tower area, it is not a tourist trap.  It was quite lively in the early evening.  Christmas decorations are starting to appear and people packed the streets in the shopping areas.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets ever as we crossed the river: the thin clouds were brilliantly lit by the setting sun, with the silhouettes of ancient towers in the foreground, and it all was reflected in the river surface. 

Driving in Italy is certainly an experience.  Speed limit signs, stop signs, lane lines, and other such official proclamations are merely advisory.  It's normal to see three cars abreast on a two-lane road.  When the light turns green, you have 0.5 seconds to get moving or everybody behind you lays on the horn.  In keeping with the Italian nature, driving is an art form, not something that can be regulated.  You want the movement of the cars to flow beautifully, particularly if "beautifully" means that you can pass everything else on the road.  (Note: you don't pass a car in Italy, you surpass it, with all the emotional baggage that such a phrase entails).  In Amsterdam, most people get around on bicycles.  By contrast, Florentines use motor scooters and mopeds.  Herds of them rip along the city streets, dodging cars and buses and pedestrians (usually), and sounding like swarms of angry hornets.  You better stay alert on Italian city streets, or you’ll quickly wind up as road kill.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Wrapup of our Prague, 1999, Adventure

My last post a couple of days ago was a reprint of our travelogue of Prague during our European trip in 1999.  It included the story of Janis's billfold being stolen by pickpockets.  Here's how that adventure turned out.

CHAPTER 22        PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
                Wednesday, November 3


The day after Janis's billfold was stolen, we were discussing the event with our landlord.  She said that we should go report it to the police because sometimes the pickpockets just wanted cash, and would dump the ID cards and rest of the billfold.  Later, American Express said that they would need a copy of the police report if we were going to claim the replacement cost of the billfold (Louis Vuitton and very $$$, so we damned well were going to claim it).  So after we took care of business with American Express and other places, we hoofed it over to the polizei to do our duty.

Oh, how naive!  You must remember, these are Soviet-trained officials we're talking about.  The words "courteous, quick, friendly, and efficient customer service" do not exist in their universe.  The police station was the most run-down building on a run-down block.  The anteroom was built about 150 years ago, and evidently the last time it was painted (or even cleaned) was to welcome the Russians after WW II.  There's no reception desk, only a window cleverly placed about waist-high so that you have to bow down to them in order to carry on any kind of conversation.  Which, of course, you can't, because none of them deign to have anything to do with the English language.  They simply aren't interested in anything you have to say in English, and they aren't much more interested if you speak Czech.  Eventually, the one and only English interpreter on the entire Prague police force (no kidding) arrived and we made our report.  She made it clear that if we wanted to report Janis's billfold as "missing", why, she'd be happy to help.  However, if we wanted to report it as "stolen", oh, now that is much more complicated, and would require much filling out of forms.

By this time, we had our dander up, and forms or no forms, these police were going to have to deal with the fact that three guys had ripped off Janis's - Janis's - one and only billfold.  So the interpreter rolled her eyes and put us in the "waiting room" while she sorted out the details with the duty staff. 

Now there is nothing more depressing than a Communist-era waiting room.  It was really a short hallway that was painted a putrid institutional green, with several mysterious doorways leading off it.  One of the "doorways" was a heavy metal barred jail cell door.  One wall had a Rube Goldberg electrical contraption mounted high up featuring a transformer the size of my suitcase and wires leading into a room behind one of the mysterious doors.  Electro-shock therapy, perhaps?   The same wall had two large electrical fuse boxes tastefully decorated with pornographic ads.  There were no chairs, only one long wooden bench, on which were sitting three people who had clearly been there quite a while and were still waiting when we left.  No reading material, of course, except for the pornographic ads, and to keep ourselves entertained, we tried to figure out what the electrical contraption was, and also what was behind Doors #1, #2, and #3.  We were kept in the room for about half an hour.  Then the interpreter burst back in and gave us a police report - in Czech, of course - which she claimed was a summary of everything we'd told her and would we please sign it?  It could've said that we were the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for all we knew, but by that time we weren't at all interested in finding out what was behind Door #3, so we signed it and said goodbye to our cheerless waiting-room companions. 

As for American Express, well, they wanted a police report and that's what they're getting.  They didn't say it had to be in English.  If they want to know what it says, then they can find their own damn interpreter.

So ends our experiences in the Czech Republic.  We had a good time here, all things considered.  This is a beautiful city with superb food, great art and music, low prices, friendly people (most of 'em), and fabulous weather.  The only drawback was our run-in with the pickpockets (which the interpreter said were "all Rumanian and Bulgarian, definitely not Czech" ..... sure, lady).  Whatever.  We won't be back, but I still think it's a great place to visit.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Adventures in Prague, 1999

Time for another one of our "greatest hits from the goldie oldie '90's" ... in this case a discussion of our experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during our European trip in 1999.  So without further ado ...

CHAPTER 21        PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
                Tuesday, November 2

Our big news is that Janis had her billfold lifted by pickpockets last night.  These guys were pros.  We were in a big crowd of people getting onto a tram.  The three pickpockets got in between Janis and me and blocked her way.  When she pushed through them, they unzipped her purse and lifted the billfold.  It had all her credit cards, driver's license, military ID, checks, the whole works.  There was no cash at all in her billfold, and her passport was back in the room.  Fortunately, she noticed it pretty quickly (too late to catch the guys, who had already gotten off), and we canceled the credit cards and checks within 30 minutes of the heist.  One of the credit card people reported that the thieves had already tried to use at least one of the cards in an ATM but couldn't guess the PIN. 

True to their advertisements, American Express is issuing her a new card today.  My card and Janis’s card had different numbers, so mine is still good.  Visa and MasterCard will be more of a pain.  We now have no valid Visa/MasterCards with us, which will put a crimp on our spending ability.  Unlike American Express, they have no offices that will issue new cards on the spot.  Instead, they send new cards to our "home" address (one of Janis's friends in San Diego, who is a saint) in seven to ten days.  Then we have to get the cards express mailed from San Diego to wherever we are in Europe.  The whole process will take two to three weeks.

Our landlord told us that pickpockets are, unfortunately, very common here, but they're not too sophisticated.  Most of the time they just want the cash, and won’t mess with stolen credit cards because they’re a bit of a hassle.  So it looks like this theft may just be a pain in the ass and not a disaster.

In the spirit of "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”, here are the rest of our adventures before we met up with the pickpockets. 

We drove up to the town of Terezin to visit Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi concentration camp.  The camp is inside an old brick fortification built in the mid-1700's that was pretty much abandoned by the time the Nazis rolled in.  The place is largely unchanged since the end of the war.  It has not been restored and there has not been much money for upkeep, either.  Consequently, what you see is what was there during the war: the original wooden sleeping racks (no mattresses, of course), original sinks, original toilets (one each to serve 100 people), original barbed wire hanging from dilapidated posts ... "Chilling" is the best word to describe it.  I walked around a corner and saw the entry gate with the Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes You Free") painted over it, and my blood ran cold.  They have a museum and quite a number of displays such as prison clothes, drawings, tools, utensils, and other everyday items (all original of course), as well as photos of camp officials and many prisoners, which put a very human face to it all.  Theresienstadt was primarily a transportation waystation and not an extermination camp like Dachau or Auschwitz; still, over 150,000 people went through there in four years and several thousand died.  The town of Terezin is a very short walk away from the fortress grounds.  During the war, the Nazis emptied the town of its regular inhabitants, crammed it full of Jewish prisoners, threw a quick coat of paint on everything, and fooled the Red Cross into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model "retirement" community.  Once the Red Cross left, the Nazis went right back to loading the prisoners onto trains bound for the gas chambers.  We left Theresienstadt with a new appreciation of what people can do to people.  (I wrote this before the pickpockets, so now we've got still another new appreciation of what people can do to people).

Eating out in Prague is bliss.  The other night we each had a salmon steak, with salad, delicate potato croquettes, fresh bread, wine (Janis) and beer (me), and two crepes the size of dinner plates with ice cream, fruit, thick whipped cream (the real stuff, not Cool Whip), and chocolate topping.  Total cost for everything, including tip: $15.  Eating here is cheap and almost all the restaurants we've found are excellent.

Janis wrote some observations prior to the pickpockets:

Okay, so I know I have to live with some inconveniences like no TV, no radio, and no phone in the room, but these towels are ridiculous.  What this penzion gives us for bath towels, I would call “kitchen” towels, and very old, worn-out ones at that.  I guess you could say they have a two-fold purpose: they dry you (sort of), and they exfoliate your skin. 

I’ve gotten used to having to pay to use the toilet (however, better have the right change or you're "piss" out of luck), but I hate paying for recycled toilet paper that also exfoliates!  Thanks but no thanks.  Prague’s buses are relics but, hey, they work and they are pretty much on time.  Trams, for the most part, have single rows of seats; after that you stand and you best hold tight as they aren't known for a smooth ride.  The BEST thing about the tram is that the seats are heated.  It helps heal the raw skin on your bottom from all that exfoliating, and I ask you, could you want anything more for thirty cents than to ride for an hour and a half to anywhere the bus, tram, or underground goes to?  (Skip's note: Well, you might want to have your own bodyguard).

The Czechs have discovered hair coloring in a big way, and the women dress and use makeup in a very up to date way.  I mean, in ten years they go from Communism to Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, and Hermes.  Really, they’ve grown leaps and bounds in a very short period of time.  The guy that owns the internet place we've been using was born here in Prague and then lived in South Africa.  After the fall of communism he returned (as according to him SoAfrica is "going down the tubes"; well, he's white so you can figure why he feels that way) to open this business.  He says most of the changes in the Czech Republic are cosmetic only and the bureaucracy is as bad as ever, but who knows.

Hey, they even have ice here, unlike some of the other "first world" places we've visited.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Studio Update

For the past month, two things have been going on in the studio.  One, I've been working on a wedding painting of a really lovely couple.  And two, I've been struggling through a non-productive patch with my life sessions.  Spoiler alert: both of these things have come to a good conclusion, but getting there wasn't easy.

The painting, for some reason, has wanted to fight me since Day 1.  The couple wanted the painting to be of the walk back down the aisle as a newly-married couple.  That means a balanced, almost T-shaped composition, with the couple in the middle foreground, the key members of the groom's family and friends on the right, and the key members of the bride's family on the left.  And then there's the decision of what to do with the audience.  In this case, I initially started painting them in.  But that gives some undesirable results.  They're sitting with their backs to the viewer, so you see the backs of their heads.  There's no clear pattern to the figures, so it's just a mishmash of colors and shapes.  And they cover up the parents and much of the wedding party.  So, after wrestling with them, I pulled out my #10 brush and (virtually) assassinated them all.  That let me simplify the composition, develop the wedding party and parents, and really focus attention on the couple.

But no, you can't see it right now, because it's still out to the couple for their initial comments and approval.  Once they give it the thumbs-up, I'll post it here.

The other issue was getting something decent to come out of my weekly life drawing and painting sessions.  My efforts were almost totally unsatisfactory to me.  One was an oil sketch that I wiped out at the end of the night, while the next was a charcoal and pastel portrait that I reworked quite a bit the next day before giving up and tearing it to pieces.  A third was an oil sketch that I didn't really care for, but the model liked it, so I gave it to her.  But that's life as an artist: sometimes you go through a stretch where you can't get the mojo going.  The only way to get through it is to keep plugging away, because sooner or later, things will start happening again.

And that happened last night.  We had a male model who was a great portrait subject.  I worked in charcoal and pastel.  After the first half hour, I wasn't happy with the way it was going, so wiped it out and started over again.  This time, I had the faint structure left over from the first effort, so I took a slightly different approach to developing the image, and it immediately worked pretty well.  So here's the final image:

George #1

I didn't mean to decapitate the poor guy, but  every time I tried to draw in his shoulders, it just seemed wrong.  So I erased everything except the head.  But it's a good likeness of him, so I'm happy.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Studio Slog and a Travelogue

I've been having a hard time in the studio for the past several weeks.  I've got a wedding painting on the easel that's been kicking my butt.  It took two weeks of try/fail, try/fail, try/fail, before things started happening in a positive way.  I think one more week and I'll be ready to send an image to the clients, but for now, working on this painting is a wrestling match.

My regular life sessions haven't been any better.  The last four in a row haven't been up to snuff.  Don't know what the issue is, but it's annoying.  It will pass, though. Soon, please.

Since there's not a lot to report from the studio, here's another post from our European trip.  Twenty years ago today, here's what we were doing:

CHAPTER 17        WIESBADEN, GERMANY
                Monday, October 25, 1999

On Sunday, we took a trip down to Heidelberg.  It was a gray, drizzly day.  We drove down and parked near the city center, then just went wandering.  Heidelberg is another typically beautiful old German city.  Many of the buildings in the center are centuries old.  Some are very baroque, others simpler, some are painted stucco and others brick or stone.  Many, if not most, buildings have iron railings outside the windows, and/or window boxes with tons of flowers.  We saw one apothecary that's been in the same building since 1783.  A long stretch of the city center is closed to vehicular traffic (we've seen that in a number of places and it appears to be quite common).  Heidelberg has a wonderful old castle ruin on the hill above the town.  It was quite a formidable presence until the French blew it up about two hundred years ago. Now parts have been rebuilt/restored and other parts are still ruined.  Incredibly spectacular.

There were thousands of people in downtown Heidelberg along with us.  We were all walking along, watching each other, and window-shopping.  That's all we could do.  It was Sunday, and everything in Heidelberg was closed.  I mean EVERYthing!  Well, okay, so I exaggerate.  Pizza Hut, a noodle shop, a couple of cafes, and two Christmas stores were open.  That was it.  Which raises two questions:
1.  Why were all the people wandering around if there was nothing to do?
2.  Since all the people were there anyway, why were all the stores closed??
Boggles the mind.

Driving on the autobahn is an experience.  They really observe the rules here.  You stay to the right unless (a) you want to pass, in which case you do it as quickly as possible, or unless (b) you're in a BMW/Mercedes/Porsche/equivalent and really romping, in which case you turn your lights on to warn everyone ahead of you.  No matter what, you watch your mirror about as much as you watch the road in front, because somebody could easily be doing 100 miles an hour more than you and on your rear bumper in no time at all.  Janis has christened our Range Rover the "QE3", because it feels about as big and stately as an ocean liner.  And you just don't see ocean liners in the left lane of the autobahn.

While wandering around Wiesbaden, I noticed that there was evidently one long street that wound its way all over the city.  I kept seeing its name everywhere.  Then I found out that "Einbahnstrasse" wasn't the name of a road, it meant "one-way street"!  Yeah, buddy .... "I live at 17 Einbahnstrasse". 

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 ...


CHAPTER 15        HERPEDUIN, THE NETHERLANDS
                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:

CHAPTER 10: LONDON, ENGLAND
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

Revisions

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

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.

WTF?

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

Ceremonies

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!