Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Technology Pains

 The past month-plus has seen us have an inordinate number of problems with the wonders of technology.  Some are just maintenance items that have come due, other items just wore out, some are broken, and others are new-to-us and require an apparently steep and very long learning curve.  And they're all happening at once.

To start with, two of my dental crowns decided to call it quits at the same time.  They were probably 15-20 years old, so I can't really blame 'em.  But going to a dentist during this time of Covid raises the anxiety level.  We didn't have a warm'n'fuzzy feeling for our dentist's Covid precautions, so we hadn't been since the crisis started, and we really didn't want to risk it now.  So we found another dentist who advertised his Covid precautions.  I was very happy with the results.  Not only was the dentist and all the staff VERY careful about procedures, but he replaced both crowns in one visit.  No waiting for a week or two for new crowns to be made somewhere, then shipped back, and requiring a second visit to be put on.  Nope, it was all done in one trip.  It cost out the wazoo, and insurance didn't even cover a quarter of it, but overall, it came out well.

At about the same time, our lawnmower decided it had mowed its last yard.  The repair place said that fixing it would cost about the same as a new one.  Easy decision, but the timing was awful.  Along with the crowns, that was a very expensive month.

Immediately afterward, both of our cars were due for regular maintenance.  You know, oil changes and tire rotations.  And the tires on one of them were about worn out.  Great: now we gotta get a set of four expensive tires.

In the good news department, our neighborhood is getting fiber optic internet connections.  Yay!  We can dump the lousy DSL lines from Frontier!  The team came yesterday to do the hookup.  Took them quite a while since our house had some yard and house layout issues that made it difficult, but they got it done.  While they were doing it, our old DSL connection crashed again.  Goodbye, DSL, and good riddance.  So last night, I was busy switching all our computers and phones and stuff over to the new system.  Much mo' better.  

A fiber optic connection means we can finally join The Wonderful World of Streaming.  That was my chore today: getting and installing a streaming device, signing up for YouTube TV, and shutting off and removing the decrepit old Dish Network system.  It's all more or less done, but it was a slog, and there's still some stuff that needs to be done.

And today we discovered that our landline is down hard.  Maybe the installation crew cut through the line yesterday?  Whatever - a technician is coming out tomorrow.  I had other things planned, but inoperative phone lines don't care.

The next step is to figure out how to use the new system.  We knew how to use the Dish system and how to find the things we wanted to watch.  Now, it's not so easy.  It's gonna take us quite a while to get it arranged where we can find things, and also to get familiar with navigating the system.  Don't forget, both of us grew up in households with black & white TV's that could only get three or four channels, and you actually had to get up off the couch and walk across the room to CHANGE THE CHANNEL BY HAND.  And you haven't lived unless you've spent hours adjusting the rabbit ear antenna to reduce the amount of snow on the screen!  Figuring out how to find the shows we want from the 4.9 million available is gonna tax our old brains.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Podcasts and Catch-Up

 This has been a busy three weeks.  We got our second Covid shots (yay!) and have been dealing with a lot of other pop-up issues that have taken a lot of time.  I'm still working in the studio, finishing up a double portrait for a friend and working on a new painting of my own.  I'm going to have some paintings in a veterans' invitational art exhibit in St. Augustine in July, which is really cool.  More info on that later.

Do you listen to podcasts?  I do.  When I'm on the road, even if it's just a run to Asheville about 20 minutes away, I've usually got one playing.  Most of mine, with two exceptions, are about art, history, or the military.  Here's what's on my phone:

For art podcasts:

- John Dalton's "Gently Does It".  John interviews artists, with occasional gallery owners or others involved in the art world.  He generally talks to figurative artists, meaning those whose work is about people.  I've found a lot of very impressive and inspiring artists to follow.  John talks to them about what motivates them, their background, technical aspects of their work, you name it.  A lot of the experimentation that I've been doing over the past year originates in these interviews.  I'll hear something that the artists do that I will then try out in the studio, or I'll see some really cool work and try to reverse-engineer what they did and how they did it.  If you're a figurative artist, this is a must-listen.

- Antrese Wood's "Savvy Painter".  Take everything I just said about John and repeat it here.  Antrese has a warm and engaging personality that really brings out the best in her interview subjects.  Where John has more figurative artists from around the world, Antrese has a few more American artists in a slightly wider range of genres.  If you're a painter, this is a must-listen.

- Michael Faith's "Art Affairs".  This is a relatively new addition to my podcast library.  Michael is another good interviewer.  His focus leans toward young emerging artists, and there's not as much technical discussion as John or Antrese will do, but that's fine. 

History podcasts:

- Mike Duncan's "Revolutions".  I've been a fan of Mike's for several years now.  He did a very long series on "The History of Rome", from before its founding until the end of the western empire.  Then he launched into the "Revolutions" series, which looks at a variety of western-world revolutions: the English, American, French, South American, Haitian, and now Russian events.  Mike has a polished, professional, engaging, and humorous style that keeps it all interesting.  You know the phrase, "those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it"?  Well, it's clear that we know a lot about history, but we repeat it anyway.  I heard about things throughout the Roman series as well as every Revolutions event that are being repeated, in slightly different ways, today.  That's not always a good feeling.  Highly recommend Mike's podcasts.

- The Leakey Foundation's "Origin Stories".  This series explores the foundations of humanity, what it means to be "human", where we came from, and how millions of years of development are still evident today.  There are interviews, recorded lectures, and other very professionally-done presentations.  There have been episodes on what is being learned from a 13-million-year-old pre-human fossil, a single cave in Spain that has over a million years worth of fossils, Denisovans, and a fascinating Carl Sagan presentation.

- The BBC's "In Our Time".  This one has been going on for over a decade.  The host, Melvyn, gathers a few experts in a particular subject together and they'll have a lively discussion about it.  You might hear one about Marcus Aurelius one time, China's Cultural Revolution another, as well as episodes about Thomas Jefferson, the Zong Massacre, coffee, or W H Auden.  It has a huge range of subjects.  Great stuff.

Military podcasts:

- The US Naval Institute's "Proceedings".  I've been out of the Navy for over 20 years now, but I'm still very interested in what's happening in "my" branch of the service.  I just found this one recently, so I'm kinda binge-listening to get familiar with today's issues.  For example, I listened to one that discussed Desert Shield/Storm and its lessons learned, then another on what China learned from our experiences in Desert Storm and how these findings have influenced the development of their strategy.  Hint: it's not good for us.  The podcast covers pretty much the entire range of Navy activities, so if you're interested in maritime operations, there's something here for you.

- John Spencer's "Urban Warfare Project".  This one is hosted by the Army's West Point academy.  Where the Navy's "Proceedings" covers the entire Navy, this one focuses on a particular segment of Army operations.  As a guy who spent time in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent time with Army soldiers involved in house-to-house combat operations, this is of particular interest to me.  Urban warfare is a very tough subject.

Other podcasts:

- Kristi Piehl's "Flip Your Script".  I first learned of this podcast when they contacted me to do an interview.  And I've become a fan.  Kristi is an excellent interviewer.  She talks to people who have seriously changed the direction of their lives.  In my case, it was from a Navy officer to an artist.  Some of her subjects changed their lives very deliberately, while others had a change forced on them by life circumstances.  In every case, these are compelling and often inspirational stories.

- Holly Priestley's "Deliberate Living".  Holly could be a subject for Kristi to consider.  Holly left her day job two years ago, moved into a Ford Econoline van with her dog, and has been living on the road ever since.  She has traveled all over the western United States, generally going north in warmer times and south in cooler times.  She is definitely not homeless, she did this by choice.  Holly's podcasts include interviews with others who are fellow "rubber tramps" in vans or RVs, presentations on how she has rigged her van and makes a living on the road, and loads of other topics.  Full disclosure: Holly is my niece.

So there you have it: my podcast list.  There were quite a few others that have been on my phone over the years but have fallen off for various reasons.  Some just ended, others got boring, and some didn't live up to my expectations.  These, though, are the winners.  Check 'em out!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Development of a New Work

 I finished up a new painting yesterday and already have another underway on the easel.  Thought I'd share the development process here.  Loyal readers of this blog (all two of you) know that I've been doing a lot of experimentation during the 'ronavirus lockdown of the past year.  I've done multi-figure compositions, single-figures, loose painting styles, tight styles, approaches modeled after various artists, and lots of other stuff.  Most wound up in the trash can.  Some of it seemed to work.  

One thing that seems to work best with me is a single-figure composition.  I seem to be at my best, both in the creative process and the finished artwork, when I focus on trying to get the inner character of one individual.   Once there are two or more people, the artwork isn't about them as individuals, it's about the relationships between them.  And when there are a lot of people, it isn't about the relationships (there are too many), it's about some bigger story.  And I just don't seem to be able to create a compelling "bigger story", at least in my own estimation.

Recently, I've tried some different approaches based on observations of other artists' work.  One thing that resonated with me was "simplify".  Simplify the composition, simplify the subject, simplify everything.  Get back to my roots, something like the charcoal and pastel figures I've been doing for the past few years.  So that was the goal in this piece.  Troy (oil on canvas, 24x18).  

First was a simple line block-in to place the figure on the canvas.

Now to check out the large light and dark masses.  I already had the idea that the figure would be darkest at the shoulders and lighter and less detailed further down.

Put in the first layer of the background.  Used a very light neutral warm color.  And had the first round of getting the face to look light it might be human ...

More refinement of the face, body, and arms.  All of this was done in one day.  Now it needs to sit for a week or so to dry.  Anything sooner will lift this first level of paint off the canvas.

So a week later, I went back and worked the background.  It's still a light neutral warm, but it's got more colors in it, and there's a very slight gradation top to bottom.  Next, I brought the face and arm up to a finished level.  Came back the next day and scumbled Van Dyke Brown (which is really Ivory Black plus a bit of Burnt Sienna) over the T-shirt and body, then worked all the edges to get them the way they should be.  A few other tweaks, and I'm calling it done.




Monday, February 22, 2021

... And Still More Experimentation

 After finishing up my last post about the Undertakers II painting, I discovered another interesting artist.  I listen to three different podcasts where artists are interviewed, and one of them talked with Jennifer Anderson.  Her approach sounded remarkably like what I try to do, so I looked up her work.  And it was a "wow".  Very strong technically, compositionally, and emotionally.  She was doing in oil paint something very similar to what I had been doing in charcoal and pastel over the past few years, and what I had tried and failed to do in oil.  These are single figures or faces that carry so much of the sitter's character.  Here's a sample, titled Fragile

Here we have a single figure, extremely well painted.  The chair she's sitting on has been reduced to just a few lines, and her environment has been reduced to a barely-modulated flat surface.  This helps focus attention on the figure.  The background has a very slight gradation, enough to tell you that it wasn't ignored.  And the figure has been pushed over to one side.  The fact that it runs off the canvas to the top, left, and bottom results in those edges being fully engaged in the composition.  The large flat gray space to the right becomes important in its own right, and there is a strong diagonal running from upper right to lower left that gives it a dynamic tension.  All together, this composition speaks to me of the young woman's inner thoughts: probably not idyllic, somewhat unsettled, but being seriously considered.

 Here's a comparable piece of my charcoal/pastel series, Astrid #1:

 

This was done in one of our weekly life sessions.  Single female figure, flat background, deliberately not "finished".  It has some of the same characteristics of Jennifer's work, but not all.  The figure is pushed to the side to create some room in front of her face, but not to the extent of Jennifer's work.  In most of my artworks in this series, though, the figure is centered on the page.  I discovered that this positioning doesn't really engage the rest of the surrounding space.  It's just ... space.  In Astrid #1, the empty space is more important conceptually.  It's not something I ever thought about, it just was.  Now I know to think about it.  Another issue is that the background here is flat and untouched.  In many works in the series, it comes across as unfinished or unaddressed.  This was something I wrestled with and never really came to a satisfactory conclusion.

So after looking at Anne Magill's work (see my last post) and Jennifer Anderson's figures, I tried some lessons learned in new paintings.  My intentions: simplify, engage the whole space, simplify, single figure, pay attention to edges, some areas developed while others are flat, and simplify.  Here's the first effort, Natalie:

And the second, Emma

So ... success?  I think I'm onto something that I can really sink my teeth into.  What do you think?


Monday, January 25, 2021

More Experimentation

 This time of Covid is giving me plenty of time to experiment with new techniques and approaches in painting, play with new ideas, and generally try stuff that I often don't get to try.  I just had an experiment that, I think, gave me some new tools for my artistic toolbox.  Here's what happened.

I've been working on my family history for many decades now.  Last year, I was sorting through some old photos and came across this one from about 1920: 

The two on the left are my grandparents.  They were apparently clowning around with their friends somewhere over the Hudson River.  What really grabbed my attention, though, was the guy on the right.  In the photo, he's laughing, but with just a tiny change to his expression, he could be crying out.  Remember the Nazi in the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark", the guy whose face melted at the end?  Yeah, this guy in the photo kinda looks like him.  So I thought it would be fun to take this old photo and see if I could make it creepy.  I took a swing at it last year and this was the result:

I titled it "The Undertakers".  I thought the end result was pretty "meh", but didn't really know why.  So I shrugged my shoulders and went on with other experiments.  

Recently, I was looking at the work of a really interesting painter, Anne Magill.  Her paintings are often dark, with a very limited range of colors.  Here's a sample:

I was looking at her artwork and asking myself what feelings they evoked in me, and one of the responses was "mystery".  And then I remembered that mystery was one of the feelings I was trying to get out of "The Undertakers".  So I pulled it off the shelf, set it up on an easel, and compared it to Magill's paintings.  And I realized that, in my painting, I told the viewer way too much.  Too much detail in the faces.  Too much light.  Too much color.  Too much other stuff: cracks in the rock, trees, people.  It didn't give the viewer room to create a story of their own.  So I pulled out another canvas the same size as the first one and transferred the same composition over to the new canvas.  Then I went to work: simplifying the composition (one of the figures and all the trees are gone), reducing the details, reducing the range of colors, and trying to keep the attention focused where I wanted it.  It took a couple of weeks, but I called it done and here it is:

This version is much better than the first one.  I don't know that I'd call it a winner, but I certainly learned a lot from it.  There are several things that I'd do differently if I had to do it again.  Maybe I'll go back over it in a week or two and make some more changes.  But it's definitely closer to my original intention than the first painting.  I'm working on another project right now that uses many of the same ideas, but in a very different way.  We'll see how that one comes out.  Meanwhile, I'm pretty happy to have a new tool in my studio toolbox!




Saturday, January 23, 2021

Thoughts on the Second Impeachment

 There's lots of discussion (mostly one-way venting) about Trump's second impeachment. Do it now, do it in two weeks, don't do it, and everything in between. I'm in the "do it much later" camp. I'm basing that on my own experience.

Back in the spring of 1996, I was working on the staff of the Commander of the Peace Implementation Forces (IFOR) in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. We (the US and NATO) had pretty much forced all sides to stop fighting and start talking. They'd been through several years of brutal warfare and all sides still wanted revenge on the others. I accidentally crashed a lunch meeting one time with Bosniacs, Serbs, and NATO, and you could cut the tension with a knife. But at least they were talking.

Two of the Serbians that everybody in the world wanted arrested were Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic (we called them "K&M"). They were wanted for genocide and murdering thousands of Bosniaks. There was a constant drumbeat from the US, Europe, Asia, the UN, everywhere, that NATO should arrest K&M and bring them to justice. "No justice, no peace" - sound familiar? But to the Serbians, both men were heroes.

Admiral Smith refused to go after K&M. His mantra to all of us on the staff was "We're here to establish the peace and stop the killing. We're going to do that. We can bring K&M to justice later."

One day a minor Serbian general took a wrong turn and drove into a NATO checkpoint. They arrested him, which was what our Rules of Engagement required. You would not believe the uproar. The whole peace process came within a hair of falling apart - and this was over a minor "general" who was really more like a glorified militia leader. It took all the negotiating expertise of Admiral Smith, NATO, and the UN, to convince the Serbs to continue the ceasefire and continue the talks. And all this over a minor general who wasn't even well known among the Serbs, much less a hero. Imagine what would have happened if we had snatched K&M at that time. The peace process would have been over, war would have immediately resumed, and thousands more would have died.

Karadzic was arrested twelve years later and the Serbs had no problem sending him to the Hague for war crimes. Mladic was arrested by the Serbs themselves three years later and also sent off to the Hague. Both were convicted and are serving life sentences.

As for Bosnia, it is still taking a lot of work, and there is still a lot of distrust between the factions, but they're working together and haven't resumed fighting. Admiral Smith was right: peace first, justice later.

So I think the situation with Trump is somewhat similar: a dangerous instigator with a rabid fan base, but he's no longer in power. Biden stressed "unity". Let's build unity, get the government functional again, and take care of the country first. Trump's justice can wait. For once, it's not all about him.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A New Wedding Painting

 

I recently finished the only wedding painting started in 2020.  All my plans for the year collapsed in March, along with everybody else's, when the lockdowns began.  Some of my clients rescheduled their weddings to 2021.  Some of them went ahead with their scheduled 2020 weddings, and for those, I canceled out.  Weddings are superspreader events and I didn't want to have anyone superspread to me.  Frankly, I was very surprised at the number of events that were held.  I had more inquiries for wedding paintings in 2020 than I had in any year before.  And I said no to all of them.  That is, until I got a note from Jessica.  She asked if I'd be interested in a virtual wedding.  A what?

Yes, that was right: a virtual wedding.  Their plan was to have an event where they, the officiant, the photographer, and the venue manager were the only ones onsite.  Everybody else, all family members and friends, were to be on Zoom.  Including me.  Well, there's a new idea.

So that's what we did.  On the Big Day, I was in my studio, working on creating their wedding painting, just like I would have been if I'd been at the event.  I had my iPhone set up on a tripod to record the painting's development and share it on Zoom.  Everybody watched what I was doing until the ceremony started, then again for a bit after the ceremony, First Dance, and online toasts.  Very cool!

A day or two later in the studio, I decided that my initial composition was crap.  So I got out my Painter's Emergency Repair Kit (a jar of white oil primer), painted over everything, and started from scratch.  Essentially, I zoomed way in, making them and the fireplace much larger and cropping out all the irrelevant sky, trees, and lawn.  Much mo' better.  I worked up the composition in drawings, transferred it to the canvas, and went to work.  The result is what you see here.

Since I wasn't physically onsite, I had to rely on some photographic resources.  The Old Edwards Inn provided me with some photos of the location.   And Jeff and Jessica's photographer, Abby Byrd, allowed me to use some of her photos as reference.  Without those two, this painting couldn't have happened.  Many many thanks to those two!

I'm really happy with the way this one turned out.  And, best of all, so are Jeff and Jessica.