Monday, May 26, 2008

Santa Fe Galleries

I'm on a trip to New Mexico and Colorado right now to visit my sister and her family. Had an interesting trip out here. I had to get from Charlotte, NC, to Albuquerque, and United Airlines routed me through Dulles .... now, no matter how I orient a map of the United States, I have a really hard time seeing Dulles as being in between Charlotte and Albuquerque. United thinks it is. But no matter, the flights went well. Actually, the flight from Dulles to Albuquerque was unbelievable: it was less than half filled, and many of us (myself included) had a whole row to ourselves! I was flabbergasted. That hasn't happened to me in maybe twenty years. And they didn't lose my bag or anything.

On Sunday, my sister and I went to Santa Fe so I could check out the gallery scene there. It's been fifteen years since my last Santa Fe visit but I knew there are a gazillion galleries there, so I did an internet screen to find the ones that would interest me. From maybe a hundred galleries, I found seven who had art that looked challenging or at least something more than eye candy. Two of them turned out to be closed on Sundays. Three were very disappointing. Two, though, had some good work.

One is Altitude Fine Art. They represent Geoffrey Laurence, a figurative painter with some very interesting works. Laurence paints in the Venetian Renaissance style: he does a very detailed grisaille underpainting ("grisaille", pronounced "grih-ZIE", is a black-and-white underpainting), then applies color in many layers until it has the depth and richness he wants. He's an exceptionally skilled draftsman and painter. More important to me, his compositions and narratives are intriguing. A painter who has had tremendous influence on me is Jerome Witkin, and Geoffrey Laurence is almost in Witkin's league ... I say "almost" because I think Witkin tackles heavier topics in a more direct manner. Still, it was great to see some first-rate painting.

The other good gallery was Turner Carroll Gallery. They have a variety of artists who are really top-notch. One is Hung Liu, a Chinese artist who does some really beautiful figurative paintings using acrylics and layers of clear acrylic resin. She has very dynamic brushwork that's constrained by the clear layers, which sets up an interesting tension for me. Another interesting artist is Georges Mazilu, a French painter whose work is very unusual ... imagine the Mona Lisa done by Hieronymous Bosch and you'll get an idea. He uses traditional painting techniques to come up with strange creatures from the unconscious, and he has tremendous skills. Very cool.

One of the litmus tests I apply to a gallery, along with "do they have any interesting art on the walls", is how they treat me. Every gallery had somebody who came up to me and initiated a conversation, which is good. And when they did, I always told them that I was an artist visiting town and was looking to see what was out there. And all of them except Altitude and Turner Carroll flunked that test: the moment I said I was an artist, they dropped me like a hot potato. "He's an artist, he's not going to buy anything, and he's going to ask us to look at his portfolio. Waste of time." I should note that every one of those galleries had second-rate (my opinion) art on the walls anyway. The Altitude gallerista remained politely friendly, if not overly enthusiastic, but she passed the test. Turner Carroll, though, is the Santa Fe gold standard. I had a very enjoyable conversation with Megan even after she found out I was an artist. Sure, she was keeping an eye on other people in the gallery, but she was very friendly, exceptionally knowledgeable about her artists in particular and art history in general, and she was stunningly good-looking to boot. Talk about hitting the trifecta! And no, I didn't ask her to review my portfolio ... I just signed up for their mailing list and put my web site on there for good measure. If they look, good; if not, that's fine too.

I noticed two interesting trends in Santa Fe. One is that several painters are using acrylic resin in layers. I mentioned Hung Liu above but there were others (none of whom had near her skill). The resin layers give the paintings a very 3D effect ... kinda like oil glazes on steroids. They also give the paintings a very glossy and smooth finish. When done right, it's an interesting effect. The other trend is that many artists are painting in a way that's similar to northern European Renaissance artists. They'll portray a quarter-length figure turned slightly, seated in front of a window (again, think Mona Lisa), only the figure may be an African American woman in dreadlocks in front of a New York City skyline. I'm sensitive to this because a number of my paintings over the past six years are also taken from Renaissance (and later) artworks, including Velasquez, Michelangelo, Manet, and Titian. I can't believe that I've actually been in the vanguard of a movement for once!

'Nuff for now. I'm on vacation and need to go visit with my sister.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Other Courtroom Artist Links

I was doing a bit of research this afternoon about courtroom artists. Okay, it may seem a bit after-the-fact, since the trial I was working finished over a week ago. But I learned a lot during that trial and am now able to look at other artists' courtroom work with new eyes. Sometimes I wonder "how the hell did they do that?". Other times it's "wow, that's pretty good". And in a few cases, I wonder how they can even post it on the web. (I haven't listed those artists here!) Still, it's all a learning experience.

Ironic Sans is a blogsite that has an interesting entry for March 4, 2008. He contacted seven courtroom artists about what they do when they're not doing court stuff. It's a good read with samples of all the artists' work, and it has links to all their web sites. They are:
- Mona Edwards. She was a fashion designer, which gives her drawings a spareness that adds to their punch.
- Steve Werblun. He has an excellent ability to get a likeness. Interesting (for me, anyway) is that he draws with markers. I dunno how that's done, but I'm determined to find out.
- Marilyn Church. She works in pastel on toned paper. I tried this approach and it did not, repeat did not, work for me, but she does it very well.
- Patrick Flynn. He also works in pastel on toned paper. His figures are much more simplified than Marilyn's, almost stylized.
- Dana Verkouteren. She lives and works in DC, covering mainly the Supreme Court but also other cases. Her drawings are much more finished than I tried to do, and she works in colored pencils.
- Paulette Frankl. Her works are very dramatic, actually leaning more toward fine art (particularly German expressionism) than typical courtroom illustration.
- Art Lien. Like Dana, he lives and works in Washington, DC. He has a wonderfully loose style while still finishing the works to a high standard. His website is really a blog, and an interesting read.

In addition to these artists, there are a number of others that I've found or been pointed to:
- Bill Robles. He has covered every major trial in LA since the Manson case. His drawings are exceptionally well done -of all the courtroom artists I've found, he's the one I like the most. His website doesn't have much information nor very many drawings - you'll have to do a Google search to find more.
- Mary Chaney. She covered trials in the LA area with excellent drawings and dramatic colorings. The website refers to her in the past tense, though, and I couldn't find any information about that.
- Susan Schary. Susan's in the Philadelphia area and works in pastel on full-sheet (18x22) toned paper. How she does that is beyond me - I work on quarter-sheet watercolor paper (about 11x15).
- Vicki Behringer. Another LA artist, Vicki has a good ability to capture a likeness. Like me, she works in watercolor.

Drawing Block

Last night we had our regular life drawing session in my studio, and I discovered that I have a drawing block. It's due to my recent stint as a courtroom artist. When I was drawing in the courtroom, I used a mechanical pencil. It worked great there: I could be loose and quick, erase any grievous errors, it worked well with watercolors, and it looked pretty good when the cameraman zoomed in on it. The problem? I got too used to working on small drawings with a mechanical pencil.

At our last two drawing sessions, I've tried to break away from the pencil and use charcoal and Conte crayons. But they need a different way of thinking, and I just can't get the ol' "charcoal brain" going. It's like trying to draw with my left hand: all that comes out is crap and there's no connection between my brain and the paper. I switched back to mechanical pencil and did some pretty decent drawings.

Guess I just have to bite the bullet, get out the big newsprint pad, and just keep drawing until it works again. It's frustrating, y'know? I figure I should be able to switch back and forth pretty quickly, but it isn't happening. To quote Charlie Brown: "Aaaarrrrggghhhh!!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

John McCain on Veteran's Benefits

I just read an interesting blog entry by Obsidian Wings that talked about John McCain's record on veterans' benefits. Since he's a retired Navy Captain and certified war hero, you'd think he'd be a pretty strong advocate for vets. You'd be wrong.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Courtroom Artist Follow-Up

Judge Thomas Ellis.

Witness on the stand.

A former video poker machine operator who had over $1.7M in cash hidden at his house.

The prosecuting attorneys, Richard Edwards and Corey Ellis.

The trial that I was working as a courtroom artist is over. Former sheriff Bobby Medford and former "captain" Guy Penland (he was really an unpaid volunteer) were convicted of ten counts each of charges related to skimming protection money from illegal video poker machines. It wasn't even a close decision: after two weeks of testimony, the jury only needed two hours to reach a decision.

From my end, this was a good gig. I was working for WLOS TV, the local Asheville station, as their courtroom artist. I was in the court every day, drawing the defendents, lawyers, prosecutors, judge, and witnesses. At 11 every morning, I'd scoot out to the van and hit the drawings with watercolors. This would give the cameraman time to shoot the pictures and edit them into the narrative for the noon news show. Then I'd go back inside and work until they broke for lunch. In the afternoon, I was out of there at 4 to prep the drawings for the afternoon show. Occasionally I played "cub reporter" and took notes for the real reporter who was prepping the broadcast or doing the live stand-up.

From the drawing perspective, there was a huge difference in the stuff I did in the first few days and the stuff I did in the last. The first ones look like amateur scribblings (at least, they do to me), while the last ones are at least acceptable. There's still a lot of room for improvement, of course, and the Big Guys in LA, New York, Chicago, or Atlanta probably have nothing to fear from me. But that's fine. This kind of work is fun and pays the bills.

I had a great time working with the WLOS reporters and the cameramen. They were all smart, personable, fun to work with, funny, and extremely professional. Asheville may be a small market, but it doesn't mean the news crews aren't pros.

I would like to do some more courtroom art, but there's not much demand for that here. WLOS only needs me about once every 12-18 months. I'll prep some brochures, samples, and letters and send 'em out to some of the other news stations in a reasonable radius: Knoxville, Chattanooga, Greenville-Spartanburg, Winston-Salem, and see if there's any interest out there. My paintings are still my #1 priority, but courtroom art might be a good sideline.

All the above sounds a bit mercenary, doesn't it? Well, it is. I had mixed personal feelings during the Medford trial. Bobby Medford is in terrible health and I couldn't help but feel sorry for the pain he was obviously in. And Guy Penland looks like everybody's doting, friendly grandfather. But listening to the testimony painted a very different picture: these guys had no compunction about shaking down crooks for "protection" money and violating the trust that the public had put in them. And if that wasn't bad enough, I heard some horrible stories about run-ins that other people had with Medford and his crew that have not been, and never will be, examined by the public. So good riddance, Bobby and Guy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Adventures with a Kodak Printer

A few days ago, my crappy old Dell printer began acting up and I thought it was about time to replace it. Sams Club had Kodak all-in-one printers for $89. These things were supposed to print photos equal to commercial labs as well as regular letters, and also scan, fax, and copy. And their ink refills were mondo cheap. Sounded cool to me, and Kodak is a big name, and the price is unbeatable, so you can't go wrong, can you?

You bet your ass you can.

I lugged it home and installed it Friday night. The software bundle is huge and takes a long time to run just from the CD. Then I had to download and install the latest version from the Kodak site, which over my DSL line took an hour. Made a couple of test 4x6 photos and documents and they really looked good. I'm a happy man. So then I launched Microsoft Outlook to get to work. Uh oh. Outlook got about halfway through the launch and crashed bigger than a jet plane. I tried a few things and it still crashed. Uninstalled the Kodak software and it did it again. Ran the System Restore utility to bring the computer back to where it was before it all started, and Outlook ran just fine. So here I am, right back at the beginning, after several hours of mostly waiting for software to download or run or whatever. I'm not a happy man.

This went on for the next 24 hours. I installed the software several different ways. I called Kodak's tech support twice. I rebooted a dozen times. I installed, I uninstalled, I ran System Restore, I installed several Microsoft upgrades, all to no avail. The Kodak software killed Outlook every time. Finally the Kodak tech rep (a really nice guy in El Salvador) said that it was a Microsoft problem, not Kodak, and there was nothing more they could do.

Well, there was sure as hell something I could do. I uninstalled the Kodak software, ran System Restore one last time, then packed everything back up in the box and took it back to Sam's. Sorry, Kodak, but in a battle between you and Microsoft, Microsoft wins. Everything else on my computer works with Windows, so if your stuff doesn't, that's your bad. I did some Google searches while trying to find more information, and found a lot of people with very very bad things to say about Kodak's software, so I'm not alone. The sad part is that the photos that actually come out are really good and really cheap.

On a related note, during this process I installed Service Pack 3 for Windows XP. And immediately uninstalled it. My old system is slow in booting up, but SP 3 bogged it down like a Kia pulling a freight train.

Lessons learned:
1. Stay away from Kodak printers until they learn how to do software right.
2. Stay away from Windows XP SP3.
3. When this computer finally dies, I'm replacing it with a Mac.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

George Bush Has Pissed Me Off Again

Our dickhead-in-chief has done it again. In a speech to the Israeli Knesset, he essentially called Obama and the Democrats "appeasers", saying that it's a "foolish delusion" to think you can negotiate with terrorists. This was in reference to Obama's statement some time ago (reiterated on his web site) that he favors "tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions, and is willing to meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe."

Okay, let's look at what The Dickhead has done now:
1. Denounced all those who favor sitting down with our enemies to negotiate solutions. The White House staff confirmed that these remarks were targeted against Obama, but they also include former President (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, current Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and every President and administration who served during the Cold War. Can you imagine what might have happened if Dickhead was Prez during that time? Good God, those few of us who might still be alive now would be glowing green from all the nuclear fallout floating around. Actually talking with the Soviets was what saved us from nuclear annihilation, not cowboy bluster and posturing. Especially from somebody who never really served.
2. That's bad enough, but to stand up in front of a foreign government and make a complete ass out of himself is frickin' embarrassing.
3. And to throw partisan politics into a foreign presentation is worse.

I could go on, but just thinking about this asshole gets my blood boiling. What a complete, utter, and contemptuous failure he is. I will be so glad when January 20, 2009 arrives.

Sigh. I was going to talk about other things, like my experience with the Medford trial and being a courtroom artist and posting some pictures, until Bush opened his yap and I had to vent. Sorry. I'll try to be more cheerful next time.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Behind the Courtroom Scenes

This past week has been a stinker. I've been going non-stop from early morning to rack time and haven't been able to post any blogs ... or do laundry, or cut the grass, clean the car, or almost anything else. So today I'm in catch-up mode.

I've got some more courtroom drawings to post, but I've gotta get 'em out of my camera first, so they'll come later. Thought I'd share some impressions from a week in the courtroom.

First, it's not at all like Law & Order. No big surprises, no theatrics, no stomping around, no yelling (well, one time when there was an old guy who was hard of hearing, so the attorneys literally had to stand next to him and slowly shout their questions ... quite amusing, but not L&O stuff). All the attorneys for both sides know pretty much exactly what the others are going to ask. It's really a matter of "here's one side, here's the other, now you in the jury make your decision".

Another discovery for me: big issues can hide in small comments. Again, in L&O, key facts are emphasized with much over-acting. In real life, they can come out in just a bland reading of a list. The prosecutors had a witness on the stand on Day 2 asking him what various markings on a list meant, and in a quiet matter-of-fact tone he implicated two local sheriffs in taking money from illegal video poker machine operations. And neither set of attorneys made a big deal of it. Meanwhile, I'm sitting back there in the second row thinking "wait a minute, did I just hear what I think I heard??" You really have to pay attention - you snooze, you lose.

Our judge, Thomas Ellis is quite interesting. See his Wikipedia entry here. He's a high-profile guy brought in from the DC area just for this trial. He took charge of his courtroom from the very first minute. Judge Ellis much more intrusive into questioning than anything you've seen on TV (with the exception of Judge Judy, who's just damn intrusive, period). If he doesn't like an attorney's question, he'll jump in and rephrase it, or ask his own questions if the attorney isn't covering something he thinks should be covered. Sometimes he looks like he's asleep, then all of a sudden he'll pounce on a comment or question from an attorney. The "sleep" look is deceptive: he's really concentrating his rather formidable intellect on the matter at hand. But he's also interested in getting a fair trial. We already know his thoughts on whether the defendents are guilty or innocent, but he goes to extreme lengths to make sure the jury doesn't. All his personal opinions are discussed outside the jury's hearing.

One of the things that this case has pounded home to me is just how fair our legal system is. Yes, it's big and convoluted, but it's a system of laws and court decisions that have been carefully crafted over two hundred years, mostly by people who put sound decisions above all. There aren't any arbitrary decisions allowed ... if anything is questionable, it can be appealed or the case can even be retried, and none of them want that. Nope, our system is, especially in this particular case, a good system being correctly used by some very smart and dedicated people.

As a courtroom artist, I'm just a small wienie in this story. I get there a few minutes early and take a seat in the second row on the right side (the first row is reserved for attorneys and others involved). This way I can get the best look at the witness stand, judge, and defense attorneys. As for the prosecutors, it seems no matter where I sit, all I get are their backs, so I try to work on them during breaks.

I only take in a small drawing board, a small stack of hot-pressed watercolor paper, my drawing tools (a mechanical pencil with a very soft lead and also a kneaded eraser), and a small sketch pad for notes. During the proceedings, I work on getting a decent drawing. I try to get the best likeness possible, while also trying to breathe some life into the figures by tilting the heads, having them look this way or that, lean on an arm, whatever. Sometimes I'll just focus on one large figure, sometimes two or three. When I do a "scene", I'll compress the key elements. For example, in reality the witness stand is way over to the right while the defense table is way over to the left, the judge is in the middle, and the flag is way back in the background. When I draw them, I'll cram 'em all together. This is the only way to get all the important stuff recognizably visible.

At 11 a.m., I leave, even if something's still happening. I head out to the TV station's van and break out my watercolors. I'll normally have two or three drawings going, and will work fast on getting the color laid in. In the past, I've used pastels (way too messy and complicated) and watercolor pencils (too uncontrollable and deceptive). Regular watercolors work best for me. I need to have the drawings done by 11:30 so that the cameraman can shoot them and then splice all the images together with the reporter's narrative for the noon news show. Then it's back into the courtroom until the lunch break. In the afternoon, it's the same routine, and I have to get back to the TV van about 4 pm so we can be ready for the evening news.

The reporter and I work closely on what we're going to cover. Not every witness needs to be mentioned; sometimes we don't know that until after the fact. So I have to draw every witness and then we determine which ones to focus on back at the van. We also compare notes on what we heard to make sure we're getting our story straight.

I discovered last night that one of our cameramen, Joe Avery, has his own blog, which you can see here. He wrote about his experience of working with me and included a couple of photos. Well, let me tell you, these cameramen are an amazing bunch. They don't just stand around and shoot video all day. They're the ones that put the piece together. The reporter writes up the story and records the audio. The cameraman takes the audio and matches up all the different video shots to the appropriate sections. There may be a dozen different shots. So he's playing his equipment like a madman, swapping tapes in and out, running the story over and over, pounding buttons, and looking remarkably like a mad scientist in a Grade B movie dungeon. Except he's for real. Once the story's done, he and the reporter get ready and do the live stand-up intro and closing for the evening news. Cool stuff, a lot of fun to watch, and even more fun to be a part of.

Monday, May 05, 2008

More Courtroom Art

Defense attorneys cross-examining a witness.

These are the DA's case files ... all eight crates of them ...

The defendents, former Captain Guy Penland (left) and former Sheriff Bobby Medford (right).

The DA's questioning a witness.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Courtroom Artist Again

This past week has been busy. I've been working with our local TV station, WLOS, in covering the trial of Bobby Medford. He's a former sheriff who's been charged with extortion, mail fraud, and other activities related to skimming money from illegal video poker machine operations. Monday and Tuesday were devoted to jury selection and the rest of the week to the prosecution's case. Frankly, it looks like it might go on for a month. But for me, it's fun: sitting in court, working fast, trying to get a likeness that has some character to it, and dealing with all the difficulties of having to sit behind my subjects. I've been working on hot-pressed watercolor paper, doing the drawings with a soft-lead mechanical pencil. About an hour before the scheduled newscast, I go out to the station's van and lay in the watercolor washes. When they're done, the cameraman shoots them and then splices the news report together. Then I take my drawings and go home. Yes, I keep the drawings, they get to show 'em on TV.

Here are some of the drawings I've done so far: