Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thoughts on Drawing from Life

Here's an oil sketch from our life drawing session last week.  This is an 18"x24" study of our model, Robin.  We're going to have another session with a different model this week and I think I'll add a sketch of her to the background.  When I posted the last oil sketch, I made a comment about moving more towards distortion of the figure.  This past week, I realized that distortion is only valid if it's done intentionally.  If the distortion is unintentional, like this sketch started out to be, then you're not being an artist, just incompetent.  Fortunately, I was able to catch the (unintentional) gross distortions in time and correct them.  

One of the things I've found in my own drawings, as well as countless other artists, is a subconscious attempt to straighten up a figure.  If the head is tilted, we unconsciously try to straighten it up, usually with laughable results.  I did it to my poor wife last week - I was doing a portrait, but her head was slightly tilted.  What I wound up with was a good likeness of her tilted eyes, a good likeness of her tilted nose, and a good likeness of her tilted mouth ... however, they were arranged in a vertical line rather than the tilted line of her head.  This made her look as if the lower part of her head had been pulled about two inches to one side.  Ooops!  Not a good thing to do if you're hoping for a little action later that night!  I scrubbed the whole portrait out and then did the sketch of her sleeping that was posted here last week.

I saw a similar thing start to happen with this week's sketch.  As you can see, the model was leaning on one arm.  I had painted her shoulders, waist, and hips tilted, but then unconsciously arranged them in a vertical line.  A paper towel and some mineral spirits wiped it all out again, and the next try came out much better.  The moral of this story: if you know how you tend to screw things up, you're better equipped to watch for them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Firefight in Afghanistan

I just stumbled upon a very interesting blog post.  The blog is by a military guy.  He found a video of a mortar team in a firefight in Afghanistan and posted it, along with his comments about what was going on.  This is a real-life, no-shit firefight.  The mortar team wasn't lobbing softballs, they're launching white phosphorus and high explosives.  And as you can tell from the way they're moving their mortar tube around, the bad guys are close.  The team is very composed and professional, although their language may fry some ears (hey, they're under fire, you're not).

There has been very little in the news about Afghanistan and Iraq lately, but this video is a reminder that our troops are in combat for real, right now.

Delayed Again

I am NOT a happy camper.  Yesterday morning, I found out that the doctor reviewing my records at the Corps of Engineers wanted me to have a couple more lab tests.  I had been told that test results were good for a year, in which case my results from my State screening last June were still good, but the doc decided they weren't.  So I had to get more tests done the first thing this morning.  It has resulted in my reporting date being pushed back another week.  I was ready to go this time, so the delay is very annoying.  Not to mention a bit stressful, as all this stuff is outside my control.

In the meantime, Janis has gotten me started on the honey-do list.  I spent a day mowing our yard, which is not a trivial undertaking since it's an acre on a fairly steep slope.  There are lots of other projects: cleaning out and straightening up the stacked rocks, clearing last fall's leaves out from the bushes, fixing this and repairing that.  I'm actually enjoying doing these "real-life" things again.

I've been working on improving my little MacBook.  It needed a larger hard drive - the original was 120GB and I was rapidly filling it up, so I got a new 320GB drive and put it in.  And, of course, it didn't go quite as planned.  Turned out that a small technical detail made this particular hard drive a bit more of a problem to install.  I wound up taking it to Charlotte Street Computers in Asheville and they got the new drive up and running, but even they had to do some research before finding out what the issue was.  But now it's in and running just fine.

Another upgrade was to get an adapter cable that allowed me to plug in the monitor from my old Dell computer.  This effectively tripled my screen space - pretty cool.  The last time I did something like this was on a desktop PC - I had to take it apart, put in a new video card, install some drivers, and do some finagling before it worked.  With the Mac, I just got the adapter cable, hooked it up, and turned it on.  Voila!  Couldn't have been easier.  I keep thinking that I must be missing something and that either the computer or monitor is going to suddenly explode in a shower of sparks, but no, they just keep working like they're supposed to.

A third project was to get some old vinyl records into digital format.  I have a bunch of old LP's dating back to the late 50's - some were my parents', some were mine, some were Janis's - and I wanted to get them digitally recorded so I could play them on my iPod.  I found a free open-source program online called Audacity that's pretty much like a Photoshop for music.  You can record old vinyl, cassettes, live music, podcasts, whatever you want.  I've recorded several old albums now and have discovered that it's not nearly as easy as recording to cassette was back in The Day.  With a cassette, you plugged in the cables, set your recording level, and hit the "record" button.  With this digital software, you have to do a lot more.  But at the same time, you can do more, like getting rid of the pops and crackles that vinyl always has.  And if you really get into it, you can essentially re-mix almost anything.  Pretty cool.  The learning curve takes a while and the process isn't quick - it takes me anywhere from 20-60 minutes of fiddling to get a vinyl recording cleaned up and converted into something that iTunes will play.  So if all you want is to get your old albums into digital format, it's a lot easier just to find them in CD format on Amazon or eBay and record those.  But if you've got some records or cassettes that aren't available in CD, then Audacity will do the trick.

I watched the President's press conference the other night.  It is SO GREAT to have a President who is intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, and nuanced!  Bush always sounded like a whiny little kid who was trying to wheedle his way out of being caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  Obama sounds like a true President.  He's been criticized for taking on too much - Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, Mexico, health care, education, the environment, Guantanamo, energy, you name it - but all these things have to be addressed and won't wait.  I'm particularly impressed by his call to action to all of us.  None of the old "we'll do this or that for you", Obama has been telling us to get up off our duffs and start fixing our own problems.  Good for him.  Congress, though, has not been anywhere near as inspiring: it seems to be business as usual on Capitol Hill.  It's Republicans versus Democrats, right down the party line.  Both sides said during the campaigns that there would be more bipartisanship, but so far, I'm not seeing it.  Particularly from the Republicans.  C'mon, guys, I want to see informed, thoughtful, inspirational, and reasonable conservative leadership.  The country needs it.  Instead, you're still kowtowing to Rush (who has NONE of the above characteristics) and floundering around with Bobby Jindal (who gave a weak and partisan response to Obama's State of the Union speech), Boehner, McCain (who's not even a "true Republican"), and Palin (an idiot of the first order).  Until you find yourselves a leader, you're going to be the party of "just say no", which won't get you or the country anywhere.

It's a gray, rainy, gloomy day here in Asheville, which means that I'll be spending the day mostly indoors, doing things like writing this blog entry and taking care of Janis's honey-do's.  So now it's time to get busy.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

TV Cop Shows

Ever notice, when you're watching a cop show, the detectives go to interview somebody who may have some important information, and the person they're interviewing goes on about their normal business while giving offhand comments to the detectives?  It's like the cops are no more important than some delivery boy off the street.  I dunno about you, but whenever I get interviewed by police detectives, particularly in a murder investigation, they get my full, undivided, completely focused attention.

Just a thought after watching another episode of Law & Order.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Art Thoughts

In my last post, I mentioned some oil sketches I've done since being home. Here they are:

Janis, oil on panel, 9"x12"

Soozee, oil on panel, 6"x9"

Robin, oil on panel, 20"x16"

It sure has been good to push some paint around again.  I'm going to send my oil paints to myself in Iraq and use them instead of those crappy acrylics.  It has also been great to paint from life again.  In Baghdad, I had to use photos, but here I've been able to work from my wife (Janis), my dog (Soozee), and a model (Robin).  There's such a tremendous difference in working from life.  The human eye sees things quite a bit differently than the camera does.  It picks up on subtle shapes and colors.  Skin tones, for example, are very different, even in areas that are adjacent to each other: one area will have a warm golden glow, another will be a pale and cool neutral, and another will have rich reds.  But to the camera, they'll all be the same light tan color.  And real people (and dogs) move around a bit, so you may start a painting with the subject in one position and end up with the subject in something completely different.  That may or may not be a problem, but it's something artists have to deal with.

Now that I can work from life again, I'm trying something a bit different with my figures, and you can see it with Robin above.  I'm playing more with distortions, stretching or compressing the figure, and deliberately not trying for a highly accurate representation.  I'm looking at what painting can do that photography cannot.  And in painting, the figure can be distorted for expressive effects.  When the figure is drawn in an extremely accurate manner, I find that I notice the artist's technical skill and not so much what he/she was trying to say.  When the figure is a bit distorted, then the expressive element is much easier to see.  But it still must be based in reality.  Many artists go straight into imaginary figures; I've found that whenever I do that, the image sucks.  Figures constantly surprise me: they take different shapes than what I think they should, or the color or shadows are very different.  When I put these surprises into the painting, even if the figure is distorted, it gives the painting a veracity that can't be faked.  For an example of what I'm talking about, go take a look at Peter Howson's web site.

On a slightly different note, a friend sent me an article about L. Paul Bremer.  Bremer was the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) - he was the de facto dictator for Iraq after the fall of Hussein.  Bremer is the guy who ordered the abolition of the armed forces and the de-Baathification of the government, decisions which were disastrous and whose ramifications are still being felt today.  Now, it appears, he has decided to become an artist, and he has a web site where you can see and buy his paintings.  I took a look.  I'm not sure which job he was worse at: being a dictator or being an artist.  At least as an artist, he's not having too much of a negative impact on the world, just on those poor souls who actually buy his stuff.  And no, I won't give you a link to his site.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Night

A couple of days ago, I discovered that the Corps had slipped my training schedule by a week.  So I get to spend an extra week here at home with my wife and the dogs, working in the studio and around the house.  Yeah, it breaks my heart, as you can imagine.

I got to do some painting this week.  It was so good to work with oils again, as opposed to the acrylics that I had to work with in Baghdad.  I did a small oil sketch of Janis and another of one of the dogs.  On Wednesday evening, I had a life drawing session in my studio, and did a small painting of the model which turned out fairly decent.  I'll try to get some images of them up on the blog.

Come to think of it, I already promised you some pictures from my journey home and haven't posted them yet.  So here are a couple of pictures from Sather Air Force Base, which is the military side of Baghdad Airport.

Fast food in Iraq looks a little different than it does in the U.S.  And you have no idea how cool it is to see a familiar name like Taco Bell again, when you haven't seen it in months!

And if you don't like Taco Bell, well, there's always Subway and the Green Bean, which is our version of Starbucks.

Speaking of things that I don't get to see in Iraq, I'm sitting here on Friday night watching practice and qualifying for the NASCAR race at Bristol.  With the time difference, races come on the tube in Baghdad right about the time I hit the rack.  I'm a race fan, but not so big a fan that I'll skip sleep!  So it's great to be able to watch a race again.

Another thing I don't get to do over there is play with my dogs.  One of them just woke up from her 3-hour nap and is looking for some kinda trouble to get into.  So I have to go find some for her.  Right now.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tuesday Musings

It's been way too long since my last post.  Mostly that's because I'm bopping around the house, doing nothing much worth writing about.  It's great to be home and back in a sorta-normal routine, being with Janis, and seeing our friends again.  

One of the things I've been working on is getting the final medical clearances done for the Corps, and that's still ongoing.  It has amazed me how some of these things have been so hard to do.  For example, I needed a typhoid shot.  That's pretty easy, isn't it?  You go down to the docs, roll up your sleeve, get the shot, do the paperwork or pay for it or whatever, and you're outa there.  Ten minutes, tops, most of which is the paperwork.  Wrong!  You have to make an appointment, then get there fifteen minutes early to fill out reams of paperwork, then wait another fifteen or twenty minutes for the doc, then the doc has to talk with you for another ten minutes (to make sure you're not going to go into convulsions or something, I suppose), then FINALLY get the shot, then more paperwork.  Tomorrow I have my final appointment - this one is for an audiogram so they can chart how bad my hearing is.  And will this make one smidgen bit of difference on whether or not they send me back to Baghdad?  Are you high?

We've watched several movies on TV this past week.  One of them was In The Heat of the Night, with Sydney Poitier.  I had never seen this old classic.  I was growing up in Memphis when this was filmed, and it certainly brought back a lot of memories of the mid-to-late 60's.  One line in there caught my attention: where the town's rich plantation owner says something about how "the Negro needs to be taken care of", meaning that blacks were lesser persons who needed the benign rule by whites.  That's a blatantly racist statement, but I remember that in Memphis at that time, it was not an uncommon view.  I heard a lot of people saying things like that.  It really wasn't until after I'd been gone from Memphis for years, and then went back to visit, that I heard these sentiments for what they were.  

The next night we watched a more recent movie, Cadillac Records.  It's a recent movie about Leonard Chess and his record label, with blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, and Etta James, and covered the period from around 1950 to Chess's death in 1969.  One thing that struck me was that (at least as portrayed in the movie) Leonard Chess actually practiced what the rich plantation owner in In The Heat of the Night preached: being a benign caretaker for the black artists on his record label.  I really had to wrestle with that one.  Finally I decided that Leonard Chess didn't do it because he believed his people were inferior; rather, they didn't have his education and understanding of white society's business practices.  He certainly respected them as his equals as people, so he used his skills to help them create better lives, while making himself rich in the process.

Which made me think of Iraq.  In some respects, Iraq is in a situation somewhat analogous to black America in the 50's and 60's.  It's just emerging to make its own way, no longer under the rule of a strongman or of an imposed power.  It needs some help, primarily in learning about things it has not had to deal with until now.  Things like budgeting, managing, banking, and law.  But it seems to me that the pace is beginning to pick up now.  My conversation with the Iraqi professor on the flight from Amman to Frankfurt gives me great hope for their future.  The educated ones, most of whom left Iraq either during Hussein's rule or during the violence of a few years ago, are starting to return.  

It took black America decades to get to the point where we have an Obama presidency.  I don't know how long it'll take Iraq to get to where they need to be - my guess is a generation, but they'll get there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

At Home

I've been at home for a week now.  Part of this week has been decompression from the constant go-go-go in Baghdad.  Another part of it has been it's own go-go-go as I try to get everything done so I can start with the Corps of Engineers.  The Corps follows Department of Defense guidelines for deployment and they are much more stringent than the State Department's.  At State, it's "are you breathing?  Got a passport?  You're good to go."  With DoD, it's "have you had your anthrax, smallpox, tetanus, flu, polio, MMR, and hepatitis shots?  Got a recent EKG, audiogram, eye exam, dental exam, HIV test, urinalysis, and blood tests?  Have you completed these 11 different training courses?  Got a passport?  Filled out a phone book's worth of forms?"  I was able to do a lot of stuff while still in Baghdad, but much of the medical had to wait until I got home.  So I've spent much of the past week running around getting tests done or scheduled or whatnot.  Still not done yet but almost.

I've been asked a few times what I notice most about being back home.  It's the little things, really, mostly things that I took for granted.  I can get in my own little truck and drive anywhere I want to, whenever I want to, and not have to think about the latest security warnings.  There aren't checkpoints every few hundred yards.  No guards toting AK47's.  No Jersey barriers set up in zigzag patterns, with big honking speed bumps, to slow everybody down.  You don't have to show a badge to walk into the grocery store.  The grocery store actually has a big selection.  The mere fact that there is a grocery store is an amazing thing in itself.  And these are just some of the differences between life in the International Zone and life in Mars Hill, North Carolina.

I was driving down the highway the other day heading into Asheville.  Now think about what has gone into this statement.  There is, in fact, a road there.  It was carefully planned between many national, state, and local agencies.  The land was acquired and paid for through procedures worked out over a couple hundred years.  A contract was awarded in a competitive bidding process.  Funds were identified and spent in an open and transparent manner.  The contractors had years of experience in building roads and bridges and built this particular road to modern standards.  It is maintained to modern standards as well: patched, repainted, and resurfaced as needed.  It's smooth and open, and anybody can drive on it, any time of the day or night.

This doesn't happen in Iraq.  Local, provincial, and national agencies don't work well together.  They don't know how to create budgets and have an extremely hard time spending the money they do have.  Corruption is rampant and available funds have a way of shrinking or disappearing.  There is no "eminent domain" procedure to allow for planning roads or other public projects.  There is no transparency in government.  While there are construction standards that they follow, these "standards" are subject to the whims of those in power, who are subject to all sorts of other influences.  In short, the governmental systems that give Americans something so normal as a road are dysfunctional in Iraq, if they exist at all.  

But they're getting better, slowly.  Very slowly.  Violence is a tenth or less of what it was a year ago.  The "brain drain" that took place under Hussein and again during the violent 2004-2008 period is beginning to reverse, and people with training, education, and experience are beginning to return.  I still say it'll be a generation before Iraq gets up to the level of Jordan, Kuwait, or maybe even Lebanon, but at least it's starting.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Home Again

It sure is great to be back home again!  After the last post, I went in to Washington and outprocessed from the State Department.  I am officially unemployed again.  The whole procedure at State was quick and efficient.  Afterwards, I went over to my favorite place in DC, the National Gallery of Art, to see what they had on exhibit.  One show caught my eye: a small Philip Guston retrospective, which was very interesting.  He's not my favorite artist, but he's a guy who reinvented himself and his art in a major way at least twice, which was (is) very inspiring and encouraging.  

The trip from Washington to Asheville was pretty uneventful - I got delayed, but what else is new?  Had a very interesting woman sitting next to me on the flight to Charlotte: she's a British research scientist who morphed into a marketing consultant a decade ago.  Evidently research scientists and artists have much the same economics: they're constantly trying to find funding for their projects.  If there's no funding (or the funding comes with too many strings attached), then they do something else.  Like becoming marketing consultants.  Or project managers in Baghdad.

I have to give a big thumbs-up to my hotel in Washington.  I stayed at the Best Western Dulles Airport.  It was a pretty typical mid-grade hotel, but it was very clean, the breakfast bar was a notch above normal, and the staff was exceptionally helpful.  And the price was lower than just about anybody else in the area.  I'll definitely stay there again.

It was wonderful to finally land in Asheville shortly before midnight and walk out to find Janis waiting for me.  Nothing like a big welcome home!  And I got another one from the dogs when we got back to the house.  They jumped all over me.  Janis says she's just chopped liver to them now that I'm back.  

We've gotten back into the groove pretty quickly.  It's my job to walk the dogs, and now that the weather has warmed up, we're doing it twice a day.  I've been taking care of some more screening items for the Corps of Engineers, trying to wrap the remaining items up.  Last night we went down to the Art 4 Food event that our friend Genie Maples put on - a fundraiser for the Manna Food Bank.  There was a HUGE crowd there, much bigger than I expected.  Many were my artist friends from around town and it was great to see all of them again.  I have to admit, my memory is getting shot to hell (I blame it on advancing age ... why not?) and there was more than one occasion when somebody walked up and we had a great time talking but I couldn't recall their name to save my soul.  I remembered the person, just not their tag.

We're off on a road trip today.  It's supposed to be a beautiful day, so we're going to get outa town and play.  And the boss just came in and told me to get my butt in gear.  So I'm off.  I've got some pictures to share and a few random observations, but they'll wait til next time.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Trek

You sit sideways on a C-130, on red nylon fabric stretched like a cot, and lean against red nylon webbing.  If you're on the outside rows, your back is to the inside of the airframe.  If you're in one of the two inside rows, your back is probably against somebody else's.  You're crammed in about as tightly as the cargomasters can cram, knee-to-knee with the poor slob in the next row.  Your carry-on items aren't under the seat in front of you nor in the overhead bin, since neither exists.  Rather, it's in your lap.  Earplugs are stuffed in your ears because the plane is loud.  And to top it all off, when you're flying in and out of Iraq, you wear 35 pounds of kevlar body armor and helmet.  It's like strapping big frying pans to your front and back and wearing a football helmet made out of concrete.

But C-130's are reliable.  Baghdad was covered with a thick, dusty haze that seemed to grow thicker by the hour.  I was concerned that the flight would be cancelled, particularly when the guy in the terminal said "well, planes are landing ..." but I didn't see any leaving.  However, we were eventually lined up and marched out to the flight line and onto the plane.  In fairly short order it was buttoned up and off we went.  Amman, Jordan, was cold and wet - they told us it had actually snowed a bit the day before.  The State Department had people at the airport to meet us and we were taken to our hotels.  I checked in, took a nice long hot shower to wash off a pound or two of Baghdad dust, and went down to grab some lunch.  The hotel had an American-style Champions Sports Bar (!) and I treated myself to a big, thick, fresh-cooked cheeseburger and fries and a big ol' stein of draft beer.  It was the most delicious meal I'd had in my whole life.  Well, two or three months, anyway.  And then I went up to the room and went to bed.

I never sleep worth a hoot the first night on the road.  Something about being in a new place,with new noises, and having to get up early to catch a can't-miss flight, means I didn't get any sleep the night before leaving Baghdad.  So that six hour's snooze in Amman was heaven.

We were collected from our hotels around midnight for the trip out to the commercial airport.  Getting through ticketing, baggage, passport control, and various security points was slow but non-eventful.  I was told I'd have an aisle seat, but found out they gave me a window seat, and then when I got there, found out that a family with three or four kids had taken over the seats.  I wasn't about to wave my ticket at them (what, and wind up with two small kids in the seats next to me?  NOT!!!).  The Lufthansa stewardesses were very cheerful and efficient and found me an aisle seat instead.  We took off on time at 3 am.  The gentleman sitting next to me turned out to be an Iraqi college professor, now living and working in Jordan, who had spent years in prison under Saddam Hussein.  He was a very interesting man and we spent most of the 4-hour flight talking about all sorts of things.  Got into Frankfurt about 6 to start a 5-hour layover.

The Frankfurt terminal is one of the major ones in Europe, meaning it's big, well-stocked with stores and restaurants, and way too many checkpoints.  I wound up going through personal screening four times ... partly because I kept wandering around (with a 5-hour layover, what the hell else is there to do?) and partly because I kept getting bad information whenever I asked directions.  Eventually I found my gate, where we loaded up onto a United flight and left for Washington Dulles at about 11 a.m. for a 9 1/2 hour flight.  This time, the person sitting next to me was a little old Hungarian lady who had lived in the US for 26 years and returned to Hungary after the fall of communism there.  She was very energetic, curious, and funny, a great travel partner.  

Then we got into Washington Dulles about 3 pm.  After collecting my bags, getting through customs, and calling the courtesy van from the hotel, I finally got to my room.  I talked to my wife, grabbed dinner from a restaurant next door, and crashed into bed about 8 pm.  I was beat - and had been going non-stop for about 30 hours at that point.

Now it's early Tuesday morning.  I'm about to head into Washington to outprocess from the State Department.  Later this afternoon I'll go back to Dulles and get on a plane to take me home.  It's freezing cold here, but with the end in sight, I don't mind.  Not too much, anyway.  Just get me home!