Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye, 2010, Hello, 2011

What a year it's been. Twelve months ago, I was working in Baghdad, writing Statements of Work for six new projects. I had my last R&R in January and got to shovel a lot of snow at home. Back in Baghdad, I got some of my projects launched, while the others were cancelled. Those projects that were launched are still ongoing and will make a big difference to Iraq over the next several years. Makes me feel like my time there was worthwhile.

At the end of April, my time in Iraq was up. I came home and readjusted to the Real World. Janis and I gave ourselves a vacation to Florida. The highlight (for me) was the 165-mph ride around the Daytona Speedway in a modified stock car. What a hoot! My adrenaline still gets going when I remember that. Then it was time to go back home and get into a normal routine, which meant going back to work in the studio. Oddly, I have found it harder to go from being a project manager to being an artist than it was to go from artist to project manager. Maybe my years as a Naval officer made the project-management side into second nature, but getting the creative mindset working has been difficult. It seems to be working again, now, but it took about six months to get the thought process going again. In July and August, I made a Star Wars-themed mural for a young boy's bedroom in Annapolis. My next project was to make five new series of hand-colored drypoint prints. They were on exhibit at the Bella Vista Gallery in Asheville during November and December.

Also in November was the River Arts District Studio Stroll. After talking with a lot of artists, it appears that the number of visitors to the Stroll was way up, but the sales (both volume and amounts) were way down. Artists are the economic "canary in a coal mine", and these canaries are still on life support. Our economy has a long way to go before this recession is over. Later in November, Janis and I went to Baltimore to visit my aunt and cousin for Thanksgiving. It was great to see them again.

Janis has started a pet-sitting business (Mars Hill Pet Sitting). She had some clients who live in a log house on top of a ridge - a beautiful house in a beautiful location, with two sweet older dogs. What could go wrong? Well, the Great Christmas Blizzard of 2010, that's what! The driveway to the house is about a quarter-mile long, very steep, and made of dirt and gravel. No way could our car get close to the house in 10" of snow. Actually, with all the snow and ice on the roads, our car couldn't even get out of the driveway. So I wound up staying at the client's house for three nights to make sure the dogs were taken care of. (And this is Janis's business?)
Looking ahead to 2011, I see several things coming down the pike:
- One or both of us will get a job. We've been drawing down on our savings from my stint in Iraq and that can't go on forever. I'm looking for something part-time so I can continue to work in the studio. J's working to get the pet-sitting business to take off.
- I'm going to exhibit some of my paintings around the region. Several opportunities are in the works, but to keep from jinxing them, I won't say any more at this point.
- This year, I'm going to work hard on getting the quality of my paintings to a new level. That learning process is always ongoing, but right now I'm putting a lot of emphasis on it.
- This year, I'll revamp/reinvigorate/refocus my marketing efforts. Paintings like mine have a very special audience. Simply putting them in galleries doesn't put them in front of the right people.

Sounds like a fairly simple list of things to do this year, no? No. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, that there's too much to do and not enough time to do it in. Creating decent paintings takes a lot of time. Creating murals takes a lot of time. Creating a marketing plan takes a lot of time. Researching potential commissions takes a lot of time. Networking and advertising takes a lot of time. You get the idea. With all the things that need to be done, it's like I'm trying to fill up the Grand Canyon by chucking pebbles over the edge.

So now it's time to get back to work. Goodbye, 2010. Let's hope 2011 is a better year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Janis's Horse

My wife, Janis, loves horses. She used to ride a lot when she lived in Chula Vista, and she has wanted to have a painting of a horse for some time. Recently, when we were at an opening at 16 Patton (a gallery here in Asheville), she spotted a beautiful painting of a horse. It really was (is) stunning, and she's talked about it ever since. Then, a few weeks ago, she decided "dammit, my husband is an artist, and he can damn well paint a horse for me!" And since I have no desire to sleep on the couch, I agreed.

We did a Google search for photos of horses and started sorting through the roughly 8.2 trillion images to get an idea of what she wanted. The ones she liked the most were the ones where the horse was tossing its head with its mane flying. I printed out several images along that theme, worked up a sketch of a running horse (mane waving in the wind), and got her okay. Then it was time to start putting paint on canvas.

This is a good-sized canvas, 36"x48". I roughed in the horse and then laid on the paint with a painting knife. This isn't my usual style, but since a horse isn't my usual subject, it seemed like a good opportunity to try something new, and works done with a painting knife have a certain intrinsic energy. After a couple of days, though, this was clearly not going well. In fact, it sucked. So I scraped everything off. The next day, I came in with a brush (my normal painting tool) and started the horse over. From the beginning, the pose was much more dynamic and accurate. I could feel the weight and heft of the horse's body, the movement of its legs, the flow of the mane, the way the dust was being kicked up. The painting was rocking. Then I stood back and really looked at it.

The painting was awful. Terrible! It looked like something you'd see in a Tijuana tourist shop. It was as trite as you could get: "here's the white horse, running through the dust (or water, or whatever)" .... gag! I was embarrassed to have my name associated with it. Clearly, nothing could (or should) save this turkey.

So I went back to the source of all these troubles: the paintings of horses that Janis saw at 16 Patton. The artist is a woman named Mase Lucas. Her works are simply beautiful. The horses are real, with their own personalities. The paintings have a life of their own, a vibrancy, that my turkey lacked. Mase knows horse anatomy, and her creatures are accurately painted without being slaves to photographic likeness. They're portraits of specific horses, while at the same time capturing a universal horse spirit.

Once I saw Mase's works, I understood my situation better. I did a painting several years ago titled "Welcome to Sarajevo". It was of a house near the Sarajevo airport that had been severely damaged during the Bosnian civil war. My painting was done from photos I'd taken while with the peacekeeping forces there. I'd stripped out all the extraneous junk surrounding it and just focused on the house. An artist friend later described the painting as a "portrait". Good portraits capture, not just a likeness, but the essence of the subject - you immediately understand what he/she/it has been through and what its character is like. That's why my "portrait" of the house in Sarajevo worked so well. And that's also why my painting of the running horse failed so badly. It wasn't about a real horse, it was about some hackneyed idea of a horse.

So I'm starting over again. After this morning, here's how the painting looks right now:

The crappy running horse is gone. Now I have a great, mottled, richly textured surface to paint on. The next step is to research horses, understand how their bodies are built, find some good source material, and create a good composition. Something tells me it'll take a while. Meanwhile, Mase Lucas' paintings are my guide. I'm not going to copy any of them - they're her horses, not mine. But if I can get half of the character of her horses into mine, then I'll consider it successful.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jerome Witkin

Pensione Ichino
Jerome Witkin, 1997

From the Painting Perceptions blog, I found an excellent interview in the Huffington Post with my favorite painter, Jerome Witkin. The author, John Seed, has some excellent insights into Witkin and narrative painting in general here and well worth a read.

Pensione Ichino (center panel)
Jerome Witkin, 1997

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Back in the Studio

The snow finally relented enough on Thursday for me to get back into the studio. Now I've got a new painting underway that will be Janis's Christmas present. She has wanted a painting of a horse for years, and had been looking at works by other artists and trying to make a trade. Then she realized, "I'm married to a painter!" So I've got a "commission" to get done within the next week.

With this painting, I'm trying a couple of things that are out of the ordinary. For one, this painting is being done on polyester, not cotton or linen. Polyester does not stretch out like cotton, and is not affected by temperature and humidity like cotton and linen, and it lasts much longer. When conservators re-line an old painting, they use polyester now. So far, I really like it. The canvas is as tight as a drum, with a lot of spring to it, and is as tight after two days of work as it was in the beginning.

The other thing that's different is that I'm painting with a painting knife instead of brushes. Painting knives are kinda like small, narrow trowels. I wanted a very energetic paint surface and you can certainly get that with a knife. This isn't a tool I'd normally use, and probably will not use very much after this, but it's different and fun, and it's good to get out of your normal routine every once in a while.

So now it's off to the studio. Got a lot of work to get done and not much time to do it in.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More Snow!

I'm getting cabin fever. It's Tuesday, and we've been stuck at home since Saturday evening. Right now there's about 6 inches of snow on the ground. I've shoveled the driveway three times, both to keep the snow from turning into ice, and just to have something physical to do. We have a fairly long and pretty steep driveway, so keeping it free of ice is very important. We learned that lesson eleven years ago, during our first winter here. I've spent the past couple of days working on the business side of the studio. Important stuff that needs to be done, but I'm really itching to get back to slinging paint again.

Speaking of painting, I wanted to share something by one of my favorite artists. It's a little bit of Southern California expressionism:

My Hands
Jackson Kane
Water-based paint on paper, 11"x8 1/2"

My grandson, the budding artist. World's best refrigerator art!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Painting Process

The Red Dress
Oil on canvas, 30"x24"

I finally finished The Red Dress yesterday. It's been in progress for about six weeks, a typical period for me to work on a painting. This one started after looking at some portraits by John Singer Sargent, which made me want to work from an elegant, clothed model. So Whitney and I discussed which outfit she should wear and decided on this one. In the first session, I roughed in the figure and finished her face, and was so excited about the progress that I had her come back the next evening. In the second session, we more or less finished the figure. It was off to a good start.

Now my question was, what to do with it? It was a good painting of a pretty girl, but so what, those are a dime a dozen. So I decided to try an approach used by one of my favorite artists, Jerome Witkin, and make it about a model in the studio. I moved the edges of the backdrop from off the canvas to inside, then roughed in the bricks. Now it was apparent that there was a "hard" and "soft" theme going, with the hard bricks and soft model, so some additional things related to that theme needed to be added. My answer was the dog on the red pillow, which played to both the "soft" and the "red" concepts in the model. Now the painting needed something to the left of the figure. I thought that a glass of red wine would be perfect, but it had to sit on something. There are a couple of small tables in the studio, but they just weren't suitable. Then I spotted my studio partner's wooden crate - it was the right size and kinda funky, so in it went. Pretty perfect so far. Next, I added the lamp on the right, the easel/painting/hand on the left, and the open book on the floor. Now we've got an artist's studio. The last addition was the green rug, chosen because (a) the green is a complement to the red and (b) it was there. This was the final element to be added.

The next step was to go around the painting and bring everything up to an appropriate level of refinement. Almost everything needed tweaking: the shape of her legs and their shadows, highlights and shadows on the backdrop, color of the easel, lights and shadows of the dog and pillow, the bricks had to be darkened, and so on. My biggest headache was the artist's hand on the left - I had a helluva time getting it right, and spent several days on the damn thing. Yesterday, though, I went in and got it done in fifteen minutes. Bam, bam, there it was. Cool!

This is going to be the start of a new series of paintings. Should be more fun than some of the "Debbie Downer"-type paintings I've been doing for years, although those will still continue.

Next, though, I have to do a painting for Janis as her Christmas present. Already have the drawings done and canvas prepped. I'll probably start it on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the snow lifts.

I mentioned Jerome Witkin earlier. There's a wonderful interview with him on the Painting Perceptions blog that is well worth reading. (I just discovered this site; if you're an artist, you should know about it, too). One of Witkin's statements really hit me. He was talking about the time he met Giorgio Morandi, and segued into the role of teachers and mentors, and then said this:
"We are deepened by our teachers, our mentors, and I think the Morandi experience was so special, so special. And I think when you’re in your studio by yourself, you think, Who is my audience? If Morandi is standing behind me, or Isabel Bishop, or Bill de Kooning, or Phil Guston, or Orozco, or Rembrandt, those are your real audiences. They’re the climbers of Everest and they’re helping you to get to the top."

Wow. Too often, some artists (including me) think of our audiences as some unknown potential collector who might buy our work, and we tailor it to them in hopes of a sale. Witkin is pointing out this is too low a bar. Instead, we should paint each painting as if we're going to present it to Morandi, or de Kooning, or Rembrandt, or whoever our own personal art inspiration is. Raise the bar: do your best.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Cold Snap

Well, it's hardly news that we've been hit by a cold snap. So has everybody else in about 90% of the country. We got a good bit of snow over the past two days - about 4" total, and right now the temperature is about 17 degrees outside. Brrrrrr! I took the opportunity to stay home and work on some business aspects of the studio, mostly marketing. Some highlights:
- I created a FaceBook page for the studio. This should provide a way to reach more people, and to allow those who are on FB a lot to get updates more easily. So if you're on Facebook, check it out, and if you like it, then please "like" it.

- For the Christmas season, I decided to highlight my Forest Nymph photos. They've been well received over the years whenever they've been shown. I'm running a special on them right now, with both a reduced price and free shipping over the holidays. I added some PayPal "Buy It Now" buttons onto my web site to facilitate sales. Yes, it's crass commercialism creeping into my web presence. But I already know what the answer is if I don't do it (no sales), so this is an experiment in keeping the studio financially afloat.

- I also wrote up my sorta-regular studio newsletter. That took a bit of time, since as I wrote it, I kept getting ideas for other things (like modifications to the web site) that had to be investigated or implemented or whatnot. But the newsletter went out successfully last night. And, of course, I immediately thought of something else that should've been in it. Ah, well, next time ... maybe.

A while back, I made a snarky comment about how all these time-saving gizmos are taking up my time. All the above (plus a bit more) took up the better part of two days. How much painting did I get done in that time? Zip!

So this afternoon it was back to the studio. With outside temperatures in the mid-20's, and with all the (nonexistent) insulation in our century-old building, my heater was blazing away constantly. So tomorrow, I'll get some supplies from Lowe's and put plastic up over the windows to halt the draft. For today, though, I worked on the painting of the girl in the red dress. It's almost done now, I think. Another painting is in the works. This one is Janis' Christmas present, so it's going to be quite a bit different than my normal splatterings. And it's gonna be a fun painting. Can't wait to get it going!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Painting Progress

Yes, I'm still working on the painting of the young lady in a red dress. Here's the way it looks right now. Since the last progress report, I've put in the floor, rug, and red purse, and darkened the brick wall. Now I need to go around the painting and refine everything: lighting, edges, color saturation, perspective, you name it. I like the way it's coming along, but I wish it was coming along a bit faster!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Technological Progress?

I got a new phone today. My old phone (on the left) was a Razr. I loved it. It's small, lightweight, well-made, tough, easy to use, and good-looking. When I got it four years ago, it was the latest and greatest from Verizon and Motorola. State of the art. Now it's so obsolete that it doesn't work with Verizon's network anymore. Seriously. Over the past couple of weeks, Verizon has been doing some kind of upgrades to their networks that pretty much knocked my old Razr off the air. I could have 5-bar reception one minute and zero the next, without leaving the room. I took it in to the store and they just shook their heads. ("Imagine ... that old fart is still using a Razr! What an antique!! It must be at least four years old ... I was still in junior high then!").

So I got a new phone. It's a Samsung and does more or less the same thing that my Razr did. I didn't want a smart phone with a data plan, I don't need to send or receive emails on my phone (I've got a computer for that), I don't text anybody, and don't want texts sent to me. Face it, I'm a codger now, and codgers don't like all this newfangled stuff. My new phone has a better camera, for what that's worth; but it's also thicker, heavier, and not nearly as good-looking as my old Razr.

So it's goodbye to my trusty old phone. There's not a thing wrong with it, it's just that technology has moved so fast that it's been left behind. At only four years of age.

Sometimes I feel like my phone ...