Monday, January 31, 2011

New Paintings

Through the Window
©2011, Oil on panel, 20"x16"

White Keffiyeh
Oil on panel, 20"x16"

Two more paintings have been added to the "Portraits from Iraq" series. "Through the Window" is based on a random photo of a young soldier during a trip outside the wire. "White Keffiyeh" is of an Iraqi working-class man.

All of the paintings in this series are size 20"x16". This uniformity is one of the uniting factors in this series. They are intended to be seen as one work. I haven't decided exactly how they'll be presented yet, but I'm thinking that they'll be in one long unit to hang at eye level. Maybe I'll have to break it into two or more sections just for practical reasons ... right now there are 8 portraits and there will be another four to six more, meaning the whole series will measure up to 19 feet long. That's a little longer than the bed of my truck!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Posthumous Portrait

Helo Pilot
20"x16", oil on panel, 2011

Over the past week or two, I've been swapping emails with an old Navy buddy. We got to talking about issues that are central to my "Meditation on War" paintings: why we go to war, how military members feel about it, the costs of war, and personal losses. His daughter was engaged to a young Army helicopter pilot, a Captain. He went to Iraq in 2006. While flying a combat support mission over Mosul, in northern Iraq, he was shot down and killed. When he was buried, pretty much the whole town turned out to line the streets.

This story got to me. Reading stories about anonymous soldiers being killed in action is one thing, but hearing about the personal impact is another. Isn't it always? I asked for some pictures of the young man. One of them, where he was beside his helicopter, seemed to me to be the liveliest and captured something of his spirit. So I turned it into the painting above.

Doing a portrait is difficult under the best of circumstances. Doing a posthumous portrait is doubly so, particularly of somebody I never met. I can't see the person, can't study the way light bounces off different surfaces, can't see the color shifts in the skin tones, can't see the way he carries himself, and (most important) can't get my own first-hand impression of his personality and character. Even worse, such a portrait is loaded with emotional baggage that a regular portrait doesn't have. So doing a posthumous portrait is at best a guessing game done in a minefield. Fortunately, this time I apparently got it right, or at least close enough. My buddy said that I hit the mark with it, and that's a good feeling.

A few years ago, I saw a TV show about a woman who was painting portraits of fallen soldiers. She was a professional artist and her works were quite good. The segment followed her as she painted a portrait of a young infantry soldier from some photos, and then went to the his parent's house to record their reaction. It was evident to me that the portrait missed something in the young man's likeness or character. The reaction that an artist wants is "Oh, my gosh, that's John!" The reaction this portrait got was "oh ... ummm ... look, she got the way he always stands ..." Put yourself in their position: they've lost their son, somebody has gone to the trouble of painting a portrait of him and is giving it to them, here's a TV crew in their living room to record the Big Moment, and the portrait isn't quite John. What are they going to do? Say something nice, be appreciative, and when the TV crew leaves, they'll pack the picture up and put it away someplace while they try to put their lives back together again, only without their son.

I've done a posthumous portrait once before of a young Navy sailor who died of cancer. I didn't copy one single photograph. Instead, I used the general pose of one photo, combined with features from several others. It went through about three iterations before it finally felt right. I also had a contact who gave me regular (and very detailed) feedback. So I was pretty comfortable with the end result.

The Navy Chief
Oil on canvas, 20"x16", 2008

Apparently, though, I missed the mark. While it's a good painting, it evidently didn't capture something important of the likeness or the character. I never heard anything from the family nor my contact, so I have no idea what wasn't right. It's probably in a box in an attic now, if not a landfill.

Am I whining? No. It was a learning experience. I learned that posthumous portraits need to be handled with kid gloves. If I get it right, it's a wonderful thing for the family to have. If I get it wrong, it's another emotional burden on a family that already has more than it can handle.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Janis's Horses

Janis's Horses
Oil on canvas, 36"x48"

Janis's Christmas present is finally done. It came home this afternoon and is hanging on our bedroom wall now. This was a hard one for me to do - I've never done a horse before, and there was certainly a lot to learn. But it's done.

Over the past two weeks, I've gotten two exhibitions lined up. One will be at Wiesenblatt Gallery at Mars Hill College during the month of March. Actual dates are still to be determined, but I'll post them here as soon as they're firmed up. The other will be a larger exhibition at Flood Gallery in Asheville during August. This one will be a bit more raw. Both will feature my "Meditation on War" paintings with some new works. I'm very excited about both of these shows!

So now I'm beginning work on new paintings for both of these shows. Right now it's mostly conceptual: What needs to be painted? What stories need to be told? How are those stories best put into paint? Should it be more direct and in-your-face, or indirect and metaphorical? I think I'll be wrestling with these questions up until, oh, the first of August.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Horse Drawings

I'm still working on Janis's horse painting. I'm not ready to show it yet - there's still work to be done - but here are three charcoal and Conte crayon sketches that I did while trying to learn what a real horse looks like.

White Arabian
Charcoal and Conte crayon on paper

Charcoal and Conte crayon on paper

Running Arabian
Charcoal and Conte crayon on paper

I'm hoping to wrap up the painting in the next day or two. It's time to get it off my easel and move on to the next painting. I only work on one painting at a time, maybe two, which is admittedly a slow process. But that's the way I work.

Looks like a couple of irons that I've had in the fire are about ready to pop. I'll post the news here when it's ready.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Alex Kanevsky and Tom Richmond

Two artists that I've been studying this week are Alex Kanevsky and Tom Richmond. It's hard to imagine two artists with less in common than these. Alex is a Russian immigrant who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and makes deeply layered paintings. Tom is a Minnesota caricaturist who works for MAD Magazine. So, maybe I'm a bit schizophrenic, but my study time this week has been split between a painter and a caricaturist.

Alex came to my attention because he was the juror for a national juried exhibit of drawings at UNC Asheville. I looked up his web site and was tremendously impressed. Alex's figures are beautifully done with a combination of accurate drawing and loose brushwork that I find fascinating. They are individuals with a story to tell, although these are not narrative works at all. They're real people, filtered through Alex's head and many layers of paint. Many times, I've seen this "filtering" process filter out every ounce of the subject's individuality, but that does not happen here.

On Friday evening at UNCA, Alex gave a presentation about his work. It was a great opportunity to see inside his process: how he came to a particular subject, how he worked through it, how his paintings developed, and what he experienced. One comment really got my attention - I have to paraphrase it here - "painting on the edge of incompetence". The idea is that if you're working within your familiar bounds, you're boring, not learning anything, and just producing widgets. If you're painting outside your familiar bounds, you're incompetent: almost by definition, you don't know what you're doing. But if you're "painting on the edge of incompetence", then you're pushing your own boundaries, still having a bit of control but running the risk of having it crash and burn. And by definition, your boundaries just expanded ... regardless of whether the painting is a success or failure.

That applies to so much more than painting, doesn't it? I draw a parallel to downhill skiing. When I was first learning to ski, we had about a half day of training on the bunny slopes. Then we went right up to the top of the mountain, where all the slopes were intermediate or above. I fell a lot on the way down, but I learned a lot, too. Had to. I was on the edge of my incompetence the whole way, and had to invent for myself a way of skiing that would keep me upright for more than 15 feet at a time.

Alex's paintings may sometimes look simple, but they are far, far from it. In one section of his website, he shows how some of his paintings progressed from the first block-in to the final signed version. I was blown away by how radically the paintings could change from one stage to another. One stage would show a well-rounded, warmly-colored figure, while in the next the whole painting would be hidden beneath a cool, flat wash of color, with the figure barely discernible. Few artists dare show how their paintings develop, but Alex does.

So this was my introduction to Alex Kanevsky. For more insight into him, his work, and his techniques, read this interview with him on the Truant Johnny blog. It's worth your time.

Also this week, we got this caricature of our daughter-in-law. It's brilliant, actually. Trust me, this is Julie! So I got to thinking about caricatures. What is it about them that work? Everything about them is an exaggeration, which means they can't actually resemble their subjects, but still, we look at a caricature like this and instantly say "Oh, my gosh, that's Julie!"

I did some study of cartoons and caricatures many years ago, and came to the conclusion that good portraits and good caricatures are not that far apart. In both cases, you have to know what it is about that particular face that makes it unique: the shape and placement of the eyes, the tilt of the nose, the way a mouth curves, the way each part relates to every other part, and much more. Both portraits and caricatures have to have all these things right, plus that indefinable "something" that captures the inner character of the sitter.

So I started poking around on the net and quickly found Tom Richmond's website. Tom is an unbelievably talented and skilled caricaturist. One glance at his subjects, like Jon Stewart, and you know exactly who you're looking (and laughing) at. Tom now does most of MAD magazine's celebrity caricatures ... and in this world, there is no higher honor, except maybe the New Yorker.

What's just as impressive as his skill is his willingness to share what he has learned. His blog is a must-read for anybody interested in caricatures, or who wants to learn how to do them, or wants to know the business of cartoons and illustration. For example, if you go to the "pages" section and click on "tutorials", you'll find a five-chapter program that goes into caricatures in great depth. I mean great depth, better than any other book on caricatures that I've ever seen. I hope the guy puts it all together into a book, because it'll be in my reference collection as soon as he does. Because, as I noted earlier, the difference between a good caricature and a good portrait is not that great, and the things Tom tells you about in the tutorials can apply to a painting as well as an illustration.

So. Two very different artists. Two very different approaches. So much to learn, so little time!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Catching Up

Since my last post, there has been a lot of different, non-studio things happen that have occupied my attention. First and foremost was the shootings in Tucson. At present, it appears that the shooter, Jared Loughner, was a lone, literal nutcase. As more details come out about him, the only thing that's clear is that we have no clue as to why he did this. But that has not stopped the discussion on air and in the blogosphere.

The Tucson sheriff started it with his statements that the vile state of politics contributed to the shooting. Others jumped in, some echoing the sheriff and others loudly denying it. From my perch, it appears that Loughner did the shootings for reasons of his own that probably had nothing to do with whatever they say on Fox. However, I also think that the sheriff is right. I've been saying for some time that all sides need to cool down the rhetoric. Calling each other the enemy, putting cross-hairs on maps of opponents' houses, and other such statements are reprehensible. We're all Americans, for God's sake. We disagree about a lot of things, but none of us are enemies of our own country. The only thing divisiveness does is drive up the blood pressure of good, normal people, and pad the wallets of those who spew the hate.

Although it appears that political hatemongering probably didn't contribute to the Tucson shootings, the discussion about it is still very worthwhile. I've found two video clips and one blog that, I think, were very well done.

One is Jon Stewart. It's a helluva thing when a comedian is one of the most respected political commentators around, but Jon is. (Another of his ilk was Will Rogers, back in the '30's. One of Will's pithy observations: "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat." Still true 80+ years later!) This particular clip is long, and you need to get past the first attempt at humor with John Oliver, but Stewart's comments are worth it.

The other video statement came from Keith Olbermann, the liberal voice on MSNBC. Keith denounced the tone of politics, apologized for any role he had in contributing to it, and called on others (with specifics) to do the same. It was a "have you no shame" moment for the new decade, powerfully done.

The blog post came from Paul Krugman, an op-ed contributor to the New York Times. Paul said he was not surprised that something like this happened. I agree. Even though Loughner is a nut job, it's the nut jobs that go over the edge first.

On the other side of the coin, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have been loudly denying any responsibility for anything whatsoever. They remind me of little boys standing beside the broken vase, crying "I didn't do it!" when you know damn well they did. Bill O'Reilly, to my knowledge, hasn't said anything. Sarah Palin has taken down some of the more inflammatory posts on her blog (good on her) and then went on to deny any responsibility like Beck and Limbaugh (bad on her). None of them have the guts to stand up, like Olberman did, and help move this country forward.

Okay, enough politics. I've been working away on applications for public art projects and art show submissions because I haven't been able to get away from the house since Thursday. We've had round after round of snow over the past month and, as I write this, it's still coming down. I'm getting a workout by shoveling the driveway every couple of days. Frankly, I'm getting sick of it - tell me again, when will spring get here?

Finally, we had a scammer target my wife's cell phone. Somebody (we have no idea who) managed to sneak a $9.99 charge for "premium data messaging" onto our cell phone bill the past two months. I talked to an Elizabeth at Verizon this morning (very helpful lady) who reversed the charges for me and blocked all other such charges in the future. An interesting twist: to stop the incoming messages, you're supposed to send a text message saying "STOP" to the number sending them. When I did so, I got a bounce-back saying that the number did not accept any incoming messages! Since I've blocked all premium messages anyway, no big deal, but that's their trick: send you text messages, charge you $10 a pop for them, and give you no way to stop them.

Okay, I'm off to shovel some more snow now.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Art Opening

Last night we did something we haven't done in a long time. We went to an art opening. It was at Blue Spiral 1 gallery in downtown Asheville and we had several old friends who are showing there.

One is Hunter Stamps. Hunter and I were in the Fine Arts curriculum at UNCA together, ten years ago now. He's now a ceramics professor in Lexington, KY. Hunter makes abstracted ceramic pieces that are based on the human figure. Over the past few years, he has started incorporating strong, vibrant colors in his work. Blue Spiral is showing quite a few of his works this month. I hadn't seen him in years and it was good to catch up with him again.

Another one we wanted to see was Hunter's lovely wife Amelia. She makes the most beautiful functional pottery - very delicate in appearance, with understated, soft colors, primarily a light green. We have a couple of her pieces at home. Amelia is the sweetest young woman and we had a great time talking with her.

Yet another one is Robert Winkler. Robert is ex-Bostonian, ex-New Yorker, and a sculptor of architectural forms. We worked together a number of years ago on a juried outdoor sculpture exhibit here in Asheville. He's an incredibly sharp man. Blue Spiral is featuring him in their downstairs gallery and it is a strong exhibit. I saw a lot of his works that I'd never seen before, things that were meant to hang on walls indoors. Very beautiful and exceptionally well done. I hadn't seen Robert in maybe three years and had a good time playing catch-up with him.

The art world is not really that big, and the art world in Asheville is really not that big. So if you go to an opening in this town, you're going to run into a lot of old friends. And since we hadn't been to an opening in years, we had a lot of people to talk with. We ran into Kyle Carpenter, who has a studio just down the road from mine. Just because our studios are within a quarter-mile of each other doesn't mean we see each other very often. Kyle makes really beautiful functional pottery - in fact, Janis had one of his pieces centered on our mantel.

We added two new artworks to our collection last night. One is a lovely little jar by Donna Polseno. In fact, if you go to her web site and look at the functional pottery, #15 is the one that is now on our mantel. Donna's ceramics go in a couple of directions: functional pottery with plant and animal motifs and figurative sculptures. Go take a look: it's some really beautiful work.

The other is a wonderful wood engraving by Andy Farkas. This particular piece (not on his website) spoke to Janis and me - to us, it was about the risk and joy of being an artist. Andy's work is incredibly well-done. It appears at first to be whimsical, but there's some serious meat to each piece. Each one is deserving of contemplation and study.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Life Drawing Again

With the holidays finally over, I re-started our life drawing sessions tonight. I had been going through figure drawing withdrawals. It had been a month since our last session, and it was time for a fix! So tonight, we had a new model. It was her first time working as a model, but she did a great job. And despite the forecast for snow, we had a good-sized crowd show up. We went with a single pose for the whole session, which was good for the painters. Here's what I came up with. I was pretty happy with my painting process - the color choices and brush selections seemed to be done automatically, with very little thought, the way it should be. Not a bad evening's exercise.

I'm still working on Janis's horses. This painting is a tough fight. Nothing is coming easily - not the color choices, not the brushwork, nothing. But it's slowly getting better. No, you can't see a picture of it yet. I'm learning a lot about horses, though. One of our neighbors has a couple of the critters, so I went over there and sketched and took a lot of photos. Janis took one look and put her foot down: "You are not going to paint a picture of those horses! They're nags!" She went on: "If you're going to put a picture of a car on your wall, are you going to put up a picture of a beat-up Chrysler minivan, or a Ferrari? It's the same with horses. So paint me a picture of an Arabian!" So I've been learning what an Arabian is, doing some drawings, and trying to get an Arabian horse to magically appear on my canvas. Maybe it will. I'll keep you posted.