Monday, February 28, 2011

Painting Progress

I've been working on a large portrait lately. It's a life-size image of a young woman on a 60"x40" canvas. It's a classic, elegant type of painting. Development has been a bit slow, probably because my attention has been divided between the studio and job-hunting. Today, though, it came a long way in a short time.

I had the model come to the studio a couple of weeks ago. We tried a number of poses and quickly focused on a standing 3/4 stance. I did a bunch of charcoal sketches to work out some thoughts, then did a very rough color sketch that noted color temperatures. Then I took a lot of reference photos - whole figure, face, hands, and other details.

Reference photos are a necessary evil for me. I like working from life, but a painting like this one takes a long time to develop and model fees would bankrupt me long before it was done. So I console myself with the thought that Norman Rockwell and others use photos, too.

I got the painting blocked in in one day, and then worked on the face over two more sessions. By then, the figure had an interesting expression on her face - when doing my "stream of consciousness" scribbling in my journal, the word that popped up was "saucy". I liked the expression. The pose, though, was a different matter. It looked like a prom picture and did not go with the expression at all. So I had the model return to the studio and we came up with a much better solution. The body position is the same, but the arms are different, much livelier. I reworked the block-in and was happier with the changes. Over the next week, I made a little progress here and there. The painting was just crawling along.

Today, though, something happened. I started working on the dress, putting the dark layer down and wiping out the highlights with a rag. It turned out pretty well, so I decided to add the rose. It worked out well, too. Then I did another little little thing, and another, and everything kept turning out pretty well. I was on a roll! That doesn't happen all that often, so when it does, you gotta ride that pony!

So after making slow progress over a couple of weeks, we had major progress today. It still has a long way to go, but here's how it looks right now.

Here's the full painting leaning against my easel. The color looks flat and not well modeled in this shot, probably because of the fluorescent lighting, but there's more to it than appears here.

Here's a detail of the face. This shows a bit more color and modeling, doesn't it?

So what remains to be done? Well, lots. The whole background is going to change. I'm going to give the dress five or six days to dry, then put a glaze of cool color over it with cool highlights. The face needs more work, as well as the hands and arms. In other words, pretty much everything. But now I feel that I have a good framework to build on.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Change of Direction

The reason that my blog posts have fallen off a bit lately is that I'm job-hunting. Yes, I'm looking for a full-time position that does something worthwhile. And, as usual, there are many reasons for this move at this time.

One reason is that I have little confidence in economic recovery anytime soon. Despite some positive signs, and despite pundits saying that things are looking up, I see a lot of doom and gloom for at least the next five years, probably more. Back in October, I wrote a blog post about the federal budget. It noted that the current federal spending accounts for over 25% of the US gross domestic product (GDP), but only takes in about 15% of GDP. Both levels are significantly different from their historical levels of about 20%. In other words, we're spending at levels not seen since WWII, and taxing at unsustainably low levels. To get the budget back in balance, Congress is going to have to cut spending by about $630B and raise revenues by about $540B. So far, both parties are doing a lot of posturing and doing little or nothing substantive, but the substance is going to come one way or another. The ongoing battle in Wisconsin is just the opening skirmish in what is going to be a long, difficult, and ugly period. These government cutbacks are going to come at a time when private industry is sitting on massive amounts of cash and doing little or nothing to actually build a solid economic recovery. Not a good combination.

The budget problem is going to hit retirement pay hard. Many private companies have managed to duck their pension obligations and local and state governments are looking to do the same. I think this will probably hit the federal government as well. Military retirees (like me) have already had our retirements frozen at current levels. I can see the day when Congress tries to actually reduce it or take it away.

And Social Security is tied up in the mess. Economists, Social Security administrators, and anybody who can add one and one and get two have been warning for years that the structure of Social Security is unsustainable and must be fixed. But in the recent lame duck session of Congress, instead of fixing it, they made the problem worse by cutting payroll taxes and putting Social Security into red ink permanently. I fear for Social Security over the long run.

Meanwhile, many economists and business leaders have been predicting a rise in inflation. Ben Stein (whom I often disagree with but always respect) made the case pretty succinctly in a piece on 60 Minutes yesterday morning, anticipating high inflation with a stagnant economy. I remember well the previous "stagflation" period of the 70's. It was pretty awful, and unfortunately it looks like we're heading there again.

So I think our economy is going to remain in the toilet for years. As an artist, that's pretty devastating. Artists are the economic "canary in a coal mine": we're the first to get hit in an economic downturn and the last to recover. (In fact, the art world had not recovered from the relatively mild recession of the early 2000's when the economy tanked in '08). Since returning from Iraq in May of last year, I've seen little sign of hope. From visitors to my studio, to galleries, to discussions with other artists, to my proactive ventures into public art, there's no real indication that the art world is on the rebound.

As a result, I've decided that the best course of action for me is to find full-time employment. For the past two months, I've spent about half my time on researching opportunities, talking to friends and potential employers, putting in applications, and revising my resume on a daily basis. I can't say it's fun. Actually, it's a bit dispiriting, particularly when I get turned down for a job that I could do in my sleep. But a job search is a numbers game. You gotta keep at it and explore every opportunity. Sooner or later, something will come through.

I do NOT consider this a failure as an artist. My art is quite good: my paintings, drawings, and original prints are well done and have important things to say. But if the market is not there, that's something beyond my control. Some people have told me that I should do this or that type of artwork, something that would appeal to a wide population and sell. Unfortunately, I seem to be genetically incapable of doing that. My mind puts up a solid concrete wall when it comes to creating decorative items for popular consumption. Give me something with some meat to it and I'm on a roll; give me a mission of creating fluff and I fall on my face. Steve Jobs said something memorable when he was recruiting John Sculley away from Pepsi to run Apple: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?". I can't do sugar water. My contribution to changing the world is minuscule, but I'd rather do that than make art just to sell.

So now I'm looking for other ways to contribute. I've got a lot of irons in a lot of fires right now and more coming. Many more. Meanwhile, I'll continue to work in the studio. There's an exhibit coming up next month that needs to be prepared, a new painting in progress, and some more workshops and classes to be taught. And a few of the "irons in the fire" are art projects.

But if you're looking for somebody to help you change the world, give me a call.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Life Drawing Session

This is a small, 16"x12" oil sketch done last night during our life drawing session. I decided to challenge myself and use oil paint instead of charcoal and paper. This, and the other three, were done in 20 minutes or so. I wiped out all the others, but this one was interesting. The model's pose had a lot of power to it, which is what I tried to capture.

Today, I'm working on a large (60"x40") portrait of a young woman. It is, frankly, "commission bait", an example of what I can do. Today I worked up the drawing and transferred it to the toned canvas. Tomorrow, the paint starts flowing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Preparation Week

Sorry, no cool photos for this post. I've been spending my time doing lots of behind-the-scenes preparation. For what? Well, two things, mostly:

I'm going to have a Color Mixing Workshop in my studio next weekend, on Saturday the 19th, from 10 am to 4 pm. I had a difficult time with color mixing for many many years. When I studied art growing up, and in my first time around in college in the mid-70's, color mixing was a "black art". I could mix one yellow and one blue and get a bright green, but change one or both colors and wind up with something that looked like it crawled out of a swamp. Nobody could tell me why. About all the guidance I received was to keep mixing colors and eventually I'd know which ones to use. Well, "eventually" never came. I finally moved away from painting and did black-and-white printmaking instead for many years.

In the early 1990's, when I was studying painting at Maryland Institute, College of Art, one of our required textbooks was "Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green", by Michael Wilcox. This book gave me a clear and logical understanding of how artists' colors act when mixed. Finally, I understood why one pair of colors gave one result, and a different pair gave a different result. More importantly, I could deliberately choose my colors to get the specific effect needed. It completely changed the way that I thought about colors. As a result, I'm a painter now. Printmaking is secondary.

The approach taught by this book is still not taught very much in schools, though, and I see lots of new artists having a rough time with color mixing. So I'm going to have this workshop and show more people how to do it. Interested? There are more details on my web site.

Meanwhile, in the studio, I'm still doing color charts. And I'm still learning things about my colors that surprise me. But I'm itching to put that knowledge to use now, so I'll start working on something new within a few days.

The other thing that I'm preparing for is an exhibition of paintings at Mars Hill College. The show will be called "Residue of Conflict" and will be made up of paintings from the "Meditation on War" series as well as works done during and after my time in Iraq. It'll be up from March 7 to March 31 in Weizenblatt Gallery in the Moore Auditorium building, which will be open during working hours Monday through Friday. I've been preparing works for this show and need to do some final preparations over the next couple of weeks. So if you're in the Asheville, NC, area during March, take a drive north to Mars Hill and see the show!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Charts and Murals

There's an interesting project that I'm involved with. In downtown Asheville, there's an area called the Block. It's an historically African-American neighborhood that has been left behind in economic development over the past 20 years. Now, however, a local non-profit affordable housing development group called Mountain Housing Opportunities is going to refurbish and enlarge an existing decrepit building. When done, it'll have apartments, offices, and retail spaces. The project won't start for another year, though, so in the meantime, MHO has asked the Asheville Mural Project to put some murals up over the boarded-up windows. The murals will be images of African-American leaders. The AMP asked me to do a couple of them, and so I wound up doing one of Rosa Parks and another of Booker T. Washington. That's Booker on my easel above.

Okay: so how does something from my easel wind up as part of a mural? Well, the images are being painted with acrylic paint on what's being called "painter's dropcloth". It's not really a dropcloth, it's a special kind of paper. In the studio, I temporarily taped the paper to an existing stretched canvas so that I could adjust it on my easel as necessary. Now that the images are done, the AMP will laminate the paper onto plywood and attach them to the windows. This is much easier than trying to paint the images onto plywood onsite, especially this winter.

With Booker completed and out the door, I went back to my other project. I've been doing color charts lately. This is something that I do every few years, both as a refresher and to learn something about new colors. And I always learn something new, even about colors that I've had on my palette for years.

Here are some of the completed color charts. If you look at the one on the bottom in the photo above, it has Burnt Sienna (a brownish red) straight from the tube in the upper left corner and Viridian (a bluish green) straight from the tube in the upper right. In between, left to right, is Burnt Sienna with a bit of Viridian; a half & half mixture of the two; and Viridian with a bit of Burnt Sienna. The two rows below are the top row colors mixed to a mid-value and then to a light value with Titanium White. So these charts give me a good idea of how the two colors interact with each other, and how they look when they're lightened. Yes, I know, it looks pretty anal, but my peabrain likes things organized and logical.

My focus this time has been creating charts that cross the color wheel: reds with yellows, greens with reds, oranges with blues. These are giving me a rich variety of neutrals. Some of my discoveries have been very surprising. For example, the Burnt Sienna made by Utrecht is very different from Burnt Sienna made by Gamblin. The one by Utrecht looks like a dark brown straight from the tube, but is really a strong dark orange, and when mixed with Cobalt or Ultramarine Blue, it gives a nice muted green. The one by Gamblin is much more muted; I'd almost call it "dead" next to the Utrecht version. Never would have thought that.

New subject. I've had a subscription to Art in America magazine for several years. It keeps me in touch with what's going on in the art world and I've found some really good artists in its pages. When I get a new issue, I go through the whole thing and flag the pages where there's something of interest - which, to me, show painters doing interesting narratives. (Hey, I'm a narrative painter, after all!) My new issue arrived yesterday and hit a new low. I only found one artist of interest. One. The rest of the magazine was filled with images, ads, and articles about artists doing installations and other things that I couldn't care less about. Art in America has always been a source of new ideas for me, but there are fewer and fewer interesting painters in its pages. If this keeps up, my subscription will have to lapse.