Thursday, February 27, 2014

Update on the New Painting

The composition is now blocked-in.  Now to let it sit for a week or so to dry enough to support layers of glazes, scumbling, and painting over the top of it.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

New Painting Underway

For the last couple of months, I've been re-learning and re-inventing how to put paint on canvas.  The way I was painting last fall wasn't expressive enough nor (frankly) good enough for my new series about survivors.  It was too timid, careful, and overworked.  So I put the series on hold while I figured out a new approach.  And now I think I have one that's appropriate for at least the first piece.

This new painting is about a friend of ours who was a Marine in Vietnam.  He was in some brutal battles and carries the physical and mental scars to this day.  When he told me that he's still fighting some of those battles nearly every night, I knew that was going to be the focus of this painting.

Getting from the concept to the composition was a long process.  I went through piles of drawings, trying out different ideas and combinations of ideas.  Then there were several color studies to wrestle with lighting, values, and color combinations.  All the while, I was working on a new (for me) way to put paint on canvas.  Eventually, I came up with a composition that best expressed the basic idea:

Color Study for "Pete"
Oil on paper

Last week, I built, gessoed, and toned the canvas.  Today was the day I finally - FINALLY - started putting it all together.  Here it is on the easel, with the color study and drawings next to it.  

And here's a detail showing how it sits on the easel right now:

Detail of "Pete" in progress
Oil on canvas

I'm really happy with the way it has started.  Once I got warmed up, getting this part roughed in was a lot of fun.  Now to keep the momentum going, stay loose, and not overwork it.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Colors on the Palette

As I wrote about last month, I've been trying to revitalize my painting techniques.  One important aspect of that is the feel for color.  I haven't been happy with the way I select which colors go on the canvas - I've been too tentative and too literal, and that has carried over into the way the final painting is perceived.

So a while back, I got an instructional DVD from Robert Liberace.  His portraits had really struck me with their liveliness and energy and I wanted to see if I could pick up on that.  Liberace uses a much larger selection of tube colors than I do, and he uses the colors in very imaginative ways.  So I added some new colors to my palette, played with them in some small paintings to test the concept, and learned some new stuff.  But his colors and techniques are not something that I can fully follow.  Besides just being different artists, my color vision is not as sharp as his.  It's common for men to have some color perception difficulties, and I suffer from that.  You know those color tests where they show you a card with lots of colored dots, and you're supposed to see the number?  I've never passed that test.  But the funny thing is, I can mix up paint to match any of the colored dots.  My difficulty is in seeing differences in adjacent colors when they are the same light/dark value.  That's kinda important when you're a painter, particularly one who uses a wide spectrum of colors.  So while I learned a lot from Liberace's video, I will never be able to match his color sense.

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a workshop with the painter Steve Huston.  He considers himself a tonalist painter and uses a more restricted palette of colors with many standard colors like ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and burnt umber.  But where Liberace would pull in, say, violets and greens and rose, Huston relied more on controlling the light/dark values and only slightly adjusting the basic color.  It was a very different approach.  Both artists, though, have very lively brushwork, and both have very similar approaches to the initial block-in and early refinement stages of a painting.

This evening, a friend of mine posted a link to a blog post about Anders Zorn.  Zorn was a Swedish painter, a contemporary of John Singer Sargent, and painted in somewhat similar style.  What was really interesting is that Zorn primarily used an extremely limited palette of yellow ochre, cadmium red medium, ivory black, and white.  That's it.  Yes, he used some other colors, like cerulean blue, on occasion, but normally he just used those four.  Yellow ochre is a muted yellow, cadmium red medium is a strong but controllable red, and ivory black is a cool dark blue.  So all three primary colors are included, only with very muted versions.  I'm going to have to do some color charts using those colors and see how they turn out.  For a more in-depth discussion of the palette and how it works, see Michael Lynn Adams' blog post.

I thought I'd seen a similar palette before, and after a bit of looking, I found it.  Odd Nerdrum, the great Norwegian painter, gave a portrait demonstration in New York a couple of years ago, and he used yellow ochre, Chinese vermilion, Mars black, and titanium white.  It's almost the same as the Zorn palette.  Nerdrum's painting style is very different from Zorn's - it's more closely related to Rembrandt's - so the end result is very different, but it's interesting that two painters who are so damn good use such restricted choices of colors.  Nerdrum's demonstration is described in Matthew Innis' blog post and is well worth reading.

One other artist with a limited palette came to mind: Lucien Freud.  Looking at his paintings, you can see that he relied heavily on earth colors (yellow ocher, burnt umber, burnt sienna) with limited use of brighter colors.  I wasn't able to find a technical discussion of his actual color choices, though.

So my plan of action is to do some color charts using the Zorn/Nerdrum colors and then try some portrait studies.  I'm thinking that a restricted palette could be helpful to somebody who's color-vision-challenged like me. At the same time, the color techniques that I learned from Liberace would be good things to have in the back pocket to use when necessary.  And the only way to find out if all that is true?  Try it out!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Catching Up

The weekend after my last post (about the radio interview with Marilyn Ball), I took an online workshop from the painter Steve Huston.  I'm struggling with finding an appropriate style of painting for my new "Survivor" series and Steve's work appeared to offer some ideas.  The workshop was hosted by the New Masters Academy (NMA) in Newport Beach, California.  This was their first foray into streaming a live workshop.  The workshop was scheduled for 8 hours a day for 3 days.  I wasn't sure about how useful the workshop would be, especially since I'd be at home on my computer instead of slinging paint in the studio, but decided to give it a go anyway.

As it turns out, the workshop was very valuable.  Steve talked a lot about drawing, building the figure, composition, painting techniques, and much much more.  He did demos from a live model, and the NMA staff posted photos of her so those of us online could draw as well.  She was a lovely young lady whose poses, unfortunately, were the most boring and uninspired that I've seen in a long time.  Maybe I'm just spoiled by the outstanding group of models here in Asheville.  But Steve's thoughtful discussions and demonstrations were invaluable.

As this was the first time the NMA had done such an event, I expected to see some glitches, and there were.  But they fixed them quickly, and by midway through the first day, everything went extremely well.

The NMA is continuing to develop more online workshops, and they already have a lot of recorded courses online, by Steve and others.  I was impressed with the group.  Take a look - you might be, too.

During the next week, I went back through my notes (22 pages of them) and sorted them into something that would be easier to use and follow.  And I spent a good bit of time in the studio to try out some of the ideas.  Lots of other stuff was happening around the house, so I didn't have time to update this blog.  But I have a lot of things to share from that workshop.  I'll do that in my next blog post.

Then last weekend, my uncle passed away.  He was 87.  He went into the hospital for some relatively routine heart surgery (as if any heart surgery is "routine"), but then had cascading complications that couldn't be stopped.  On Monday, I drove down to Corinth, Mississippi, to attend the funeral.  Despite the circumstances, it was great to see my cousins again.  We haven't all been together in one place in over 35 years.  Like many families these days, we're widely scattered: Colorado, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and New Mexico (where my sister, who wasn't able to attend, lives).  There were spouses and children that I'd never met.  We spent long hours together, talking and catching up, telling stories on each other, getting to know those we just met, and sharing the grief of losing my uncle.

My uncle, by the way, was an amazing man.  He was a scout for Patton's army in World War II.  Subsequently, he earned a bachelor's degree from Ole Miss, a law degree from Tulane, and was a Rhodes Scholar in Cambridge, England.  He could've written his own ticket at any big-league law firm anywhere in the world, but he returned home to the small city of Corinth to practice there.  He was a leader in the First Baptist Church, a lifelong board member of the YMCA, coached YMCA baseball for over 20 years, served as the attorney for a variety of local government organizations, served as Director of the Chamber of Commerce, taught Sunday school, and was President of the school board.  At the same time, he and my aunt raised four wonderful kids.  I remember him as a very gentle man with an easy laugh and all the time in the world for us kids.  Uncle Jimmy will be missed.

After the funeral, I went to Memphis to visit my parents' graves.  I also visited with Persi Johnson, my first art teacher.  Persi is pushing 90, but her mind is as sharp as ever, and she has lost none of her feistiness and wit.  Visiting with Persi was a treat.

It's kinda sad, isn't it, that sometimes it takes a death to make us realize that we really and truly need to take the time to be with our close friends and relatives more often.  I had been meaning to get to Corinth and Memphis for years to visit with Uncle Jimmy, Persi, and my cousins, but never got around to it.  Now it's too late to talk with Uncle Jimmy again.  But I can still talk with my cousins.  And I will.