Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Working on a Painting

I've been working on a new painting lately.  One of my favorite models has a clothing design business.  I thought it might be fun to do a painting of her creating an outfit.  She thought so, too, when I asked her, so we set a date for the studio.  She brought over a bunch of her own stuff, including a manikin and a sewing machine, and we set stuff up, moved it around, did a lot of sketching, tried a lot of poses, took a lot of photos, and gradually something started coming together.

Some artists like to create stuff as it comes out of their heads.  I don't.  I like to work with my subjects and get their ideas about what to include or leave out, how they should dress, and how they should pose.  My artworks are usually about specific people, so they have to tell me, and show me, what's important.  For me, it's very much a process of discovery.  They will constantly surprise me with things I'd never have thought of.  This even goes to life drawing sessions.  You'd think that there wouldn't be too many surprises when the subject is literally stripped down to bare skin, but not so.  I generally let my models find their own poses and have found that their personalities are always there in the pose.  Anytime I get too specific with direction, the result is always - always - blah.  I don't have to worry about that with this model - she's a firecracker, full of energy, and always coming up with something interesting.  Which is why I asked her to work with me on this project.  She came through in spades.

She showed up in a funky outfit of black and muted colors with a leather carpenter's toolbelt filled with sewing stuff, including a Sponge Bob pincushion.  She played around with some various bits of cloth I had lying around, and the next thing I knew, a raggedy old scarf was well on its way to becoming a classy evening gown.  She set up her antique sewing machine and had it looking like it was hard at work.  Sewing samples, sketches, and magazine ads went up on the wall behind her.  And in the middle of it all was this ball of fire who created a believable dressmaker's studio in an area the size of a closet.

After the session was over, we left everything set up.  I did some more drawings over the next few days and tried a lot of different combinations of poses, compositions, adding and subtracting stuff, until I had something to work with.  Then I refined it into one rather detailed drawing.  Today I transferred the drawing to a panel and began an oil study.  At each step, I'm learning what works, what doesn't, and getting a better understanding of how to put it all together.  This approach seems really slow, doesn't it?  Well, it is.  I'm following the advice of the painter Jerome Witkin, with whom I studied once, and who told me to draw and draw and draw before ever putting paint to canvas.  The reason is to work out as many basic issues as possible beforehand, so you have a good understanding of how the painting wants to come together.  Jumping into the painting too early is like doing a play without rehearsing.

So here's the drawing, as it sits right now, next to my easel:

Monday, April 06, 2015

A Particular Type of Mortality

Yesterday was Easter.  The Christian world was largely focused on the thought of rising from the dead.  My thoughts, though, were on it's polar opposite: the decision to deliberately end one's life.  No, not mine.  The 18-year-old son of a dear friend of ours made the decision last week to end his young life.  A great many of us are wondering why.  And trying to provide love and support to his mother.

I have not had much experience with suicide in my life, fortunately for me.  When I was about 20 years old, I carried the torch for a lovely and lively young lady.  She, however, carried a torch for some other guy who treated her like dirt.  Sometime before I met her, she had tried to commit suicide.  By the time we connected, she seemed to have recovered and was living a normal life.  "Seemed" is the important word here.  There were large areas in her life that were walled off from me and, I suspect, most other people.  So although we dated for quite some time, had a lot of fun, and were close, she kept a major part of herself locked away and hidden.  Eventually, she left town to be with the other guy, he treated her like dirt again, and she again tried to commit suicide.  I saw her a few times after that.  As before, she seemed to be normal, but the wall was still there.  I've often wondered how her life turned out, whether she made it past whatever demons drove her to attempt suicide twice, or whether the demons won.

Many years later, while I was the Executive Officer at a Navy command in Misawa, Japan, we had two suicide cases.  One was a young enlisted woman.  Her incident was clearly a cry for help rather than a serious attempt to end her life.  We arranged for psychological help for her, and engaged her supervisors, division officer, and friends in providing her with support, and generally tried to help her deal with her issues.  I'm afraid that we weren't very successful.  She had a couple of other, very different incidents later on that (fortunately) didn't involve suicide attempts, and we eventually had to give her a medical discharge.

The other individual who attempted suicide was very different.  The young man was hospitalized after his attempt.  The CO and I went to see him in the hospital and talked with the doctor, who told us that this was a very serious try and that, if not for somebody finding him in time, he would have died.  We then went in to talk with him and it was, in a word, chilling.  The young man was emotionally dead.  There was no interest, no spark, nothing.  I babbled some things about his shipmates pulling for him, and that we wanted him back at work, and it was like talking to a wall.  He wasn't unresponsive - he talked with us, answered our questions, but was pretty clear that there was no reason for him to live.  There was nothing about life that had any hold on him any more.  It really shook me up.  I had never had a conversation with a dead man before.  I'm not saying that to be funny: it really was like talking with somebody who was already dead.

And now my friend's son has ended his life.  It was, apparently, a complete shock, not only to his immediate family, but also to his friends.  He had a lot of friends.  It seems that none of them had any idea that he was considering ending it all.  But he did.  It's not a question of it being an accident, it was quite clearly a deliberate, well-thought-out act.

Suicides sometimes run in families, and that's the case here.  This young man's father committed suicide about 11 years ago.  Two uncles did as well.  Is it genetic?  Maybe one suicide leads others to consider it as a viable way to end their troubles?  I don't know.  Pain sometimes begets pain, in any number of ways.

Meanwhile, his family and friends are left with picking up the pieces of their lives and, eventually, continuing on.  Only there will be this huge hole where he used to be.  His mother has a large circle of very supportive friends who are doing everything they can to help her through this time.  I don't quite know what to say to her, but we're going to see her Thursday, so we'll try to do whatever is appropriate.  We don't have answers, just support.