Friday, July 24, 2015

Demsteader Follow-Up

In my last post, I wrote about Mark Demsteader and his approach to drawing and painting the figure.  I thought I'd try it out.  So I picked out a drawing from an old session with a model to copy and compare, and gave it a go.  Here's the result:

Both drawings are on the same paper (a light cream Mi-Teintes) and are done with vine charcoal.  The one on the left is descriptive and tentative.  The one on the right is bold and expressive.  I'm not Demsteader, so my drawings are clearly not his.

Oddly enough, I don't know that I could do something like the one on the right in one of our normal life drawing sessions.  When I'm working from the model, it's an exploratory session, a "get to know you" time.  I'm trying to get the model's physical appearance as well as personality captured on paper.  It is, by definition, tentative.  How is her head shaped?  Where do the shadows fall?  Is she strong-willed, bubbly, bored?  How does that show in her face and posture?  This particular model is a confident young woman and I think it comes through in the drawing.

There's nothing tentative about the approach on the right.  The marks are slammed in with confidence.  It's more of an expressive, "I know what I'm doing" approach.  It says more about the artist than the model.  I might be able to do something like this from life if I know the model well and have done enough drawings to know what I want to put the focus on.

Demsteader doesn't do most of his drawings from life.  He works from photos.  I noted that in the articles about him and now I understand it.  When working from photos, there's a greater distance between artist and model.  Rather than working with a living, breathing human being, you're working with an image.  It's easier to be expressive with an image when you're not thinking about the impression that the human presence has.

I noticed that my original drawing, as tentative as it is, has a lot of Kelly's personality.  The new drawing does not.  I can look at it and see that it was not drawn from life.  This figure is a more generic "young woman" and not "Kelly".  For some artists, that's the way they work.  The figures they draw and paint are actors to be manipulated to express whatever the artist wants to express.  For me, it's important that the figures that I draw and paint are specific individuals.  It's more about what I see in them than it is about how I'm using them to express something else.

So what's the bottom line?  I think I have a new tool in my artist toolbox: a different, more bold and dynamic way to draw the figure.  But I need to learn more about how to use it from life and to say something about the individual I'm working with.  It's a challenge.  Sounds like fun!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Looking at Artists: Mark Demsteader

This morning, one of my contacts on Facebook posted a painting by Mark Demsteader.  It's a really stunning image of a woman in a blue dress.  The woman's figure is painted minimally and fairly realistically, but the dress is really a pile of paint.  It's at least two layers, probably more, of thick impasto, dragged across the canvas from a painting knife.  The juxtaposition of the smooth figure and roughly-painted dress is beautiful.

Erin in Blue
Oil on canvas, 52"x39"
Artist: Mark Demsteader

So I found Mark's web page and had a look.  I was really impressed by the work.  Mark's drawings and paintings are beautiful.  Most of them feature a young woman in a thin dress.  They are in a strong, direct light that throws heavy shadows across their faces.  Often their eyes are completely, or almost completely, in shadow, giving them a very mysterious air.  Mark almost always focuses on the head and a very limited bit of the body - maybe just the neck or shoulders, while the rest of the figure is indicated only in very rough strokes.

You might call his approach formulaic.  Usually, when all the works from an artist are done the same way, I get bored after about the third one.  I don't get bored with Demsteader's.  They're too good.

Back in 2011, Demsteader did a series of artworks with Emma Watson (the actress from the Harry Potter movies) as the subject.  It was a collaboration, and an interesting one.  You can read about it, and see some of the images from the series, in this Vogue (UK) article.  Watson contacted Demsteader about doing an artwork of her, then Demsteader came up with the idea of doing many artworks and auctioning them off to benefit the charity of her choice.  What a wonderful thing for both of them to do.

Demsteader works in a way that I can relate to.  The model doesn't need much in the way of makeup or nice outfits.  He sets up a single large light to create strong lights and darks and then simplifies the features and clothing.  Here's an example of one of his drawings:

Study for Siren
Pastel and collage, 46"x32"
Artist: Mark Demsteader

Fantastic, isn't it?  I see a lot of things that I want to try.  First, simplify, simplify, simplify.  I tend to get caught up in getting everything recorded as accurately as possible.  That's descriptive, not expressive.  Focus on the important bits (usually the head and face), let things further away be just roughly indicated, and exaggerate value changes.  Mark's values here are black, paper white, and a medium gray.  That's three values.  When I draw, I often try to do too many.  Simplify!

Second, keep the drawing accurate.  I do that already, as much as I can, but need to focus on it.  The young lady's face in the drawing above is extremely accurate, which lets the mark-making be more expressive.  Her shoulder and arm are reduced to just the very basic contour lines, but they work because they're in exactly the right place.  The fact that they're stripped-down only emphasize the expressiveness of the marks around the face, and they work because the face is accurately drawn.  It all has to work together.

Third, in a painting, try the concept of a carefully-rendered figure with an outfit indicated by roughly scumbled paint, from a painting knife if possible.  I'm not going to try to create more "Mark Demsteader" paintings, but just want to see what I can learn out of this exercise.  (Come to think of it, I have some abandoned figure paintings in the studio already (what artist doesn't?) and can try this when I get to the studio tomorrow.

I found an interesting series of photos of one of Mark's demos of a portrait drawing.  It's really interesting to see how he develops the figure.  He doesn't just put a mark down and leave it - he builds on it through multiple layers.  Take a look - you can save the photo and enlarge it on your computer screen if you want.  You'll have to figure out for yourself what he's doing at each stage since there was no narrative to accompany it.

So I'm adding Mark Demsteader to my personal list of really cool artists.  If you like what you've seen here, then visit his site, or Google his name and look at all the images.  There's a ton of stuff online and I was really blown away by it.  I really love finding a great artist that I've never heard of before!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Still Alice

Last night, we watched the movie Still Alice.  In this movie, Julianne Moore is Dr. Alice Howland, a highly respected professor at Columbia who comes down with early-onset Alzheimer's at age 50.  Particularly for someone to whom the intellect is everything, this disease is brutal, as it slowly takes away the memories that defined their capabilities.  The film follows the disease's progression as, step by step, one thing after another is taken away from her.  And it examines, to some extent, the impact of the disease on family members.  Alec Baldwin is her husband, who is supportive but also has to watch out for his own career, since he is now the sole breadwinner.  Her children, played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristin Stewart, have to figure out their own roles in their mother's life, as well as her changing role in theirs.

Julianne Moore won an Academy Award for her role, and it was well deserved.  She really became Alice Howland.  Her gradual transformation from a leading expert in linguistics to somebody who had nothing but a vague idea of who she was, was powerful, unsettling, and not pretty.  A really tremendous performance.

For many of us, the fear of getting Alzheimer's, or something like it, is a reality, especially as we grow older.  Both of my grandmothers, one of my aunts, and my mother-in-law had dementia.  Whether they had Alzheimer's or something else, I don't know, but it doesn't really matter.  It was frightening: they could very easily get out of the house one day and disappear.  It happens all the time - we see Amber Alerts nearly every week here in western North Carolina for just that sort of thing.  Or they could run up tens of thousands of dollars of in bills if an unscrupulous salesperson hits them at the wrong time (something like this happened with my aunt).  If not that, then the bills for adequate care can bankrupt a family.  In the movie, Moore and her husband were pretty affluent and had good insurance, so the story could focus on the disease and its impact.  Money was a concern but not a driving factor.  For most of us, being able to pay for adequate care will be critical concerns.

I've left the age of 60 in the rear-view mirror and the prospect of dementia is now a constant low-level bogeyman.  I'm more forgetful now, but it seems (so far) to be just normal.  Fortunately, the men in my family have all retained their mental facilities to the end.  That's good news for me, but I'm only one half of my household.

Young people watch horror movies for a gratuitous scare.  Still Alice is a horror story for older folks, with the added twist of being a real threat.  Still, it was worth watching.  There is life with Alzheimer's.  You just appreciate it a lot more.