Thursday, December 29, 2016

Asheville Event Paintings

Logan and Jen

I'm offering a new service: live paintings of special events, like weddings, mitzvahs, quinceaneras, and other important milestones in life.  I'm a people painter, and I like to see my artworks go to people who will most appreciate them.  Generally, this means going to the people who are actually depicted in the image.  This new service will do that.

It all started last summer.  I got a call from somebody who asked if I could paint her sister's wedding.  I said "sure, of course!" and then scrambled to find out exactly what that entailed.  Turns out, having a live wedding painter is A Big Thing nowadays.  It's been trending for the past five or six years.  Do a google search on "wedding paintings" and see what pops up.  Since I don't go to very many weddings these days, I had no idea.  As it turned out, this particular gig didn't come through, but the seed was planted.

I wondered if I'd really be interested in doing something like this, so I dug out some of my photos from my cousin's wedding a few years ago and did a trial painting.  "Logan and Jen", above, is the result.  I gave it to them and it's now framed and hanging in their bedroom.  They love it.  That really made my day.

So I put together a plan on how to do this in a professional manner.  The idea is that I will do live painting at the ceremony, reception, or whatever, during the event.  I'll take it back to the studio afterward to smooth it up and ensure the figures are a good likeness and that they have a lot of life.  Then I'll deliver it to the client.  There are other options, too: portraits, giclees, and so on.  All this eventually resulted in the Asheville Event Paintings website that I just launched yesterday.  Go take a look and let me know what you think.  I'm really interested in your feedback!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Putting the New Colors to Work

In my last post, I talked about two new colors for my limited-paletted experiments.  They were Gamblin's Chromatic Black and Naples Yellow Hue.  I suggested that there would be future blog post about using them for caucasian skin tones.  Well, this is that post.

I've been looking at the work of Nick Alm a lot lately.  Nick is a young Swedish figurative painter.  His figures are light-skinned, and getting those light skin tones has driven me bananas.  You can't just add a lot of white to your basic mixtures of cad red, cad yellow, and a touch of a blue, and expect to get a skin tone that doesn't look like chalk.  But if you go easy on the white, you get a darker and stronger color.  What's an artist to do?

Try different colors, for one thing.  And copy Alm's work to try to reverse-engineer his methods.  Same thing you'd do when you're trying to understand any artist's work.

Here's one of Alm's portrait sketches:

Beautiful, isn't it?  I greatly enlarged it on the computer screen so I could get a better idea of some of the colors, strokes, and structure.  I discovered that the black is a very cool color and that there's more green in the skin tones than were immediately apparent.  The figure seemed to be built up from a muted warm green underpainting, with pink lighted areas on top.  The greens remain in some shadowed or darker areas, such as on the neck, around the mouth, and on the forehead.  Nick uses very high value contrasts in his paintings, so most of the colors here are extremely dark or very light, with not much in the way of mid-values.  This helps increase the drama in the picture.

Here's my copy of it:

As you can see, I still didn't come close to his skin tones.  Mine have much more yellow and white.  I used Chromatic Black and Naples Yellow, as mentioned above, and Terra Rosa for my red.  Chromatic Black is actually a dark blue, Naples Yellow is a very muted yellow, and Terra Rosa is a slightly cool muted red.  So I had the ingredients for a good copy but missed it.

I toned the surface (gessoed paper) with a green, like Alm did, but then didn't let that green show through in the final image.  The black worked out very well.  I mixed in a bit of burnt umber in order to try to tie it in with the warmer colors of the face, but in retrospect that wasn't necessary, and Alm sure didn't do it.   I drew the face to place all the features, then did a grisaille (black and white rendition) on top of the green, then laid in the warm skin tones using Flake White, Naples Yellow, and Terra Rosa.  I could see that Alm used little or no yellow, but I just couldn't go that far and my results show it.  

That being said, these skin tones are still pretty good compared to what I have been doing.  I think I need to do another copy to pay more attention to the underpainting and dragging the lighter warms across the cooler darker ground.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

New Colors on the Palette

I don't do a lot of experimentation with new colors.  I have enough trouble trying to understand the ones that are already there and being used.  Recently, though, I tried two new (for me) tubes from Gamblin.  I've been converted: these two add a lot of capability.

The first one is Chromatic Black.  For years, I have rarely used blacks from a tube.  They are color-killers: they're often muddy and they create a dead hole wherever they're heavily used.  Instead, I've mixed my own blacks out of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber.  Now Burnt Umber is really a very dark, muted yellow, so mixing it with Ultramarine Blue produces a dark dull green, but by varying the mixtures, it can go from bluish to brownish, so it's been pretty useful.  One of the problems is that it dries to a lighter and flatter finish and requires a coat of varnish to bring out the depth of the color.

Over the past couple of years, I've been experimenting with limited palettes.  One notable palette was used by Anders Zorn, a Swedish painter, and consisted of ivory black, white, yellow ochre, and cadmium red medium.  Occasionally he added other colors, but those four were his mainstays.  This worked because he had one yellow (yellow ochre), one red (cadmium red medium), one blue (ivory black), and white.  Yes, most blacks are really dark blues - if you don't think so, then mix them with yellow.  You'll get green, almost every time.

The problem with ivory black, though, is that it's made of a carbon base of ground and burned bone.  This is what makes it muddy, and that muddiness is why I rarely used it.

Gamblin has brought out a new color: Chromatic Black.  Rather than using some sort of carbon base, it's made from blending two dark colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel.  Since they're almost exactly opposite, they largely cancel each other's color tendencies out and leave a very dark and muted "black".  The two colors are Phthalo Emerald and Quinacridone Red.  Both are synthetic colors and have a purity to them that earth and carbon colors don't.  The result is a black that doesn't suck the life out of the painting.

What's really interesting is that it is actually a dark blue.  Yes, red and green can sometimes make blue.  Mixing white with the Chromatic Black gives a clear but muted blue, quite different from the muddy blue you get from mixing white with ivory black.

So.  Chromatic Black is a pretty cool color.

The other new one is Gamblin's Naples Yellow Hue.  Naples Yellow is an old color dating back to the 1600's, but is rarely used now because it's lead-based and very toxic.  It's been replaced by a variety of other mixtures and varies greatly between manufacturers.  I'd always considered it just a convenience mixture of white plus cadmium yellow, and since I already had both, why buy a tube?  But in a recent life painting session, one of the other artists had Naples Yellow on her palette and I was intrigued.  So I got a tube and tried it out.

Turns out, it's working very well for me in the skin tones.  Gamblin's version is made with zinc white and cadmium yellow.  So it's a muted yellow with a rich texture and surprising depth.  It has given me some beautiful muted greens that are clear, quiet, and useful, with no muddiness.  Mixing the Naples Yellow with Chromatic Black gives a particularly nice green.  It's also good for pale caucasian skin tones.  I'll go into that in another post soon.

Some of you may have been using Chromatic Black and/or Naples Yellow for years and know this stuff already.  Bear with me: I'm still learning, and these two colors are going to be affecting how I paint figures from here on out.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Tale of Two Complaints

Complaints aren't necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes they reveal an issue that the person responsible didn't know about.  They also give the party responsible an opportunity to do some corrective action.  I had two incidents lately where I had to complain and the responses said a lot about the companies involved.

The first one involved my truck.  I have a 2008 Nissan Frontier.  It's been a good truck with no real issues so far beyond scheduled maintenance.  It was just short of 60,000 miles when I took it in to Anderson Nissan in Asheville for a rather extensive list of scheduled items.  A faint whine had recently started in the engine compartment.  Didn't sound like much and I thought a bearing might be going bad somewhere, so I asked them to check on it.

That afternoon, I got a call from the dealer.  In addition to the regular maintenance items, they'd found a few more things that needed to be done, and I told them to go ahead.  Then the kicker: the whine was due to bad timing chain tensioners and it was going to cost over $2,100 to repair, in addition to the $1,000+ that I had already expected.

Holy cow.  I hadn't budgeted for that.  I stammered around for a bit and then told 'em no, don't do that repair, not yet.  I had to calm down.  After a bit, I got on the interwebs and started researching the problem that they described.  The results were interesting.  It turned out that the failure of the timing chain tensioners was a well-known issue and that Nissan had issued a technical service bulletin about the problem, along with the fix, in 2004.  Yet they continued to use the failure-prone parts until maybe 2010.  The problem was bad enough that there are at least three class-action lawsuits pending against Nissan.

Ignoring the issue would definitely be the wrong answer.  The timing chains would eventually break, leading to destruction of the engine and an $8,000 bill for a new one.  Frontier owners on various Nissan discussion boards reported that their timing chain repairs had cost $1400-1800, considerably less than my price quote.

So the next morning, I walked into Anderson Nissan and had a discussion with the service manager.  I told her to go ahead with the repairs, but that I was extremely unhappy with having this repair come out of my pocket.  This was a widespread problem that was clearly the result of a design or manufacturing defect that should be covered by warranty by corporate Nissan.  Yes, my Frontier was out of warranty due to time, but it had less than 60,000 miles.  I didn't yell or scream: I stayed calm and let her know that I was unhappy and that I had very rational reasons for being that way.

This approach paid off.  She could see from her records that I'd followed the maintenance schedule religiously and I wasn't an asshole.  So she did what she could, which was knock $300 off the cost and recommended that I contact Nissan USA.  She said they were more helpful than most people realized.  So $300 wasn't enough, but it was a start.

I then contacted Nissan USA and described the problem and why I was unhappy.  The next day, I got a call from a very nice lady who asked me to send in a bit more information, which I did immediately.  A couple of days later, she called me back to say that Nissan recognized that this was a problem, but that my truck was well out of warranty; however, they offered over $900 to cover half the remaining bill.

I took it.  Could I have argued for more?  Maybe, but as they noted, my truck is 8 years old and stuff happens.  In the end, I paid $900 for a very extensive repair that is guaranteed for the life of the vehicle.  All in all, I think both Anderson Nissan and Nissan USA treated me fairly.

The second complaint also had to do with cars.  I rent a car from Avis periodically when I go to Indiana to train people heading to Afghanistan.  I'm on Avis' frequent-renter program that supposedly gives better service.  Two weeks ahead of time, I made a reservation for a full-size car.  Three days prior to the scheduled pick-up, Avis sent me an email to remind me of my reservation.  So far, so good.  Then I showed up at the Avis counter at 9 a.m., as scheduled, and they didn't have my car.  Not even close.  Instead, the best they could offer was a Nissan Sentra, which is at least three steps down.  I was not at all happy, particularly when I got a look at the Sentra in question.  It had 30,000 miles on it, along with a ton of dents, dings, and scrapes.  But there was nothing else on the lot and the closest alternative lot was 40 minutes away.  Since I needed to get started on the drive, I took it.

I got five miles down the road and turned around.  The Sentra was a piece of junk.  It was uncomfortable, noisy, felt used-up, had a rumbling coming out of the rear end like a wheel bearing was going bad, and had the worst radio I've encountered since a high-school buddy's 1965 Rambler.  I wouldn't have accepted it from Rent-A-Wreck even for a day of around-town driving, much less for a week and 1000 miles.  The original Avis counter couldn't help me, so I wound up driving to the airport.  There, an extremely helpful Avis representative swapped it for a nearly-new Volkswagen Jetta.  I wound up hitting the road over an hour late, but the Jetta proved to be the perfect car for a long-distance drive.  I loved it.

After the trip was over, I sent a note to Avis detailing the events and telling them how unhappy I was.  I'd made the reservation two weeks in advance, they had acknowledged it three days prior, and then failed to deliver.  Not only that, they gave me a car that shouldn't be rented to anybody.

The next day, I got a note from Avis saying that they had documented my case and "escalated it to the proper department for the necessary feedback."

And that's it.  Over a week later, they have yet to get back to me.  Not even a meaningless assurance that they will do their best to fill my reservation next time.

However, they did send me two requests to fill out a customer survey form to let them know how well they performed.  I ignored the first request, thinking that I'd give 'em some time for the "proper department" to get back to me.  The second request, though, was too much.  So I gave 'em an earful.  Or an email full, depending on how you look at it.

So there you are.  Two problems.  Two well-reasoned complaints.  Anderson Nissan and Nissan USA took my issues seriously and responded.  Good on them.  Avis blew me off, even though I'm a frequent renter.  Screw them.

Late Note: The day after publishing this post, I heard back from Avis.  They said, in part: "Any difficulties or problems encountered by a customer are a concern to us and we apologize most sincerely for any inconvenience you may have been caused.  Please be assured that your experience was not typical and the appropriate management teams have been advised.  Although we realize that we cannot make up for a disappointing experience such as this, we do appreciate your contacting us.  Only by being made aware of a problem can we correct it and offer the high quality of service that Avis customers expect and deserve."

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Figure Painting Workshop

I ran a figure painting workshop in my studio this weekend.  We had a full class of six students - the maximum I want in my studio so they're not falling all over each other.  The workshop ran for four hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

I divided the effort into two parts.  On Saturday, the students worked on a monochrome painting of the figure.  This was a value study done in only one color.  A painting done this way is often called a "grisaille" (pronounced "griz-I").  Grisaille means "gray", and a grisaille painting is technically in black and white, but since we used burnt umber or other colors, I prefer the term "monochrome".  (Okay, enough nerdiness, on to the rest of the story ...)

On Sunday, the students took the monochrome painting and went over it in color.  We focused on skin tones, warm and cool tints, reflected lights, shadow colors, background colors, and matching the values of the colors to the values of the monochrome.

Dividing the painting process this way might seem roundabout, but it's actually easier for many artists, including me.  It separates the decisions associated with the composition, drawing, and light/dark values from the decisions associated with color, warm/cool, reflected lights, and intensity.  The idea is to use a simple approach first to make the fundamental decisions about the composition of the painting, and then gradually add more light/dark values and then color until you get something you can consider done.  (Or until it's so badly messed up that you throw it away.  One or the other.)

I had a great time with the students.  This was the first time I'd put on this particular workshop and I didn't know how it would go.  When you have good students, it always goes well.  They all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the class as well.  I paused the painting process a couple of times each session so we could see each other's work, talk about what was working and not working, get the students to talk about what they were experiencing, and compare notes.  All of them had different approaches.  By talking about their issues, and about what they saw in each other's work, they could learn a lot more than if everybody was doing the same thing.

So here are a few images from this weekend:

Some of the students, hard at work ...

And here are their paintings:

I'm proud of the way all six of them developed over just two days in the studio!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Training Again

This past week, I was up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana to train another group of Defense Department civilians who are heading to Afghanistan.  My part of the training program was to serve as a mentor to a team of ten people as they went through several days of increasingly complex immersive scenarios.  We put them into situations where they have to put their classroom training into practice.  They coordinate movements with their military security team, go to meetings with Afghan officials, try to establish relationships, try to figure out the underlying issues, respond to rapidly changing circumstances, get shot at, and report what they learned back to the senior military officer in charge.

It's always rewarding to see the teams develop, and this one was no exception.  Their approach to their first event was pretty lackadaisical - they thought of it as just another class and showed up late.  By the end of the event,  though, we were beginning to get their attention.  During the next day's events, they weren't quite on board yet and I would've only given them a C or a C-.  But after that, they understood what was going on and they dove into it.  One student told me "I was convinced I wasn't in Indiana, I was in Afghanistan!"  They played it for real and they did a great job.  At the end of the last event, the senior Afghan told them that they were fully ready to be advisors.  I've never heard him tell a team that before.

This photo shows part of the training.  The team had to go to a bazaar and talk to some local Afghan merchants about the local issues.  There was a lot to hear, learn, and respond to.  Then they had to get out of the bazaar when things went bad.  

I love doing this training.  It's so rewarding to see the light come on in their eyes, to see how far they come in just a short period of time, and to help them internalize concepts that will enable them to fully understand their role and possibly save their lives.  It's rewarding to know that I have the background and skill set to help them through this period.  I'll keep doing this as long as I possibly can.

Monday, October 31, 2016

More Computer Stuff ...

Back in September, I wrote a post called "Electronic Gremlins", about the difficulties in getting a new phone operational.  I'm going through pretty much the same thing again.  Now, though, it's the computers.  We finally pulled the trigger on getting a new Mac.  Buying it was simple.  Getting it set up the right way is taking a while.

We've been using a pair of Macs that we bought in the fall of 2008.  Eight years in the computer world is a long, long time.  It was right before I deployed to Iraq.  We wanted to be able to communicate with each other during the deployment, so I got a MacBook for me and an iMac for Janis.  Macs are (supposedly) easy to use and came with things like iChat (a messaging service) and FaceTime (video service).  We added Skype and a few other programs and off I went.  The two computers proved to be very reliable.  They still work, too - in fact, I'm writing this post on my old MacBook now.  But they were being overtaken by newer systems that demanded faster processors and much larger operating systems.  The software that runs on these old Macs isn't supported by Apple or other vendors anymore.  The kicker came when we got our new iPhones and discovered that they wouldn't talk to our old Macs.  Okay, okay, okay, I get the message.  Get a new computer.

So last week, I bought a new iMac.  Nice machine.  Great screen, too.  Very elegant.  Set it up, plug it in, turn it on ... and now the trouble begins.  Time to configure it.  This is NOT a trivial undertaking.  In the old days, it was simple: set up a password, set up your email, and have at it.  Now there are multiple users, multiple cloud accounts, multiple emails, multiple everything.  You can't just slam all the old stuff into a new computer, you need to figure out an architecture first.  And not knowing what needs to be considered makes the job harder.

As an example, I had originally set up our old iMac with an Apple ID using my official name because, well, that's what you do, isn't it?  Well, that became Janis' computer.  So here was her photo, all her documents, purchases, emails, and so forth, all tagged as "William Rohde".  So I wanted to change her Apple ID to "Janis".  Nope, can't do that.  The name on the account cannot be changed.  So I created a new account just for her, but had to keep some ties to the old one since there were a number of key purchases and other things that we needed to maintain.  This wasn't as easy as it sounds, since I had to create a new email account for her.  I couldn't move her regular email account over to the new Apple ID because it was already tied to the old one.  And I didn't know at first that you could have multiple ID's.  Talk about an exercise in frustration!

The architecture that I decided upon is to have three users.  One will be used only as the System Administrator, one for Janis, and one for me.  We have six Apple ID's among them that are used for specific things such as iTunes or App Store purchases, finding our iPads and iPhones, storing our documents and photos, and so on.  Getting each account, iPad, and iPhone connected with the right Apple ID and ensuring that the right iCloud accounts are used, takes a bit of thought.  This is the kind of thing that somebody who's done this before would breeze through in five minutes.  For somebody that's never done it before, it takes a while to learn the ins and outs.  I didn't know, for example, that you could have multiple Apple ID's on one device, nor why that might be something you'd want to do.  (Clif Notes version: everybody in the family use one Apple ID for iTunes and App Store purchases, then a different and personal one for cloud storage, FaceTime video chats, and so on.)

Okay, so the architecture was decided and set up.  Then I needed to get all of Janis' stuff off the old computer and onto the new one.  Apple has this thing called a Migration Assistant that makes it easy.  Connect both computers through an Ethernet cable, launch the Assistant on both, and tell it to move everything over.  And it does!  Takes a bunch of hours (your hours may vary), but it moves all the documents, photos, music, applications, emails, all that stuff.  And most of it works on the new computer, unless the software is so old that it's not supported anymore.

Sounds great, no?  Well, not entirely.  Migration Assistant does indeed move everything.  I mean everything.  You know those old games that you downloaded six years ago and haven't played since?  Yep, there they are.  Old versions of Photoshop that have been replaced by newer ones?  Them too.  Applications that you have no idea what it is they do?  No problem.  Migration Assistant even moved all the contents of the Trash, for chrissakes.  So if you think you're going to get a fresh start on a new computer, think again.  You'll have all the same old crap, just a bigger hard drive to store it on and a faster processor to deal with all those unnecessary processes running in the background.

As an example, iPhoto on our old computers has been replaced by Photos.  The Migration Assistant brought over iPhoto and had it and the photos in one place, while the Photos app had the same photos in another.  So I dumped the old iPhoto system and photos.  And I had to go through all the applications, line by line, to see if something was being duplicated, or wasn't needed, or whatever.  Fortunately, Janis didn't have all that much stuff.  Then I emptied the Trash and got back several gigabytes of storage.

I haven't yet started moving my stuff over from this old Macbook.  Last night, though, I went through all the programs on here, cleaned out as much of the old stuff as I could, and emptied the Trash.  Result: about 7 gigs of data that don't need to be transferred.

I'm not going to throw out the old Macs, though.  They're going to be my studio computers.  These things still work fine on their own, and this old MacBook can take my studio on the road if needed.  I don't need nor want an internet connection in the studio as that's a major distraction.  My studio needs are pretty basic - hell, I use paint and brushes, and that technology is hundreds of years old!  So an old computer fits right in.  Just like being an old guy: everything still works, more or less, just not as fast as the newer stuff!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Smithsonian Museum of American History

Last week, I turned over 49 matted drawings, plus an envelope with another couple of dozen small drawings, to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  Yes, THAT Smithsonian.  The artworks were my "Faces of Afghanistan" series as well as assorted drawings from around Afghanistan and Iraq.

So how did my artworks wind up in the Smithsonian?  Good luck and good timing, I guess.  A while back, a colleague who was a Marine in Afghanistan and is now an artist posted that he was signing over one of his artworks to the Smithsonian.  I thought it was great and asked him how that came about.  Turned out that the museum is building a collection of post-9/11 military-related art.  He knew of my "Faces of Afghanistan" series and introduced me to the curator.  I sent her some images and descriptions of the works, and after a bit of back-and-forth, she said they'd love to have my work in the collection.

Wow.  My work.  In the Smithsonian.  Unbelievable.

Last week, I drove up to DC to deliver them.  Yes, I know, FedEx could have delivered them with no fuss and a lot less cost, but face it, how many times do you get the opportunity to deliver your own stuff to some place like the Smithsonian?  In-person is the only way to do it.  So on Friday, Oct 14, I drove into DC, into the bowels of the American History Museum, and met the curator, Kathy.  I pulled the box of drawings out of the back of the car and handed them over.  Kathy and her collections manager, Estelle, were thrilled.

They weren't half as thrilled as I was, though.  After the turnover, Kathy took me to the room where the military art collection is stored.  Imagine a room about 30 feet square, with one wall taken up with flat files up to 8 feet high.  Each drawer is marked with the contents.  There are hundreds of such drawers.  Open one up at random and you'll see some wonderful work.  I pulled open one of the WWI drawers and examined a gouache work of a soldier going over the top of a trench.  It had amazing energy - the feeling of violence and danger jumped out of the image.  Then Kathy pointed out that the artist's field art box was sitting on the shelf next to me.  On the opposite wall were racks of paintings.  More boxes and containers filled the space in between.  Various military artifacts were casually (but carefully) stored all over the place.  I felt like I was on hallowed ground.

Kathy also pulled out the artworks currently in the post-9/11 collection.  Most of them are by Richard Johnson.  He went to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times for Canadian newspapers.  In fact, he was in Kandahar just a few months before I got there.  Richard was embedded with the Canadian troops, so his artworks focused on the soldiers and their environment.  He draws with a blue pencil and his works are fantastic: full of life, showing the stresses of the environment, and nailing the conditions that the troops lived and worked in.  Take a look at his drawings on his web site:  While you're there, watch his TedEx video.  Powerful stuff.

My drawings are probably stashed in one of those drawers by now.  If you want to know when they'll be exhibited, well, probably never.  The museum has so much stuff that less than one percent is ever on view at any one time.  Exhibitions are scheduled years in advance and are subject to the interests of curators and whims of directors, as well as the willingness of a sponsor to cough up the money to pay for them.  However, most everything is available to anybody doing legitimate research.  So any curator, artist, student, or whatever, who's interested in seeing artworks from Iraq and Afghanistan can make an appointment with the Museum and see my stuff in person.  Yes, you can.  Or the World War I artwork.  Or their collection of posters.  Or any number of subjects.

So although my artworks may never be exhibited as a collection again, I'm happy with where they are.  They'll be available to infinitely more people than they ever would be if they spent their lives on the shelf in my studio.  They're part of America's attic now.  You own them.  Go see your stuff!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Electronic Gremlins

We had some gremlins set up shop in some of the electronics around our home over the past week.  I think we've mostly recovered to about the 95% level, but it has been a long and very annoying road.

It started early this week.  I was looking at my 4-year-old iPhone and thought it needed cleaning, so I took it out of its case.  Almost as soon as I did that, the front popped half off.  The battery, it seems, was well past its useful life and had expanded.  When the case was removed, it was able to push the front of the phone out.  Great: my phone is now an ex-phone.  Deceased.

After a quick talk with Janis, we decided to replace both of our phones.  Hers was a little newer than mine, but both were way beyond Verizon's "new every two" sales pitch.  So off I went to the Verizon store and came home with two brand-new iPhone 6 SE's with the cell numbers already activated.  These phones have all the iPhone 6 internals, just in the smaller iPhone 5 case, and they still have the earphone jack that Apple is trying to do away with.  All is well so far.

You know how Apple advertises how everything in Apple-land is seamless, and people can do stuff like transfer all their data from one phone or tablet to another with just a click?  Right.  Not here.  Not in this house.  I plugged our phones into our computers and got an error message saying that our new phones would not talk to our 8-year-old MacBook and iMac.  The older iPhones worked with the two computers just fine, but something about the new hardware says "nope, no way."  I spent a lot of time with Mr. Google, trying to find solutions, to no avail.  The new iPhones won't talk with the old computers.

So I had to find some workarounds.   One was really ironic.  I have a Dell laptop with Windows 10 that's used for my day job, so I paired my new phone with the Dell.  It wasn't as easy as connecting to a Mac, but it worked.  So then I was able to transfer some data from my MacBook to the Dell and then onto the phone.  And yes, you read that right: my iPhone will talk to a frickin' Windows machine, but not a Mac.  Is that hosed, or what?

I was able to transfer some data through Apple's iCloud, too, after quite a bit of struggling to make the "easy" system do what I wanted it to do.  And I was able to transfer photographs off my iPad (which, unlike my new phone, is still on speaking terms with my old MacBook).  Transferring apps proved impossible, so I had to download them all over again.  One side benefit, though, was that many unused apps, photos, and music just went away.  So now I have the contacts, music, apps, and photos I need on my new phone.  I think.

Getting Janis' phone up to speed was a similar exercise.  She doesn't keep music on her phone, so there wasn't any need to transfer stuff from iTunes, but she does have a bunch of photos, messages, emails, and contacts.  We got the contacts and the "keeper" photos transferred, but not the messages and emails.  Oh, well.

As we were getting the phones caught up to where we needed them, the electronic gremlins struck again.  On Friday morning, our internet went dead.  Turned out that our modem was kaput.  Our internet provider, Frontier, said they might be able to get a tech with a new modem out here by Wednesday.  That was unsatisfactory, since I work from home and was just completing a good-sized project due that afternoon.  Frontier said they'd "see what could be done".  By early afternoon, though, that answer appeared to be "nothing".  So off I went to Best Buy and came home with a bare-bones modem.  After a bit of finagling, it worked.  So now we have an internet connection and I have another piece of dead electronics sitting here in my home office.

So at the end of all this, we have two new phones, a modem that's getting the job done, two old computers on their way to retirement, one workable phone, and some dead electronics.  I've known for a while that we're going to need a new computer.  Since I'm not deploying anymore, we'll eventually replace this MacBook and the iMac with a new iMac.  But that's a big expense and I'm a cheap bastard, so that purchase is still a little ways off.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Where's Your Studio?

One of the first questions an artist is asked, after "what do you do?", is "where is your studio?"  The answer to that says a lot about the artist.  It should: there is a lot that goes into the decision.

I've had several studios.  My first was in the basement of my old house.  It was a bit dank and dark, but it was fairly roomy and had running water, so I was pretty happy with it.  I was in the Navy, so that job came first, but the studio was available whenever I could spend some time there.

My second and third studios were third bedrooms in different homes.  "Studio" is a rather ambitious name for something that was little more than a closet filled with art stuff.  But like my basement studio, they were available whenever my Navy work allowed.

After I retired from the military, I went to UNC Asheville to study fine art.  I set up a studio in our 2-car garage.  Half the garage was for the car and half for me.  It didn't work.  The light was horrible.  Our garage opens to the southwest, so I had sunlight bouncing off the pavement, providing incredible glare.  Every leaf in the neighborhood would blow in whenever the door opened.  It was cold in winter and hotter than hell in the summer.  You can't make any kind of art when you're fighting your environment.

During my senior year at UNCA, I had a tiny studio in the art building.  It was maybe 9'x9'.  A closet, really, but it was a dedicated art space with lighting, heating and cooling, and (best of all) lots of other artists around to trade ideas with.  That's where I did my "Old Times" series of 16 paintings.

After graduating, I moved into a studio in Asheville's River Arts District.  Finally, a professional studio!  It was about 30'x20' and shared with two other painters.  One left after a few months and then Christine Enochs and I shared it for about five years.  It was in an old brick cotton mill built circa 1898.  It had seven large windows, about 8' high and 4' wide, that had all the insulation you'd expect of a window installed in 1898.  It also had 15' ceilings, wood floors, and a bathroom.  And bugs.  Lots and lots of bugs.

But the physical description is only a tiny part of it.  The building was full of other artists: several painters, a choreographer, stained-glass window artist, two potters, a flute maker, textile artists, and a wire sculptor, to name a few.  We had a small community within the building that exposed us to all kinds of new ideas as well as mutual support.  We were in a larger community of artists in other buildings, too.  I could go over to the Clingman Cafe and wind up talking with a woodworker or photographer about things I never would have thought of otherwise.  Being in a community of artists is invaluable, particularly when you're just starting out.  Our building was also open to the public pretty much every day, so there was a slow stream of foot traffic that became a flood during the two Studio Stroll weekends we held every year.

I eventually moved out of this studio when I made the decision to go to Afghanistan.  After I came home, I went looking for a different place.  While being in a community of artists was great, having constant foot traffic did not work well for me.  People would come in, spend 20 minutes talking with me, and then walk out.  Foot traffic worked well for the potters, who had inexpensive items like coffee mugs that sold well.  Paintings and other artworks that could cost up to several thousand dollars did not move.  So I decided that it was better for me to have a studio with no foot traffic and no interruptions.

I found one in Riverside Business Park.  This is another old textile mill that has been converted into a small business incubator.  There are lots of operations here: a coffee roaster, a couple of warehouse-type operations, a few artists, two rafting companies, and so on.  My studio was about 650 square feet with fluorescent lights and heating and cooling.  Later, I also rented the adjacent hallway that didn't go anywhere, along with two bathrooms (good story behind all that), that gave me lots of storage space and running water.  There are no windows, but I installed daylight-balanced lights.  Since this is an industrial space rather than an "artist studio", rent is very affordable.  There's no foot traffic, which is a plus for me, but there's plenty of space for workshops, weekly life drawing groups, and other activities.  All in all, it works out well.

Many professional artists work out of their homes, or in studios built on their property.  I find that it helps me to have to actually go somewhere else.  There's a mind shift: I'm going to work.  When I'm at home, I have all kinds of other things that "need" to be done: go to the grocery store, do some yard work, that sort of thing.  So I'm one of those artists that needs a separate studio that's located some distance away.

What would I change about my current studio?  Well, it would be nice to have windows, but that can't happen since it's in the middle of the building.  It would also be nice if it was 10 miles closer to home.  Going to work is one thing, but it doesn't have to be a 20-minute drive.  And it would be great to be in a community of artists, with a cafe nearby, that wasn't overrun by tourists.  I'm afraid that combination of factors doesn't exist, though.  So I'm keeping my studio.  And no, you can't have it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Art Education

I've been asked quite a few times by high schoolers and other young people about an art education.  I see the idea in their eyes that they want to be artists when they grow up, and want to know the best way to go about it.  High school students ask if they should go to college and get a Bachelor's in Art.  College students ask if they should get a Masters degree.  And sometimes they've turned to me for advice.

Well, really, it all depends on what you want to do.

Now, I'm a firm believer in a college education.  I've got a degree in engineering, an MBA, and a degree in Fine Art.  The first got me a career in the Navy, the second advanced that career, and the third got me going in art.  College degrees are wonderful things.  You learn a lot about yourself, you get exposed to things you'd never see otherwise, and if you're lucky, you learn to write a bit better.  But I'll also be the first to tell you that, if you want to be a full-time working artist, a college degree may not be the way to go.

Why is that?  Well, for one, a college education is getting ridiculously expensive.  Most students these days graduate with varying amounts of student debt.  It's not uncommon for somebody to have a diploma in one hand and a bill for $50,000 in the other.  That might be workable if you were going into a high-paying career field like law or engineering.  Art is NOT that career field.  Most artists don't even break even with their art sales.  I certainly don't, and I've had my professional studio for 13 years now.  You can't have a studio, some sort of housing, food, and transportation, while at the same time paying off a student loan, especially if your studio has a negative income.  (There's this pesky thing called "arithmetic" that keeps getting in the way ...)  On the positive side, going to college for an art education will give you new skills and open your eyes to different things.  On the negative side, you'll pay for it.  A lot.

Going for a Masters degree in Art compounds things: more skills, a piece of paper at the end, and a lot more bills.  Granted, if you want to teach art at the college level (this includes community colleges), you have to have a Masters.  If you're looking to be a working artist, you don't need a degree at all.

Let me mention two examples.  One artist friend of mine got her BFA about the same time that I did.  She went on to get an MFA and then moved to New York to be an artist.  She has one piece in the National Portrait Gallery, student loans that she will never be able to repay, and cannot afford to work as an artist anymore.  Another artist friend of mine has never had a class at all.  Not one.  She got started in art by accident, taught herself how to paint, and raised three kids as a single mom on her income from art sales.  She's had some extremely lean years, particularly during the downturn after 2008, and still has lots of concerns over money, but she's still a full-time working artist.  And she's turned out to be pretty damn good at what she does.

Another thing to consider: a great many, if not most, people change their careers after college.  An engineer may become a manager (a very different thing), a teacher may become a consultant, or a soldier may become a medical transcriptionist.  Artists are no different.  Of all those who graduated from UNC Asheville's art program about the time I did, maybe three are still actively doing art.

Okay, so cost is my first and largest issue regarding a college education.  A second issue is, what kind of education is best for you?  In my experience, art is generally taught in one of two basic forms.  In high-prestige art schools, the focus is on art, while just enough other courses (English, history, and math, for example) are added in to meet accreditation requirements.  In other schools, like a typical public university, it's a liberal-arts curriculum with enough art courses to give you a major.  These are two fundamentally different approaches.  One approach teaches you how to make high-quality Art but doesn't give you much exposure to the broader world.  The other gives you exposure to the broader world but the quality of the Art is lower.

Think of it as writing.  For a writer, the two key aspects are having something important to say, along with the technical skills to say it well.  An art-focused curriculum will give you the technical skills while paying scant attention to the message.  A liberal-arts-focused curriculum will give you exposure to the infinite number of messages that need to be addressed, while giving you a very basic set of technical skills.

I saw the results first-hand many years ago.  I visited one of the premier art schools in the country about the time that they had their annual student show.  I was blown away by their skills.  Their sophomores could put paint on canvas better than the seniors at my school (UNC Asheville).  The troubling thing was, they had nothing to say.  They were all trying to make the most esoteric pieces of ART they could, but there was no "there" there.  At UNC Asheville, my fellow students poured their hearts into the work.  They explored some really deep subjects in great depth.  The resulting work was sometimes crudely executed but had a power to it that could knock you back on your heels.

As you can tell, I put more emphasis on the content of a piece of art than on the technical skills that put it together.  That's my bias.  Deal with it.

There's one more aspect to address.  I have found that technical skills can always be learned.  I'm still learning new stuff all the time.  Having a message, though, comes from your own experiences in life.
So, going back to the original questions, is a Bachelor's degree in art worth it?  Depends.  I'd say the typical high-school grad needs to get some life experiences and figure out what they want to do, both in their life and in their art.  College may be the right place, but that's an expensive route.  Another might be to join the military for a few years.  Get some exposure to the larger world and have a military-sponsored program to attend college when you get out.  The danger there is that you might not ever come back to it.  If that happens, though, then the danger was always that you'd never follow through on an art career anyway, right?  Or you might just take off for a couple of years and work somewhere, or bounce around the country or the world, seeing and doing new things, before going off to school.  The point here: find your message.  Find what drives you.  Then work on the technical skills.

There are lots of ways to learn how to do the kind of art you want to do.  My artist friend, above, never had a lesson or a workshop.  She looked at books, did stuff similar to artists she liked, talked to other artists, and gradually became a really impressive painter in her own right.  I've done workshops, both in-person and online, and have learned a helluva lot from each one.  I still find new artists that do impressive things and then try to copy them.  The copies give me a greater understanding of how they work and also an understanding of how I can improve my own work.  My technical skills today are far beyond what they were when I finished my BFA program.

So think long and hard about going to college to study art.  The real question is: what do you really want to do?  I mean, really?

Friday, August 05, 2016

Art Demonstration

A few days ago, I gave a presentation and demonstration on my plein-air techniques to the Asheville Urban Landscape Project.  the AULP is a group of artists in the Asheville area that get together periodically to make some paintings.  During most of the year, they do landscapes outdoors and, in the winter months, they'll do figure sessions.  They also bring in accomplished local artists to do demonstrations of their painting styles.  I was honored to be asked this year.  Previous artists have included Richard Oversmith and Mark Harmon, so I was in some very accomplished territory.

I chose to do the demo at the Asheville Botanical Gardens.  This is a beautiful park-like area adjacent to UNC Asheville that shows the great biodiversity in western North Carolina.  About 25-30 people showed up.  I set up my French easel, gave a talk about the equipment and materials I use, and then started on a small painting of the gazebo.  I'd paint a few minutes, then talk a bit about what I was seeing, deciding, and doing, and answer questions whenever they popped up.  Some of the topics that we covered:
- using a neutral gray palette rather than a white one
- selecting and using a limited number of colors (one red, one blue, one yellow, along with burnt umber and yellow ochre)
- toning a canvas with a color before painting
- deciding on a composition: where the focus will be, the major light/dark areas, and areas of strongest color
- blocking in the composition with burnt umber
- building on the block-in with muted colors
- accentuating the focus areas with stronger colors
- reacting to changing light that can completely change the focus of the painting
- recovering from mistakes (actually, the whole process is one long recovery period, isn't it?)
- deciding when enough is enough before it becomes too much

The crowd was very engaged and asked lots of questions, which is always a good thing for me.  We had a good back-and-forth.  Here are some photos from the session:

A working artist is quite the fashionista.  Here's my sloppy self talking about the really exciting topic of the advantages of using a gray palette to lay out your paints.

Doing the initial block-in.  I was setting the horizon line in the upper third of the panel and the gazebo at the left third.

 Here's what I was looking at.  A little while later, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the grass in front of the gazebo.  Changed everything.

And here's how it turned out ...

Saturday, July 23, 2016


I spent last week up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana.  I was part of the team that trained a group of US government civilians heading to Afghanistan for a year.  Last month, my role was as a mentor for a team of students.  This time, I was what we call a "subject matter expert".  This meant that I worked with our Afghan role-players to ensure that the training events were well coordinated, the role-players had an idea as to how the students might react, and the events went off on schedule.  It can be a nerve-wracking job, but it's a lot of fun.

You could think of my role as the director and stage manager of a play in which only half the participants know what the script is.  Yes, there is a script: we have very definite goals in mind for each event.  These goals are increasingly complex as the training progresses and build on previous events.  In the first event, the student teams meet a local Afghan official.  It's a basic meet-and-greet.  The students are informed on very short notice of the meeting and have to learn something about the official, try to figure out what his interests are, prepare the meeting room as best they can, and determine which team member is going to fill each role.  Then they have to do the meeting.  It usually goes well, but it can go south in a hurry.  Last month, the official asked my student team about Donald Trump's veracity (a very realistic question as many Afghans watch American politics).  One of the students replied that "all politicians are liars".  This, to an Afghan politician.  Ooops!  Fortunately, the other team members helped the guy recover from his faux pas.  That's why we do this training: put the students in a safe environment where they have to put their training into practical use, and where mistakes aren't going to result in permanent damage.

Our Afghan role-players are wonderful people.  Many of them were driven out of their homes by the Soviets, or warlords, or the Taliban, and are eager to help the US rebuild the country.  Some were diplomats, some were officers or soldiers in the Army or Air Force, several were police officers, others were businessmen, teachers, village elders, scholars, and farmers.  One was a smuggler.  One has gone back to Afghanistan and put his life on the line three times as an interpreter with US forces.  Most have lost family members - wives, husbands, parents, sons, daughters, or other close relative - to the fighting that has raged in the country for 30 years.  Many still have family in Afghanistan.  I won't post any photos of them as that might endanger their family members still in-country.  But they have an amazing dedication to this job.  They bring insight, intelligence, and wit to their interactions with our students.  And, as one who was trained by these very same people five years ago, I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that their efforts are invaluable.

Outside of Muscatatuck, these men and women get little respect.  They are treated with suspicion because they're Muslims and Afghans.  They get told to "go home" way too often, even though many of them are now US citizens.  Extra attention and pat-downs in airports are a given.  Yet they still continue to show up, every time, to train people heading to Afghanistan.

So the next time you hear some idiot condemning all Muslims and Afghans as terrorists or worse, tell them to sit on it.  I work with Muslims and Afghans.  We are damned lucky to have them!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Taborets and Palettes

One of the things I do when I visit another artist's studio is study their taboret and palette.  It really gives me an insight into how they work.  Mechanics will check out another mechanic's tool set and shop layout, and for an artist, it's the same exact thing.  I get a lot of good ideas that way.

A taboret (pronounced "ta-bo-ray") is basically a table next to the easel that holds the artist's stuff.  It's a combination workbench and tool chest.  If you look in art catalogs, you'll probably notice that they're often fancy, made out of wood, and very expensive.  You won't find one of those in my studio.  I use a rolling tool chest that I got from Sears.  They still have a similar one in their catalog.  Mine is basically a steel 5-drawer unit on heavy-duty casters with a plastic top.  I tossed out the fiberboard top insert that came with it and replaced it with thick coffee-table glass for use as a palette.  On the left side, I added a shelf from scrap wood.  There's a recess in the top where I keep my mediums and the brushes I'm currently using.  I've got some small cardboard boxes attached to the back that hold my full selection of brushes.  Here's what it all looks like:

I'm right-handed, so I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  The wooden shelf holds the paper towel where I scrub my brushes.  Next to it is the recess.  From top to bottom you'll see the jar that holds the brushes in current use, then the large jar with dirty solvent (I use Gamsol), then a small jar with clean Gamsol, then a small jar with my medium (50% Gamsol, 50% linseed oil), and then a small jar with Liquin when needed.  To the right of the recess is the glass palette.  For me, this provides a natural flow, and I've been doing it for so long that I can't change now.  Some artists would want the palette to be as close as possible to the painting on the easel, but that hasn't worked for me.

Regarding the unused brushes, they're arranged according to size: small 0's to 2's to the left up to 12's on the right.  That way I can quickly find the size and shape I need.

The glass palette has to be backed with something so you can see and evaluate your paint.  Many artists use a white background, but I use a medium gray.  This allows me to see how light or dark the paint is.  If you use a white palette, then everything is darker, even a light yellow.  A medium gray background lets me get a good idea whether the paint is light or dark enough, and also whether it's strong or muted.  

The other good thing about glass is that it's easy to clean.  When I'm done for the day, I scrape off all my used paint, then wipe it down with Gamsol to clean it even more, and finally wipe it down with alcohol.  This removes all the remaining Gamsol and paint and leaves it clean enough to eat off of.

I mentioned earlier that I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  When I'm working from life, I position my easel so that it's just to the left of the subject and the taboret so it's just to the lower right of the subject.  This results in a small vision triangle and I can shift quickly from subject to painting to taboret, compare the paint mixture on the taboret to the subject, and back to the easel.  When I'm just drawing, though, I have the easel to the right of the subject, since I'm right-handed.

So that's how I set up my easel and taboret.  How do you set up yours?

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Figurative Paintings: Alla Prima versus from Photographs

A previous post talked about painting landscapes from life versus from photographs.  Many artists, especially the hard-core traditionalists, say you should never work from photos.  Other artists copy photos in so much detail that they've spawned the Photorealist movement.  I'm not in either of those camps.  I find that photos and life are complementary: there are things that come with working from life, and there are different things that come with working from photos.

In working from life, I'm really open to the person in front of me.  I see their natural posture, the way they move, how they speak, their manner, their personality, their humor, and their humanity.  I see the way their clothes hang on them, the way their skin is different colors in different areas, and get a 3-D sense of how their body is formed.  When I'm drawing or painting a person, I'm trying to get a sense of who they are as a person.  You can't really get that from photos.

There are limitations, though.  A person can't hold a pose for very long.  They need to move every so often, which interrupts the process.  Then they never get back in exactly the same position.  The result is that a painting done strictly from life is an average of many poses.  Also, the more interesting the pose, the shorter the time they can hold it.  If you twist your torso 90 degrees, for example, you're going to un-twist over the next few minutes.  Think you can hold it for 20 or 30 minutes?  Hah!

Another limitation: time.  The person being drawn or painted has a life outside the studio.  Sitting in one position for hours while I mess around on canvas is not an option.  As an artist, I have to respect that.  Furthermore, a professional model is paid by the hour.  That rapidly gets quite expensive.

So: working from life has some good aspects, and some limitations.  Just like everything else in life.

Photos have their own characteristics.  For one, the subject can hold the pose forever without moving.  That's pretty valuable in itself, particularly in those cases where the pose is difficult or impossible to sustain.  Since the subject isn't moving, the artist can focus on important things like the structure of the face.  It's often the little details that I catch: the way the shadow of the jaw falls on the neck, for example, or the dip of a lower eyelid.  Things that would be easy to miss in working from life because the subject is always slightly moving.

On the flip side, photos are flat 2-D representations.  When you and I look at something, we see it in 3-D because we have two eyes that provide depth perception.  That matters a lot more than you might think.  When I'm painting an arm, for example, I need to know what that arm is shaped like, so I can convincingly paint it so it appears to curve toward you or away from you.  Photos don't give you that information.  Also, photos don't tell you much about the person.  They give you an image of what that person looked like at a specific moment in time, but you can't interact with that image to find out who they are as a person.

Given all this, I find that working from life and from photos are complementary.  I see things while working from photos that I can then look for when I work from a real person.  When I'm with a person, I can learn a lot about them, and carry that into later work from a photo.  The lessons learned flow both ways.

When I'm working on a large painting of a specific person, I use a combination of both in-person and photo techniques.  I generally have the individual come to the studio.  I'll have my camera set up on a tripod near me with a remote to take the exposures.  We'll talk and I'll be taking photographs like crazy.  We'll move the individual around, move the lighting around, have them stand or sit or whatever, and I'll continue to take photos.  I can shoot a thousand pictures in an hour.  Sometimes I'll do some sketches, sometimes not.  By keeping the camera to the side, I can engage the individual in a discussion.  The camera is not front and center between us, so much of their camera shyness goes away.  We just talk. Meanwhile, I'm punching the button on the remote to take photos like crazy.  That's the great thing about modern cameras: you can shoot a thousand photos and not break the bank getting them developed!

What this does is give me a lot of exposures, all with controlled lighting, along with a sense of their personality.  I can then choose which photos to use to create the story of that person.  Often it'll be a combination: the position of the head from this one, the expression in the eyes from another, the hand from a third.  Since the lighting is pretty much the same, this is pretty easy.

I really don't like working from snapshots.  It's common for figurative artists to have people ask them to do a portrait from a snapshot.  Hey, it's easy, you've already got the image, right?  Well, no, it's actually pretty hard.  The person's expression may be great, but the lighting, pose, environment, and color will be terrible.  And if they give you a bunch of snapshots, they're all taken at different times of the day or year, lighting is completely different and usually very harsh (flashes on mobile phones are NOT good light sources!), clothes are different, and so on.  No, it's much better if I take my own photos, thank you very much!

Okay, so this has turned into a tome.  Time to wrap it up.  Bottom line: working from photos and working from life are two different, and complementary, things.  Each can bring information to the table that the other can't.  Just don't rely exclusively on one!

Sunday, June 26, 2016


People in the UK are so much more creative with their words than we are in the US.  This is especially true with insults.  A few days ago, Donald Trump stuck his foot in his mouth again by saying that people in Scotland were ecstatic over the vote to leave the EU.  That, of course, is not true, as every single district in Scotland voted to remain.  The Scots, no fans of the Donald, were quick to reply.  Here are some of their terms for him:

- Witless fucking cocksplat
- Tiny-fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret-wearing shitgibbon
- Incompressible jizztrumpet
- Ignorant fuckmuppet
- Utter cockwomble
- Polyester cockwomble
- Hamster heedit bampot
- Weasel-headed fucknugget
- Leather-faced shit tobogganist
- Cock-juggling thundercunt
- Touped fucktrumpet
- Bloviating fleshbag
- Weapons-grade plum
- Clueless numpty

- Mangled apricot hellbeast

Now if only our own political commentators were this creative ...

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Landscape Painting: Plein Air versus Photographs

I got some questions today about this painting of the Grand Canyon:

South Rim Afternoon
Oil on linen panel, 18"x24"

I painted this one in 2014, several months after visiting the Grand Canyon.  I was only there for too short of a time: we drove there one day, walked around the south rim a day, and then drove back.  Not nearly enough time - the Grand Canyon is such a mind-blowing place.  As an artist, as a rock-hound, as a hiker, as just about anything, a person could spend days, weeks, or months there and never get enough.  I took several hundred photos that day with the intention of seeing what I could do in the studio later.

One thing that inspired me was an exhibition of paintings by a bunch of artists who had spent a week or so at the Grand Canyon sometime prior to our visit.  These paintings were awesome: almost all were plein air, done right there in the Canyon, and they captured the light, colors, and moods perfectly.  I was in awe of what those artists could do.  So, after I got back home to North Carolina, I tried my own versions in the studio.

And failed.  Miserably.

I am primarily a figurative artist, not a landscape artist.  For years, I avoided landscapes because I wasn't any good at them, and I wasn't any good at them because I avoided them.  Kind of a self-reinforcing circle, huh?  But landscapes, done well, have immense power.  Additionally, when you're In The Moment, painting a landscape that's right in front of you, you're alive to the world in a way that you're otherwise unaware.  You see shapes and colors and things that you would probably miss.  And you're trying to capture it all in paint, which is a hopeless proposition, but so worth it anyway.

After a bunch of failed efforts, I eventually came up with an idea for a carefully-considered approach.  I relied on several photographs taken in the same general area, worked up a composition, and figured out which area would be the focus (the cliffs on the right) and which areas would play supporting roles (the more distant canyon).  This painting was the result.  I was fairly happy with it.  Now, after a couple more years of experience with landscapes, I'd do it a bit differently, but still, it falls in the "okay" category.  Not a bad early effort.

That's the background for today's blog post.  The first question that prompted this post was, "Do you paint plein air?  Or do you use a reference photo?"  Generally, I prefer to paint plein air.  Being out in the open, in front of whatever it is I'm painting, makes me aware of the wide range of colors and shapes, as well as the smells, sounds, and feelings of the place.  I have to work fast to capture the feeling.  When it works, it's great.  It doesn't always work.  Kinda like golf: when you get that perfect drive, it's a great feeling, but then you flub the next several shots and maybe even wind up in the water hazard.  That's life.  That being said, here's an example of a plein air painting that I think turned out fairly well:

Harvested Hay
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12"

This was done about a half mile from my home last fall in mid-to-late afternoon over about an hour and a half.  What caught my attention was the swoop of the tan part of the field, where the hay had been cut, next to the green of the grassy area, and bordered by the rich oranges and browns of the surrounding hills.  For me, things clicked pretty well with this effort.

But I can't always work from life.  Sometimes there's no time, or I need to paint a large work.  (Ever tried to do a 30"x40" landscape from life?  Some people can.  Some people can build a car in their garage, too.  I can't do either of those things.)  Sunset paintings are an example of something that are extremely difficult to do from life.  The light at sunset changes so fast.  You wait and wait and wait and then THERE'S TEN MINUTES WHEN IT'S PERFECT and then POOF it's gone.  So last summer, when I was trying to do a painting of these beautiful summer clouds at sunset, I went out and took a gazillion sunset photos over a period of several weeks, and then used a bunch of them to do this painting:

Clouds over the French Broad River
Oil on canvas, 30"x40"

This thing kicked my butt.  I wanted to get the beautiful range of reds, oranges, and yellows of the clouds right at sunset.  As it turned out, this painting was all about light.  (Well, duhh ...) The real colors in the clouds are pure light, but I was trying to capture them in paint, which only reflects a part of the light and is really muddy and dull compared to the real light in the clouds, particularly once you start mixing colors.  But when I used stronger and clearer paint colors, then I wound up with an unbelievably gaudy mess on the canvas that was not nearly as bright, clear, and subtle as the real thing.  Eventually, I toned the sky way down so that the clouds could have a gentle range of reds and oranges while still popping off the canvas.  Did it work?  Well, ehh.  I probably need to do a lot of smaller studies for a while to understand the process before wrecking another canvas.

The second question was, "I really want to start landscape painting and I'm wondering if you can get beautiful paintings like this if you are using just a photo."  Well, thank you for that vote of confidence.  I think the answer to your question is "yes" but there are some qualifiers:
   - You have to paint plein air, from life, in order to understand what it is you're looking at, and to know what's missing from the photo.  Photos are a good reference tool, but they are very limited.
   - DON'T COPY THE PHOTO.  You need to know what it is that you want to say with your painting, what the focus is.  That will tell you what to stress and what to go lightly over.  If all you're doing is copying the photo, then you should just take the photo to WalMart or wherever and have them blow it up into the size you want.  Painting is something else altogether.
   - Go to the library or used-book store and find some books on landscape painting.  Get one and try some of the things the author says.  Then get a different book and try those things.  Then another.  Get something like Plein Air Magazine and copy some of the paintings in there.  Don't try to invent it all yourself.  Thousands of artists have gone down this road already and some have written down their lessons learned, so take advantage of them.  Not all of their approaches will resonate with you, but keep trying new stuff and eventually you'll figure out a way that works for you.
   - Take a class from a plein air painter.  You'll learn stuff you'll never learn from a book, because you'll have somebody experienced looking at your work and giving you feedback.  And you'll be seeing other students wrestling with similar problems and you'll learn from their experiences, too.  And you'll have fun.

Dang, this turned into quite the tome, didn't it?  I could write something similar about doing figurative paintings from life versus from photos.  Maybe I will ...

Monday, June 20, 2016

Afghanistan Training

This past week, I was up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in southeastern Indiana.  I was part of the team providing training to a bunch of Defense Department civilians who are headed to Afghanistan.  They're going over there to support the US effort by doing things like managing base operations, carrying out logistics support, providing oversight of various projects, maintaining base infrastructure, and coordinating with the Afghans.  These are all critical jobs that have to be done, and they're better done by civilians than by military.

Muscatatuck is a really cool place.  I wrote about it in a blog post back in 2013, when I first went there as a trainer.  Read the blog post for a more detailed description of it and to see some photos, or you can go to the Wikipedia page for a lot more.  The short story is that it is an old campus-like facility that has been turned into a training center for all kinds of operations.  The military uses it for urban combat training, FEMA and other agencies use it for disaster training, and my group uses it to train people heading to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Lord knows who else uses the place, but locals are used to helicopters, all kinds of emergency vehicles, and loud noises at all hours of the day and night.  Fortunately, it's pretty remote, so the noise doesn't bother too many people.

My role this time was to be the mentor for a team of eight students.  They went through several days of intense, immersive role-playing, in which they had to work with their military escorts (themselves undergoing training), plan for meetings with various Afghan officials, carry out the meetings, work through an interpreter, respond to changing circumstances, figure out what's going on both overtly and behind the scenes, and perform as if they were really on the ground in Afghanistan.  They had all been through a couple weeks of classroom training and this was their time to put it all into play.

I've been blessed to have a bunch of really sharp people during all my training sessions and this time was no different.  There weren't any egos in my group.  One individual was a very senior guy who had run large organizations.  Another was an executive secretary who was pretty junior.  The rest fell somewhere in between.  Yet all of them were active participants in the planning.  The secretary's input was just as respected as the senior guy's.  And they pulled together as a team: when somebody tripped up or went blank, others jumped in to fill the gap.  It was great to see.

That's not to say they didn't make mistakes - of course they did.  But that's almost by design.  This training exposes them to the thousand shades of gray that comes with real operations, and so we discussed all their decisions and actions in quite some depth so that they could understand some of the second and third-order implications of their actions.  This is where it gets real.  Americans in general are problem solvers: we identify an issue, make a decision, implement it, and move on to the next one.  Except it's not that simple, and the decision or the implementation may have consequences that were not expected.  Our goal was to get them to think of that.

As a mentor, my job was to guide them along by asking them how they would prepare for a meeting with, say, a district governor, what kind of things they should know, where they might go to find things out, asking what they learned after meetings, asking how their lessons learned tied in with their greater mission, and so on.  I never gave them the answer, just raised the questions.  And this team always - ALWAYS - took the ball and ran with it.

It was great.

So I'm happy to be a part of the training team again.  This is so much fun and so rewarding for me.  I really get a kick out of helping people learn new stuff, particularly when it's this important.  I'm looking forward to doing it again!

Sunday, June 12, 2016


I recently finished a commission.  I was contacted by somebody who wanted a "portrait" of her parents' house, to include her parents.  This was an interesting assignment for me.  Since the house is nowhere near here, I needed a lot of photos of it.  My client was, fortunately, able to provide quite a few.  I worked up a couple of compositions in sketches and, after a bit of back-and-forth, we decided on the approach.  Then it was time to get to work.

Although I was working from photographs, I wasn't copying them.  No single photo showed everything I needed, and different areas were kinda/sorta covered from different vantage points.  The focus of the photos was generally on the spectacular flowering bushes and other features, and usually from the viewpoint that showed them best, which was never my chosen viewpoint.  And, as you can see, there's a LOT going on in this yard.  To work out where everything was, I had to make a map of the front yard, using all the clues from the photos.  Once I had that, then I was able to determine my viewpoint and accurately place the house, trees, and flowers.  Then it was a matter of creating something that worked as art, as well as being accurate.  So here's the finished painting:

The Williams House
Oil on linen panel, 16"x20"

I knew that the house was going to be the primary focal point, simply because of the straight lines, sharp edges, and dark shutters and door.  But I didn't want it to overpower everything else.  The yard, particularly the flowering bushes, was the secondary focus.  So I made the house fairly small and near the top of the panel.  The flowers were strong reds, pinks, and whites.  To make them pop out, I had to play with the greens surrounding them, which generally meant changing the light/dark values of the greens as well as muting them.  The grass was different: I decided to make that a stronger, warmer green, and make it look almost like a carpet rolling back to the house.  This connected the foreground to the house and provided a nice swooping movement to guide the eye into the painting.  Finally, I put in the surrounding foliage.  I kept it as simple and muted as possible, just enough to read as trees and foliage, and to provide an environment for the primary interest areas to strut their stuff.

Right near the apex of the swoop, I placed her parents.  They're small enough so that they don't become the focal point, but large enough so that they are recognizable for who they are.  Had they been any closer, the painting would have been about them, with the rest of the painting serving as support.  As it is, it's about their home and their creations in the yard, with their figures serving as a supporting element.

Reading back on this, it sounds as if I did this by painting the house, then the plants, then the grass, and so on.  Of course, that's not the way it happened.  I worked up a full-size sketch, transferred it to the panel, then blocked in the house and everything else in one go.  Then it was a matter of developing, adjusting, smoothing, and tweaking over several sessions, keeping all the stuff I wrote about in mind the whole time.

All in all, I'm happy with the way it turned out.  More importantly, my client is, too. 

Monday, June 06, 2016

New Artworks

I've continued to develop some new figurative works in my charcoal and pastel series.  There's still a lot to learn, particularly about how much to develop the figure, knowing when to stop, and how much is just enough without being too much.  Most of my paintings fall into the "too much" category, so the more I can learn about when to stop, the better.  In my last few posts, I haven't shown you very many of these works.  Time to do a little catch-up.

Amy #11
Amy has a beautiful back and you can tell that I spent a lot of time developing it in this artwork.  I may have taken it a bit too far, but so what?  I was able to restrain myself with the rest, though - notice that the skirt and (especially) the feet are only roughly indicated, which keeps the focus on her back.

Amy #14
I really focused on stopping early here!  Amy's face and shoulders are developed, but beyond that, almost nothing.  This is one of my favorites of her.

Jennifer #4
Jennifer is a lovely woman with very sharp features.  She has modeled for our life drawing group as a portrait subject several times over the years and is always fun to have in the studio.   In this piece, her pose gives her body a natural, compact shape that anchors the sharp focus on her face.

Jennifer #5
All the previous images in this series were done on light paper, usually with a warm tone.  I thought I'd try doing some on dark paper.  My first few tries wound up in the trash can, but this one came together pretty well. I really like the pose and the glow on her face and shoulders.

Troy #5
This one captures Troy's personality.  Think Robin Williams meets George Carlin, and that's what Troy's like in front of the camera.  Again, I kept things to a minimum, focusing on his face and hands.  Everything else just plays a supporting role.

Karen is the wife of an old friend of mine and I was really honored when he asked me to do her portrait.  This was a challenge, as he provided me with a bunch of snapshots to work from.  While they were great snapshots, they were extremely hard to use as source material.  The lighting, poses, environments, and clothing were very different in each one.  I used all of them to create a natural-looking pose with believable lighting and clothing.  Not easy.  For anybody thinking of asking me to do something similar from your snapshots, the answer is NO!  I love doing portraits, but I need to control the entire process!