Sunday, February 21, 2016


Winter seems to be a time when I do some experimenting.  Sometimes it might be materials or subject matter, but this time I'm trying a new approach.  I've written about Mark Demsteader before.  His subjects are mostly single figures that are sharply and dramatically lit.  The focus is typically on the face, with a secondary focus on neck, shoulders, and hands.  Move away from those focus areas, and the drawing is extremely simplified, down to the point of having the body indicated simply by two contour lines.  It's a drawing style that grabs your attention.

And it's very different from mine.  I have a section of wall in my studio that's covered with figure drawings.  Just looking at them, you can't tell which ones were done in 2001 and which were done in 2015.  There didn't seem to be much/any development and few of them grab your attention.  Don't get me wrong, the ones on the wall are good, it's just that they're all done in pretty much the same way.

So I decided to see what I could learn from Demsteader's technique.  I don't want to make a lot of Demsteader look-alike drawings, but rather, I want to add some new tools to my drawing and painting toolboxes and then use them for my own work.

To set the stage: here's one of his drawings:

Pretty good stuff, huh?  You can see what I was talking about earlier: the primary focus on the face, the high value contrast between lights and darks with very little in between, and the bare minimum of drawing outside the focus area.

I copied a few of his drawings to get a feel for his approach and then tried my own versions of it.  Here's one of my first attempts:

It's a start.  Too much going on in the hair, still a lot of mid-values in the face and shoulder areas, and the hand is messed up.  Another effort using the same model:

This is a little better.  There's less detail in the hair, fewer mid-tones, and higher value contrasts.  Another try with a different model:

I'm still fighting the mid-tones.  My head says "no", but my hand puts them in, anyway.  And there's way too much definition in the face.  By taking away detail, it should make the figure more dramatic while still leaving her a recognizable individual.  "Should" doesn't mean "will", however: I went back and reworked the drawing and it turned to crap.  No, you can't see it.  But I tried another drawing with one of my favorite models:

Much better.  More dramatic, more contrast values, a bit more mystery to the subject while still being a specific individual.  The drapery could be handled better, but we're getting there.  Now for one more try:

Now we're talking!  This is overall a much better drawing.  The composition is interesting, with the dress being reduced to a flat black S-shape.  Lots of diagonals give it a dynamic characteristic.  The focus is still on the face, but she's more anonymous now.  The mid-tones are almost gone, with just enough to give some volume to the head and shoulders.  And the drawing is just better all the way around - it was one of those that was basically working from the very first stroke, even though some areas gave me fits.  And it's not done yet: I'm going to add a bit of color (just a touch) with pastels to give some more life to the face.

So I'm excited about this.  It feels like I'm finally internalizing some of these lessons.  I'm not thinking about them quite so deliberately and the drawing is coming along on its own.  That's the way you want it to be.

So where do I go from here?  Well, some more drawings.  All of them so far have been attractive young women because they're a lot more interesting to me than ugly old men.  Hey, I'm a guy!  But I'll do some self-portraits of my ugly old face with this technique to see what happens.  I'm also going to migrate this technique into oil painting.  That's not as easy as it may seem, but I'll do it.

Further down the line, I have a couple of paintings that have been in the back of my mind for a while.  My normal painting approaches didn't seem adequate for what I wanted them to say.  This kind of approach might.  So once I get comfortable with the process, I'll look at tackling them.  

Thursday, February 11, 2016


The interwebs can occasionally give you a cool surprise.  I'm not talking about a funny kitten video on Facebook, I'm talking about something that reaches out and grabs you.  Such a thing happened to me yesterday.  I was searching for something and came across a mention of the singer John Prine.  He was pretty big when I was in college back in the mid-70's.  Songs like "Sam Stone" and "Hello In There" were powerful stories about ordinary people.  My friends and I listed to him a lot.  And then I went away to the Navy and got into other things and didn't hear much about John Prine for years.

So yesterday, his name popped up on my computer.  It was the old "cool, hadn't heard of him for years, wonder what he's doing now?" kinda thing.  So I clicked on the link and several things happened.

First, I watched a video about creativity.  It featured several ordinary people doing really creative things.  Then it got to John Prine about halfway through.  The host/interviewer talked with John about his songs, where they came from, how he put them together, and what it meant to perform them.  Fascinating stuff.  John's approach to music is similar to my approach to painting: we both find meaning in the stories of ordinary people.  Neither of us is interested in glitz, glam, a big show, or fame.  (A damn good thing on my part, since I have none of that, but John has a good bit of well-earned fame among those who like a powerful, well-crafted ballad).  It was great to hear the backstory on specific songs and hear his discussion of the creative process because it was all stuff that I could relate to.

John's had a hard time: he fought cancer and the surgery took a big chunk out of his throat.  But it left his vocal cords.  They're a bit mangled, but still there.  He's still touring, too.  I'd love to see him in person.  He was here in Asheville three years ago, so maybe he'll come back.

Oh, and the video?  Here 'tis:

A second thing that happened was that I discovered an interesting site for thoughtful, well-told stories.  The one with John Prine is just one of many such shows.  The Telling Well is host to quite a number of forays into what it means to be human.  Youngsters in school bands, experiences in volunteering, stories of faith and redemption, what it means to have a new start - these are stories that we can relate to.  Great stuff.  Go look.  It's at

And the third thing that came out of that click: I just went on iTunes and bought the John Prine album that I listened to back in college.