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!