Sunday, February 28, 2021

Development of a New Work

 I finished up a new painting yesterday and already have another underway on the easel.  Thought I'd share the development process here.  Loyal readers of this blog (all two of you) know that I've been doing a lot of experimentation during the 'ronavirus lockdown of the past year.  I've done multi-figure compositions, single-figures, loose painting styles, tight styles, approaches modeled after various artists, and lots of other stuff.  Most wound up in the trash can.  Some of it seemed to work.  

One thing that seems to work best with me is a single-figure composition.  I seem to be at my best, both in the creative process and the finished artwork, when I focus on trying to get the inner character of one individual.   Once there are two or more people, the artwork isn't about them as individuals, it's about the relationships between them.  And when there are a lot of people, it isn't about the relationships (there are too many), it's about some bigger story.  And I just don't seem to be able to create a compelling "bigger story", at least in my own estimation.

Recently, I've tried some different approaches based on observations of other artists' work.  One thing that resonated with me was "simplify".  Simplify the composition, simplify the subject, simplify everything.  Get back to my roots, something like the charcoal and pastel figures I've been doing for the past few years.  So that was the goal in this piece.  Troy (oil on canvas, 24x18).  

First was a simple line block-in to place the figure on the canvas.

Now to check out the large light and dark masses.  I already had the idea that the figure would be darkest at the shoulders and lighter and less detailed further down.

Put in the first layer of the background.  Used a very light neutral warm color.  And had the first round of getting the face to look light it might be human ...

More refinement of the face, body, and arms.  All of this was done in one day.  Now it needs to sit for a week or so to dry.  Anything sooner will lift this first level of paint off the canvas.

So a week later, I went back and worked the background.  It's still a light neutral warm, but it's got more colors in it, and there's a very slight gradation top to bottom.  Next, I brought the face and arm up to a finished level.  Came back the next day and scumbled Van Dyke Brown (which is really Ivory Black plus a bit of Burnt Sienna) over the T-shirt and body, then worked all the edges to get them the way they should be.  A few other tweaks, and I'm calling it done.

Monday, February 22, 2021

... And Still More Experimentation

 After finishing up my last post about the Undertakers II painting, I discovered another interesting artist.  I listen to three different podcasts where artists are interviewed, and one of them talked with Jennifer Anderson.  Her approach sounded remarkably like what I try to do, so I looked up her work.  And it was a "wow".  Very strong technically, compositionally, and emotionally.  She was doing in oil paint something very similar to what I had been doing in charcoal and pastel over the past few years, and what I had tried and failed to do in oil.  These are single figures or faces that carry so much of the sitter's character.  Here's a sample, titled Fragile

Here we have a single figure, extremely well painted.  The chair she's sitting on has been reduced to just a few lines, and her environment has been reduced to a barely-modulated flat surface.  This helps focus attention on the figure.  The background has a very slight gradation, enough to tell you that it wasn't ignored.  And the figure has been pushed over to one side.  The fact that it runs off the canvas to the top, left, and bottom results in those edges being fully engaged in the composition.  The large flat gray space to the right becomes important in its own right, and there is a strong diagonal running from upper right to lower left that gives it a dynamic tension.  All together, this composition speaks to me of the young woman's inner thoughts: probably not idyllic, somewhat unsettled, but being seriously considered.

 Here's a comparable piece of my charcoal/pastel series, Astrid #1:


This was done in one of our weekly life sessions.  Single female figure, flat background, deliberately not "finished".  It has some of the same characteristics of Jennifer's work, but not all.  The figure is pushed to the side to create some room in front of her face, but not to the extent of Jennifer's work.  In most of my artworks in this series, though, the figure is centered on the page.  I discovered that this positioning doesn't really engage the rest of the surrounding space.  It's just ... space.  In Astrid #1, the empty space is more important conceptually.  It's not something I ever thought about, it just was.  Now I know to think about it.  Another issue is that the background here is flat and untouched.  In many works in the series, it comes across as unfinished or unaddressed.  This was something I wrestled with and never really came to a satisfactory conclusion.

So after looking at Anne Magill's work (see my last post) and Jennifer Anderson's figures, I tried some lessons learned in new paintings.  My intentions: simplify, engage the whole space, simplify, single figure, pay attention to edges, some areas developed while others are flat, and simplify.  Here's the first effort, Natalie:

And the second, Emma

So ... success?  I think I'm onto something that I can really sink my teeth into.  What do you think?

Monday, January 25, 2021

More Experimentation

 This time of Covid is giving me plenty of time to experiment with new techniques and approaches in painting, play with new ideas, and generally try stuff that I often don't get to try.  I just had an experiment that, I think, gave me some new tools for my artistic toolbox.  Here's what happened.

I've been working on my family history for many decades now.  Last year, I was sorting through some old photos and came across this one from about 1920: 

The two on the left are my grandparents.  They were apparently clowning around with their friends somewhere over the Hudson River.  What really grabbed my attention, though, was the guy on the right.  In the photo, he's laughing, but with just a tiny change to his expression, he could be crying out.  Remember the Nazi in the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark", the guy whose face melted at the end?  Yeah, this guy in the photo kinda looks like him.  So I thought it would be fun to take this old photo and see if I could make it creepy.  I took a swing at it last year and this was the result:

I titled it "The Undertakers".  I thought the end result was pretty "meh", but didn't really know why.  So I shrugged my shoulders and went on with other experiments.  

Recently, I was looking at the work of a really interesting painter, Anne Magill.  Her paintings are often dark, with a very limited range of colors.  Here's a sample:

I was looking at her artwork and asking myself what feelings they evoked in me, and one of the responses was "mystery".  And then I remembered that mystery was one of the feelings I was trying to get out of "The Undertakers".  So I pulled it off the shelf, set it up on an easel, and compared it to Magill's paintings.  And I realized that, in my painting, I told the viewer way too much.  Too much detail in the faces.  Too much light.  Too much color.  Too much other stuff: cracks in the rock, trees, people.  It didn't give the viewer room to create a story of their own.  So I pulled out another canvas the same size as the first one and transferred the same composition over to the new canvas.  Then I went to work: simplifying the composition (one of the figures and all the trees are gone), reducing the details, reducing the range of colors, and trying to keep the attention focused where I wanted it.  It took a couple of weeks, but I called it done and here it is:

This version is much better than the first one.  I don't know that I'd call it a winner, but I certainly learned a lot from it.  There are several things that I'd do differently if I had to do it again.  Maybe I'll go back over it in a week or two and make some more changes.  But it's definitely closer to my original intention than the first painting.  I'm working on another project right now that uses many of the same ideas, but in a very different way.  We'll see how that one comes out.  Meanwhile, I'm pretty happy to have a new tool in my studio toolbox!

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Thoughts on the Second Impeachment

 There's lots of discussion (mostly one-way venting) about Trump's second impeachment. Do it now, do it in two weeks, don't do it, and everything in between. I'm in the "do it much later" camp. I'm basing that on my own experience.

Back in the spring of 1996, I was working on the staff of the Commander of the Peace Implementation Forces (IFOR) in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. We (the US and NATO) had pretty much forced all sides to stop fighting and start talking. They'd been through several years of brutal warfare and all sides still wanted revenge on the others. I accidentally crashed a lunch meeting one time with Bosniacs, Serbs, and NATO, and you could cut the tension with a knife. But at least they were talking.

Two of the Serbians that everybody in the world wanted arrested were Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic (we called them "K&M"). They were wanted for genocide and murdering thousands of Bosniaks. There was a constant drumbeat from the US, Europe, Asia, the UN, everywhere, that NATO should arrest K&M and bring them to justice. "No justice, no peace" - sound familiar? But to the Serbians, both men were heroes.

Admiral Smith refused to go after K&M. His mantra to all of us on the staff was "We're here to establish the peace and stop the killing. We're going to do that. We can bring K&M to justice later."

One day a minor Serbian general took a wrong turn and drove into a NATO checkpoint. They arrested him, which was what our Rules of Engagement required. You would not believe the uproar. The whole peace process came within a hair of falling apart - and this was over a minor "general" who was really more like a glorified militia leader. It took all the negotiating expertise of Admiral Smith, NATO, and the UN, to convince the Serbs to continue the ceasefire and continue the talks. And all this over a minor general who wasn't even well known among the Serbs, much less a hero. Imagine what would have happened if we had snatched K&M at that time. The peace process would have been over, war would have immediately resumed, and thousands more would have died.

Karadzic was arrested twelve years later and the Serbs had no problem sending him to the Hague for war crimes. Mladic was arrested by the Serbs themselves three years later and also sent off to the Hague. Both were convicted and are serving life sentences.

As for Bosnia, it is still taking a lot of work, and there is still a lot of distrust between the factions, but they're working together and haven't resumed fighting. Admiral Smith was right: peace first, justice later.

So I think the situation with Trump is somewhat similar: a dangerous instigator with a rabid fan base, but he's no longer in power. Biden stressed "unity". Let's build unity, get the government functional again, and take care of the country first. Trump's justice can wait. For once, it's not all about him.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A New Wedding Painting


I recently finished the only wedding painting started in 2020.  All my plans for the year collapsed in March, along with everybody else's, when the lockdowns began.  Some of my clients rescheduled their weddings to 2021.  Some of them went ahead with their scheduled 2020 weddings, and for those, I canceled out.  Weddings are superspreader events and I didn't want to have anyone superspread to me.  Frankly, I was very surprised at the number of events that were held.  I had more inquiries for wedding paintings in 2020 than I had in any year before.  And I said no to all of them.  That is, until I got a note from Jessica.  She asked if I'd be interested in a virtual wedding.  A what?

Yes, that was right: a virtual wedding.  Their plan was to have an event where they, the officiant, the photographer, and the venue manager were the only ones onsite.  Everybody else, all family members and friends, were to be on Zoom.  Including me.  Well, there's a new idea.

So that's what we did.  On the Big Day, I was in my studio, working on creating their wedding painting, just like I would have been if I'd been at the event.  I had my iPhone set up on a tripod to record the painting's development and share it on Zoom.  Everybody watched what I was doing until the ceremony started, then again for a bit after the ceremony, First Dance, and online toasts.  Very cool!

A day or two later in the studio, I decided that my initial composition was crap.  So I got out my Painter's Emergency Repair Kit (a jar of white oil primer), painted over everything, and started from scratch.  Essentially, I zoomed way in, making them and the fireplace much larger and cropping out all the irrelevant sky, trees, and lawn.  Much mo' better.  I worked up the composition in drawings, transferred it to the canvas, and went to work.  The result is what you see here.

Since I wasn't physically onsite, I had to rely on some photographic resources.  The Old Edwards Inn provided me with some photos of the location.   And Jeff and Jessica's photographer, Abby Byrd, allowed me to use some of her photos as reference.  Without those two, this painting couldn't have happened.  Many many thanks to those two!

I'm really happy with the way this one turned out.  And, best of all, so are Jeff and Jessica.