Sunday, May 01, 2016

Figures in Charcoal and Pastel

I'm continuing to do my new figure series using charcoal and pastels in a very sparing manner.  It's not only fun to do, but challenging.  I'm working in a different method than what I've done for years.  Even though I've been making these artworks since February, it's still not second-nature yet.  Every piece requires a lot of thought.  And a lot of restraint, since a critical part is stopping long before I want to.

So far, this series seems to be working really well.  The first dozen or so were of Amy, a wonderful model, done from photos taken in my studio.  I'll continue to do artworks of her, but now I'm adding other people.  I've had Troy in the studio for a photo session and have done one artwork of him.  Troy was a hoot to work with: point the camera at him and turn him loose and the next thing you know, he's rolling around on the floor or climbing the walls, sounding for all the world like Robin Williams.  I've also done a photo session with Emma, a lovely young woman with a very different presence than Amy.  And I'm going to do a session with Jennifer, Troy's wife, in a couple of weeks.  Pretty soon, I'll have enough material to keep me busy for a long time.

So here are some insights into some of the works done over the past month:

Amy #9

I had asked Amy to take a "defensive" pose.  She came up with a bunch of them that said "frightened" and "vulnerable".  She seems to be a natural method actor.  This is the only artwork I've done from those photos so far, but I will go back and do more later.  In this piece, I kept color to a minimum and tried to focus on her hand, shoulder, and upper back, using the tension she expressed to tell the story.

Amy #11

In this piece, I developed her back, but left the skirt, hands, and feet relatively undeveloped.  The warm colors of her back contrast with the cool gray of the paper and the turquoise of her skirt, and the diagonal pose with the center of interest offset to the left provides a quiet dynamic to the composition.

Amy #14

Here, I pushed the minimalism much further.  Her face and shoulders are strongly drawn in heavy black compressed charcoal and light warm pastels, while the rest of her is indicated by little more than contour lines.  I wanted to capture the delicacy of her posture.

Jennifer #1

This is one I did from life.  Jennifer posed for our Wednesday night life drawing and painting group.  This pointed out a number of things that I have to think about.  One is that, when I work from life, I'm much more literal than when working from photos.  A photo sometimes (not always) provides some distance, both physically and conceptually, that enables me to make artistic decisions more easily.  When something or someone is in front of me, I sometimes (not always) feel like I have to record what is there, regardless of how it looks in the artwork.  It's funny: with this series, I can look at a photo and make decisions about how to do the artwork quickly and easily.  Other times, a photo demands that I copy it without question.  And sometimes, when working from life, I can change things around on a whim, while at other times, I'm locked into what I see.  In this case, I had to fight to keep from putting too much detail into the hands, dress, couch, and feet, and to keep the image very simple.

Another thing it pointed out is that a live pose that has to be held for a long period of time will never have the immediacy of one from a photo.  Here, the model has to be in a position that can be held for 20-30 minutes at a time, and repeat it multiple time.  This is why most paintings from life have a very still or quiet nature.  A photo, by contrast, captures a particular moment that does not have to be repeated.

So that's some insight into what's going through my head when I'm working on this series.  It's new territory for me and a lot of fun.  I hope you're pushing yourself into some new territory as well, no matter what it is that you do.  That's how we grow!

Monday, April 11, 2016

HB2

North Carolina has become the butt of the nation's jokes over the passage of HB2.  This is the law that requires people to use public bathrooms according to the gender on their birth certificate.  I just sent another letter to my state representative, Michelle Presnell, urging the repeal of this law.  She has proven to be somewhere to the right of the Tea Party and apparently has all the intellectual capability of a gnat.  Still, for better or for far, far, worse, she's my state representative, and I have to tell her what this pissed-off constituent has to say.  So here's what I just sent her.  If you're a North Carolina resident, feel free to copy this and send it to your representative as well.

Representative Presnell:

You recently passed HB2 and praised it as a common-sense bill.  I have to wonder what pharmaceuticals you’ve been taking if you think that bill meets the common-sense standard.  HB2 has far-reaching implications that go way beyond saying who can use which bathroom.

HB2 allows government officials to discriminate against LGBT people.  Government officials are required by their position to serve ALL the people, not just the ones they like.  This was settled in the 1960’s over race.  LGBT issues are the exact same thing.

HB2 allows businesses to discriminate against anybody they choose.  Again, this was settled in the 1960’s.  Apparently, Republicans weren’t listening.

HB2 limits how people can pursue claims of discrimination for almost any issue, not just over LGBT issues.  It limits discrimination claims over color, national origin, handicaps, race, and religion, among other things.  If you’re discriminated against in North Carolina, well, too bad, our Republican leaders don’t care.

HB2 prohibits a city or county from setting a minimum wage standard for private employers.  This is government meddling in the affairs of cities and counties.  You don’t like Washington meddling in North Carolina affairs; you shouldn’t meddle in local affairs, either.

HB2 requires people to use public restrooms according to the gender listed on their birth certificates.  Can you explain exactly how you will enforce that?  Maybe this is your idea of job growth: hire guards to sit outside all public bathrooms in the state to check birth certificates!

HB2 violates federal Title 9 law, which prohibits discrimination in all school programs.  NC schools rely on hundreds of millions of federal dollars.  How will you replace those funds when they disappear because of HB2?

HB2 addresses a problem that DOESN’T EXIST.  Until Charlotte passed their symbolic law, nobody had any issues with going to the bathroom.  Even Columbia, Charleston, and Myrtle Beach, all in super-conservative South Carolina, have passed laws similar to Charlotte’s and have had no problems.  Not only that, but Governor Nikki Haley has rejected calls for a law similar to HB2 and is welcoming all the business that North Carolina is losing.

Meanwhile, at last count, HB2 has cost North Carolina at least 900 jobs (400 in Charlotte, 500 in Asheville), plus income associated with several concerts, and is jeopardizing future opportunities such as the NBA All-Star Game, the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournaments in 2017 and 2018, the CIAA basketball tournament, and ESPN’s X Games.  Meanwhile multiple business conferences are being moved elsewhere and the Asheville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is beginning to see cancellations from both businesses and tourists.

This is stupid.

HB2 is bad policy.  HB2 is bad politics.  HB2 is illegal.  HB2 is killing business.  

HB2 is WRONG.


Repeal HB2 now!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Skin Tones

One of the questions I get a lot is, "what colors do you use for skin?"  The answer, of course: it depends.  It depends on the subject's skin color: the colors used for a light caucasian will be very different than an Asian or African-American.  It depends on the light source as well: the light coming in from a north-facing window is a different color than the direct light from a tungsten lamp.  It also depends on the colors of the things surrounding the individual, as they will reflect their colors into the skin tones.  And it also depends on whether you want to bring the skin tones forward (in which case you'll probably use stronger hues) or push them back using more muted colors.

The majority of my subjects are caucasian or similar, so I'll address those colors here.  The basic composition of most of them is a red of some sort, a yellow, a good bit of white, and maybe a bit of blue to tone them down.  Within these limitations, there are an infinite variety of possible colors that you can mix.  For reds, I've used cadmium red light (a bright warm red), alizarin crimson (a cool red), and terra rosa (a slightly muted, slightly cool red, and my current go-to color).  For yellows, I use yellow ochre (a muted yellow with both red and green components), cadmium yellow (a bright yellow in light, medium, and dark variants), and lemon yellow (a light yellow, leaning slightly towards green).  For whites, I prefer flake white or Cremnitz white.  Both are lead-based and have a slight warm tone with a rich feel to them.  You just have to be careful because they're, well, lead.  Another white is Flake White Replacement, which is really a combination of titanium and zinc and provides a very similar white without the toxicity of lead.  Titanium white is a strong, cold white that gets a bit too cold and chalky for my tastes.  As for zinc, I never use it.  Used alone, it's too brittle and can sometimes react with other chemicals.

So those are the colors I've been using for years.  Here's an example of how they look in an alla prima figure sketch:


In this exercise, I used primarily terra rosa, yellow ochre, and flake white replacement.  The light in my studio comes from daylight-balanced bulbs, which is slightly blue, so you'll see a touch of ultramarine blue in some of the shadows as well.  When accentuating colors, I use a touch of cadmium red and cadmium yellow.  These stronger colors don't show up well in photos, but in person they make some skin areas really come alive.  You can see it in her cheeks and lips, for example.

I don't use cad reds and yellows everywhere because a painting needs larger areas of muted color in order to make the small areas of strong color stand out.  I typically use strong colors in the focus areas only, and more muted colors like terra rosa and yellow ochre everywhere else.  When you realize that 90% of a painting is really a supporting area for the 10% focus area, it makes sense.  If you try to make everything a focus area, then the eye gets confused and you can't figure out what the painting is about.

Using this selection of colors has its disadvantages, though.  I've never been able to make very pale or muted skin tones with them.  You've seen the people I'm talking about: people that have extremely white or muted skin colors.  Many redheads, for example.  We had a redhead model a while back and I tried to paint her with my usual colors and failed miserably.  Trust me: flake white replacement is NOT a skin color by itself!  So I've been frustrated and trying to figure out just how people like John Singer Sargent or George Bellows handled those hues.  I think I may have found an insight into a workable approach.  Recently, I discovered a Swedish painter named Nick Alm.  Most of his figures have very pale skin tones.  I downloaded a few images of his paintings and took them to the studio.  After some trial and error, I found that using burnt umber (essentially a dark muted yellow) and Prussian blue (a greenish blue) and a lot of white gave a soft green, and I could then mix in just enough red to get a pale skin tone.  So rather than taking a red and yellow and toning it down to get a muted skin tone, I was taking a light green and then adding enough red to make it into a pale skin tone.  A very different approach for me and it seems to be working.  I copied one of Alm's portraits and here's how it turned out:


This approach seems to have some promise.  I'm going to continue to play with it to see what it can do.  I won't call it "the" answer to realistically showing muted skin tones, but it's certainly an interesting option.  What do you think?


Thursday, March 10, 2016

A New Series

The experiments that I wrote about in my last post seem to be paying off.  I've hit on a way of working with the figure that results in fairly dramatic images.  They're getting really positive reviews from most everybody who sees them.  After so many efforts that completely fail, and others that result in maybe a comment like "oh, that's nice", it's good to hear somebody go "Wow!"

My last post had an image of Amy done in charcoal and white Conte crayon.  That didn't seem to be strong enough, though, so I got out the pastels and went to work.  The color added that extra bit of oomph that was missing.  Here's how it turned out:

Amy #1

What I'm doing here is upping the dramatic elements of the image.  The lights are lighter and the darks darker, and the mid-tones are greatly reduced.  The color is restricted, too: it goes primarily in the face, with some in the shoulders.  The dress is just a black 2-D shape.  There's no background at all to distract from the figure.

I've continued with these artworks and now have a total of seven done in charcoal and pastels and one in oil paint.  They all follow the same approach.  And they all work, to greater or lesser extents, and as a group, they really look good.

So here's one of the most recent pieces developed:

Stage 1: I sketched in the face and head with vine charcoal.  It was important to get the shape of the face and the shadows at the very beginning.

 Stage 2.  I've roughed in the outlines of the body.  This took quite a bit of work as the arms and hands didn't seem to be cooperating with me … in fact, the hand in this photo is still messed up.

Stage 3.  Here's where the compressed charcoal comes in.  Compressed charcoal is much darker than vine charcoal.  It gives a rich velvety black.  It's also very soft and tends to fall off the paper.  The dark areas are all tied together: the black under the arm, the shadow on her back, and the dark of her hair are all one shape.

Stage 4.  Now for the pastels.  I've started putting color in her face and shoulder.  This included a strong red on her cheek in an area that had been black before.  Reflected lights can be really beautiful.  Often, a shadowed area on a figure will have a really strong red from reflections off nearby lighted skin.  In this case, the light was coming from her shoulder.

Amy #7

And here's the final piece.  The face was reworked with pastel and charcoal quite a bit.  I used pastels to bring some color down her arm and into her chest and hands, but very sparingly.  It's really easy to have the color take over and go everywhere (trust me on this one).  By keeping the pastels to a minimum outside of the face, it focuses attention there.  Everything else plays a supporting role.  

So what's next?  Well, I'm going to do a lot more artworks like this in charcoal and pastel.  I'm getting to understand the subtleties of this way of working.  One subtlety is that all of these charcoal and pastel pieces are against a light background.  Trying to make the figure light against a dark background doesn't work, at least not when you're slamming charcoal onto a light-colored paper.  So I'm going to do some oil paintings of the figures against (or blended into) a dark background.  Once I get a grip on how that works, then I think I'll be able to use these new approaches on some paintings that have been in the back of my mind for a while.  They're stories about people, but my normal way of working would not have told the story very well.  This new way of working might.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Experimentation

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

Creativity

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: http://thetellingwell.org/episode-8/

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 thetellingwell.org.

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.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back In Time

I've been going through a period of looking backward.  No, not at my own artworks, although that's a good thing to do from time to time.  No, this has been a period of looking way back in history.  There's been an odd confluence of three unrelated things that all seemed to hit at once.  They are, in no particular order, a podcast, a book, and a TV show.

The podcast is "Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality, and 21st Century Archaeology", by Dr. Joe Schuldenrein.  He's a professional archaeologist.  His podcast is a series of interviews with other archaeologists about the work that they're involved with.  It runs the gamut: new studies of the Battle of Little Big Horn, what really happened in the Maya collapse, excavating the ruins in Chaco Canyon, a community-involved dig in Baltimore, how state Departments of Transportation handle archaeology, and on and on.  He's been doing this once a week for several years, so there are a ton of things to listen to.  Archaeology has always interested me, and it's great to hear some of the fascinating stories of things that are going on today.  One of the things that many of the guests have brought up, independently of each other, is that people throughout history have been very good at adapting to their particular situations, be it desert, swamp, forest, cities, complex and stratified civilizations, or whatever.  I think that contemporary people tend to be a bit condescending towards people of earlier times - the attitude that "we're so much smarter now and know better".  Well, no, we don't.  We didn't live in those times and cannot possibly internalize everything it meant to be, say, one of the tribes that built the pueblos in the American southwest.  Hell, we have a hard enough time with people of other cultures in the here and now!  But by and large, people within a culture of a particular time and place are often very well adapted to it.  And people throughout history are smart.

Which brings up the book.  I read "Shaman" by Kim Stanley Robinson.  He's generally thought of as a science fiction writer and one of the best at doing serious research to support the details in his books.  While science fiction usually entails some time in the future, "Shaman" is actually set about 33,000 years ago in what is now southern France.  It was during the Ice Age, when the glaciers extended far south and Neanderthals co-existed with early humans.  The book picks up the story of a young boy at puberty and follows him as he is trained to be the tribe's shaman and grows into a young man.  What struck me was how smart a person had to be to survive in an environment like that.  You had to know how to find materials to make your own clothes, make fire, find food and water, find or make shelter, deal with different types of animals either for food or to escape, make weapons, interact with other tribes, manage the petty intrigues of any small society, and on and on.  A modern man like me wouldn't last a day.  Robinson is a really good writer and puts all this great detail into a compelling storyline.  Well worth the read.

Finally, the TV show is "Barnwood Builders".  It's one of the Discovery channel's real-life series, most of which are excruciatingly bad.  This one, though, is pretty good.  It follows a team of West Virginia guys who dismantle old log cabins and barns and repurpose them into new homes.  Fortunately, the "new homes" bit receives very little attention, and the focus is on the old structure.  We often think of log homes from the 1800's as crude structures built by people who didn't know any better.  Not true at all.  The homes were often built from trees that had grown right there on the property, and they put them together in very ingenious ways.  The logs may look rough-hewn, but the notches are often precision-made so that the structures are stable.  Foundations may look like random stones, but they're actually carefully sourced, cut, and placed to provide a solid base to build on and to protect the wood from bugs and critters.  Roofs overhang a certain amount to make sure the rainwater runs off.  Sides are often covered with planks fixed to battens, which keeps the water off the logs and provides a bit of air circulation to help insulate the cabin.  All of this was done with hand tools.

Now I'm a guy with a few modern tools like electric drills and saws, but I have zero woodworking ability.  I made my first big easel back in the early 80's and it looks okay, but it isn't straight, and if you tighten down all the screws, it warps it all out of shape.  These old frontier guys did better with their hand axes.

So what all this is getting to is that our predecessors were pretty smart people.  They had to be, to survive and thrive in their worlds.  Just because we live in a higher-tech world does not mean we are one lick smarter than they were.  We just have higher-tech toys.