Thursday, November 26, 2015

Studio Developments

I've got quite a few things going on in the studio these days.  Unfortunately, I don't have enough time in the studio to get 'em all done!  I'm making progress, though.

My "Faces of Afghanistan" drawings are on exhibit in Mars Hill University's Weizenblatt Gallery through Dec 11.  It's a nice, intimate gallery.  We had a good opening reception and I gave a talk to an art history class about Afghanistan and art in a combat zone.

This past week, I finished a commissioned painting.  It turned out pretty well.  I can't post a picture of it here because it's a Christmas present.  Maybe in another month ...

Beyond that, I have several paintings in progress or in the queue.  One is a portrait that I just can't get to work.  It's a good painting, just not of that specific individual!  I'll keep trying for a bit, but might have to start fresh.

There's a landscape painting that's been staring at me for about two months now, telling me to finish it up.  I kinda like it so far, but maybe not enough to dive back into it.  Doing a good job with this painting means that I have to get my head back into the same place it was when I had the initial vision and started slinging paint.  I might have moved on.  If so, then I'll slap some oil gesso over it and have a clean panel for something else.

Ten years ago, I did a series of political satire paintings.  Almost all have been on the shelf since then.  Political paintings are very much tied to a specific time period, and most of them are no longer applicable.  Recently, though, the subject matter of one of them has come back to the fore.  So I've pulled it off the shelf and am re-working it to make it current and to make it a better painting.  Political satire, though, is not a pleasant topic for me.  I have to get really pissed off about something to come up with the satirical angle, and I don't like being pissed off all the time, which is one of the reasons I quit doing it ten years ago.

This fall, I've been doing open life painting sessions.  We're having a mix of models: male, female, clothed, and nude.  Here's one of the most recent results.  These are fun sessions - we've got a good group of artists who come and work, and all the models have been interesting to work with.  I need to get one of them to come back soon.  I changed a few things after the session and need to finish it up, and I have an idea for another painting.

Lastly, I will be mentoring a young high school student over the next few months.  She's got the talent and, apparently, the drive to be a good artist.  My mission will be to help her find her way.  I love doing this sort of thing - working with young art students really charges my batteries.

So that's what's going on in the studio.  Except none of it is happening today - this is Thanksgiving, so I'm hanging out around the house with Janis.  We're having a great time doing not much of anything.  I hope you and yours are having a great Thanksgiving today as well!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Thank You For Your Service"

"Thank you for your service."  I get a lot of that these days.  Frankly, I don't know how to respond.  Why thank me for my service?  I didn't do it for you or anybody else.  I did it for very selfish reasons.  I joined the Navy because it offered exotic places like Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, as well as surface ships, submarines, and airplanes.  Any one of those things was better than any other job available when I was graduating college, like being an assistant manager in a Pampers plant in southeast Missouri.  It wasn't altruism that brought me into the Navy, it was the prospect of seeing and doing some really neat stuff.

I stayed in the Navy because they kept giving me cool things to do and great people to do them with.  I got to drive ships and lead teams of really sharp people.  I went to some amazing places (Japan, Korea, Philippines, Kenya, Singapore, San Diego, Australia, Hawaii, Panama, Washington DC, Honduras, Norway, England, Scotland, Belgium, Bahrain, Italy, Dubai, the Netherlands, Germany, Diego Garcia, Bosnia, and Guantanamo Bay, to name a few).  I was put in charge of a cutting-edge technology development program where we literally were inventing the technology as we went along.  I led and managed two overseas field sites.  I went to sea on a battleship and, during a gunnery exercise, watched a 16" shell as it flew for miles toward the target on the beach.  I went to sea on submarines four times.  I managed a set of operations during one brief war (Desert Storm).  I met my wife.  I worked with some of the sharpest, wittiest, most capable, and most driven people in the world.  Later, several years after retiring from the Navy, I got to work in Iraq with the reconstruction effort, and then in Afghanistan to help build their governance capability.  In all of this, we had a mission, a purpose, something that was much bigger than just making a buck.  Cool stuff, all of it.

And people thank me for this?

I have to admit, I have been extremely lucky.  I wasn't drafted to fight a brutal war, even though the draft was still ongoing at the time (I had a high draft number).  I've never personally been shot at, that I know of, and never been in a firefight.  I did lose a couple of friends to an IED in Iraq and a sailor to a motorcycle accident, but those aren't things you thank somebody for.  No, I just had a wonderful career doing fascinating things with great people.  I couldn't have asked for more.

There are many, many others who have not had the same experience.  The ones who have visible or invisible wounds, both from combat and everyday operations.  The ones who lost their families because they were gone all the time.  Many service members paid a really high price for their service, and those are the ones you should legitimately thank.  Not me.

So when people say "Thank you for your service", I'm thinking that they should be saying something like, "how the hell do I get some of that action?"  I know how to respond to that question.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Online Updates, Improvements, and Messing Around

Over the past few weeks, I've been working on improving my online studio presence.  A good online capability is crucial for successful marketing these days.  I gotta admit, I am the world's worst salesman and marketer.  I will talk somebody out of a sale.  Salesmanship is just something I never, ever, got the hang of.

But it was time to take a look at what I had and how it could be improved.  I had several things going already that were kinda/sorta okay: the web site, the studio Facebook page, this blog, and an Etsy site.  Each required some attention and there needed to be some additions.

The web site came first.  It was just okay as it was.  The home page was up to date but didn't have a whole lot of information and wasn't laid out well.  The individual pages for different series of paintings were not visually compelling.  There was no information about purchasing or commissioning anything.  All that needed some work, so I took advantage of Weebly's capabilities,  templates, and drag-and-drop features to spruce things up a bit.  The home page now has a LOT of information about recent and upcoming events, along with links to other places where my work can be seen.  And it makes much better use of the available real estate on a computer screen.  I also tweaked the pages for the different artworks series so they are more visually interesting.  Finally, I added a section devoted to purchasing art.  This included a page with links to Etsy and Saatchi, as well as a page where art could be purchased directly.  All the marketing experts say that if you don't make it easy to buy, people never will.  I've certainly proved that over the years, so it's time to try a new approach.  So take a look and let me know what you think.

The studio Facebook page was pretty good.  There are a lot of images on there and it's updated several times a week.  That's good.  But it still didn't have a large reach, especially considering it's been active for several years now.  So I tried an advertising campaign and it actually worked out pretty well.  I need to go back and take a look at the campaign, figure out lessons learned, and do another one.

Etsy isn't that great a site for visual artists.  It's a crafts-oriented site where the average sale is under $20.  That may work well for crafters who do a lot of inexpensive stuff, but not for visual artists whose work often entails many many hours of labor.  Despite that, there are some really good visual artists on Etsy.   Don't believe me?  Check out the list I put together on figurative artists.  I've got about 30-40 small works listed there, like figure drawings, quick oil sketches, photos, that sort of thing.  I've had a few sales.  You really have to market Etsy hard to get any traffic since there are thousands of others on there, and with the low price points, it's hard to justify.  Still, I'm there, and I'm going to push it a bit through the end of the year and then re-evaluate.  There are a few other artist sites that may be better for me.

One of the biggest of those is Saatchi Art.  I used to have a page there many years ago, but never pushed it and never had any traffic.  It eventually went into hibernation.  An American company bought Saatchi Art Online in 2014 and has aggressively expanded its capabilities and growth since then.  So I reactivated my account and built a new page.  There are just a few paintings on there now and more will be added.  One of the neat things about Saatchi is that they will also do open-edition giclees from the photos we provide.  Pretty cool.

I've been doing a newsletter for a number of years.  They come out aperiodically, just a few a year.  Email marketing gurus say that newsletters should come out much more often.  I don't want to spam people with too much information, and occasionally there's not much to say for a long time.  But that's an excuse.  I decided to step it up and send out a newsletter at the beginning of each month.  I sent one at the beginning of October and another yesterday, so I've got a string of two going!  The newest took some work as it was significantly revised to be more inclusive and informative.  If you're interested in getting these newsletters, go to my web page and you can sign up on the Home page.  Or send me a note and I'll add you.

Instagram is another site that I finally joined.  I'm using it strictly to promote my studio biz.  I post once a day (max) and have been very slowly building up my number of followers.  If you're interested, look me up: @skiprohde.  And follow me.  I can say a lot more about Instagram, but that will be a separate post.

So that's what I've been doing to improve my online presence.  It's taking a lot of work.  Once things get started, though, they get easier to update.  Got any thoughts on what else I should be doing?  Or about what each of these sites needs in order to be improved?  Let me know, I'm looking for advice.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cinderella's Seamstress

Cinderella's Seamstress
Oil on canvas, 48"x48"

A couple of days ago, I finished my newest large painting, "Cinderella's Seamstress".  This one is about the backstory in everything that's beautiful.  Those beautiful things don't just appear by magic: they require a lot of dedicated, hard work by some creative individual.  Often, the work is done alone in a small shop or studio that's a far cry from the glamorous scene that it's meant for.

I've written about this painting in earlier posts.  I started sketching the initial ideas back in April and the basic idea was quickly settled.  Then I had the model come to my studio.  She really is a seamstress, quite good, very accomplished, and a helluva hard worker.  I asked her to come in her working clothes.  She did and brought along with a few accessories.  The leather tool pouch, for example, is what she wears, and it's stuffed with sewing supplies, scissors, and other tools.  Her grandfather was a carpenter and this was his tool pouch back then, so she has this great reminder of her family tradition of making things.

Amy came ready to work.  She brought along her manikin and used a scrap scarf from my studio to whip up a "dress", tacked stuff up on the wall behind her, and we did a lot of studies of her interacting with the manikin.  Oddly enough, the pose I finally decided on was only about the third or fourth one she did.  Although we did a bunch after that, none of them had quite the energy that I was looking for.  So her pose and the position of the manikin were locked in right at the beginning.

Almost everything else, though, changed, and not just in the details.  I had been looking at one of my favorite painters, Jerome Witkin, for inspiration on how to put this narrative painting together.  I couldn't make it work.  Witkin's paintings have an intensity that just didn't fit with my approach.  My paintings are generally quiet and fairly contemplative, so I started looking at another favorite artist whose paintings are also quiet and contemplative: Johannes Vermeer.  I studied his paintings, looking at how he arranged his people in the room, his use of large spaces and small, busy areas, the lines leading the eye around the painting, color of light on the wall, and so on.

Analyzing Vermeer's artworks to see how they work is one thing.  Trying to put those principles to work in a new painting is something else.  I went through many different compositions.  The window was originally on the right, but that put the light onto the seamstress and backlit the dress, and that wasn't right.  An ironing board was at various times behind, to the right, to the left, and in front of the seamstress and dress - sometimes as a visual device to connect the woman and manikin, other times as a visual barrier to establish distance.  A large poster was briefly on the wall.  The window was once more prominent, but it implied that you could look outside, which was not what I wanted the viewer to do, so now it's just barely indicated to provide a logical source of light.  The director's chair came in as a way to help guide the eye around the painting.  The "dress" she made in our first session didn't really work, so I found a photo of one that did, then bought some shiny blue fabric and mocked up the dress on the manikin.  And on and on.

When working on a complex composition like this, I will do sketches of everything - the seamstress, manikin, director's chair, and so on - then cut them out and move them around on a large sheet of paper to figure out how they need to relate to each other.  I'll draw some things in several different sizes as things come forward, backward, or turn.  Once I get something that works, I'll do a value study of the whole thing to look at the arrangements of lights and darks, then move things around again as necessary.  If it passes that test, then I'll transfer the composition to gessoed paper and do a color study.  The first several color studies resulted in me going back to square one and reworking the composition from scratch.  But finally the composition that you see above came together.

The next step was to prepare the canvas.  I built the frame and stretched the canvas.  It's polyester, more or less the same stuff used in sails, so it's extremely durable, much tighter than cotton or linen, and won't rot or mildew.  It's the same material that museums use to re-line old master paintings when they're restored.  I gessoed the canvas and then toned it with a coating of cool gray.  To transfer the composition, I drew grids on the final drawing, drew equivalent grids on the canvas, and copied the major outlines.  And then it was time to paint.  I built it up gradually, in multiple layers.  There was a good bit of adjusting going on - the director's chair turned out to be too large, so I had to shrink it quite a bit, for example, but mostly it was minor detail stuff.  The painting took a couple of months because this is a good-sized canvas and I wanted to take my time and do it as well as I possibly could.

And there it is.  Finally.  Done.  I feel pretty good about the way it turned out and am looking for exhibition opportunities for it.  And I'm already thinking about my next painting.  Haven't started the sketches yet, but there are a few ideas floating around ...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Landscape Painting

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

For the past few weeks, I've been working on paintings for the upcoming exhibit, "Of Time and the River".  It's a fundraiser for RiverLink, which is a non-profit in Asheville that has been working for years to clean up the French Broad River.  They've done a great job: the river is much much cleaner than it has been since this was Cherokee territory.  Now there are river rafters, kayakers, and parks and greenways all through the Asheville area.  All this takes money.  Artists are happy to help, since the river is a great source of inspiration for artworks.  Another thing in RiverLink's favor is that they treat artists as professionals.  Rather than asking us to give them stuff that they can auction off at ridiculously low prices, they partner with us very much like galleries do.  And as a result, they get much better artworks that are worth higher prices.  Win-win-win.  I'm going to have seven works in this event.  Six are paintings and one is an etching.  Several of the paintings were done specifically for this show, including the one above, which I just finished and signed today.

This painting was really tough.  I wanted to get the rich glow of light in the clouds right at sunset.  So in July and early August, when the clouds really pile up in late afternoon, I made several trips to local spots where I could get a good view of both the clouds and the land and river below, right at sunset.  I took my sketchbook and my camera, making lots of notes about color variations, cloud shapes, reflections, the way the land looked, and so on.  And I took a couple hundred photos.  Sunset is such an amazing thing: it creeps up on you slowly over 45 minutes or so, and then wham, the light and shadows change so fast over about 10 minutes, and then it's over.

The next step was to do a lot of color studies to try out different ideas and compositions.  As the saying goes, the best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.  Most of them wound up in the trash, and the initial study using the idea of clouds reflected in the water looked nothing like this.  But trial and lots of error finally came up with the basic composition you see above.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I started in on this canvas and immediately ran into issues that hadn't been clear on the small studies.  One was that the cloud kept growing until it was this huge monster.  Oddly, the bigger the cloud, the less remarkable it was.  The technical reason was that the yellow and orange cloud dominated so much of the canvas that it was no longer a focal point.  By shrinking it, it became a warm center of interest in a large cool-colored canvas.  A second problem was color.  When dealing with clouds, you're dealing with almost pure color.  It's not muddied like paint is.  So to get that pure color, I was using my purest paints.  That lead to over-saturation.  The blues were BLUE, the purples were PURPLE, the greens GREEN, and so on.  It was hideous.  I had to mute the cool colors somehow without muddying them up, while leaving the warm colors in the clouds strong.  I tried layering colors, and that worked in the clouds but not in the sky and purple clouds.  So then I tried using the purest complementary colors to tone things down.  For you non-painters, that means mixing a bit of orange into the blue for the sky.  Blue and orange are on opposite sides of the color wheel, so as you add orange to blue, it becomes less BLUE and more muted.  At some point, though, it becomes gray and then a muted orange, so you have to walk that fine line of mixing.  So, bottom line, I spent a lot of time working on the blues and purples, toning them down enough so that the yellows, oranges, and reds in the clouds really popped.  I'm not convinced that I hit it right.  It still looks over-saturated (especially in this photo), but it's as good as I can make it now.

The process, though, was both very challenging and a lot of fun.  You might not have thought "fun" if you heard me cussing at it, but once things started happening, it really was fun.  I want to do more paintings of clouds, and the river, and reflections on the water.  Each one of those subjects has a lot of subtleties that I had to deal with in this painting, and they're going to need many more paintings before I can begin to understand them.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Success Story

In the early summer of 1996, I was in Sarajevo as part of the NATO peacekeeping forces.  I was at the headquarters and we had pretty much free rein to go around the city.  Actually, we were encouraged to.  Our boss believed that we were there to bring the peace, and that meant doing peaceful things, like going out to restaurants, shopping, and talking with locals.

One of the places I went was the library.  Before the war, this was a big, beautiful building that held irreplaceable documents, books, and artifacts dating back about a thousand years.  But sometime during the war, Serbian forces surrounding the city heard that military forces were using the library's basement, so they shelled the building and set fire to it and everything inside.  A group of us visited it one day and went inside.  It wasn't safe, of course - the building could have collapsed at almost any time.  Years later, I made this painting of the scened from just inside the front door:

Over the years, I've wondered what happened to that building.  I heard that they were trying to restore it, but hadn't heard anything else.  Until today.  Bosnia has completed the restoration of the old library and it is now reopened.  Here is what the library looks like now, from the same viewpoint:

Fantastic.  Just fantastic.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Truthiness in the Republican Debate

You don't listen to a debate of Presidential wannabe's and expect to hear a lot of the truth.  As the old joke goes, "How do you know when a politician is lying?  When he's talking!"  And debates these days are more about macho posturing than honest, substantive discussion.

So last night was the Republican presidential debate.  I didn't watch it as driving nails into my forehead would be less painful.  Political junkies suffered through it, though.  One of the more interesting junkies is Politifact, which fact-checks everybody's statements.  They published a report today that showed the number of statements each candidate made in six categories: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire.  It was interesting to go through their data.

Being a bit of a geek, I decided to do an analysis of each candidate's answers and find out how they scored on the truthiness continuum.  For each "True" statement, they got 5 points; for each "Mostly True" they got 4 points, and so on, with 0 points awarded for a "Pants On Fire" answer.  Then I added up their points and divided by the number of statements they made.  The result was an average score of how true their statements were.  Here are the results:

Bobby Jindal: 3.44 (ie: about midway between "Mostly True" and "Half True")
John Kasich: 3.28
Jeb Bush: 3.26
Rand Paul: 3.07
Chris Christie: 3.01
Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham: 3.00 (this is the "Half True" level)
Mike Huckabee: 2.65
Scott Walker: 2.62
Carly Fiorina: 2.55
Rick Santorum: 2.34
Ted Cruz: 2.11 (this is about the "Mostly False" level)
Ben Carson: 1.57
Donald Trump: 1.54 (halfway between the "False" and "Mostly False" levels)

Very interesting.  Remember, this is only a measure of how true their statements are.  It doesn't consider whether they actually believe the nonsense coming out of their mouths.  And it doesn't consider a lot of other things that have to be taken into account in choosing our next Supreme Leader.  All it indicates is how true their statements might be at any given moment.

I find it very interesting that three of the top four candidates in the current polls are at the bottom of the truthiness scale.  What they're saying is mostly false, but the Republican base loves them for it.  What can you expect from people who watch Fox News?  They're raised on falsehood, and seem to know quality falsehood when they hear it.

Another interesting thing is that Bobby Jindal is at the top of the list, but he made very few statements (9).  I thought that maybe keeping your mouth shut would be a good way to score well, but then, Ben Carson made even fewer statements (7) and scored only a tick better than the biggest liar, Donald Trump.

So there you have it.  According to Politifact, about half the Republican field scores in the "Half True" or better side, while the other half don't, and three of those are in the "Mostly False" or worse category.  Including most of the leaders.

It will be interesting to do the same analysis for the Democratic candidates, if the national party ever lets them have a debate.