Sunday, July 20, 2014

Art Studies

I've continued to do mostly studies about art, rather than making new paintings.  Work and home have demanded a lot of my time.  I've got a couple of new clients for my consulting business, and I'm trying to make sure they're happy.  And at home, a combination of ongoing projects and decent weather has required a lot of labor outside.  We had a new propane tank installed in the yard, which meant they had to dig a big hole to bury it, which required me to smooth over the ground, spread grass seed and fertilizer, cover it all with straw, and restore a stacked rock wall.  Sounds simple but it required a lot of time and I was a whipped puppy at the end.

So the studio has gotten short shrift lately.  I've used my limited time to work on several different studies.  One of them is landscape.  I've continued to go thru the landscape book mentioned in a previous posting, taking lots of notes, and learning a good bit.  One of my studio efforts was a cloudscape.  Here's how it turned out:

Great art?  Hell, no.  But it's paint on canvas and gave me a chance to work with the play of late-afternoon sunlight.  I've always loved looking at those big summer afternoon thunderclouds.  Sometimes the light catches them just right and stops me in my tracks.  But painting them is a difficult thing to do.  Painters work with a very limited range of colors that reflect light, whereas a thundercloud and the surrounding sky comprise an infinite range of colors and light.  With this particular study, I looked at how the range of colors in the sky (an ultramarine in the upper left corner, to a light green in the bottom right), as well as the range in the cloud (bluish purple shadows, light rose highlights near the bottom, gradually shifting to orange and yellow up high).  The mountains are, to me, a disaster, but that just shows what I need to focus on next.  Lots of lessons learned here.

I've been going to sessions with a model on Wednesday evenings.  Last week was my third session.  We had a lovely young lady who took a pose leaning against the wall.  She was very tanned and athletic, which gave her skin a rich warm glow, and the strong lighting gave sharp contrasts in light and dark.  I was pretty happy with the way this study turned out.  Titled "Megan Standing", it's now up in my Etsy gallery.  With this study, I put into practice some of the things I've picked up from my figure studies.  Specifically, I do an underpainting using only burnt umber.  This lets me work out the composition and light/dark structure.  Once it looks acceptable, I go in with a very limited range of colors.  This one used primarily yellow ochre and cad red, with a little bit of cobalt blue in various places, some ultramarine in the very dark darks, and a tiny bit of cad yellow in some of the highlighted areas.

Last week, I visited one of our local used-book stores and found a thick book on Anthony Van Dyke.  I never knew much about him, besides that he could paint a helluva fine portrait.  I've been going thru the book and studying the images, taking notes on the compositions, colors, metaphorical representations, and other things as they pop into my head.  My method of taking notes is to do a thumbnail sketch of the image and then scribble things down as they pop into my head, in a stream-of-consciousness way.  Here's a page from the notebook:

After this afternoon's session, I have quite a few things that I want to try out in the studio.  Lots of lessons learned, I think ... if I can remember them!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Exhibit Review

Aperture Magazine published a review of the show I was in at Western Carolina University.  "Remote Sites of War" was a 3-man show curated by David Brown, the Director of the Fine Arts Museum there.  The other two artists were photographers Todd Drake and Chris Sims.  The show ran from April 10 to May 30 and the review was just published today.  Here's the link:

Monday, July 07, 2014

Early July Update

It's been busy times here since my last post.  Very little of it has to do with art.  We finally had our heat pump replaced.  That was a big deal, about 3 days worth of work for the crew from Bullman Heating and Air, but they did a really good job.  The new system pumps more air than the old, and it cooled the house down quickly, so we're happy.  The next stage will be next week when we have the propane guys come out and install a big tank.  Since our heat source in the winter will now be propane rather than electricity, it will be needed.

One of my business clients had a big project come up, and I spent about ten days going full-bore on it.  No studio time for this boy.  But we got it done and met the deadline.  And then I was able to catch up on other things.  Art, for instance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm going through another stretch of training myself in better painting techniques.  I had studied some classical figure painting techniques and applied them to a couple of copies of master paintings - one by Odd Nerdrum and another by Rembrandt.  Subsequently, I did a couple of life studies.  One will never, ever, see the light of day again.  The other was done from an old drawing session and it actually turned out okay.  Here it is:

Blue Shawl
Oil on linen panel, 20"x16"

This was done in a classical style, with warm underpainting and glazes on top.  I learned a good bit from this exercise.  The painting is now up in my Etsy gallery.

In addition to working on techniques for the figure, I'm also looking at landscapes.  This is a subject that I've typically avoided.  I don't do landscapes well, except for a very few that were really "portraits" of specific things.  And since I don't do landscapes well, I just don't do them.  But that's not a responsible attitude to have if I want to consider myself professional.  So it's time to learn how to up my game with landscape paintings in addition to figure paintings.

To that end, I'm overhauling my outdoor kit.  My French easel is permanently loaded now with a decent selection of paints, brushes, and other equipment.  And it's in my truck, where it's readily available when I can get away from work.  I've done some plein-air studies that, like the figure study mentioned earlier, will never see the light of day again.  But that's fine: you gotta whiff a lot of pitches before you start getting some hits.

And I'm doing some reading.  One of my plein-air painting friends told me to not worry about technique, just paint with passion and it'll happen.  Well, no, it doesn't, not for me.  I'm the kind of guy who needs a structured approach.  When I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm winging it, the result has invariably been a disaster.  But if I understand the approach, then I can take deliberate risks with when and where to wing it.  And it generally works out better.  The result may still be a disaster, but at least I have an idea about what happened and can learn from it.

Oh, yeah, the reading.  I got the book Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala.  I'm working my way through it and finding it to be quite good.  His style of working, from color choices to drawing to basic approach, is very similar to what I've already worked out for myself.  So I have pretty good confidence that the things I'll learn later will mesh with what I'm already doing.  Good stuff.

This doesn't mean I'm turning into a landscape painter.  Far from it.  But I do feel that I have to be reasonably competent in that genre.  So it's time to get to work and learn something.  Hopefully, by the time I make my next post, I'll have a landscape or two that are worth showing.  Or not.  Don't hold your breath.  But sooner or later, you'll see some here.  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Studying the Masters

In my extremely limited studio time recently, I've been focused on learning better ways to put paint on canvas.  You may recall (if you're one of the 3 readers who've been with me a while) that last fall and winter, I stopped all new work and focused on re-learning the basics.  At least, high-quality basics.  I studied the techniques of several artists, took a workshop, got a DVD from a really strong painter, did some studies, and finally applied it all in a new painting, "Saddle Up", which was featured in a recent post.

A couple of things have blocked my development of new paintings.  Outside life events in general over the last month (the heat pump, the car, the cat, and lots of other nitnoid things) have demanded an inordinate amount of time.  The other is that my consulting business has been very busy in an unpredictable way lately.  Two clients have hit me with some very time-intensive projects.  Fortunately, they didn't come at the same time, but between the business and life events, I haven't been able to spend a sufficient amount of time in the studio to think about new works.

So I've focused instead on developing my techniques.  I got a new DVD on making a "classical" portrait from Robert Liberace.  The earlier one I got from him was on making an alla prima portrait - meaning a portrait done in essentially one sitting.  The "classical" approach is different in that it is done by carefully building up the painting in layers over a period of time.  This approach seems to fit my way of working: it's slower, more deliberate, and really rich when done properly.

Robert has an extremely well-developed sense of color, much better than mine can ever be, because my eyes just don't see color the way his do.  But that's okay, even very restricted color selections can have strong impacts.

Let me drop back a bit here.  For many years, I had no understanding of how color worked.  You mix one blue and one yellow, and you get a bright green; you mix a different blue and you get a dull green, and I never understood why that happened.  It was like I was supposed to memorize all the different color combinations.  Well, anybody that knows my memory knows that just won't fly.  Finally, in the mid-90's while studying at Maryland Institute College of Art, I was exposed to the book Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green, by Michael Wilcox.  At last, here was a reference that explained why mixtures made strong or muted colors.  Rather than making me memorize things, now I had a logical understanding of how to deliberately select and mix colors for specific effects.  Finally, I could paint!

But there were also some side effects from Wilcox's book.  (There are always side effects to everything.)  One was that my palette was now made up of a lot of strong colors such as cadmium red, cobalt blue, and phthalo green.  When you use strong colors, they tend to stay strong.  In painting a face, for example, your reds tend to be RED, your yellows YELLOW, and so on.  It's like driving your car with wild swings at the steering wheel and going all over the road.  Strong colors are great, but learning how to use them with subtlety is difficult.

In some of my studies recently, I've seen that many of the great artists used very restrictive color choices.  Sorolla, for example, used primarily yellow ochre, cadmium red, ivory black, and white.  Occasionally he used a small touch of a blue, but not often.  Yet he was able to achieve remarkable skin tones.  So I did a study using the Sorolla palette and, while the painting itself is kinda blah, I learned a lot.

The new Liberace video built on that approach.  While his colors were definitely more varied and stronger than Sorolla's selection, Liberace used them with restraint.  He mixed up a basic skin tone, then made a couple of variations on it, one warmer and the other cooler.  The differences in color temperature (meaning how warm or cool it is), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity were generally very small.  Certainly much smaller than my clumsy attempts.

I decided to put Liberace's approach into practice.  Rather than copy the painting from the DVD, I decided to copy an Odd Nerdrum portrait.  Here's how it turned out:

This was an interesting and fun exercise.  Nerdrum and Liberace don't paint the same way.  They use the same fundamentals (underpainting, layers of color, and so on) but their color choices and methods are different.  Liberace uses burnt umber for an underpainting, which is a warm muted brown.  Nerdrum uses a blue-black for an underpainting, which is much cooler.  Generally, blue is not a color you want in a face, but Nerdrum's is very muted and he makes it work. So, by using one painter's approach to copy another painter's portrait, I learned a lot.

In fact, I had so much fun, I did it again.  This time, I copied a Rembrandt self-portrait from the cover of The Rembrandt Book by Gary Schwartz.  Here's the result:

What I learned from this one is just how amazingly observant and good Rembrandt was.  There was no attempt to pretty himself up.  He showed all his wrinkles, pits, and sags.  There was no overstatement of anything - all his strokes are small, efficient, accurate, and lively.  As I was working on his forehead, for example, I was blown away by his attention to detail in each and every fold.  Usually, "attention to detail" in a painting means that it's way overworked and the artist should have stopped long before he really did.  Not with Rembrandt - with him, the detail provides additional support for the overall story in the painting.  My copy is just a poor cousin to the richness, vitality, and life in the original.

But still, my copy is a decent painting.  I learned a lot about subtlety, paint application, and a bit about "trusting the paint".  I'm going to make another copy or two.  And then I'm going to do some new paintings using what I've learned.  Can't wait!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Oil on canvas, 60"x60", 2006

"Lament", one of the paintings from my Meditation on War series, is now in a curated exhibition in Tipton Gallery in Johnson City, Tennessee.  The show is "Colors of Aspiration: The Flag in Contemporary Art".  As the curator, Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, stated:

"The exhibition features works by contemporary artists who employ the symbolic image of the flag to address social issues and its manipulation as visual dialogue.  The American flag has been a potent symbol of patriotism as well as powerful icon for social agency.  Artists, most prominently Jasper Johns, have employed the Stars and Stripes in various configurations and materials to pursue artistic ambivalence and encourage discussions in the nature of art.  The artists in the exhibition continue on this trajectory."

I painted "Lament" in 2006, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were getting worse.  I was angry about how the administration had led us into two wars, and angry about how so many people callously disregarded the costs.  I wanted to make a statement that reminded people that, when you go to war, there is a tremendous cost to pay.  People die.  People get hurt.  Irreplaceable things are destroyed.

But people don't want to think of that at the start of the war.  Then, it's parades and speeches and a grand adventure where our boys are going to go kick the other guys' asses and be home in time for dinner.  Only it never turns out that way.  As our forebears learned in the Revolutionary War, and again in the War of 1812, and the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, and World War 1, and World War 2, and the Korean War, and Vietnam, and any number of "police actions", it never goes as planned, and Johnny doesn't always come marching home again.

We need to be reminded of that anytime our politicians start talking about sending in military forces.  It's always, always, going to be worse than they say.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Of Cars and Cats and Broken Things

Real life has a way of interrupting all the things you really want to do.  So it has been for the past two weeks around here.

It started with a cat.  One of our neighbors had a cat that they never paid attention to.  They never took her to the vet, never gave her shelter, and never fed her.  Last winter, when we were down in single-digit temperatures, the cat showed up at our house looking underfed and desperate.  We were reluctant to take her in the house, but we made up a warm and protected shelter for her, fed her, and on the worst nights, brought her into the garage.  So she adopted us and we named her Bella.  But Bella was also pregnant (the little hussy).  Eventually, she had the kittens.  We never discovered where they were, but she would come visit several times during the day and wolf down huge amounts of food and milk, then run off to take care of the kids.

Then, about two weeks ago, Janis spotted a tiny little face peering out from behind the ShopVac in our garage.  I went over and discovered three tiny, scared little kittens.  A fourth was hiding behind some shelves.  Bella had brought her children over to her safe haven.  The little things were still nursing and a bit feral.  Eventually, though, they got used to us and began exploring the garage.  (Actually, they took over the garage: we have to park the cars outside so we can come and go without disturbing the kittens.  Lord knows you can't disturb the kittens.)

We tried to find homes for them.  We managed to place one, but that was it.  So last week, well after they had stopped nursing and graduated to hard food, I took three of them over to the Madison County Animal Shelter.  They were a huge hit.  I was worried about their future, but the staff (great bunch of people) assured me that cute little kittens like these are quickly adopted.  That was good news.  Meanwhile, we've still got Bella and are temporarily watching the one kitten who's been spoken for, just until her new owner can pick her up.  And when the remaining little one is gone, Bella's going to go to the vet for the first time ever so she can get her shots and get spayed.  No more kitties for us!

About the time the kitties showed up, our Volvo got rear-ended by a 93-year-old guy driving a Cadillac.  We were sitting in a long line at a stoplight and he just wasn't paying attention.  Wham!  The front end of the Caddy was destroyed and our Volvo took a pretty good licking.  Fortunately, nobody was hurt.  Unlike the old guy in the Caddy, we were able to drive away.  It's been in the body shop for a week now and (hopefully) we'll get it back tomorrow.

Our insurance company had us go to Enterprise for a rental car.  These guys were clueless.  Totally.  I made arrangements to pick up the car the day after the accident.  When I got there, they had no idea I was coming.  Then they gave me a Nissan Frontier that was identical to our own except 6 years and 30K miles newer.  We arranged to swap it for a car early the next week.  Again, when I got down there to swap it, they had no idea that I was coming.  This despite the fact that I had called them 30 minutes prior to let them know I was on my way!  Of course, they didn't have a car ready, and after about an hour, they wound up giving us a Jeep Wrangler.  Now I'm not big on Jeeps - I think they're rolling antiques at this point - but Janis loves it.  So we've been driving a Wrangler for the past two weeks.

As we were dealing with kittens and cars, we had another rude surprise.  Our 16-year-old heat pump died.  Our trusted heating/cooling guys had been telling us for maybe three years that we should be prepared for it to go, and it finally went.  So we brought 'em out for an estimate for a replacement.  Well, it wasn't so simple.  The original heat pump was built into the attic in a way that is extremely difficult to remove.  It really shouldn't have been up there in the first place as our attic has no airflow and is hotter than all hell in the summertime.  And the heating/cooling ducts to the back half of the house are too small and too long to allow for enough air to circulate.  The bottom line: the new heat pump needs to go in the crawl space below the house, where it'll be cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and where the air ducts can be most efficiently routed.

That's the right answer.  It's also expensive.

So we've been working on a home-equity loan to pay for the new system.  It's a royal pain in the keister.  Because it's tied to the equity in the home, they want to know everything.  Everything about the house, the land, our income, you name it.  An unbelievable amount of paperwork.  Fortunately, our credit rating is pretty strong.  We should get the "good to go" sign in the next couple of days, but it'll still be a few weeks before everything is signed, sealed, and delivered.  Ugh.

And while all this was going on, our mower broke.

On the positive side of the equation, I landed a new client for my consulting business.  So I've been working hard to ensure I get off on the right foot with them.  It's taking a lot (a lot) of time, but so far, so good.

But this means that I've been able to spend about zero amount of time in the studio.  I've had a couple of art developments, but will save those for an art-related post.  Hopefully, by then the kitten will be at her new home, our new cat will be spayed, our Volvo will be back from the body shop, our lawnmower will be back from the lawnmower shop, our loan will be approved, the new heat pump will be in the process of being installed, and my new client will be happy.

Maybe then I can spend a day in the studio.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New Paintings

I recently completed two new paintings and wanted to share them here.

Saddle Up
Oil on canvas, 50"x40"
©2014 Skip Rohde

Saddle Up is about a friend of ours, Pete, who was a Marine in Viet Nam.  Pete was in some really vicious battles during his two tours there in 1968 and 69.  When I interviewed him as preparation for this painting, he said that he was still fighting some of those battles at night.  His wife said he normally sleeps only a few hours.  I tried to capture that experience here.  Pete was the one who came up with the title.  "Saddle up, ladies" was the call to the Marines to head out on patrol.

After the Patrol
Oil on canvas, 24"x30"
©2014 Skip Rohde

After the Patrol was done from a sketch I did in Afghanistan.  A group of soldiers returned to our base completely worn out from their day conducting a village patrol in 120+ degree heat.  These can be nerve-wracking in the best of times because you never know when an IED might go off, or when insurgent fighters might open up.  You're a walking target.  And this sergeant had been in charge of the patrol.

I feel pretty good about both of these paintings.  I think both manage to capture the feelings I was looking for.  There are one or two other paintings in the queue right now.  Hopefully, it won't be months before they're done!