Tuesday, September 30, 2014

St. Augustine Beach

We just got back from a week in a beach cottage near St. Augustine, Florida.  It's something we've talked about doing for years.  We finally got tired of talking and just did it.  Janis went on VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) and found a lovely 3-bedroom cottage a block off the beach, in a neighborhood called Butler Beach, which is a bit south of St. Augustine on Anastasia Island.  It was a wonderful place: quiet, peaceful, very wide beaches, and very few people.  Our next door neighbors joined us for a few days and we celebrated three birthdays and an anniversary while finding some really great (and some not so great) restaurants.  The weather wasn't so great as it rained almost every day.  On the other hand, the rain kept it cool (and MUGGY), and the rain rarely lasted very long, so it didn't really stop us from doing anything.  And Janis and I got to visit with a couple that we last saw 18 years ago.  Fabulous time!

I took my easel and painting stuff down.  My intent was to paint every day, but between the weather and Required Social Engagements, it didn't happen.  I did get four paintings done, though.  All are oil on 9"x12" linen panels.

Beach 1

This was at our beach access.

 Beach 2

Same spot, only turned around looking the other way.


Rain over the Matanzas River

I went over to the river side of the island one day, under some pretty threatening clouds, and painted this little study.

Palm and Phone Pole

Finally, a bit of clear(er) weather gave me a chance to play with some brighter colors!

These aren't earth-shattering paintings, but they were lots of fun to do, and I was happy to see that my landscapes are gradually getting better.  The compositions are stronger, I'm seeing colors better, I'm mixing colors better, and I'm painting better.  Progress is a good thing, no?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Yard Art

Not every creative thing I do is related to drawing or painting.  Sometimes it's as simple as stacking stones.  The term "art" might be a stretch for this project, but it seemed to occupy the same creative space as my studio activities, so I'm gonna call it "art".

There's a spot by the bottom of our driveway that was difficult to deal with.  It was too steep to mow, too rock-hard to plant anything, and had roots from a dogwood tree that was just barely staying alive.  So 14 years ago, we got a bunch of river rock and I stacked them against the hill.  It protected the dogwood's roots and looked nicer than anything else we could think of.  Over the years, though, the carefully-stacked rocks settled and moved, the UPS and FedEx trucks ran over them, and gradually they went from being stacked to just being a pile.  Here's how they looked.


Finally, in August, I decided it was time to dismantle the stack and do it over while the weather was still decent.  I sorted them into four piles: small, medium, large, and flat.


The next step was to start laying them down in a way that would be stronger and (hopefully) more long-lasting.  I built up the strip along the driveway that was basically a drainage run first.  The trick was to select and lay the rocks, then fill the spaces between them with pea gravel, and then fill the remaining space with sand.  This locks them in place and minimizes how much they move.  I think.  I hope.


It took a heckuva lot longer than I thought.  I started about the middle of August during a cool spell, thinking it would take maybe a week.  Hah!  It took a week just to remove the rocks!  I found that I was good for maybe two or three hours at a stretch, starting in mid-morning and stopping when it got hot and this old body began to complain too much.  Finally about mid-September, the project was completed.  Here's how it looks now:


So why do I consider it "yard art"?  The process of making it.  River rock is all different sizes and shapes.  They're round like baseballs, oblong like footballs, shaped like cubes or discs, angled, twisted, smooth, rough, gray, brown, yellow, red, you name it.  You don't just pick one up and slam it down like you do with bricks.  You have to find the right rock.  I would stand there and look at the spot to be filled, getting a good visual feeling for the shape of the rock needed, then I'd go to the appropriate pile and find two or three.  Then I'd try them all, test fitting them this way and that, until it seemed right.  It wasn't really a conscious process, it was more like zen.  When I was in the groove, the selections and fittings flowed smoothly; if I wasn't in the groove, I couldn't find the right rock to save my soul.  And since each rock was different, I made use of that.  There were large rocks next to small ones, flat next to cubes next to rounds, gray next to brown.  It felt a lot like painting.  Except, of course, the rocks were a helluva lot heavier than any brush I've ever picked up.


But it's done.  And since I used some lessons learned from the last time I did this, 14 years ago, I hope it'll stay put longer.  I'll be a really old fart in another 14 years and don't want to do this again!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Development of a Painting

As I've noted here before, I've been trying to develop some skills in landscape painting.  It's a subject that I have never done very well.  But it seems to be coming together now.  I've been fairly happy with what's popped off my easel lately.  What's more interesting is that it's a very different way of working than what I normally do.  It forces me to think more about composition, color, finding the focal point, and subordinating some things so that the important thing(s) catch your eye.  I usually think of the things in the painting as objects rather than as arrangements of paint, and the message in the artwork depends on the objects I paint rather than the way they're put together on the canvas.  So this has been a very eye-opening experience.

I thought I'd share the development of a recent landscape painting.  By the Cornfield is a small 16x12 oil on panel.  The setting is here in Madison County, NC, maybe a mile as the crow flies from my home.  Of course, this being Madison County, you have to drive maybe five miles to get there.


Here's the initial block-in.  It's in ultramarine blue mixed with burnt sienna.  I was attracted to both the tree and the road, and wanted to see how much depth I could get in the final painting.


Here's the first round of color.  I wanted to get paint over the whole panel so I could start adjusting it.  This first round of color, as it turned out, was too strong: all the greens really jumped, even in places where I didn't want them to.


At this point, I had learned that, for whatever reason, it was the road that interested me most, and I'd spent a lot of time on it.  I put some shadows on the road under the tree and in the foreground.  The ridge beyond the tree had been developed a bit, but I decided at this point that it was too dark and too green.  To push it back, away from the tree, I needed to lighten it and make it cooler (bluer) for atmospheric perspective.  The tree was pretty flat with little variation in lights and darks, so it needed to have some lighter lights and darker darks.  And the foliage in the foreground needed a wider range of greens as they were all pretty much the same.


Here's the final painting.  Making the ridge bluer and lighter really helped separate it from the tree.  I scumbled in a warm haze above the horizon line (yellow ochre and white).  The tree has a wider range of lights and darks, making it feel more three-dimensional.  I simplified the foliage to the left - originally there was a bush, but I couldn't get it to feel like a bush without taking over as the primary point of interest, so I simplified it.  I worked some warm "dirt" colors (yellow ochre, terra rosa, and white) into the ground on either side of the road and in the cornfield.  


And here for comparison purposes, is the original scene.  You can see the liberties that I took with it.  The tree, for example, blends right in with the ridge as there isn't a lot of distance between them, and it's confusing: what's the tree and what's the ridge?  The greens everywhere are really strong, too.  Maybe I could have kept the foreground greens strong, but I toned them down to focus on the road.  Here, though, you can see that it's the contrast between the green foliage that red/tan dirt road that makes it stand out.  

But there it is - the development of one of my new landscapes.  Your thoughts?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Disney Treatment

An NPR segment introduced me to a really cool art project.  Rejected Princesses puts a Disney spin on real-life women who were heroines or villains.  Jason Porath was a Disney animator.  One day, he and his buddies were sitting around, talking about how Disney would portray women that were too brave, capable, deadly, or otherwise too awesome for the typical princess role.  Disney, of course, isn't doing any stories on women who were Russian tank commanders, leaders of ancient fighting forces, or British spies.  So now Jason is doing it.


This attractive young lady, Tomyris, for example, was a widow in what is now Kazakhstan.  When the leader of the world's largest empire tried to marry her to expand his empire, she spurned his advances.  When he tried to take over by invading, she mustered up an army, kicked his ass, cut off his head, and publicly defiled it so badly that her name was a household word for centuries.  Not exactly Disney's idea of a pretty young thing who needs a prince to take care of her.

These images are well-researched.  Tomyris' outfit is authentic, as is the helmet of the defeated, decapitated, and defiled emperor, and so is the landscape.  Jason really knows how to tell a story with his images, something that I can really appreciate but cannot do nearly as well as he does.

Jason posts a new story every week.  I'm still digging through all the cool ones that he's already done.  Go take a look and check it often!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Landscape Studies

I mentioned a while back that I've started to study landscapes.  There are several reasons.  One, I ran into a creative wall while trying to do my "Survivor" series.  I was stuck and couldn't find a way forward.  Doing something different for a while is usually a good way to work around a creative block.  A second reason is that I wasn't able to spend multiple days in a row in the studio, which is what is necessary for my creative juices to really get rolling.  (Are those two reasons related?  Ya think??)  A third reason is that I'm pretty bad at landscapes.  I rarely do them, so I'm not very good, and since I'm not very good, I rarely do them.  Maybe it's time to break the cycle.

So I tried a couple of landscapes on my own and, as you might guess, the results were pretty awful.  No, you may not see them.  So I started studying how other painters created landscapes.  Eventually, I found a really good guide on the subject.  Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala is very thorough.  It is intended for artists who are already have a bit of experience.  It discusses plein air and studio work, equipment, color and values, site selection, light, and much more.  My copy is now marked-up, highlighted, and complete with paint smears from testing out what he discusses.  I've had other landscape books before, but none of them come close to Albala's book.  Rather than say "here's how to paint a landscape", Albala discusses the things you should think about and different approaches you can use.  In other words, he gives you the tools to develop good landscapes in your own style.

To put these lessons into practice, I set my French easel up outside and copied a number of works that were in the book or in a recent issue of Plein Air magazine.  Copying other artists' work is a time-honored tradition.  You learn a lot when you have to focus on something for an extended period of time, including how the picture was composed, an appreciation for the colors used, how the artist might have achieved success, where the weak points are, and so on.  All of these paintings are about 7 1/2" x 12" on gessoed and toned watercolor paper.  Why not panels or canvases?  Because I'm being a student again, and a lot of my work will be crap, and it's easier to tear up a piece of paper than a panel.

Each of these was done in two steps.  First, I copied the painting in one session, outside.   A day or two later, I critiqued it in the studio and then went over it again.  In every case, the first try was maybe an okay start, but totally unsatisfactory as a finished painting.  It was maybe a 50% solution.  And in every case, the end result is not something I'd exhibit, either.  Not only is it a copy of somebody else's painting (unethical to call it mine, which is why all these are unsigned), but none of these are completed to the level I would want.  They're maybe 80-90% solutions.  But that's fine, because I learned what I needed in each exercise.


This is a copy of Elk Creek by Jay Moore, from Albala's book.  Albala says that he's always asking his students "What is your painting about?"  Too many times, novice painters are just painting whatever is in front of them with no idea what the focus of the painting is.  I'm guilty of this, too, which is a big reason most of my landscapes have been junk.  But every painting should be about something, the central idea that everything is arranged around.  In this case, the central idea is the beautiful golden glow on the field.  Moore framed the gold with muted greens on the top and bottom.  The creek on the lower right has small areas of strong blue that are complementary to the golden-orange of the field and therefore enhance the gold.  There's great depth to the work, achieved through the overlapping hills that recede in the distance (and with atmospheric perspective, they get lighter and bluer as they do).  One thing I noticed when I pulled this off the easel was that I need to ensure the painting surface (paper, panel, whatever) is level when I block it in.  This one was crooked both times I worked on it!


This is a copy of Oak Creek Passage by David Santillanes.  In contrast to the painting above, which is bathed in late afternoon light, this one is in a deep forest with subdued lighting.  Most of the edges are very soft and colors are muted (actually, the colors in the original are more muted than my poor copy).  This image required a very different approach than my usual, very literal, one.  I basically scrubbed in large areas of muted warm tones in the top third (where the trees are) and down the course of the creek, then scrubbed in muted greens for the ground cover to the left and right.  Then I gradually developed the forms: the vertical trees, the round rocks, and humps of green grass.  My first go-round resulted in very little variation in the greens of the trees and ground cover (both in the range of greens and in their values).  Pretty blah.  So in the second round, I punched up the value differences (darker darks and lighter lights) and the color differences (warm and cool greens, strong and muted colors, shots of burnt sienna, and a very few touches of blue).  The end result is nowhere near as good as Dave's, of course, but it was a good learning experience.


This one's a copy of Where the Rabbits Are by Marc Bohne.  It's a little more successful in person than in this image.  My first cut at it had little depth, the bushes weren't dark enough, there wasn't enough color variation, the road was too light, and the tops of the bushes on the right, which were caught in sunlight, had no glow to them.  I worked on all that the second time.  The shadowed parts of the bushes are now much darker (more mysterious, more of a coherent shape), the road now appears to be out of direct sunlight (it's a little darker, with both cool and warm that give it the "beachy" feel), and the ground has more color variation.  The parts of the bush that are hit by the late afternoon sunlight are still unsuccessful.  Marc nailed it in the original; my copy failed.  But still, I got a lot out of this exercise.


This is a copy of Skagit River Dike, North by Mitchell Albala.  This was a plein-air demonstration project in his book.  My first attempt at this came up with the same green, just light and dark versions, over much of the painting.  I thought I was giving it some variety, but two days later, after it had dried some, it was clear that it was almost the same green.  Not only that, but the whole thing lacked value differences.  One reason was that I had used toned surface that was too dark.  It was a mid-value warm gray.  I tend to paint thinly, so my paint didn't have enough body to sufficiently cover the tone.  Lesson learned (at least for me): use a much lighter initial tone on my painting surfaces.  In the second round at this, I punched up the lights and darks and played more with the greens.  For all these greens, I used four colors: ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cadmium yellow light, and yellow ochre.  Occasionally I used a touch of terra rosa to mute the greens, but just a touch.  The bottom line is that you don't need a lot of tube colors to get a wide variety of greens.


This one is a copy of Tower Shadows by Russell Case.  This was fun because Russell really played up the blue in the shadows.  I'm very literal, so I would not have used such strong blues (various combinations of ultramarine blue and cobalt blue, muted with burnt umber or burnt sienna).  But now that I know it works, I'll do it more often.  My first effort was actually too blue: the warmer, sunlit areas were just cool grays.  In the second round, I warmed up the sunlit rocks and put some warm colors into the shadowed rocks.  In Russell's original painting, the edges of the shadows were strong blue; the warm strokes were buried in the middle of the shadows.


This is a copy of Willeo Misty by Marsha Savage.  It was an interesting exercise because the original is done in pastel.  Pastel allows the artist to get very strong colors at all value levels: strong dark blues, strong light greens, and so on.  Oil paint doesn't allow that, especially when you're working with a limited palette.  As with a previously-discussed exercise, my first cut at this didn't have the value range it should have, the greens had too little variation, and I totally messed up the water.  In round two, I lightened the hill in the background, made the shadowed areas of the trees bluer and darker, with the lighted areas yellower and much lighter.  Marsha was able to use strokes of strong color everywhere with her pastels.  I forced myself to put in a lot of strokes of my primaries - in other words, in the shadowed areas of the trees, not only did I use a mix of ultramarine and cad yellow, but I also put in strokes of ultramarine alone.  And I played up some of the blues in the reflections in the water.  Again, this is something I would not normally have done, but copying her work forced me out of my comfort zone.  I had fun with it and learned some new stuff.

So what's next?  I think it's time to head out into the countryside and start making my own landscapes.  Maybe I'll post some here.  And if they're junk, maybe not.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Artwork Updates

A few weeks ago, a cousin sent me a box of old family photographs.  Her father passed away several months ago and she's been sorting through all his effects.  These photos were of my mother, her parents, and her maternal grandparents.

One of the photos grabbed my attention.  It was taken a few months after I was born, when my parents visited my mom's family to show off their new addition.  They handed me to my great-grandfather, Ruben Bell, and snapped this picture:


I was really taken with Ruben's expression.  This was a man who led a hard-scrabble life.  He had been a sharecropper in rural Tennessee and had buried four of his six children early.  Now here he was, in his 70's, with his first great-grandchild.  This was the only time we were together, though.  Ruben died on Christmas Eve a few months after this picture was taken.

Being and artist, I had to do something with this image.  So I grabbed a canvas and here's the result:

Ruben and Me
Oil on canvas, 24"x18", 2014

I liked the fact his face was in heavy shadow, yet you could still get a strong impression of his emotions.  The background had to change a bit.  My posture in the photo was inelegant, to say the least, so it had to be modified, and while I was at it, I changed the outfit and added a blanket.  This may look like a simple copy of a photo, but trust me, it isn't - and it was harder than it looked.  Sometimes things come together quickly and other times they don't.  I wouldn't call this one a "fight", but there were some aspects that required, shall we say, a considerable amount of heated discussion between me and the damn paint.  But it works and I'm happy with it.

There are quite a few other photos in that box that are crying out for similar treatment.  I might do a series of paintings based on them.  Sounds like a bit of fun!

In addition to this painting, I've been going to life drawing sessions when I can.  Here's one from last night:



The Monday night sessions that I go to are two hours of very short poses, lasting only one to three minutes each.  That's quite a challenge in itself, as you have to get the essence of the pose very quickly.  If you don't get it, tough luck - we're already on the next pose.  It's actually a lot of fun.  Last night, our model was an aerial gymnast.  She spent several years doing aerial acrobatics with the circus.  She was the one who had the long streams of colored silk that she'd wrap around herself and do all kinds of flips and rolls 30 feet in the air.  Last night, though, she was only a few feet in the air but still doing some amazing things.  Like the splits in this quick sketch here.  Every try to draw somebody that's hanging upside down?  It's quite difficult.  Since everything is turned  around and coming at you from unusual angles, you have to actually look at what's there, understand it, and put it down on paper.  If you're used to drawing figures, you often draw automatically, because you're used to the eyes being this far above the nose, which is this far above the mouth, with a chin that's formed in a certain way.  When everything is reversed, your brain goes "erf?" and short-circuits, and you have to connect your eyes to your drawing hand.  Which should be connected anyway.  So this was a great exercise.  Go find yourself an aerial gymnast and draw her/him - you'll learn a lot!

Other life drawing sessions are more traditional.  I went to one that had traditional 20-min poses.  This allowed me to work with charcoal and Conte crayon again.  I hadn't used those in quite some time, so I was a bit rusty, but it came together again after a bit.  Here's one of sketches I did:

B's Back
Charcoal and Conte crayon on toned paper, 13"x10"

I've got this one in my Etsy shop now, along with quite a few others.

So that's a sampling of what I've been working on lately.  Hope to have more to show you soon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Shows and Color

Has it really been two weeks since I last posted?  Evidently it has.  Sorry for the absence, as if anybody noticed.  Most of the absence has been due to real-world activities.  But I've been kinda/sorta busy in the studio as well, and have a few things to report.

First, my "Faces of Afghanistan" artworks are on exhibit at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina.  This was one of those things that came together quickly.  Basically, I was talking with one of the art teachers about the drawings.  He asked, "How long would it take you to get them ready for an exhibit?"  My answer: "Oh, maybe two hours to get 'em all packed up."  That was on a Saturday.  A few days later, on Wednesday, we hung the show in the Student Center.


Here's part of the show.  More is on the opposite wall.  "Faces" will be up until September 26.  Since it's in the Student Center, it's open every day, so go see it if you're in the Banner Elk area.

Later that week, I got some more good news.  "Faces" will be shown at a college in Ohio in November.  More details to follow.  I'm really excited to have the drawings shown up north!

Meanwhile, I've continued to work on how I apply paint to canvas.  In one of my earlier blog posts, I posted a picture of this cloudscape study:


It was pretty ... meh.  Fairly accurate but about as exciting as a roll of toilet paper.  So I revised it:


That's better.  Still not great, but a big improvement over its "Mr Blah" earlier stage.  I based the revisions on some ideas from some of my reading.  And I'm still reading: just started another book about color and light.  Neither one of those topics is a strong suit of mine, so any improvement is welcome!