Sunday, September 18, 2016

Electronic Gremlins

We had some gremlins set up shop in some of the electronics around our home over the past week.  I think we've mostly recovered to about the 95% level, but it has been a long and very annoying road.

It started early this week.  I was looking at my 4-year-old iPhone and thought it needed cleaning, so I took it out of its case.  Almost as soon as I did that, the front popped half off.  The battery, it seems, was well past its useful life and had expanded.  When the case was removed, it was able to push the front of the phone out.  Great: my phone is now an ex-phone.  Deceased.

After a quick talk with Janis, we decided to replace both of our phones.  Hers was a little newer than mine, but both were way beyond Verizon's "new every two" sales pitch.  So off I went to the Verizon store and came home with two brand-new iPhone 6 SE's with the cell numbers already activated.  These phones have all the iPhone 6 internals, just in the smaller iPhone 5 case, and they still have the earphone jack that Apple is trying to do away with.  All is well so far.

You know how Apple advertises how everything in Apple-land is seamless, and people can do stuff like transfer all their data from one phone or tablet to another with just a click?  Right.  Not here.  Not in this house.  I plugged our phones into our computers and got an error message saying that our new phones would not talk to our 8-year-old MacBook and iMac.  The older iPhones worked with the two computers just fine, but something about the new hardware says "nope, no way."  I spent a lot of time with Mr. Google, trying to find solutions, to no avail.  The new iPhones won't talk with the old computers.

So I had to find some workarounds.   One was really ironic.  I have a Dell laptop with Windows 10 that's used for my day job, so I paired my new phone with the Dell.  It wasn't as easy as connecting to a Mac, but it worked.  So then I was able to transfer some data from my MacBook to the Dell and then onto the phone.  And yes, you read that right: my iPhone will talk to a frickin' Windows machine, but not a Mac.  Is that hosed, or what?

I was able to transfer some data through Apple's iCloud, too, after quite a bit of struggling to make the "easy" system do what I wanted it to do.  And I was able to transfer photographs off my iPad (which, unlike my new phone, is still on speaking terms with my old MacBook).  Transferring apps proved impossible, so I had to download them all over again.  One side benefit, though, was that many unused apps, photos, and music just went away.  So now I have the contacts, music, apps, and photos I need on my new phone.  I think.

Getting Janis' phone up to speed was a similar exercise.  She doesn't keep music on her phone, so there wasn't any need to transfer stuff from iTunes, but she does have a bunch of photos, messages, emails, and contacts.  We got the contacts and the "keeper" photos transferred, but not the messages and emails.  Oh, well.

As we were getting the phones caught up to where we needed them, the electronic gremlins struck again.  On Friday morning, our internet went dead.  Turned out that our modem was kaput.  Our internet provider, Frontier, said they might be able to get a tech with a new modem out here by Wednesday.  That was unsatisfactory, since I work from home and was just completing a good-sized project due that afternoon.  Frontier said they'd "see what could be done".  By early afternoon, though, that answer appeared to be "nothing".  So off I went to Best Buy and came home with a bare-bones modem.  After a bit of finagling, it worked.  So now we have an internet connection and I have another piece of dead electronics sitting here in my home office.

So at the end of all this, we have two new phones, a modem that's getting the job done, two old computers on their way to retirement, one workable phone, and some dead electronics.  I've known for a while that we're going to need a new computer.  Since I'm not deploying anymore, we'll eventually replace this MacBook and the iMac with a new iMac.  But that's a big expense and I'm a cheap bastard, so that purchase is still a little ways off.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Where's Your Studio?

One of the first questions an artist is asked, after "what do you do?", is "where is your studio?"  The answer to that says a lot about the artist.  It should: there is a lot that goes into the decision.

I've had several studios.  My first was in the basement of my old house.  It was a bit dank and dark, but it was fairly roomy and had running water, so I was pretty happy with it.  I was in the Navy, so that job came first, but the studio was available whenever I could spend some time there.

My second and third studios were third bedrooms in different homes.  "Studio" is a rather ambitious name for something that was little more than a closet filled with art stuff.  But like my basement studio, they were available whenever my Navy work allowed.

After I retired from the military, I went to UNC Asheville to study fine art.  I set up a studio in our 2-car garage.  Half the garage was for the car and half for me.  It didn't work.  The light was horrible.  Our garage opens to the southwest, so I had sunlight bouncing off the pavement, providing incredible glare.  Every leaf in the neighborhood would blow in whenever the door opened.  It was cold in winter and hotter than hell in the summer.  You can't make any kind of art when you're fighting your environment.

During my senior year at UNCA, I had a tiny studio in the art building.  It was maybe 9'x9'.  A closet, really, but it was a dedicated art space with lighting, heating and cooling, and (best of all) lots of other artists around to trade ideas with.  That's where I did my "Old Times" series of 16 paintings.

After graduating, I moved into a studio in Asheville's River Arts District.  Finally, a professional studio!  It was about 30'x20' and shared with two other painters.  One left after a few months and then Christine Enochs and I shared it for about five years.  It was in an old brick cotton mill built circa 1898.  It had seven large windows, about 8' high and 4' wide, that had all the insulation you'd expect of a window installed in 1898.  It also had 15' ceilings, wood floors, and a bathroom.  And bugs.  Lots and lots of bugs.

But the physical description is only a tiny part of it.  The building was full of other artists: several painters, a choreographer, stained-glass window artist, two potters, a flute maker, textile artists, and a wire sculptor, to name a few.  We had a small community within the building that exposed us to all kinds of new ideas as well as mutual support.  We were in a larger community of artists in other buildings, too.  I could go over to the Clingman Cafe and wind up talking with a woodworker or photographer about things I never would have thought of otherwise.  Being in a community of artists is invaluable, particularly when you're just starting out.  Our building was also open to the public pretty much every day, so there was a slow stream of foot traffic that became a flood during the two Studio Stroll weekends we held every year.

I eventually moved out of this studio when I made the decision to go to Afghanistan.  After I came home, I went looking for a different place.  While being in a community of artists was great, having constant foot traffic did not work well for me.  People would come in, spend 20 minutes talking with me, and then walk out.  Foot traffic worked well for the potters, who had inexpensive items like coffee mugs that sold well.  Paintings and other artworks that could cost up to several thousand dollars did not move.  So I decided that it was better for me to have a studio with no foot traffic and no interruptions.

I found one in Riverside Business Park.  This is another old textile mill that has been converted into a small business incubator.  There are lots of operations here: a coffee roaster, a couple of warehouse-type operations, a few artists, two rafting companies, and so on.  My studio was about 650 square feet with fluorescent lights and heating and cooling.  Later, I also rented the adjacent hallway that didn't go anywhere, along with two bathrooms (good story behind all that), that gave me lots of storage space and running water.  There are no windows, but I installed daylight-balanced lights.  Since this is an industrial space rather than an "artist studio", rent is very affordable.  There's no foot traffic, which is a plus for me, but there's plenty of space for workshops, weekly life drawing groups, and other activities.  All in all, it works out well.

Many professional artists work out of their homes, or in studios built on their property.  I find that it helps me to have to actually go somewhere else.  There's a mind shift: I'm going to work.  When I'm at home, I have all kinds of other things that "need" to be done: go to the grocery store, do some yard work, that sort of thing.  So I'm one of those artists that needs a separate studio that's located some distance away.

What would I change about my current studio?  Well, it would be nice to have windows, but that can't happen since it's in the middle of the building.  It would also be nice if it was 10 miles closer to home.  Going to work is one thing, but it doesn't have to be a 20-minute drive.  And it would be great to be in a community of artists, with a cafe nearby, that wasn't overrun by tourists.  I'm afraid that combination of factors doesn't exist, though.  So I'm keeping my studio.  And no, you can't have it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Art Education

I've been asked quite a few times by high schoolers and other young people about an art education.  I see the idea in their eyes that they want to be artists when they grow up, and want to know the best way to go about it.  High school students ask if they should go to college and get a Bachelor's in Art.  College students ask if they should get a Masters degree.  And sometimes they've turned to me for advice.

Well, really, it all depends on what you want to do.

Now, I'm a firm believer in a college education.  I've got a degree in engineering, an MBA, and a degree in Fine Art.  The first got me a career in the Navy, the second advanced that career, and the third got me going in art.  College degrees are wonderful things.  You learn a lot about yourself, you get exposed to things you'd never see otherwise, and if you're lucky, you learn to write a bit better.  But I'll also be the first to tell you that, if you want to be a full-time working artist, a college degree may not be the way to go.

Why is that?  Well, for one, a college education is getting ridiculously expensive.  Most students these days graduate with varying amounts of student debt.  It's not uncommon for somebody to have a diploma in one hand and a bill for $50,000 in the other.  That might be workable if you were going into a high-paying career field like law or engineering.  Art is NOT that career field.  Most artists don't even break even with their art sales.  I certainly don't, and I've had my professional studio for 13 years now.  You can't have a studio, some sort of housing, food, and transportation, while at the same time paying off a student loan, especially if your studio has a negative income.  (There's this pesky thing called "arithmetic" that keeps getting in the way ...)  On the positive side, going to college for an art education will give you new skills and open your eyes to different things.  On the negative side, you'll pay for it.  A lot.

Going for a Masters degree in Art compounds things: more skills, a piece of paper at the end, and a lot more bills.  Granted, if you want to teach art at the college level (this includes community colleges), you have to have a Masters.  If you're looking to be a working artist, you don't need a degree at all.

Let me mention two examples.  One artist friend of mine got her BFA about the same time that I did.  She went on to get an MFA and then moved to New York to be an artist.  She has one piece in the National Portrait Gallery, student loans that she will never be able to repay, and cannot afford to work as an artist anymore.  Another artist friend of mine has never had a class at all.  Not one.  She got started in art by accident, taught herself how to paint, and raised three kids as a single mom on her income from art sales.  She's had some extremely lean years, particularly during the downturn after 2008, and still has lots of concerns over money, but she's still a full-time working artist.  And she's turned out to be pretty damn good at what she does.

Another thing to consider: a great many, if not most, people change their careers after college.  An engineer may become a manager (a very different thing), a teacher may become a consultant, or a soldier may become a medical transcriptionist.  Artists are no different.  Of all those who graduated from UNC Asheville's art program about the time I did, maybe three are still actively doing art.

Okay, so cost is my first and largest issue regarding a college education.  A second issue is, what kind of education is best for you?  In my experience, art is generally taught in one of two basic forms.  In high-prestige art schools, the focus is on art, while just enough other courses (English, history, and math, for example) are added in to meet accreditation requirements.  In other schools, like a typical public university, it's a liberal-arts curriculum with enough art courses to give you a major.  These are two fundamentally different approaches.  One approach teaches you how to make high-quality Art but doesn't give you much exposure to the broader world.  The other gives you exposure to the broader world but the quality of the Art is lower.

Think of it as writing.  For a writer, the two key aspects are having something important to say, along with the technical skills to say it well.  An art-focused curriculum will give you the technical skills while paying scant attention to the message.  A liberal-arts-focused curriculum will give you exposure to the infinite number of messages that need to be addressed, while giving you a very basic set of technical skills.

I saw the results first-hand many years ago.  I visited one of the premier art schools in the country about the time that they had their annual student show.  I was blown away by their skills.  Their sophomores could put paint on canvas better than the seniors at my school (UNC Asheville).  The troubling thing was, they had nothing to say.  They were all trying to make the most esoteric pieces of ART they could, but there was no "there" there.  At UNC Asheville, my fellow students poured their hearts into the work.  They explored some really deep subjects in great depth.  The resulting work was sometimes crudely executed but had a power to it that could knock you back on your heels.

As you can tell, I put more emphasis on the content of a piece of art than on the technical skills that put it together.  That's my bias.  Deal with it.

There's one more aspect to address.  I have found that technical skills can always be learned.  I'm still learning new stuff all the time.  Having a message, though, comes from your own experiences in life.
So, going back to the original questions, is a Bachelor's degree in art worth it?  Depends.  I'd say the typical high-school grad needs to get some life experiences and figure out what they want to do, both in their life and in their art.  College may be the right place, but that's an expensive route.  Another might be to join the military for a few years.  Get some exposure to the larger world and have a military-sponsored program to attend college when you get out.  The danger there is that you might not ever come back to it.  If that happens, though, then the danger was always that you'd never follow through on an art career anyway, right?  Or you might just take off for a couple of years and work somewhere, or bounce around the country or the world, seeing and doing new things, before going off to school.  The point here: find your message.  Find what drives you.  Then work on the technical skills.

There are lots of ways to learn how to do the kind of art you want to do.  My artist friend, above, never had a lesson or a workshop.  She looked at books, did stuff similar to artists she liked, talked to other artists, and gradually became a really impressive painter in her own right.  I've done workshops, both in-person and online, and have learned a helluva lot from each one.  I still find new artists that do impressive things and then try to copy them.  The copies give me a greater understanding of how they work and also an understanding of how I can improve my own work.  My technical skills today are far beyond what they were when I finished my BFA program.

So think long and hard about going to college to study art.  The real question is: what do you really want to do?  I mean, really?

Friday, August 05, 2016

Art Demonstration

A few days ago, I gave a presentation and demonstration on my plein-air techniques to the Asheville Urban Landscape Project.  the AULP is a group of artists in the Asheville area that get together periodically to make some paintings.  During most of the year, they do landscapes outdoors and, in the winter months, they'll do figure sessions.  They also bring in accomplished local artists to do demonstrations of their painting styles.  I was honored to be asked this year.  Previous artists have included Richard Oversmith and Mark Harmon, so I was in some very accomplished territory.

I chose to do the demo at the Asheville Botanical Gardens.  This is a beautiful park-like area adjacent to UNC Asheville that shows the great biodiversity in western North Carolina.  About 25-30 people showed up.  I set up my French easel, gave a talk about the equipment and materials I use, and then started on a small painting of the gazebo.  I'd paint a few minutes, then talk a bit about what I was seeing, deciding, and doing, and answer questions whenever they popped up.  Some of the topics that we covered:
- using a neutral gray palette rather than a white one
- selecting and using a limited number of colors (one red, one blue, one yellow, along with burnt umber and yellow ochre)
- toning a canvas with a color before painting
- deciding on a composition: where the focus will be, the major light/dark areas, and areas of strongest color
- blocking in the composition with burnt umber
- building on the block-in with muted colors
- accentuating the focus areas with stronger colors
- reacting to changing light that can completely change the focus of the painting
- recovering from mistakes (actually, the whole process is one long recovery period, isn't it?)
- deciding when enough is enough before it becomes too much

The crowd was very engaged and asked lots of questions, which is always a good thing for me.  We had a good back-and-forth.  Here are some photos from the session:

A working artist is quite the fashionista.  Here's my sloppy self talking about the really exciting topic of the advantages of using a gray palette to lay out your paints.

Doing the initial block-in.  I was setting the horizon line in the upper third of the panel and the gazebo at the left third.

 Here's what I was looking at.  A little while later, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the grass in front of the gazebo.  Changed everything.

And here's how it turned out ...

Saturday, July 23, 2016


I spent last week up at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana.  I was part of the team that trained a group of US government civilians heading to Afghanistan for a year.  Last month, my role was as a mentor for a team of students.  This time, I was what we call a "subject matter expert".  This meant that I worked with our Afghan role-players to ensure that the training events were well coordinated, the role-players had an idea as to how the students might react, and the events went off on schedule.  It can be a nerve-wracking job, but it's a lot of fun.

You could think of my role as the director and stage manager of a play in which only half the participants know what the script is.  Yes, there is a script: we have very definite goals in mind for each event.  These goals are increasingly complex as the training progresses and build on previous events.  In the first event, the student teams meet a local Afghan official.  It's a basic meet-and-greet.  The students are informed on very short notice of the meeting and have to learn something about the official, try to figure out what his interests are, prepare the meeting room as best they can, and determine which team member is going to fill each role.  Then they have to do the meeting.  It usually goes well, but it can go south in a hurry.  Last month, the official asked my student team about Donald Trump's veracity (a very realistic question as many Afghans watch American politics).  One of the students replied that "all politicians are liars".  This, to an Afghan politician.  Ooops!  Fortunately, the other team members helped the guy recover from his faux pas.  That's why we do this training: put the students in a safe environment where they have to put their training into practical use, and where mistakes aren't going to result in permanent damage.

Our Afghan role-players are wonderful people.  Many of them were driven out of their homes by the Soviets, or warlords, or the Taliban, and are eager to help the US rebuild the country.  Some were diplomats, some were officers or soldiers in the Army or Air Force, several were police officers, others were businessmen, teachers, village elders, scholars, and farmers.  One was a smuggler.  One has gone back to Afghanistan and put his life on the line three times as an interpreter with US forces.  Most have lost family members - wives, husbands, parents, sons, daughters, or other close relative - to the fighting that has raged in the country for 30 years.  Many still have family in Afghanistan.  I won't post any photos of them as that might endanger their family members still in-country.  But they have an amazing dedication to this job.  They bring insight, intelligence, and wit to their interactions with our students.  And, as one who was trained by these very same people five years ago, I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that their efforts are invaluable.

Outside of Muscatatuck, these men and women get little respect.  They are treated with suspicion because they're Muslims and Afghans.  They get told to "go home" way too often, even though many of them are now US citizens.  Extra attention and pat-downs in airports are a given.  Yet they still continue to show up, every time, to train people heading to Afghanistan.

So the next time you hear some idiot condemning all Muslims and Afghans as terrorists or worse, tell them to sit on it.  I work with Muslims and Afghans.  We are damned lucky to have them!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Taborets and Palettes

One of the things I do when I visit another artist's studio is study their taboret and palette.  It really gives me an insight into how they work.  Mechanics will check out another mechanic's tool set and shop layout, and for an artist, it's the same exact thing.  I get a lot of good ideas that way.

A taboret (pronounced "ta-bo-ray") is basically a table next to the easel that holds the artist's stuff.  It's a combination workbench and tool chest.  If you look in art catalogs, you'll probably notice that they're often fancy, made out of wood, and very expensive.  You won't find one of those in my studio.  I use a rolling tool chest that I got from Sears.  They still have a similar one in their catalog.  Mine is basically a steel 5-drawer unit on heavy-duty casters with a plastic top.  I tossed out the fiberboard top insert that came with it and replaced it with thick coffee-table glass for use as a palette.  On the left side, I added a shelf from scrap wood.  There's a recess in the top where I keep my mediums and the brushes I'm currently using.  I've got some small cardboard boxes attached to the back that hold my full selection of brushes.  Here's what it all looks like:

I'm right-handed, so I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  The wooden shelf holds the paper towel where I scrub my brushes.  Next to it is the recess.  From top to bottom you'll see the jar that holds the brushes in current use, then the large jar with dirty solvent (I use Gamsol), then a small jar with clean Gamsol, then a small jar with my medium (50% Gamsol, 50% linseed oil), and then a small jar with Liquin when needed.  To the right of the recess is the glass palette.  For me, this provides a natural flow, and I've been doing it for so long that I can't change now.  Some artists would want the palette to be as close as possible to the painting on the easel, but that hasn't worked for me.

Regarding the unused brushes, they're arranged according to size: small 0's to 2's to the left up to 12's on the right.  That way I can quickly find the size and shape I need.

The glass palette has to be backed with something so you can see and evaluate your paint.  Many artists use a white background, but I use a medium gray.  This allows me to see how light or dark the paint is.  If you use a white palette, then everything is darker, even a light yellow.  A medium gray background lets me get a good idea whether the paint is light or dark enough, and also whether it's strong or muted.  

The other good thing about glass is that it's easy to clean.  When I'm done for the day, I scrape off all my used paint, then wipe it down with Gamsol to clean it even more, and finally wipe it down with alcohol.  This removes all the remaining Gamsol and paint and leaves it clean enough to eat off of.

I mentioned earlier that I position the taboret to the right of the easel.  When I'm working from life, I position my easel so that it's just to the left of the subject and the taboret so it's just to the lower right of the subject.  This results in a small vision triangle and I can shift quickly from subject to painting to taboret, compare the paint mixture on the taboret to the subject, and back to the easel.  When I'm just drawing, though, I have the easel to the right of the subject, since I'm right-handed.

So that's how I set up my easel and taboret.  How do you set up yours?

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Figurative Paintings: Alla Prima versus from Photographs

A previous post talked about painting landscapes from life versus from photographs.  Many artists, especially the hard-core traditionalists, say you should never work from photos.  Other artists copy photos in so much detail that they've spawned the Photorealist movement.  I'm not in either of those camps.  I find that photos and life are complementary: there are things that come with working from life, and there are different things that come with working from photos.

In working from life, I'm really open to the person in front of me.  I see their natural posture, the way they move, how they speak, their manner, their personality, their humor, and their humanity.  I see the way their clothes hang on them, the way their skin is different colors in different areas, and get a 3-D sense of how their body is formed.  When I'm drawing or painting a person, I'm trying to get a sense of who they are as a person.  You can't really get that from photos.

There are limitations, though.  A person can't hold a pose for very long.  They need to move every so often, which interrupts the process.  Then they never get back in exactly the same position.  The result is that a painting done strictly from life is an average of many poses.  Also, the more interesting the pose, the shorter the time they can hold it.  If you twist your torso 90 degrees, for example, you're going to un-twist over the next few minutes.  Think you can hold it for 20 or 30 minutes?  Hah!

Another limitation: time.  The person being drawn or painted has a life outside the studio.  Sitting in one position for hours while I mess around on canvas is not an option.  As an artist, I have to respect that.  Furthermore, a professional model is paid by the hour.  That rapidly gets quite expensive.

So: working from life has some good aspects, and some limitations.  Just like everything else in life.

Photos have their own characteristics.  For one, the subject can hold the pose forever without moving.  That's pretty valuable in itself, particularly in those cases where the pose is difficult or impossible to sustain.  Since the subject isn't moving, the artist can focus on important things like the structure of the face.  It's often the little details that I catch: the way the shadow of the jaw falls on the neck, for example, or the dip of a lower eyelid.  Things that would be easy to miss in working from life because the subject is always slightly moving.

On the flip side, photos are flat 2-D representations.  When you and I look at something, we see it in 3-D because we have two eyes that provide depth perception.  That matters a lot more than you might think.  When I'm painting an arm, for example, I need to know what that arm is shaped like, so I can convincingly paint it so it appears to curve toward you or away from you.  Photos don't give you that information.  Also, photos don't tell you much about the person.  They give you an image of what that person looked like at a specific moment in time, but you can't interact with that image to find out who they are as a person.

Given all this, I find that working from life and from photos are complementary.  I see things while working from photos that I can then look for when I work from a real person.  When I'm with a person, I can learn a lot about them, and carry that into later work from a photo.  The lessons learned flow both ways.

When I'm working on a large painting of a specific person, I use a combination of both in-person and photo techniques.  I generally have the individual come to the studio.  I'll have my camera set up on a tripod near me with a remote to take the exposures.  We'll talk and I'll be taking photographs like crazy.  We'll move the individual around, move the lighting around, have them stand or sit or whatever, and I'll continue to take photos.  I can shoot a thousand pictures in an hour.  Sometimes I'll do some sketches, sometimes not.  By keeping the camera to the side, I can engage the individual in a discussion.  The camera is not front and center between us, so much of their camera shyness goes away.  We just talk. Meanwhile, I'm punching the button on the remote to take photos like crazy.  That's the great thing about modern cameras: you can shoot a thousand photos and not break the bank getting them developed!

What this does is give me a lot of exposures, all with controlled lighting, along with a sense of their personality.  I can then choose which photos to use to create the story of that person.  Often it'll be a combination: the position of the head from this one, the expression in the eyes from another, the hand from a third.  Since the lighting is pretty much the same, this is pretty easy.

I really don't like working from snapshots.  It's common for figurative artists to have people ask them to do a portrait from a snapshot.  Hey, it's easy, you've already got the image, right?  Well, no, it's actually pretty hard.  The person's expression may be great, but the lighting, pose, environment, and color will be terrible.  And if they give you a bunch of snapshots, they're all taken at different times of the day or year, lighting is completely different and usually very harsh (flashes on mobile phones are NOT good light sources!), clothes are different, and so on.  No, it's much better if I take my own photos, thank you very much!

Okay, so this has turned into a tome.  Time to wrap it up.  Bottom line: working from photos and working from life are two different, and complementary, things.  Each can bring information to the table that the other can't.  Just don't rely exclusively on one!