Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Insight Into Making Better Art

My long-time readers (all two of you) know that I've been working on a new series of artworks.  They were inspired by the figure drawings and paintings of Mark Demsteader.  To recap, Mark's figure drawings are really powerful, with very high value contrasts (meaning that almost everything is really light or really dark).  He focused on one small area, usually the face, and the further away from the focus area things were, the more simply they were rendered, until they were just contour lines.  The effect was to make the drawings very dramatic and the figures mysterious.  In his paintings, Mark brought very subdued detail to the faces, but the clothing was abstracted piles of bright impasto.  It's a different way of achieving a related effect.  Here's one of his drawings so you can see what I mean:

I took this concept and played with it, trying to see what I could learn from Demsteader and apply to my own work.  One of the things I discovered was that leaving lots of spaces unfinished was very hard for me to do.  I always want to clearly depict much more, so reining things in early is difficult.  When I do it, though, it usually works well.  While I could get decent black and white drawings, there seemed to be something missing.  So I tried adding just a touch of pastel color.  Boom!  That did the trick.  I've continued doing these drawings and have learned that putting too much pastel on there is as bad as putting too much detail into the drawings.  Restraint is the key, along with the appropriate level of accuracy in the drawings.  Here's one of my works:

The only color here is in Troy's head, shoulder, and a little bit of the arm.  Everything else is either blank or black charcoal.  This kind of thing really intrigues me: how to get something dramatic, strong, composed, and restrained.

I recently stumbled across a young Swedish painter named Nick Alm.  He's a phenomenal painter.  While many of his paintings are complex interactions of multiple figures, he greatly simplifies things, much more than you would think at first look.  Here's one of his paintings:

Look at how he focuses attention where he wants it and your eye fills in the rest.  The woman in white is the key figure.  Her dress and the tablecloth form one shape that's the brightest in the painting.  Her black hair contrasts with her light skin and the light background, calling attention to her face.  The two subordinate figures are both medium values that blend into the surroundings.  Neither has much to call attention to them: little color, little value contrasts, few details.  Now look at the background.  It's just the canvas tone: raw sienna slammed onto the canvas.  You don't get much more basic than that.  And the shadows along the bottom of the painting?  It's one shape, little more than a black brushed loosely over the canvas tone.  Alm's approach is related to Demsteader's: use detail, color, and value contrasts to focus attention where you want it, while simplifying the rest to as little as possible.

I have a lot to learn from these guys.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to an interview with the painter Quang Ho.  He's an American of Vietnamese origin, and is another phenomenal painter, as well as a teacher.  In this interview, he discussed a new technique he was using.  Basically, he was painting in black and white, then when it dried, he was putting color over it.  Now that's a very traditional approach, but Quang was talking about making the drawing simpler, with only two values (black and white) or three (black, white, and a middle value).  Once that dried, he said that it only needs a little bit of color to really make it pop.  That sounds like my approach with the charcoal and pastel figure drawings, doesn't it?  

So it has been an interesting few days.  It's like the universe is pounding on my head, saying NOTICE THIS!!  I've been working on a new approach, and suddenly the lessons from that are reinforced by very different and fantastic artists.  Okay, I'm listening ...

Saturday, May 07, 2016


The world woke up the other day to the news that hundreds of millions of Yahoo, Google, and other widely-used systems had been hacked, and user names and passwords were posted on the Dark Net.  Since I have several email accounts that use Yahoo and Gmail, it meant changing passwords.  Now, the companies that market computer services are always very cheerful and glib about things like this.  "Change your password often!  It's easy and fun!  It makes you sexually attractive!"

Except, of course, that reality is quite a bit different.  First, you have to come up with a new password.  Security geeks will tell you that the longer, the better, and you should have a mixture of capitals, lower-case, numbers, and special symbols.  And you should never use the same password for more than one account.  And it shouldn't have words, birth years, names of your pets, or other easy-to-remember things.  And some sites require passwords of a certain length.  And you should never ever write them down.

Who the hell are they kidding?

Okay, so first I sat down and created a list of potential passwords.  I used a common trick of coming up with an 8-15 word sentence and then using the last letter of each word in the password.  Some of the letters are turned into numbers or special symbols - an S might become a 5, for example - and special symbols are sprinkled in here and there.  This gives me a password that might look like this: Co6^gD@md4#.  And then I (gasp) WROTE THEM DOWN because my memory is for shit.

Then I started logging into my accounts and changing the passwords.  That part wasn't too difficult.  It meant looking up the old password in my 3-ring paper binder (not connected to the interwebs, so try hacking that, Anonymous), changing the password, making sure it worked, and changing the password in the binder.  Then I had to go into all my computers (3), iPhones, and iPads to update the passwords there as well.  Very time-consuming and it took hours to go through them all.

The tricky part came with the emails associated with my two websites - one for my art, the other for my consulting business.  Spammers have long since found my email addresses on those sites and I get literally hundreds of invitations a day to enhance my manhood, refinance my house, meet dozens of beautiful women who are dying to have sex with me, or earn a tidy commission for handling million-dollar inheritances for kindly widows in Nigeria.  My web host is incapable of screening them out.  Instead, I use Gmail to retrieve the messages, and Gmail has been exceptionally effective at doing that.  The problem is, for some reason Gmail and my web host do not play well together.  Oh, they say they do, but not at my level.  The issue lies with my web host.  They are not really focused on small fry like me, they're designed for companies that have dedicated and trained system administrators that can understand words like "domain" and "DNS settings".  That is not who I am.  So every time I go in there to make changes, I have to plan on a day to re-learn the system, make the changes, then spend a considerable amount of time troubleshooting the reasons that the changes f'd everything up.  After making the changes yesterday, I still haven't gotten everything figured out yet.

I could switch to another web host provider, except that would mean doubling the cost of my web presence and having a lengthy period of trying to transfer sites, reconfigure computers, and suffer through interrupted operations.  So I keep it as is.  I'm a cheap bastard and lazy to boot.

And I'm not looking forward to having to do this again anytime soon.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Embody Project

Last week, I had the opportunity to work with Erica Mueller and Trey Scott.  They're partners in the Embody Project, a photo and video exploration of people and body issues.  I won't tell you any more than that, except to say: go look at the project's web site, and spend a lot of time there.  It's good stuff.  Erica is a professional photographer and Trey a professional videographer.  They bring their highly-developed skills to this very heart-felt project.  I was highly impressed just looking at their web site, so the opportunity to work with two pros was too good to pass up.

Erica wanted to do a photo session with an artist's life model.  She needed a working artist's studio and some artists to draw the figure.  My studio was certainly available and so were a couple of other artists.  We gathered there last Thursday.  The model, David, is a really nice guy who turned out to be an outstanding figure model - very experienced, very good poses, and lots of material to work with.  When we set up the studio, our mission was to allow Erica and Trey to get the best shots they could of artists working from the figure.  Our own drawing experience was in the "nice to do" category but it was not the purpose of the session.  One of the things Erica noticed during setup was that the spotlight on the model was very warm, while the supporting lights for the artists were very cool, almost blue.  As you'll see in her resulting photo, this actually turned out for the best, as it provided a conceptual break between David and the artists.

When we actually got moving, it was intense.  We did ten 1-minute poses.  I was working with vine charcoal on paper, Tebbe was using pencil, and Mark was doing oil on panel.  David, the model, kept time in his head, and moved from one pose to the next quickly and seamlessly.  Ever done 1-minute life drawing?  You gotta move fast.  Get it down, get it right, keep moving, because it's gonna be over in a few seconds and you start a new one.  I compared it to being on a ski slope when you're in over your head but committed, and your only option is to ride that slope and stay on your feet.  Here are a couple of my sketches:

After a short break to discuss the next steps, we did a couple of 10-minute poses.  After those short poses, ten minutes seemed like forever ... at least until the time was up, in which case it was way too short.  Again, it was intense.  Draw quick: time's almost up!

Through it all, Erica and Trey kept shooting.  Erica must have taken a thousand photos.  Trey had his camera going constantly, sometimes on the tripod and sometimes walking around.  I'd be working away and out of the corner of my eye would see a figure and camera moving slowly around us, peering over our shoulders or backing out to take in the whole scene.

And then it was done.  We stood around discussing the experience and started packing up.  It took a while.  Anytime you have a shared, intense experience, it takes some time to come down from it.

From the thousand or so photos that Erica took, she has posted one, along with David's own thoughts.  It's really good.  You can see it here:

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Figures in Charcoal and Pastel

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

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

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

Amy #9

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

Amy #11

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

Amy #14

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

Jennifer #1

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

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

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

Monday, April 11, 2016


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

Representative Presnell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is stupid.

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


Repeal HB2 now!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Skin Tones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A New Series

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

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

Amy #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy #7

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

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