Monday, September 21, 2015

Success Story

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

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

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

Fantastic.  Just fantastic.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Truthiness in the Republican Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Plein Air Painting

With fall setting in, we have a window of really nice weather, perfect for going outdoors and painting onsite.  Today, I went out to the French Broad River.  This river runs through western North Carolina and into Tennessee, eventually flowing into the Tennessee River and then the Mississippi.  Here in Madison County, the river flows through the Appalachian Mountains, and it can get pretty spectacular.

If you're wondering how a river can cross the mountains, it's because the French Broad is one of the oldest rivers in the world.  It was here before the Appalachians were created 300 million years ago.  When the mountains grew, the river was already cutting its way through them.  That's one hell of an old river.

I went scouting yesterday to find some potential painting locations.  I found quite a few, actually - turnouts along the road where I could get down to the riverside.  Today, I left the dogs at home, loaded up the truck with my painting gear, and headed out to the first one on my list.  It's a gravel turnout only big enough for one car, with a very steep climb down the bank.  At the bottom, there's a flat area where people have built a fire pit and apparently had a couple of parties.  I set up my easel looking downstream and went to work.  After about an hour or so, I had one painting that turned out okay.

Then I turned the easel around so I was looking upstream and painted another.  It turned out okay as well.

I didn't sign either painting.  I need a bit of distance from them to do an impartial evaluation and modify as necessary.  That may happen tomorrow.  Or later - I may go to another spot on the river tomorrow instead!  Gotta take advantage of the great weather while you can, y'know?

Sunday, September 13, 2015


I recently set up an Instagram account for the studio.  Yes, I'm late to the party, but I'm not an early adopter of anything.  Hell, I still paint, by hand, with oil paints and brushes made from hog's hair.  That was trendy maybe 600 years ago.  Meanwhile, Instagram has only been around for five years.  I've still got another 595 years to go!

I started looking at Instagram after hearing an interesting discussion of it on a podcast.  (Podcast - that's so ... 2000's ...).  Instagram sounded like a great way to find new artists and to get my own work in front of new eyes.  So I jumped in last month, got an account, and starting poking and posting.  Not too much - one post a day is my max.  I found quite a few artists on there that I knew already.  Then I found out about this thing called "hashtags".  That opened the door.  I looked at what other artists were using for hashtags, poked those tags into a search, and started finding a lot of really good stuff.  And a lot of crap.  But hey, that goes with the territory when you're wandering around in a non-curated environment.  (And in a curated environment, too, unless you choose your curator carefully).  Then I started applying appropriate hashtags to my own postings and people started finding me.  Cool!

I'm still trying to figure out what works best for me.  Initially, I posted completed and signed artworks from a variety of series: paintings, life drawings, the "Faces of Afghanistan", and so on.  I've also added a few other things: shots of my palette (who's interested in that?  other artists) and detail snaps of works in progress, for example.  And I'm playing around, seeing what happens if I edit an older post, stuff like that.  So far, I have not yet crashed Instagram.

This system seems like a complement to my web page, studio Facebook page, and blog.  Instagram gets an image out to a wide audience quickly.  My studio's Facebook page is a running collection of artworks, interesting posts that I've found somewhere, and random comments.  My web page is like my professional portfolio.  Think of it as me with a jacket and tie, with a resume and business cards handy.  And this blog is a way for me to record things that I may find interesting and that only three people in the world will actually read.

So if you're interested in seeing my Instagram posts, you can find me at @skiprohde.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Automotive Deep Clean

I'm in the middle of doing a deep clean on my truck.  This is something I do about once a year for each of my vehicles.  It's a long, hard, pain-in-the-ass procedure, but it helps keep the cars looking good.  I got started doing this over 20 years ago and now it's a habit.  Sometimes I have to wonder if there's something everybody else knows that I don't, because in the 15 years we've been in this neighborhood, I've only seen a neighbor washing his car once, and he didn't even bother to wax it.  No, most people just run their cars through the local car wash and hit the "wax" button, if anything, and that's enough for them.

Not for me.  My cars gotta last, and that means they gotta look good and run well.  A good wax job will help the paint last longer, and painting a car is expensive.  You can buy a helluva lot of wax for the price of one paint job.  Since I'm a cheapskate, I figure it's worth my while to spend a little bit of money on the right stuff and then spend the hours necessary to do a decent job.

So what's involved in an automotive deep clean?  For me, five long steps.  First is a good wash.  Then there's the cleaning.  Then the polishing,  Then the wax.  Finally, the ancillary stuff: windows, windshield, tires, and interior.

The first step is a good wash.  You can do this at your coin-operated car wash, but I always do it in my own driveway with a hose and a bucket of automotive-spec cleaner.  That way, I go over the whole car and get a good idea of what needs attention.  

But this only gets the surface dirt.  It doesn't get the bugs off the front, doesn't get the tar and tree sap off the sides, nor the water burns off the top and hood.  If you run your hand over the finish, you'll feel lots of little bumps.  All that stuff should come off.  To do this, I use an abrasive cleaner that I get from an automotive paint store.  It's not as abrasive as rubbing compound, but it does have some grit to it.  Professional detailers will use this stuff with a high-speed buffer, but I don't.  It's too easy to burn through the paint.  Instead, I use a small terrycloth towel and go over all the paint by hand.  Rub it on like wax, and rub the tar and tree sap and other imperfections until they go away, and then buff the surface with another terrycloth towel.  I do this on the chrome as well.  At the end, it should be squeaky clean.  What you've just done is remove all the old wax, tar, and everything else from the surface of the paint.  

The next step is to polish it.  Many people think wax makes the car shiny, but it doesn't really.  The shine comes from a very smooth paint surface.  However, the surface of a car that's been on the road for a while isn't really smooth.  It's actually got high and low spots, tiny abrasions, and other nearly invisible imperfections.  That's why it squeaks when it's squeaky clean.  When we use a polishing compound, it is specially made to fill those tiny imperfections, so when it's buffed down, the surface of the paint is as smooth as it can be.  Again, the pros use buffers, but I use terrycloth towels to apply the polishing compound by hand and then buff it down.  I only do this on the paint, not the chrome.  At the end, the surface is very smooth and not squeaky at all.

The next stage is the wax.  This is really to provide a protective coating for the paint surface.  Use a carnauba paste wax and apply it with a damp application pad, then buff it down with yet another terrycloth towel.  I wax the windows (not the windshield) and the chrome as well - all that stuff is shiny and needs something to keep the bugs and tar from sticking.  

Finally, there's the other stuff.  I scrub down the tires and wheels to get rid of all that brake dust.  If the tires have raised white letters, I'll go over them with a scrubber.  Then the tires get a spray-on tire treatment that makes them a shiny black.  The shine doesn't last long, but the treatment puts some silicone on the tires to protect them from the sun and weather.  As for the windshield, I use Rain-X.  It makes rain bead up and run off, to the point where you don't need the wipers on the highway.  Wax does, too, but Rain-X lasts longer under the wipers.  On the interior, I wipe it down with Armor All cleaner, but not the "protectant" as it leaves a slick silicone feel that, to me, is just slimy.

And there you have it.  Way too much work (maybe 8 hours total per car), but it keeps my cars looking pretty good.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Missed Opportunity

Back in June, an opportunity for a commission came up.  I won't say who it was with, except that it was a large organization with a lot of money.  They put out the word that they wanted seven large artworks, two of them 48"x60" and five of them 36"x54".  In addition, they wanted very specific themes for each artwork.  And they were actually going to pay for them.  What an unusual concept!  I could relate very well to their subject and themes.  So after a bit of a back-and-forth with the contact, I submitted a proposal in early July.  They were on a tight timeline and had said they'd make their decision by the middle of the month.

Which came and went with no word.  More weeks passed.  Still no word, even after I sent them notes.  It got to the point where I couldn't have completed the paintings in the time remaining, anyway, so I wrote it off.  But then they contacted me, asking about purchasing one of the paintings that I had submitted as a sample of my work.  Okay, well, if I can't get the commission, then maybe I can at least sell them one of my existing paintings.  So I gave them a discounted price for the painting, plus my costs for framing and shipping.  As it turned out, they only had enough in their budget for the framing, shipping, and my cost of materials, but then asked if I would do it anyway.


Something like this is really frustrating for me as an artist.  First, it's obvious that they didn't do any homework before advertising that they wanted seven very large paintings with specific sizes, subjects, and themes.  A little bit of research, even just ten minutes on Google, would have given them something of an idea of the cost.  Had they talked with a couple of artists, they might have had an even better idea of the cost as well as the time required.  But they didn't.  As a result, I spent a lot of time preparing a professional-quality proposal, carefully discussing how my paintings would meet their requirements, how the process would benefit their target audience, what would go into the effort, and what the cost would be.  And it's apparent that the proposal was dead in the water before I even printed it out, because the shipping costs alone for the seven paintings were twice as much as their entire budget.

The second thing that's frustrating is how little value is placed on an artist's time and effort.  This organization was typical of so many in that they willingly pay professional-level fees for architects, engineers, and even day labor.  Yet when it comes to artists, they expect us to work for minimum wage or less.  Or, as in this case, to essentially give them the artwork.  Why is that?  Is it because they don't consider art work to be real work?  If so, how do we turn that around?

When I was in the River Arts District, I participated in the semi-annual Studio Strolls, in which we opened our studios to the public.  I spent a lot of time talking with people about my paintings and how they came to be.  Most people had some appreciation for what goes into the process.  More than once, though, I had somebody say something like "Oh, it must be so relaxing to be an artist!"  Yes, ma'am, it's about as relaxing as it is to be a defense lawyer or high-stakes stock trader, except it doesn't pay as well.

Unfortunately, very few people ever see the inside of an artist's studio and understand what it takes to make art.  It's a very private process - we don't work in large bustling offices where lots of people see what we do.  And, for artists like me who make two-dimensional art (paintings, drawings, prints, and so on), the end result is a still image.  These images tend to get lost in, and significantly devalued by, our culture's constant flood of advertising, posters, TV, billboards, movies, YouTube videos, and magazines.  Everybody's got a camera, and anybody can take a picture to WalMart and have it printed out at any size they want for next to nothing.  For many, a print from a cellphone snapshot and a painting from an artist's studio aren't fundamentally different - they're a nice design of colors and shapes in a particular spot on the wall.  So there's no need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a painting when Little Ronnie's photo can be printed at Target for just a few bucks.

I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining.  I'm frustrated, yes, but about the larger issue of the value of an artist's work in our current culture.  I don't see that changing any time soon.  Still, I learned a few things during this event.  For one, now I have a good structure for a proposal the next time an opportunity comes up.  There are a couple of things that I would do differently in future proposals as well.  And the next time somebody wants to talk about having me do an art project, I'll make sure we have an understanding of the ballpark range for the costs before I spend a lot of time putting together a proposal.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Landscape Follow-Up

In yesterday's post, I wrote about some lessons learned from looking at landscape paintings by Peggy Root and figure drawings by Tamie Beldue.  Well, lessons learned are not worth a hoot if you don't put them into practice.  So today I tried some out.  Yesterday's post had an image of a crappy landscape that I did in Florida a while back.  Here 'tis:

Butler Beach Marsh

And here is today's effort:

Butler Beach Marsh, the Remix

I think this one is much better.  Instead of trying to depict too much, I made the marsh grasses into areas of greens with soft edges.  I also pumped up the value contrasts in the water and made the reflections better, both of the sky and grasses.  And the treelines in the distance are bluer.  The composition is no better, but that was intentional: I wanted to see the effect that this very different painting approach would have on the image.  So the lesson learned is one that all the good landscape instructors have been telling me forever: get the big shapes, don't try to paint everything, and mind your edges.

I'm a slow learner ...