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!

Sunday, June 26, 2016


People in the UK are so much more creative with their words than we are in the US.  This is especially true with insults.  A few days ago, Donald Trump stuck his foot in his mouth again by saying that people in Scotland were ecstatic over the vote to leave the EU.  That, of course, is not true, as every single district in Scotland voted to remain.  The Scots, no fans of the Donald, were quick to reply.  Here are some of their terms for him:

- Witless fucking cocksplat
- Tiny-fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret-wearing shitgibbon
- Incompressible jizztrumpet
- Ignorant fuckmuppet
- Utter cockwomble
- Polyester cockwomble
- Hamster heedit bampot
- Weasel-headed fucknugget
- Leather-faced shit tobogganist
- Cock-juggling thundercunt
- Touped fucktrumpet
- Bloviating fleshbag
- Weapons-grade plum
- Clueless numpty

- Mangled apricot hellbeast

Now if only our own political commentators were this creative ...

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Landscape Painting: Plein Air versus Photographs

I got some questions today about this painting of the Grand Canyon:

South Rim Afternoon
Oil on linen panel, 18"x24"

I painted this one in 2014, several months after visiting the Grand Canyon.  I was only there for too short of a time: we drove there one day, walked around the south rim a day, and then drove back.  Not nearly enough time - the Grand Canyon is such a mind-blowing place.  As an artist, as a rock-hound, as a hiker, as just about anything, a person could spend days, weeks, or months there and never get enough.  I took several hundred photos that day with the intention of seeing what I could do in the studio later.

One thing that inspired me was an exhibition of paintings by a bunch of artists who had spent a week or so at the Grand Canyon sometime prior to our visit.  These paintings were awesome: almost all were plein air, done right there in the Canyon, and they captured the light, colors, and moods perfectly.  I was in awe of what those artists could do.  So, after I got back home to North Carolina, I tried my own versions in the studio.

And failed.  Miserably.

I am primarily a figurative artist, not a landscape artist.  For years, I avoided landscapes because I wasn't any good at them, and I wasn't any good at them because I avoided them.  Kind of a self-reinforcing circle, huh?  But landscapes, done well, have immense power.  Additionally, when you're In The Moment, painting a landscape that's right in front of you, you're alive to the world in a way that you're otherwise unaware.  You see shapes and colors and things that you would probably miss.  And you're trying to capture it all in paint, which is a hopeless proposition, but so worth it anyway.

After a bunch of failed efforts, I eventually came up with an idea for a carefully-considered approach.  I relied on several photographs taken in the same general area, worked up a composition, and figured out which area would be the focus (the cliffs on the right) and which areas would play supporting roles (the more distant canyon).  This painting was the result.  I was fairly happy with it.  Now, after a couple more years of experience with landscapes, I'd do it a bit differently, but still, it falls in the "okay" category.  Not a bad early effort.

That's the background for today's blog post.  The first question that prompted this post was, "Do you paint plein air?  Or do you use a reference photo?"  Generally, I prefer to paint plein air.  Being out in the open, in front of whatever it is I'm painting, makes me aware of the wide range of colors and shapes, as well as the smells, sounds, and feelings of the place.  I have to work fast to capture the feeling.  When it works, it's great.  It doesn't always work.  Kinda like golf: when you get that perfect drive, it's a great feeling, but then you flub the next several shots and maybe even wind up in the water hazard.  That's life.  That being said, here's an example of a plein air painting that I think turned out fairly well:

Harvested Hay
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12"

This was done about a half mile from my home last fall in mid-to-late afternoon over about an hour and a half.  What caught my attention was the swoop of the tan part of the field, where the hay had been cut, next to the green of the grassy area, and bordered by the rich oranges and browns of the surrounding hills.  For me, things clicked pretty well with this effort.

But I can't always work from life.  Sometimes there's no time, or I need to paint a large work.  (Ever tried to do a 30"x40" landscape from life?  Some people can.  Some people can build a car in their garage, too.  I can't do either of those things.)  Sunset paintings are an example of something that are extremely difficult to do from life.  The light at sunset changes so fast.  You wait and wait and wait and then THERE'S TEN MINUTES WHEN IT'S PERFECT and then POOF it's gone.  So last summer, when I was trying to do a painting of these beautiful summer clouds at sunset, I went out and took a gazillion sunset photos over a period of several weeks, and then used a bunch of them to do this painting:

Clouds over the French Broad River
Oil on canvas, 30"x40"

This thing kicked my butt.  I wanted to get the beautiful range of reds, oranges, and yellows of the clouds right at sunset.  As it turned out, this painting was all about light.  (Well, duhh ...) The real colors in the clouds are pure light, but I was trying to capture them in paint, which only reflects a part of the light and is really muddy and dull compared to the real light in the clouds, particularly once you start mixing colors.  But when I used stronger and clearer paint colors, then I wound up with an unbelievably gaudy mess on the canvas that was not nearly as bright, clear, and subtle as the real thing.  Eventually, I toned the sky way down so that the clouds could have a gentle range of reds and oranges while still popping off the canvas.  Did it work?  Well, ehh.  I probably need to do a lot of smaller studies for a while to understand the process before wrecking another canvas.

The second question was, "I really want to start landscape painting and I'm wondering if you can get beautiful paintings like this if you are using just a photo."  Well, thank you for that vote of confidence.  I think the answer to your question is "yes" but there are some qualifiers:
   - You have to paint plein air, from life, in order to understand what it is you're looking at, and to know what's missing from the photo.  Photos are a good reference tool, but they are very limited.
   - DON'T COPY THE PHOTO.  You need to know what it is that you want to say with your painting, what the focus is.  That will tell you what to stress and what to go lightly over.  If all you're doing is copying the photo, then you should just take the photo to WalMart or wherever and have them blow it up into the size you want.  Painting is something else altogether.
   - Go to the library or used-book store and find some books on landscape painting.  Get one and try some of the things the author says.  Then get a different book and try those things.  Then another.  Get something like Plein Air Magazine and copy some of the paintings in there.  Don't try to invent it all yourself.  Thousands of artists have gone down this road already and some have written down their lessons learned, so take advantage of them.  Not all of their approaches will resonate with you, but keep trying new stuff and eventually you'll figure out a way that works for you.
   - Take a class from a plein air painter.  You'll learn stuff you'll never learn from a book, because you'll have somebody experienced looking at your work and giving you feedback.  And you'll be seeing other students wrestling with similar problems and you'll learn from their experiences, too.  And you'll have fun.

Dang, this turned into quite the tome, didn't it?  I could write something similar about doing figurative paintings from life versus from photos.  Maybe I will ...