Friday, September 27, 2013

Figurative Fridays: Personal Investment . . . and Robots

Here is one of the original models I found at my hardware store. About 1983.
(I particularly like the misspelled FRIER instead of FLYER.) 
When I was growing one of my joys was robots. Somewhere I picked up some Japanese robot model kits; strangely, I think it might have been my local hardware store. I was captivated with the beautifully painted illustrations on the boxes. They were painstakingly painted with dirt and rust lines and flaking paint as if they were real well-worn machines. Someone had spent a lot of time and thought painting these non-existent robots. Someone really loved and cared about this imaginary world. Because someone, or a group of people, had spent so much time and energy that they made beautiful illustrations for the humble cover of a four-dollar plastic model box, it made me want to know more about this story.

Look at this guy, wouldn't you want to learn about him?

I later found that these models came from a anime/cartoon. I was living in the american world of Hasbro, where the box illustrations were marginal at best, often not even matching the contents of the box. I think that the difference was that the artists that did the boxes for Hasbro had little personal investment in the image. It was just a pay check, just another toy to be sold. The Japanese robot boxes didn't take the cheap and easy way. They didn't resort to using screenshots of the cartoon or even nice photographs of the models, as the eventual american release of the models did. They were real paintings. The artists that painted the Japanese model artwork were often artists that helped worked on the original series it was created from. They understood the characters, they knew the plots: these scenes lived in their minds. In short, they had a personal investment in the story and, consequently, in the art.

Here's the other original model I found as a boy. I couldn't even read most of the text.  and....
This is the eventual American company's release of the same model. Hummm . . . which one makes you want to find out his story?
The lesson I learn from these boxes is this: The artist's love of his subject or his love of painting comes through to his audience. Your viewers will be more likely to engage with your artwork if your own personal investment is evident.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wednesday Wanderings: Brisk Morning Light

Just got back from a brisk morning's painting session. One of the joys of living in the Four Corners red rock area is being able to wander out early and find a wonderful subject easily.

As you may have noticed from some of my previous posts, I love the local juniper trees.  They're a scraggly and tough breed of tree. They live in an harsh landscape. Every drought, dry wind, and freezing winter shapes them. Often the trees may lose a large section of branches or die back severely. This process makes each tree unique and beautiful. Each tree a portrait of survival.

Prickly Pear
14" x 11"
Oil on Board
This particular tree was living quite happily alongside a patch of prickly pear cactus. Painting on the spot--Plein Air--has a few difficulties I have had to learn to work with. The main trick is the light. I love to paint in the early morning or evening when the sun is low and I get that golden glow and warm colors. But the sun doesn't stay still. My shadows are slowly moving and the highlights change. The downside of that is sometimes I end up with a painting that just isn't working and there's no time to fix it. I've had to learn how to paint fast with and use my paints with economy.

This thrift of paint has a few advantages too. I don't have time to get caught up painting details or shapes that aren't important for the painting. If something isn't working I just wipe it off and start over. I've learned to make quick, sometimes painful, decisions because I just don't have the time to fiddle. Because of the time factor I often finish with a stronger, more direct painting.

However, the biggest advantage of painting from life is that I am painting directly from the source. There's no color shifting or camera distortion or any other device between myself and the subject. It's just me and what I'm painting. It's more personal for me and, I hope, for the viewer.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Figurative Fridays: The Beginning

The beginning is a very delicate time.

I've been at work on a lot of new pieces recently. When I start a painting or drawing sometimes I get slowed down by the huge amount of possibilities that present themselves as you begin.  Every mark you make presents a new road you can take. How do you present the figure? Even a slight change of the hand can change the whole feel of the painting.  

Sometimes I take a road that is a dead end and have to reverse course. Many times as I work a new road presents itself that I didn't even consider before I began. Those are some of the funnest moments in a painting. I have heard them called "happy accidents". It can be magic as you paint. 

Every time I make a mark on the canvas my mind perceives new possibilities. They can freeze my progress if I am unsure which path to take. So many possibilities. Am I making the right choice? When I was teaching Life Drawing and Painting at Brigham Young University I had many students that got hung up on making all the right choices. They would sit dawdling around, paralyzed with indecision. They were afraid to make the wrong choice so they never made one. Often I just had to come over and prompt them on a road, it almost didn't matter which, as long as they started moving they would be able to develop a painting. There are many wonderful roads. How can you know what road you want to be on until you've walked down many? In fact I have often take a wrong path in my paintings. But if I don't start walking I'll never see the fruition of any of my ideas.

Even some of my favorite pieces have a shadow of "What if I had taken a different road?" to them. That is why you can tell an artist how much you love a particular painting and he or she may not be completely happy with it. Sometimes all those competing possibilities they still see on their canvas can overshadow the beautiful path that was taken. 

Now that I have painted for many years I've begun to be able to appreciate each trip without obsessing about paths not taken. But still . . . the untaken road captures my imagination.

For example, one of my ballerina paintings: "Backstage," is a painting that highlights a path taken when many presented themselves to me. In my initial lay-in I really liked the rough unfinished quality of the paint. I could have polished every detail, defining each feature.  
Backstage (rough)
14" x 11"
Oil on board
However, as I finished the painting I endeavored to keep it a bit raw and rough with only selected details and fun paint. I felt it really emphasized the hard athletic work involved in ballet. I quite like the results, but . . .what if I had really tightened up her face and torso?  I could have really emphasized her beauty. It would have been a completely different painting. Not necessarily better, but another good road taken.
Backstage (final)
14" x 11"
Oil on board

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wednesday Wanderings: Old Friends

"Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf." -Albert Schweitzer.
Among the Tumbled Rocks
8" x 10 "
Oil on Board

One of our great joys in buying our older home was the mature trees on our lot. It can get very hot in the summer in the high desert.  And the wonder of the shade of a tree is greatly appreciated.  There is something very comforting in the shade of a tree.  In fact it's hard to imagine our house with out those trees. They are old friends at the end of the day.

Wise Old Cedar
12" x 9"
Oil on Panel
The same familiar comfort can be found in the surrounding red rock desert.  Nothing anchors the beauty of the canyon rocks like a tree. In our desert we are blessed with the twisty gnarled pinon trees. Painting these beauties is one of my favorite subjects. It's amazing how tress can thrive in so many harsh conditions. Every tree tells the story of its struggles. Each tree is a unique individual. The winter wind  twists and turns the branches the summer sun scorches the bark. Each struggle the tree endures gives it more character.

Wise Old Cedar
12" x 9"
Oil on Panel

10" x 8"
Oil on Board

Friday, September 13, 2013

Figurative Friday: Perception

It's fun to revisit a theme after a long time.  As time goes by you have different experiences. They change you and your perspective changes with you. 

Some people think painting is just copying what you see. Really, painting is a process of interpreting what you personally perceive. The human eye receives vast amounts of data, but it's up to the mind to sieve though and find the information that it feels is useful and relevant. 

You can find many interesting examples of how the the mind edits what it sees in documentaries on psychology and perception. My favorite is the one where subjects watching a video were told to focus on how many times players pass a basketball. Subjects counted the passes and often came up with the right answer. BUT. In the middle of the video, a man dressed up as a gorilla walks onto the basketball court, pounds his chest, and walks off the opposite side. The subjects in the study didn't even notice the gorilla until the scientists directed their attention to it and showed the video again. You can see more about it on Dr. Chabris and Dr. Simons' website: The Invisible Gorilla. Magicians have used this mental editing to their advantage for centuries.

I've mentioned this before: as an artist you must train yourself to look beyond what you initially perceive and really see what is in front of you. I have heard it described almost as a form of meditation. Just as you can have a focus point in meditation, when painting you can choose to really focus all your attention on your subject. 

That being said, there is a vast amount of information in front of you. You must choose your battles as you paint. What is it you want to say about what you see? Is there an overriding element that intrigues you? What visually impacts you the most? You have to see the gorilla and then choose whether you want to include it in the painting.

Creating a good piece of art is hard mental work. If you were to sit down and watch me work you would see me stopping and staring at the canvas a lot. It's not because I've forgotten what I was painting, it's because I'm constantly analyzing how what I've put down is being perceived. Does it say what I want to say? Is it understandable? Does it please and interest the eye? Does it relay my perception? Is it significant to my own human experience?

The last question is critical. Part of your perception is your experience and you can reach a viewer more effectively by telling part of your own story.
A Sea of Trouble: Hamlet
16" x 20"
Oil on Canvas
That's  the main reason I keep coming back to painting Shakespeare's plays. His plays talk to me about the human experience in a universal way that has spoken to generations of audiences. Every audience finds themselves reflected in his characters. One of my personal favorites is Hamlet. He struggles through hard choices and we hear his internal thoughts as he struggles. Many of us forget to listen to our own voices as we thrash through life. I find it useful to be reminded. And it stirs up struggles that I've not settled that I need to ponder on. No wonder it has been such an enduring play.
The two paintings were finished years apart from each other.  The top is the earliest. Perhaps you can perceive some of the experiences I had between that time and the time I painted this one:
What a Noble Mind is Here O'erthrown: Hamlet
30" x15"
Oil on Linen

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wednesday Wanderings: S'winter!

Oops. Wandering Wednesday has somehow slipped into Wandering Thursday. And also, I missed a week. Well, I guess that's what wandering means, anyhow.

As Fall begins to creep in I can't help but think about the cold season coming. Those early snowfalls make great dramatic painting possibilities. You still have some of the great warm colors of fall contrasted with the cool white snow.

That is what happened for me in the painting below. Not only did I get the snow but I also had some of the warm colors of fall left over. There were beautiful water and slush pools reflecting everything around them. And the snow covered mountain barely shows up against the grey sky.  Even though it was cold and wet it was beautiful to be there.

Verdure valley
11" x 14"
Oil on board
So get ready to enjoy the change of season.  I especially look forward to Fall, although it's a brief season here in the Four Corners.  There are great opportunities for dramatic cool to warm paintings for all you painters out there.