Tuesday, February 28, 2006

panic on the streets of birmingham

a local friend had warned us before going that birmingham was “vile.” that was quite the recommendation! in the end, it seems that the city is undergoing a good bit of redevelopment, leaving it perhaps a bit schizophrenic in the meantime. great shopping, pretty good museum, accessible and walkable city center and a shopping center with more interesting architecture than anything in san jose, that’s for sure.

a shopping center, but tech

you see, in san jose we have “the tech” which is a sort of technology and science museum, the kind that’s been done in many places. but being the capital of silicon valley you figure that we’d really do it right, it might look techy or futuristic or simply interesting. instead, it’s a mango-colored monstrosity made from giant shapes you might dump out of a child’s block pail. vile, indeed.

the tech. not tech

the main goal of hitting birmingham was the museum and art gallery which has a pretty good collection of pre-raphaelite and victorian classical art. what was there certainly didn’t disappoint. what wasn’t there disappointed sorely. after hitting a museum i always go through the museum shop to pick up postcards of pieces i didn’t know prior but wanted to remember, or to keep an eye out for any interesting books. inevitably, some gems are in the postcard racks which are not on display. in this case it included two works by alma-tadema and one fantastic image by edward hughes:

so close, yet so far

sniff. so sad.

it just makes no sense to me to have some your best works put away while having lesser works up. keep the lesser works put away! far too few people are interested in art these days, so keep the absolutely most stunning pieces up, to make converts of the occasional visitors.

there was quite a lot of good art there, however, another vexing problem was the consistently bad lighting. we’re not talking conservation lighting, we’re talking practically nothing but sky light through frosted glass. in england. where there is no sun.

beautiful, if i could only see you

not all was a loss, and quite a number of fantastic pieces were well-presented and lit. overall it was a great experience and very inspiring. as usual i had my digital camera out and ready and took a number of detail shots (no flash!), many of which were underwhelming due to the sometimes bad lighting. this was the winner close-up (click for detail):

william holman hunt, 2nd only to millais among the pre-raphaelites

there was some other work there, but really how is it possibly worth the time?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hungry Heifer

My first exposure to plein-air (outdoor) painting was in college. I took exactly two painting courses in my entire time at art school, before realizing those who knew how to draw and paint weren’t teaching painting (they were all teaching drawing). Go figure.

Anyway, my plein-air class was a once-per-week 6 hour affair. The professor (can art instructors be properly called professors? what do they profess exactly? I always preferred ‘instructor’ since they more correctly instruct one on how to paint) was a relatively young artist who did a lot of plein-air painting, but had a penchant for what is known as the ‘urban landscape’ which means broadly, painting things that are ugly. you know, going down to the industrial zones and painting factories, beat-up parked cars on the street, that sort of thing. it takes quite a talent to do that beautifully, and in the latter case it probably helps if the cars are Ferraris and not beat up Chargers.

So we’d meet, be told our destination, pack it in carpool-style and head off for a few hours of outdoor painting followed by on-the-spot critique. I produced little of worth but got an appreciation for painting outdoors (when I wasn’t behind a safeway grocery store painting smokestacks). things move when you paint outdoors—most notoriously, the light. It’s quite a challenge to deal with but I’ve discussed that a bit already. The class was education-by-experience, ultimately. I won’t tell you what that one class cost me.

A couple of weeks ago I got outside to paint something more difficult: an animal. Animals are probably next to babies and only second to young children in being difficult to paint. Have you ever tried to command a rabbit to stand still in the wild? It probably didn’t listen.

For some reason I really wanted a burger the whole while....

This little one, however, I’ve noticed likes to hang out in this corner of the pen. She has a bad hoof so is kept apart from the other cows lest she get beat up (perhaps by the giant bull). She’s nice enough, though and managed to stay mostly in one place for an hour and a half for me to paint her.

Still, though she stayed in one place she still moved quite a bit. It came down to plying her with hay so she’d keep her head up long enough for me to get her painted.

With 90 minutes to paint, you don’t have time for pencils or drawing. you get your fatter brushes, load up some paint and have at it. Not a bad final result. this one is a mini 5x7”. I’d like to get a couple more plein-air pieces done here, or at least a nice tight landscape like I did while in Italy apart from the plein air I also managed.

One last difficulty: it was about 35F not counting wind-chill and my hands were freezing the entire time. Ouch!

Friday, February 17, 2006

giochi olimpici di torino

i’m not what anyone would consider a sports fan. though i grew up in a 49’ers and giants household and enjoyed watching and playing some sports growing up, the interest waned as i hit college. it disappeared completely during college when i had little time for really much else.

i lend an ear when the world series or super bowl come around each year but only watch if i happen to be somewhere where they are on. otherwise you’re lucky if i can name the teams in either event in any given year (seahawks and steelers this year, i know because my dad informed me over the phone). i don’t actively dislike sports, though i actively dislike many athletes these days. it just doesn’t beat out my other pass-times.

the olympics, however, are another matter entirely. i usually make an effort to watch both olympics, and try to catch some daily during their two weeks, depending on what’s on. i find the variety interesting and never could get through the 5,000 game baseball season. i also find the athletes (largely) a bit more honest in terms of sheer love for the sport motivating them. you don’t spend years training in archery or curling to make a googolplex of dollars and get movie deals. sure, some sports lend themselves to performance-tours. but by and large most of the athletes there just want to do their crazy skill and win some medals then go back to their day job. that’s pretty cool. if some can earn a living beyond that i guess that’s great too if they can keep their head.

my favorites in the two olympics end up being figure skating and gymnastics. they sort of overlap in terms of what’s required: strength/power, skill, balance, grace. that last aspect is particularly appealing when combined with sheer athleticism. watching a sasha cohen do her thing on the ice is quite a sight to behold (she being my favorite winter athlete this year). watch when she does her spins how she uses her arms and hands to create really wonderful lines and arcs. i was surprised to see switzerland’s stephane lambiel pull similar moves off and make them work, as a man. he also had a cool outfit in his short skate; normally figure skating outfits drive me mad with disgust (as did his freeskate outfit). who designs these things? they are usually hideous combinations of colors, shapes and lots and lots and lots of glitter. with some glitter thrown in. ick.

the opening ceremonies were…interesting. can’t say i was impressed except during the ski-jumper and dove formations. i’m always impressed by getting humans to cooperate large-scale long enough to pull stuff like that off.

what’s great about the olympics is i can get into them for two weeks then move on with life. i’ve got nothing against people who stay up on entire seasons worth of sports, it’s just not something i’d like to do. give me a couple weeks of good competition and i’m satisfied for awhile.

Friday, February 10, 2006

compose yourself!

in finding my area for improvement for 2006, i narrowed it down to composition. as i’ve mentioned, if i have a solid idea, preliminary drawing and a value study i can usually wing the color and it all comes out looking fine. i can usually manage it even without the value study but with a little more thought. it’s also true that if i arrive at paint-time and my composition is not all there but the deadline is looming i can still paint it fine, but the piece will never rise above the composition: the finest rendered bad composition will always make a finely rendered bad painting.

in school you’re often taught to work out multiple concepts before committing to one and i recall that this was once my normal practice, and occasionally still is if i’m stuck for an idea. but increasingly i’ve managed to hone my vision to where an assignment births an image almost fully-formed in my mind very quickly—with some massaging i usually have it and so i get going with the artwork. so for most pieces there exists one series of studies for that one painting with few alternate versions. i know it’s risky to work that way and occasionally it still comes around to bite me, but less and less often. for larger or more involved pieces i tend to cast about longer for an idea since the time-commitment will be much greater.

still, i know that my composition can and should be more, even when it’s good enough to run with using my current practices. so i’ve made it my goal this year to give more attention to it. i’m doing this in two ways: the first is by getting back to basics and studying again the fundamentals by reading. that part i can do without a tax on my time by fitting it into the reading i’m already doing. the text i’ve chosen for this is andrew loomis’ “creative illustration” which is considered a classic work in the field. i’ve flipped through it in the past and have noted in passing some of what it’s said but have never sat and studied and applied it, but i will be doing so now. the book has been out of print since gutenberg’s edition, i think, so i’m working off a pdf version of it, unfortunately.

the second part is that i am going to intentionally get back to working out multiple concepts for each and every piece. i’ll shoot for a minimum of 5 variations—pieces composed purely on paper—plus the 1 or two that popped in my head naturally and the few more that result from the spontaneity of photo-shoots. however, this will take more time--likely a half day or so per painting. the studies won’t be very detailed at all, but will be discernable.

this goal will be met when it has become habit to do the 5 concepts per and when i feel i have re-acquainted myself with the rules of composition sufficiently to see a difference in those studies. i’m hoping both of those will be well accomplished by june at which point i’m going to set the next goal. i have 2-3 in mind already, but one thing at a time.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Don't Call It a Resolution

Given that this is a blog by an artist and that most of my readers probably know me due to that, it shouldn’t surprise folk that some of the posts here are largely written for other artists. Here is such a one.

New Year’s resolutions are pretty trite and rarely useful. We all know that really, but goal-setting overall is a good thing. I’ve gotten in the habit of making goals, including art-goals, and working on them over a few months or a year. Sometimes those goals are set around the New Year when all the end-of-the-year cleanup that goes on and maybe even some time off that preceded it allows me some space to look back and consider what I accomplished, and what I didn’t. One friend I have thinks years/birthdays/anniversaries in general are pretty useless and arbitrary; perhaps, but without them it’d be pretty easy to coast by life and get pretty far without realizing you haven’t done anything useful. Sorta like driving down I-5 in central California getting from silicon valley to Los Angeles: without landmarks, the drive is a never-ending patch of dirt and hours go by where you easily zone out. Years are useful even if only for providing markers by which to make and review goals.

Should we even need goals? Ideally, no. We should always be people who seek improvement. Still, it remains true that we simply can’t improve on all fronts in equal amounts, and so goals give focus to what would otherwise be nearly random, unstructured improvements that might not benefit ourselves or others in any particular way in the long run.

So then, goals. Since art can never be truly mastered it remains an activity where you can go on for years sort of building up a lot of the skill-sets as you exercise them but never really make real strides in any of them. I found myself on that treadmill for a few years—you know that you’re improving but it’s sort of a general improvement that isn’t reliable and comes more from turning a new skill awkwardly performed into habit--the skill gets easier to do, which is improvement, but you haven’t really learned anything beyond it. Eventually I decided to take stock of my art from time-to-time and see what was working and what was definitely lagging behind. I then pick the weakest link in my bag of art skills and make that a focus for a few months or a year.


By focusing on the one aspect while the rest grows on auto-pilot as it would anyway, I found that I made greater strides. The next time I set a goal something else will have become the weak link and I strive to keep raising these up in a sort of Jenga-like fashion. Others might sum up this practice with fewer words by simply saying, “Never stop learning,” but that’s sorta vague, like most Confucius-say advice. I mean if I merely "Try harder to make better art," that might sound noble but there are so many aspects to making better art that to tackle the whole problem at once would be…well, so daunting that I’d probably just nap instead.

So one year I owned up to the reality that my figure work was falling behind. I enrolled in some community figure drawing sessions (uninstructed) and had at it again. Surprise—tangible improvement. Now I could do that the rest of my life and benefit immensely in that area and it would naturally bring other related skills up with it, but then my sense of composition or color or simple paint handling might fall behind in comparison. another year I decided to recommit myself to tighter pencil studies and bingo, improvement. So like a bee I make the rounds from skill to skill, improving each a good amount then moving to another, and eventually coming back ‘round to the first.

In 2005 I was faced with the loss of my cherished studio/cave and was going to have to work in smaller, less intimate spaces, and would have to move often while producing more work. So the challenge of focus was already ahead of me. That was an exercise in sheer mental discipline and required some concerted efforts to avoid unintentional television watching and spending a bit less time online. When that was under my belt I added another 2 small goals: one was to move up my standard size for card illustration from 9x12” to 11x14, and not suffer a tremendous loss of productivity. That may sound inconsequential, but going from 108 square inches to 154 is quite a difference, really, especially when you work fairly tight like me. That was rough going but was aided by another goal: get back to developing preliminary value (greyscale) studies. I used the computer quite a lot in this respect and solving the value problems beforehand really has helped my paintings go faster rather than thinking on the fly.

So, 2006. Happy with progress the last few years but not one to rest on it, I’ve pinpointed my area for improvement: composition. But as this entry is suffering from a certain amount of wordiness no doubt picked up drinking the British water, I’ll leave this year’s improvement and how i’m going about it to another installment in the near future.