Monday, July 26, 2010

Making Stuff Up



At The Bar, 16 x 12

I get a big kick out of making stuff up. I don't know if there's a difference between painting from memory and making stuff up, but it's all the same to me. I particularly enjoy inventing environments, characters, and stories when I'm painting from a live model, often in a figure class or an open session.

Typically the model just sits in a chair with not much else going on in terms of props and set up. Sure, there are times when you have the luxury to set up exactly how you want your painting to look, but unless you are a committed figure painter, (I'm more of a landscape guy) you take what you can get.


Just because the set up is less than exciting, it doesn't mean your painting has to be boring also. In fact, a minimalist set up is like a blank canvas. Because there's nothing there to distract you into limiting your imagination, it's much easier to just create whatever you feel like.

But of course, being able to imagine a situation is not the same thing as being able to paint it. Whenever I do these, someone will always ask me "how do you do that?" The truth is, there is no trick to it except practice, practice, practice. If you draw a thousand trees, I'm certain you can draw one from memory pretty well. The same with figures and furniture. It helps to know your perspective rules in order to construct objects on your canvas. It helps to know what kind of shadow patterns you get when light hits an object, but that too, can be deduced and constructed if you know your perspective rules and the basic (very basic) rules of light and form.

I can't do what some of these concept artists do for sci-fi movies and video games. I don't have that kinda patience and control, but I can do some landscapes and interiors with figures in them. I usually paint the model first, then take cues from the abstract marks I'd made during the process. I stare at my painting till an idea presents itself. It doesn't come all at once, but it develops piece by piece. In this painting, the guy in the white tank top was the model, and he was sitting in a regular nondescript chair. I painted him first, then added a table in front of him. The table became the bar. He needed a drink, so I gave him one. He looked lonely so I quickly indicated a friend(?) next to him (guy in green tank). When I added a girl on the other side, I started to sense a story, and next thing I knew, I turned the guy in green to face the girl, ditching his friend in the white wife-beater shirt. I painted the girl with no particular gesture in mind, but she looked like she wasn't interested in the guy in green. So she must be interested in something or someone else. Which prompted me to add the guy on the far end. Everyone got beers. I added a few other figures to make the bar crowded, and some abstract color notes to suggest an interior. At this point, our main character is isolated despite the fact that he is surrounded by people. What's his story? I don't know, but I can think of a few interesting short story ideas.

To tell you the truth, I developed my habit of making up environments when I was an illustration major at Art Center. You see, I believed that, when I graduated and became a real illustrator, I would have to be able to draw and paint anything and everything the client asked me to. I was afraid of being in a situation where I wouldn't be able to fulfill my client's request, so I tried very hard to learn how to deal with all kinds of lighting situations, drawing objects not by copying but by constructing, and to draw tens of thousands of gestural figures. My early efforts were dismal, but I knew that it was possible to learn this skill, because I'd seen it done, and it seemed to me a very logical process. In other words, I was very much encouraged by the fact that it is learned skill, and not raw talent that made it possible to "make stuff up". I'm sure raw talent couldn't hurt, but I wouldn't know about that. I have friends who seemed to possess unfair amounts of this talent stuff, and I had to work three times as hard just to do what came naturally to them.

Anyway, I'm still practicing every chance I get. The difference nowadays, is that I'm not driven by fear and anxiety, but by fun of seeing a picture – and a story–emerge out of nowhere. That I'm not doing this for clients is a big plus, because I am allowed to fail and I won't get fired.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Delta Towns



Schoolhouse, Locke, 9 x 12


It's been a very, very busy week. Five straight days of teaching and drawing and painting from morning to night! I can't remember ever being so tired, except when my kids were little babies - you parents know what I'm talking about.

The figure drawing workshop I taught last weekend was, as expected pretty intense. Going from 15 second stick figures to sanguine-and-conte-on-toned-paper in just two days. That's a lot to cover in such a short time and of course it's impossible to learn to draw the figure in two days, but I hope at least some information will have stuck and the students can use it to further climb the learning curve.

The next few days were spent on the Sacramento Delta with my friend Georgia, an artist visiting from Australia. We went from town to town along the river painting whatever caught our eye. Our first stop was Locke, a little one block town (literally) which was a Chinese settlement. Established 1915(?), it still looks pretty much as it must have in the olden days. Very narrow road flanked by old rickety buildings, none of which are standing straight. Talk about character!

The first painting is the old schoolhouse at the edge of the town. That is to say, it's at the end of the block. We were situated under the eaves of buildings across the street, so we had plenty of shade. It did start to heat up mid morning and quickly got into the 90's.





Boarding House, Locke, 12 x 9

But we pressed on. This is my second sketch. I just turned the easel 90 degrees and painted this boarding house - which is now restored and made into a museum ? I think. That bright lime green is something you rarely see in my paintings, but that's what caught my eye, so there it is. I did knock back the saturation a little bit to make it look like a Miura painting.





Beer Stop, Walnut Grove, 12 x 9

After lunch at a truly fabulous old dive called Al the Wops, we drove a mile down the river to Walnut Grove. We parked the car intending to paint another funky restaurant, Tony's, but I saw this view and went for it instead. It just meshed better with my recent Road Trip series. As they say, you don't paint what you see, you see what you paint.

This is mid afternoon so the light is still sort of achromatic. Later it became really warm and orangey and moody, but I wasn't going to chase it. I'll just have to do another painting in the studio later. The cars came and went, obviously (it's a gas station!) so the ones I painted are non-specific. Just montages of different cars that stopped to fuel up. Worked out pretty well.




Hotel Del Rio, Isleton, 12 x 16


The next morning, we started in the town of Isleton, 10 miles down river. Isleton is just slightly bigger than Locke and Walnut Grove. The economy has done a number on this town too, and majority of the businesses along the main street were closed and boarded up. Kind of sad and depressing. A lot of history here too, and the buildings have great character. It must have once been a thriving little community.

We were able to set up on the covered balcony of a closed business and paint this view. We had a really interesting back-lit situation, and I set out to capture the nice mood it suggested. But I got a little carried away and injected too much atmosphere, thereby ending up with something other than what I wanted to do. That's OK, I like parts of this painting and I think I've got a good point of departure for a studio painting. That's what these plein air sketches are anyway.




River Road, Isleton, 9 x 12

After lunch we drove around a little bit looking for spots. Because we've been painting a lot of town stuff (read; drawing-intensive), we decided we needed a break and do something more organic. We had a little bit of trouble finding a spot, though, because the land around here is so flat, and there aren't many places where we could park safely, set up in the shade (temperature was in the mid to upper 90's) and have a decent view with something to hang a focal point on.

The river itself is interesting but again, not easy to find a spot that meets the minimum requirements. Anyway, we finally settled on this shady spot under a giant oak, and I did one of my familiar motifs.

The design is such that the eye falls off the right hand side of the canvas, so that's something I will fix if I decide to develop this one further.




Worker's Quarters, 9 x 12


And this is the last sketch of this series, done on Day 3. With this one, I really tried to paint in as few strokes as possible, not fussing over anything. I also tried to do that now-you-see-it-now-you-don't thing, where only a small amount of recognizable detail pulls together an almost abstract painting.

Now that I look at it on the computer, I see I could have pushed the abstraction further. Abstraction is so elusive for me that it continues to tease me into trying harder.

There is so much poetry in a painting in which abstraction is executed beautifully, and yet, there is no way to define how that works. For an artist with two left brains, that is just maddening.

It's like a drug.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sunny Dress




This morning's three-hour session. You'd think anyone can sit still for a painting session. But no, if you've ever sat for any length of time, you know it isn't easy. The problem is, too many people become models thinking it's an easy way to make some money, and end up flooding the pool with incompetence.

But I'm not going to go into a rant about incompetent models here. That would get outta control pretty quickly. Sometimes, I'm just happy if they show up on time.

Amy (today's model) is great. She was willing to sit with her legs crossed for this pose, knowing she was going to be hurting later (and she was, too.) Not only did she not complain, but she held the pose and her sunny disposition didn't waiver. Yeah, it's work, both for her and for us artists. I don't know about you, but if the model is suffering up there on the stand, I can't do what I need to do either. Nobody wins. So if a model can sit for a long-pose session with legs crossed and still be happy, I really appreciate that.

Anyway, this painting came together fairly smoothly - except for the hands, with which I struggled and ended up overworking - she was actually sitting on a regular metal folding chair. I changed the legs of the chair, and added the rest of the environment as I painted. That is to say, I made everything up except for Amy.

I think I've said this before, but this way of painting - making stuff up as I go - is really fun. Like writing and reading a short story at the same time. It's fascinating to see a storyline develop as you are painting, and sometimes there are surprises along the way. If the painting comes out OK, that's almost a bonus. Very satisfying.



This weekend I'm teaching a figure drawing workshop. I think it is going to be a pretty good workout!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Down Toward the Bay




Down Toward the Bay, 12 x 20 inches, oil on linen


Here's the new painting with a hint of the coastline in the distance. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, in the foggy road painting I noticed that the brushstrokes in the distance looked like it might be suggesting a coastline. It was just accidental, but it set the course for this painting, in which I actually suggested a coastline on purpose. It's still vague and ambiguous, but that's the way I like it. I will make it more obvious in another painting, when I'm looking for a different mood.