Monday, October 31, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes...



Happy Halloween! And that means... yes, carving pumpkins!  I've always enjoyed this part of the tradition, but I've never really done anything complicated. My Jack-O-lanterns have always been pretty much traditional.

This year, I decided to do something a little different. I don't know why - may be because I had just delivered all my paintings for the show and was feeling relieved and relaxed. May be because this year my daughter is old enough to really be excited about Halloween and that enthusiasm is contagious.




And probably too, because I had been talking with a friend about illustration, the occupation I am no longer in and miss a little bit every time I read a beautifully illustrated children's book at my daughter's bedtime.





Anyway, I decided to try the - I don't know what the proper term is - woodblock type of carving where you don't penetrate the wall all the way. Making use of the variation in the depth of the carving to achieve a light / dark value pattern but not cutting holes, it's a lot easier to do more complex images than the traditional method.





I had a cheap set of woodblock / lino cutting tools which worked just fine. I tried my Dremel, but it didn't have a pumpkin bit so it was just like using a clunky electric drill.  Way too clumsy. Next year, I think I'll buy a Dremel specifically made for carving pumpkins and give that a try. But I have a soft spot for old fashioned tools, so I'll probably end up using the knives more.





The cat is Mooner, my trusty sidekick who had been with me for 18 years, during my entire illustration career and left us when I completed the transition to painting full time. This part of the Jack O Lantern is in honor of his memory. 'Hope you're having a good time Mooner, wherever you are!






Skye drew me a thumbnail - I'll post it later if I can locate it - of a spider that she wanted me to carve.





I didn't have a design to start with. This is all just ad lib, stream of consciousness. Not very different from my doodles that I do while mindlessly talking on the phone.





When I was a freelance illustrator, I had two distinctly different styles. One of them was gritty, newsy, digital collage with which I worked for clients such as SI, Rollingstone and Washington Post, and the other was like this pumpkin; whimsical and fun. The two styles balanced one another in terms of my need to be both serious and goofy.





Gotta have a witch! Elphaba lives! I love Gregory Maguire's work.




Another one of my daughter's requests; "Daddy, you need to put in a bunny!"



Skye's head on the spider; it's a "Skyeder"! Get it?





And here's the best part. This is Skye's pumpkin. She drew the face, and got a little help carving from ol' dad. Looks pretty awesome!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ch-ch-ch-Changes~


A.M., 12 x 16 inches, oil on linen

One of the beautiful things about thick paint oil painting is that it is almost infinitely editable. I say almost because if it gets too thick, surface texture becomes more and more a problem. Or an issue, anyway.

But my paint application usually stay within a manageable range in terms of paint buildup and texture, so I can make changes whether it's still wet or after it's dry.

The painting above is one that will be in my upcoming show Urban Aria at Thomas Reynolds Gallery (Opening reception; Nov 5th, 5 - 7pm).  It says it's 12 x 16 inches, and it is, but it started out a little bit bigger.








Above is the same painting, at an earlier stage. It was 12 x 21 inches and while it had a nice back lit thing going, I felt it was a little too simple (less was not more in this case) and unresolved. So I went back in and worked on the main figure, which led to repainting everything around it because I needed all edges of shapes to be integrated.  In turn, I had to repaint everything else too, for the same reason. 

In essence, I repainted the whole thing over, which seems like a lot of work but it's pretty typical of the process when making changes on top of a dry surface. I brush on a thin coat of Liquin before I make changes on a dried surface and it sort of  makes it feel like I'm painting wet into wet, but not really since there's no interaction between the dried strokes and the wet ones on top. However the coat of Liquin brings back the richness of the darks and brilliance of the colors, which helps me to judge colors and values accurately. This is pretty much what retouch varnish does. I use Liquin instead of retouch varnish because the varnish fumes make me sick.




Here's the detail of the pedestrian. The edges and brushwork are absolutely critical, and there's no way I can get the new layer to look integrated into the dried surface of the painting, so I have to repaint everything. When I point this out to my students when they want to make changes to their already-dry paintings, often I get a groan because they feel its a lot of unnecessary work and they don't want to cover up everything they've already done. Why should they repaint what's already working?  But here again, is the notion of feeling too precious with the painting getting in the way of taking risks.

The plain fact is that if you want the look of wet-into-wet edges, the only way to paint them is wet into wet. And if that means painting the whole thing over, that's what you do. It's just a process. Nothing to groan about.

Oh and while I was reworking this painting, it became clear to me that the left side of the painting wasn't contributing anything to my statement so I took the panel to the table saw and BBZZZZzzzzzz!! Voila! problem solved!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Painting on Paper



Lately I have been doing my figure studies on paper rather than canvas or linen.  Typically, I use thick vellum which is smooth (with a little bit of tooth), translucent and a lot cheaper than linen.

I used to paint on this surface a lot when I was in art school since I couldn't afford more expensive materials for mere studies and exercises. I just recently rediscovered it, and am delighted at the fact that it works beautifully with my thick paint application of late.






It doesn't take washes well at all –not in the way I like, anyway– but I find I can build the surface toward thick paint without getting muddy. Paint responds to the brush in a more fluid way. It sort of forces me to  be more aware of each stroke since I don't have the canvas texture to help me fake it.




These are all 11 x 14 and done in about an hour. In our three hour figure sessions, I do three of them. I just tape the corners of a sheet of paper to a board, and am ready to go. The paper itself is archival, if you were wondering, but I'm not worried about that - these are just exercises and studies and I do a lot of them. I'd go broke if I painted on linen all the time!






One thing that slows down a student's advancement is when he feels too precious about every little painting.  Yes, it's important to try your best every time, but not every painting is going to end up worthy of a gallery wall or even a frame. In my case, for every one painting that ends up in a gallery, there's probably five or ten that do not. And if I start a painting knowing this one isn't gallery bound, I'm more likely to take risks. A lot of them fail and end up in the garbage, but so what? Can you imagine a musician recording every scale exercise for posterity?




Because the material is cheap, I don't feel bad about doing a ton of them. Set a time limit, focus on one issue, do it, and move on to the next one. As long as you are focused on a particular issue and you're not just going through the motions, you are getting better. And much, much faster than if you were trying to solve all problems in a painting every time you face the easel. 






By the way, I'm Tweeting. Not sure if this is a worthwhile pursuit, but I thought I'd give it a try~ Follow me if you feel like it!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Recent Class Demos


Here are more recent demos from my Thursday landscape class.  I sometimes think ahead and prepare my demos to make sure I don't crash and burn. Other times, I take requests –often students have questions about specific issues that their trying to figure out in their own projects– and try to do my best on the spot. Riskier, but that makes it interesting too. Sort of like improv comedy. Except it isn't funny.


The pic at the top is my latest demo, done just last night. Among other things, I wanted to emphasize two things. The importance of paying attention to brushwork, and keeping temperature shifts between light and shadow subtle and under control.  I used a pen sketch out of my sketchbook as my reference, so the colors are invented.  Which was not a big deal in this case - both the tree trunk and the ground are kind of gray so there's no critical local color to worry about.





 China Camp, I think? Gail was working from a photo and asked me if I could do a demo with it. My first reaction was, "hell no, that looks like a recipe for a crash and burn demo!" I didn't say that, but I thought it. Then upon closer inspection, I decided to give it a go. The clutter in the middle really was the only tricky part, and that was all in the drawing. Once I resolved that, the peripheral stuff was just back drop for the main dish. I believe that "strategy" of defining a few recognizable elements in a grouped clutter and leaving everything else loose, is what I focused on in the demo.







Here's one from a few weeks ago. I decided to do a street scape out of my head. The main theme here was how to simplify complex stuff like cars. I demonstrated how atmosphere and edge control can be used to accomplish this. It isn't about how to paint cars. It's about how to edit. Or more precisely, how to think in order to edit effectively. As you know, there's a whole lotta thinking required when you're painting but most of it has good logical reasoning to back it up.





Fog demo from two weeks ago. It's all about atmosphere, baby~  Organizing your values logically, I dare say fog isn't hard to paint (compared to some other climate conditions, that is). What's difficult is shaping the trees so that they're both interesting and convincing. Mine is just hastily done (these class demos are done in 30min to an hour usually) so it doesn't quite work, but another couple of hours would do the trick. 



It's true that sometimes, reading or hearing about the hows and the whys of painting doesn't translate to problem at hand, even if the information makes perfect sense to us. But seeing it done right in front of our eyes is a whole different experience and we hear lots of "Ohhhh that's what you meant!" After all, painting is a process. A picture really is worth a thousand words!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

URBAN ARIA Preview


An American Gothic, 36 x 48, oil on linen

The opening of the exhibition URBAN ARIA is just a few weeks away!  If you're in the SF Bay area, I hope you can stop by and check out the work and say hi!


I've uploaded the entire collection for your viewing pleasure! If you've been thinking of starting a collection or adding to your collection, here's a rare opportunity to purchase a painting before the show opens. All the paintings are available now (as of this posting).  If you see something you just have to have, please contact the gallery directly.




'Hope to see you at the opening!! 



Saturday, October 15, 2011

Getting Thicker


Blues Jam, 24 x 18 inches, oil on linen

I'm nearly done with all the paintings for Urban Aria, which opens on November 5th. I started painting for this show about a year ago, and in that time I saw my style change a bit. Consequently, I had to reject some of the earlier pieces in this series because they no longer seemed to work with the group. They're good paintings and I still like them a lot, but I have this preoccupation with creating a show that's cohesive as a whole, and not a collection of different sides of me. 

The very last of the bunch are painted thicker and loser than the earlier ones. It just gradually became that way over the course of doing three dozen pieces (of which 25 - 28 will be shown) I really am enjoying painting thicker. It sort of helps me look at paint as paint, rather than material with which to create a visual reality.  Abstraction being one of the main concerns, anything that helps me think in those terms is worth investigating. Thick paint, it turns out forces me to think about the physical quality of the material, and less so about the physical quality of the thing that is being painted.  I'm not sure if the distinction is important but it does seem to liberate me from being too literal.

I can't see myself going completely non-representational, because I'm not willing to let go of the structure provided by the recognizable. I need some rules, in other words. If all rules were thrown out, how do I know if anything is good or bad? Right or wrong? I'd have a hard time with that. 

For now, thick paint and abstraction work well together, and I'm going to keep pushing it further. 


Monday, October 10, 2011

Another Limited Palette Strategy


Crossing Lines, 20 x 32 inches, oil on linen


This painting is one of the larger ones I did for the upcoming show, Urban Aria. And, it's one of my favorite ones of the bunch.

There's a lot going on this picture, so composing it was quite a challenge. One way I sought unity was to limit my palette (as usual) so that the overall color theme was very muted to begin with. In fact, in this particular painting I used a severely limited primaries palette of Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, Permanent Red, and White. The black acts as my blue, in this case. It's surprising how much color - blue - you can tease out of black. It's all a matter of context, see. If you don't have a lot of saturated colors, Black + White look very blue, especially juxtaposed against warmer tones. 

Yellow Ochre is my yellow, and like the black, is muted from the get-go.  

My red is the only saturated color of the primaries, but I used it very sparingly.  There is some red mixed into my "blue" to get that violet tone that's laced throughout the painting.

After the painting was about eighty percent done, I introduced a little bit of more saturated colors to mix my accent colors (pedestrian's clothing, mostly), but even those don't scream.

You may have noticed that this is actually the Zorn palette, used often in portraiture and interior figures. You can get very naturalistic results when painting warmer tones including and especially flesh tones.  My painting uses the same palette, but pushed toward the cool end of the spectrum, and obviously, I'm not after naturalistic colors in this one.

One thing I like to do, to keep a very limited - almost monochromatic - palette painting from looking drab is to make sure I use a full range of values, and give it some snap by making good use of value contrast and sharp edges juxtaposed against soft. 

I'm very pleased with the way this one came out. 

Come see it in person - Urban Aria opens November 5th, at Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco. Opening Reception starts at 5pm.  'Hope to see ya there!





Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Figure Drawing Class







My weekly figure painting class at The School of Light and Color will, starting this week, turn into figure DRAWING class!!

I love short pose figure drawing. (2 - 20minutes)  I've always wanted to add a drawing class to my schedule, but I already have two weekly classes and I thought I wouldn't be able to add another class; I don't have enough time to devote to my own work as it is. 



I thought may be someone else could teach it (and I could sit in once in a while)  or we could start a weekly un-instructed session (like the painting sessions we do on friday mornings at SLC) but for various reasons, it hasn't happened.

Then I had an idea! How about I do figure painting class AND drawing class in three month rotations? I would teach painting three months, then switch to drawing three months, and so on. That way, I get to do both without adding a new class, and it will help to periodically refresh my students' chops, and keep things interesting.






We will be doing mostly 2 - 20 min. poses, emphasis is on gesture and shorthand form indication. (no jokes about "short hands" please LOL) 

It's what I love to do, and I firmly believe that gesture drawing skills like these are absolutely essential to becoming a better painter. The discipline really forces you to learn how to say more with less. Line economy translates directly to expressive and meaningful brushwork. Shorthand form indication will be critical in painting with more decisiveness and confidence. No noodling the hell out forms here! 




How important is gesture? It's the MOST important thing, as far as I'm concerned. Because it's the concept behind the drawing. You're communicating what the figure is doing, not what it looks like.  It's the communication of an idea, in other words. Not mindlessly copying what you see.







The sanguine and white drawing on toned paper is what we'll be doing for 20 minute poses. Demos? you bet. Lots of em.

I'm really excited to begin this class!  If you're interested in signing up, please contact the School of Light and Color;

The School of Light and Color
10030 Fair Oaks Blvd, Fair Oaks, CA 95628
(916) 966-7517

sarback@lightandcolor.com





Sunday, October 2, 2011

More MSU; Making Stuff Up




As the title of this post suggests, this painting is "made up". It's constructed from scratch, with no references. As far as invented cityscapes and architectural motifs go, a facade like this might be on the easier end of the scale. You can pretty much work up a composition in an elevation view, with no perspective to worry about.

Well, it's not exactly no perspective - there's a little bit of it like the underside of the fire-escape landing, and there's a hint of it in the sidewalk. The trickiest part of perspective in this picture is plotting the cast shadows. I know it's not completely accurate, but it's believable, and that satisfies my requirement. To tweak the actual shadows to suit my composition is more of a priority than them being precisely plotted.

To be sure, I have painted every element of this picture in some form or another in many other paintings (both from direct observation and using references) , so I'm fairly familiar with how they should look. And I did a couple of pencil roughs to nail down the design.

The most difficult thing about city paintings, for me anyway, is achieving unity. With all the separate little shapes and colors which may be very saturated, and not necessarily related to one another, it's up to the artist to unify them on canvas, and that's very, very tricky.  Keeping the whole thing tonal and muted helps - A little bit of color goes a long way in this set up. Notice the green in the fire-escape and how close it is to the pale yellow of the wall - It's just a little darker, greener version of the same color. It could have been much more saturated and another artist might have taken that path, but for me, unity was more important so I modulated the colors accordingly.

Having just one bright color - orange in this case (and it's not even fully saturated, at that) in a sea of muted, close colors works well - it's a strategy that I employ often. I don't want to present it as a formula, though. It does get old quick if you don't have other ways to maintain interest!