Friday, July 21, 2017

Not Every Swing is a Hit

When I don't have luck in landscape, I can still turn to portrait practice and feel like my time isn't a total loss.  Every head done is one baby step forward (though some seem like a slip back).  The above painting is done from a photo of Ian McKellen, the British actor (Lord of the Rings, X Men, etc.) who has a very expressive face and eyes.  I didn't spend any time on the clothing here, since I was just pushing for a resemblance.  Sometimes I begin with a sketch on the board, sometimes I just begin painting the large value shapes; sometimes I measure for accurate placement of major features and sometimes I just wing it.  But I am finding that no matter which approach I use, it takes about the same amount of time to arrive at the destination.  When I wing it, I will occassionally check back to measure and see how close I came to the reference, and it surprises me how very accurate my guesses have become.  I guess the number of heads behind me has done something after all!  

This one is less successful, and I probably spent less time on it because it didn't seem to have great promise once it was blocked in.  There might be something there if I continue with it, add some glazing, change some temperature here and there.  But it still counts as a head, a baby step, and every hour spent at the easel is time on the road to a destination unknown.  This morning was our weekly plein air get together, and Randall mentioned that he just didn't feel it happening for him today.  If someone as accomplished as he is can feel that, I can feel excused when it happens to me.  Sometimes the magic isn't working.  Sometimes the subject doesn't speak to you in a way you want to translate.  Even great natural beauty doesn't necessarily make for a good painting motif.  But when, for whatever reason, I catch a feeling in what I see, get excited to get to the easel and discover if I can get it out of me, if my idea works in paint, if my mind and my hands can work together for a change and share something my heart is experiencing, then it doesn't get any better than that.  That is worth the countless times when it just doesn't seem to be happening and the result is blah.  Every blank canvas holds the promise that this time might be a good one.  And I'm talking about a good that is relative; good compared to what I have done, or good compared to the disappointments.  I find that it requires a certain degree of optimism to step up to the easel, something not easy for a life-long pessimist.  Maybe that's what Art brings: Hope to the hopeless.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Elk Rock

Elk Rock plein air

Above is the result of today's outing with our plein air group at the Bishop's Close at Elk Rock in Dunthorpe.  I feel that I am edging closer to getting a finished painting out of these outdoor sessions.  It always seems to fall short, and this is no exception, but though this photo doesn't show it, I did manage to capture a bit of the lighting effect that declared glorious summer.  The temperature was perfect, the company of four additonal painters made the day enjoyable no matter the results, and we may return to this spot next week to work at getting closer to our individual goals.

Top of Oswego Creek, Algae Effect 12x16

This above piece is a study I have been working on this week, concurrently with a larger canvas of the same subject.  I thought that I might forge through each step on the smaller piece and then switch to the larger one while I still remembered what I was doing, but in the end it seemed not to be a very effective approach.  I might have done better to just complete the smaller one first.  The foreground is unresolved and the gunk floating on the water needs lots more work, everything needs more, but I am switching my focus to the larger canvas now.

Another portrait sketch.  I don't know why I like them so rough around the edges, so unrefined, but I guess my intent is to get to a likeness quickly and worry about making nice paintings later.  As soon as I feel I have captured the personality, I stop.  I understand this can't be the end game, but for now it seems to be a satisfying exercise.  This may be the downside of the self-taught: an instructor might nip this in the bud and smack my hands with a ruler.  

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Photography for Blogging

Across the Canal 16x20 oil on board

Above is a photograph of a recent painting, previously posted.  This new photo was taken with my iPhone outdoors in full sun after the painting had fully dried.  Below is the photo previously shown, which was taken indoors while the paint was still wet, under incandescent light, with the same iPhone.  There is a world of difference.  In reality, the painting is neither of these, but something in between.  It has some of the saturation of the one above, but also some of the subtlety of the one below, especially in the background and in the water.

This presents me with a bit of a dilemna: do I invest all the time to discover a better way to photograph work to post here, or do I continue on as I have been, which is to take easy snapshots and slap them up, move along to the next project?  How much time should I take to put together a post when the purpose of my posting is just to encourage me to keep painting and learning?  I hate to do a disservice to anyone with the inclination to check in on my progress, but then, don't you get a decent idea from whatever photo I post?  And this doesn't even take into account not being able to use my DSLR because Apple no longer provides a driver for it on the latest upgrade.  Some of you who have followed this blog for a while will realize I will probably just take the easiest route at this point.  Though it's nice to have full sun for a change, so maybe some photos outside.  In the end, for me, it is more about just getting out and painting.

A couple more portrait sketches:

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Speed Sketching

These are a recent few of the quick sketches I do while working out.  I set a goal to complete a portrait using the few minutes between sets with weight routines, and I try to limit the time spent at the easel, since it's really supposed to be a workout, not a painting session.  I lay in a few strokes, do a set, lay in a few more strokes...  It forces me to get away from drawing, beginning each portrait with a general shape of the head to get it on the page (all of these are done in a small sketchbook of watercolor paper that I have first gessoed).  It's easier when there are dark and light sides to the face, allowing for creation of volume and drama.

These aren't meant to be finished paintings by any means, and the only use I have for them will be to refer back to them in a year or two to see if I am making progress.

It amazes me how much variety there is in the human face, and how the slightest change in arrangement can make such a big change in resemblance.  Frizzy hair is hard!

It has not been easy to find solid blocks of time to paint lately, and so I have tried another approach on the painting below - working on a slightly larger scale (24" x 30") and adding a few strokes whenever I pass by.  Initially I did the underpainting in acrylic, just to get the darks and lights down quickly, and then I began building on that with oils.  It seemed to work out as well that way as any other, and I will probably try that again.  I learned that I was able to go back in and scrape out something I didn't like and paint over it, not something I normally try.  And adding passages over seven days or so allowed me to go over paint that had dried (Liquin was the medium once I switched to oils) and if I didn't like it, it wiped off easily.  This one is still not finished, but the bulk of it will remain.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Countless Springs

"The River lives by tributaries, but also by innumerable little careful springs."  William Stafford

At times it seems like progress comes quickly - floating down the river and passing a large tributary which changes the character of the water, muddies the color, adds to the volume and force of the current.  And then just as quickly it seems that the progress slips away or fades, and we are forced to rely on the "innumerable little careful springs".  I chip away at practice, searching for my process, and one of the practices I lean on is portraiture.  The above study is a smallish 8 x 8 in oil done with just vermillion, yellow ochre, white and black.  It was eye-opening for me to discover the range of color available from this limited palette, and the harmony of color was obvious.  I did several others using the same limitation, but the weakness seemed to be in the drawing, so I turned to charcoal for a little more practice there.  Abe Lincoln had such a distinctive face, especially ravaged after the years of civil war and the heavy burden that placed on his heart.  And yet as iconic as is his face, the least little discrepancy in placement of the features glares at me, reminding me that I have such a long road ahead, and giving me even greater respect for those artists who are able to so deftly capture likeness and soul.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Plein Air, When Possible

The weather has finally been cooperative and I have been outdoors to paint several times recently.  I took the dog for a walk at Mary S. Young Park the other day and noticed the wonderful light patterns in the forest, so I quickly returned home and got my painting gear and returned for a quiet session by myself in the deep shade.  My intention was something along the lines of a John Carlson scene with impressive trees, but that isn't what I ended up with.  I spent about an hour on this, and wasn't able to paint back into some areas because it kept swallowing my color, so I called it quits.  It isn't often that I am very happy with the results of a plein air session, but this time I was pleased with the mood created by the blues in the shaded undergrowth; it seemed to capture something of what I was feeling, and I don't know exactly how it came about, since in that deep shade is was difficult to see the true color I was mixing.  I was enamored with the brilliant yellow greens of the light coming through the leaves, and while that didn't show up on the canvas, the overall effect almost feels as if it had.  It was only after I returned home that I could really see what I had done, and I realized I had committed the fatal error of splitting the composition in half with that horizon line, but somehow it doesn't seen to adversely effect the painting.  It may be that the strong vertical lines of the trees suture the composition together.

I think I must have realized how often I paint water in my work, so these latest few lack entirely in a water element.  Here I was trying to capture the feeling of the lush ferns and hush of the forest, with a dog portrait thrown in for good measure (she was waiting patiently for me to continue on the trail as I snapped this photo).  I didn't spend much time on the dog, just a few dabs and strokes, but it doesn't seem like it will be impossible to come up with a fair resemblance if I sit down to do a true pet portrait of her (Greta).

This plein air from the latest outing of LOPAS wasn't very successful, but it did catch some of the softness of the meadow and surrounding greenery.  Perhaps I was too distracted by the conversation this time.  Burt regaled us with tales of his youth, and in the photo below, you can see Randall turning to me, saying with astonishment, "I feel like I haven't lived!"

Friday, June 2, 2017

Working in a Series

Across the Canal
16 x 20

Continuing to work on inspiration from Bryant Woods, I tried lightening up the mood, but I was less than thrilled with all the individual marks on this piece, and it probably would have been better to cover some areas with broad, quiet color.  I have never really worked in a series before, and I see the benefit of being able to try various means of recreating a mood.  It is all, in the end, just a big experiment.

This next piece, a small 7 x 7, is from a walk along the creek which is still high from recent flooding, leaving small trees surrounded by waters that are now clearing, providing endless and subtle variations in the greens and blues, and interesting reflections.

My larger plein air attempt at the marsh with the yellow irises was a bust, and I think the subject was just so fractured - the thousands of leaves of the water plants, darker green, but with thousands of bright bluish white reflections  -  and difficult to paint.  And the light was shifting quickly, my eyes not adapting well from shade to bright sunlight.  At the end, I tried a quick 5 x 7 to try to get the overall tone of the place to better help me understand what it needed, but I'm not rushing back over there to work on it again soon.  For one thing, the climb down the heavily overgrown steep hillside is treacherous with a backpack.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Dark Wood

A recent plein air outing provided inspiration for a new series of paintings in which I am attempting to use more darks than has been my habit.  The woods were dark, but maybe not as dark as it seems in these paintings.  I find that the light and color tend to show up more provocatively when they are adjacent to deep, rich darks.  It seemed easier to achieve this level of dark when starting on a board primed with transparent red oxide, and I also enjoy how the greens bounce more when bits of the red show through.

In this second piece, I used ultramarine blue in place of the Prussian blue used in the first one.  But I have never been happy with the greens I get using ultramarine, and I had to rely almost exclusively on veridian for anything that wasn't a dark.  The purplish tone of the ultramarine does add a nice warmth to the reflection of the sky in the water, though.

It is exciting to feel the need to push on when the ideas for new paintings pile up, when there just isn't enough time to get to them as fast as I would like; it certainly beats that listless feeling of browsing through old photos when nothing seems to spark an interest.  But these dark canal paintings will have to wait a bit now, because I am off to the other side of the lake where the yellow iris are in full bloom on the swamp, and I may have only another few days in which to try to capture something of their glory.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Getting Outside

11 x 14 oil on board

Now that Oregonians can safely venture out of their winter shelters, hope for occasional sun, and look through the drawers for the misplaced sunscreen, I find myself hankering to get outdoors more often and to paint outside, too.  The above is from a trip to Hood River, a family hike, and while I didn't have time to paint while I was there, I hurried home and went to work on a pseudo plein air, working with reference and memory to try to paint like I would have had I had my pack with me.  I have found that there is a big gap between the sort of work I do in the studio and what I do in plein air, and though all the reasons for the difference aren't clear, it may boil down to just needing more practice, getting past the clumsy stage of hesitation and lack of focus. 

Hood River From the East Hills
20 x 20 oil on canvas

It's hard not to envy those who live in Hood River for their close proximity to stunning beauty; the Columbia River Gorge lifts up my soul every time I drive through it, my eyes busy soaking it in, my mind trying to imagine ways to stop and find a motif.  This is definitely the year for me to get out there more often.  Our newly-forming plein air group (LOPAS?  Lake Oswego Plein Air Society?  We are working on a name, but belonging to a "Society" has a nice ring to it) may want to plan some day trips to the Gorge.

Below is a snapshot of Randall Tipton and Burt Jarvis painting along the banks of the Oswego canal in Bryant Woods yesterday.  This is a spot I'd like to have another go at.  And it's always fun to have such excellent company on these outdoors endeavors.

12 x 12 oil on board

The above was an experiment on my part to break free just a bit from my constraints and try something that is bold for me.  But it left me feeling underwhelmed.

I still can't let a week go by without returning to work on portraiture, and I still have thousands of heads to go before reaching the goal I set for myself.  Not being a full time artist, it seems harder to fit in all the studies and sketches and drawing practice and work on large pieces, all the valuable work that coagulates into progress over time.  Drawing, especially with charcoal, remains an interest.  As does working from life.  But without available models to sketch on the spur of the moment when I happen to find time, I turn to the mirror for my most willing subject.  This time, tiring of the poor lighting in my studio where I have tried setting up a mirror on my table, I instead moved up to a bathroom with good light, and set up my field tripod with the Joshua Been panel holder.  

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Batting Practice

Pool in Oswego Creek 16x20

Sometimes when things just aren't flowing, you have to keep showing up for batting practice, keep the arms swinging, even through the misses.  I can feel discouraged when I can't achieve the same results I have recently painted, but I have to have faith that I haven't taken a hit to the head and forgotten everything I have learned; it's all in there somewhere, I just need to tap back into it.  Like the baseball player in my analogy, I have to step back into that batting cage and face the humiliation of the swing and the miss.  Not every step will be a step forward.  It should be, but it isn't.  In the above painting, I was drawn to the way the light brought out a different quality in the color of the water as the pool deepened, and as the sun reflected off that spot, but the painting reveals a disconnect between the colors that makes it feel disjointed.  Or maybe it's the composition that is too jumbled.  There is something to be explored in the dark warm greys of the stones, purplish against the greens.

I want to explore the nuance in the temperature of colors of the face, even while continuing to work on finding resemblance.  It is exasperating to get so close to laying in the various elements and still miss the essence of the individual, the soul that great portrait painters can capture, making their paintings even more alive and truthful that the living model themselves.  

On a side note, I am giving away a few of the bumper stickers I have ordered, below:

Saturday, May 6, 2017

What To Do When The Muse Won't Come?

For some reason it has been impossible for me to paint for the past few weeks.  Other demands on my time and on my mind have impeded, leaving little energy for art.  And when I do try to squeeze in an hour here and there, I find a lack of focus leads me down dead ends, failed starts, wiped canvases.  Painting without a clear vision or emotional intent seems to lead to nothing.  Occassionally I can do a quick portrait sketch, like the one above of William Faulkner, and it seems to help remind me that getting to a fair resemblance is still possible.  But these are dashed-off paintings, often done in spurts of five minutes at a time, between sets of lifting weights in my adjoining workout room, trying to multitask and fit in all the things at which I want to spend more time.  These quick sketches are a kind of workout, too, trying to keep the muscles flexible, the mind and hand connected.

Another sketch, done at around the same time, probably from the same paint on the palette, of Virginia Wolf.  I know one of the biggest pitfalls of writing is the dreadful writer's block, but that seems much more overwhelming than when the muse deserts the painter.  At least a painter can make studies and sketches or even prepare boards and canvases for later work, having something to show for the hours of effort; the writer, on the other hand, has nothing if it can't be put in print.  

Below is a painting I began with some hope, but I only got halfway into it before stalling, and now I'm not sure I believe in it any longer.  I'm willing to accept these aborted efforts if I can at least occassionally come through with something that carries my original intent.  But a long string of these things can be discouraging.

On a side note, one thing that is encouraging is that I have seen my 18 year old son take up an interest in drawing.  He hasn't expressed much interest before now, but he has obviously been harboring a bit of talent inside and I only hope he can carry on through his life holding on to the impulse to create from time to time.  Below is a drawing he recently gave me.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why Do I Find Water So Fascinating?

12x24 oil on canvas

I don't know why it is that I find water so compelling to paint.  In real life, I am not a water person, don't care much for swimming or water sports, though I do canoe and used to raft white water.  I prefer having my feet on sold ground.  But water plays so wonderfully with light, and it is one of those elements that is constantly changing.  There is much to be learned from water, as an artist, as a human being - water seeks its own level, it is capable of change from liquid to solid or gas, all within a normal range of temperature, unlike rock, which takes a huge amount of heat to melt.  And we can't live more than a few days without water.  Our bodies are composed of 95% water, or something like that.  Buddhist philosophy is filled with references to water.  I guess it makes no sense to wonder why I am compelled to paint water.  I'll just do it.

I was satisfied in the above painting to finally paint those rocks under water in a way that seems realistic.  I have always admired those painters who do it, and I've shied away from it because it seemed so impossible.  Somehow I found that it isn't.

8x10 oil on board

This smaller one is something I have played with for a day or two, wondering if there is anything there.  It is from a recent walk along a creek, and the contrast of the flowering tree and the green of the water struck me.  I regret my muddling of the paint, but I was really trying to see if there was something in the combination that would warrant another attempt with care.  In the end, I really keep returning to the thought that this is an image that would be better served by my friend, Randall Tipton, who I can imagine doing wonders with it.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Working Through

Up Oswego Creek

I've had trouble finding time to paint the past few weeks, and yet when I do find an hour here or there, I don't work through to a completed painting, leaving it instead at a sketchy finish.  I realize now that this may be my next big challenge.  I've worked under the assumption that I just need to keep pushing along, learning to get things down quickly, and it has indeed become easier to achieve likeness and a semblance of what I am after with less effort and less frequent failure.  But I am also coming to recognize that what I end up with is really just a block-in still in need of hours of work.  The above is an example of this: the overall tone and feeling is what I was aiming at, but the finish - especially on the boulders, which seem fuzzy and unconvincing - needs a lot more work.  There is something in my nature that resists returning again and again to the same painting to push past this stage, and I feel the need now to find a way to overcome that resistance, whether it is merely laziness on my part, or fear of failure, or something else.

A part of me, the lazy part no doubt, wants to believe that the "slam, bam, thank you ma'am" approach will simply lead to my own personal style, that there is no need to knuckle down and do the harder work of sharper focus.  It is tempting to believe that, because it means I can keep doing what I want without having to disapprove of my own efforts.  But the other, more responsible part of me insists that if I want to create something that is truly in line with the vision I have originally, if I really want to share the emotion that provokes me to want to paint something in the first place, then I have to learn to be more deliberate.  I guess we will see what side of my mind wins out in the end.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Late Winter Light

Oswego Creek Falls
I was struck by the milky, almost glacial green of the pool compared to the warm greens of the mossy rocks.  And while these aren't really a falls, I'm not sure what it is called; the water is released from the lake and flows down to form the beginning of the creek, but at most times during the year there is very little flow.  This was following some heavy rains that produced a nice stream.

The temperature of the light is beginning to change slightly, and the promise of spring is in the air.  Though snowflakes still occasionally fall, the daffodils are poking their heads up from the ground and winter is slowly releasing its grip on our spirits.

One more portrait sketch.  Sometimes using oil paint on the thirsty paper of my sketchbook produces a result that is acceptable, though if I had the patience and foresight, I still think it is easier to paint on the paper if I give it a coat of gesso first.  The above is on the raw paper.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Three Faces

Sometimes when I am feeling a lack of inspiration, I find I have to drag myself down to the studio and get out my toolbox, hammer out a few portrait sketches to keep working on the basic skills.  Resemblance is coming easier, even if the paintings themselves feel a little rough around the edges, and I keep moving forward, hoping one day a style will emerge from the motions of the brush while my mind is focused on the drawing or on the color.  Despite imperfections in placement of the eyes or relative size or fineness of line, when I see the personality emerge, the mood of the subject, I call it a success and move on.  These three sketches are my way of moving forward, like going to the gym even when the joints are aching for a break.

Working on old 1/4" plywood scraps left over from woodworking projects (notice the line of the dent in the wood across the nose).  I kind of liked the haunted quality of this guy, hooked on his bad habit, troubled by a lot more in his life.

And this, also looking a little gaunt and troubled, is from an old photo of Herman Hesse.  I recall reading all his work when I was young, eating it up as fast as I could find the next book, and maybe I should go back and try one of his classics to see how I feel about them at this late stage in my life.  

If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us.

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.

Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.

The above quotes from Hesse seem the slightest bit provocative, but maybe not as deep as they might seem to a 20-year-old.  I recall that age of discovery, where everything was new and exciting and it was all brought in and accepted at face value.  Age has a way of tempering that excitement, which can be good or bad, I guess (who wants to be so jaded that nothing is interesting anymore?)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Warm Sunshine Combats Studio Inspiration

Escaping the punishing rains, I was able to pass a warm and sunny week on the big island, but upon return, I find little interest in time at the easel.  The above is a go at a view on the north side of the island, near Hawi, but I find it really doesn't capture the truth of the colors or the clarity of the view.  The real beauty there is so rich and colorful and tropical, unlike my normal surroundings.  I guess it should be normal to hit these low spots, where inspiration is hard to come by, where there are so many excuses for not painting, but I hope it doesn't last long.  I enjoy the challenge, and the effort to learn and improve; no matter how slowly it comes, it still provides a reason to keep plugging away.

I recently noticed a home back on the market, something I designed and built a dozen years ago, and it is nice to see that it is holding up well, still looks good.  I was tempted briefly to consider going back to building, but then I remembered how much work it is, and I thought better of it.