31 July 2007

old fir tree

Arches CP 300gsm 16" x 12". 1 hour.

i cut the drawing in charcoal while standing on the deck of my studio, the watercolor block resting on the railing; then i fleshed it out with color.

i love this old tree, uphill from the studio on the property line. for a time a flock of ravens roosted there, but they have moved north to hang out around a horse corral. before that, they pecked at the insulation around the studio windows and doors: i'd left a bag of seeds on the deck, and they concluded the studio must be the grainery.

when we did some landscape drainage improvements a few years ago we found piles of old crockery, left from a whiskey still, piled under this tree.

the challenge was to keep track of the branches, maintain the proportions, suggest the foliage, and hope the tree looks like it is glad to be on the planet. i found it was refreshing to paint looking up, up at the top of the tree and the sky behind the tree, a break from my normal looking at pavement and table.

30 July 2007

flowers and crystal

painting exercise
Winsor & Newton CP 300gsm 10" x 14". 3 hours (over a few days).

i have been taking a break from the "output" part of painting to look at process and listen for hints. this is yet another copy, unfinished, from a painting tutorial by susanna spann.

susanna is in the "crystal and light" school of watercolor painters: the concept from photographic reference, a composition based on the tesselated alternation of crisp edges, subtle transitions and a broad value range (strong lighting), and an execution that requires multiple glazes of diluted paint, one on top of the other, to build up those transitions and value contrasts.

this watercolor technique can produce spectacular results. jenny davis (linked under "influences") uses it in her portrait painting -- the same crisp edges and subtle transitions, but now the flower is the young face and the crystal is her flowing hair. jenny says a single portrait may take her a month to complete, incrementally each day; and her work glows with mastery.

but i'm just an old dog. i freehanded the example outline in pencil, then splattered away at it, going through the movements of the technique to see how it feels. then i did the audit. i am attracted to the style for the control of value contrasts and color transitions, but the repeated glazing is narcotic. i tend to fall back thoughtlessly on paint that is too diluted, and compensate for that with an excessive number of glazes. this makes painting carefully along the edges, over and over, a real chore. and i miss the intricate pigment textures that get lost in repeated glazing -- the painting and a giclée print of the painting look pretty much the same.

the poetry in flowers and crystal, if poetry is the word for it, seems to me formal and even surreal. i love john marin, his ability to invent visual symbols on the fly, the "unerring accuracy of hand and eye" in john sargent. i like paintings that look triumphant more than paintings that look achieved.

29 July 2007

red & green

kimberly (color study)
Arches CP 300gsm 14" x 10". 3 hours.

i have played around with flesh mixtures for several years. this painting was done entirely in red or green paints: quinacridone magenta and viridian for the background; cadmium scarlet and phthalo green YS for the figure; the hair is cadmium scarlet and perylene maroon; the freehand drawing (squaring the image to copy it) is in charcoal.

the technique of glazing a carmine lake pigment over a green (terre verte) ground dates from the middle ages, and is described somewhere in james elkins' "what painting is". i only began experimenting with it a few weeks ago. i have been looking for ways to model the figure without using a blue violet shadow tint, and this does the trick.

i am contemplating doing about twenty of these small scale figures in the same color scheme. the model was a natural, a dancer and free spirit, and gave me a great series of poses.

this is what i call a problem painting, something done to tackle a specific visual problem or examine a specific painting technique. these are often gift images, for example when something grabs my interest because it would be a challenge to paint it. otherwise the problem paintings are like experiments or explorations, simply watching how things go, to learn what is possible or "what works".

28 July 2007

imbibe, inhale

Arches CP 300gsm, 6" x 9". 1 hour.

painting is lonely work, and sometimes My Morning Jacket or for philip guston on the stereo does not quite create the necessary ambience.

what intrigues me among the many "a painting a day" blogs are those that focus on the personal. the generic landscapes, bowls of fruit and studio portraits weary me. i'm stimulated by the artist's shoes, discarded necklace, tousled bedding, scraps of dinner, stack of unread magazines. if you won't show me your shoes, then show me your feet.

that is the lived life. we don't embrace the generic and mass production aspects of life, but the tiny and incidental and idiosyncratic things, the humble overused objects that wouldn't even sell on ebay. van gogh painted his bible, boots, pipe, potatoes and cramped little bed. he was here, and now he's gone.

i like the blogs that narrate the process of painting, of "being in the paint" as molly brose puts it. the blogs about "being out of the paint," procrastinating and posting old work and making excuses and nattering on about the people and politics of art, they are part of the process too but they are painful to go through. the pure marketing sites, "here's the painting here's the price", are neither here nor there.

i am still trying to find my legs in blogging. i always specify the paper finish, weight and format, and the time it took me to paint the thing, because i think that anchors the uniformly sized digital image as a physical object.

why do we paint? i haven't found an answer. you just "get in the paint".

27 July 2007

kitchen paintings

got milk?
Winsor & Newton HP 300 gsm 10" x 14". 1 hour.

lately the kitchen has been a late night painting post. my wife is out of town so i can really take the place over.

i put one of the counter stools on the sink side, the counter at my knee, and can paint without leaning over. i put the ipod in the sound system on shuffle, and soak up the halogen kitchen counter lighting -- brighter than my studio lights.

anyway, i did the drawing because i was opening a carton of milk and suddenly wanted to illustrate the movements. i used grease pencil for the red stress marks, and found the pencil does not repel water as i'd imagined but doesn't dissolve in it either, though the edge between paint and pencil is complex and invites looking.

the gimmick here is to draw the right hand with the right hand. i had to alternately pose the hand, then draw part, then pose it again, draw more, etc. i couldn't just reflect the left hand because i turned the carton askew to my viewpoint.

golden beets
Winsor & Newton HP 300 gsm 10" x 14". 2 hours.

i love golden beets. they have bright, orangish scarlet color, but the flesh is a golden yellow. they are delicious with mixed vegetables and a broiled fish, garnished with lemon and served with couscous dusted in paprika.

i did the drawing in charcoal because the beets just lay in the right grouping on the counter. i didn't have chromium green, which i would have preferred for the background. but a casual mixture of venetian red, cadmium scarlet and nickel dioxine yellow, dirtied with phthalo blue, turned out to give just the right beet skin texture.

my regret is that the beets we get locally are trucked in from somewhere, probably the central valley, so the greens are typically shredded up from the field packing and transport. but although you are shredded up by life you do not lose your beauty.

26 July 2007

book of life

book of life (front page)

on her return from visiting a grad school buddy in austin, my wife presented me with a book of handmade watercolor papers hand bound into a leather cover that she bought in a local crafts store. a kind of cowboy painting portfolio.

there are 48 pages that invite as many as 96 paintings. i decided to paint images of our life together in west county, as a gesture of everything she brings to my life.

the book of life. what does each of us paint into it?

rubber ducky
handmade paper, 10" x 8". 1 hour.

my first image is a rubber ducky. jan has a collection of a dozen or so, all sizes and styles, around the master bedroom bath. after a hard day in the garden she loves to crawl in the hot water and run the jaccuzi for a long spell.

i found the paper is more absorbent than i am used to, and clean edges are hard to hold between overlapping paint areas. normally i would just leave a thin white line between the color areas, but this paper is quite rough.

25 July 2007

escher's sea

Arches CP 300gsm 16" x 12". 4 hours (over several days).

this isn't my work: it's a copy of a lithograph by maurits escher. i painted it to study its composition, the handling of tonal values, and the rendering of water.

i am an incorrigible copyist. i don't copy paintings often, but when i see an image (painting, news photo, cinema still) that intrigues me, i copy it to see how it works and how it might work in watercolor.

the benefit of copying, rather than painting an actual object or place, is that the original and its copy are equally artificial images, which makes the differences between them clearer; and it brings out my own artistic temperament in the features that i don't want or am unable to copy. the spirit is different, and the difference is visible.

speaking of copying from videos ... a recent episode of HBO's "big love" impressed me for its visual composition and use of color contrasts and light, so i plan to run through it and make copies of the most instructive images.

24 July 2007

the figure group

charcoal life sketch; 15 minutes.

wednesdays a figure drawing group meets in town from 7 to 10pm. it is often very crowded, but less so in the summer heat (fire codes prevent opening the fire escape door for ventilation, and there is only one window).

this male model was both fun to draw and worked harder than the usual female model, who usually spends the last half hour pose napping. i really dislike drawing a sleeping model!

i have invested a lot of effort into painting female figure nudes, but i haven't done a series of males. i can't visualize a context that will make the male figure compelling -- i mean, a pose that displays the form and also anchors our reason for looking at it.

charcoal life sketch; 15 minutes.

as for drawing, i have tried value drawings and don't like the process. value drawings are great for analyzing a painting subject, but they just take too long to do right. it feels like painting without the solvent.

i like to draw in outline primarily, for some reason i always have, although i am continually trying out different ways to indicate value planes through hatching, contouring or scribbling. as soon as drawings obscure line with shading, they lose the schematic power that drawing can create.

speaking of figure drawing ... the graphic artist glenn fabry used stop frame images of exercise and bodybuilding videos to work on his figure drawing skills. the results are published in his book "monograph". several years ago i started using stop frame dvd images as painting subjects, and i recommend it highly for portrait and figure sketching.

23 July 2007


and here is a photo of my studio (working area).

i built the studio in 2003, two years after my wife and i moved to our home in west sonoma county.

it also serves as a guest house -- full kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and very large sun deck -- with a foldout couch for couples with kids. it takes about an hour to convert the studio for guests.

i work at a large wooden table (the largest table i could find commercially, 4' x 8'). all the paints are in stackable dishes that pile into a plastic chest for storage, and voilà, the room is ready for a sitdown feast.

here everything is messed up with work, and i've got the image projector mounted vertically to prepare a series of small format landscapes from a recent photo expedition.


Arches HP 300gsm 14" x 10". 2 hours.

i met stefanie at the weekly figure drawing group in sebastopol, and after a month or two i called her to sit for me. although she is a fine figure model i found i was more interested in doing portraits with her. she is german, grew up on a farm, and has a genial personality and very clear outlines. her eyes really are a striking clear blue.

the charcoal drawing was done from life, and the watercolor added that evening, painting in our kitchen. the hot press paper holds the line and accentuates pigment textures. i did three portrait sketches of her in all, but only this one was an agreeable painting.

Strathmore drawing, 9" x 12". ~15 minutes.

i will describe how i work with models in later postings. but i like to start sessions by drawing hands. i don't find much use for the two minute "warm up" poses, because i draw in outline; but asking the model to hold long poses at the start is physically straining. hands are easy to pose and hard to draw. the artist can look at them very intimately without discomfiting the model, and the model can watch how the artist looks. hands are a way to reconnect and establish mutual space for later work.

hands are also the crown jewels of figure painting: it's very hard to be "good enough" at drawing the hands. it's amazing how many competent figure painters saddle their work with hands that frankenstein couldn't use. in his meaty book "the nude", kenneth clark says that the face is the keynote of a figure nude ... i think the hands play an equally important role.

22 July 2007

dead bird

Arches HP 300gsm 10" x 14". 1 hour.

i found this guy on the deck of my studio, underneath one of the large south facing windows. i painted him the same day, and kept him until his eyes dried out.

i used charcoal pencil to sketch him and tinted with watercolor. i used hot pressed paper to hold the lines and produce paint texture with minimal brushing.

death is a closing window. we are inside the light and warmth of life with the people and animals we love. and then one of them is outside in the dark, looking in on us, as the window closes.

21 July 2007

self portrait

Arches CP 300gsm, 12" x 9". painted in 1 hour.

i have thought of doing a show entitled "me, me, me" that is just 100 self portraits. but it doesn't seem like an investment opportunity.

i have been thinking more about drawing and how it works into a painting, assuming the two are different media or different techniques.

my ideal style, if i could describe it, would be a painting that seems to be dissolving into a drawing, or a drawing that is becoming a painting. photorealism annoys me a little, it is one step away from the kitsch of trompe d'oeil and it reduces painting to the photographic gamut or puns on it.

20 July 2007

dark house

Arches paper 9" x 12". painted in ~ 3 hours.

this is a photograph that i tore from a magazine a year or so ago and got around to painting this week. the point of the photo was the dark slanting light and the dark tones of the house set against the darker sky.

i use photos in this way to stretch my painting in a specific direction. or to provide a theme when i feel dried out. or as a retreat from painting "my way" because i am dissatisfied with how my painting is going.

i admit, i've started this blog at a time when i'm frustrated with my painting progress.

19 July 2007

fir tree

Arches paper 12" x 9". 1 hour.

this tree grows a stone's throw south of the deck of my studio. it stood out in the noon sunshine, a perfect presence of itself, so i painted it.

i believe in the importance of gift images, an idea explained here, and while gift images do not always make good paintings, they make good seeds for future paintings.

i want to work drawing more assertively into my painting style, but haven't yet found an approach i like. molly brose's use of grease pencil looks intriguing, a technique i plan to try out.

18 July 2007

self portrait

Arches CP 300gsm 14" x 10". 1 hour.

may as well start with a self portrait. i do a lot of these ... the model is inexpensive and always available, and i like messing around with my face.

i found that it takes about a half hour to shoot a week's worth of work, upload the images to my computer, crop and adjust them, rename and save them to disk.

i haven't decided whether i should upload every day or just once a week.

17 July 2007

booting up

created this blog, reviewed help documentation, and played with the personalizing features.