Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Winter Of Discontent

I won't lie to you.  I'm gonna tell you right up front that I dislike winter intensely.  As you should be able to tell from the photo above, summer is my favorite week here in Maine.  The more I think about it, the more obvious it has become that summer beats winter in every category.  I'll take a heat wave over a cold snap every time.  Why?  Well, for starters I don't have to scrape heat off my car's windshield in the morning.  I don't have to pay some guy to plow heat off my driveway so I can get out.  I don't have to shovel a path through the heat to get to my studio.  I save $3.58 a gallon every time my oil burner doesn't run.  I don't wonder if I'm dressed warmly enough to go out and check the mail.  And speaking of wearing enough clothes; going to the beach is alot more fun in the summer than the winter.

Now, some people say that heat makes people lethargic, that if it's too warm people just stand around and nobody wants to do any work.  That, I say, is just an urban myth started by people watching DOT road crews.  Everybody else is way more active in the summer.  You can actually see folks smile more because their faces aren't covered by ski masks.  Everyone has a spring in their step-- because their feet aren't weighed down by heavy boots.  Really, need I go on?

This winter has been an especially difficult one for me.  Somewhere under the four feet of snow in my yard lies my back.  I threw it out in January while shoveling yet another foot of snow and I haven't been able to find it.  So for weeks I've been walking around like someone who's looking for a lost contact lens.  As soon as I started to straighten up, I got hit with one of the worst head colds I've ever experienced.  Fifteen days of phlegm!  I was looking like a human mucus fountain.  At one point, I went through two new boxes of Kleenex in a six hour period.  (I should have bought stock in the company!)  The skin of my red, swollen, blistered nose had the same texture as pleather.  Every word I spoke had B in it, ie; "I'b jubst trybin' toob breathe-b!"

Needless to say, my work suffered.  It wasn't easy to stumble down to my frigid studio, warm it up, and get to work.  All I really wanted to do was lie crumpled in a corner with my boxes of tissues, a warm blanket and a hot toddy, and just let it pass.  If truth be told, I did just that on more than one day.  But you can only wallow in your own misery (and snot) for so long, so after a while I managed to suck it up and get back to work.

The good news is that tomorrow is the last day of February.  The bad, is that in Maine, March is the cruelest month.  As eager as we are for spring, we will undoubtedly have at least one or two more big snowstorms.  That's OK, though.   I know what is yet to come, and for that I say, bring it on!

                                                                  THINK SPRING!


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It's Only Business...

Paris Salon

Unlike many careers that need years of education and training, becoming an artist is insanely easy.  Just go out and get yourself some paints, brushes and canvas, and have at it.  While it's not required, it would be helpful to look the part, too.  After all, doctors drape stethoscopes over their white lab coats for no reason. You should wear black clothes, funky hats, and speak art babble whenever possible so others can easily identify that you are an "Artist".  It's that easy. 

Making a living as an artist, however, is insanely difficult.

Of course, there are varied strategies on how one can make a buck at their art.  The first method, practised by most beginners is:

  • Wait to be Discovered.

That's when you paint all you want, and then wait for some rich collector, or a fancy New York City Gallery to find you and make you rich.  As a daydream on a boring day at work, it's great.  As a business philosophy, it's not that effective.

The next strategy is:
  • The Social Scene

You know-- twitter your upcoming art event.  Update your Facebook status every time you finish a painting.  Make an App for your art.  The objective is to steer people over to your web site.  This is the first cousin to Exposing Yourself, but it is also remarkably similar to Wait To Be Discovered...

Well then, what about
  • Exposing Yourself

Hey, you can't sell it if no one sees it.  At least this is a more proactive strategy for your art career.  So you hang your work in any venue that has a blank wall.  Personally, I have hung paintings in book stores, doctor's offices, town halls, grange halls, libraries, hospitals, cafe's and restaurants.  It was great for getting my name known, but not so much for sales.  The reason is that people are going to those locations for reasons other than buying art.  As a matter of fact, I don't recall seeing any one leave a hospital with a new painting under their hospital johnnie.

The more intensive next step is

  • Hit The Road Jack
Do the shows.  The nomadic caravan that is art in the park shows, or sidewalk art festivals.  Another weekend, another town.  You can make money here, and maybe even win prizes for your work.  Many artists spend the winter painting, and the summer hitting the road going to one art event after another.  I've done a few of these over the years myself.  For some reason, everytime I did, it was during a violent windstorm, and I have had a few pieces damaged as a result.  I'll leave the road to the more experienced travellers with those really cool tents.

Lastly I guess, is
  • Lose 50 percent
I know that sounds harsh, but that is what most galleries take for their commissions.  Personally, I like galleries.  I enjoy the concept of shipping off my paintings for others to hawk, leaving me free to stay in my studio and work.  And let's face it, tell people you're a painter and right after they ask if you do interiors, they'll ask if you show in galleries.  They don't ask what restaurant or library you show in.  It's snob appeal, I admit, but it works for me. 

So keep painting, and find a sales strategy that works for you.  Just remember,  there's lot's of difficulties doing what we do, so as the Godfather said, don't take it personal-- it's only business!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thoughts From A Wandering Mind

We've actually had two days in a row this week where the temperature went above forty degrees.  Brought me to mind of what I hope is coming soon.  After last year's non-winter event, this year has more than made up for it.  It did put me in a spring cleaning mode, as I spent most of the day straightening up the studio.  I also spent some time doing some touch-ups on a couple paintings I wasn't entirely satisfied with.  I use to never touch a painting after I called it "done" and signed my name to it.  These days, however, if I see how a painting can be improved, I'll do it with no hesitation.  After all, if I noticed my fly was down after I "finished" dressing in the morning, I'd still zip it up.

I was at an art store recently to buy some painting medium.  I firmly believe that supporting the arts means supporting local art stores too.  Most of these operations are Mom and Pop affairs, and I have seen way too many go out of business.  These days, it's the internet that is dooming them.  But then I saw this store charging exactly twice as much for a bottle of the medium I use compared to what I would pay online.  Look, I'd happily pay a few bucks more, but geez-- don't make me go elsewhere!  I went home and ordered it online.

This past summer I participated in a very well run charity paint-out art auction event.  It was held in a town full of millionaires on the coast of Maine.  Myself excluded, there where some well known artists participating, the work was top-notch, and the paintings were getting good prices.  Half-way through the auction, I noticed that some paintings were really getting great bids, while other, equally good pieces weren't getting as much.  Two young college-age girls where presenting the pieces for the bidders.  One was an attractive brunette.  The other was a striking blonde with movie star looks.  I noticed that the bids where much higher and more prolonged when the blonde girl displayed the art!  I kept my fingers crossed, but the brunette presented mine.

I sold my very first painting for eight dollars.  Why eight bucks?  I didn't think five was enough, but I didn't dare ask for ten.

All this winter I've wanted to climb to the top of a hill on a golf course near me to check out the view.  I'd been up there in the summer, of course, and the vistas were quite lovely.  I wanted to see how it would look on a sunny late afternoon covered in snow.  I thought it might be cool to try a plein air from up there.  I finally climbed up there today.  It was the hardest ordeal I've put my body through in years.  The snow was knee deep, or in many spots waist deep the entire three hundred yards up the hill.  I had originally thought I'd snow shoe up there, but opted for heavy boots instead.  (Because I'm wicked smaht!)  Each step was an ordeal.  I thought that somehow all the oxygen in the atmosphere had dried up.  Halfway up, I thought I'd take a photo of myself so my family could see how I spent my last moments on earth.  But I kept on going, anticipating the golden light shining over the snow covered hills I'd see at the top.  After an eternity, I made it.  And the view?  Lovely.  Except the sun went behind the clouds as soon as I got there.

And by the way-- today is the tenth day I've had this head cold...

In honor of Presidents Day:  John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, but found it very difficult to do.  Roosevelt had little use for Sargent, and didn't want to sit still long enough to have him complete the work.  For his part, Sargent didn't have a high regard for TeeDee (as Roosevelt's family called him), finding him to be a rather overbearing know-it-all.  Sargent was trailing behind the always moving president, imploring him to be still for just a little while, when Roosevelt, climbing some stairs, turned around and glared down at the master painter.  "Hold that pose!" cried Sargent.  Here's the painting:

Have a great long weekend!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

When Thomas Eakins was working on this painting of a woman singing, one of his students asked him why he included a rather noticeable wrinkle in the woman's dress.  "Because it's there," replied Eakins.  There you go, Tom!  That's just like something I would do.  I was going to use this post to show a new painting I had just completed.  It's taken me about two weeks of work, as opposed to my usual five days.  It came out pretty much like I thought it would.  I did a lot of prep work to ensure I wouldn't get lost while I was working on it.  Technically, it's one of my better painted scenes.  But I have decided not to show it.  Why?  Because it's like that wrinkle in Eakins dress (so to speak) it shows how a scene looks, but there's not a whole lot of "art" in it.  I may be my own worse critic, but I didn't overburden myself with a whole lot of decision making when I conceived of the picture.  I painted a scene, "because it's there."  Ho-hum.

A painting is not just a testimony of an artists ability with paint and brush, it's an outward visualization of the artists decision making ability.  Why that turn of the head?  Why place that tree at that spot on the canvas?  How come the light is coming from that direction?  Change any of those elements and the picture is entirely different.  But would it be better?  A true master painter makes the correct decision in putting all the elements of a scene in the most dynamic placement possible.

I am not now stating, nor have I ever said that I am a master painter.  (As a matter of fact, in a recent WSJ/NBC News Poll of the Statistically Insignificant 88% said I am not a master anything, 22% said I wouldn't know a master if one slapped me and 19% said I am not even master of my own domain).  What I am saying is that there is always something to think about when you're trying to make a great painting.  And really, isn't that our goal every time we step up to the easel?  Deciding the best possible use of color, composition and design all add up to a quality piece of art.  Choose incorrectly on any of them, and chances are you'll get a dud.  A beautifully painted tree does you no good when it's in the wrong spot.

So there my little painting sits.  A victim of just looking ordinary.  But I'm a "the glass is half-full" kinda guy, in that I'm sure that every step takes you somewhere.  Nothing wrong with back-tracking if it leads you back to the right trail.  I'm sure that I'll make the right decisions on my next painting.

If only I could decide on what it will be...


Monday, February 14, 2011

My History Of Photography Part III

When I talk about the evils of using photos in paintings, I really don't mean that after years of using them I have now found religion, and that my God is better than your God.  It's just that, as the saying goes, "all things in moderation".  And that's my problem; I go way overboard on moderation.  I know that photographs can be a huge help in painting.  After all, they can do things for us that makes our task of painting that much easier.  They can help us keep our values in scale. For instance, the brightest spot on any printed photograph can never be brighter than the white of the paper it's printed on.  And we have a tube of color for that.  Conversely, Nature gives us such dazzling whites and color that no tube of paint can hope to match.  My problem was that I found myself not just relying on photographs for details, but I started to mimic photographic colors.

The painting above was done early in my use of photos.  I still had the ability to imagine color back then.  The scene is of Cousin's Island in Casco Bay, Maine.  The photo didn't have a fog bank, or clouds in the sky.  The sun was still relatively high in the sky.  I made changes to the scene based on my observation of that beach over the course of many summers.

The painting below is of an old barn (since torn down) in Durham, Maine on a late September afternoon.  It's another 40% photographic reference, and 60% imagination.

I changed the barn and trees, the color of the field and the sky.  All of the elements were actually there, but I rearranged them into a different composition.  So far, so good.  But then over the course of years, I got too "photo bound."

I have always known that cameras distort perspective because of it's convex lens.  What that does is enlarge the foreground which simultaneously diminishes the background.  So a lovely meadow with a looming mountain range in the distance becomes a truncated field with a thin stripe of hills across the horizon.  Kinda like this:

Let's say this is a scene you stumble upon out in the country.  A cow resting under a big shade tree with a barn and pond nearby.  In the distance is a blue band of mountains.

   You like it and want to take a picture of it to paint later.  What the camera does to it is this:

It's an exaggeration, but not by much.  The barn looks like a hundred miles away, and the mountains have disappeared.  All because of the properties of a camera lens.  If you want to make the picture look right, you need to adjust the perspective.  I knew this was a drawback with photos, so I could fix it.  But as camera technology got better and better, I copied too much.  Here's a scene from my old home of Cundy's Harbor, Maine.

Here's the painting I made from it;

Gee, do you think I used a whole lot of imagination with this?  Of course, I couldn't very well have set my easel up in the middle of the harbor now, could I?  And that's another good thing about photographs-- you can get views with them that are impossible to get lugging your gear around.  But I have spent too long observing nature through the camera lens, and I have forgotten to use my eyes. 

So where does that leave me with photographs?  Am I going to stop using them? 

Hell no!

But I am going to do more outdoor color sketches so that in conjunction with a photo, I can get a more accurate and realistic painting.  Sort of like going back to my beginnings. 

Nothing like art to make you take a long journey only to find that where you end up is the place you shouldn't have left.


Friday, February 11, 2011

My History Of Photography Part ll

From A Photograph

The first digital camera I ever bought is sitting here in front of me.  It's an HP Photosmart.  It doesn't say it, but if I recall it has 3.5 mega pixels.  Yeah, I know... they make cigarette lighters with more pixels than that these days.  It's fairly small.  It's lightweight. 

It's pure evil. 

I bought this thing about ten years ago, and I thought it would serve me well.  The only problem with it is that it got me hooked on using photos for my paintings.  Let me tell you, that monkey has been heavy on my back.

I mentioned in Part I that I didn't use photos much in my early years of painting because they were so dreadful, what was the point?  The colors were brutal, the perspective all off, I might as well have used a kindergartner's drawing for reference.  Ah, but this digital thing was a little different.  Even though it is still pretty bad by today's standards, compared to a Pocket Instamatic, it was perfection.  I could zoom in on details (to a point that the pixels allowed me).  I could color correct.  Best of all, I could see right off the bat if I didn't like the photo.  If I didn't like it, I could take another shot.  And it stored up to a hundred pictures in it's memory.  I can't remember a hundred words-- but I digress...  Anyway, that's a whole lotta polaroids!  I use a separate hard drive to store my photos (and I back them up on CD's).  In the past four years I have taken over 14,000 photographs.  Except for the obligatory birthday pic's, each one was of something I thought might be a good painting.  Of course, after I showed the kids their birthday pictures, I'd delete them.  (The photos, not the kids...)

I originally thought I'd use pictures only occasionally, you know, just to help me with the details of a scene.  Oh, sure, I knew the hazards that photos presented, but I was going to be different.  I wasn't going to let them be my crutch.  But a little soon became a lot.  It got to be so bad, I couldn't make a grocery list without taking photos first.  As a matter of fact, I relied on photos so much, I even set up my studio to accommodate my "Photo Jones":

But, like every addiction, I knew deep down that I was wrong in "using".  Worst of all was that my ability to imagine colors was completely gone.  I used to be able to imagine a sunrise scene, and paint the colors fairly accurately, drawn from my memory of observation.  Then it got to be that if I didn't have a photo of it, I'd be lost.  I would even pass up painting beautiful scenes because I knew I wouldn't be able to get a good photo of it.  And heck, if I can't get a photo of it, I can't paint it, right?  It wouldn't have been so bad if I wasn't always aware of the limits that photos have.  It's like smoking cigarettes.  If you started smoking back in the day when they were considered "healthy" then you have an excuse for smoking.  For everyone else-- no excuses.  I have long known how photos skew reality.

I think I'll use Part III on how cameras screw you up, and how I have struggled to try and end my addiction.  But I need a smoke break...


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My History Of Photography Part I

From A Photograph

When I first started painting a few decades ago, killer rabbits were attacking Presidents, computers were housed in rooms the size of parking garages and served by scientists in white coats and respirators, telephones were only used to talk to other people, and cameras really, really sucked.  My goal was to paint in a realist manner, so I figured I would use photographs to help me get the details I needed for my subjects.  There wasn't much debate about the use of photo aids in painting back then.  Realism wasn't popular, to say the least.  Types like Pollock, Picasso and the rest of the painters in the abstract movement didn't exactly use a whole lot of photographic reference material.  I thought it perfectly logical, and didn't think there would be any problem with using photography.

But there was a problem, I soon learned.  I found that the photos I took of things I wanted to paint looked nothing like what I originally saw.  Let me first explain that the camera I was using was a Polaroid Land Camera.  You know, the big, bulky thing that spit your photo out the front where you could then watch it develop right in front of your eyes!  Now, I don't care if it could liven up any dull party just by taking instant photos, that thing produced ghastly results.  On a three inch by three inch square, that lovely golden late autumn field I took a photo of, with beautiful maple trees surrounding it in brilliant, intense orange and red, and with the White Mountains of New Hampshire rising up in purple splendor in the far distance looked like a badly crayoned childs drawing.  The field would be a flat yellow-grey, the tiny trees a dull orange smear, and the looming  mountains had been compressed into a thin strip of blue along the horizon.  It was completely useless for my purposes.

There were better cameras around, of course.  There was the Kodak Pocket Instamatic with 110 film. At least that photo was a slightly larger three inch by four inch.  The colors were a little better, but still light years removed from how objects really looked.  But you had to ship off the roll of film to be processed.  It took two weeks to get the processed pictures back so you could be disappointed with the results.  35mm was the best, but those cameras, film and processing were way beyond what my wage of $2.85 an hour could afford.  So, photos were out.  I didn't realize at the time that it would turn out to be for the better, because when I realized that using photos was useless, I began to teach myself to observe.

I guess it's a legitimate question to ask why I just didn't go out and paint out doors?  You kidding?  If rabbits were able to attack President Carter, what do you think they'd do to me?  Actually, if truth be told, it never dawned on me to paint plein air.  In my defence, there just wasn't a whole lot of plein air painters back then, anyway.  And besides, my hero, Norman Rockwell was a studio painter.  'Nuff said.  So, I sketched and painted objects from life, alla prima, but not plein air.  But I would also spend hours and hours observing nature.  I lived in the middle of one hundred acres of dense Maine forest, so I grew accustomed to the colors, sights and light of the woods.  When I painted trees I put colors in that I had seen with my own eyes, and not through the lens of the camera.

But as we all know, technology has improved cameras greatly.  Ten years ago I bought my first digital camera, and soon found myself totally immersed in helpless addiction to photos.  More on that to come...

By the way... there aren't any killer rabbits anymore, is there?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Let The Games Begin!

I want to pass on my hearty congratulations to the Green Bay Packers for winning Super Bowl XXXVLE-I-E-I-O.  If your team didn't get to play in it (like the Patriots...) then at least there were two teams worth routing for.  The Steelers and Packers have history that goes as far back as the beginning of the NFL.  Would we really care if the Tennessee Titans took on the Carolina Panthers?  So congrats to all the cheese-heads, wherever you are.

With the Super Bowl gone for the year, and baseball season still months away, I feel the need to have more sporting events.  So, I've thought of The Super Bowl of Artists.  I won't be so pretentious as to number my super bowl with roman numerals, so instead I'll use the alphabet.  So here is The Super Bowl Of Artist.a!

Competing first in the Play-Offs are:   Michelangelo vs Pollock!

And the winner is... Michelangelo!  His easy victory moves him on to the next round. 

Okay, next up we have DaVinci vs Picasso-

Geez, another blow-out!  DaVinci takes this one.

Maybe this next match will provide some competition.  We now have Sargent vs Johns:

Nope.  Can't say this one was close either.  John Singer Sargent waltz's away with a sure victory.  So far, we have Michelangelo, DaVinci and Sargent in the semi-finals.  One more match to go.  Which of these next two artists will take on the "Big Three"?

Let's here it for Rockwell vs Munch:

Looks like it'll be... is the suspense killing you?   NORMAN ROCKWELL!

Just like the NFL, these players are going to rest up for awhile to prepare for their next match.  The schedule makers haven't decided on when exactly that may be, but one thing I know for sure is that The Super Bowl Of Artist.a is going to be exciting!

Anybody know where I can get a Norman Rockwell pennant?


Thursday, February 3, 2011

References, Please...

Many years ago I got to do something I always wanted to do.  I was an FM radio jock.  You know, I love music.  When I was growing up I didn't watch television, I was glued to the sound coming from the the little white radio on my nightstand.  I would sketch and listen to the top 40.  I remember thinking of how cool it would be to someday be the voice coming out of that small speaker.  Well, fast forward a few decades, and I got a spot at a Portland, Maine radio station.  I didn't have a lick of experience, but I knew a person who had a friend who knew someone at a station that needed someone quick.  At first, I was just a behind-the- scenes technical guy, but before long, I got my own shift on-air.  The boss liked my voice, and thought I had a future in the business.  Pretty soon, I would occasionally fill in for his morning shift, or do a mid-day slot when needed.  I never went full-time, but I stayed there for about two years, and I had a blast.  I was friendly with the staff, and enjoyed everyone's company--except one.  The overnight guy.  He hated me.

The truth was, he was jealous of me.  You see, I strolled in off the street and landed a gig while he went to Broadcasting School.  I filled in during highly rated time slots.  He toiled in overnight obscurity.  But I had a good radio voice.  (And a face made for radio too...)  For confidentiality, I'll call him Dale-- even though his name was Adam-- but his voice was God-awful!  It was so bad, you'd long to hear someone's nails on a chalk-board for it's soothing effect.  After listening to Dale's voice, squeaking balloons sounded like a heavenly choir in comparison.  The sad truth was that Dale just didn't have it.  Radio was a talent-driven business back then.  It didn't matter that maybe you graduated from Broadcasting School with high honors; if you had the voice of a choking herring, you didn't get the prime slots.

Isn't art something like that, too?  Art is a talent driven business, isn't it?  Yes, you can certainly be schooled to learn the craft.  You can even be a straight A student at the local College Of Art.  But when a patron walks into a gallery to purchase some art, the only thing that grabs their attention is the painting.  If they are torn between two pictures, do they ask to see the artists references as a tie-breaker?  Well...maybe-- if they are purchasing an investment.  But not if they just want to enjoy owning a painting.  It's talent that's the deciding factor.  Of course, there is no universal yardstick to measure talent, and reams of paper (and endless blog space) have been wasted trying to explain taste.  But we all can recognize something we like.  Does it matter if the artist was self taught, or the ace of the class?  Does it matter if a painting was done in the dining room after the artist got home from her day job, as opposed to being done in a lavish studio?  The artists long list of honors, education and accomplishments mean nothing if you don't like the picture.

So, if you fear you're lacking in the proper credentials to be considered seriously, cheer up!  The alternative isn't all it's cracked up to be, either.  Right, Dale?