Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mind Games

Maybe you've heard this one:  Four scientists are blindfolded and led into a room where they are told they need to identify an animal held inside.  One grabs a long and flexible, tube-like thing, while another finds four large, three foot round legs with three toes.  Still another scientist feels above his head and grabs a palm like flap of ear that's four feet long, and very thin.  The last gropes around, feeling the enormous girth and size of the animal.  They leave the room, and say, "Ah, hah!  We must apply for a research grant so we can get enough money to determine what this animal is!"

Apparently, these same scientists put their efforts to use answering a question no one asked: how does a persons eye move when looking at a painting for the first time?  Now, I'm not new to this party, as James Gurney first wrote in his excellent blog, and it was picked up by the inimitable Stapleton Kearns a little later.  So if you'll pardon me for being fashionably late, I'll throw my two cents into the conversation anyway.

You see, for the study, these scientists wired up the brains of some poor subjects (I'm assuming they wore a helmet with really cool wires and lights sticking out of it), and flashed images of paintings to monitor how their eyes tracked the scene.  Now, we painters spend an inordinate amount of time designing our pictures so that the viewer will look where we want them to.  Through the use of line, color, and form we try to direct the viewer to the Point Of Interest.  But the scientists didn't see that at all.  It turns out people's eyes flickered all over the place, going here and there with no apparent rhyme or reason.  So the scientist came to the conclusion that we artists are wasting our time with all this design stuff.  No one even notices!  So go ahead and cram all your subject matter into the lower left hand corner for all your viewers seem to care.  You're welcome.

Needless to say, I think that the intrepid scientists overlooked something very important when considering their results.  For many millions of years, before we wore suits and ties (then went to shorts, sandals, sloppy t's and baseball caps worn sideways over the ears) we lived very much like the herd of deer that feeds near where I live.  In other words, we are animals.  We may think we've overcome the animal way of life, but our instincts prove otherwise.  That's why we will always look at a bright, shiny object that flashes into view.  Why?  Because it could be a glistening drop of saliva shining on the eight inch fang of a saber-tooth tiger ready to pounce on us and rip our throats out.  We use to have to worry about those things in our day to day activities.  To a saber-tooth tiger, or giant cave bear, two humans together would be viewed as a snack pack.

Alright then, what does this have to do with how eyes track a painting?  Well, we will always scan a scene looking for tigers and such.  That's what the study seems to showed:  the eye was looking for bright, shiny objects.  Nothing there?  Then it looks in the shadows for other possible dangers.  Coast is clear?  Then we slow our gaze and look around a little more.  And all of that happens in nano-seconds.  Faster than we can possibly control, or be aware of.  Meanwhile, the mind is interpreting the scene, drawing on memories of paintings, colors, or other objects that might be shown in the picture.  That's what the scientist didn't find because they couldn't:  They could track how the eye affects the mechanical organ called the brain, but it's the mind that puts it all together and says, "Oh, what a lovely scene of a road going down into a valley and up a far hill to a distant church.  It just drew me right in."

So, by all means, keep working on your designs.  The average viewer will notice and appreciate your skill and talent.  And the scientists?  They're probably out looking for bright, shiny objects;  you never know where you're going to meet up with a saber-tooth tiger...


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Go Anywhere?

From The Parlor Window

It's been little more than a year since I and my beautiful partner Ellen moved into our little home here on the banks of the mighty Eastern River.  (Okay, maybe "mighty" is a little strong a word.  Not only could George Washington toss a dollar under-hand across it, he could easily wade across without getting his wig wet).  In the ensuing year I have made three paintings of the river; spring, summer and winter.  I have painted the tree in my backyard, the master bedroom mirrors, and now I just finished painting the porch.  Of course I find these scenes quite pretty to portray, but it also plays into my general propensity to just stay at home.

I will admit that my initial thought in doing this project was to paint this from life.  The problem was that I had a beastly time getting the design down.  I started this scene three times, and each attempt ended with frustration.  I was trying to get the whole window in the view, but I finally figured (on my fourth attempt) to show the porch from the lower window.  Meanwhile, the snow melted and the sun kept getting higher and higher in the sky, altering the shadow angles and color. 

Above is how the porch looked in mid-February.  It wasn't until last week that I got this drawing completed:

I used a thin wash of Naples Yellow over the drawing.  To me, this simple wash is a vitally important step.  I've been known to take a full day deciding what color to use.  The wash sets the mood, or emotion of the piece, and it ties the elements together.  If I choose wrong, I will almost always struggle with the painting.  Choosing right makes the picture almost paint itself.  So anyway, after wasting so much time, sitting down to paint from life was out.  Oh, sure- maybe John Singer Sargent could paint a picture one ten minute stretch at a time over the course of several months like he did with Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, but I'm not that patient.  I have been studying the colors of the porch since we moved in, and every (rare) sunny afternoon we've had this winter, so I could get the colors right.  I think it shows.

The fun thing about portraying my parlor window was trying to show it's antique wavy glass.  My worry was that viewers might think I couldn't draw straight.  So, I hope that showing the window sill will help, or maybe the crack in the glass.  Oh, and that crack?  You might say it's my little homage to my hero, Norman Rockwell.  Or you can say that I stole it from Shuffleton's Barbershop.  Either way you're right.  So check out the lower right hand corner: 

I wonder what corner of my property I'll paint next?  Maybe the bathroom needs painting...


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Everyone's A Critic

You know the old saw:

Those that can-- do.

Those that can't-- teach.

Those that can't do or teach?

They're critics.

And I have to admit that saying went through my head as Dan Kany, an art critic for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald asked to see me at the artist reception I was attending this past Friday night.  I am a participating artist for a month at Bayview Gallery in Brunswick, Maine in a show entitled Local Color.  Bayview is one of the most prestigious galleries here in Maine, in my humble opinion, (That's how IMHO looks spelled out) and I was more than happy to have a few of my paintings in the show.  Mr. Kany was there to offer his critique of the exhibition.  He is a pleasant chap, and totally ruining my misconception of critics, he was spot on in what he had to say about my work.

Now, I have always felt that the one person I have to please with my paintings is myself.  If I don't particularly care for a painting of mine, a thousand people telling me it's great means there are a thousand wrong people in my view.  Conversely, if I feel I succeeded with a painting, a thousand people telling me it's crap is still a thousand wrong people.  And don't get me started on asking loved ones about my work.  According to my beautiful partner Ellen, I have yet to not paint a masterpiece.  (My kids, however, to show their total lack of respect for their father, will gleefully point out any error they think they see.  They are almost always wrong).  But mostly, people want to be nice, so they don't criticize my paintings to my face.  So that essentially leaves it up to yours truly to best assess what works or not.

Therein lies the trouble.  I can only gage my success with a painting on what I wanted to achieve.  If I fail in that, to me, the painting is a failure.  But my viewer doesn't know what I had in mind, all they can see is the final result in front of them.  They may actually like the passage I thought was wrong.  And that's where Mr. Kany comes in.  He pointed out each and every passage in my paintings that he felt were off.  And do you know what?  I knew it.  Passages I labored over and worked out as best as I could, but knew that there was still an undefinable "something's wrong" with them, he pointed to with laser precision.  But he also explained what was wrong with them.  Painful as it may have been to hear it, I was still delighted to hear him offer a solution.

He published his critique in today's paper.  Yeah, some of it stung, but he did forewarn me.  Hey, honesty takes no prisoners.  Funny thing, though.  A patron came over, and in discussing one of my paintings with me, pointed out her favorite part:  The very passage that Mr. Kany felt was wrong.  Which left me with a conundrum:

Which side of the thousand was she a part of? 


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Doin' It To The Oldies

I love music.  I do everything to the soundtrack of song.  When I read, I quite often have the stereo on.  When I watch sports, I usually turn on music instead of listening to the blather of the sport announcers.  After all, I don't need them to tell me I just saw a touchdown, or a strikeout.  I can see it as plain as they without the forced histrionics.  And of course, I paint to the sound of music.  Quite often when I look at a passage of one of my paintings, I remember the song I was listening to when I painted it.  When I take a break from painting, I like to sit down and noodle on the piano, or strum E, A, and D on the guitar.  Just don't ask me to play F-- I hate that chord.

What kind of music painters listen to as they work is just as individual as their painting style.  Some like to rock out, others go for country and western.  A rare few like to listen to brain numbing Irish folk singers as they sing ballads in ancient Gaelic about garden gnomes.  Hey, whatever floats your boat.  I got to thinking about what kind of music some of the Old Masters would have listened to as they painted.  I can envision DaVinci listening to a baroque quintet as he painted.  There Leo would be in his perfectly clean painting smock wearing a T-Shirt that says "If it ain't baroque, don't fix it!"  Then he'd show them how to play it better.

What would Michelangelo be listening to if he was still alive?  Well for starters he'd be something like four hundred years old, so he probably would be a little hard of hearing.  But if he were young and kicking in today's world I can see him cranking up Heavy Thrash Death Metal.  Or Barbara Streisand's Greatest Hits.  He had issues.

As a noted accomplished classical pianist, of course John Singer Sargent would listen to Classical Music.  I mean, c'mon--the guy painted in a three piece suit with spats.  But I bet that if he could he'd paint Lady Whatever while listening to European Techno Pop.  If only he knew what he was missing...

Me?  I confess, I  listen to the oldies.  Anything from the 1940's Big Band to Classic Rock and Roll.  The calendar ended in my studio somewhere around 1979.  As an ex-Disc Jockey (or is that "recovering"?), I've been exposed to all kinds of genre's, but the paint flows better when I've got iTunes Radio set on That 70's Channel.  I love that station.  Every once in awhile they'll play something that I haven't heard since the song left the airwaves back in 1973.  Having a soundtrack that makes you feel good in a subconscious way can only make your work come out better.  After all, you can't really paint when you're pissed off, can you?

So crank up the tunes and get going.  I know I will-- Oh hey, is that Meri Wilson singing "Telephone Man"?  I haven't heard that song in so long...


Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Was I Thinking?

Ah, Spring in Maine... mud, mud, and some more mud.  Wherever the snow melts, it leaves mud.  I also never realized that snow has such a high sand content, but every place that the snow was piled high now lies a pile of sand.  Who knew snow was so sandy?  Anyway, even though we have forwarded our clocks, it's still not quite Spring here in Maine.  March is like Connecticut.


I'll quickly explain.  You see, when I was a kid, we would take family vacations to visit some relatives in Philadelphia.  The trip down takes about eight or nine laborious hours driving through New England, through New York and New Jersey to get to our destination.  We would zip through every state except Connecticut.  One has to drive the entire diagonal distance through it to get to New York from Massachusetts.  When you entered that state you were closer to home, but when you finally crossed its border you were closer to the end of the trip.  It's like when you enter March, you're still in Winter, and when March is over, it's Spring.  It's just seems like it takes forever to get there.  And that's what I think when the calendar turns to March: our road trip to Philly.  And when I drive through Connecticut to get to Pennsylvania, I think of March.

The Beautiful Colors Of March

Another thing that is fun to think of is what was the inspiration behind some paintings?  Have you ever given much thought as to why something was painted?  I mean, we can look at some of our favorite paintings and try to glean the subtle psychological undertones that lies beneath the image, and say that was the artists reason for painting it.  (A pastime wildly popular with those who like to stare at incoherent abstract images).  But what I'm thinking is something a little more pragmatic.  I know that when I get an idea for a picture, it isn't the grand scheme that excites me, but some little nuance that I really wanted to paint.  But to put that little touch in it's proper context, I have to paint everything around it.

So, not because I think the following paintings of mine are masterpieces, but because I know what I was thinking, I'll give you some examples.

This first one is called Charlie's Boat.  What fired me up with this wasn't the boat, or the reflection and color in the water, but Charlie standing on the bow, back-lit by the morning sun.  To get that effect, I had to paint the whole scene.

Little did I realize it when I was painting that picture, but two years later I would be working for Charlie as a sternman on that very boat.  Funny how fate turns out, huh?  (Hmmm...maybe I should paint a picture of Scarlet Johansson...)

A couple of years ago I was in Kansas City, Missouri enjoying lunch in a diner at the railroad station in the center of town when I noticed this young lady.  The lighting of the diner was a warm yellow, and it cast a halo-like glow over her head.  She reminded me of someone Norman Rockwell would paint.  So, never mind the chrome, or the old guy beside her, or even the doo-dads on the counter.  All I wanted to paint was her hair!

Cundy's Harbor is a cool place.  It's one of the few working waterfronts in the state, it's harbor is choked full of lobster boats, trawlers and pleasure crafts.  Huddled on the rocky shore between the one road down the center of town and the water are quaint old homes that have stood the test of time.  I saw this home when my beautiful partner Ellen and I were taking a walk one Fourth of July.  The owners had a gorgeous silk flag flying from their porch.  I was taken by the wrinkles of the flag reflecting color and light.  But I needed to put the new flag in context with the old home-- just so I could paint the wrinkles.

So there's a small sampling of the thoughts behind these paintings.  Deep psychological emotions?  Nah.  What do I look like to you?  A thinker?


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Buckles

I didn't want to let too many days pass before I mention that America's last surviving World War I veteran, Frank Buckles died last week.  Mr. Buckles, as you probably heard, was one hundred ten years old, having been born in 1901.  He enlisted in the army in 1917 at the tender age of 16-- lying that he was 18 so he could go "see some adventure."  As a student of history, I am fascinated by not what he did, but rather by what he lived through in his century plus time on Earth.  Think about it:  The first light that shone on Mr. Buckles' at his birth was provided by an oil filled lamp by his mother's bedside.  His world was very much the world his grandfather knew.  It was still a horse-drawn age.  Airplanes did not fill the air, cars did not roar down freeways at seventy miles per hour.  Trains were common, but they usually topped out at thirty MPH. 

It was a hard world, too.  Language and behaviors that we now would consider horribly bigoted and racist were common, and unexceptional.  Unemployment statistics were of no use.  If you didn't have a job, that was your problem.  If you had a job, you were lucky if it paid a dollar a day.  Children as young as five years old worked for far less in factories and mines.  If they made it to that age.  What might have started as a little cough your child had in the morning  might lead to their death by that evening.  The old adage that we laugh at today was a rule of thumb then; What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.

So, in honor of Mr. Buckles, here is an illustrated tour of the world that Frank Buckles saw as he lived his remarkable life.

Scything the clover

Bringing in the hay, 1900's

The first airplane, 1903

Perfectly normal for 1900

Bathing suits as they were meant to be

Rt 95 before they knew it was rt 95

The Dust Bowl

A new world

Who wouldn't want one?

Dallas, 1963

The Moon, 1969

One last victory... 1974

And the wall came tumbling down 1989


So, thank you Frank.  The "lost generation" now truly is.  The sad thing about your passing is that you had to see this train wreck of a television "star" before you left:

A new kind of drug

Rest in peace.

And thank you.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Teaching An Old Dog

Pretty soon now, and before I care to admit it, I'll hit my fiftieth year on this planet.  Not this year though.  I think one way we assess our age is by doubling how old we are now.  While fifty to a twenty-five year old is considered hopelessly geriatric, they don't have a doubt they'll make it that far.  Sixty to a thirty year-old isn't so bad.  When you're forty, eighty seems attainable.  100?  I think I'll hold off planning the birthday celebration, because I'm not making that one for sure.  The way I figure it, looking at my family's health history, and with the miracles of modern medicine included, I'll be lucky to break eighty.  So really, thirty years are all I may have left-- if I take excellent care of myself (something I haven't tried yet...)  I can easily recall events of thirty years ago, and everything since then has gone by in a nano-second.  I can only imagine the warp-speed the next thirty will feel like.

I mention this not because I'm thinking of my own mortality, but because lately I've seen some videos for Art Ateliers posted on the internet, and it's brought back some long forgotten ambitions.  Back when I first started to paint, my folks always wished they could afford to send me to Art School.  What they were thinking of was really an Atelier.  What they didn't know was that by the mid 1970's schools teaching fundamental, traditional realist art were as scarce as unicorns in the desert.  Back in those days, Art schools were all about abstract "art".  Realism was fini as far as they were concerned.  It's been a long time coming, but change is in the air, and traditional Ateliers are becoming more common.  So, yeah, after years of teaching myself, I wish I could attend one to learn how it's supposed to be done.  But here's the thing; when a young graduate of one of those schools starts out on his or her art career, they can have forty to fifty years of productive art ahead of them.  How much time would I have?  Fifteen, maybe twenty good years?  Hey, one good year is better than none, but do I really want to spend close to a quarter of whatever good years I have left starting from scratch?

So instead of attending one of those excellent institutions, where I could spend a year just drawing spheres, cones and squares, I might sign up for some work-shops to get some more instruction.  Work-shops are kind of like the Cliff Notes of painting.  They are great for overviews of painting techniques.  Granted, I've only attended one, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I'm not adverse to going back for another from this same knowledgeable, wicked nice painter.  I might sign up for someone else, who knows?  I think the important consideration is to learn from an artist that seems to have the same sensibility as I.  If I want to learn more about using, say, wild color schemes, I don't think it would do me much good to attend a work-shop held by a tonalist painter.

But this leads me back to the age thing.  After awhile, I am going to be as good as I'm going to be, good or bad, and no Atelier or work-shop is gonna improve me.  It's a sad but true fact that no one keeps getting better 'til the day they die.  We all max out, and start the inevitable decline.  Can't I just be that happy old dog that has his collection of tricks?  Do I really have to learn more?  But we all know that artists are not dogs (so to speak...).   The one thing that all the painters who have ever lived have in common is that we have all felt our best painting is waiting to be done.  All we need to make it happen is one more trick.

Alright, I'll keep trying to learn.  But do I get a MilkBone?...