Monday, May 30, 2011

Teacher, Teacher!

Looking at my viewer counter, I noticed I have reached the ten thousand mark for the number of hits my blog has received.  So, not counting the number of times I have checked out my blog, that means twenty seven other people have looked at my blog too!  How exciting... 

For those who wake each morning in eager anticipation of seeing a fresh and new Maine-ly Painting post, I apologize for slacking recently.  But, hey-- I've been busy!  I just got back from the Philadelpia, Pa. area where I made a quick trip to deliver some paintings to a new gallery that will represent me.  That was cool.  I've also been giving some instruction to a nice guy who wants to learn how to paint-- NOW!  I feel bad for him, because when he asks, "How do I paint that tree?"  I say, "Keep putting paint down 'til it looks like the tree."  Drives him nuts.  He still thinks there's a direction sheet for painting.  Like putting a swing set together;  Screw A goes into nut G after tightening bolt Q.  That kind of thing.  He doesn't quite get that no matter how good you are, painting is still trial and error.  Granted, if you're really good there's less error, but everyone scrapes off a mistake now and then.

Learning any new skill always reminds me of learning to write.  We spend years in school learning how to form letters, then how to spell words.  Finally, we can write our thoughts without ever thinking about the mechanics of forming letters.  All we care about is what we're trying to say.  My poor student (let's call him Steve, even if his name is Jim...)  is chomping at the bit to write War And Peace, but he hasn't learned how to make letters yet.  So I can understand his frustration.  It also dosn't help him when I say things like, "Make the brush think it's the ocean, " or "Move that brush like it's the cloud."  Quite often when he asks something like, "How do I paint that rock?"  I'll say, "The same way you paint a tree."  Actually, I'm trying to get him to think about values, and highlights and shadows.  He just thinks I'm insane.  Wish he was wrong...

I've given lots of training and instruction throughout my life with the various jobs I've held.  The hardest part is that I'm a bit of a control freak.  I hate to see people suffer when I know how it should be done.  But I had to fight the overwhelming urge to do it myself, and just let my poor trainee do it for themselves.  Trust me, it was harder for me than it was for them.  Learning from mistakes is an effective way to learn.  Steve is always asking for me to paint a passage so he can watch how I do it.  He hasn't caught on that I will do the easiest part, then hand him the brush to finish the harder part. 

I try to not think about the old adage about those that can-- do.  Those that can't?

They watch others suffer and call themselves teachers!


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CSI: Photos Of Paintings

Sorry about whining about the weather in my last blog.  Thankfully, here in Maine the weather has turned.  It's gone from clouds, fog and drizzle to foggy, drizzly and cloudy.  It has also played havoc in my trying to get some decent photos of my recent paintings.  I usually take my pictures in bright sunshine, but the aforementioned weather has precluded that.  I tried to take pictures anyway, but you know it's dim out when the camera prompts you to use a flash even when outdoors at noon!  So I took them here in the studio instead.  The painting above is called Spring Flood, and it shows my back field flooded out by the Eastern River that runs along between it and the trees being lit up by the last fews rays of sunlight.

I recently mentioned in a blog post about my troubles with getting decent photos of my paintings.  I think it's a crime when a good painting in person looks so bad in a photograph.  It got me to wondering why some paintings (usually others) photograph well, and some (usually mine) don't.  I likened it to that sad occurrence that happens to nice people who just take a bad photo.  Like Abraham Lincoln.

                                                               Or Phil Spector.

This guy produced some of the greatest hits of the 60's?  Phil, it looks like you lost that lovin' feeling!  But I digress...

I got to thinking about other possibilities as to why photos of paintings don't turn out very well, and I've come up with a  theory.  Keeping in mind that sometimes it really is an accurate photo of a crappy painting, I think it is all about the range of values a painting has.

You see, a camera is always trying to play the middle, specially when there's a great deal of contrast involved.  Look at this photo of Cundy's Harbor during a gorgeous summer sunrise:

But also note how dark-- almost black-- the fore and middle-ground is.  In reality, the sky was much brighter and more colorful, the trees across the way were a lovely green, and the wharf which was full of yellow, green and blue lobster traps was perfectly visible.  But the photo only shows the sky with color.  That's because the camera lowered the values of everything so that the sky wouldn't be overexposed, leaving everything else super dark.  It can't brighten one section and darken another-- it's all or nothing.  If the dominant subject was the shadowed wharf, the camera would have lightened the values to show those colors, but at the expense of the sky.   Another example is of my local church on yet another glorious summer day.  (Definitely not this year!):

Beautiful sky, but look how dark the trees and shadows are.  When I focused on the church without the sky, it showed the truer values of the scene.

So what does this have to do with photographing paintings?  Well, a camera doesn't know or care what it's taking a picture of.  It treats everything in the same manner, including paintings.  So, if your (my) painting has alot of contrast, the camera will do it's thing and mess with the values.  Which means if your painting has a value range that's mostly high-keyed, or mostly low-keyed, without much contrast you're probably in luck.  If your (my) painting runs the gamut between high and low values, with tons of contrast-- you're screwed.  A camera absolutely hates that lovely deep purple shadow next to a bright golden yellow high-light that you're so proud of.  It'll either over-expose the high-light into a white blob to show the purple, or darken it, turning the shadow into a black hole.  Either way you (I) lose.

I asked in my previous post if I should paint for the human eye or the camera eye.  After all, if you the visitor is pleased with my painting, and you think I did a realistic job, then I did OK, didn't I?  But what is the more likely way you will see my painting?  Online, that's how.  And what is that image online?  A painting?  No, it's not-- it's a photograph of a painting.  So I guess I better keep that in mind when I'm painting, since I don't want my pictures to look criminally bad.  After all, I don't need this guy to come after me--


Monday, May 16, 2011

Gotta Love It!

I told myself that I would not use this post to discuss the weather here in Maine.  I mean, nobody wants to read about how this "spring" has been unusually cloudy, rainy and cold.  That since April first we've been rained on forty out of forty-six days.  How shallow is it of me to complain about ceaseless drizzle when there's flooding in the midwest, and massive destruction from tornados in the south?  So I won't mention that today it's raining for the third straight day.  Enough said.  Or that the temperature has yet to crest seventy degrees yet this season.  OK, I'll stop whining.

But according to the Weather Channel's ten day forecast, we're looking at ten straight days of rain with temps around fifty.

I mean it, I'm done now.  I've got it all out of my system.

Wait!  Look out my studio window...  What's that I see?

Drizzle and fog.

What I wanted to mention is that last week a very nice person and wonderful sketch artist from the UK named Katherine Tyrell asked me to contribute to her blog series called Places To Paint with a few words about Maine.  So, gentle reader, if you want to know what I said, please go to her blog Places To Paint and I'll give you a tour of what I actually like about painting here.  Here's a hint:

I don't mention the weather.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Half-Way There And Other Thoughts

I can usually gage when I'm about half-way through a painting-- not by determining how much I may have left to go before I finish, but when I feel I have screwed the thing up beyond repair.  That's the stage I'm at right now with my current project.  It's kinda alright if you stand far enough away.  And close one eye.  Then squint.  While looking through your cupped hand.  While you're upside down and looking at it from between your legs.  With the lights off.  But stand up, turn around, open your eyes and turn on the lights and it's a different story.  I don't think I'm the only one who's felt that way during a painting.  I read once that Norman Rockwell called it the, "My gosh, it's horrible!" stage.  And as I always say, if it's good enough for Norman...

After my recent blog By Definition where I kind of rant about what I think art is not, I was asked by a kind reader what specifics a painting must have to be considered art.

You've seen my paintings.  Do I look like I know?

Actually, I think it boils down to something very simple:  Color and Composition.  Some may throw in Design, but it doesn't roll off the tongue like Color and Composition.  This is what I mean, though;  I think a piece of art has color that is harmonious and pleasing to the viewer and arrayed in a pattern that leads the viewer's eye and engages the brain.  It could be an abstract, or a Bouguereau.  But I still firmly believe that an artist does it on purpose, not accident.  After all, John Sutter found gold in California by accident, and it didn't turn him into a Geo-Physicist.

I just got an email that said I was juried into an event to be held later this summer.  It was followed moments later by another email that said I wasn't juried into this same event.  Ah, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat...

I'm in, though.

I was looking at a web site that showed the winning paintings of an art competition.  I know I shouldn't really say this, but the one hundred or so works in the competition look like they were all painted by three or four guys.

And speaking of trends in painting; since when did painting edges get the same stigma as letting babies play with knifes?  You know-- it's just not done.  Look, I know the impressionist had their philosophy of blending and softening edges to show roundness of form, and there's nothing wrong with that.  But it seems to me like the basic human fault of trying to improve upon perfection has taken over.  If a soft edge is good, then loose is an improvement.  If loose works, then ragged is great.  If ragged is great than sloppy is-- The.  Best.  Thing.  Ever!

I did a colored pencil of the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point, Maine.  I worked on this puppy for a couple of weeks.  Since it is pencil, and easily smudged, I sprayed it with a fixative.  The problem was that a solid drop of the stuff splattered on the paper and left an ugly dot on the white of the lighthouse!  I don't know what to do with it, but it looks like this-

I guess now I'll have to call it a spot light!



Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Foggy Cove

When I was a kid I used to love to make drawings of sailing ships from the nineteenth century.  Big, square-rigged frigates plowing along through wavy seas.  I would show these to my dad who would say, "oh look-- it's a picture of the moon landing!"  To which I would patiently explain that, no, it wasn't that but a big sailing ship.  It's a habit I still have to this day of explaining my pictures in case someone would mistake my sea-scape for an Apollo moon landing.  So this one is of a small cove in Cape Elizabeth, Maine on a late summer afternoon when the fog is starting to roll back in. 

This is a studio piece, I did not paint this on site.  I did take some liberties in depicting the scene, though.  When I was there it was lovely summer day, with no fog in sight, so I put some in.  There is a house up on the shore, a big, looming mansion to be exact, but I simplified it's shape.  In retrospect, I think it would have been more fun to paint it as a tar-paper out house.  You see, the owner of this property has cut off all access to the shore to his neighbors and the general public.  Families used to picnic here, but no more because of him.  So doing stuff like painting the house as a loo is my idea of getting even.  And since I didn't do that, telling the world what a tool that owner is will have to suffice, I guess.

Painting fog can be tricky.  Some may go for a glaze effect over the painting to convey fog.  I went with making the painting look like it was foggy without using any glazes.  Here's a fuzzy close-up of the rocks--

I wanted simplicity and atmosphere, not detail.  One thing about Maine beaches; they are not made of golden sand.  A cove like this has a grey, pebbly sand made from the grey rocks being ground down by the constant wave action.  That's a lot of grey, so I tried to infuse color wherever I could.  As usual with photos of paintings, a ton of color nuance is lost, but trust me, this is more colorful than it shows here.

Being detail minded, I did try for authenticity in my portrayal of sand.  Here's another close up of the kayaks:

And since I can't resist taking things to the extreme, here's a another close up shot of the sand:

...With Neil Armstrong's footprint!


Monday, May 2, 2011

That Lying Eye

The lovely Penelope Cruz

Maybe you know of a loved one, a spouse, a brother or a sister.  Maybe it's a co-worker or a good friend.  We all know someone who is quite good looking, yet looks butt-ass ugly in photos.  Conversely, I've even personally met Hollywood stars who were butt-ass ugly, yet were considered one of the world's beautiful people because of how they looked on film.  What gives?  One word: Photogenics.

Cameras don't lie, right?  Photographs only show us how things really look.  Yeah, right.  Not by a long shot!  Because, dammit, my paintings always look like crap in a photo!  Now, that's not to say that quite possibly it's because it's a crappy painting.  But there is something definitely amiss.  I blame digital technology.  I'm no camera expert, but there was something soothing about 35mm that digital pixels don't quite match.  It's like listening to an analog phonograph;  The sounds blend in a pleasant, warm tone.  Now listen to the CD version-- the notes are there, but it's harsh-- almost too pristine, if you get what I mean.

Everyone has heard of the general rule of thumb that a painting is best observed from ten feet.  That's to allow all the colors and brush strokes to blend together in our eyes and form a convincing image.  Digital cameras don't allow that to happen.  Everything is in the same sharp focus from one foot to ten feet.  One would think that it would allow subtleties of technique to show more clearly, yet I kind of doubt that.  Anyone looking at one of my paintings would tell you that I like detail, and it's true.  But I do try to soften edges, and blend colors, I really do.  But what looks OK by me using my own eyes looks horribly stilted and stiff on camera.  I'm not even going to get into how our paintings look on computer monitors.  (I did blog about that here).   

I, like a lot of my fellow painters, usually take pictures of my work as it goes through it's various stages toward completion, because I want to see how it looks.  But that brings me to my dilemma:  Do I paint for the human eye, or the camera eye?  (I can hear you up there in the peanut gallery-- "Or how about if you just paint better?"  Yeah, you're funny...)  In other words, is it alright if I let my paintings be butt-ass ugly in photos if I know they've got a nice personality in person? 

Still the Lovely Penelope Cruz