Monday, September 19, 2011

The Thrill Of Experience

I was visiting a local art gallery recently, something I love to do, when I stumbled upon a painting that stopped me in my tracks; The artist had depicted a lobsterman in an un-natural act.  He (the lobsterman) was depicted leaning over the rail of his boat, reaching down to grab the spindle of his lobster buoy.  Now, far be it from me to disparage someones painting--and it wasn't bad, it had pretty colors and everything-- but the painter had no clue about lobstering and it showed.  For starters, a lobsterman never leans out below the side of his boat.  One ill-timed wave, and he is treading water in heavy rubber boots and stiff polypropylene bib.  Instead, he uses a long stick with a hook on the end, called a gaff to hook the line under the buoy.  The artist also depicted the lobsterman in some form of craft that bore no resemblance to an actual lobster boat.  Now before you think of me as some stuck-up know it all, (I'm not stuck-up!) I do know of what I speak:  I used to work on a lobster boat.

Ah, the things we do for art...  several years ago when I lived on the coast of Maine in Cundy's Harbor, I signed up to work on the Mary Ellen II, a beautiful lobster boat run by a great guy named Charlie Saunders.  I wanted to do the work to get as much insight and experience as I could for future use in my paintings.  A lot of folks paint lobstering scenes from a distance.  You know, pretty white boats bobbing about on a beautiful blue ocean on a gorgeous summer day.  I wanted to depict it from the lobsterman's point of view.  (An idea I still think has some merit).  So, to be accurate in my portrayal of the lobstering industry, and get some good painting ideas, for the lobstering season of 2007, I went to sea.

The first thing one needs to know about lobstering is: it's damn hard work!  Everyday was an eight hour workout on a pitching, rolling gym.  Lobster traps only weigh about thirty pounds, but we hauled two hundred and forty or so a day, so after awhile, they felt a lot heavier than that.  I was loading the traps on board one day early in the season when I wrenched my back so bad I could barely walk.  Here's what you do when that happens-- you keep working.

The operation goes like this; the Captain pulls the boat alongside a buoy that marks his "string" of traps-- anywhere from two traps to ten on a continuous line.  (We had five on a string), he pulls them aboard and starts taking out the "keepers"-- lobsters of legal size.  My job was to pull out and measure the lobsters too, then re-bait the trap, put the trap on a plank called the "trap rack" that ran down the center of the boat, put rubber bands on the claws of the lobsters to keep them from eating each other, re-fill the mesh bags that held the smelly bait, and avoid getting caught up in miles of line snaking under my boots.  The Captain then dropped the string back to go catch more lobster, and headed off to find another string.  Over and over and over again...  More than once I had a large, pissed off lobster clamp down on my hand with his crusher claw as I tried to band him.  Here's what you do when that happens-- you keep working.

The wire-mesh traps are easy to grab and toss about, but I tore a tendon in one of my fingers from the constant pull and strain against my knuckles.  I've had regular cortisone shots to loosen it up, but to this day I still can't close my right hand enough to make a fist.  Here's what I did when that happened-- I kept working.

The bait we used was herring.  It was preserved by salt, an age-old way of preserving dead fish.  We would pick up a few hundred pounds of "fresh" bait in the morning, but by mid-day it was far from lively.  The stench was bad, but the liquid of decomposing fish flesh that would pool in the trays the bait was in was worse.  It would splatter on my face, squirt into my eyes, and flick up into my mouth.  Tiny fish bones dripping with this goo would pierce my gloves and inject itself into my fingers and hands.  The result is getting something called bait poisoning, and I had it several times that year.  Here's what you do when your fingers are painfully red, swollen and infected-- you keep working.

The season dragged slowly along, summer shifted into fall, and along with the change of seasons came autumn storms.  I have never been one to get sea-sick, but I was laid pretty damn low when ten foot swells tossed our boat about in the month of November.  What do you do when you're fifteen miles out to sea with a pounding headache, tumbling stomach, rubbery legs and generally feeling sick as a dog?  Need I say?  You keep working.

I do have some fond memories.  I've seen whales, porpoises and schools of tuna dancing in the waves.  I've seen lobsters larger than you could imagine.  I've witnessed all kinds of spectacular weather effects.  And I did take thousands of photos while I was out there.  The ocean is a beautiful, lively being, and I studied it every day from a seat in a classroom that only Mother Nature could provide.  I have tried to show my respect for all of those in the lobstering industry by being as accurate as I can be in my paintings.

Maybe some time in the future I can do paintings of the fabulously wealthy.  Should be fun to research-- after all, I do like to get first hand knowledge before I paint.  And besides, while I'm not positive, I doubt they'll give me bait poisoning.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Whatever It Takes

Like you, I get asked questions every day; "Paper or plastic?"... "Do you want fries with that?"... "May I see your license and registration please?"  Sometimes I get asked, "How did you paint that?"  To which I answer, "Well Mom, it's complicated..."

I don't know about you, but I always enjoy reading about how other painters go about their business in making pictures.  So, on the possibility that you might be interested in how this painting, North Side came about (a slim possibility, I admit), here's what I prefer to do to come up with a painting.

First, I got inspired.  Now, I've seen this view every day for a couple of years, because I live here.  This vantage point is from behind my studio, looking up the slope past my garage to the side porch of my house.  It may not be a particularly thrilling view, but I was more intrigued by the inter-play of color temperatures than from the architectural elements.  But that's what usually grabs me- not the thing, but how it's lit up.

Next, I stood out there and drew the scene.

In this case I used a masonite panel, which is my preferred painting support because I can be more detailed with it than I can be with canvas.  I have used up countless precious internet space complaining about photographs, and this is why I didn't want to use one; not that the colors would be messed up (because they will be), but because the perspective would be skewed.  So I took extra care in making sure I put everything in its proper perspective and spacial arrangement.  Then, I used a photo to finish the underdrawing.  Why?  Because then I could finish the drawing in the studio using the photo for details, while disregarding its false perspective.  And yeah, I counted each and every clapboard on my garage...

Then came some layers of underpainting. 

I usually build up my pictures with glazes.  I like the richness and depth that they impart on a piece, as opposed to direct painting.  For instance, I glazed warm tones over the shadow areas of the garage, which has a cool light, and cool colors over the grass which are the result of warm sunlight.  This was done with Liquin Fine Detail medium, which dries quickly.  I wanted to glaze and block in as much as I could so that all I had to worry about when I went back outside was color.  This shows the picture about half-way through that process.   

So, when I was happy with all that, back outside I went.

I spent two days outside working on the final color application, I don't know- maybe ten hours total.  I thought the time around 10:30 and noon gave me the best color and light, so I worked on the areas that were directly involved in sun during those times, and the other sections before and after then.  I think it's an important point that I didn't chase the light.  My design was already thought out, the shadows were going to be as I already placed them; I used direct observation for color, not detail.  And doing all that prep work meant I didn't have to worry about drawing because I'd already done that.  (I'm not saying that the painting process was just coloring between the lines, but that I didn't think about where to put the window, or what size to make the porch, because that was already determined).  Okay, not the most spontaneous way of approaching a picture, I'll grant you, but it's worked for me.

So there you have it, a smorgasbord of studio, plein air, Rube Goldberg method of painting.  I think of it as the "whatever it takes" technique.  If you have a more convoluted method, don't make me ask, I'd love to know!


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Swingin' For The Fences

Ted Williams, arguably Baseball's greatest hitter-- even if he did say so himself-- said that the key to being a good hitter was, "get a good pitch to hit".   Sage advice, but easier said than done.  Many has been a big-league hitter who looked like an idiot swinging at pitches in the dirt.  They thought they had a good pitch to hit, only to be badly fooled.  Then there's Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, who once said that the difference between a warning track fly ball and a home run was the difference of just one quarter-inch of where the ball hit the bat.

What's my point?  Well, isn't painting like that?  You know, getting a good subject to paint is like getting a good pitch to hit.  Maybe it's a babbling brook flowing through a lovely meadow, or a vase of peonies, or perhaps a lovely model reclining on a Victorian couch that screams "Paint Me!" the way a hanging slider screams "Hit Me!" to a baseball player.  But then comes the rub: is it going to be a pop-up, or a home-run?

Take that stream, for instance.  Would it be a better composition from this side, or that side?  And that flowering apple tree in the meadow; how do I incorporate that?  What about those lovely flowers in that stoneware vase--  might it be more interesting with a cut-glass crystal vase?  Oh, and let's not forget that lovely model;  should I show one breast or two?  It's those little details that make or break a painting.  The great painters seem to make the right decisions and hit it out of the park, while the rest of us hit grounders up the middle.  Sure, it might be a hit, but it's not a Home-Run.

I don't want to forget about those insidious subjects that look like they would make a great painting, a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre someday, only to really be a fifty-nine foot curve-ball that you swing at and miss for strike three.  How do you keep from chasing bad pitches?  Practice, practice, practice, so the next time you see a "Hit Me!" painting, you can take it deep.  After all, to para-phrase the one-and-only Yogi Berra, painting is ninety-percent physical--

the other half is mental.