Friday, August 29, 2008


In a couple of recent posts, I've found myself using the word "capturing" to describe what I'm trying to do in painting a likeness, whether of a model (like Angela here) or of any other subject.  Of course "capturing" is a word commonly used in these kinds of contexts, as in the case of a photographer "capturing" a candid moment.  What a problematic word, though.  Thus my meditation today is on the imperialism of art.  Feminist commentators have long endeavored to push men especially to confront and explain the "male gaze," the imperialistic ownership-look that seems such a core element of patriarchy.

In this painting - one of my favorite figure studies I've ever painted at Wednesday night class - I'm capturing Angela pretty well.  One of my fellow painters came by and said, "yeah, that really looks like her."  I agreed.  The mouth, hair, and right ear are well captured.  (Here too is another portrait with good use of negative space, I will humbly say, although I think my blue / orange combination is probably getting a little overused on Wednesday nights.)

Capturing.  I confess that part of my art-lust is indeed imperialistic.  I see a model and I do want to "own" a piece of her, a view of her, a part of her in my painting.  I'm not sure that I will ever feel fully at ease with this reality.  

One answer to the imperialism of all painting is to make it a practice to understand fully that the real subject of any painting is myself.  In creating a pose that moves me, the model is showing me an aspect of me.  Jung offers the idea of the anima, the feminine image of the soul that appears to a man in various ways, often as a beautiful maiden.  The mistake for any artist or male-gazer is to believe that the beauty that he sees is really "out there" rather than always already in here.  The actual young woman is just herself, another human being with her own longings, life, crap, issues, stuff to deal with, etc.  So what I am "capturing" in a well done portrait of a lovely young woman like Angela is a piece of myself, gotten at, miraculously, through the gift of getting to see some of her her-ness.  I think there's a mystery at the core of this dynamic that it would be a mistake to try to untangle completely.  

I know that I have to live up to my core responsibilities to models, which primarily are to pay them well for the difficult, professional labor they do and also to strive as best as I can to paint well.  But there's more: perhaps what we artists most owe the models we try to capture is simple respect and gratitude.  That and simple human interaction.  We should be friends and collaborators together, laughing and appreciating one another as full human beings during and between poses.

Thanks, Angela.  And thanks to all the modeling professionals in the world who consent to a little capturing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Seascape: Dinghy

This dinghy is about an inch across in the original.  I had a bear of a time capturing the curve of the little boat's hull.  The original was a beautiful clinker-built dinghy moored just offshore on the north end of Tamales Bay.  My wife was out of town for a weekend, so I took a drive, stopping at several points along the way.  I was specifically interested in painting watercraft, as I am a sailor myself and love everything about boats.

Boats are all about curves and lines, and I feel a mystical wonder when I really perceive the geometry of making things that can float.  I understand that the principles are simple, but I still find them miraculous.

This little boat has the form of a Viking warship, which may account for why I liked it so much.  A Scandinavian by extraction myself (about 75 percent, at least), I love the woodwork and the jagged lines on those old hulls.  One day I intend to visit Norway and see the surviving boats.

The lines of a graceful boat are the lines of a graceful body, the contours of a hill, the shape of a fish.  I guess one of the ways in which I am a classicist is that I do indeed find the forms of nature to be the most beautiful forms, and the human-created shapes that most mimic nature's forms seem to me especially beautiful.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Negative Space

Negative space is the space around the main object you're painting.  I've only really begun painting the negative space in my figure studies during the last couple of months, and I've found that doing so adds immeasurably to the impact of the painting.  As in my painting of Nicteha, posted several weeks ago, the "background" color can do more to sculpt form and set an emotional tone to a painting than the main figure can.

This is a twenty-minute sketch of Angela, a wonderful model that I've only worked with once, a couple of weeks ago.  I know Angela from other contexts, and yes, it was a little funny at first to see her naked and all.  I asked her if she felt comfortable with my being there, and she said, "oh yeah, I'm a complete nudist."  Then indeed, she was a wonderful model: funny, interactive, and very expressive in her poses.  She's a good friend I'm glad to have gotten back in touch with.

Here I painted the negative space in Payne's grey, otherwise known as black.  I like black for a background, I guess I've decided.  The strong contrast with the white of the paper used as a skin tone (Angela is a pale-skinned northern European by extraction) is very dramatic.  This was a reclining pose, of course, painted at the end of the session, and by then I was in a very zen state: totally focused, unaware of the passage of time, consumed by trying to capture the shapes, tones, and shadows.  

Friday, August 22, 2008

Still Life: Grapes

I like this little still life of some Thompson seedless grapes.  I painted it a number of years ago in a handmade book that was given to me by one of my oldest and dearest friends.  The book is twine-bound, and it's leaved with heavy bristol-type paper.  I used to sketch in it regularly (the crab portrait I painted earlier is in it).  Painting on that heavy paper taught me a lot of things about watercoloring, especially that, for me, satiny-smooth paper of the kind normally called "hot-pressed" in aquarelle circles works best.  I like the greater control I have over the details of the painting when I work on a smooth surface as opposed to the "toothy" "cold-pressed" surface many watercolorists favor.

Painting still lifes like these grapes taught me a great deal about sculpting form with color.  The technique here is called glazing, which means simply building up layers of paint to create form and detail, usually working wet-in-dry.  This technique is in contrast to the technique that many watercolorists call the pure method of the medium: wet-in-wet.  In wet-in-wet, you literally mix the colors on the soupy page.  I certainly agree that wet-in-wet gives some exhilarating effects, but I like the more classical glazing techniques, personally.  You get greater realism with them, for one thing.

It's incredible what you learn when you are trying to render an object in paint.  I learned the most about capturing the contours of shadow on a human body from painting apples and grapes; and I learned how to paint clouds by painting human bodies.  The forms and colors of nature are both infinitely complex and mysteriously simple.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Portraits 2

Here's a portrait of Anna Maria, one of my favorite local models.  My rendering is not very good, alas - this doesn't look very much like her.  But I still like the portrait, especially her hand, her hair, the shading, and the background.

Anna Maria is young and classically beautiful in a Southern European way, and one of the things I've noticed is that it's harder for me to get an accurate portrait of a classically beautiful and youthful face than of an older face or one that's more, well, quirky.  It's hard to know how to put this, especially in a way that's not offensive.  I love to paint Anna Maria, and I love to paint pretty much anybody else who offers the gift of modeling.  But I can't deny that I have frequently been happier with my renderings of older models or models who are less pretty.

I guess this fact says something about what we mean when we talk about classical beauty.  Beautiful faces are regular faces: symmetrical, unlined, with "the usual" full, bow-like lips, big eyes, and smooth skin.  Unbeautiful faces have lines, scars, irregular features, and so forth, i.e., stuff that a painter can grab ahold of as he or she endeavors to capture a likeness.  My portrait of Stan a few postings ago is a case in point.  His mustache, the lines on his forehead, his receding hairline - yeah, it was relatively easy to capture his features, and that portrait really looks like him.  But I've painted Anna Maria many times now and have never "captured" her.  

My great privilege is that, more than likely, I will get to try again.  The more I work with and get to know any model, the more beautiful she or he becomes, as my drawing requires that I get to know her or him better and better.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Take That, Rene Magritte!

The icon on my blog profile is this painting of an ice cream cone, which I painted for the cover of a literary magazine some of Sonoma State's students created.  Not everyone got the joke, so at the risk of overexplaining, I'll . . . well, explain.

Rene Magritte, a great French artist of the 20th century (1898 - 1967), painted a famous picture he entitled The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des Images, 1928-29).  You've probably seen it.  It's nothing more than a picture of a brown tobacco pipe against a tan background with the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe") written underneath.  You can see the original on the Wikipedia Magritte site here

My painting's motto, "Ceci est vraiment un cone a glace," translates as "This is truly an ice cream cone."  

I guess the mixture of image and text in this painting makes it the closest thing I've done to a "thought thing," to recall Hannah Arendt's definition of art as quoted by SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker.  Here I'm definitely making a Statement to the world about some values I hold with respect to art.  Obviously, my statement is a championing of realism, a refusal to admit that the image really is only just an image.  Somehow or other, the image is also really an ice cream cone.  In stating this claim, I recognize that I'm pretty much ragging on the entirety of twentieth-century art.

As I noted in a previous posting, I acknowledge that the quest for sublimity, the legacy of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romantic movement, did not save us from the horrors of the twentieth century, from the world wars, the Holocaust, Vietnam - let alone September 11th, 2001.  Indeed, I recognize the complicity of the old sublimity religion in all kinds of ideologies of violence, from racism and misogyny to manifest destiny and so much more.  But somehow I still hold that there is a heroism in realist art, art that strives to record the world as it is and therefore love it and acknowledge the grace (the sublimity) of it.  In realism there is the potentiality of treachery behind the image; but there is also the potentiality of growth in humility before the Creation.  In painting the ice cream cone, I got to know the reality, or a reality, of the ice cream cone, and in doing so I got to know the world better.

So take that, Monsieur Magritte, fellow traveler.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sketch: Stan

This sketch is several months old, but I still like to look at it.  If memory serves, it was a ten-minute pose (or maybe twenty).  I enjoyed painting Stan's mustache and the lines on his forehead.

I looked up the word "sketch" in the OED and discovered that the word entered English in the seventeenth or eighteenth century from Dutch or German, where the word meant something like "to describe briefly, generally, or in outline; to give the essential facts or points of, without going into details; to outline."  The full etymology stretches back to Latin and Greek.  It's interesting to me that this definition places the word originally in the domain of rhetoric or logic, not art - clearly the word related originally to verbal discourse, not color, form, tone.  But it's easy to see how the definition extended into the realm of the artistic.

Of course, even so this definition rather begs a lot of questions: what are "the essential facts or points," and how do we know them?  I suppose in rhetoric and logic, we have a certain ratiocinative recourse to uncovering the essential points, but in drawing, the essential points are not so driven by conscious structuring.   One of the reasons painting is so wonderful for me relates exactly to this point: painting is making use of a language that lies above, below, alongside of, or otherwise separate from verbal language.  How did I know that the "essential points" of stan included the way shadows fell under his pecs, collar bones, and chin?  What are these "essential points," and how does a sketcher find them?  Obviously, the answer to this question lies in developing a vocabulary of the visual, and I am so happy to be able to use and know this other vocabulary alongside the verbal one that involves me so much in other areas of my life.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Day of Sketching

While my wife was away on a business trip last weekend, I did a little sketching out in the middle of the Santa Rosa Plain.  I find oak trees completely intoxicating to look at - both live ones and dead ones.  We have lots of dead oaks in our area, alas, due to Phytopthera remorem, more normally known as sudden oak death disease.  I don't know what killed this oak, but it probably wasn't SOD, which in my experience leaves trees looking like they were blown apart by a lightning strike.  This one had just simply died and dropped its leaves, leaving bare bones.  It was fun to paint, and my rigger (the long narrow brush for details) got a serious workout.  This sketch is about three inches across in the original.

This cow was the best thing I painted that day, I think.  It's one of several cows I painted, most of which turned out not looking much like cows.  

These paintings were part of my regular aquarellist project: to try to paint what's really there and therefore get closer to the World As It Is.  Painting the tree taught me a lot about how oak tree branches crook and bend; and painting the cow taught me a lot about the shape of a holstein's ears and the way the cow's guts hang low on the body, leaving shadowed hollows along the spine.

No, I don't know any more today than I did when I last posted about the answers to the questions raised for me by Kenneth Baker's column.  I get it that there is a rarified (and important) world of Art, the kind to which Dale Chihuly's work apparently does not rise.  But this world in which the Art critic moves must remain remote and separate from the everyday world of art.  

Watercolors, pencils, oils - these are tools for helping all human beings see the world, understand what's in it, and learn again and again, better and better, how to love it.  These are the purposes for which human beings really and fundamentally make themselves into artists.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Beauty in/and/of Art

I'm still thinking about Kenneth Baker's column about the Chihuly exhibit and his quotation of Hannah Arendt's comments.  Yes, I agree that art works are (or could be or should be) "thought things," but surely this idea conflicts with a comment I made earlier: that "making something beautiful with artistic media" is a pretty good offhand definition of art.

Modern art is clearly not that interested in beauty.  I think I understand why.  The post-modern age is in many ways a post-beauty age.  For centuries, artists have striven to attain the sublime through their depictions of the beautiful, and the romantic sensibility that arose in the 18th century seems in many ways to have been a final concerted attempt to climb the ladder of beauty out of the mundane.  But beauty didn't save us.  

This painting is the best figure study I've ever made.  To my eyes, it's a beautiful image of a beautiful young woman.  Demetra was a sassy model who sat down and gave us this petulant pout, which she then held for three hours (with breaks).  While modeling, Demetra actually wore a punk-rockish fishnet top, which I obviously painted through (the fishnet top concealed nothing in any case).  Why did I paint out the top?  I guess I am not only or entirely interested in painting "what's really there."  Here, I had partially to change or invent "what was really there," but I did so, because the human body is to me sublimely beautiful, and the mesh top was the wrong sort of veil, a bit of unbeauty.

Thus, here my quest for beauty, like so many other artists' quests, is clearly self-indulgent, and the self-indulgent potentialities of the quest for beauty trouble me very much in my figure painting.  I will write about this issue significantly in the future, I would guess.  Do I also honor Demetra with this picture?  I have faith that I do.  I think the most important thing I owe the kind and talented people who model is to be good - and I think this painting is good.

"Thought things" - not "beautiful things" or "emotion-rich things."  Beauty and the sublime have proven dangerous.  And yet in the apprehension of beauty and the sublime we find some of the (perhaps private) meaning of our lives.