Thursday, December 31, 2009


I just want to post this very nice profile of Anna Maria--a twenty-minute life-drawing pose.

Things I like about it: the subtle brown highlights in the hair; the shadows sculpted of warm lavenders and cool purples; the matching cold-purple negative space; the pretty good profile-portrait.

The profile is actually one of the easiest angles to capture accurately. The hardest angle is dead-on straight. In the latter case, there are too many variables you can screw up: getting the eye-line straight, the distance between the eyes accurate, the position of the mouth underneath the nose, which in turn is underneath and between the eyes. You have to measure with great accuracy, and I have not really learned that skill yet. So profiles are relatively easy; quarter views are next easiest; and straight on is a bugger.

(It's also the case that straight on faces lose some of their distinctiveness; features wash out and "normalize" a bit. The quarter view is still really the best portrait view if you're going for distinctiveness and accuracy.)

That's really all I want to say about this nice picture.

Portrait in the Making (Portraits from Photographs 2)

Thought I'd post some "in-progress" scans to record what happens as I complete a painting. This is a portrait of a friend who kindly let me take her portrait with my iPhone after yoga a few Saturdays ago.

Here is stage 2, and you can see the gist of stage 1 in this scan also. I've created the drawing using my usual grid system, after getting a decent color printout of the photo. The pencil lines are clearly there to see, and you can see some of the grid lines as well here and there.

I note here that the first task in painting for me was to rough in the major lines: eyefolds, the curve of the lips, the dark fish-shape of her nostril, the arch of her eyebrows. Here I've also roughed in the major shadows, on the side of her nose and cheek and also the very dark trapezoidal shapes of her side-ways-turned irises and pupils. I've also already masked out some stray hairs that are gleaming in the light streaming in from the window by which she's posing.

Stage 3. Here I've roughed in the darker hair shapes and also already established the dark background behind her head. The eyes are clarifying, the blue sweater is emerging, and I'm slowly building more shape and color in the face.

At this point I was starting to get a little worried. Compared with the dark background, made with a very cold mix of ultramarine and burnt ochre (or maybe it was payne's grey), my friend's face was looking really pale and washed out: much less vibrant and pretty than she is in real life. I was seriously afraid I'd already blown it.

But it's all about learning, right? I did enjoy seeing the model's head "pop" in front of the darkness.

Stage 4: close to done. Obviously I've done a lot of work here on her face mostly. The shape of the face is much clearer, with the cheekbone and downward curve of her "smile lines" highlighted.

Her mouth gave me the biggest trouble here. She has a beautiful, sensual mouth with a very distinct lip-line that has more to do than anything else with what makes her face as beautiful as it is--with what makes her her. So the mouth and lips were always going to be the focus of the painting for me. Well, I struggled a bit, and I don't feel like I have the definitive portrait.

My friend's other special feature are her greenish-hazel eyes. I worked on those pretty hard too.

I'm still feeling like she's too pale.

Done. Or at least as good as it's going to be.

In the last stages I painted in the curtains, which were a lot of fun (I'm growing to love painting fabrics). I also continued to work on the mouth and continued to try to soften her paleness that I had set in motion through the use of too-cold colors. I've lifted the masking fluid and continued to deepen the colors in her tresses. Finally, I pulled out shadows here and there to render some details more distinctly (e.g., her fingers).

For me this painting is a modest success. It's not a bad portrait of my friend--by which I mean that it mostly looks like her. And I am pretty happy with most of the detail and color work.

And yet painting always leaves me in a state of frustration and longing. Yes, the painting is beautiful to me in and of itself. But it does not capture--indeed, it only hints at--the real or ultimate beauty that I long for and catch fleeting glimpses of, the beauty that my friend embodies much more profoundly and deeply than I can "capture." Such is my lot as a mortal.

Thank you, dear friend.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Here's a new still life I'm pretty fond of.

Drawing is a scientific discipline. Really, it always has been. Scientists down the centuries have learned about the structures of living things, of geologic forms, of atmospheric conditions, of the whole universe by drawing. Of course, the drawing we're talking about here is realistic drawing: that particular mode of drawing where you are looking, so intensely, at some piece of creation, that you can't not see it for exactly what is there.

It is the most peculiar thing: that experience of really seeing, of having the world resolve in front of you while you're engaged in the drawing. At first, you see the green leaf, its forms and the way shadow sculpts it; you see the lemon, and you know it's yellow. You put in some lines on your paper, and then you look back at the object, and you see that your lines are wrong. You erase and fix. Then you begin to color, and you realize the yellow lemon actually is pretty orange in some spots; and you realize that the green leaf is so pale in parts as to be almost white and so dark in others as to be almost black. Slowly, you come to see the leaf and the lemon to be as complex as a symphony--shapes, lines, colors all working together to mold a piece of reality into something we so summarily refer to as "leaf" and "lemon."

Our words for the things of the world are so paltry and weak.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Polka-Dot Bikini

This painting was another commission: a friend of mine did some self-portraiture on a shell-strewn beach and asked me to capture the scene in watercolor. I happily obliged :-).

There were some good learning moments here: managing the little polka dots (with masking fluid) was a bit of a bear, and the seashells took a lot of patience with the no. 2 rigger.

What a great, great pose, eh? I just love the scissoring of her legs and the arch in her back.

I spent quite a bit of time on beaches recently myself. My wife had a meeting in Honolulu, and while she was staring at conference room walls, I was outside on Waikiki Beach. It was hell. I would stake out a spot on the beach; then I would go for a lovely hour-long snorkel (Waikiki has not-half-bad snorkeling: I saw lots of gorgeous reef fish, several different varieties of moray, barracuda, a sea turtle, and one poor lonely sea horse). Then I would lie on the beach and try not to make a nuisance of myself watching the people as intently as I watched the fish. By "people" of course I mostly mean babes. I'm a little sorry for and sheepish about my male-gazing, but I just really like to watch people on beaches, all people.

On beaches there is a rare opportunity to see people in a setting that's simultaneously intimate and public. Let's face it: we're all wearing less than most of us wear when we go to bed. We "stake out our space" with towels, umbrellas, folding chairs, etc. We "bathe," in front of God & everybody. We lie back, we rub lotion on each other's backs, we sleep, we read, and we look at other people doing all the same things. We even dress and undress, in sometimes daredevilishly choreographed ballets involving magical sleight of hand with various garments or towels. One late afternoon, I watched a lovely girl put on a skimpy halter top over her bikini top, then untie the bikini top and slip it off from underneath the skimpy halter. Now where, I ask you, is there a better show than that?

Well, what can I say? Artists gaze.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rebecca's Cat

Rebecca is my yoga teacher. She has a cat named Kitty Lip (named for the fact that the left side of her mouth got a little messed up following a cat fight). Kitty Lip comes into the room and climbs onto our chests while we're doing shivasana.

I'm pretty darn happy with this, so I'll just rest in my pleasure and gratitude for a bit. Sorry if this sounds boastful. But here are some of the things that I've learned about painting that went into this piece:

  • I've learned a lot about drawing and especially about transferring a photo image to watercolor paper with the use of a grid.
  • I've learned a lot about rendering shadow with the use of pure, cool color rather than with just black or grey or whatever. Kitty Lip is a cream-colored kitty. Who'd have thought that aquamarine was the right color for her shadowed fur?
  • I've learned a lot about brushwork. This painting involved every brush from a no. 2 rigger up to a no. 12 wash brush.
  • I've learned a lot about color-mixing. Kitty Lip has traces of a goldish brown--on her ears, face, and paws. I got the right color with a mix of raw and burnt ochre.
  • I've learned a lot about the use of masking fluid. The whiskers and stray hairs here and there were a bear to mask out, as thin as they are. The answer is fresh masking fluid and a thin brush you don't mind wasting.
I guess that'll do to go on with. Yay for me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Monday, July 6, 2009


Sometimes painting feels like sex: the buildup, the quickening of the pulse, the complete investiture, the climax.  These are the peak moments in the creation of art.  The other day I heard a talk by a fellow artist who said in essence that she is addicted to these highs, and I can completely understand that sentiment.  

I think that that addiction is a huge part of why artists do what they do.  I suppose a scientist would look into the brain and chart the flow of endorphins, the triggering of the pleasure centers, the wash of chemical stimuli.  I suppose it is perfectly possible that I am "just" a collection of molecules and systems geared to respond to the universe in special ways.  And I guess that would be fine.

My friend's belief is that we artists are just channelers for the creative potential of the universe, that it really isn't "about us."  We were talking about art and the ego.  Both of us have had the experience of really putting aside the ego in our art - we find in fact that making makes us less ego-driven, less concerned at self-aggrandizement and winning than we "normally" are.  I have this experience when I look at paintings I made a long time ago that I like.  I say, "wow, that's really good.  Who made that?"

Who made that?  In painting this side-portrait of Demetra, I had one of these ego-killing "artgasms" (which, by the way, I can just as easily have when I'm painting landscapes or chocolate chip cookies).  To be frank, it felt like great sex: that feeling you have when the river of life rushes fully through you, carrying you away in passion and delight.  In art as in sex, that river can be dammed, diverted, constrained, blocked, or otherwise dried up.  On this day, however, after quite a long effort of trying to understand Demetra and trying to get in tune with the paints, the floodgates opened.


Summer Blues

I have about ten pictures I want to paint, mostly from photo-graphs: some beautiful nude studies, a half of a lemon, some portraits.  But as often happens to me during the summer, I find myself listless and unenergized - not able to get a lot of work done.  This is the life of an academic in the summer.

You'd think that summer would be purely play time (apart from all the time we spend prepping for next term or doing research, of course).  I am very grateful for the down time - don't get me wrong.  But the truth is that I get depressed during the summer.  I don't know why.

It's quite some time since I got seriously down on myself for this listlessness, though.  I have come to accept it as what David Whyte calls the "fading moon" part of myself.  During the regular term I have to be so on - always up, engaged, verbal, social, and focused.  It only makes sense to me that when the summer comes I would shut down.  It's OK.

However, it is also the case that painting lifts me up - like this session with Stefanie.  I like this painting OK, even though it's not that accurate.

Painting reminds me what a precious gift just plain old living is.  What does it is appreciating someone else's beautiful and precious body through the medium of my artistic contemplation.  Stefanie's body is precious; my body is precious.  That's enough.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Portraits from Photographs 1

I have been working hard recently on portraits from photographs.  Here's one of my oldest and dearest friends, Sandee, from a photograph I took of her in her hotel room at a conference we recently attended.  This was sort of a commission: she loves pictures of women reading (has calendars of different such paintings, etc.) and wanted a picture for her study.  I think it came out quite well.

Here's an occupational hazard of being a painter: you see so many people you want to paint, and there is no graceful way to ask, "would you model for me?"  There are so many unstated truths behind that question: "Would you model for me? (because I really want to see you naked.)"  "Would you model for me? (because I've been looking at you very intimately for a long time.)"   "Would you model for me? (because you're beautiful.)"  See what I mean?  I would be the first to say that there is something deeply intimate and deeply transgressive about painting people.

It so happens that my friend Sandee and I were indeed intimate once upon a time, and we have remained friends, and my feelings for her are warm and loving.  It was a fraught time in both of our lives, and we emerged bearing quite a lot of pain that we have (mostly) been able to move past, forging a special comradeship, is how I guess I would put it.  She may well think otherwise.

Painting Sandee - or, to put it another way, her letting me paint her, was a huge gift to me.  I am (in general) a person who keeps a little room in my heart with a fire burning in it for everyone I have ever been with intimately.  Painting Sandee allowed me to go back into that room and decorate the wall a little bit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

3 Sketches

It's good to work rapidly sometimes.  My wife really liked these three quick studies of Demetra, and I do too.  As I have discussed continually, I am a fussy, fussy painter, one who tends to get so focused on capturing details accurately that he sacrifices life for accuracy - and that is the choice I gladly make.  But these are nice, lively studies, and I enjoyed painting them.

Demetra wore a brilliant purple wig for the first half of the session.

One thing that contributes to the liveliness of these sketches, I think, is the fact that it was a warm, humid evening when Demetra posed for us.  My paint wouldn't dry quickly.  And so in these rapid poses, I was forced to do more wet-in-wet than I often do.  In places you can see that it was a bit too wet-in-wet - you get backruns and blooms and so on.  But I have learned largely how to deal with those issues.

Here's a good example.  The colors on Demetra's torso here, I think, are a wet-in-wet mix of aquamarine, crimson, burnt umber, and maybe some ochre.  When the ultramarine went on, the crimson and umber underneath were far from dry - so I got a bloom.  But it sorta works here, don't you think?

And here's my favorite of the three.  Same colors, with a little more raw ochre.  I love the interplay of the crimson, ochre, and blue on the back and the way Demetra's (quite lovely) round rump is set off by the blue shadow.  It was a great pose.


The moral of this story, once again, is to not give in to fear.  Part of my fussiness is a good thing: that honest and earnest attempt to capture the world As It Is, thereby learning about the world as it is.  But some of my fussiness arises from my fear of being bad, of revealing my lack of skill.  But what do I learn when I am bad, when I do a poor job, when I screw up?  And how little do I learn when I get the painting exactly right?  Lord, help me to learn the wisdom of the mess and the failure.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cayman 3

Here's my least favorite of the three Cayman beach paintings.  This one was painted at a resort called Rum Point, just up the way from the Sand Cay painting.  I do like the clouds in this one.  It's the boats that mess it up.  Boats for some reason are very difficult to paint.  I love boats; in fact, I have taken sailing lessons.  Somehow I can never capture them.  Here they just look like shapeless blobs.

There is wonderful snorkeling out beyond the pier at this place.  My sister-in-law and I saw many beautiful angel fish, butterfly fish, wrasses, etc. and followed an octopus for quite a while, watching as it changed colors.

This was the middle painting of the three that I did on beaches on that trip.  I'm not exactly sure why they came out so well - my very best plein air paintings ever.  Some explanation lies in the coloring.  The sky in Cayman is the purest cerulean, and the inshore water is a lovely veridian.  The clouds pile up and over one another, and with care you can capture them OK.  And it's fun making divot marks on hot white sand.

Thank you, Grand Cayman.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More on Beauty

One of my favorite songs is by Bjork; it's called "Venus as a Boy."  The song is a kind of warmly appreciative ode to a boy who strongly embodies the Lover archetype.  I'm that sort of guy.  Here are the lyrics in full.

His wicked
of humour
exciting sex!

His fingers
they focus on her
he's venus as a boy

He believes in beauty
He's venus as a boy

He's exploring
the taste of her
so accurate

He sets off
the beauty in her
he's venus
venus as a boy

He believes in beauty
He's venus as a boy

These words are overtly sexual, even dirty, obviously, and I think that's right.  Lovers love beauty in all its forms and everywhere it occurs.  They love good food and drink, they love natural landscapes, they love human grace in dance, music, and art, and they love and see beauty in all those earthy and earthly glories to which we are heir: everything about our wonderful bodies and how they commingle.  Lovers love play and love to live in the moment through play.  Ultimately, they love life, and ultimately, I think that is what beauty is: not an external thing but an inside experience: the sudden, miraculous, transformative realization and reminder that life is wonderful and worth living; the delight and wonder in being embodied.

I really like this 20-minute sketch of a lovely new model, Alexandria.  And I loved painting this beautiful and, yes, somewhat erotic pose.  I was struggling that day, as I have been struggling, and then Alexandria took this X-shaped pose, and I remembered why I was there: to see the model's beauty and honor it through my work, to "set off the beauty in her."  I thought, I can do that.  Nothing like the original, but I'll try.

It's a pretty accurate painting, and I like the shadow work and the blue negative space.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

More of Grand Cayman

These are some of my very best cloud studies, I think - all 3 of these plein-air paintings from Cayman.  It was wonderful to paint them.  This one was painted on one of the last days of our trip, on the beach at a part of the island called Sand Cay, which is across the sound from Georgetown (the country's capital).  I sat under a palm tree on the sand.  There is a shallow lagoon where the water is this magnificent green color, abruptly shading over into the cobalt blue of the deeper water.  As you can see here, across the lagoon was a spit of sand, and then in the middle distance there was a peninsula with houses, etc.  You can see some of the buildings of Georgetown in the far distance.

Lately in my painting I have been learning the lesson that this painting tried to teach me: in aquarelle, less is more.  Here "less" means less glazing, i.e., purer paint on the paper.  The water in the foreground is mostly one clear wash, mussed up with a little scumbling to put in some reflected cloud shapes.  All the rest of this painting is relatively "easy" too.  The only tricky thing here was getting the shadows in the clouds right, and strictly speaking I did not "get them right."  What I did was manage to put some paint on the page that gives some of the illusion of towering cumulus shapes.

But the less is more thing is important.  What people love about watercolor - and I am no exception - is what is often referred to as its luminosity.  The paint glows from within.  Lately I have been working on portraits from photographs, beautiful photographs in which the subjects' faces are technically in shadow but still full of light.  I tried to capture the quality of this skin tone with my usual glazing methods but abandoned them for a much purer wash approach.  It worked, just like it's working here in my rendering of the lagoon.

I do like this painting a lot.  It seems very serene to me, which is how I was feeling when I painted it.  The beach at Sand Cay is a serenity-making place.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Different Kinds of Beauty

Yesterday my wife and I went to the celebration of the Buddha's birthday (and deathday and the day of his enlightenment) at the local Buddhist center where she studies; we had a lot of fun. There was a procession to the cedi (pronounced sort of like "jetty"), a tall memorial monument to the Buddha and to Buddhist "saints." We chanted the metta chant (offering peace, happiness, and safety to all, friends and enemies alike) and heard haunting Burmese music and chants. Before that, there was a musical performance, first starring a beautiful Burmese woman singer and her husband performing on traditional instruments and then starring a bluegrass band (interesting mix there) made up of three fourteen-year old boys. They were wonderful players - banjo, fiddle, mandolin. It was almost enough, though, just to watch the boys themselves. They were incomparably beautiful in that way that all young people are: copious, floppy heads of hair, dewy skin, gawky shy gestures. My wife and I were talking this morning about them, each admiring the boys in our own ways, and we got to talking about the different kinds of beauty that exist. We agreed that there's absolutely something heartbreakingly beautiful about human beings in "the first blush" or whatever, but we also agreed that our culture really misses the mark on not celebrating all the kinds of beauty that exist.

Here's a painting of Stan, a model I've worked with twice before. He's a great model, and I really enjoyed painting him. He looks to be in his late fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair, craggy face, and bushy white mustache. He's a musician of the aging folkie variety.

I'm at a place in my life (46 now) when I am looking up: toward older guys who can show me what it might mean to be really old or later middle-aged and still be - well, beautiful. Stan has a dignity and strength and grace that define the healthy mature man to me. I suppose it doesn't hurt that he's still pretty buff and sculpted. (Here's hoping my yoga practice will keep me in trim.)

There are many different kinds of beauty, and I find that one of the highest forms is the form that comes along with the power of calm and assured experience. As I get older, I get happier and less anxious about how I look than I felt when I was young - not the reverse. This is beauty to me, and it is a very, very potent form.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Plein Air: Oh So Lovely

This painting was made on the sand at Seven-Mile Beach on Grand Cayman. I think it's the best landscape I've ever done. It's the only framed watercolor I have on my wall - well, this one plus two others in the same frame, also painted on beaches on Grand Cayman. These are some of the best clouds I've ever done, and the umbrella's nifty.

(I lie - I do have a few other framed watercolors, now that I think about it: one a portrait of my wife and one a scene of Tomales Bay. I also have a portrait of my cat (RIP) on my desk at work.)

What an incredibly beautiful day it was when I painted this. I had been in snorkeling, gawking at lobsters and angelfish and squid and sergeant majors, and had had a lovely lunch on the sand. My wife was snoozing away, as is her wont, and I just grabbed the travel painting kit and went to town. The paint dried fast! It was a hot, hot, hot day on the beach.

Seven-Mile Beach curves way around, as you see here: a big crescent. The translucent green-then-blue water licks the sand lightly all the way. There are nice coral heads a couple of hundred yards off the beach.

I'm not sure why I've framed so few of my paintings. Well, I partly know why. I paint a lot of pictures of naked people, and, like lots of artists who paint figures, I'm at a loss as to what to do with them. I have some figures that I think represent some of my best work. I admit that it feels funny to put them on the wall. I suppose there are lots of "tasteful" ones I could put up, and maybe I will someday. Here's one of my main reasons for writing this blog: the opportunity to do something with all those figures.

Anyway, life is good when you're painting a nice beach scene at Grand Cayman.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

One of Those Nights

Here's another picture of Stefanie, painted last Wednesday evening. Sigh. I never felt like I found my groove that night. This is the best painting to come from the evening, and it's OK.

I don't know why my relationship to my own art waxes and wanes so much. For much of this spring, I have felt very happy and proud of my work - very powerful as an artist, I would say. Looking back at the paintings I made during that time, I cannot say in fact that those paintings were any better or worse than what I did the other day. So why the glum feelings?

I wish I knew the answer to this question. I guess it's a variation on the question that all artists have about their own work: how do I know whether it's good or bad, and how does the transitory state of my feelings about it matter in the larger scheme of things? I come back to my central principle: painting for me is about practice, not product. My job is to show up, brushes in hand, whatever the state of my feelings.

My art matters to me: that is the salient fact. If it didn't matter, I wouldn't have these waves to ride. I'll take the waves.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Light Problem: Another Cloud Study

I like this little painting (which in fact is just a slice of a larger painting), but it has to be said that compared with the original photograph of which it is an impression, it's like Mark Twain's analogy for the almost-right word compared with the right word: lightning bugs compared with lightning.

As I've said before, clouds are lit from within; they are luminous; they glow, they flame.  Watercolor is known for its luminosity.  But compared with nature, it just lies there.  Sing it does not.

I've talked about the problem of the rhetoric of painting in previous entries.  What I'm doing here is trying to do some of this "effecting," through the use of complementary colors (the orange over against the blue, the purple against yellow), and also with contrasts of tone.  I'm doing a poor job here with the latter - it's just so hard to get the paint dark enough!  

What it comes down to is this: if you use those techniques well, you might be able to create a painting that suggests the effects of light you're trying to capture.  But it's always going to be something of a trick for you to do that.  Now how do you feel about that?

For myself, I just think that clouds are endlessly interesting and also permanently frustrating to try to capture.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Longer Pose

Here's a picture of Stefanie painted over the course of a 3-hour session.  During that period I painted this painting, did a drawing or two in preparation, and made another small study, all from the same angle - the same pose, really.  This final version took about 2 hours, and it's a big painting for me: 18" by 12" or so.

Painting a long pose is an interesting thing to do.  I did several such poses last summer and hope to do more this summer (see here).  I tend to like the pattern in the Wednesday night class I attend, which asks the model to assume a variety of poses, beginning short (3 minutes) and going longer (up to 20 minutes).  As I've said before, the poetry of watching a model move in and out of poses is itself wonderful - like watching different faces of God present themselves to the light.  Add to that the fact that a 3-hour pose is hard for the model (even with breaks every 20 minutes).  Late in the session, Stefanie had to stretch and twist regularly even while sitting.  But I really enjoyed painting this picture.  It's not too bad a portrait, although I have not really "captured" Stefanie here.  Something in the shape of the face or the mouth is not quite right.  

If painting a variety of poses is like watching different faces of God (I guess I should say Goddess here) present themselves to the light, then a long pose allows for the careful study of one of those faces.  In painting this portrait, I spent a lot of time on Stefanie's hair, which, for the first time that I've seen (and as is clear from this blog, I have painted Stefanie on several occasions), she wore down.  Hair is hard to capture, and blond hair especially so.  What color is "blond"?  It can vary between almost pure white (the towhead variety) to russet or umberish.  It's not yellow - no one without help from a bottle has truly yellow hair.  Stefanie's hair is a pure whitish gold, and my palette does not contain a pure goldish color.  So what is "gold"?  Well, I'm here to say that it's a variety of brown.  So here my base for Stefanie's hair was actually a mix of burnt umber and ochre.  Now add in the challenges of painting the physical properties of hair.  A head of hair is a highly complex shape, or set of shapes, and light does very tricky things when it gets tangled up in a head of hair.  Comparatively, the shadow of the hair against a lovely cheek is a piece of cake.

So a 3-hour pose allows me to really understand how hair lives in the world.  It was gripping, and the 3 hours disappeared.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Here was a fun and surprisingly quick painting. I'm pretty fond of it. I was going for realism here, and indeed the cookies and plate look pretty real. This was from a photo.

I make excellent chocolate chip cookies. My recipe is the basic Toll House recipe; then it really helps to add a lot of crushed pecans. And then don't bake them too long - really underbake them. Yum.

I have life-drawing to thank for most of my skills at capturing shape, color, and shade with watercolor. Have I said that before? I always wondered what artists saw in life drawing (apart from the obvious pleasure of gazing at naked human bodies) and now I know: nothing teaches you better about those basic elements of visual literacy: color, shape, and form.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Here's a 20-minute sketch of Krissy from last Wed-nesday's class.  The drawing here is pretty accurate - even Krissy, when she came by, said, "Oh, that's me!"  That felt really nice to hear, as you can imagine.

When Krissy took this reclining pose, one of my fellow artists, Deborah, let out a gasp of delight and said, "Oh, that's so beautiful!"  It really was a beautiful pose.  As I've said in the past, Krissy favors my favorite kinds of poses: not overtly dramatic, not acting a part - just posing in the poses of everyday grace and beauty.  This pose, as you can see, was a commonplace side-reclining pose with the body nicely turned.

Aesthetic joy: that's what I'm thinking about today.  It's one of life's greatest mysteries.  I understand that Kant, in his development of phenomenological theory, couldn't not address himself to the question of beauty and the sublime, arguing finally that there has to be something "out there" that creates in us this special, uninterested joy.  (Kant's criteria for the true apprehension of the sublime included the requirement that the subject be in a disinterested or uninterested attitude toward it, e.g., sexual desire is not in this category.)  We've had a lot of rain here lately, and the landscape is gorgeous - all green hills and sheets of water reflecting back puffy white clouds and yellowish sunsets.  A few days ago I was driving along and passed a bunch of people all pulled over, taking pictures of just such a gorgeous scene.  "Living in beauty" - that's part of what we all seem to want to do in life.  

I don't know why artists in general come to life-drawing classes.  For me (and apparently for Deborah) the reason lives in this quest for aesthetic joy, at least in large part.  I had had a hard day at work, and painting Krissy reminded me why I am here and why I am who I am.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Another Cloud Study

Here's the latest in my Kaua'i cloud studies. I especially like this one. I'm getting better here at letting the paint be as dark as it needs to and the colors harmonize.

This is another painting from a photograph, this one taken from the pier in Hanalei Bay. People who've been to Kaua'i will know that Hanalei is one of the loveliest spots on the island. The town of Hanalei is impossibly cute, with a couple of good restaurants - Postcards Cafe was the one we liked best. The evening we went there was the culmination of a magical day. We spent the morning snorkeling and beach-lying at Tunnels Beach, and then we got massages at a nearby spa. (Great massages!) Then we drove back to Hanalei and shopped a bit. I bought a ukelele. Then, while we waited for our reservation at Postcards, we strolled along the beach, me trying to figure out how to play my uke, and then found the long pier that juts into the bay. We walked out and sat at its end for an hour, chatting with locals and tourists and watching a guy fishing and some kids jumping off the roof of the pier into the water. The sun set spectacularly. I swore I saw the green flash. I took a lot of sun-on-clouds shots.

This painting is postcard-size, about 4 by 6. I like to work in small formats. I'm not exactly sure why. I've always liked dinky things - model trains, miniature portraits. Beyond that, I will say that a big mass of white paper really intimidates me. I confess that I have not learned to use my bigger brushes, the ones bigger than a size 10 or 12 round. I know that a painting teacher would force me to put a big flat or wedge in my hand and make a huge mess, or bunch of messes. But what can I say? I like the little riggers and 1s and 2s. They feel good in my hand, and they let me really play with detail. My biggest challenge occurs when I try to use masking fluid, as I did for the two sailboats. Masking fluid is a bugger to use in any case, and when your task is to put in a fine white line, it's just really hard not to make a mess, like I did here.

So what. It's a study, right? I like the clouds.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Portraits 3

Here's a 20-minute sketch of Richard from last night's life-drawing class.  It's pretty accurate, although the hair in particular looks not right.  Richard's hair was very curly and salt-and-pepper, not quite so black.  He did have this pretty intense gaze.  One of my co-painters walked by and said, "yeah, that really looks like him!"

I want to write a little bit about technique today, I think.  This portrait was made using my usual techniques: glazing in particular, with some wet-in-wet.  When I showed the picture to my wife, she said that she liked the neck area best, and I understand why.  Here's where I worked hardest to get the shadows right, building up two or three glazes with a couple of different colors (bluish purple, brownish purple).  It took me a while to see that there were two tones of shadow on Richard's neck, one lighter, and the other, right under his chin and along his jawline, darker.  I added the neck lines last, and they are what make the neck come alive, I think.  

Here's a message I've learned several times: judicious use of tight detail does a lot to create that "click" into realism - that and the general accurate depiction of light and shade.  The eye works in an interplay between these two elements, I think.  It loves to see tightly and work out intricacies; and yet it needs to register a general tone to a scene as well.  On my wife's and my recent trip to Lake Tahoe, I brought along David Bellamy's book on landscape painting (a wonderful book), and in it Bellamy talks quite a lot about this interplay, although not in the terms I'm setting out.  He talks extensively about the need to simplify a scene: to leave out copious details in order to make a painting that really sings.  Look at a photograph of a scene and then Bellamy's watercolor of it: the vast majority of the trees, rocks, grass blades, clouds, buildings, bushes, boats, and people are missing from the art work.  What you have left is some sort of essence of the scene.  But what makes the "essence," and why is "real" nature not adequate?  We're back to my basic aquarellist question.

I think one of the fun elements of painting portraits is that you get to be a bit more inclusive.  But even here, as noted above, a good painting requires judicious editing of reality.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ah . . . Chocolate . . . .

Here's a plate of See's truffles and some saltwater taffy that I painted over the Christmas holiday.  Yes, it was hard just to paint and not to gorge.

I did very little painting over my winter break.  I'm sorry for this, but there you go.  I have a curious little quirk - maybe it's just me or maybe not - that impels me either to work too much or to work too little.  Clearly the quirk is all one quirk, i.e., the impulses are related.  Probably if I worked appropriately, I would not crash, and if I did not crash I would work appropriately.

But crash I do.  And hard sometimes.  Being an academic, I have some luxury of crashing - i.e., summers and winter breaks do give one space.  I have changed my attitude over the years, however.  I used to plan to get tons of work done during every single break, and then when every single break arrived I would invariably crash and burn.  I have had many rotten days on empty campuses slogging my way into the office, trying to get some writing done, and then wandering dazedly around the library in a state of disgust with myself.

Over the years I have much more grown to respect and appreciate my indolent side.  Because here's what it's really all about: during a term, I really have to slice and dice myself down to one facet of myself: the professional self, all good nature, intelligence, kindness, diligence, and attentiveness.  I have learned over the years that, as soon as terms wind down, the other, more shadowy, part of me emerges.  This side is indolent and irritable and mean and a little sick, because he hasn't been getting proper nutrition.  Breaks come, and he comes roaring out, and I have learned over the years that I simply have to give him free reign for a week or a month.  He will take his week or month whether I am cooperative or not.  So I might as well let him go and not feel crappy about it.

Mr. Indolent eats a lot of chocolate, and it's hard for him to leave the chocolate on the plate while I'm painting it.