Friday, November 22, 2013

....two steps back

I face many challenges in my life as an artist, and the most obvious and urgent of them is simply not having time to paint.  I have a day job--and not just a day job but a vocation, an ever present need, concern, responsibility, privilege, and pain.  I'm a college professor.  Term time for me as a painter is a long desert to cross.

Oh, and I'm a daddy too, of a three-and-a-half-year old.  Basically, during term time, I work all day, come home, and work all night.

Miraculously, I got a painting done recently.  Not surprisingly, it's not one of my best efforts, not by a long shot.

What went wrong here?  The pose is gorgeous, many individual bits are good (I like the feet).

I see two issues that I hope I can learn from (hence this posting).  One concerns the paper: I have used this paper a lot, but relative to other paper I use, I think this paper does not take the paint well.  The second, more serious, issue concerns paint.  It's a simple technical issue.  I made purple for shadows here using aquamarine and crimson, and those two paints just don't work together--they separate and look grainy.  The painting loses the crispness I've been seeking (and finding) in other paintings lately.


I wish once again that I could teach myself not to worry about the outcome--that the process is all that really matters.  But the truth is I want to make good paintings.  It feels like the least I can do for my generous models.

Monday, August 19, 2013


It's been a summer of painting portraits, more or less.  I don't know how to classify paintings that have some figurative element, like this one, which I know I've already posted:

  Is this a figure or a portrait?  I can never tell.  For me the subject here is beauty.  It's of a new model who--well.  Back I go to one of my old questions.  What do we mean by beauty anyway?  I know from painting many subjects and many people that beauty is infinite--that there is no shortage of beauty in this world, that everything--everything--is beautiful.  


There is just nothing, nothing, nothing in this world like unto the beauty of young woman in bloom.  Sigh.

Here's another case in point, in terms of the subject of a beautiful young woman.  Here something more is going on than the simple effort to capture that beauty, however.  The subject is a friend of mine, someone I have known and worked with, admired and learned from, a former graduate student who has taught me a great deal about many subjects: Renaissance literature, feminism, teaching, writing.  And she is herself a wonderful artist.

When my friend saw her portrait, she gave me the compliment of noting that it was a good rendering--"it looks like me!"--but also added the comment "I am so fucking suspicious."  My friend is someone who walks through life bearing considerable--what's the word?  Edge.  The painting is a reasonably faithful rendering of a photo I took in a modeling session, and it's true that she felt her way into the session (a session in which she offered not full but considerably nudity) tentatively, in a guarded way.  That is the way my friend feels her way through life, actually, so I do agree with her statement.  But only in retrospect.  When I chose the image to paint, I saw only the stunning beauty of her eyes and hair, the glow of her skin.  As I told her, the photo made my painting hand itch.  

If the painting indeed offers a faithful rendering of my friend's "edge," then for me that edge has become part of her beauty.  And I told her that.

And then here's my son, from a photo taken on Pismo Beach earlier this summer, when we traveled in that direction to celebrate the graduation of my nephew from UCSB.  I have nothing to say about this piece apart from the fact that it was a pure labor of love.  The painting is now hanging in our hallway.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ways of Seeing

I've been thinking a lot about the ethics of painting and working with live models lately--like thinking a ton, more than usual (which is usually a lot).  Even talking extensively with a therapist about these topics.  The questions: why is the female figure and face so endlessly transporting for me, when so many other topics get old or don't draw me so powerfully?  How many beautiful women do I need to paint, exactly?  When will the anima or the goddess or the inner feminine or the outer feminine or what have you be sufficiently appeased?  In painting these images, am I prostrating myself before the feminine or am I standing in power over her?  Am I participating in the imperialistic, patriarchal, oppressive-objectifying project of so much of western art, or am I moving in a new, mutually empowering way with respect to feminine beauty?

I mentioned a number of these questions to the last model I worked with, and then said that as usual I'm probably overthinking things.  She said, "yeah."

In his groundbreaking exploration of western art called Ways of Seeing, which was originally a BBC program, John Berger raises these questions too and truly calls out the figurative art of the west for being concerned, as he puts it (paraphrasing now), with the owning, possessing, lascivious gaze of the painter/owner/viewer (a viewer always understood to be male) rather than being concerned with the actual woman being depicted.  The women in western art are objects of the male gaze who wear their nudity as a garment, an overlay covering their own agency, rather than subjects possessing their own lives, concerns, sexualities, and desires.  As he puts it (again, paraphrasing), they are always nude, never naked--naked in the sense of simply being themselves, naturally, owning themselves and inhabiting their own skins.  And he talks a great deal about the double standard, in which women are depicted for the sexual pleasure of men while simultaneously being blamed for the moral downfall of the men doing the viewing.

Well, here are two new paintings that address themselves to these questions, I think.

This one is painted with an eye focused on the beautiful back-curve, of course, from nape to bum.  The model has a gorgeous figure, and the drapery is arranged to highlight her ultrafeminine curves.  As I noted in the previous blog entry, the drapery makes the image more sexy than it would be otherwise, but even still, this is an image that appeals to my deep responsiveness to womanly beauty--it does feel like it is about me at least as much as about her.  

So yeah, I guess I do plead guilty here, to some degree at least.  Yes, there is a part of me that is hunting for particular satisfying images, and this is one of them.

I will also say that I think it is a good painting.  It uses the powers of watercolor, especially the transparency and the luminosity available through the use of vivid complements (orange and blue here) quite well.  I love the arm especially, and the face is a good likeness.

Here is a less good scan that shows the whole painting:

This is a less good painting but one I still like OK.  It captures the portrait pretty well, although the model is even more beautiful in real life than the painting shows.  I like the shoulders and the breasts.  I do not think I have captured the model's gorgeous skin tone yet.

I do a lot of these "bust portraits," as I like to call them, and in these I do feel like I am getting closer to letting her have her nakedness rather than impose upon her my own nudity-image.  This is her--really, idiosyncratically, her.  The gaze at the viewer here feels powerful and self-possessed.  

Which is not to say that the gaze in the top image doesn't feel that way to me.  I am actually painting these models in these images, not idealizing, sculpting, or photoshopping in any way.  For whatever that's worth.

Well, more about these topics in the future.  I think and hope that there is a "pure" and innocent love of beauty that can be expressed through this work.  Perhaps I'll articulate what I mean by that next.  Back to painting.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pinup Style

Recently a friend of mine (purely virtually thus far) who paints gorgeous, amazing figures in the style of Lucien Freud and other contemporary naturalistic figure artists posted a kind of artistic self-defense to Facebook.  Here are some of her words:

"I like idealization in CLASSICAL paintings of people as it is striving for a godliness in the image, but 'chocolate box' prettiness in more modern works or 'pin up' type figurative art leaves me cold or even bothered...

"Introducing sexiness or sauciness is not fine art to me as it stops being honest...and starts to approach a pornographic view, especially of the female body....even in a very soft core way. Then it is not about art anymore..but about sex. It takes on a different perspective."

I have been thinking about Rosanna's thoughts ever since reading them last April.  In a reply, I admitted that I do understand the appeal of a well done pin-up image--the playful, teasing eroticism can be fun.  Here I want to reflect on the work I've done with models who love that kind of thing and who willingly participate in developing tableux, finding costumes, putting on the cheesy grins or the startled expressions that say, "ooh!  I didn't see you there as I was adjusting my garters!"  There's a burlesque rather than a pornographic feel there, a playfulness, and the photo sessions can be, yeah, very collaborative, creative, fun.

But I still have a very conflicted attitude toward overt eroticism in my painting.  Here are three paintings I've already posted that do something like pinup style.  Perhaps "bathing beauty" style is a better term for these three.

The image from which this was painted was taken in a photo session that was tons and tons of fun.  My model wore a gorgeous brick-red dress for part of it and, as you can see, a white flower in her hair.  She was made up, looking very, very pretty.  We did do some back nudity at the end of the session, but mostly she was clothed, either in the dress or, as you can see, in a bathing suit.  

This one is obviously even a bit more overtly erotic, due to the toplessness and the saucy bikini bottoms.  In her bathing suit, this model absolutely embodied "SoCal beach chick" (a designation she would willingly embrace, as, in fact, she is from Southern California and spent much of her younger life on the beach).  She really got into it too, playfully undoing the side straps of her bottoms at various moments, for instance.  It was another session full of laughter, fun, delight.

This absolutely gorgeous model worked in the bathing suit, as you can see, as well as in drapery or in underwear.  This picture is the most overtly pinup-y of her set; "glam" would be the best term for most of her bathing beauty images.  A brilliant dancer, she also naturally fell into gorgeous classic figure-poses.

The obvious features that to me distinguish these as a certain kind of painting are the direct gaze at the viewer and the big come-hither smile.   I absolutely see the overt erotification and objectification, the sexiness of these images.  These are not "sublime figures."  They're snapshot-ty, girl-next-door-ish, and pretty conventional as fantasy-images.

Here's an interesting fact.  Sometimes, as in these cases, my choice to go in the pinup direction has come about by virtue of the model's modesty.  All of these models have shared their nudity with me to varying extents but none has gone "all the way" to do full figurative art-modeling.  It's a curious irony that I've shared with the models, and all of them have taken the point: a bathing suit is way sexier than skin.  Clothes are about sex in a way that the nude figure simply isn't, or isn't necessarily.  The bathing suit brings the body into the realm of the real, brings it down on to the beach; it obviates the possibility of it participating in the eternal, timeless goddess form that so many classical artists (and I) have been primarily interested in.  (Interestingly, toga-like drapery has a very different effect for me than a bathing suit.)

The model knows all this, and yet she still wants to preserve her modesty.  And so I find myself trying to figure out what to do: my usual preference toward sublime figures is not now an option.  Looking for ways to make it fun and collaborative, I find that the pinup style seems to be the obvious and ready option.  So that's what we do.  It is fun, and it is collaborative, plus it is theatrical and, essentially, un-intimate: she's acting a role.  Thus the pinup style is paradoxically a kind of modesty, or a bid for modesty.  It's like the sexy halloween costumes that young women are offered and so often appear to don with relish: ways to be sexy without being intimate or truly, really naked.  We live in an age that believes itself to be a "let it all hang out" era, but to me such is very much not the case.

And yet for me, there is still a nakedness, an honesty, to these paintings.  In them, despite the sauciness, I'm still following my major mantra: to paint what's there, to understand this body in this image.  Sometimes I wonder if my models are grouchy with me when they see these paintings.  In none of these images have I regularized features, slenderized legs, and so on.  Do the models and viewers want to see the "dishonest" "idealization" that pinup artists typically employ--the modesty embraced by that dishonesty?  Does the honesty of my paintings make them something other than pinup images? 

I'm not sure.  Certainly I see that Rosanna and I are on the same page, basically.  I actually find myself flatly incapable of doing that regularizing, perfecting, idealizing thing.  I'm not sure that I know how to do it even if I wanted to.  I do know that I enjoyed painting the pictures, and I certainly know that I love these model-collaborators fiercely, so I hope earnestly that I am doing them all the justice I can, honoring them with what I hope is an honest gaze that comes from that place of love.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Figures, Figures

I am back to having some time to paint, and still all I want to paint are figures.   It's been nearly six months since I seriously put paint on paper, and as I do so it feels like my spirit is filling back up with high octane fuel.

That doesn't mean that I'm happy with everything.  The above portrait of a friend of mine does not in the least reflect her loveliness.  I like the torso and the drape OK, but I think it will take me several more paintings to really understand how to capture her visage.

This one's a little better.

And this one's best of all.  Here's what I truly am interested in doing with my work: capturing the play of light on skin.  The face is quite accurate of my friend Chelsea.  The torso and especially the breasts are exactly right.

I will probably write more about some of these soon.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Still Life

Here's a still life I completed as a Christmas present for my brother Mark.

Painting it was a really rich and wonderful experience.  I gathered all the fruit myself at a local produce market (except for the pomegranate, which was from Mark's own tree) and shot some arrangements using a deep purple sweater of my wife's as a background.  Having chosen a good image, I went to work.  What I learned in painting this still life was how much I've learned recently.  I've always heard it said that down the centuries artists have opined that painting figures and portraits will teach you everything you need to know about painting.  All I've painted for the past few years has been figures and portraits.  Thus I take the point.

What did I learn by painting these fruits?  I learned that I know a lot about shading and glazing.  I learned that I have given myself permission to go beyond "pretty" pastel shades toward deeper "oilish" shades.  I learned that precision in drawing and brushwork is less important than technique--for pulling forth a vivid effect, I mean (precision in drawing and brushwork is still very important).  

I like the way the persimmon "pops."  I like the mix of colors.  I like the texture on the pomegranate and the tangerine.