Thursday, July 10, 2014

Three New Large-Scale Figures: Back Line

Here are three pieces that all are painted on the same sheet of paper, each next to the others.  It's not a triptych so much as an attempt to do three fairly full-body figures from the rear view and see what can be learned in painting the subject and in the specifics of watercolor for the purpose.

These are three models who all share the commonality of--to put it frankly--a great rear line.  So much of femininity is carried in the rear line, by which I mean not only the butt but the whole curve dropping from the nape, cutting in past the shoulder blades, swelling out in the roundness of the buttocks, and then cutting in underneath, dropping into the more gentle swells of the thighs and calves.  To paint this line well means, in a sense, to be painting femininity, at least as much as to paint the breasts, for instance.  So it is a classic, beautiful subject addressed by painters and artists since forever.

I am not ecstatic about any of these efforts, a fact which perhaps reflects the high pressure associated with the subject for me.  I would really, really love to paint the rear line well.  The top painting is OK, representing experiments primarily with violet for the shaded areas (I had attempted this painting once already with even less success using ultramarine primarily). 

The one above gave me fits.  I've tried to paint it twice, and both times I faced the same problem: finding myself tumbling into an intensity with the paint that's too "oily" rather than watercolor-y.  I went back and forth in my attitude toward the piece while painting it, and I still am undecided about whether it's strong or weak.  The photo from which it's taken is definitely this dark, or even more so, so the value is about right.  I elected to build the darkness through glazing, as per usual, using oranges mixed with quinacridone gold and crimson, then using ultramarine for shading.  The color of the body is not right, of that I'm certain.  It doesn't need to be (this is a painting, after all), but this particular color--what is it?  kind of a greenish-goldish-orangish-yellowish--doesn't feel right at all.  What's good is her wonderfully round butt highlighted well and a facial portrait that's not too bad.  The very best thing about it--alas--is the teal drape.  Now THERE is some awesome watercoloring.  But that shouldn't be what's best about the piece.

Finally, this one, meant to be a companion piece to one of the same model, with the same goldish background, that I posted earlier, is also just all right to my view.  As I think I mentioned when discussing the companion piece, the challenge here was the model's pale skin: one of the most beautiful skin tones but also the hardest skin tone to paint.  It's hard to sculpt a figure with, well, white.  The ultramarine is intense here, and I do like the complement with the gold of the background. 

You'd think that butts would be relatively easy to paint: they are, after all, fairly macro forms made of fairly full, straightforward curves.  In point of fact, they are quite hard to capture well.  Part of this difficulty might be due to some of the same challenges we face in capturing faces well.  I think our brains are pretty hard-wired to see and appreciate rear ends, and so our eyes see inaccuracies and flaws quickly.  More of the difficulty, however, arises simply from the fact of the straightforwardness of these large curves.  You can't mess up even the tiniest bit.  It's a long stretch to keep your brush steady.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Portraits and Figures

Here's a brand new piece--a triptych of portraits of a recent lovely model.  I like this very much.  The portraits are accurate (mostly), and I really enjoyed capturing the light on the skin with mixes of gold, crimson, umber, orange, and, as usual, ultramarine.

Been thinking a great deal lately about the work I do, as ever, specifically concerning portraits and figures--or rather, the portrait and the figure, those two constants of the western tradition in art.  I love painting both, but for different reasons.

Portraits capture the specific individuality of the sitter.  As I've said before, nothing is clearer than the fact that our brains are incredibly wired to recognize faces.  They have to be, evolutionarily, I mean.  We have to recognize our tribe members, and we have to know who's a stranger.  From those factors derives a great deal of the blessing and curse of life, I think.  From the painting perspective, the responsibility is to capture the likeness.  My model spoke proudly of her "crooked smile," which made me look, which made me see that yeah!  That is the special feature of her face--a beautiful kookiness in her expression.  That is what I would try to capture.  I hope I've gotten close, especially in the portrait on the right.  There's a wonderful truth, a secret in fact that I would guess all portrait painters know: in facial features, it is precisely the distinctiveness, not the universality, of the face that makes it wonderful.  I wish every person who worried about her nose or his chin could see with the painter's eyes and know that those "flaws" are precisely what make her or him beautiful.

But what's the difference between the portrait and the figure?  There are figurative elements in these portraits--the bare shoulders, for instance.  But no, these are portraits.  I know because of my feelings and my approach in painting them.  I think of it as the difference between universal, platonic beauty and specific, worldly beauty.  Faces live in the realm of the latter.  Again, my focus as a painter is on the specialness, the distinctiveness of the face--capturing what makes her her.  Her eyes, her nose, her hair, her lips, her chin, her shoulders.  This work is a labor of love, endlessly interesting, certainly.  I could do tons of it.  In fact, I am beginning to hatch the idea of doing some commission work, painting portraits of children and so forth. 

So painting portraits is interesting, gripping even.  But painting figures is sublime.  Even as, in painting a figure, I certainly am striving to capture the distinctiveness of this body before me, something else has happened when the natural figure has entered the room.  I certainly mean the naked figure (not nude): the human being in possession of her numinous body, allowing her skin and flesh to be sculpted by light and shadow, revealed in a profound act of generosity to the artist's gaze.  Something big happens, some bid for universality and the eternal: something Platonic.  With a model I have called it "channeling the goddess" or said that now I'm no longer painting her--I'm painting her beauty.  That would be the beauty that she is given, that she carries, that perhaps she cultivates but does not own, in the sense that a great singer is ultimately given her voice as grace rather than creates it herself.  None of this is to violate the model's autonomy.  Her beauty is hers to do with as she wishes, to conceal or to give as the sacred offering that it is.  "Offering," with all its religious connotations, would be the word I would use.  I hope that when the model makes this offering, we can together collaborate in celebrating that offering in the act of painting.

I have made a decision, for the time being at least, no longer to work with models who aren't really up for the project of figurative painting.  It was an interesting journey toward this decision.  Because I like to work with people in my community, I have been in the habit of deferring largely to the wishes of the model with respect to working-in-skin.  I do wish to capture models' personalities by painting portraits, and I will do shorter (cheaper) sessions that are just portrait sessions.  I like painting clothes too and capturing the personality and the, well, zeitgeist as revealed by fashion and all that.  But ultimately I am a figurative painter, one guided by the numinous, sublime vision of the revealed human body.  I know this fact precisely because I know very well the sadness, the grief of working with the shrouded figure.  I recall my first ever time visiting a life-drawing class.  I walked into the room and looked for a seat, vaguely aware that there was a pillar of light in the middle of the room.  When I finally got myself seated and situated and looked up, the pillar of light turned out to be the model, and the light seemed to emerge from her (I swear I have seen bodies actually give off light).  Each shift of her posing seemed to me a shift into a new face of God.  How can you be content working with the shrouded figure when you know that what's being shrouded is perhaps literally divine?

Well, perhaps I will do far less work with models this summer than in other recent summers.  That's OK. 

Can the two genres of art, portrait and figure, mix?  Well, one can try.  I do love painting what I call the bust portrait, including the chest and body.  "A woman and her breasts" would be a crass way to put it.  Breasts being so profoundly distinctive, so different from woman to woman, so possessed of, well, personality, it is very much the case that painting them is more like painting a portrait than it is like painting a full figure.  But does the bust portrait enfold some of the numinousness of the figure?  Yes, for me it does.

Does my distinction--this contrast between the specific beauty of the portrait and the eternal beauty of the figure--ultimately fall apart?  Yes, of course.  What I am talking about here is more an artist's mood or temper than anything "real" in the face or figure.  And the mood or temper shifts.  But there's no question that there is no greater subject than the sublime human figure, for me at any rate.  And so that's where my focus will lie.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

New Figure: Experimenting with Contrast and Wet-in-Wet

I like this piece quite a lot.  It's pretty experimental.  I deliberately chose a photo that was heavily shadowed (the original is very dark across most of the model's face and figure; I've lightened it up).  Then I went at it deliberately trying to use a luminous grey made of contrasting colors--starting with the face, which was a mix of lavender and orange, sometimes mixed, sometimes separately glazed.  Ultramarine (my crutch) and orange, together with more lavender, were used heavily throughout the rest of the figure.  The darkest stretches and the fine detail, as usual, were tricked out in ultramarine, and ultramarine and lavender together made for some of the bolder expanses of skin.

The other major shift forward for me in this one entailed the use of a lot of wet-in-wet.  For instance, the dark left flank has a lot of muddled color--an orange base and then purple and ultramarine mixed on the page.  I have definitely trended in the very safe and OCD-ish tack of glazing wet-on-dry.  Building up layers of color lets you control to a high degree--but as legions of watercolorists will point out, you thereby lose much of the special magic and mystery of watercolor as a medium.  Isn't watercolor beautiful precisely because it "flows"?  Too much glazing definitely kills the flow.  You wind up with paintings that look like oils, which is a virtue if that's what you want, and often that IS what I want.

Here I faced two technical challenges.  The first was of painting a figure that's pretty pale-skinned.  Pale skin to me is very beautiful, but it doesn't give the paintbrush much to bite into.  What color are shadows on a pale body?  They're not a darker brown red or whatever.  They're just, well, dark.  So you have to seize the opportunity to make something interesting out of those dark expanses.  The second problem was of deciding how dark to make those shadows.  As I said, I opted for more freshness and lightness than was in the photograph--going for greater interest and definition.  

I like the piece, as I said.  I hope it honors my model and her gorgeous figure.  She's a ballet dancer and profoundly, movingly graceful in her moving in and out of poses.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Piece I Like

I have only rarely painted full figures, or nearly-full figures, not since I was doing a lot of life drawing classes at any rate.  Even then I would find myself focusing on a profile or a back or a bust much more often than sketching a whole figure.  So this is a new kind of painting for me in a number of ways.  I really like what's going on here.

First of all, the pose is gorgeous.  Oh man, that beautiful S-curve in the spine, the arc of the hips, the lovely expression on the face.  She seems so present in her body, just a human being at home in being human.  I loved trying to capture the serenity involved here.

Then I nailed the portrait and really enjoyed sculpting the figure with various reds, browns, and mostly, because the model has very white skin, cool ultramarine for shadows.  

Finally--and this was really the big experiment of the piece--I love the color I chose for the background.  What a gorgeous contrast.  It's a goldish brown made of quinacridone gold, crimson, and black.  I mottled it in with the very charged brush.  I love the effect and have every intention of continuing to experiment with it.

The one question I have is whether the figure is too light and washed out.  I have a hard time inventing the true color of light Northern European skin.  It's not pure white--there's a tinge of color to it, a color that's not really brown and not really red and not really orange.  I don't yet know what it is or how to mimic it.  This figure is not accurate, I can say that, but neither is it hugely off.

Anyway, yay me and yay for my gorgeous model and yay for the grace I'm granted to try to understand such beauty through aquarellism.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Still Lifes

Here are two still lives that I painted over two successive Christmases for my brother Mark.  I've already posted the second one; here I'm just getting them up there for the sake of getting to see them together.  I like them both, but I think the winter fruits are better than the fruits de mer.  Had quite a time with the crabs.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


(Image reposted from

I reposted the above on my Facebook and have been puzzling about it since in my usual obsessively self-analytical and, no doubt, self-defeating way.  (Remembering one model I worked with, hearing me go on and on about the ethics of the art that I do, responding, "yeah, you're thinking too hard," or words to that effect).  What we have here is a binary and therefore eminently deconstructable.  But it does kind of capture some of the anxieties I feel around figurative art, particularly that which participates in the usual male-gaze objectification dynamics.

The difference between Fig. I and Fig. II of course is the easel--the medium of the gaze or perhaps the vehicle of transmission or perhaps the safe-zone barrier between artist and model.  Or perhaps the instrument of objectification.  The irony, the joke, comes of course from the fact that everything else is the same: "pervert" and "artist" being identical, making either the artist also or instead a pervert or the pervert also or instead an artist.

I take the image as a joke at the expense of the artist rather than a more serious redefinition of what we mean by the term "pervert."

The joke hinges on that term "pervert," of course, and rejecting that term is the first obvious way to deconstruct the binary.  Baldly put, there is nothing particularly perverted about a man gazing at a woman--or even at a girl.  The appreciation of beauty is a human birthright.  Perversion usually means abnormal, weird, or sick sexuality, a sexuality that represents a clear and present danger to the object or to society.  And so, briefly put, a perverted gaze would be one that gazes upon another with the ulterior motive of harming, exploiting, or violating her.  An uneven power dynamic is required, or perhaps some "sick" taste.  There is nothing inherent in the top Fig that requires such a dynamic; the two could be husband and wife, she could be a princess deliberately teasing her footman, etc.  Or, more likely, we have here a tableau in which a man is simply looking at a woman.  Even taking into consideration the smart feminist elucidation of the dynamics of the male gaze, big whup.  Gazing can be a lot of things: adoring, imperialistic, lustful, platonic, curious, hateful, longing, etc.--but it is probably only rarely "perverted."

What interests me, though, is the presence of the easel (metonymy for the act here of artistic creation).  The easel is the difference between the two Figs, and it does signify a difference between the two--and so I guess that I am not completely rejecting the binary.  There are some obvious things to say about the presence of the easel that do change the dynamic from the top figure.  Some of these are about the model:  1) the model is probably being paid; 2) she has almost certainly overtly consented to be the subject and object of the artist's gaze; 3) there may well be a legal contract; 4) she may well be (probably is) a lover of art and someone who understands the project of (putting it in words I tell my prospective models) understanding and celebrating the peculiar and sublime beauty of the human figure; 5) she may very well be highly creatively engaged in the process, shifting into poses she chooses, deciding where to set her boundaries, how vulnerable to be today, what mood she wishes to convey.  It's very likely that she is, in short, "into it."  Who knows, maybe she is subject to false consciousness, maybe she is unwittingly being exploited, but she is almost certainly not uninformed and almost certainly has made a free and very willing choice to be an artist's muse.

We can say other things about the artist: 1) his gaze is now divided; he's watching to see what happens with the paints on his canvas, trying to understand his medium, trying to perfect his technique, trying to learn to see how the medium of painting teaches him to see, as much now as he's observing the model.  2) No longer now purely consumer or gazer, he is now a producer, a sub-creator (to put it in the terms that JRR Tolkien uses to describe the process of creating a "faery" world); he is trying to catch a little shade of the divine glory of making beauty.  3) If my experience is correct, he probably is experiencing nothing that we might call sexual covetousness.  The guy in the top figure may very well be aroused and drawn to the beauty before him; the guy in the bottom picture is probably experiencing something closer to Platonic appreciation of beauty, a zenlike meditative state, a mind busy and very in the moment with artistic shaping, perhaps even a Buddhist samadhi state--a higher consciousness.  Context is all here, of course.  The artist could be thinking all kinds of other things: this painting is going to make me rich; using the apparatus of capitalism, I'm going to steal her image and plaster it across the world for my own amusement and profit; and so on. But there is nothing inherent in the Fig that is requiring such exploitative motives or a tie-in to all the more evil possibilities open within a system of commodification.

So, just for a thought experiment, I thought I might experiment with some new labels for Figs I and II.  Here are ones that really take it to the artist:

I: Gazer; II: Objectifier
I: Coveter; II: Thief
I: Appraiser; II: Defiler

And here are ones that are a bit kinder to him:

I: Acolyte; II: Priest
I: Dilettante; II: Professional
I: Adorer; II: Lover
I: Observer; II: Participant
I: Agnostic; II: Believer
I: Novice; II: Devotee

Yes, many of the terms in my second list have a religious tinge.  Well, that's what it's like for me--this work, I mean: a spiritual practice and a major channel for my holy longing.

And perhaps the final and best binary would be the simplest, capturing all that really needs capturing:

I: Normal Guy; II: Artist

Monday, March 3, 2014

Recent Work

Here are some recent paintings.  The miracle is simply that I have been painting recently.  Spring term is so much easier on me than fall term.  And my New Year's Resolution was to keep painting, even if it amounts to only ten minutes every few days.

I like this one very much.  The portrait is right on, capturing my friend's facial idiosyncrasies very accurately, I think.  I love the self-assured, in-her-body feel of this piece.  It's exactly the kind of thing I'm striving after.

And here are a few portraits of a new model.  I especially like the second one below.  Been really doing some strong work lately, to my eyes.  It feels so good.

And here are three pieces that form a triptych, all on one sheet of large paper.  My aim was to do some quick sketches, some doodles, using these pictures as excuses to practice some "pure" watercolor.  As usual, I had trouble going there and instead fussed too much.  But I like these.