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.