Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sitting by My Dad's Bedside

I'm sitting next to my dad's bed.  He's weak and out of it--drifting peacefully toward death.  I think it could come soon.

I'm playing Beethoven for him--symphony #3.  I also read some more Beowulf and also Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, looking around for some of the most beautiful language I know of.  My dad's face looks like a child's face to me now.  I so much see the family resemblance.  He has the Miller German mouth and the round head and blue eyes.  At other times of death, I have noticed this heightened awareness of the body.  It's a feeling of deep gratitude for the body that has been.  In this case, it's a body that half-created me and then that carried me, cared for me, gave me shelter and love.  My earliest memories are of riding horseback-style on dad's back.  I remember the scratchy flannel of his dark tartan Pendleton shirt.

That's my dad in the painting above.  The likeness is far from perfect.  Especially the mouth.  The painting challenges me to paint another, better portrait.  It looks enough like dad to have served as a Christmas gift to my brother Mark.  I'm also having prints of it made for my other brothers and family members.

I like the painting for how it captures much of my dad's personality and, well, self.  His camera, for instance: dad was always an inveterate photographer, more for documentary purposes than anything else.  I've heard him say on a number of occasions, "if it's not documented, it didn't happen."  So here, in this painting from a photo taken aboard a catamaran that we sailed on a sea excursion in Kauai in 2008, he's got the camera, because of course he does.  And then there are his glasses--the thick-lensed pair that darken or lighten with the sunlight.  He always wore glasses, and it was a point of pride for him that the optometrist always said, whenever he had a new pair made, that his glasses were the heaviest he had ever made.  Then there's the shirt and the hat that I recognize, and the characteristic posture.  All that make up a person.  So I learn in painting this portrait that portraits capture even more than I ever thought they could.  For a familiar viewer, they can capture the life that the body embodied.

It was a pleasure and honor to paint the picture.  I didn't think I would be able to do it--painting portraits being such intimate work.  But when I saw this photo, I thought, oh, I can paint that: that's so much my dad's self-in-the-world, the self that all got to see.  I wrestled with it--that mouth gave me fits.  Like wrestling an angel.

New gratitude for the gift of artistic vision.  Old gratitude, newly enriched, for my dad's life.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Story of Another Painting


The healing power of beauty is so mysterious.

My father's life is ending.  He's nearly 81, he had a wonderful life full of love and manifold contribution--he's a lucky man.  And he was healthy for nearly all of the 81 years.  Then lung cancer struck, and now he's dying of a brain metastasis.  I will miss him terribly.

My days now are relatively normal--not living very close to my parents.  I go through my days at work and taking care of Noah and finding time with Susan.  Intermittently, like today, I manage to get down to visit.  Today I came down after my brother John sounded the alarm: it looked to him like the end was near.  So I came down today and spent several hours sitting next to him while, mostly, he slept.  His face is beginning to wear the mask of death that advanced cancer patients put on.

I laugh at myself: what I read to him was Beowulf, the ancient Old English epic poem of great deeds and monstrous attacks upon the Shield-Danes.  We are of Scandinavian stock.  The warriors in the poem are our ancestors.  I like the idea of invoking for my dad the image of the Viking warrior--our forebear.

Three postings in this blog in the space of as many days, more or less, come by virtue of my mad painting in this very difficult time.  Trump on the one hand, death on the other.  What can I control?  Where can I find solace?  Painting offers some.

I love this painting.  I painted most of it while I was down staying with my mother-in-law after my dad's first big scare.  While he was over the hills potentially dying, I was over here sculpting this lovely model's beautiful back and feet and bum with washes of gold, crimson, purple, aquamarine.  I celebrate the body through this painting.  I celebrate the body as my father's body is diminishing toward oblivion.  

It's a common classical pose: the odalisque or reclining nude.  I have no doubt that this is largely a guy thing, but the beautiful female body, and especially the beautiful female backside, signify, well, life in so profound a way--the fleeting, magnificent fecundity and grace of our lives in these bodies.  As I sought to capture the beauty of this model, it felt like I was pulling out of myself a fierce love of all that we are in this plane: the so transient miracle of our flesh.  

I love this painting.  I am so happy that I got to paint it, and so happy that I get and got to be my dad's son.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Story of a Painting


On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, we all awoke to the reality that America had chosen for the most important and hardest job in the world a man who is utterly unqualified, who proudly doesn't read, who inherently hates government unless it can help his business prospects and channel his bigotry, who is erratic, narcissistic, sexually predacious, deeply Machiavellian, and dangerously impulsive.  We chose him over a woman.  The woman had the faults that come with being an establishment candidate.  But she was immensely qualified, intelligent, and stable.  We chose one of the worst public men in America over one of the most admired and prepared public women in America.  We did that.

I worked on this painting during the evening of election day and finished it on that awful Wednesday.  In terms of genre, it's simply one of my usual "bust portraits"--I'm working here on skin tone, on shading and shaping, following my usual love affair with light.

As I worked, I couldn't help feeling like my own despair, my own sadness and hurt over my country's rash choice-making, was working into the painting.  In the photo from which the painting arises, the model looks more sultry than sad.  In this portrait, I see my own shock and confusion.

And I almost never have painted a model's tattoos.  Here, I found that I could not not paint her Wonder Woman arm-band tattoo.  She is still Wonder Woman, underneath her clothes and in spite of a cruel repudiation.  She is still Wonder Woman.  I will still be here, the painting says to me: I will still be here, with the beauty and dignity of my body and with my fierce pride in it and in my own power.  Slumbering fierceness can awaken jagged energy.  

I love this painting.  It offers a new level of art for me.  I would call it a political commentary if that didn't sound so calculated.  It is a spontaneous message of hurt and defiance.

I would put my body on the barricades for this Wonder Woman and all Wonder People who demand justice and humanity from this world.

Monday, November 28, 2016

So Much Painting

I've gotten more painting done this fall than I ever have.  I don't really know how I've found the time--the term hasn't been any less hectic than previous terms have been.  Indeed, I would say this one has been especially challenging, with new duties that brought a steep learning curve.  But two impelling factors have kept me at the easel: 1) my first show is coming up, at our church; and 2) my dad's life is ending.

Grief does strange things to us all.  Tears are only the most obvious manifestation.  Amid the tears there come fear, anxiety, grouchitude, existential despair, and, for me, a need to do something to occupy my mind and hands.  So painting has really been there for me.

As I have written, I am torn about the show.  My best work consists of figures and portraits.  But this is a church.  I have seen art shows hung on the walls of our church for ten years, and often amid a variety of subjects you'll see a figure study, often a 10-minute life-drawing sketch.  Never have I seen anything like what I most like to do: realistic, detailed, loving studies of the human figure.  I myself don't think a lot of my work is appropriate.  Plus, I have the problem that my subjects are easily recognizable in the paintings, and part of my job is to protect their privacy.  So the upshot is that much of my work--and my best work--will not be able to hung in the show.

So I've turned my attention to non-figurative work, like more sea- and cloud-scapes from our Semester at Sea adventure.  Like these:



And a still life or two:


But my heart really still reverts to the work I love best.  I love this portrait of my friend Nancy.  Its celebration of light captures so much of what my painting is all about, to my eyes at any rate.


And this piece too: I loved sculpting this model's gorgeous figure in watercolor:


All of these pictures are incredibly poignant to me at present.  We come into the world and have the privilege of living in light, of being sculpted and shaped by light, of dancing with light.  We are jewels whose facets shine with each turn and gesture.  And each moment is inexpressibly perfect and beautiful.  

It is an incredible privilege to be given the gift of seeing these moments and seeking to know them through the artist's work.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Figures and Portraits of the Summer

Here is the best picture I've ever painted:


What do I mean by "best"?  My satisfaction here is both technical and purely artistic.  On the technical side, what fun I had working on my wonderful friend's skin tone, using a lot of quinacridone  red mixed with crimson, light red, and lavender for shadows.  I put on wash after wash in thin layers, building up the darkness and complexity.  And I was exceedingly careful--I am indeed learning to be careful, to know what to take care on, to get the details right.  Check out the hair clip.

Artistically, this painting is doing everything I want my paintings to do: capturing human beauty sculpted by light.  I love my friend's beautiful contemplative pose, the light caress of her fingers on her shoulder, the glints in her eyes.  I will happily paint forever, trying to evoke beauty in this way.

Here's another portrait of the same model, a very dear friend of mine:


I love this one as well.  The portrait is accurate.  I love the velvety blue drape.  This one is really all about the back, of course.  Backs are so graceful.

I am happy with pretty much everything I've done this summer.  Here's the most recent piece I've done:


Here too I am doing everything I want to do.  The "sculpting by light" here is wonderful--my friend's hands in particular looking beautiful, carried in a way that's very evocative of her "habitus," her natural ways of moving in her body.  The skin tone is as delicate as my friend's real skin is.  My tools for evoking the real texture and depth of skin are approaching my dreams and goals for that purpose.   Again I love the contemplative gaze.

 Here is another piece of the same model:


I like this piece very much as well--although the photos I have to work from are not up to my best standard.  I am still learning how to use a new camera.

Here are a couple sketches:



I am obsessively trying to paint a good painting like the one above of my friend and her fabulous back line.  Still not there, but this one is OK.  Finally, below, is another painting I am very fond of, particularly the tone on the fall of the model's lower back.  This one I will frame and hang in my studio.


It's been a great summer for painting.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

My First Show

I am gearing up for my first show.  In December, January, and February, my work will adorn the walls of the Unitarian Universalist church of which the family and I are members.  The show presents certain problems for me, the primary one being to determine exactly how much of my favorite art, my obsessional art, the art I have devoted most of the past ten years to cultivating--namely, pictures of naked people--to show in this religious space, to people I know and care for and people who know me but don't really know very much about my artistic obsessions.  Do I take this opportunity to "come out"?

Well, at the very least, I DO want to show other work, so I have been working on some non-figurative pieces lately.  Here's the best of it, one of my favorite paintings now, actually:


This piece is from a photo I took on the beach on the Ngapali Coast in Myanmar.  I really wanted to record the graceful native watercraft and the beauty of the calm sea.  The boat on the right was the one that the family and I got carried in across the channel to an island, where we snorkeled and played in the sand.  The painting was a fun challenge, requiring quite a lot of masking out before the washes went on: the boats, the glints and lines on the water.  I do love the foreground of the sea, with the wave and the sea foam.  
Here's another one of these pieces:


This is sunrise as we were sailing into the harbor in Mauritius.  When I show this to folks, they frequently hold it upside down, which I completely understand.  Painting this sunrise taught me one startling fact I had never taken in: that sunsets and sunrises, which we all love so much, are abstract art in the purest sense: pure play with hue, intensity, light, shadow.  

Finally, a portrait:


This is my son and a buddy, from a photo taken on a playdate at our house.  Really, I think I could paint children forever.  They are just so beautiful.  But to still the life of these lovely kids in an image almost feels like a violation: an intrusion of an adult artist's sensibility onto the free play space, the in-the-moment joy, of the world of childhood. I do like this painting, but in retrospect I should have left the background white.  The faces would have "popped" better.

I have some people who know my work telling me I should share some of the nudes in the show--to, yes, come out as the kind of artist I really think of myself as.  I respond to these suggestions in a number of ways: 1) Y'know, I don't really NEED to share this part of my artistic self.  I have zero ambitions in the way of commercial success or fame as an artist in general.  I paint because I love to paint.  2) I legitimately wish to preserve the privacy of my dear models, many of whom are members of the local community.  3) We ARE talking about a church here.  4) The hardest piece, the core of it for me: yes, I have shame.  I do not wish to be known as that guy who just paints naked women.  This anxiety comes from many old and ugly voices in my past, and I do wish to rally against them.  These voices teach me not to take myself seriously as an artist.  That's not OK.  So I will judiciously choose some figurative pieces to show, amid these and other pieces I have done, of fruit or mountains or ice cream.

I loved painting these pieces, and they gave me something of a new lease on artistic life: wow, I CAN paint something other than people.  A side benefit is that I actually get to share some of my work, at this show and on Facebook and so forth.  I got lots of likes.  That was fun!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My Best Work

New work.  The top three of these are my best work ever, I think: best in the sense that I have finally learned some skills and found some tools that allow me to evoke (THAT'S the word I've been looking for all these years) my subjects, the lovely women I get to work with and their beautiful skin.  


There are four vital lessons, technically:

1.  Use good paper.  The paper for these paintings has to stand up and keep standing up through many washes and under much scrubbing, fading, and mixing.  I use Arches Aquarelle hot press satin paper in blocks.  No rough tooth for me.


2.  Use good paints.  Professional quality really matters.  Even more, for my particular purposes, I look for a very finely grained paint, one that does very little in the way of clumping or peppering, if that's a term.  Smoooooooth is the way.  Lately I've been using a lot of quinacridone gold mixed with a good light red and overlain with a lavender I picked out specifically because it was so fine-grained.  I'm in my purple period.


3.  Wash, wash, wash.  Build up the tones and textures with many thin washes of complementary colors.  That's the only way to approximate the depth that real skin has.


4.  Luminous greys.  This is the key.  You make a luminous grey by overlaying complementary colors in those thin washes.  The paintings above emerge from yellow first, then orange, then lavender, then orange again, then more lavender, with deep shadows tricked out in ultramarine or a mix of ultramarine and burnt umber, which makes a rich black.

I suppose there is one more trick: accurate drawing.  As ever, I use the realist's tools: grids and photos.  

The figure is still the great subject.  I was thinking earlier today that what I do is actually pretty rare: trying to paint the real subject, the model with her true features: her true mouth-shape, her true characteristic stances, the true curves of her breasts, her hips, her arms.  Her, evoked accurately.  And with no other purpose than to love, through paint, the piece of creation that she embodies.  I want to honor the sublime beauty of the everyday miracle of being human, in a body, but not any body--rather, in this particular body with its perfect particularity and idiosyncrasy.

I'm a lucky guy.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Long Dry Spell


I didn't put any paint on paper between September and February.  Not even during my last winter break, a blessed rest time when I normally can complete 4 or 5 paintings, was I able to go to the easel.

"Go to the easel."  It sounds like "go to the altar" or, I don't know, go to work.  I couldn't face it--"it' being, well, I don't know.  It was a rough spell--three or four months of not being myself at all.  I moved slowly and spoke as little as I could.  My friend,  in the painting above, said that when we hung out in December my voice barely modulated.  Eventually I went to the doctor and began my first experimental tryout of antidepressant meds.  Effexor was awful: all awful side effects, zero impact on mood.  Wellbutrin seems actually to be doing something. Certainly a month or so ago, I began to be able to find myself in a place of gratitude again.  My friend Cathy told me that her experience of antidepressant meds was of "a light turning on that she didn't even know was out."  I got a bit of a sense of that.  The indication I was looking for that things were turning right was going to be a return to the easel.  Ta da!  I do like this piece.

I wish I could explain the dry spell or understand why it occurred.  I can only describe it, I think.  I had begun a figure, a bust portrait actually, got the facial features roughed in and a first wash on the torso, and then I simply could not do any more.  Every time I turned to look at it, I felt an awful pressure and a sense of impossibility, and I fled.  I had no sense of ability or joy in having ability--no confidence in my skill or pleasure in having it.  It felt pretty damned awful.  I wonder now if my depression at the end of 2015 was a consequence or a cause of the painting block.  Almost certainly, it was a consequence.  The well of creative energy is such a mysterious, mystifying, fickle thing that there's no wonder that artists talk about courting their muses.

And does that whole dynamic feed into the male-gaze-oriented focus on the female, feminine face and figure?  Undoubtedly it does for me.  Could I have completed as many paintings as I have completed without this irrational, libido-driven, Oedipus-empowered fascination with feminine beauty, with the female other?  No, I don't think so.  There's only one subject, for me, that will ever drive this gushing, bubbling fount of creative energy.  For good and/or ill.

Now all I want to do is paint.