Say What You Think!

Painting Boop Photo
Photograph © 2016 Vicki Thomas

I’ve been teaching a lot lately, both to adults and, as a Teaching Artist, to kids in school. Having been creating art, in one form or another, since I was a tiny lad, I perform a lot of procedures, make a lot of decisions on auto-pilot, almost unconsciously, when at the easel. Many of these decisions involve critical creative fundamentals. Fundamentals I should be sharing with those in my classes. I’ve found these automatically performed functions to be the most difficult to relay to students. Not because they’re difficult to explain, but because, when I’m in the zone painting, I’m unaware that I’m even performing many of them.

So, I’ve made a conscious effort to make myself aware of every step that occurs, while I’m painting. To write them down, as they occur, for later communication to those in my workshops or classes. I’ve also found that talking through the process with other creative friends, verbalizing procedures, brings these buried faceted automatics out into the light. These conversations also reveal differences in how others works, providing me with even more information to share. If out of the blue, I begin a conversation with you about paint application or simplification of forms, let me apologize in advance, know the annoyance is serving a good cause!

Lifting procedures up onto the surface has been like a trip down memory lane. “When did I pick that up, who taught me that?” It’s a realization of how very many great teachers I’ve had, how many truly accomplished artists I’ve worked beside, how much information has been passed along. I’ve been extremely fortunate! It’s important to reveal and write all this stuff down, then pay it forward!

 

As Seen On TV

Jon Gnagy Photo
Jon Gnagy, host of “Learn to Draw.”

As far back as I can remember, I’ve considered myself an artist. This is likely because, from the age of 5 or 6, I was treated like an artist. My mother and her father, my grandfather, are/were both creative individuals, so I’m sure they were pleased I showed an interest and encouraged it.

I’ve learned, over time, that in addition to my love of art, from my mother I inherited a unique energy. I fall asleep at night (I actually resent having to sleep, at all), thinking about what I’m going to accomplish the next day and hop out of bed, the next morning, chaffing at the bit to get started. I continue driving forward until it’s, once again, time for bed. I thought everyone functioned like this, until many others pointed out to me that this was not, in fact, the case!

Oswald Cartoon Image
Oswald silent animated short.

I’m of that first television generation. To my recollection, there was always a television in our house. I took full advantage of that. My inherited energy prompted me to jump out of bed, early in the morning, on weekends and during vacations from school, long before anyone else in the house was awake. I’d immediately switch on the TV to a test pattern. Trying to be patient, I’d fidget through the farm report (first program broadcast in the morning), waiting for the old silent black and white animated shorts to begin. I’d watch, learn and dream about creating animation myself, someday.

Saturdays were different, than other days off, however. On Saturdays the National Broadcasting Network presented “Learn to Draw,” hosted by Jon Gnagy, as part of their early morning line-up.

Long before Bob Ross (Bob was likely sitting in front of the TV in his PJ’s, as well), Mr. Gnagy would host on-air draw-alongs, guiding us through the creation of elaborate compositions, utilizing simple geometric shapes: the ball, the cone, the cylinder and cube. Later I’d learn that this was not actually a Jon Gnagy original discovery, but was instead promoted by Modern Art giant, Paul Cézanne.

Gnagy Kits Photo
Jon Gnagy “Learn to Draw” kits.

Under Mr. Gnagy’s tutelage, I created snowy landscapes, asian seascapes, farm scenes, still lifes, you name it. Beginning in 1947 (before I was born, I must add), over time, his show grew in popularity, prompting the retail release of Jon Gnagy Art Studio Kits, sold in toy store. I was the recipient of many of these kits, as family friends and relatives saw them as perfect gifts for a young artist.

I don’t know what it was that made me think about Mr. Gnagy, lately, but something led me to search him out on the Internet. I learned that while Mr. Gnagy is long gone (he passed away in 1981), his studio kits are still alive and available thanks to the Martin F. Weber Company.

Warhol Self Portrait Image
Andy Warhol’s Self Portrait

My research has also informed me that I was not alone in my devotion to the Learn to Draw program. I found this quote from Pop Art giant, Andy Warhol, “I watched his show every week and I bought all his books.”

I wonder how many other artist, famous or infamous, spread out their drawing materials on the floor in front of the TV set and, along with me, spent a half hour of their Saturday mornings following the goateed instructor’s lead.

 

Why Art School?

Chouinard Facade Photo
Chouinard Art Institute (Early CalArts)

Is an art school education really necessary for those that intend to make creating art their profession? Can’t you just learn everything you need to know about art, on your own, through practice? What do you actually gain from a formal art school education?

Drawing Class Photo
Chouinard Drawing Class

We’ve all run into self-taught artists in our lives with incredible abilities. Which begs the question, do you really need a formal and generally expensive, art school education to create great art? The answer, I believe, is no, but let’s discuss why I still recommend an art school education to anyone seriously interested in becoming a professional artist.

 

Contemporary Drawing Class Photo
Contemporary CalArts Drawing Class

Sure some can reach an extremely high level of proficiency, as an artist, on their own and stand toe to toe with artists who have benefited from an art school education, without one. However, it takes an individual with an extremely high level of discipline, perseverance and hunger for knowledge about the arts, to pull it off. It also takes a long, long time to gain the same knowledge, on your own, that you’d receive in the typical 4 years dedicated to an art school education. But it CAN be done. Hell, Vincent van Gogh did it!

Art History Class Photo
Art History Class

So, what are the benefits of a formal art school education? Thoroughness, truncation, concentration and camaraderie with hundreds of other artist, from around the world, experiencing what you are experiencing, at the same time. Realize you’re learning from professors with a lifetime of unique formal and, in the field, collected knowledge. Each one is passing this accumulated knowledge on to you. Quite the shortcut! You also gain a knowledge of art history you likely never would have acquired on your own. All organized and catalogued by significance. Artists and art movements you didn’t even know existed, that will prove important to the work you’ll create in the future. Art history informs of the important work that has come before us and explains why it is important. It prevents us from trying to reinvent the wheel, but instead enables us to stand on the shoulders of the giants in art.

Paint Sink PhotoSo, get an art school education if you can, but don’t despair if it isn’t in the cards. With proper dedication and exposure, you can get there on your own, the journey is just a significantly longer one.

Au Revoir, Dear Friend

Photo of Dennis Lewis
Dennis Lewis, at home at his easel.

Old friends are the most valuable friends. They know your true name. That is, they know who you really are, stripped away of any accomplishments or well developed facades. They befriended the lump of clay in its raw, unrefined state. A life barometer, their praise, criticism and most of all continued friendship, slices through the layers to the man or woman behind the curtain. They are a cornerstone in the foundation of your life.

I lost one of these dear, stabilizing friends this week. Dennis Lewis, master painter, teacher, lecturer and most beautiful of human beings, husband to designer, Sheryl Lewis and 3 wonderful, creative children, Christopher, Nathanial and Christina. He left us after a brave multi-year battle with cancer.

Rose of Sharon Image
“Rose of Sharon,” by Dennis Lewis. Featuring his beautiful wife, Sheryl.

Dennis and I met our first week at Chouinard Art Institute. I was sitting on the sidewalk, out in front of the school, during a break between classes. My back against the wall, staring at the ground, this was the first time I’d ever begun a school year without knowing anyone else attending. I heard, “Hey, man,” and looked up to find Dennis starring down at me. “This your first week here?” I responded that it was and he said he thought so, he’d seen me in his life drawing class. He explained it was his first week, too. We were both 18 years old, at the time, and this was the beginning of what became a 50 year long friendship. This was Dennis’ way, reaching out to anyone he encountered who seemed lonely, confused or needed help in some way. He had the biggest heart and kindest manner of anyone I’ve ever encountered. And he was so humble. He was one of the most talented individuals I knew in art school and that talent skyrocketed throughout his life. He’s responsible for the design of album covers for many of the movers and shakers in the recording industry, countless movie posters and several of his commissioned paintings hang on the walls of the Pentagon. Yet, he was constantly seeking out strangers of talent and asking them to show him how they did what they did, expanding his learning, only sharing his own work with them, if they asked. As a result of this, he could number many notables in art, as his friends.

Hair Image
“Hair,” by Dennis Lewis. A challenge to his son, can you grow an afro as big as mine, in the day?

I’ve been fortunate, in that Dennis and I have often lived in close proximity to each other. Many of the positions I’ve held have been packaged with the responsibility to recruit others, for assistance in realizing accomplishment of creative projects. Dennis never refused my requests for help, allowing us the joy of working together many times in our careers. He even packed up his family and moved from L.A. to the Sierra Nevada foothills to help me build a creative organization for a pioneering company, in the early days of computer game development, Sierra Online. I say joy, because Dennis is a hilarious guy. He tells a story like no one else. Anyone who ever attended one of his demos, can attest to this. They were not a demo you wanted to attend with a full bladder!

To some degree our lives traveled along similar paths. At 5 or 6 years of age, we both decided we’d be artists, after receiving praise from our mothers, for something we’d created. We both entered and graduated from the same art school in the same period and chose identical areas of study while students there. For most of our adult lives we earned our daily bread as commercial artists and recently, at the same time, without consulting each other, both decided to pursue fine art full time. Identically, we fell in love with the Sierras, during our time at Sierra Online and settled here.

Our being located near each other, in pursuit of fine art, has allowed us to paint and draw together on a regular bases, both in the studio and out in  the pastoral locals Yosemite and the surrounding mountains offer. A tremendous gift, recent years with my good friend and creative sounding board. With his passing, I’m out of balance. On some level, I was painting for Dennis. His absence has left a tremendous void in the lives of all that knew and loved him and to know Dennis, was to love him.

Au Revoir, Bud, please keep a place for me on whichever plain or in whichever dimension you settle!

 

 

Learning to Love What you Hate!

Cy Twombly Painting
“Untitled (Bolsena),” Cy Twombly

We all carry prejudice. Life experience teaches us what we like, as well as what we don’t like, so much. You probably have a favorite color. Prefer salty snacks over sugary ones, or vice versa. Maybe you like snug fitting clothes or want your garments to hang looser…no problem!

Basquiat Painting
“Untitled,” Jean-Michel Basquiate

I do feel prejudice can become a huge problem, if you’re an artist. I have artist friends who dismiss entire schools of art or bodies of work, because they don’t like that kind of thing, or worse, believe it falls below the bar they’ve arbitrarily set for what IS or IS NOT art. Here’s a rude awakening to any of you out there that find yourself in one of these camps, IT’S ALL ART! Yes, it’s all art, but within each art genre there is GOOD and there is BAD art! No one gains anything from BAD art, unless it’s a reminder to avoid going in that direction, but if you write-off GOOD art, of any school or collection, because it’s foreign to you or not your thing, you do yourself a disservice, turning your back on available knowledge: concepts, techniques, solutions, etc., that could inspire new directions in your own work.

Rauschenberg Assemblage
“Monogram,” Robert Rauschenberg

Ridding yourself of bias takes a change of mind and heart, but it’s worth it. I’ve considered myself an artist, since I was a little kid and I’ll admit, by the time I walked through the doors of art school, I’d built up quite a library of art prejudice. There was more I disliked, than I liked in contemporary fine art. But art school was a wonderful, true education for me. Here I could no longer choose what it was in art I would focus my attentions on. For the next four years my professors were going to make those choices, enlightening me to what was important in art and explaining why that was so. As if a blindfold had been removed from eyes, suddenly I saw how all the pieces fit together in the timeline jigsaw puzzle that is the history of art. I had a new library of concepts and solutions to draw from (excuse the pun) that helped resolve problems in my own personal work. With understanding and appreciation came a new appetite, there is now so much more visual information for me to digest, in art museums and the world at large.

Les Demoiselles Painting
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Pablo Picasso

As artists, we can’t afford the personal likes and dislikes in art that the rest of the population holds. We must keep our minds open and approach each new visual stimulus free of preconceived ideas, absorbing whatever it has to share with us. You don’t have to drop everything and register for art school to open your mind. The Internet has made gaining knowledge about subjects we don’t understand easy and instantaneous. The best place to start is with the art you like the least.

In time you’ll be harvesting information from Banksy as well as Caravaggio!

Judgement Call

Judging Photo

Among the many things discussed this weekend with 3 artist friends, during our 8 hour round trip journey to the San Francisco Bay area, was judging in art competitions. We belong to a local chapter of a San Francisco based art organization and had volunteered to transport our member paintings up and back from the annual exhibit held at our headquarters gallery.

We’re, all four, often asked to judge various competitions or to be involved with the selection of judges. I, personally, believe in a 3 judge system. Having a single judge, I feel, is unfair to the entrants, as it’s very one-sided, reflecting the nonobjective personal tastes and opinions of a single individual. While having two judges is a little better, with the decision making a bit more objective, the decision weighting is now just 50/50 and the two judges decisions can cancel each other out. A piece that one judge loves, can be knocked out of prize competition because the other judge doesn’t agree. With 3 judges, prize winning works are selected through majority decisions, each single judges judgement call is tempered by the judgement of the other two. I feel so strongly about the fairness of the 3 judge system, that I consider this in deciding whether or not to participate in a competition.

Ribbons PhotoAnother central topic surrounding our competition judging discussion was the importance of who the selected judges are: their background and expertise. Organizations have a lot of tasks on their plate when putting together an exhibit or competition and too often judge selection it made quickly, without adequate consideration, in an effort to mark the task done and move on to one of the other items on the list. The problem is compounded if you’re making the selection for an organization who offers competitions annually or even more frequently. In attempts to avoid using the same qualified judges too often, it’s easy to relax standards a bit, in the name of adding variety to the judging panel. Don’t do it! Who is selected to judge the competition is the single most import decision made in an art competition. Unqualified judges make for unfair, competitor head-scratching decisions.

Selecting judges with expertise specific to the flavor of your competition is another important consideration. If you’re mounting a representational art only competition, you don’t want to bring in judges known for their fantastic abstract work. If you’re including an abstraction category in your competition, you don’t want to only invite hardcore realists to do your judging.

While a lot of this is just common sense, when the calls for entry have gone out and you’re under the gun to get everything done before the posted show opening night date, it’s easy to use up the time necessary to consider and vet appropriate judges. You owe it to yourself, organization and competitors to never let that happen.

Little Known Facts About van Gogh

Self Portrait Image
“Self Portrait,” Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh’s work spoke to me at a young age (6 or 7) and I’ve continued the conversation with this very special Dutch artist my entire life. I first discovered his work in a Child Craft encyclopedia, one of the volumes in the full set my parents had purchased to support the new family they’d begun. It was the first of many books in which I’d learn about his tortured life and magnificent product over the years. With each tome new pieces were added to the complicated picture puzzle of his life.

Vincent never showed any special affinity, interest or talent as an artist before he decided he wanted to be one at age 28. 9 years later, at age 37, he was dead. Over just 9 years he’d taught himself, first to draw (2 years), then to paint, producing 2,100 works of art and establishing himself as one of the most influential artists in Western Art. Not so much a little known fact as a phenomenon often overlooked.

While it appeared the older Vincent was taking great advantage of his  younger brother Theo, in actuality it was a business arrangement. While Theo was supplying the funds that enabled Vincent to paint, all the paintings belonged to Theo and Vincent shipped them off to his brother, as soon as they were dry enough to travel.

Vincent was a kind, compassionate individual, in the extreme. In his earlier attempted vocation, as a missionary in Belgium, he ruined his own health, first giving away all his food and most of his clothing to the poor miners there and then sleeping on a bed of straw on the floor, after he’d torn all his bedding into bandages for the treatment of those injured in the mines. Uncomfortably with his sacrifices, the church asked his family to bring him home.

Sudden Shower Image
“Sudden Shower over Shin‑Ohashi Bridge and Atake,” by Hiroshige

Later, when he was painting in Arles and would pick up funds wired to him from Theo, he’d often arrive home from the post with just pennies in his pockets, having given the bulk of his newly received funds to the poor and homeless he met on the street.

From Hiroshige Image
Van Gogh’s copy of the Hiroshige print.

Van Gogh was heavily influenced by Japan’s reopening of trade with the West after 200 years of isolationism. There was such an insurgence of Japanese objects in Europe, that Japanese prints were found, wrapped around ceramic objects, used as packing. Van Gogh’s work began to include outlines, an element missing from Western painting for centuries, but a primary element in Japanese prints. His areas of color were greatly flattened. And something I’d never noticed, prior to recently reading a van Gogh biography translated from Dutch, Vincent eliminated shadows from his paintings. Shadows do not exist in Japanese prints.

Bedroom Image
“Bedroom at Arles”

Even his migration to the south of France, his attempt to begin an artist’s colony there, was, in his words in a letter to his brother Theo, the seeds of a “new Japan,” as he understood it. His “Bedroom at Arles” a depiction of his new monastic Japanese dwelling place.

Contrary to common belief, Vincent’s work was gaining notoriety during his lifetime and he was offered multiple shows in Paris. Unfortunately, he inflicted a great dilemma upon himself. On one hand he was desperate for financial success, to remove himself as financial burden from Theo, but afraid that the same success would ruin him as a painter. Afraid that popular paintings would dissuade him from experimentation and encourage him to repaint the same paintings over and over again.

Tough case!

 

 

How I Kept My Mother Out of My Art School

Chouinard Photo
Chouinard Art Institute, circa 1970.

I’d known my mother planned to attend the Chouinard Art Institute right after high school, study fashion design there, then set the fashion industry on fire, since I was a little kid. From the age of 8 or 9, I knew I was going to be an animator, working for Walt Disney, when I grew up, so discussions of Chouinard and Disney’s close affiliation with the school came up often.

My mother is a powerhouse, always involved with several complicated creative projects at once: oil painting, ceramics, PTA President, Den Mother, poetry, local drama, sewing, knitting, etc. You wouldn’t believe the Halloween costumes she designed and fabricated for me and my four younger siblings over the years: Hollywood quality. She closely followed the career of Edith Head, a Chouinard grad, by the way.

Disney died the year before I graduated from high school. My dream of animating for him died with this legend. During my senior year in high school, I started attending Saturday life drawing classes at Chouinard. One of my high school art teachers, Mrs. Pardoe, arranged and encouraged these sessions. At the end of the year, I applied to all the art schools Mrs. Pardoe recommended: The Art Center, Long Beach State and Chouinard. I was fortunate to be accepted by all 3, but chose Chouinard. It seemed to fit me best.

Many years after my graduation, I was reading a biography of my mother in a high end porcelain doll magazine. She’d added doll making and, more importantly, the design and fabrication of original doll clothes design to the many things she does. In the article she elaborated on why she never attended Chouinard, revealing a fact, that in all our one on one conversations about Chouinard, she’d never shared with me before.

Mom and Pop Photo
My mother and father, in high school.

Like myself, my mother had applied and been accepted to Chouinard after graduating high school. This was at the end of World War II. The art school told her, yes, we’d love to have you, but we have to put you at the back of the entry line, behind all the WWII GI’s returning from the war and entering the school through the GI Bill. They said they’d call her, as soon as there was an opening.

Months went by, then years, but finally she got her call. She told them she wouldn’t be attending. In the interim, she’d married my father and was now 8 months pregnant with her first child: Me!

She never attended Chouinard, but did get the necessary fashion design training she required at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and with my youngest brothers in high school, began an over 30 year career as a fashion designer, creating for some of the biggest labels in the industry.

I love you mom!

 

If a Tree Falls in the Forest & No One is Around…

Dixie Salazar Landscape Image
A landscape by Dixie Salazar.

Last Saturday night, July 8th, local gallery, Gallery 5, hosted an artist’s reception for master painter, poet, novelist and activist, Dixie Salazar, as introduction to her stunning one woman show there this month. The show is a milestone event, one, gallery curator, Jon Bock, has been attempting to procure for many years. Ms. Salazar embodies a major presence in the Central California art scene and securing a retrospective exhibit of her work for our small town, up here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is quite a coup for the local creative community.

Dixie Reading Photo
Poetry read during artists reception © 2017 Jonathan Bock

Which is why I was puzzled by the poor turnout last Saturday night. In addition to gallery personnel, the guests were myself and my wife, two personal friends of Dixie and two other local residents. What gives? The show was well publicized. In addition to all the online marketing Gallery 5 did, on behalf of the reception, I know I personally, spread the word to local artists I ran into at art organization gatherings, in the final days leading up to the opening. There was live music, barbecue, drink and personal readings by Dixie of some of her exceptional contemporary poetry.

Was it the heat? The voluntary $5 donation to cover the cost of the barbecue? Dixie’s work suggests story, like Chagall, contains the color harmonies of Matisse, the liveliness present in the works of VanGogh and Gauguin, all uniquely synthesized through her personal brush. Did they not like her work?

Whatever the reason, while it’s too late to meet and pick the brain of this petite giant, too late to hear her read her poetry, the show will still be there until July 30th. I’ve seen it twice already and plan to return multiple times, before it’s gone. I urge anyone in the area with even a fleeting interest in art to not miss this museum quality show!

 

Keep Your Eyes Wide Open & Your Ear to the Ground!

MoMA Image

I’ve been the beneficiary of a great art education and had the added advantage of working alongside other artists most of my adult life. I’ve always been confident that I knew who all the important artists were, working currently and in the past. I’ve had great art history teachers, I’ve always been a frequent visitor to local art museums and when I’ve traveled, I’ve made visiting all available museums part of my itinerary. In fact, if it’s vacation travel, visiting the museums is always central to the trip. I’m also a frequent reader of significant art magazines and artist biographies. So when I learn of an important artist I don’t know about, I go into a state of shock. Say what!

In my defense, up until recently, my focus has always been on artists exhibited in art museums. My own work had been exclusively focused on abstraction, so my interest lie with Modern and post WW II Contemporary Art. I hadn’t paid much attention to the work in small local or regional galleries.

Niños Tomando su Bano Image
“Niños Tomando su Baño,” by Joaquín Sorolla

That changed recently, when joining a local art association, Yosemite Western Artists (YWA), reawakened my interest in representational art. You can learn more about that transition in my earlier post, “The Power in Painting with Friends.” Anyway, this revitalized interest in representational art has introduced me to some of the leading artists creating representational art today, artists to whom I’d never been exposed in the past. That, in turn, pointed me to the artists, through history, they feel are important influences on their representational work. Many of them are the same Modern Art giants that have, in some way, been effecting my abstract work: Manet, Degas, Monet, Cézanne, Lautrec, Van Gogh, etc., but others, like Anders Zorn and Joaquín Sorolla, I’d never heard of. Look at the color and brush work in the attached Impressionistic Sorolla painting, ” Niños Tomando su Baño.” Unbelievable!

What a treat! To find this cornucopia of new works to digest is like a childhood Christmas morning! I can’t see and study all these works, new to me, fast enough! I’m now on a quest to uncover all the other important artists to whom I’ve yet to be exposed. This all grew out of my recent association with YWA. Another, very important reason to become an active part of local art associations in your area.

I always new that education was a life-long undertaking, but I must admit, I was surprised to discover, that with all the attention I’ve given it, there were avenues in art history down which I’d never traveled. Bon Voyage!