Poe’s Pets

Modern Building Materials Image
The finished painting

I’ve wanted to paint ravens for some time now, but never seemed to get around to it. I’m fascinated by the gamut of colors emanating from their shiny, deep black plumage, like an oil stain in the parking lot, after the rain. I’d always planned to paint a representational version, then the upcoming exhibition/competition, Avian: Birds in a Changing World, nudged me both towards painting them now and painting them as an abstraction.

The Avian prospectus encourages artists to make a statement concerning the effects our changing environment is having on our feathered friends and I felt the concept I had for a painting in that light, was better communicated through abstraction.

That painting now being complete, get comfortable and I’ll walk you through the process.

Raven Sketch Image
I worked out my sketch in Photoshop.

I had a clear concept, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to present it. So, I started out by creating a rough sketch, in Photoshop, on my computer. I find it advantageous to do my thinking sketches on a computer, as you can easily try variations out on layers and changes are faster and cleaner than you can achieve with pencil, paper and eraser. The sketch was getting confusing, so I darkened the ravens to more clearly view their shape.

Ravens 01 Image
Executed my initial layout with shapes using acrylics.

Often the sketch I do at this stage is just a rough thumbnail concept of what I want the finish to be: the composition unresolved. This time, though, I realized my sketch was resolved enough to transfer as is to my 30″ by 40″ canvas. I had difficulty redrawing the sketch, in charcoal, on my canvas. I kept getting scale, shape or placement wrong. I decided to use acrylic paint instead. Following Matisse’s drawing with shape approach, utilized in his cut paper creations, I laid out the ravens as solid black shapes. The acrylics allowed me to quickly add or subtract from my drawing, due to their fast drying time. Eventually, I had a layout on my canvas with which I was happy. In hindsight, I would probably have been better off using a grid system to make the transfer.

Grid System Image.
With grid transfer system a grid is drawn over the original drawing (right). Then a proportionate grid is drawn on the canvas and the sketch is recreated square by square.
Ravens 02 Image
Adding collage elements

With the drawing blocked in, I began adding some collage elements. The concept here is, that with all the refuge present in the contemporary environments the birds call home and less open, wild areas from which to collect natural building materials, the birds are resorting to incorporating elements of trash in their nest construction. I wanted to use actual litter elements to communicate this.

Ravens 03 Image
Blocked in the base colors, including the acid-green background.

All the collage elements in place, I laid down the nest darks and blocked in the other base colors. I was going for uneasiness in the viewer here and remembered a disturbing gas-lit poolroom scene van Gogh had painted. I borrowed the acid-green color present there for my background. Still, I didn’t feel the background was alive enough and borrowed another van Gogh

Ravens 04 Image
Added van Gogh brushwork to the background.

vehicle: swirling, pulsating brushwork, to the background. At this point I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with the ravens themselves. I felt I’d better work on the birds a bit. Whatever I did to them was going to determine what I would need to do with the rest of the painting. I knew however I handled the ravens, they would need to feel black overall or they wouldn’t read as ravens.

Ravens 05 Image
Added color and pattern to the ravens & speckles to the eggs.

I decided to use the rainbow of color radiating from the shine present on the deep black raven feathers present on the real birds, that I spoke of earlier, as my inspiration for what I’d do with these guys. I started with the heads, then proceeded to the bodies, adding not only color, but also pattern. I also added the speckled pattern present on real raven eggs, before returning to work on the nest itself.

Ravens 06
Added mid-tones, lights and some gray twigs, along with some shadowing detail to the nest.

The nest now looked pretty flat to me. It needed a broader value range, if it was going to live in the same world as the ravens and their eggs. I added some light, mid-value and even a view gray twigs (for some color variation) to the nest. It still looked too flat, so I tried adding some shadowing to the twigs in one area of the nest. That seemed to be what the nest needed, so I continued adding the same shadowing throughout the rest of the nest.

Ravens 07 Image
Nest detail showing the shadowing applied to the twigs.

Looking the painting over, the edges where the raven on the left and the nest met the yellow-green background seemed to severe to me. I decided to soften the transitions with a bit of loose painting. You can see the result of these final touches in the finished version at the start of this post.

For the Birds

At Risk Image
“At Risk,” 36″ x 18,” oil on canvas, $2,175.00.

Here’s my process on an abstraction I recently finished for the upcoming show titled “AVIAN: Birds in a Changing World.” The competition will be open to artist across North America and sponsored by local non-profit organizations Sierra Art Trails (the group that puts together our annual artist’s open studio tour) and Yosemite Audubon, with proceeds going to support the two organizations.

I’ve never painted a bird before and had some difficulty in selecting a subject. We’ve got a seasonal pond on our property, up here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and, on occasion, a great blue heron will drop in for an hour or so to sample from the many frogs that call the basin home. We’re pretty excited when this occurs, so I figured that would be a good subject to begin with.

While our watershed is pretty pristine, these guys travel great distances, stopping for a quick meal at myriad locals as they go. Even up here, near Yosemite, I’m amazed at what people will dump in remote locations (I’m talking old sofas and refrigerators). I imagined what the herons might be facing when they feed in more urban areas.

Heron Sketch Image
A quick thumbnail sketch, done on my computer.

I started by collecting a lot of photos, from the Internet, of herons and frogs. Then created a quick thumbnail sketch on my computer. Given that everything on the heron is elongated, long legs, long neck, long beak, I thought utilizing a 1:2 ratio canvas might work well, so sketched using that aspect ratio. Usually, it takes two or three thumbnails, before I land on a composition or concept I like, but this time I felt I had something I could work with in my first sketch. I was a little concerned as to whether or not the frog’s placement over the bottom curve in the heron’s neck would be a problem, but I was confident I’d be able to work it out through color and value.

At Risk Day 1 Image
Day 1 progress.

I had a blank 36″ x 18″ canvas already, put it up on the easel and had at it. Even with the time eaten by the thumbnail concept sketch, I got pretty far with the painting that first session (with a large part of the day taken up by communications and marketing, I clear at least four hours, at the end of each day, to paint).

Heron Stage 2 Image
With base color down, I started to paint.

Three more sessions and I had most of the base color blocked in and could start actually painting. I began by dividing the heron’s neck into two surfaces, with a line down the center, adding a few stylized feather tufts in the process. I also added a pattern to the front of the neck, inspired by the coloring actually on the bird. I scrubbed in a bit of Indian Red at the neck base to delineate it from the body. Inspiration prompted me to add a bit of blue and green to the frog, so I slapped that in, before the thought evaporated. I decided to make the right side to the heron’s head a kind of negative of the left. Finally, I added quill spines to the feathers and tried out a possible paint pattern application. At the time, I felt the light yellow spines might need to be toned down, both in chroma and value, but decided to wait until the painting was more complete, before making that decision.

Pond Ripple Photo
One of several reference photos used to determine my pond surface pattern.

From the start, I’d planned some kind of pattern for the surface of the pond. Since I paint both foreground and background images with color of equal intensity, I need to rely on other graphic means to achieve separation and a hierarchy of importance. Patterns recede, so I knew using one here would be a good way to move the heron and frog to the forefront of interest. I didn’t want realism here, I wanted a graphic solution, but a solution inspired by reality. I went to the Internet again for reference.

At Risk Stage 3 Image
Painting with the pond surface pattern added.

Testing my solution out as a layer overlay in Photoshop, I refined my pattern until I was confident it would work, before committing it to paint. I do this often if I’m considering something that will require a lot of scrapping out and repainting, if it doesn’t work. A huge time and frustration saver. Here’s the painting with the surface pattern added.

Jump ahead about 3 more sessions and I’ve made a lot of painting progress. I’ve separated the frog from the heron’s neck with a medium blue and cad yellow/orange and added a black pattern to his skin. Your mind is geared to interpret everything as 3 dimensional, so even when it’s confronted with a clearly 2 dimensional image, its tendency is to process it in 3D terms. For example, it interprets large elements as being closer to it than smaller ones and an element that overlaps the edge of another element as being in front of that element, etc. This is so we can safely navigate a 3 dimensional world.

At Risk Stage 4 Image
About 3 sessions later.

A lot of what I’m doing, in my abstracts, is trying to bring attention back to the 2 dimensional surface of my canvases and override any projected illusion of 3 dimensional depth…to flatten my paintings. With that in mind, I’ve continued outside contours, defined additional forms and added a feather tuft pattern to the heron’s body. I’ve applied the earlier established pattern to all the feathers and brought attention to their 2 dimensional surface contours, with a swatch of pink paint. I added a label to the beer can, detailed it’s top and continued some of its contours across the pond surface. I moved the top of the plastic bottle forward by added a soft deep violet shape behind it. I defined a new plane along the top of the heron’s beak/mouth. I’ve also begun to detail the tire. At this point, I decided the light yellow feather spines were working fine and didn’t need to be changed.

Another 6 sessions and I arrived at the finish shown at the top of this post. Through those sessions I added patterns to the heron’s legs and frog’s belly, used color and value to define the planes that make up the frog, added nostrils to the heron and darkened the inside of his mouth. I also, added detail to the geometric color shape continued outside of the heron’s beak, further separated the two planes of his neck with a pale blue and added more surface form detail, with the addition of blue, to the right wing of the heron. Additionally, I added a surface contour running across the tire, heron’s beak and neck and pond surface. A few droplets of foam flying from the frog and a bit of minor adjustment here and there and I determined it finished. Wish me luck!

Picasso Haters! – Part 2

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Image
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Pablo Picasso

The purpose of this second installment in my discussion of Picasso is to explain WHAT it is about his work that makes it so important and , yes, why it IS art, in fact, likely the most important contribution to art in the 20th Century.

Japanese Print Image
“Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge,”Japanese Print by Hiroshige

In my last post, Picasso Haters!, I mapped out the representational art environment/history that led up to Picasso’s appearance on stage. You can catch up by visiting that post HERE.

So, one last huge development that changed Western painting, before Picasso makes his appearance. Japan ended it isolationist policy in the middle of the 19th Century and  began exporting to the outside world. Japanese Prints were so plentiful in Europe, that you could even find them wrapped around exported pottery, to protect the objects from breakage. Contemporary artists at the time, among them,

Van Gogh Painting Image
Painted copy of the Japanese Print by Vincent Van Gogh

VanGogh, Gauguin, Degas and Lautrec saw this stunning artwork for the first time, with its strong use of outline, flat color and its lack of shadows. The effect caused a seachange and Post Impressionism was born.

This is the world Pablo Picasso entered in 1900, when he arrived in Paris. His first efforts were highly influenced by the work of the Post Impressionists, but he still managed to contribute something brand new here: monochromatic painting. Before Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods no artist had thought to limit their palettes to a single hue.

Blue Period Painting
Painting from PIcasso’s “Blue Period.”

But an even bigger invention was presented around 1910.  Inspired by the later works of Paul Cézanne, Picasso and Georges Braque blew apart painting and reassembled it. Frustrated by the fact that, unlike sculpture, painting had been limited to describing subject matter from a single point of view, Braque and Picasso sought a more honest way to represent a 3 dimensional world on a 2 dimensional surface. The result was the multiple view point perspective approach, Cubism (Analytical Cubism) to be more precise.

To better understand Picasso, it’s important that

Analytical Cubism Image
“Portrait of Ambroise Vollard,” Picasso, analytical cubism.

you understand how Fine Art changed direction here. With cubism, fine art was no longer just about a beautiful esthetic, as it had been up to this point in history. Cubism raised concept to the top of the list, above beauty. So now we have art divided into 3 general categories: commercial art (illustration), gallery art (a search for a beautiful esthetic) and museum or fine art (intellectual pursuits). Picasso was the king of conceptual art and would remain so his entire life.

Others before him, had already separated painting from its marriage to the realistic representational image, Picasso realized he was now presented with the ball and given the opportunity to run with it as far as he could.

He broke painting into 6 graphic means, means for arriving at an end: line, form, value, color, texture and pattern. This enabled him to think of them as independent entities, to be used all alone, if desired, as well as used together in combination. This led to uncovering various systems of abstraction (ways to abstract): reductive abstraction, geometric abstraction, organic abstraction and the use of multiple viewpoint perspective in abstraction.

Guernica Image
“Guernica,” Pablo Picasso, synthetic cubism.

Through his exploration, in addition to cubism and monochromatic painting, he invented collage, assemblage and found object construction. Before he was done, he’d produced 200,000 pieces of art and covered every form of abstraction that could be created from subject matter. Since Picasso, any time an artist, abstracting from subject matter, believes they’re on a new course,

The Artist's Mother Image
“The Artist’s Mother,” Pablo Picasso, realism.

they round a corner and run right, smack into Picasso. In fear of taking on Picasso, after world World War II, painters in New York avoided subject matter altogether and Abstract Expressionism was the result. Even here you could make the argument that Abstract Expressionism was heavily influenced by some of Picasso’s brushwork.

Many believe Picasso did what he did, because he lacked traditional skills. They’d be wrong. Picasso could draw and paint like an angel and did consistently, alongside his abstractions, throughout his career.

Three Musicians Image
“Three Musicians,” Pablo Picasso, geometric abstraction.

So when you stand before a Picasso, realize what you’re looking at is an intellectual pursuit, that values concept over pleasing esthetic, created by a genius who invented many of the forms of art in use today, that this artist almost single handedly brought us Modern Art, taking art from the Post Impressionist to the Abstract Expressionists. It’s not important that it be pretty, just that it’s brilliant!

 

Picasso Haters!

Girl Before a Mirror Image
“Girl Before a Mirror,” Pablo Picasso

I work both abstractly and representationally, so my work connects me with representational painters and enthusiasts, as well as those who work with or love abstraction. Because I use multiple viewpoint perspective* in my abstract work , it often initiates conversations about cubism and Picasso. Contributing to these discussions, I’ve discovered a whole lot of people who tell me they don’t like Picasso…in fact, some say they HATE Picasso!

Rare Sighting Image
My multiple viewpoint perspective painting, “Rare Sighting,” 40” x 30, ”oil on canvas, $4,000.00.

Further inquisition reveals that most of this group misunderstand what they’re perceiving when they stand before a Picasso work. You’ll often overhear a judgement like, “That’s not art!,” from someone viewing one of this Spaniard’s paintings or sculptures. In a way, they’re right, it’s NOT a particular KIND of art. The reality is that since the middle or late 19th century Art has been divided into categories.

Prior to the mid 19th century all Art fell into one category, representational art.  Art had actually been more of a  commercial endeavor and was often the product of a team of craftsmen, working under the direction of a master craftsman to arrive at a product commissioned by a paying customer. Most of those commissions were initiated by the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, which both required an almost impossible number of images, sculptures, stained glass windows, alters and even churches to communicate their message to an illiterate public. These collections of craftsmen were often capable of designing and fabricated all the above listed items for their customers, a kind of one stop shop. Representational imagery was key to communication, so the competition among the Art Shops was fierce as to who could delivery the most convincing Realism.

Camera Obscura Image
Demonstration of an early Camera Obscura

The artisans had no qualms or guilts surrounding mechanical assistance in arriving at their representational ends. They were competing with each other in a race to create the most realistic images possible. Realism translated into bucks, more commissions meant more money in their pockets, so when the single or vanishing point perspective system, for achieving realistic perspective, was uncovered, they lapped it up. The camera obscura, a mechanical device that allowed projection of the world onto a piece of paper, panel or canvas for tracing, introduced during the Italian Renaissance,  was welcomed by many of these craftsman, as a quick and accurate method for achieving realism. The point is, Art was a highly commercial endeavor, the faster, more accurate and efficient images could be created, the better. No one cared how they got there. There was no such thing as a Fine Art, only paying customers.

In the 16th Century Protestantism arrived and brought with it The Reformation, which sought to return believers to religious fundamentals and strip away, what was felt, were blasphemous religious practices, among them, the creation of graven images or idolatry. Remember the printing press had been invented by now and people were beginning to read, the church was no longer dependent on imagery for communication.

With the loss of this meal ticket, the popularity of the multi-artist studio began to give way to solo artist practitioners. They may have utilized an assistant or two, but the production process was greatly scaled down. Efficiency and the assistance of whatever devices were available was as important as ever. The major customers now, were civic institutions or wealthy patrons interested in having pertinent events, important individuals or history (real or fictional) recorded for posterity. Again, communication was the goal and realism the best vehicle for the communication.

Early Photographer Photo
Early photographer

Remember the artist’s friend the camera obscura? Well, over time it was fitted with a ground lens and reduced in size, from its original configuration as a small room, to something that could be carried around and used on location. In the middle of the 19th a practical method appeared that could take the image captured directly by the camera and reproduce multiple copies of it. Photography was born. With real images of people and events now available, painted versions, as documentation, were less necessary or desirable.

This unexpected development (excuse the pun), changed the way artists perceived what it was they were doing. They became more introspective, started looking at how they applied paint, how they mixed color, how they delivered the illusion of space, etc. One outcome was Impressionism, where, less concerned with realism, artists applied paint loosely and dabbed raw color directly on the canvas, requiring viewers to complete the paintings, in their mind’s eye. Here, for the first time, a division in art begins. Art is divided into art for commercial purposes (illustration) and a new Fine Art, an art for art’s sake.

Galleries for public viewing of art began to appear in the middle 18th century, where, prior to this, all would have been secreted away in private collections of the church, royalty or the wealthy. These public spaces really took off in the 19th century, where the average citizen now had access to viewing art in every city, around the world.

With the stage now set for Picasso’s entrance, I’ll present the man himself in my next post and explain why he is considered the creative genius of the 19th and 20th centuries.

*An approach that considers the subject matter from all sides, then represents that data, at the same time, in a single image…think cubism.

New Ground

Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Swinging Bridge Image
“Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Swinging Bridge,” 30″ x 40,” oil on canvas, framed, $4,250.

I just finished an abstraction of the view of Yosemite Falls from the Sentinel Swinging Bridge. I work with abstractions as often as I do with representational pieces (actually more), but this one was more challenging.

My abstract forms are usually developed through multiple viewpoint perspective (MVP). For those unfamiliar with MVP, it’s an approach where the artist considers their subject matter from, not just a single point of view, but, instead, from all sides, creating images that represent multiple perspectives of the subject at the same time in a single image. The approach was pioneered by Picasso and Braque through their explorations with cubism.

Anyway, MVP depends on the viewer’s knowing what the subject matter looks like in its original state, before it’s abstracted, in order to be able to appreciate how it’s been abstracted. In a scene like this one, completely comprised of natural organic elements, representing elements from all sides can go unrecognized, so I had to depend on other systems of abstraction. I leaned heavily on geometric, organic and reductive abstraction here to arrive at my final solution. These methods of abstraction are generally called upon, to some degree, in all my abstractions, but this subject required me to rely on them exclusively.

Being forced to work without MVP took me out of my comfort zone, making me more insecure, a good thing for an artist. An indication that you’re exploring new personal territory and not relying solely on solutions that have been successful for you in the past. I highly recommend it.