Forever Young

Enjoying California Treasures Image
“Enjoying California Treasures,” by Trowzers Akimbo for Children’s Hospital.

I love that Dylan song! It’s Bob at his best, raising an intimate toast to an individual, he identifies all the challenges, pitfalls and fears we face throughout life and, possibly, gives criticism to a youth who dismisses all those older than herself. But that’s not what this post is about.

I’ve been fortunate to have worn a lot of creative hats throughout adult life: tv graphic artist, print illustrator and graphic designer, animation director, game creative director and fine artist. Some of my favorite work has been aimed at children.

Kid's Castle Image
Cover for “Sesame Street Magazine,” by Bill Davis.

I love kids! Everyone says that, but I really mean it. They crack me up in a way adults rarely do. They’ve figured a lot of things out for themselves, often wrongly, but share this misguided information with love and confidence. Maybe I enjoy their company so much, because there is still much about me that is a child. I’m pretty good at being an adult too. I happily accept responsibility and deliver my best, when others are depending on me. I’m happy to share anything I’ve learned, but enjoy many of the same things children do.

I love pure, non-local color. I want to paint things in the colors I choose, not necessarily the colors nature has assigned to things. I’m also most intrigued with that I’ve never encountered before, the first book in a new genre (I remember my ravaging my first Marquez book), a painter or illustrator with a new take on the everyday (VanGogh blew my mind, when I was 7 or 8 years old), new music, I mean really new, something I haven’t heard before. This joy in surprise is probably why I enjoy abstracting so much.

Croak Show Image
Children’s style art for the “Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson,” by Bill Davis.

So, no surprise, I’ve always been attracted to illustrated children’s books. I love the anything goes approach in the content and the often experimental illustration. I’ve been fortunate to create a lot of artwork for children. I illustrated a lot of text books and workbooks (the most fun), early in my career and was a monthly contributor to all the magazines produced by Sesame Street Workshop in the ’80s.

I was recently commissioned to created a 3′ x 6′ painting for Valley Children’s Hospital, in Madera, CA. That painting led to orders from multiple other children’s hospitals for large gicleé prints of the earlier described work I created for kids.

The work is living a second life. The best kind of life, one offering distraction and lifting the spirits of children and their families, if just for a short time, while they face the greatest challenges of their young lives. May you stay forever young!

Pastel Painting Priscilla Bugg

Portrait of Priscilla Image
“Portrait of Priscilla Bugg,” 16” x 12,” pastel on paper, $700.00.

I haven’t created a pastel portrait in a while, so I thought I’d walk you through the process involved in creating this one.

It was started live, during a Yosemite Western Artists (YWA) model session. YWA is the only artist group up here in my area of the California side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I live in the foothills, just south of Yosemite National Park. Luckily, they sponsor a lot of art activities including weekly 3 hour live model sessions, monthly plein air outings and photography group get togethers, as well as the annual Tri-County art competition and exhibit. This particular Friday, a young woman named Priscilla Bugg, who has been posing for the group since she was a little girl, was our model.

Portrait of Priscilla Start Image
My pastel by the end of the live model session.

It began pretty humbly. Our models pose for 20 minutes, then take a 10 or 15 minute rest break, then pose again for another 20 minutes, etc., etc., so of the 3 hour session, you only get about 2 hours of actual painting time. I like to add a few strokes, step back and see how what I’ve done compares to what’s up on the model stand, add a few more strokes, step back again and see how what I’ve done compares to the model…you get the picture. If I get a whole painting roughed out by the end of the session, I’m happy.

Invariable, no matter how carefully I sketch out/layout my subject, prior to actually painting, I don’t notice where my drawing is off until I have all the 3 dimensional forms blocked in. That’s when I realize things like the face is not wide enough or too wide or the nose is too big or small. I believe this has to do with the fact that the layout is just outline. Once you add form to outline it changes. For example, take a look at the line drawn and form rendered pipes below. Both are exactly the same size and shape, yet the form rendered version appears smaller in diameter (they ARE supposed to be pipes!) then the line drawing.

Outline - Form Image
The span of a outline drawn object appears changed, when form is added.
Priscilla 5/2 Image
Began correcting forms & color first day in the studio.

So, when I got to the studio, put the day’s pastel painting on the easel and compared it to the reference photos I’d taken, I could see a lot of the forms were off. I set to work by  raising the height of her forehead, reshaping her eyes and I began widening the left side of her face, at the cheek bone.

The big difference in working with pastels when compared to other mediums, is the fact that you can’t mix custom colors on a palette, prior to applying them to your painting. You can mix all the custom colors you desire with pastels, however, you have to mix them on the painting itself. This takes a bit more planing as you work. You’ll often see me applying garish colors on my first or second pass. I do this knowing they’ll be made more subtle with later passes. If I don’t apply those purples, blues and greens with my early passes, the subtle version of those colors won’t be there, when I’m finished.

Priscilla 5/3 Image
Modifying facial colors and values.

During my next session I added more detailing to and around her eyes. I also reshaped and detailed her mouth (including the Lauren Hutton gap between her teeth, cute!). The rest of my time, that day, was taken up with modification of the facial colors and values overall, adding a lot of pale pinks, oranges and yellows to neutralize the greens and purples a bit. Her face is really starting to have volume.

Priscilla 6/8 ImageAnother session, a longer one, and I had time to make a lot of progress. I finalized the shape of her face, made more changes to her facial skin tones, did a bit more work on her mouth, did a lot of work on her hair (I changed the shape and I added darks and lights) and I began to work on her neck with some new cool pale blues and some lights. I also reconstructed her ears.

Priscilla 6/12
Face, neck, sweatshirt and background work.

In this, the 2nd to the last session, I added a bit more warmth (warm colors) to her face, pretty much finished all the detailing on her neck and then began detailing the hooded sweatshirt she’s wearing. I also started working on what is showing of the chair she’s sitting in and the other woodwork behind her.

My work during the very last session took her to the finish, shown at the top of this post, and included the final detailing of the woodwork behind her and finicky touches here and there overall. She really went through a lot of changes from the initial sketch of Priscilla live to my last, in studio, session. They don’t always change this drastically, but when they do, I think it makes for a more entertaining ride for the viewer!

Special Framing for Soft Pastels

Portrait of Priscilla Bugg Image
“Portrait of Priscilla Bugg,” 16″ x 12,” soft pastel on paper by Trowzers Akimbo in special pastel mat.

A few years ago I came across a great system to use when matting soft pastel artwork for framing. Those of you who frame a lot of work created with this medium have likely noticed that, over time, some of the chalk falls from the artwork and collects along the bottom inside edge of the mat. The system I’ll demonstrate avoids this.

Pastel Board Cut DiagramKey to this system is that you cut your mat with a 45 degree bevel, but reverse the bevel so the 45 degree cut edge faces inward, towards the artwork, not outward towards the glass, as it normally would. When cut correctly, you see a sharp edge on the inside of the mat surrounding your artwork, not the 45 degree cut edge that reveals the center color of the matboard (generally white).

Mat Cut Corner Image
Corner of the top mat, cut using a reverse 45 degree bevel.
Hidden Mat Image
Hidden Mat attached to the back of Top Mat.

Next you need to cut a second hidden mat to be attached to the back of the first top mat to create an airspace between the artwork and the top mat. Any falling pastel chalk dust will fall behind the top mat and come to rest at the bottom of the airspace, out of view.

Since you won’t see this 2nd hidden mat, it’s a great opportunity to use scraps of that hideous colored mat board you have laying around. I cut mine from one piece of board, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use separate strips of board for this function. I size my hidden mat so the viewing opening is 1/4″ smaller, all the way around, than my top mat and 1/2″ smaller, all the way around from the top mat’s outside edge. This way I’m sure no one will be able to see the hidden mat, when viewing my framed artwork from the side and by keeping my overall hidden mat smaller than the top mat, I avoid it getting in the way of the frame, when I put everything together. Remember, that this hidden mat will come into contact with the backer board you’ve attached your artwork to and possibly the artwork itself, so you need to use acid free, archival mat board, if longevity is important to you.

Hinged Image
The mat assembly & backer board hinged together with acid free tape.

From here you just finish the framing following your normal procedure. I hinge my mat board to the backer board with archival tape.

Because I usually create my pastels on normal pastel paper, I couldn’t hinge the artwork to the backer board, as I normally do with works created on other substrates, using Japanese paper for the hinges and wheat starch as the adhesive. The wet wheat starch mixture would cause the paper to buckle, where the attachments were made. So, I used archival polypropylene photo corners, which I purchased at my local art store, to make the attachment.

Corner Image
Archival Polypropylene Photo Corner

That’s it! Use this mating system and you’ll never again have to pull your artwork out of the frame to clean the collected pastel dust from the edge of the mat.

The Balancing Act

Bare Tree and Pond Image
In progress pastel painting, “Bare Tree and Pond.”

I chose to use pastels during last month’s Yosemite Western Artists pleinair outing. It had been awhile since I’d worked with the medium and I committed to perform a pastel painting demo in June. I like to have a lot of new samples, in the medium I’ll be using, to display during demos, so it will be pastels from now until the June.

I spend most of my time painting in oils, but last year I painted in acrylics all year long in prep for a week of taking park visitors out to paint Yosemite, on behalf of the Yosemite Conservancy’s Art Center. They didn’t want me taking groups out to paint in oils for fear they’d irresponsibly dispose of their solvents.

I work in a wide variety of mediums, oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels (haven’t dabbled in encaustics, yet), always have. I think I’ve discovered something useful to all artists in my experience doing this.

With great painting the elements in your subject matter determine application. You apply paint different when painting water than you do when painting trees or rocks, for example. Here’s where balance comes into play: whenever you become comfortable with any given medium (balance), you begin to take its application for granted.  It becomes too easy to rely on past “pat” successful application approaches, instead of letting elements determine fresh methods of application.

When you work with a medium you haven’t touched for awhile, you have no choice but to work with the attributes particular to that medium, redetermining application approaches. You’re a bit out of balance for awhile. The attributes of pastels, for example, force different application solutions when painting water, trees or rocks, than working with oils does. Acrylics, another unique set of attributes, as is the case with watercolors or graphite pencils or encaustics, etc.

When you return to your original medium of choice, you do so with fresh eyes (having been away from it for a time) and possibly new application approaches. For me, anyway, this ongoing introduction of imbalance, through use of a variety of mediums has kept me moving forward and cut down on repetition. I highly recommend it!