Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some More Travel Postcards

In months past I've posted pictures of watercolor postcards I made while traveling to send home to friends and family. The idea has been to keep working even while away from the studio. At first I thought it might be something people would enjoy but not necessarily care that much about otherwise, but the practice has become something of a traditiuon. Now one of the routine questions I get as we go away is whether or not I plan to send some of these little paintings back. And of course in general that's what I do.

This past week we've been on a cruise along the east coast of Spain, stopping in several coastal cities and towns to explore. We were in Barcelona, Tarragona, Cartagena, and Malaga, among others, and I've had the chance to make a few postcards while also keeping a trip diary/sketchbook. I highly recommend doing that for anybody who wants to keep their hand in while traveling.

Here are a few of those paintings. All are 4x6 on 140# Strathmore wc postcard stock.

This one is a view of the esplanade in the seaside city of Tarragona. The walkway is a beautiful setting overlooking the Mediterranean and a Roman amphitheater that has been excavated just below it, close by the sea. This part of Spain is warm and subtropical, and quite beautiful. These sketches are quick ones, so there isn't much detail.

The next is a sunlit view of a city street in Cartagena, a truly ancient city dating back to the Phoenicians and successively owned by Carthage, Rome, the Visigoths, Muslims, and Spain. There is a harbor that is protected by mountainous terrain on the approaches and over which loom the Alcazaba, a big fortress and castle. The city is quite beautiful as well, with some streets actually paved in marble. We spent the afternoon in tapas bars, having a bit of the wonderful Spanish wines and typical snacks that are a big part of Spanish culture.

The next is a view of one of the harbor navigation lights that dot the coast. This one is at the tip of the breakwater in Almeria, on the southeast coast. I happened to look out a porthole and there it was, looming up in the dawn. Couldn't resist the chance to sketch it.

During almost any journey, sketching will repay the effort because it allows the artist to continue working, provides a strong memory, and (at least in my own practice) sends a gift home.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Pieces Artists Keep, and Why

Claude Monet, "Camille on He Deathbed," 1879
When you read about artists of the past you sometimes read about works they made that were personal favorites, often never sold. Owing to one thing and another, the works remained in possesion of the artist because of extreme emotion--Monet's deathbed painting of Camille Doncieux for example--or because of other circumstances. Camille had been his model and wife for more than twenty years before she died in her thirties of cancer. Monet painted this picture after she died, later writing about how the colors changed in her face as he did so. He kept the painting until his own death in 1926, most likely as a deeply personal memento of the love of his life.

John Sargent, "Madame X," 1884
Sometimes it may not have been sentiment but notoriety that prompted an artist to retain a work. John Sargent's painting, "Portrait of Madame X" scandalized the Paris Salon of 1884, partly because he painted the right strap of the gown falling over her shoulder--seemingly as if she were about to undress. The critics were savage about the work. Sargent repainted the strap and kept the work for another thirty years before selling to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. As to why he kept it, perhaps he wanted to sell and nobody was buying. Or perhaps he felt it was under-appreciated, or maybe he simply liked it that much. He was supposed to have said it was his best work, and I think he kept it more out of a dislike for the criticism, although he did exhibit the work quite a few times before the later sale.

Leonardo da Vinci "Mona Lisa," 1503-1516
Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda was a particular favorite of da Vinci's. It is most commonly said to be a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a silk merchant of Florence. It's known that da Vinci did indeed paint such a portrait; what is still at odds is whether the portrait we know by that name is actually the one of Lisa. At any rate, if this is the painting, it was started in 1503 and continued in his possession until he died. Of course, he may have kept it because he had difficulty finishing anything. Was it because he loved it or because it frustrated him? Certainly it was documented that he was working on it even ten years or so after he began it as a commission. At any rate, it is of course now the most famous painting in the world despite having been out of sight for all of those years.

"The Dying Woman," 2008
Probably we all have works we're reluctant to sell, or never intended for sale. In my own case it's a silvepoint drawing called "The Dying Woman," that continues to evoke strong emotions. It's a work I'll never sell. The lady in the drawing is at the end stage of metastatic lung cancer with only a few weeks to live when this was made. In a sense it's more like Monet than da Vinci. It's not a favorite because of what it is or how it was made. Instead it evokes strong and painful emotion. I cannot look at it long. I suspect Monet felt the same.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Be an Artist?

"Why" is probably one of the hardest questions for people to answer. Why do we do whatever we do? Why did we become what we are? Sometimes--many times--things seem to have happened in our lives without our own will being involved at all. Things "just happen" to many of us. Not long ago the question in the title of this post was asked of me, and in all honesty I was stumped for a quick or simple answer. The first reply that came to mind was that I didn't know, but then came another: "it's complicated;" and at last, "I've got to think it over."

Some people will say they took a particular path in life because it was imperative to them, because they were driven to the pursuit. A struggling writer I once knew said she wrote things because she simply "couldn't not write," and then gave a rather piteous sigh--she was driven, she said. For some of us, though, we wander paths that diverge sometimes and cross sometimes as settings and relationships change. We explore different lives and pursuits and we find ourselves in different places than we expected. It's not that will isn't involved in our trailblazing; it is. Some artists do seem to have been born to it--Michelangelo, Picasso and others come to mind--but the majority of artists have developed and expanded whatever innate ability
van Gogh "Sorrow," 1882
they received and then perfected their craft and art. Here I think of people like van Gogh, probably Renoir and many others who by diligent and nearly ceaseless effort became transcendent artists. Van Gogh arguably had very little talent but his work became almost synonymous with wild emotion, even his drawings, like "Sorrow."

Pierre Auguste Renoir, "After the Bath," 1910
Renoir began as a painter of china and porcelain (he was born in Limoges) but switched to fine art and eventually became the renowned Impressionist that is remembered. But even as he worked ceaselessly to improve, some of his peers thought he had little talent. As was the case with van Gogh, it was enormous effort and diligence that won the day for him. After reaching fame and fortune, he continued work as an artist until his death although his later works seem less accomplished than his middle years. Nonetheless, Renoir persisted until making art was part of him, inseparable from the rest of life.

So why be an artist? There are probably a lot of answers. Here are some possible ones, none particularly good.
1. The life of an artist is great, and it's easy.
    Well, it's great not to punch a time clock, keep some else's hours, do work one doesn't enjoy, and all that. But the life of an artist is without fail one of continual and unceasing work, whether it's production of art or promoting it or marketing it. Full time artists I know work almost all the time.  Taking it easy all the time simply isn't the artists' life.
2. You can make a lot of money as an artist.
    Perhaps. Certainly some very accomplished and well-known artists of various kinds make astonishing amounts. On the other hand, there are literally millions who call themselves artists and most make nothing at all. Getting into "art" to become rich is a fool's errand.
3. Everyone tells me I can already do it, so why not?
   You may have a built-in ability that will allow you to soar to the heavens with your music or words or images. But I doubt it. Mostly artists are made, not born. Even those with a high level of talent work hard to improve. Most artists learn the skills needed to play the bassoon or mix oil paint long before they produce anything of worth. Artists must learn, even those with startling ability.
4. Making art is fun.
   It can be fun to make art, but getting there isn't always fun. Like any learned skill (see above) making art of any kind requires learning the craft. Making art requires discipline and that can often seem more like drudgery--practicing scales on the piano, for instance. In physical training they say, "no pain no gain," and whether it's true for art or not, it often feels so. It's the craft that makes the art. Yes, people like Jeff Koons pay others to execute their concepts (hence "conceptual artist") but that's rare.
4. I want to be famous.
   Be careful what you wish for. Most who become famous wish it were otherwise. Artists become famous about as frequently as they become rich. That is to say almost never. And fame is not only fleeting but commonly a millstone on one's neck. If you'd like to be famous, well...good luck!

So why am I an artist? The short answer is because that's a big part of who I am. In looking back over a lifetime, considering the activities and learning that excited me, it's clear that making images has always been important. Being an artist is part of my self, ingrained in the being that is me. When I look at the world I commonly see things differently. Difference in perceptions is a significant piece of being an artist, though not the only important one. Concentrating on the patterns of bark on a sycamore or how light passes through glass and water are time spent immersed in the physical world, almost a stepping outside the self. Art doesn't exclude the rest of life, of course. There are other parts of me that have little to do directly with art, yet those pursuits also require attention, precise vision and logical thought, so perhaps more fundamental parts of one's makeup contribute to development of artistic ability.

Perspective drawing, 1956
My first recollection of making something artistic was an art contest sponsored by a local supermarket. I won an electric train, long since gone, as are the works that won it. But by age ten I was beginning to understand one-point perspective. Where I learned about perspective at that age has been lost in the mist of memory, but I do remember taking a perspective drawing to my art teacher, and to my surprise another such drawing recently surfaced, saved no doubt by my mother. It dates from 1956. Although I had no idea how to integrate a tractor and trailer into the image it's clear I'd gotten the idea of a vanishing point.

So for me as it is for some, being an artist isn't something that I became. Instead it is something that was always part of the larger me, the talent or ability or tendency or whatever was expanded and grew with the years of study and interest. Being a professional artist is an act of will; being an artist at all is most likely innate.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Travel Postcards

When you read books about sketching, inevitably the topic of sketching while traveling is included. And it's easy to see why because when we travel we want a remembrance of the experience. In centuries past the only way to memorialize one's trip was to either draw images or write them down in words. Travel writing, probably beginning with Marco Polo, became a genre of writing that has persisted into the present, and so has travel art. The wealthy Europeans making their Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries acquired art--good bad or otherwise--to bring home. Many artists actually catered to the genteel tourists of the time--Canaletto for example, in Venice.

So today when an artist travels, it's the rare individual who doesn't do at least some sketching, if not full-blown paintings or drawings. For me, travel sketching was difficult until I hit on the idea of making watercolor postcards and sending them to friends. My family and friends were surprised at first to receive postcards but now they seem to anticipate them. It's a great thing to send a quick sketch from somewhere, complete with foreign stamps and so on.

Now I also do more sketchbook work, but these postcards have been an enjoyable way to engage with the surroundings, continue to work, and keep in touch with folks at home. You can buy blocks of 4x6 postcards on watercolor paper, printed on one side, in art supply stores and online.

"Passau, Germany," 2014

This is a postcard I sent from Passau, Germany, a few years ago while on a vacation. The town was recovering from deluging rain and severe flooding. The ancient river town had suffered its worst flooding in several centuries, and the rain was still coming. I toned the card with a light yellow-gray wash before sketching the town and a few scattered tourists and added a touch of ink here and there for emphasis.

"Yellow Cafe, Arles" 2012

This cafe and street in Arles, France were memorialized by Vincent van Gogh when he lived there in the 1880s. He painted the exterior as a night scene as well as the interior. I sat and sketched the street and the remains of a Roman column (the ancient forum was nearby). Arles remains a beautiful place to gawk and sketch, and as you walk about you happen upon a number of sites that van Gogh put on canvas.

"Livia and Augustus Temple, Vienne, France," 2012

During the same trip to France we visited Vienne, a town in the south that has been inhabited since even before Roman times. In the center of the town, surrounded by much newer buildings, is a temple to the god and goddess Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia. The temple is relatively small but still imposing, built along the same lines as all Roman temples. All of the sculpture and decoration have been lost over the centuries of course, and the old building bears many scars. But it's a great example of Roman Imperial architecture.

Previously on this topic:
Travel Sketching With Watercolor

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Favorite Artists

Almost every interview of an artist one reads will involve discussion of artistic influences. Who are your favorite artists? or painters? or writers? or whomever. Which works influenced you as you developed, and so on. Some of the same makers of the past are mentioned time and again, whether Raphael or Wyeth, Durer or Pollock. An examination of which artists are my particular favorites continues to surprise me. This series of posts is intended to explore the works of artists whom I've learned about and find most inspiring.

Vermeer, "The Art of Painting," ca1667
As someone whose work is firmly grounded in the real world, my influences are mostly artists in that world, rather than abstraction and non-representational art. Most of the artists I admire personally were or are painters, but there is a reasonable leavening of sculpture. That's not to say that artists from other eras and other "isms" haven't had influence on my own practice. These days old influences and new ones continue, but it's dreary to list one's favorites. Instead my plan is to devote a post now and then to some of my favorites, probably in no particular order.

Over the past several decades my focus has again and again returned to the masters of the 17th century particularly the northern painters. Obvious representatives are Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and their contemporaries. There is something to be learned from each on every revisit to their works.

Among my other favorites from that age of painting (besides the three above) are Jan Steen, Pieter Claesz and Gabriel Metsu. These lesser-knowns were highly-skilled and very successful. And like their better-known contemporaries, they have much to teach.

Pieter Claesz, "Vanitas," 1630
Claesz is well-known for his vanitas works. Vanitas paintings are a reminder of universal mortality, containing most often a skull, perhaps a bubble (evanescent), or a snuffed candle, among other symbols of the brevity of life. Beautifully painted, the vanitas works by Claesz have stood the test of time.

Gabriel Metsu, "The Sick Girl," 1659
Gabriel Metsu was a painter of many kinds of work, including history, portraits, and my particular favorite, genre paintings. These were works depicting daily life in the era--taverns, weddings, visits to the doctor, and so on. Metsu painted a number of very sensitive works of sick children. In the painting included here a young woman is desperately, probably mortally, ill. Her mother weeps at hger bedside as the terribly weakened girl seems about to breathe her last.
Jan Steen, "The Quacksalver," 1651
Like Metsu, Jan Steen painted genre scenes as well as history, landscape, and religious allegory. Steen was a master craftsman but he also injected humor into his works. His medical scenes in partcular often have a rather macabre humor. In this painting, "The Quacksalver," the itinerant potion salesman and folk healer is extracting a tooth from a very reluctant boy as village people look on. A quacksalver was a patent medicine salesman, looked upon as little more than a fraudulent nuisance.

There were many other very accomplished, even masterful painters of the time, and all from that small part of northern Europe. One wonders how such things happen. Why did Italy in the 16th century beget so many great artists? And why did tiny Holland do the same in the 17th?

This post is the first in what will probably become a continuing series dealing with favorites and why they've been an influence. More to come.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Studying Presidents

As part of an ongoing project, I've been making drawings and paintings of American presidents. These are studies of the features of men like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and even Harry Truman. The idea has been to use the series as a way to practice many different disciplines as well as produce images to use in future work. So I've done graphite drawings, digital drawings, casein paintings, and oil paintings of some of the presidents of the United States. Here are a few.

"Dwight Eisenhower," graphite, 2017
President Dwight Eisenhower was enormously popular in the mid-20th century. He had been the general in charge of the the American and Allied forces during World War II before being elected in the 1950s. His high forehead and relatively long face make him difficult to sketch. This is graphite on toned paper, about 6x8.

"Thomas Jefferson," digital, 2017

This is an digital drawing of Thomas Jefferson, who was the third president. Jefferson has been controversial in recent decades owing to his having owned slaves and having a multitude of mixed-race descendants. The contradictory nature of his stand on human rights versus also owning human beings has been difficult to reconcile.

"Abe," oil on panel, 2014
Abraham Lincoln is probably the most revered of our presidents because of his central role in preservation of the nation itself during the Civil War. His influence has continued even a century and a half after his death. This is an oil study done from a photograph taken in about 1864. The colors were invented, of course, since color photography didn't exist at that time.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fragonard Reconsidered

Long ago, in a university humanities course, we learned about French painters of the 18th century and their rococo works, particularly exemplified by Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard both of whose works were long out of fashion by those days. The pictures themselves seemed like cakes with too much gooey icing, too sweet, too "cute." (As a callow youth I completely missed the sub rosa eroticism.) No, Fragonard's work was not my taste nor style, which in those days tended toward a more gritty American realism.

"Young Girl Reading," ca1770.
Perhaps twenty years later while visiting the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I happened on a small work by Fragonard, "Young Girl Reading." In this picture, we see much less of the sugary dollops and flourishes in favor of an intimate portrait of a twenty-ish woman in a brilliantly painted yellow dress. The effect was entirely stunning when I saw it. Here was smashing color, deft and exciting brushwork, and in total, a truly fetching picture. As the years have passed I've returned to visit the picture many times, always astonished by the facility and apparent rapidity of the work. During those years I ran across other works by Fragonard that were equally surprising, particularly his portrait of an old man that is now in the Chicago Art Institute. In that work, an elderly man with a face riven by the years and a too-red nose stares at us from a gloomy setting. The brushwork of the features is at least as delicious as that in the portrait of the young woman.

Now the National Gallery is opening a new exhibition of Fragonard's Fantasy Figures, a group of paintings that includes the Young Girl. The exhibit runs until early December. Some years ago, a page of drawings by Fragonard was discovered and has been linked to a series of fourteen paintings, which are the subject of the exhibit. Nearly all of the sketches are of named individuals of the time, and are linked together with the resultant paintings. These remind me of tronies--the idealized Dutch paintings of heads--but are of actual people. But the brushwork and composition on display are very reminiscent of earlier painters like Hals. In any event, this looks like a not-to-be-missed show, and I hope to see it.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Sketchbook Searches

Sometimes, when nothing strikes my imagination, when a motto I use--"just paint something"--doesn't even work, I go to to a stack of old sketchbooks for inspiration. A lot of the stuff in those books is more like musing in images rather than any kind of finished idea. Sometimes there's nothing at all to see, and sometimes a forgotten sketch, or scrawl, strikes a spark. Once in a while it's a good practice to leaf through the old books. You never know.

Here are a few sketches, done mostly in graphite. The first is a page of thumbnail sketches I did for an assignment. The idea was that we see blue car with the engine running at our gas station and a masked man with his hand in his pocket emerges. Trying to figure out composition, values and so on was a useful exercise. The painting has yet to be made, if ever.

The next sketches are from a small series intended as studies for an oil painting. Again, the painting hasn't resulted, but the sketches were interesting enough in themselves to keep. The top is the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, and the bottom is a small bridge in the same city. Now that I look at the lower image again, I'm again considering that painting.

The delicate beauty of this young woman attracted me immediately when  I did the sketch, but somehow it got shuffled into the sketchbook along with a number of other sketches, only to be found not long ago and scanned. The sidelong gaze and shimmer in her eyes made her innocence and questioning expression compelling.  This is a 5.5x8.5 sketchbook page.

That isn't quite the case with this female whom I sketched around the same time. In this case, she is a character in a movie set about a century ago; hence the hairstyle. But this young woman's character is considerably less innocent and considerably more calculating, which was what drove me to sketch her and the look on her face. This is also about 5x8.

The last drawing for today is a sketch of one of my models, done quickly on copier paper with a number 2 pencil. Many sketches like this wind up in the circular file. I kept this one because I liked the expression and the tilt of her head. As is easy to see, this one was hasty and was never cleaned up.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Fall Sketching

As the Fall season progresses and colors change, the chances for exploration of chroma, value and hue when sketching are wonderful. This season I'm going to try to do a good deal of outdoor sketching, trying to capture some of the change. For a landscape painter (to which I've no claim), Fall is a great season.

"Harvest, 2017," watercolor, 8x10
In Iowa, the farmers are cutting and threshing corn. The machines they use are called combines. You see them sometimes in groups if a big field is being harvested. The cornstalks are a golden brown, with no traces of green. The corn is cut when the kernels are dry enough and the stalks dried out. This is an 8x10 watercolor and ink from a few weeks ago. The challenge for me was capturing the cornstalks and the motion of the machine, so I chose of eliminate as much detail as possible while blurring the movement of the stalks.

"Spire," watercolor, 8x10
It isn't just the colors and foliage that change in autumn. The light changes too as the sun begins to move more southerly. I sat in a coffee shop a few days ago and sketched a dilapidated church spire across the street while thinking about the light and shade. This is also 8x10 in the same sketchbook.

"Warm November," watercolor, 3.5x5
The last image is also a watercolor, this time I did a quick sketch of the woods behind my studio. The weather had been unseasonably warm into November, and a single tree had turned red. This is about 3.4x5 in a pocket sketchbook.