Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Question of Detail

In much of this blog, I'm going to address you as if you were a working painter. I'm writing with the non-painter in mind as well, but many of the practical problems and theoretical issues that arise relate directly to decisions a painter makes while painting. I'm hoping this winds up being interesting for the non-painter as well, but, being a painter myself, I am in no position to judge. Incidentally, the best book I've ever read about the process and mindset of painting was written by, to my knowledge, a non-painter: Rudyard Kipling. The book is The Light That Failed. So there you go.

Anyhow, during my long day of making pictures yesterday, I painted Piera's right hand. Here it is, with a reference photograph of the hand for comparison:

Wow, those look pretty different, don't they! Yup. They do. You've seen a few of my paintings by now, so you can decide for yourself whether you like how I paint people. That painted hand is at about the level of detail and polish on most of the paintings you've seen, if you look closely enough. Compared with the photograph, the hand looks so simple and crude! But in the painting, it works (in my humble opinion).

This brings the question of detail to the foreground. How much detail is enough? You have to decide based on the aesthetics of your painting. Never be intimidated by the painters who are painting individual highlights and shadows on the wrinkles around the eyes, or individual strands of hair. What they're doing is no more "real" than what you're doing. That photograph of Piera's hand is not more real than the painting.

The level of real detail is infinite. I've seen some paintings of hands that go to the level of the individual ridges and valleys that form the fingerprints and palm prints. That's very nice. But if you actually look closely enough at those ridges, you'll see that they have a transverse hatching. If you look even closer, you can see flakes of dead skin and dust in the valleys. If you want to look even more closely, with a magnifying glass, you will see the translucence and shadows inside the skin of each ridge, and if you want to get a microscope, you can just make out cells.

There is no way to paint all this. A large part of the aesthetic question of painting is to decide what to leave out. Like so many aesthetic questions, it has a cognitive component: what is the natural cognition of detail? Your aesthetic decision pegs you relative to this population-wide cognitive mean (obviously, there is a good deal of variation from individual to individual). I favor a level of detail around the casual-glance level of cognition. This is in the Velazquez/mid-career-Titian range. Sometimes I'll go higher, sometimes lower. All the heroes of the Venetian Renaissance have a fairly low level of average detail. The fussy Germans go pretty high on the detail scale.

When I say there is no "real" depiction, because the real has no limit, I am also saying there is no "right" depiction, because "right" is an undecidable question relative to the unlimited detail of the world. Art has lots of things known to work, but it has no rules. Any rule proposed will be broken by the next genius to come along. So rely on what's known to work, if you want. Or innovate some new way to make something work. If you are a low detail painter, you are not wrong, and if you are a high-detail painter, you are not right. Be neither ashamed nor judgmental. Ask only, "Is this working?"

Optical Black: Part 2

So what does all this mean in terms of art itself?

If you hang out with painters for any length of time, you'll find that they tend to categorize painters as "form painters" and "color painters." A story for which I sadly have no pictures: in art high school, we were assigned a drapery painting. My classmate Sveta chose a colorful piece of cloth and immediately started defining it in her painting by means of modulations of the colors. I chose a piece of dark blue satin and lit it brightly from above. I laid in a simple layer of blue, and then when that was dry I built up the highlights with pure white, and the darks with "black" (you remember - french ultramarine plus burnt umber). I couldn't figure out how Sveta was doing it! At the same time, I was able to achieve marvelous subtlety of form, but I felt that this was too easy, that it couldn't be a legitimate technique. It turns out it was legitimate, and it's exactly how Tintoretto did it.

Sveta was a color painter, and I was a form painter.

I haven't got Livingstone's fantastic book with me right now. I want to get back to this idea of two different visual processing systems. Humans are trichromats - our color receptors are specialized to three different light wavelength ranges, and our brains compare the data from each specialized type to assemble the colors that we perceive in the visual spectrum. That's how we have color vision.

But until fairly recently, we were dichromats: two specialized color receptors produced a much less colorful world. If I'm remembering correctly, it was during this period that we developed our primary visual processing system, which perceives in black and white. Livingstone calls this the What system. Once we became trichromats, we developed a second, relatively independent system, which perceives color. Livingstone calls this the Where system.

My suspicion is that What-oriented painters are form painters, and Where-oriented painters are color painters.

Now we return to Harold Speed. Speed classifies the history of Western art into three periods:

1. Naive color, characterized by linework and blocks of color:

2. the Brown period, characterized by monochromatic formfulness:

3. Impressionism, characterized by panchromatic naturalism:

Speed claims that each period excels the one before in terms of its dexterity at representing material nature - and yet each one declines in terms of the scope of ideas it is able to convey. They are inversely related for Speed. The more sensual the art, the less need it has to appeal to the reason, and, in fact, the less capable it is of doing so.

He points out the poignant example of Botticelli, a man outside of time. Botticelli has lots of ideas he needs to convey, but he is already living in the Brown age, the age of chiaroscuro. So he simply rejects the innovations of the world around him, preferring to work in a flatter, more primitive style. In refining this to an ever-greater simplicity, he eventually abandons even color, and reaches the celestial majesty of his illustrations for Dante's Paradiso:

This extremity was accomplished when people already knew how to shade things! But this was not what interested Botticelli, this shading. He was trying to capture the struggle of the naked soul toward the divine. Every physical thing was a distraction from this struggle, and the evolution of painting since the Renaissance, in a technical sense, was an evolution toward the physical. So Botticelli cast himself backward, toward the Medieval period.

Now, as I said, I'm a form painter. I don't see color intuitively in the same sense that Monet and Seurat see color. In a later post, I'll explain how I produce paintings with believable color while working in a monochromatic paradigm. But for now, I'd like to explain: I think Speed has a point about the decline in thematic range and profundity with the switch from monochromatic to panchromatic painting:

...and yes, I know that's not a fair comparison, but still.

The point is that when you have all these vivid and fervent colors available, what can you paint but gardens and weather and light on buildings? The part of the brain that understands all these colors is young - it takes everything we've got to really appreciate those colors. It is only in the comparatively ascetic atmosphere of the dulled color that the mind has the breathing room to observe the perambulations of the soul as it goes where it is going.

The filmmaker Tarkovsky understood this distinction as well, working on various ingenious techniques to mute the color in his films (before the age of digital processing). Black and white, to him, was insufficient, but full color was too distracting:

From one perspective, I'm building up a fairly good argument for cognitively monochromatic painting. But even this argument, restricted as it is to complexity of theme, is suspect. Because, remember - I'm a form painter. I have a lot to gain from form painting being the most excellent form of painting.

Worse still, by basing my argument on looking at actual paintings, I'm invoking a host of uncontrolled variables. Monet's technique may well be applicable to the sufferings of John the Baptist. Maybe the reason he didn't paint John the Baptist is not technical limitation - but because Monet no longer lives in the age of religious devotion. Maybe Monet is responding to his market as Caravaggio responded to his.

So how are we supposed to control for these variables? It is not possible. But it is possible to control for some of them - by changing the actual paintings we're looking at. In the next part, we'll take a look at the other gang of painters who figured out panchromatic painting around the same time as the Impressionists did: the Academics.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Long Day

No posting today. Painted Piera in the morning, drew Cassandra in the afternoon. Here's a painting in an intermediate state. I'll have more to say about it soon.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Optical Black: Part 1

I don't have time to write about this entire topic today, and I'm pretty sure you don't have time to read about the whole topic, but I'm going to get started on the perception of darkness.

A lot of what I have to tell you is my take on the fascinating ideas discussed in Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone. If you're an artist, run, don't walk, to buy and read this book. And don't give me any lip about how artists aren't analytic thinkers, and all the science talk in the book is wigging you out. This book is easy to read, beautifully illustrated, and almost insanely useful. Besides, I think that stuff about how artists are beautiful, chaotic retards is mostly hype. Rubens managed a perfectly satisfactory career as a diplomat while being an amazing painter and all-around stud:

I negotiated the peace between Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England. What have you done lately?

Point being, good book, don't worry, you'll understand it.

Now, we're talking about how we perceive darkness. The "naive" form of the argument is that darkness is essentially "+ black," right? Just a lack of light. It turns out that's true, but that's only one of the ways we perceive darkness. The other one has to do with the different ways the human eye responds to light of different colors. Take a gander at this:

It's simplified somewhat from the true state of things, but that's a spectral response curve for the daylight sensory neurons (the cones) in the human eye. A spectrum of actual colors is helpfully provided at the bottom. What does this graph mean? It means that at normal daylight brightness levels, the human eye is most sensitive to light at a wavelength of about 545 nanometers - a greenish color. But look at that drop-off on either side of it! That is one hell of a drop-off, would you not say? I would say that it is, indeed, one hell of a drop-off.

What that hell of a drop-off means is that if you have equally bright violet and green lightbulbs shining on equally white sugarcubes, the violet-lit sugarcube is going to look pretty damn dark compared to the green-lit sugarcube. Even though they have the same intensity of light energy falling on them!

Well, that's very interesting. That means there are two ways that we can perceive darkness. One is the intuitively obvious "+ black" means. The other is by means of the color of the object perceived. A blue object is just going to look darker than a yellow object. Even fairly similar colors are going to look different in luminosity. Orange is going to look brighter than brick red.

Harold Speed, writing in the 1920's, had no idea about the scientific awesomeness underlying the difference between these two forms of darkness. But he pegged it anyway in his history of the development of art. He notes that in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the representation of form through chiaroscuro was developed to a high degree of verisimilitude, but that this technique relied essentially on "+ black" (or "+ brown") to show darkness:

The bright-dark distinctions between colors themselves do not functionally enter into the paradigm until the Impressionists (and, I might add, the contemporaneous Academics):

Seurat blinked in the sudden illumination and said, "It's you - my archenemy, William Adolphe Bouguereau!"

Bouguereau twirled his moustache and replied, "You see, Georges, you and I are not so different after all."

It's true. Under all the differences in brushwork and theme and virtually everything else, both of these 19th-century movements partake of a single revolution in the understanding of how the eye perceives darkness and light, shifting from the fundamentally monochromatic luminosity model of the 18th century to a modern panchromatic model. The panchromatic model is often referred to by the shorthand of "blue shadows," because painters in this school tend to paint blue shadows on figures lit by daylight (since the shadow side is keyed to reflected light from the blue sky). Before the 19th century, those shadows were almost always painted in brown or black. Yes, blue for shadows - not only the "actual" color seen in nature, but a color the eye sees as dark.

A split occurred once the dust had settled. Among notable 20th century painters named Henry, for instance, you'll find Henry Moore on the monochromatic side and Henri Matisse on the panchromatic side.

Why must there be a split? This is very interesting. It's because these two methods of seeing dark - "+ black" and "dark color" - correspond with two different visual-processing systems in the brain. The "+ black" system is much older, evolutionarily speaking, than the "dark color" system (I told you Livingstone's book was awesome!), and people tend to favor one or the other.

There is no grand unification of aesthetics, because the underlying cognitive process is itself dichotomous. All unifications tend to split under the strain of sustained examination.

Enough for now. More on the aesthetic, practical, and spiritual implications of all this sometime soon.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fever Blue

Well, I promised you I would explain why the Picasso portrait and my painting of Theresa have similarities of color and contrast. Let's look at them again:

You may notice there is something odd about the color in both paintings: it seems slightly too vivid. There is a sort of insistence on the part of the darks around the nose and cheekbones. Light leaps forward, and shadow leaps right after. How did this happen?

Because both paintings are painted over a layer of blue paint. I can't be sure about the Picasso, because I've never seen it in person. But don't be fooled by the green in the background. The central area is almost certainly coated in blue, or bluish-grey, or bluish-black, beneath the colors that you see.

Oil paints are not completely opaque. Many of the nifty effects you can get from paint derive from the interaction of translucent or transparent surface layers with the deeper layers. When the deeper layer is blue, as in the instances above, certain distinctive qualities emerge. The yellows, reds, pinks, and oranges distinctive to caucasian flesh do not sit comfortably on blue. They recoil from it, and become livid. Picasso is working in a more saturated warm spectrum than I am, but in both cases, the color has become too intense, and at the same time, too chalky. This results from the darkness of the blue penetrating the apparent warm color and charring it.

It is impossible to paint a perfectly natural-looking portrait in warm flesh tones over a blue underpainting. Why? Two reasons. The first is this recoil of color, a physical phenomenon owing to the unmixed overlap of the blue and the warm color.

The other reason has to do with the comparison the mind makes between the painting and nature. The degree of blue that elbows its way into your perception of the painting occurs in nature only under dim blue light. But flesh does not assume the full warm spectrum under such lighting. It looks cool and dark. So the very premise of these paintings is anti-natural.

Why do it at all then? Because the tension that is produced, both in the perceived color, and in the anti-naturalism of the color, has a uniquely feverish effect. Note the composition Picasso has chosen for his use of the technique: he stares intensely at you, as if he had been waiting for you in the dark, and you had suddenly turned a flashlight on him. The operatic quality of the night permeates this self-dramatizing painting. In my own use of the technique, I have chosen to portray a sense of shock, even entrapment - when I get done with the entire painting, I'll post it so you can see the full effect.

I have been wanting to do something with a blue underpainting for years, but I wasn't good enough to pull it off until fairly recently. I tried once in 2006, and it was such a disaster I gave up on the painting. Remember - all your colors come out either too saturated, or chalky. They look weird. You have to anticipate and utilize this effect, and never depend on a sense of naturalism.

You know where I first learned to integrate the emotional impact of the blue into the design of the painting? Gustav Klimt. Specifically, this portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. I'm cropping the image to just the face, because that's the important part here:

I first saw this painting in person in Los Angeles in 2005, I think, after its many lawsuit-related travels (the Nazis stole it, and the Bauer family got it back only a few years ago; it showed in LA for a little while, and finally landed at the Neue Gallerie in New York). I didn't recognize the technique then, but when I saw it again in New York, after my blue-underpainting-related catastrophe, I recognized the technique: there is a light bluish-grey under the flesh. Klimt let it dry, then painted his warm flesh tones in tiny little brushstrokes. You see how the warm color rebels - it splotches white, it turns harshly red in the cheeks. Klimt really liked this technique, and used it repeatedly:

Amalie Zuckerkandl

Die Hoffnung (detail)

Why does Klimt lean on this so heavily? Because the emotional implication of the technique is consonant with his goals: he wants to paint a state of light fever, of heightened intensity. The blue helps him get there.

This technique is rarely used in painting, and it is fairly difficult to unify your aesthetics with it (unless your name is Pablo Picasso, who painted that self-portrait when he was, you know, 19). But if you want to explore an interiorized state of emotional intensity, it is well worth considering it.

Q: If I paint the overlying yellows and oranges when the underlying blue is still wet, won't they just mix and turn green or gray or something?

A: Well, sure, if you're an ass about it.

Don't keep on blending until you run into that problem.

No worries, though. I'm guessing Picasso, not exactly Mr. Patience, painted his portrait wet-into-wet, and he avoided excessive mixing by loading his brush much more thickly for the overlying layers than he did when he laid down his blue. For my part, my undercoat was a very thin french ultramarine blue, and I had no trouble with my much thinner-than-Picasso application of the overlying warm colors. You really have to try to get the colors to mix if you want them to turn into crap. But if you don't want to take any chances, go the Klimt route - his undercoat was dry when he started putting in his flesh tones. You can tell by looking at it (where the application of warm colors dies off in midtones and shadows, they remain completely distinct from the blue, which would not happen if the blue were wet).

One last thing - this incidence of "you can tell by looking at it."

I've learned most of what I know about the techniques of painting from a) painful practice and failure and b) going to museums and looking at paintings. When you go and look at a painting, you'll learn the lessons you're ready to receive. You won't learn everything - you'll only learn what you need to know next. I didn't notice the blue underpainting the first time I saw the Adele in person, because I wasn't ready to understand blue underpainting. But it was clear as day the second time I saw it, because it was time for me to understand the practice and aesthetics of the technique.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


This is the progress on that Alley painting I was talking about the other day, the one with the shoulder bones. Contrast will probably go up in the final painting, and that background will be dull sky blue - I'm ripping off Tiepolo's burnt sienna sky-underpainting technique:

This is my reference sheet of canvas so I can remember what colors I've been using. I do this with most of my paintings:

You don't do it that way? How are you remembering?

Jacking Pablo

Well, that was a long post yesterday. Apologies - I'm new to this. Fortunately for you, I'm really busy today, so it will be no trouble keeping this short.

When I started painting in a serious sort of a way, I first spent a lot of time looking at Sargent. I actually think this is a problem among my contemporaries. Too much Sargent! More on that another time. I eventually shifted to the holy trinity: Rubens, Velazquez, Titian.

I spent a few years looking at them. But it turned out I had a lot more time to look and think about art than the Big Three had paintings available for me to look at. You can't look at the same thing all the time, even if you haven't run out of lessons to learn from it. So, against my will, I had to broaden my tastes. I looked at a lot of painters.

Lately, I've been so busy I haven't really looked at other painters. I've just been focussed on painting, so the only painter I've been learning from is me. The air was getting stale. Then the other evening I was in Barnes and Noble, as is my wont, and I decided I should shake up my outlook by looking at something I didn't necessarily sympathize with. So I pulled a book of Picasso off the shelf.

It was very refreshing, studying the visual idiom and technique of somebody alien to my interests and goals. It made me think over what I'm up to from a different and critical angle. And what do you know - the book reminded me that a painting I've been working on was originally derived from a Picasso composition. It's from 1901, so he was still comparatively technically conservative. Here's the best picture of the painting I could find on the Web:

This was the first hard front-lighting painting I was familiar with, long before I discovered Manet (who, pursuant to yesterday, turned to the Spaniards and their black when he longed for depth). This painting has stuck in my mind for years: the eyes slightly bugged out, the face emerging from the night, livid and intense. I waited a long time until I felt technically accomplished enough to rip it off. Here's the face of the painting I'm working on where I finally stole it:

But Daniel, you say, I can see what you mean, but this does not look like that painting at all!

Leaving apart all questions of whether it's as good as the Picasso (it isn't), if any of you are practicing painters, it's a good case in point about idea theft (or, to put it more delicately, "homage").

The point is this - all painters by nature become captivated by certain paintings that they see. It is worthwhile to carry those paintings around with you, for years if necessary, until your mind has digested them and made them yours. Then go ahead and steal like crazy. The transmogrification of the source image in your mind has already made it your piece, not the piece you saw. You've probably grown beyond yourself in grappling with the piece that so captivated you. This is what you're trying to do, and meditating on a great work for a long time is a great method to do it. All the greats have done it, and most of the not-so-greats.

And with that, adieu for today!

Tomorrow: the technical basis for the similarities in color and contrast between my painting and the Picasso source painting.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Spanish Black

A thing you should know about me. Probably my favorite painter working today is Stephen Wright. It just so happens that I'm lucky enough to be friends with him, and I'll likely refer to him a lot in this blog, prefacing his observations with, "Steve says this," and, "Steve says that."

What happened was, when I lived in Los Angeles, I started painting seriously. And the first model I ever hired for a painting was Kem:Kem is one of the most inspiring models I've ever worked with, not to mention a wonderful friend. Anyhow, it turned out Kem was also working for Steve, and Kem started passing messages back and forth between me and Steve, such as, "Steve says to remember that the length of my jaw from the back to the center is the same as the length of my jaw from the back to the ear." Which was actually really helpful.

Once I moved to New York, I met Steve in person at a gallery opening, and we hit it off, and have been corresponding since then. I wasn't a very good painter when I started talking with Steve, but he was really generous about my work and my prospects for improvement. Along the way, he noticed I was using black a lot. He concluded that I was using black as a crutch, and encouraged me to think about not doing that.

I went to an art high school where we were forbidden to use black. It had to be a mix of french ultramarine and burnt umber if we wanted a dark dark. When I started painting, I carried on still in thrall to this proscription. Then a few years ago I read Harold Speed's excellent book on painting (an Adam Miller recommendation), and he mentioned the reduced Velazquez palette of black, red, and white. I had been noodling around with a little black before that, but reading that got me over the last of my hesitation, and I went nuts with the black.

So at that time, it probably was a crutch, as Steve said. But I ignored his opinion and kept on going with the black. I felt like there was a depth to it which I had not yet plunged into, because I hadn't gotten good enough. The early black was clunky, awkward.

I disagree with a lot of what Peter Schjeldahl has to say about art. But every once in a while I feel like he nails it. He wrote an article recently; I forget which painter it was about, but he mentioned their debt to the Spaniards for his black. This abruptly crystallized for me the approach I was moving toward with black. It was Spanish black.

What is Spanish black? It is an invasive black, an overwhelming black. It is a black from which light struggles to emerge. It is not the black of a shadow here or there, of the corner of a dim room at night. It is a universal black in which the world itself is plunged. All light that comes out of this black is miraculous, and under perpetual threat:

Where could such a black come from? My hunch is that it's another one of the aesthetic consequences of Catholicism, like the Italian knack for making horrific zombie movies. This black of the Spaniards seems to me to arise easily from an outlook in which the world is in a pitched and possibly losing battle against evil. The black is a vicious and obscuring black, an all-pervasive and throbbing black. If the devil is walking abroad, and horrors abound, and virtue must clench its teeth and face defeat squarely - then how could you see the world as anything but a failing dichotomy, and black as an active presence? Not a lack of light, but a mobile character with a will and personality of its own.

Consider this painting by Zurbaran, which our friend Schjeldahl also recently extolled to the heavens:In this painting, black has been forced back to the edges of objects. The pure black does not inhabit the objects, but rather surrounds them. The objects themselves are clear, but their hard edges make them brittle, as if they might abruptly fall out of the painting. They are the argument that reason makes against a cosmic seething chaos - they are not native to the world they inhabit. The painting is characterized by utter control, because it is overwhelmed with menace. This is a metaphysical take on the theme of Spanish black. It need not be the specific goal of Zurbaran the man to produce this particular philosophical statement. All we need ask is: what does Zurbaran the painter naturally select as the background for his carefully arranged objects? The void.

Velazquez, in contrast, approaches black from the psychological end of the spectrum. His primary interest in his people is not moral analysis, but psychological perception. Morally speaking, his people are not wicked. Rather, they partake of the moral failures of all men: they have performed wicked acts, acts of self-humiliation, of lack of resolve, perhaps of petty cruelty. But this is not what interests Velazquez. What interests him is the psychology of his people. His people are half-sunk in black. He does not force black back out to the background. Black bleeds into the people themselves, softens the clarity of their image, infects them. Consider his The Dwarf Don Juan Calabazas, called Calabacillas:
A mental defective, possessed of a cheer that is indifferent to his suffering because he himself is deaf to his suffering. He radiates goodwill. He wants to help Velazquez make this painting, and perhaps he is pleased to be painted. But his hair is already pure black, his eyes are losing themselves in black. Black is creeping into simple goodness, and preparing to destroy it. But goodness will not be destroyed. Calabazas has an easy familiarity with this encroaching blackness, he accepts it and welcomes it. It does not occur to him to rebel against it because the blackness is part of the nature of things. He would not think to put it this way, but he lives in equlibrium with the blackness, and it does not interfere with his joy. Go on making fun of him all day; you cannot defeat him.

This kind of virtue is a mighty virtue, mighty in its humility, its ease, its unselfconsciousness, its light-footed understanding of evil.

Consider another of Velazquez's famous dwarves. We don't seem to know his name:

Black hovers around him and within him. He is in full possession of his reason - he understands his humiliation. His hands are balled up, and he glowers. Black is upon his eye and beneath it, like a mold which cannot be scraped away. It twines in his hair, his moustache. He rejects the blackness, but it is so interwoven with his self-conception that without it, he would dissolve. He shows us all the emotions that arise when reason and virtue confront the tragedy of a ruined world: outrage - pride - scorn - rebellion - resolve. This man, the most humiliated of all, is the proudest of men. But he cannot win.

The theme of black plays out in variations up and down Spanish art. Consider that dark room behind Murillo's strangely threatening flirts:
Or perhaps you'd like to see Goya tackle a similar theme:
Well, while we're at it, let's see where else black crops up in Goya.
Had enough? No?
Well, you get the point. This black is utterly unlike the black you will find in England or Italy. Can you imagine Tiepolo making skies so black, or people so cognizant of cruelty? Or Rubens - Rubens is full of drama, but never despair. In Rubens, there is no apocalyptic darkness. Only the Spaniards understand it.

In Velazquez, Spain does for psychology in painting what Russia does for it in writing, through Dostovesky.

So it is this black which attracts me, a black inconceivable to England and Italy, a black that surpasses even Flanders and Germany, the bottomless black into which one can plunge, the black from which all light arising is wonderment and fragile triumph.

Here's the face of the current Leah painting:
No, I'm not Velazquez. But I'm working on becoming me.

Sometime soon, I'll write about the idea of optical black. This is a very interesting topic as well, pertaining to the interaction between meaning in painting and the neurology of perceiving darkness.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Bellies

On Thursday I painted the belly on a painting of Leah that I'm working on. Those are Leah's eyes at the top of the blog. Leah's a pretty damn charming student who does some modeling. I had the good luck to run into her when she was working at Spring Street Studios - which, if you're life drawing in New York and you don't draw there, why aren't you drawing there yet?

Anyhow, I painted the belly on this painting. Here you go:
There are two things that, at least at this point in my life, I find tougher to paint than anything else - the shadows on the underside of a woman's belly, and the fall-off of light down the back of a woman's thigh. The issue in each case is the transition from light to dark.

In the case of the belly, it is a soft transition. There are visible underlying structures, but they don't foreground themselves. The main transition is from the light area right around the belly button, down and around those two curves below it into shadow.

(As for terminology - sure, I studied anatomy for a couple of years, but did I memorize the names of things? Nuh uh. "Two curves below it" works for me - you know what I'm talking about.)

In the case of the thigh, it's also a soft transition, but there's a world of detail that you have to decide what to do with. Unless you're pure muscle, you've got cellulite. Fact of life - I've seen a lot of naked people, and I don't care how good looking you are, you've got to have body fat under 10% or you've got to have some cellulite. As a guy, I personally don't have an issue with the cellulite. It's part of the beauty of form, human form. But as a painter I have to contend with the level of detail I'm going to present. I don't do individual hairs because I don't have the patience for it.

So I have a visual paradigm that's lower-resolution than the individual hair. Similarly, it's lower-resolution than the individual cellulite bump and shadow. I happen to think this theory of cellulite representation is in conformity with the cognition of sight. An ordinary gaze also doesn't take in every little detail like that. But an ordinary gaze does take in the visual texture of a thigh in which cellulite would be visible if the viewer focused more closely on it. This visual texture is different from that of a smooth expanse of flesh; it has its own character. So painting the back of a thigh in raking light, I face a question: how do I present this textured field without putting in a cognitively dissonant level of detail?

Well, I don't deal with the thigh problem all that often, because I don't like to do back poses, because I can't put in a face without making up a really weird pose. And I love faces most. But I did tangle with it on a painting of Piera, resident muse, recently. Piera's about as beautiful as it gets. She's really curvy. She's got some cellulite in her thighs. I dealt with the problem by representing the most prominent substructures: a characteristic shadow about an inch below the fold under her butt. And also by breaking up the brushstrokes a little more than I usually do. So what I did was I found an optical equivalent through brushwork to the broken texture of the visual field of the thigh:

If you want, you can see the whole painting here. Piera wasn't thrilled that I put in any texture at all, but without the texture, there is only geometry; the humanity would be missing. The very thing that makes her beautiful would be lost. Conceptual beauty is without detail; the real beauty that rivets you to it - that has enough detail to be imperfect. Without the imperfection, there can be no faith.

This is an issue on which I will oscillate. I am a follower of the Greeks and of Botticelli, but I am also following Velazquez and Rembrandt. Nor have I settled my feelings in any one place. Ask me tomorrow, and I will give you a different answer.

Back to Piera's objection that I put in any detail at all. My problem was at the other end of the spectrum - where to stop on the detail. Here I am lauding the cellulite, but this started with explaining how to not put everything in. And that's legitimate: as an aesthetic phenomenon, I am in favor of cellulite. As a person physically implementing a painting and trying to match it to the visual cognition of the viewer, I'm not going to paint individual skin cells. Yet I am going to paint skin. So my task is to decide where on the continuum between skin and skin cells to stop. I'm pleased with where I stopped. You know who's goddamn amazing at it? Michael Grimaldi, that's who. Check this out:

What's he doing here? He's using a hard light from the side, what they call a raking light. That's the light you use to bring out detail. He's done it to his whole figure. He's essentially converted her entire body into a version of the upper-thigh problem. He now has the opportunity to go to an arbitrary and unnatural level of textural detail across every square inch of her body. He has pushed the entire composition to a state of crisis. To him, this is an opportunity to make high-stakes aesthetic decisions about the limits of detail everywhere. Why would somebody do that to himself? You may well ask. He probably has a number of reasons. I believe that at least in part, it is because, in solving the problem, he can execute a sustained passage of pretty dazzling virtuousity. He's done a few back paintings, and I'm a big fan of all of them.

So much for the theory of cellulite. Back to bellies.

As an aside, can I just say something to any women who are reading this? Here's what I have to say: I'm a professional painter, and I love your belly. I've worked with dancers with six-packs, I've worked with women with sagging bellies, round bellies, flat bellies... I loved all their bellies. Don't believe the hype. Bellies are just an absolutely beautiful part of a woman's body, and they don't need to be adolescently flat to be pretty. Trends in fashion models are decided by people who have no use for a woman's body apart from that lifeless geometry I was discussing before. Fashion aesthetics specializes in that absence of detail which does not match visual cognition. So whatever I can contribute to you not falling for the spell of an industry designed to make you hate yourself, let me contribute it. I would also add that I speak for lots of men in this regard.

Aside completed. Back to Leah's belly. The belly problem is not the same as the thigh problem, at least in Leah's case. Leah's belly is rounded, but it's close to being a mathematically-defined surface. I used to know nearly enough calculus to write an equation for a volume boundary that would be a lot like the shape of Leah's belly. If you were working in Maya, you wouldn't have a hard time modeling Leah's belly. So what's the challenge, you ask? Simple - the gradual transition of a soft surface from light to dark.

That is as hard as hell to do. For me, anyway. It is the art of the light touch, of capturing the ineffable. Any one point, compared with the point beside it, seems the same. And yet, when you step back, bright light falls into deep darkness. It is as gentle as breath.

A surprising amount of painting - at least the kind of painting I do - involves doing tonal gradients well. The belly is simply an example of that. Imagine a straight line drawn across any part of a depiction of a body. Take a value from 1 to 100 for the amount of brightness at every point on that line. If you graph brightness against location, you will get a curve. The challenge of painting is to perceive that curve, and capture that curve in paint. The curve is different at different places in the body - across a man's pectoral muscle, it sustains brightness for a long distance, then drops into darkness near the armpit. For a breast traveling down, it has a medium tone that rises to brightness, and then falls to darkness. For a belly like Leah's belly, it is almost like a sphere, a semicircle from medium to bright to medium to dark. But the difference between the real brightness-location curve and a perfect semicircle - that difference is where soul comes into the painting. To capture the soul, you must meet dead on the three primary challenges of art itself: perceive well - make a decision about how to convert what you see into an aesthetic phenomenon - physically execute it. It is not where the body diverges most from geometric purity that the harshest challenges arise. It is where it diverges least. This is why I say that bellies are hard to do well.

But they're not the only part of the body that presents this challenge. You know what the most awe-inspiring part of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is for me? You should be able to guess by now (hint: it's not the earring).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Remembrance of PERL past

Remember PERL? I once read five chapters of the llama book just so I wouldn't feel like a total ass for ordering and wearing the cool llama shirt. Which kind of tells you where my sympathies lie on the definition of "total ass."

Then I gave up on PERL because, you know, I'm not a programmer. I couldn't even work out good boolean algebra for a freaking elevator control panel in electronics class in high school.

Anyhow, I've been trying to figure out how to do all the behind-the-scenes HTML tweaking to set up this blog properly (well, essentially to watch you watching me through Analytics - blogging is about narcissism, right? I mean, I already know what I'm thinking, so presumably I don't need to read it on a blog). I flashed back to that miserable week and a half of "learning" PERL. A monkey with a fair attention span could write PERL, and a monkey hopped up on goofballs should be able to manage a Blogger account.

I've been painting too long, the left half of my brain has turned to mush. Sigh.

First post

Good morning! My name is Daniel Maidman, and I'm a figurative painter working in Brooklyn. After much hesitation, I'm finally getting around to starting a blog, pretty much about painting. So why don't I jump right in? I'm working on a painting of Alley, a delightful model well known to artists at Spring Street Studios.

In the painting, she is holding her left arm behind her back with her right hand. So both arms are behind her back. This stretches the skin over the bones of her shoulders, and produces a particular kind of hard highlight which I love to paint. The painting overall is lit with a kind of specular overhead light, so there are highlights on all her sharpest planes, where the bone is closest to the skin. Perhaps this is that "bony light" in which Pleasant Riderhood does not wish to regard herself in Our Mutual Friend. For my part, I find it very delightful, and Alley is good enough to hold her arms in a twisted-up way to produce the highlight.

Because the light source itself is cold (colder in the painting than in real life, where it is probably only about 4000K), I am deploying yet another trick I learned from Adam Miller - mixing a little bit of blue into the white I'm using in the highlight. In this case, Mussini's King's Blue Light. I think. I'm not in my studio right now - how am I supposed to remember? I've learned a lot of excellent things from Adam though.

Anyhow, I'll post a picture of the Alley painting soon.

Enough for today. More later.