Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Me an' Lorenzo

As some of you may know, I was lucky enough to do a lot of drawings of my model Piera during her pregnancy last year. My wife and I are good friends with Piera and her husband Emanuele. This is a painting of Piera, Emanuele, and their son Lorenzo when he was only a few weeks old:

One Family, oil on canvas, 20"x20"

This is a painting of Piera and Lorenzo, which I just found out got into a show called "On Being Human: Love, Faith, Shame, and Hope" at The Picture Art Foundation, which has a snazzy space at Cal State-Dominguez Hills:

Piera and Lorenzo, oil on canvas, 22"x28"

In the past nine months, we've gotten to know Lorenzo pretty well, and I've noticed that he has three things he is particularly interested in:

1. strong value contrasts
2. saturated colors
3. women

It just so happens these are three things I too am particularly interested in. This Lorenzo, I like him, he's a smart guy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Problem With Landscapes

I recently painted this cityscape:

Jade Street, oil on canvas, 30"x24"

This took a long time to paint, by my standards - days and days. By the end, I was so close to it that I had trouble stepping back to evaluate whether it was any good. It was very difficult to paint, and I had lots of time to think about why it should be so difficult. It wasn't an issue of detail alone - give me a good hand or nose, and I don't mind an obstreperous amount of detail. But forcing myself to sit down for a day of painting light on fire escapes was like pulling teeth (good teeth, not rotten loose ones).

I developed a theory, which I'll share with you, but in advance, I should warn you that I also developed a simpler second theory, which will make you laugh. I'll get to that at the end.

So my first theory, the complicated one, was as follows. Let's start with some observations that our friends Mr. Turner and Mr. Dickens inspire in our friend Mr. Ruskin:

In his American Notes, I remember Dickens notices the same truth, describing himself as lying drowsily on the barge deck, looking not at, but through the sky. And if you look intensely at the pure blue of a serene sky, you will see that there is a variety and fulness in its very repose. It is not a flat dead colour, but a deep, quivering, transparent body of penetrable air, in which you trace or imagine short falling spots of deceiving light, and dim shades, faint veiled vestiges of dark vapour; and it is this trembling transparency which our great modern master [Turner] has especially aimed at and given. His blue is never laid on in smooth coats, but in breaking, mingling, melting hues, a quarter of an inch of which, cut off from all the rest of the picture, is still spacious, still infinite and immeasurable in depth.
- John Ruskin, Of Modern Painters, I (1843)

J. M. W. Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845

What is particularly important here - absolutely key, in fact - is that distinction that Ruskin uses Dickens to make, between looking at and looking through. In order to paint space properly, one must paint through depths upon depths. The eye cannot be allowed to stop upon a thing, without considering the thing as part of a continuum of space before it and beyond it. That continuous space must be allowed to override the thing suspended in it. The thing is less important, the space more important. The thing serves only to modulate and evoke the space.

In practice, some of what this means is a willingness to paint not a representation of objects, but a transcription of retinal impressions. This premise - to paint a pattern of colors striking the back of the eyeball - was heightened to explicit exaggeration among the impressionists, of course:

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, London, circa 1903

But even without the radical steps the impressionists took, the successful landscape has always been a matter of subsuming objects in an overall concept of space. Before the innovation of the retinal method, painters used a different trick: heightened coordination of the elements of design to produce an impression of volume. Consider this:

Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, circa 1660-1661
p.s. i've been there, and it looks like that

Here, Vermeer has coordinated dazzling contrasts of value and saturation in order to describe a cool bright afternoon. Without that shadowed cloud at the top of the composition, the composition fails:

It becomes flat, overbright. But with that dark cloud, the composition is suffused with sunlight - only the brightness of the sun can produce that shadowed cloud, and by reference to the shadow, we understand the brightness. The image does not read as being so bright as the trimmed version - but in our minds, we understand a greater brightness. This is a function of the artful manipulation of the elements of design.

Returning to the impression of volume - that dark cloud moves the composition from in front of the viewer, to in front of and over - the clouds extend into a foreground not limited by the picture frame. The composition reaches up into height and forward into the viewing space.

As in the cases of Ruskin and Turner, and of the impressionists, the importance of any particular object is subordinate to the importance of the contribution of the object to the creation of the space. This, to me, is what makes a landscape work.

It is, unfortunately, exactly the opposite of how I see.

By nature, I look at, not into. I am object-oriented and, for me, the visual field begins and nearly ends with objects. This cognitive trait was much more obvious in my early paintings, before I figured out how to get it under control:

Sitting, oil on canvas, 36"x24", 2005

That's near the beginning of my painting adventure. Consider me one year later, with much better control over the paint, but still only dimly aware of the exclusive object-orientation of my natural mode of seeing:

Crouching Nude, oil on canvas, 48"x24", 2006

Now let's jump to 2010:

The Rest, oil on canvas, 48"x36", 2010

That's me huffing and puffing as hard as I can to put my figure into a plausible space, and it's one of the most successful instances of it to date. But for all the softening of the forms, you can still see that each object is specific and discrete - they are objects related plausibly in a geometrical space, not objects subsumed into the gestalt of a unified space.

In my drawings, I still usually indulge my object-orientation completely, isolating my figures from any occupied space at all:

Maya, pencil on paper, 15"x11", 2010

Well, that's me, and I can live with that - I'm still working on it, and I'm fortunate enough that my inspiration doesn't run in the direction of expressing itself through space. I have other loci of expression that interest me more.

But I would like to paint a nice landscape now and then, and this is where I run into trouble. Let's go back to the cityscape:

Now you can see that, even if your first glance gave you an impression of a coherent scene, from my perspective, it is an agglomeration of details. I have flat affect of the detail sensibility - the details are arranged in depth, but they are treated without a hierarchy of relative importance. They are a heap of details, organized in such a way as to produce an impression of space. The details retain primacy, not the space.

I am not arguing that my painting is a bad painting. It is possible to make successful landscapes within this paradigm. Consider Georgia O'Keeffe:

Georgia O'Keeffe, Radiator Building, Night, New York, 1927

O'Keeffe is a totally object-oriented painter, and this orientation doesn't cease when she turns her attention from objects to spaces.

Consider also Edward Hopper:

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930

Hopper comes close to space-orientation over object-orientation, but he remains, for me, on the object end of the representational range. When people consider the silence and stasis of his paintings, they often discuss his vivid colors, his isolated figures, and the lack of moving objects in his scenes. I would argue that his distinctive silence and stasis, so full of menace and loneliness, owe just as much to a kind of airless isolation of his scenes into objects, with all the unnatural clarity that comes from the technique. He shares this property with some of the Ashcan school:

George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912

By means of this we see that from the early to middle part of the 20th century, the most memorable American landscape painting operated within the conceptualization of the object, as opposed to that of the space. I think this results from at least two major factors:

1. The impact of modern architecture and industry on the understanding of space. Whereas nature, ancient cities, and classical architecture tend toward such a high density of detail that they produce continuous variation of the visual field, the modern skyscraper and tenement, and the implements of modern industry, tend toward the straight line and the discrete visual unit. This produces an overall bias toward the object and the geometrical space over the unified space.

2. A kind of willful pictorial naivete animates these works for me: a self-conscious expression of the outsider quality of art from colonies struggling to maintain a painting culture after their separation from the motherland tradition. This tendency was unselfconscious in the older, and truly godawful, American colonial painting, but as America worked to define itself apart from Europe in the twentieth century, pre-abstract artists turned toward whatever tools were handy, and this outsider quality was one of them.

For my part, I would not mind painting in this idiom (and I'm not suggesting that I've matched O'Keeffe, Hopper, and Bellows - far from it), only I am constrained to do so by my current shortcomings. It is not a choice, but a limit. I don't mind making art bounded by my limits, but I do mind not broadening my limits once I recognize them.

Let me offer you a little more from Mr. Ruskin:

Now what I particularly wish to insist upon, is the state of vision in which all the details of an object are seen, and yet seen in such confusion and disorder that we cannot in the least tell what they are, or what they mean. It is not mist between us and the object, still less is it shade, still less is it want of character; it is a confusion, a mystery, an interfering of undecided lines with each other, not a diminution of their number; window and door, architrave and frieze, all are there: it is no cold and vacant mass, it is full and rich and abundant, and yet you cannot see a single form so as to know what it is.
- John Ruskin, Of Modern Painters, I (1843)

It is this indistinct pregnancy which I cannot quite let go enough to produce. When I have talked about painting the ambiguities of things in other posts, I have meant seeing things clearly enough to find that they were ambiguous in and of themselves, and learning to paint that ambiguity. I never advocated for the defeat, the inevitable defeat, of the attempt at sight - ambiguity from a flaw in the perception, not a quality in the perceived. Ruskin says:

You always see something, but you never see all.

And it is this which, despite its transparent truthfulness, I cannot cease to war with. I want absolute sight.

You know where you go if you completely indulge the will to absolute sight? Terrible, terrible trompe l'oeil painting: painting with a degree of detail far beyond anything that mimics a natural mode of visual cognition. I would rather be a good artist than give free rein to any of my quirks. So I have trained myself to let go, to some extent, in my figures, but I have not yet broadened the scope, as it needs broadening, to handle landscapes.

I finished this painting a few days ago. We've been following its progress for a while on this blog:

The Black and White War, 60"x72" on two canvases

As you can see, the figures are geometrically emplaced in a scene. However, knowing my oddity of spatial representation, I accounted for my kind of looney disconnect of objects from one another in the total design of the painting. It's supposed to be weird. On the other hand, I got a very pleasant bonus in the course of painting that endless background:


Those are the farther arches seen under the arm of the figure on the right.They are satisfyingly blurred, to me. They have the blur of objects seen clearly, and yet from far away; objects approaching Ruskin's disorder.

So there's hope.

Now, that was my first theory of what my problem is with landscapes.

Let me tell you my second theory, which occurred to me the other day while I was planning out this post.

My second theory is that I'm not very good at landscapes because I don't look at landscapes or make pictures of them very much.

This second theory could also explain all the evidence - all that complicated stuff I was just talking about could be true, and yet it could all be just a function of the fact that I haven't practiced learning to see landscapes as I have practiced learning to see people and things.

As usual, I expect it's a bit of both.

A little endnote here: The image of The Black and White War was originally inspired by a very broad reading of the phrase "the Eight-by-Eight War," in China Mieville's novel Un Lun Dun. This is a war which is known to have happened, but nobody remembers who won it. The only survivors are a white bishop and a red-black bishop, who are also still waiting on word of the outcome. Mieville is a sort of fantastical modern Dickens, a master of the depiction of cities. He is dark and industrial in sensibility, and his stories are set in densely detailed alternatives to our ordinary world. I highly recommend giving him a read.

UPDATE 3-22-11

Something that was so obvious I completely forgot to mention it - the painting Jade Street is based on a photograph taken by my friend Jade, who is a really talented photographer. I almost never see a photograph that I feel so intensely about that I have a need to paint it - but as soon as I saw those looming, threatening clouds in Jade's photograph, I felt an overpowering urge to paint them, and the rest of the scene they were a part of. So I asked if she'd send me a high-resolution version and give me her permission to paint it, and she very generously did both. I ought to warn you that if any of you buys this painting, a percentage of the proceeds are going to go straight to the Save the Jade Foundation.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Industrial Object #1

One of the little perks of being a painter is that, when gift-giving occasions arise and all else fails, you can paint something for a present. I try to gear my present paintings to the interests of the person getting them. For instance, my wife enjoys knitting and quilting, and she's also a big fan of graceful industrial design (the business with the minimal curves again). This means that she's very fond of her antique Singer sewing machine. Therefore, for Christmas, I decided to do a painting of the machine. Here's what I came up with:

Singer, 36"x12," oil on canvas, 2010

I'm not sure how it is with you, but I find that selling paintings of nudes falls somewhere between dragon-slayingly difficult and black-hole-escapingly impossible. This problem can lead to pants-shitsingly bad finances. So one of my little habits is to notice when I paint a non-nude and don't have a totally miserable time doing it. Because there are lots of subjects people do want on their wall, apart from landscapes (which are very difficult for me for reasons I'll be explaining in an upcoming post). When I stumble on something that isn't a naked woman that I actually enjoy making a representation of, I pay attention. If I feel like I can keep integrity while pursuing the subject - if I discover that the subject can be genuinely inspiring - then I'll keep at it. My aversion to hackery is stronger than my need to sell paintings.

In the case of this Christmas painting, I found that my life-long affection for heavy industrial parts translated into, perhaps unsurprisingly, pleasure in painting heavy industrial parts. So I decided to see where I could go with that. Here's my first effort devoted consciously to the subject:

Industrial Object #1, 36"x36," 2011

What's that substance in the background? That's silver leaf. Silver leaf is an ultra-thin, ultra-light form of flattened silver. Putting silver leaf on a canvas will make you tear your hair out, because if there's one thing silver leaf doesn't want to do, it's whatever it is you want it to do. Fortunately, I had advice from a really talented artist and overall nice guy, Brad Kunkle, who is incredibly good with metal leaf. Follow that link - you won't be disappointed.

I was pleased with the result of this first effort. I wanted it to be partway to abstraction, a question of shape and texture as much as it is one of object. I also wanted it to be cold, menacing, cruel even. I think it's that as well - it is large in person, and not very scrutable.

So I'm going to do some more of them, and see how that goes.

While I'm working on that, perhaps you'd like to go check out the April 2011 issue of Poets/Artists, a very cool online art magazine which has included work by a lot of artists I admire. I've been lobbying to get into it for a while, and the editor, Didi Menendez, decided to run an article on me in the new issue. This rad picture of me is on page 5:

your humble correspondent, posing like he was a badass or something

And the article is on pages 67-70. Industrial Object #1 is on page 70. Hard copies can be ordered here, if you need a hard copy for some reason.

Oh, and as long as I'm busy tooting my own horn, if you're in Kansas City, MO, you might want to drop by Hilliard Gallery. My painting You Will Not Be Forgiven is in a group show of figurative paintings there.

You Will Not Be Forgiven, 60"x36," oil on canvas, 2010

If you are running a dryer, and open it, a sock will very likely come flying out. As usual, I have lots of ideas chasing themselves around my head, and I hope I'll get a chance to present you some more socks soon.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Wee Bit More on Foreshortening

You remember how, recently, I was claiming that foreshortening is all in your head? Not long after that, I drew a drawing that illustrated, for me anyway, that very point:

Alley, 2011, pencil on paper, 15"x11"

There are two ways you would ordinarily think to describe Alley's face in this drawing - either as "viewed from a low angle" or "foreshortened." Now, why would you think it was foreshortened? Functionally speaking, the head is like a sphere. And as I explained in the earlier post ad nauseam, a sphere is just as foreshortened from any angle as from any other angle. You think of the head as foreshortened because the plane you are most used to seeing face-on - the actual plane of the face - is seen in foreshortened perspective. The classification "foreshortened" is, in this instance, demonstrably arbitrary: it distinguishes between a familiar perspective and an unfamiliar perspective, on an object which has no fundamental topological distinction between the two perspectives.

Let's turn to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov (1772-1810) for the moral of this story:

"The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing, is not to be afraid at all."

Oh, there's another moral to the story - I nearly forgot. This same drawing is included here; that's my first blog post at artistdaily.com, the online presence of American Artist magazine. If you're enjoying this blog, you might want to check in with me over there sometimes too. The posts will be just like these ones, except for they'll be much briefer, more technical, and won't include any swearing. So actually, they'll be nothing like these posts. Except for, ahem, the authorial voice. Woo hoo, authorial voice! Anyhoo, I'm psyched.