Monday, March 19, 2012

The Beauty of Six, David

"Six is a number perfect in itself, not because God created all things in six days; rather, the convert is true God created all things in six days because the number is perfect." Saint Augustine (The City of God)

I've always been attracted to the number 6. Perhaps it is from a youth spent playing board games and always hoping to roll a 6, I'm not sure. Maybe it is because there are 6 different physcial criteria to look for to diagnose someone with NF. One of those criteria is cafe au lait spots, of which one needs to have at least 6. Perhaps it is because the Pythagoreans defined the number 6 as the number of perfection and symbolizing beauty and I found that in the midst of my painting NF portraits the idea of perfection and beauty to be particularly relevant. Anyways, to finish from my earlier post about painting these 3 portrait pairs, I finally went back in and tried to thicken up the paint and do a bit more modelling with the flesh, while still keeping the bold color work I had previously. My mentor showed me the work of Karen Appleton and her portraits have life and color, bold brushstrokes and still retain a high level of representational qualities. She is who I modeled my painting approach after when I redid these. 

12" x 16" David on Yellow oil on board
12" x 16" David on Purple oil on board

12" x 16" David on Blue oil on board
12" x 16" David on Orange oil on board
12" x 16" David on Red oil on board
12" x 16" David on Green oil on board

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Case Study #1 - Reggie Sipping Coffee

"Reggie Sipping Coffee" oil on canvas 30h" x 24w"
After my mentor meeting, we both agreed to make sure I tried to pick one of the poses where Reggie wasn't looking straight at the viewer. Since the idea is to catch a person just sipping a cup of coffee and doing something very natural, we didn't think having someone you didn't know staring right at you would have the right effect. It would create an awkward feeling, which isn't at all what I want the painting to be about. I want to show people with NF just going about their daily lives, routines, and habits and let the viewers be able to see them in very humanized roles. The idea is that the painting has much less to do with NF and much more to do with the person.

Here is the process so far. I started with this sketch. I decided after I drew it that I wanted to zoom in a little more because I really want people to see Reggie's face. I'm also thinking about getting rid of the letters on the back of the winder and just putting in some impressionistic background cafe objects.

I typically do not paint on canvas. I just prefer the smoothness of hardboard, but for the sake of shipping, it really makes sense to not paint on enormous and thick hardboards. So, I went ahead and prepared a 24" x 30" canvas and toned it with burnt umber. I then zoomed in on my thumbnail and sort of moved my viewfinder around until I found the cropped version I liked best. So, I want Reggie's face and the coffee cup right in the middle of the composition remembering the 80% interior rule vs 20% perimeter rule that every painter knows. I had to really check my proportions on the hand and cup several times to make sure I didn't make it too big or too small. So, it is finally just the right size.

Next, I thought I would do just a light wash with turpentine which somehow turned into doing an entire underpainting. I can't really even recall the last time I did this. Maybe it's because I've been reading about Ingres and the Academie painters in all of my critical theory readings. Of course I am reading about how all of these people broke away from that and were tired of ateliers and so forth, but for some reason I can't shake the beauty of the craftsmanship and lure of the imagery, even if some of the content on those paintings is not all that compelling.

About five or so years ago I studied drawing with Tony Ryder. I never did study painting with him but I remembered his technique of doing light washes with oil first after the charcoal drawing, almost similar to watercolor. I think I am going to do that next and then once I get done with all of this work underneath and have a good solid structure, I will have the foundation to actually start to use all the color work and brush stroke techniques I have been working on this semester.

I realize folks like Richard Schmid can just attack their canvas alla prima, but for now, if I want alla prima to work for me, I think I need to alla prima over a solid underpainting.

My mentor gave me a book written by Ken Howard who is an artist that I would classify as using an impressionistic technique. His beach scenes show little blobs for people in the distance. When I worked on the color portion of this painting, I tried to remember what Ken had written about forgetting that the people behind Reggie are people and just thinking of them in terms of shapes and color. I also tried to remember his discussion of the beauty of grays with just slight color variances. This also helps to offset the foreground elements compared to the background.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Master Study Exercises - Study Five

Gregory Manchess, is again, the inspiration for another replication exercise. There are many reasons to love his work and many reasons to do these exercises. So, when I stumbled across his monochromatic (bordering on analagous) scene of the tree in the woods, I thought "Well, that may be harder than it appears". After all, it's not like an artist can simply blob out dioxazine purple and titanium white and call it a day. Additionally, the backlighting of that tree is more difficult than most people would think since the light needs to pour out over those dark limbs in a convincing way.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to study with David Leffel. Well, it's pretty apparent from looking at his work that he works wet in wet and from direct observation, very similar to Rembrandt's style. During one of the classes, he did a demo which was spot on in every aspect. During this demo a student said "Mr. Leffel, what do you think about glazes?" I always chuckle to myself when I think of his response which was a smile answered with simply,"Why not paint it right the first time?" Well, unfortunately, we are all not David Leffel and I do happen to love the look of glazes, but there is some truth to that comment. It's also the reason that I make myself go out and plein air paint. I'm not really much of a landscape painter, but I'm never going to sharpen up my color mixing skills if I stay in my studio hiding under glazes constantly.

So, it's pretty apparent that Manchess did this entire piece alla prima, and I did not. The entire section under the tree had to be glazed down in a light application of ultramarine blue to get both the color and value correct. And once I finished I realized my tree was looking a little sparse comparatively which means I may have overdone the light glows through the foliage. I also wanted to do this painting because the last time I used purple was back in my undergraduate days. I have been working from a standard 12 color palette for over ten years now and purple was kicked out a long time ago, it was fun to rediscover it. 

It is also amazing to me that oil paint can survive just fine in a tube that is over twenty years old. I got this tube of purple oil paint, along with many other colors, while I was in high school. A friend of mine told me "My mom tried oil painting, but she hasn't used those paints in years. You can just have them". Naturally, I wondered if he should ask his mom first, and for awhile I even kept the shoebox of oil paint separate, just in case I was to get an irate phone call of "I want my paints back!". After I went to college, and this was pre-Facebook days when people really did lose touch with people, I went ahead and accepted the paints as my own property. After twenty or so years, I'm certain his mother is not going to call me, but there is a nagging thought that crosses my mind while looking at that tube of paint......what if one of my boys when they are in high school hands some girl my box of paints and says, "Yeah, my mom used to paint."

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Allure of the Everyday

The Beaneater, 1580-1590, oil on canvas
Ahhhh......Annibale Carracci's "The Beaneater". This painting has so many memories for me. I attended undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska at Kearney....many years ago. It was in that program, that I met one of my best friends and he and I decided to take a "Baroque and Rococo" art history class together. Truthfully, it was a requirement for graduation and it was, terribly, terribly dry. The woman who taught the class was a very lovely lady who had immigrated from Eastern Europe and she was extremely brilliant. Her only downfall was the thought that teaching art history consisted of offering the class at 8 am, turning off the lights and speaking in a monotone drone that was in perfect sync to the gentle whirring of the slide projector. So, in essence, the entire class was asleep, including my friend. In that class we spent an entire week discussing Carracci's Beaneater painting. I remember when I initially saw the painting I thought "How interesting, I like that idea", but after a full week of the painting I remember thinking "If I have to see that man drooling beans again, I am going to cry". Now, perhaps my teacher really did explain the relevance, but I was convinced that she was just trying to weed out the students who sat in the back of the class with their baseball caps pulled over their eyes spitting chew into empty Pepsi cans. And, if that was her aim, she succeeded as the class diminished in size throughout the semester. Over this past weekend, I was talking to my college friend and mentioned something about art history which prompted his look of alarm coupled with "Oh...god...The Beaneater!" We both had a good laugh.

Don's Noodles, acrylic, 24"h x 24"w, ©Chris Willey
In defense of my teacher, I am certain she explained the significance of the painting and I was, most likely, too immature to pay attention and absorb as much information out of her as I should have done. Now, many years later, I look at The Beaneater painting with a much different set of eyes. The interest in everyday subject matter in paintings really captures my attention. Carracci was one of the first to break away from paintings that were solely religiously commissioned. Although he did those as well,"The Beaneater" shows an interest in just everyday people, doing everyday activities. And these sorts of paintings are what grab my attention at art galleries and at shows. When I see paintings like this, there is an implicit narrative or story going on. Even more than portrait painting, I am drawn to narratives which probably also explains why I am an illustrator.

When I got accepted into Boston's program, they sent information about how to go about choosing a mentor. Well, of course, there are the obvious standards: can this person paint well? Is this person exhibiting? Is this person a master of his or her media? The paperwork also said that I should find someone whose work I admire. Well, I admire a lot of people and I happen to love a lot of people's work, but I remembered someone who was painting everyday genres and that is something I have never done, and yet, it is something I am very interested in. I remembered Chris Willey. I remembered her figures and portraits and her scenes of people in cafes just chatting. Those are the images that I enjoy the most.

During my residency in Boston, several faculty and students proposed this very idea of everyday genre as it relates to Neurofibromatosis. Instead of doing just merely head shots of people with NF and making the disorder the dominant theme, why not paint people with NF, just simply .....being people? Rather than isolating them from their environments, placing them in very comfortable surroundings gives the paintings a sense of time and place. Showing people with NF doing everyday things integrated in society shows the viewer that these are just everyday people, not people to be gawked at or discriminated against. By painting everyday scenes, the focus is removed from the disorder and the viewer of the painting simply sees a person...who happens to have NF.

So, this is what I am going to try next. I have painted Reggie Bibb's portrait numerous times, but this will be the first time I incorporate a painting of him doing what he loves to do: drink coffee!

Here are three different compositions: little dainty coffee cup, sipping coffee, in the midst of a gesture while talking to a friend.

My next idea is to have a scene of us, the viewer, just watching Reggie as he looks out of a window. Whenever I go on a trip, I always go to those viewing areas, whether it's the Hancock tower in Chicago, or the Space Needle in Seattle or the London Eye. Anytime I'm up there at one of those lookouts, I tend to watch other people looking at the panoramic horizons. Maybe it's my curiosity to see if they will ooh and ahh or if they will just glance and then leave, but I always think it makes for good people watching and it's also a good time to just contemplate without being disturbed. Here's an idea of Reggie just looking out the window over the Thames in London. I think if I do this one, I will have to get my friend to pose and London may turn into Kansas City or a very vague cityscape.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Café au lait - I'll Take Six, Please

The term Café au lait is French. It translates to "coffee with milk". Most people upon hearing the word assume that it is time to order at Starbucks. If ordered, you will receive a dark French coffee with milk added to it. When that combination happens a light tan color forms.

The term means something completely different within the NF Community. The term is used specifically because it describes that tan color of birthmark seen on people who have NF. Specialists initially used the term as an adjective to describe the type of birthmarks that are NF indicators. So, you would hear people say Café au lait spots. Now the term has evolved from an adjective to simply a noun as in "My child as about 15 cafe au laits around his torso". This word change is very common if someone is familiar to the disorder, it is very strange when someone is not. So, if your child has been diagnosed and the geneticist is talking to you about how many cafe au laits you think you might have, there is a slight awkward pause until he or she realizes that they need to redefine the word in medical terms.

The first time I heard it, I felt the genetic counselor was going to walk in with a tray of hot coffee and milk for all of us to sip while we discussed neurology. That has always stuck with me. So, using David again, as my model, I decided to start my Cafe au lait painting, similar to the signs you see for coffee shops. In his sweater folds, I have cut out the entire section of the NF pamphlet that discusses the need for at least 6 or more cafe au lait spots in order to help confirm the diagnosis.

I went ahead and painted in his face but left the sweater alone for the most part. The background will be left intact, as I want it to look similar to those painted signs and also those be reminiscent of those silly ads from the 1950s. You remember those ads where there would be some grinning good looking man smiling with a nice hot cup of coffee near him and a cheery sunrise in the background. I don't know why, but those ads have always made me giggle, even as a kid. I always wondered "Were people in the 1950s really that thrilled" Additionally, I also painted the 6 spots, on that white porcelain cup. I had to make sure to paint them irregularly and not try to turn it into a pattern which is my natural tendency. In order to be an indication of NF, a person must have at least 6 cafe au lait spots. Fewer than six means that the person probably just has a few birthmarks, more than six, and the person most likely has NF.