Getting back on.
Before the 10,000 hours cliché, one of my college painting instructors taught us that we have 50 bad paintings in us that we must expunge before we can get a good one.
I think the statute of limitations on that runs out after about 10 years or so and you have to start over. I think also that it’s 50 per medium or style. Say you make 15 landscapes and 10 portraits; you’re not half way there. Just over a third.
I recalled that lesson last Thursday during open studio. I realized I’ve gotten about halfway to 50 with portraits on the iPad - and I can sense that I’m starting to turn the corner and reclaim the skills that I let atrophy.
This time around I focused on value and shape. I didn’t do a detailed sketch first. I just built up shapes and values. I started by building a palette of 8 skin tones. I took advantage of blending layers to bring in subtle reflected colors and reds. Better. It’s a solid C+.
Human beings have struggled long and hard to create a world with where you can stay dry and warm and look at kittens on the internet. But for some reason some people think it's a great idea to go sleep in a humid tent in the forest. The forest has no internet. It does have bugs.
My wife is one of these people who like camping. I love her, so I camp. I don't hate all of it. I like campfires and drinking wine in the dark. And I do get to take nice photos.
On Tuesday I tried to put my realization about digital color to work. I pulled up a photo of Caroline from a camping trip and referenced it to practice.
I spent several minutes just selecting six neutral skin tones that seemed to match what I saw in the photo. I chose desaturated colors for the highlights and richer browns for the shades. I didn't use these to paint directly, but I plucked out a pink and blue which I could see in reflected light and blushing skin around the cheeks and ears.
When painting I first concentrated on value and shape with my six skin tones. I used ProCreate's airbrush brushes for most of the blocking in, then switched to textured brushes to build up detail.
To get subtle colors, I painted on a new layer, set to the ”color” blend mode. This allowed me fold in tings and hues without making mud. I tried a similar approach to create highlights in the hair.
I'm looking forward to applying see techniques at my next figure drawing session.
I've been collecting photos to use as reference material for painting studies. I follow the website Shorpy which is a treasure box of old photos. Some are official photos taken of newly opened office buildings. Some are old vacation slides. Some are normal people doing normal things normally, just 50 years ago. It's pretty great. Most of the photos are black and white. Without color as a distraction, they make good subjects for training your eye to see shape, form, value, and line.
On Monday I pulled up this photo of a woman leaning from her apartment window for practice. I'm trying to break myself of needing to draw an image before painting the image. Drawing first does give me a good sense of structure, but the painting on top tends to feel flat, like I'm just coloring between the lines. A painting should really sculpt an image from blocks of color. Not there are no lines, it's that lines largely become edges. Shape is sculpted with value and color.
I'm pretty happy with this result. A strong likeness and a loose style without overworked fiddly details. In this painting I tried a new trick I learned from an artist on Instagram - when painting eyes, fill in the entire eye socket as shadow. This defines the overall recess which cradles the eye. Then build the eyelids on top. This makes it much easier to build out the roundness and depth of the eye. It's amazing how the eyes just pop out with this technique.
Eggs and skulls. Artists need difficult subjects to train against, so along with figures painters will often study skulls and eggs. Interesting parallels between those two things. Hard shells protecting the gooey life within. Where’s my research grant? I’m pretty sure a workable thesis could come out of a study of artist’s images of eggs alone. Throw in skulls and you’ve got a whole career.
Eggs are so strange when you think about them - a giant, single cell. The yolk is the nucleus. When heated the entire thing sets into a translucent, semi-solid, quivering mass. Without the magic of eggs, we’d have no custard, no quiche, no crepe, no pancake. We’d have no meringue.
Eggs are difficult to capture - the egg shape isn’t really an oval - it’s rounder on one end - pointier on the other. The surface of the white is both reflective and transmissive of light. What you read is “white” but what you see is the color of the light in the room bounced back at you.
Also? Here’s an internet egg.
“The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty” by Dave Hickey was originally published in 1993 - this would have been my first full year of college - and was reprinted not too terribly long ago in 2012. I just finished this edition.
Last week was a crummy week for being creative. I made it to my Thursday night drawing session, but tax season, work concerns, and just regular old life took precedence. But I did finish this book.
Finishing a damn book seems like something deserving of a gold star and a pat on the head anymore. I involuntarily squint and glare when I think of my train buddies who all sit together and chatter on loudly when I’m obviously reading. What’s wrong with people that they prefer noisy human interaction to an hour of quiet solitude?
I knew of Dave Hickey. I recall reading some of “Air Guitar“ a million years ago and found it resonant. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t become a Hickey disciple in college or grad school - I would have had critical ammunition for my angst and given my professors ulcers.
Once in a while you find someone who can express what you feel, what you know to be true, but lack the vocabulary to articulate. And what a vocabulary! It’s not often I find myself looking up multiple words in a paragraph. I like to think I’m pretty smart. (Just ask me). But it’s humbling and inspiring to read Hickey.
“The Invisible Dragon” opens with the accidental blurting “beauty” in response to a question at a panel discussion and concludes by framing the American principle that the self-evidently true right to the pursuit of happiness, in the form of beauty, is itself fundamental.
Here’s a quote:
The beaux-arts agora that provided a site for arguing about our likes and likenesses is relocated deep in the wilderness of popular culture. The beaux-arts historical project of saving everything we ever loved just stops. We lose the object, our sophistication, and the pleasure we once took in outfitting official virtue in the clown suit of folly—the very emblem of civilized sedition. Word walls arise to water-board works of art with verbiage and stunt their life expectancies. The amateurs who built those halls of culture, who filled them with treasures, are relegated to the dark past, their passions relinquished into the custody of philistine colonizers for use in outreach projects to the skateboard community.
Hickey drew me in with his mockery and dismemberment the tedious, preachy, prescriptive, art-school nonsense which sucked all the joy from being a creative person. He keeps me by appealing to my patriotism, democracy, and freedom. This is a book I need to re-read.