Friday, November 15, 2013

Art Show Frenzy - part 2

I survived!!

This will be a short post - I am sick, and I have noticed a tendency to ramble when I sit down to write this blog, so brevity is the watchword. At least for tonight.

 My own little corner of the show, surrounded by new work.

In the end, I only managed to complete 13 of the paintings that I started for the show, but that's o.k.  I am just so glad that I had enough pieces to fill my display wall and that there was a bit of variety to that. A handful sold, the rest will be sold as the year ends and 2014 rolls on in.

As I think about the process of painting these (which now seems like a month ago instead of last week) I am struck by how truly exhilarating it all was. I enjoyed bouncing back and forth between the fine detail in some of the birds and the looser, impressionistic brushwork of some of the backgrounds and landscapes.

I began to glimpse a possible new style, more dynamic and atmospheric, for my commercial work. Can I do it? We shall see. I am a creature of habit.

Here are a few of the finished pieces, prior to framing on the day before the show.

"The Crafty Fellow"  SOLD

(A clever title, eh?)

(An even more clever title . . .)

"On the Cascade"  SOLD

"Winding Down"  SOLD

"Superior Overlook"

Thanks for swinging by - I appreciate any feedback you care to offer.  In a few weeks I will begin animating my little Goblin movie, for the first time in a year, so expect some posts about that.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Art Show Frenzy - part 1

“I think I can, I think I can . . .” 

At least 15 brand new oil paintings need to be framed and hanging on my modular wall in the Taylors  Falls Depot Artisan Show six days from now.  No problem! I have done this show before; I must be almost ready . . . right?

Wrong.  Oh, so wrong.  Due to a variety of issues, I have only been able to devote a fraction of the time I normally would to this show. 

This was taken a few days ago - do you notice the absence of finished paintings?

Not to worry.  I will be ready.  I have a system, of sorts.  

For the last few months I have been photographing anything that could serve as inspiration for a painting. I have been printing out selected aspects of these photos, scaling them to the dimensions of my ready-made Gessobord panels. I have been paying extra special attention to color and light effects out of doors lately – filing away mental images that I find intriguing.

As soon as we stood on this spot, overlooking Lake Superior,  I was inspired to do a painting of it.

Two boxes of frames just arrived from an online framing company, and have joined the ready-made frames I picked up from a local craft store.  My taboret (combination wheeled cabinet and palette) is loaded with tubes of paint and several new brushes.

My approach in cases like this is to plop the primed panels into the frames, tape whatever image I intend to paint right onto the panel and then move onto the next one, trying to get a sense of just what the show might look like.  I play musical frames, selecting the style and color that I hope will work best with the finished painting. Having a series of works in progress displayed on easels all around me takes some of the panic away.

 My patented "panic mode" approach to starting a painting. Note the printed photo as well as the frame still in its packaging.  No time to waste.

Ojibwe lodge created for a recent rendezvous at the Northwest Company Fur Post near Pine City, MN.

My initial sketch in burnt umber using the previous photo for inspiration.

To make sure I use my limited time and energy wisely, I start tackling the more complicated pieces first, sketching in pencil and paint, then blocking in big masses as quickly as possible. The smaller pieces, mostly bird pictures and little landscapes, will be the last ones I worry about. 

 At least these two are nearly finished. It's a start, eh?

If this seems a bit mercenary, it should. I am painting these to sell, and for both my sake and the sake of my clients, these need to be economical pieces.  Having said that, I should point something out.  This is actually one of the few times during the year when I can paint whatever I want – and this freedom is so exhilarating!  I reconnect with my love of painting, even while standing in the middle of a mad house for a few weeks.

My next post will show the finished pieces.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Creating Dred Scott - part 3

Time to get dirty!

The back of the Harriet Scott photo/sketch, covered in charcoal, after tracing.

The modified drawings were coated on the back with charcoal, taped down to Gessobords (not my spelling, I swear - these are commercially available, prepared masonite panels) and I traced the most important lines and features. These crude and easily smudged drawings were cleaned up, details were modified and each panel was given a protective layer of spay fixative followed by brushed-on acrylic matte medium to keep the drawing from lifting while during underpainting and add just a slight brushstroke texture.

Ah, where would we be without all this messy stuff?!

I decided to introduce even more texture into the piece using acrylic gel medium.  This would give an actual  3-dimensional quality to certain areas of the painting – in fact, I would come to regret my rather sloppy application of the gel this time around.

Within an hour, I was painting.

I began by staining each scene with warm tones, a light ochre for the outside scene and darker burnt umber for the interior scene. This is a way of setting the painting up for a specific color scheme, and quite frankly, I don't like staring at all that unpainted white background when I work.   In neither case did I allow the stain to obscure my charcoal lines.  I don't really have photographic evidence of this stage - I was too BUSY trying to meet a deadline! You will just have to take my word for it.

You can pick up a hint of the ochre stain underneath some areas here. Things are pretty loose at first.

For Harriet’s picture I restricted my palette to muted yellows, stronger reds and deep browns – there is just a touch of blue/green, weakened by mixing with red-brown. For Dred, I used the exact same palette with more blue worked into the shadows areas to create a feeling of strong outdoor daylight.

As I painted I made continued reference to the existing images of the Scots, as well as my modified photo/drawings, as a way to ensure not only the features were correct, but the folds and wrinkles in the clothing and the effect of light were accurately captured. I never follow these references exactly, but they do give me answers to some questions. Like my brush and palette knife. they are simply tools to be used as needed

This is a typical set-up. Well, it may be a bit more organized than usual, but you get the idea.

I moved the flagpole to the top of the round tower, where it likely was in the late 1830's.  Hey, it's history, you know?

The texture that I introduced at the beginning worked well in some areas, like the shoulder of Harriet’s dress, especially when compared with the softly painted broom in the background. Light bounces of those little ridges, giving a physicality to the surface and this contrast makes the shoulder stand out appropriately. 

Contrasting light and dark, soft and hard edges and a bit of texture for good measure.

However, thanks to my haste, some texture was allowed to creep into shadow areas, and even into Harriet’s face, and that, folks, is what we call a “Bad Idea”.  When unwanted texture obscures details or breaks up what should be a smooth plane, it is a distraction (especially in shadow areas) and can confuse the viewer as to your intent. While we accept and often look for texture in an original painting, in a print or book illustration it can be a problem.  I continually use Photoshop to "paint out" annoying texture when a piece has been scanned for reproduction.

It got a little too bumpy here and there.

In this case, I don’t feel that the texture is really a problem.  I just need to be a bit more careful next time around.  Bloody amateur.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part was the firelight and detailing of the table, kettle and vegetables.  No real pressure, just a chance to play with light.

I think these paintings took about two weeks to complete.  In each case, the painting is a gradual build-up over at least 3 or 4 sessions (with an occasional touch up even later), each layer modifying the previous one. My brushes tend to get smaller with each session, as I focus more on details.  At the same time, I am constantly looking for areas that may need softening and blending into the background.  I need to remind myself just what is really important, and what can be allowed to drop out of focus. This can be the trickiest part of all, after capturing the likeness.

The Harriet Scott painting on the easel.

Harriet Scott

The Dred Scott painting on the easel.

Dred Scott

And there we have it, folks. Whew.  I hope I have done justice to history and to the spirit of these two human beings who ended up playing such important roles in our nation's past. When I have decent scans and a link to the finished documentary that these were originally created for, I will make a final post.

Cheers - and thanks for letting me share this process with you.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Creating Dred Scott - part 2

Putting it all together.

After approval was given to forge ahead with the paintings, I had an important decision to make.  Who would pose as Dred and Harriet Scott? If I had needed to create recurring African – American characters for a picture book, I would have selected appropriate African - American models, as I did in the past with Gwenyth Swain's Riding to Washington. The situation this time was different. I would be replacing my model’s faces with the faces of Dred and Harriet.  

Therefore, I opted to go the “easy” route, and could get away with using a pair of Anglo-Saxons – my wife and myself.  We are simply the cheapest and most accessible models I have ever used.

As Harriet Scott, my dear wife dressed in an 1830’s pattern dress she had hand-stitched a few years ago. Without this valuable piece of costuming, I would have had to modify the photos of Pat wearing a dress from a different time period, which is pretty common for me.  I rarely have all the costumes and props exactly as I need them, and end up becoming a type of tailor armed with pencil and eraser, with a stack of costume books and internet images underfoot.

 Pat as Harriet - she's chopping vegetables on a box of miniature soldiers.

I showed Pat my preliminary sketch and then we posed her standing in my cluttered studio, with light coming from two directions to simulate both window and firelight.  Thank goodness for cheap clamp-on lights from our local hardware store. Pat even sliced some small, red 19th century appropriate potatoes for me while she stood there, which we later ate prepared with green beans and her home-made pesto. Yum.

Normally I would set up the camera on a tripod with a 10 second delay on the timer, and pose for myself, but this I wanted to do it right.  I made a phone call to our dear friend and neighbor, Rebecca (artist/photographer/thrower of awesome Halloween parties), and she shot photos of me posing in the raking, morning sunlight. The folks driving past my home in South Minneapolis are becoming used to the sight of me, Pat and a host of neighbors and friends in costume, play-acting for the camera in the yard or on the sidewalk. We have never been visited by the police after one of these affairs – even when posing with guns – so I count myself lucky. 

Me as a well-fed and freshly laundered Dred Scott.

For my role as Dred Scott, I was able to get away with wearing my early 19th century clothing and  doing a few pencilled alterations. I also found it necessary to erase a few pounds from around my belly and jawline; Dred Scott would not have had access to the array of snacks that are my great weakness.

Photoshop is my friend.

The axe head and chopping block came from a photo taken at the fort.

In Photoshop I combined the pose photos with the background photos or sketches and printed out both pieces at full size on my printer. These prints will become my comprehensive sketch and also my tracing sketch.

Finally, using the only images I have found of the Scotts, I broke out my pencils, sharpies, and white paint and began to carefully draw right on top of the printed references, Dred’s face on top of mine and Harriet’s face on Pat's.  This involved shifting the position of eye sockets, noses, etc., and worked surprisingly well.  At this point I also drew some of the details of the Scott’s environments, but left much to the painting phase.

Much better!

It's quick and not very pretty, but sketches like this make my life a LOT easier.

In a few days I will post Part 3, where I talk about transferring the sketches and painting the final pieces.  Cheers!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Creating Dred Scott - part 1

"You need it WHEN?"

I was recently asked by the Minnesota Historical Society to paint pictures of Dred and Harriet Scott, slaves who met, married and lived at Fort Snelling in the 1830’s while their owners were posted there. The Society is creating a series of short documentaries relating to Civil War topics and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 is one of the powder keg issues leading up to that war.  They were editing together a 6 minute piece on this subject, and needed a pair of images to add "life" to the main characters. 

Period engraving of Dred and Harriet Scott.

The producer wanted to show both Dred and Harriet at work within or close to the walls of the fort, a place near and dear to my heart. My dear wife and I met, married and worked there for more than a decade.  As far as I know, Dred or Harriet Scott have never been painted, and the chance to be “the first” was more than I could pass up.

As usual, there was very little time to pull this off – there never is. I immediately accepted the challenge, despite the fact that I was still finishing a series of picture book illustrations.

I visited my good friends, the historians at Historic Fort Snelling, and we talked for a while about just what the Scotts would have done there on a daily basis, as well as how they may have dressed and what their quarters may have looked like. My camera came in handy, but I realized I would have to modify the recreated quarters to accurately reflect their likely 1830’s appearance. 

 Interior of the recreated quarters at Fort Snelling.

My dear friend Tom "poses" for me in front of the Scott's quarters. The other pop is mine. Really.

 The correct shape for an early to mid 19th century axe head.  This is important.

The following day, I shot photos of myself as both Dred and Harriet, and then drew two compositional sketches based on these.  Time was slipping away and I simply needed warm bodies to quickly establish the most basic information upon which to build a scene.  Details would follow later.

Me, as Dred Scott, holding my nice axe.
You can see the picture book I was trying to finish, taking over my main easel.

Me as Harriet Scott. I didn't even need a dress for this one.  Just some puffy sleeves and a warm body.

Dred Scott sketch.  See how it all comes together, minus Tom and the bench?

Harriet Scott sketch.  In the end, we changed the walls and hearth and lost the printed pattern on the dress - thank goodness, because those patterns add TIME to a painting..

I didn't hear anything back for a crucial week, and was prepared to take on my next project when I received word that the project was a go.  Thankfully these sketches were approved, and the REAL work could begin.

In Part 2, I will continue this process, so check back soon.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Changes to "The Charge" - Part 2

It’s done!

"The Charge"
30 x 48 inches, oil on canvas

Thanks to the timely assistance of my dear granddaughter Violet, “The Charge” is done.  Really.  I swear.

Violet helps Grandpa paint.

In the end, the biggest change involved moving most of the First Minnesota into the Charge Bayonets position.  Some participants mentioned the left companies halting once or twice during the charge; in my interpretation, that end of the line hasn’t caught up with the rest of the regiment, so I reasoned that they haven’t heard the order.  Artistic license?  Perhaps.  Educated guess?  Sure.

The right wing under Lt. Colonel Adams charges into the 11th Alabama Regiment.

The left wing under Major Downie rushes to catch up.

To be honest, this painting is the result of a whole series of educated guesses, with a liberal sprinkling of artistic license to fill in unknowns and allow me to create particular visual effects.  It’s always this way, and history painters who can’t admit this are fooling themselves and their followers.

I am under no illusion that, given the use of a time machine or (GEEK ALERT! GEEK ALERT!) Doctor Who’s blue police box, the Tardis, surviving participants of the actual charge would recognize this painting as a representation of their experience.  However, I do believe they would approve of the spirit of the piece – it is my hope that it would seem familiar. Does that make sense to you?

Time travels with the Doctor.

So – what else changed? 

The 10th and 14th Alabama got pushed back a dozen yards or so, creating the “second line” mentioned by Minnesotans who charged the 11th Alabama in the front and center of Wilcox’s Brigade.  This also helped separate the units into distinct formations, which is better from a narrative standpoint.

 8th and 10th Alabama Regiments

The 14 Alabama in its new position.

The hills on the horizon line now more closely resemble the actual geography and the Klingle farmhouse has received a coat of whitewash.  Pat and I walked around and photographed the existing building during our recent trip.

The ground Wilcox's Alabama Brigade advanced over - see the wreckage?

Colonel Colvill and the national colors have been moved to right of center – a few of my serious historian friends have reasons for believing that this was the case, and I defer to their judgement.

 Colonel Colvill and the First Minnesota's national colors.

Finally, I broke up the formation of the First Minnesota so that is a bit more ragged in appearance. In retrospect, I think it should have been painted even more so – one participant said they looked like skirmishers during the charge, a result of casualties and the breakdown of order as they moved to engage the Confederates.

For those who may find it interesting, I here post a photo of the painting with titles added to explain just who and what you are looking at.    I would like to create a simplified black and white drawing of the main features of the painting, complete with key, which was the way it was often done in the 19th century.  Ah, for more time and energy.

The key to "The Charge".  Good luck, folks!

You know, as I look at it, I notice that we could use just a few more grey-coated wounded and stragglers trailing out behind the Alabama lines.  They were there a month ago.

Where did I put that brush?  Hmmm . . .