Summer Vacation

Portrait of Men on a Hawaiian Coast. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Portrait of Men on a Hawaiian Coast. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

While I was not able to make it to any Hawaiian coast whatsoever during this summer’s vacation, I WAS able to live vicariously by painting one featuring this couple! I’m just wading back into my art life after being entirely consumed with purchasing a home, moving, and getting set up since mid-April. My studio only just came together one week ago! This was a fun portrait project to help get back into it after a long vacation from art. It also allowed me to deepen my skill in painting full-figure humans (versus dogs) in a natural setting.

Most enjoyable was the painterly, atmospheric background of clouds and waves in contrast with the meticulously placed daubs of paint here and there to capture the likeness of the subjects. I worked with a limited primary palette to mix all the colors, which I think lends a certain “pure” feel to the overall tone. This was the first painting completed in my new studio space, and I’m eager to move on to many more projects currently floating around in my head!

Check out the instagram posts below to see how this painting developed:

Dans La Campagne

Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30" x 40"
Dans La Campagne. Acrylic on canvas. 30″ x 40″

C’est fini! This picturesque scene developed as a commission piece for a family member who requested a French countryside/cottage image for her dining room. This assignment led me to review one of my favorite landscape painters, Gustave Courbet. Courbet liked to present himself as a “man of the countryside,” and generated a plethora of dramatic natural scenes depicting rolling hills, cliffsides, trees, animals, little towns and people of the era recreating within it. What I admire about Courbet’s work is the stark contrasts, the bold use of color, and the painterly technique/style imbued in his work. Courbet often used thick impasto mark-making, palette knives and even transferred texture using rags to create heightened detail and depth in his subjects.

As I began this piece with a deep burnt umber underpainting, and developed up the layers, I referenced dozens of Courbet landscape paintings to inform my composition and decision-making. I tried to emulate some of Courbet’s techniques, to great or little extent, especially the use of texturing with the knife. What was challenging with this piece was not having one single photo reference for the composition. Instead, I had to mentally stitch together several photo references (cottage, cow, landscape, rooster, tree, etc.) and make it all work with regard to perspective.

Me voilà!

Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Self-Portrait (Oaxaca). Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

I haven’t posted much in the last few months as we have been completely consumed with the process of purchasing a home. That does not mean that I have not also been busy with painting! Over the next few days I’ll post a few of my recent painting milestones.

Our February trip to Oaxaca, Mexico inspired this self-portrait. The open-air courtyards familiar to Spanish colonial architecture were the perfect place to capture dramatic lighting. Many of the plants and cacti in our courtyard were wild and unruly, giving the haphazard space an “ugly-beautiful” feel, splashes of color surrounding us. From a technique perspective, I tried hard to paint in all the lights and darks, creating deep contrast, before I began working with color. Process pics below to see how the layers developed. Soon, the counterpart portrait of my devoted traveling partner will surface, but it’s still lingering in my imagination for now :)

Winter Solstice Portraiture

Mr. Jobe Surveying his Winter Orchids. Acrylic on canvas.
Mr. Jobe Surveying his Winter Orchids. Acrylic on canvas.

I started this portrait of my live-in, unpaid studio model on the Winter Solstice, intending to compose a painting that looks forward to warmth and growth during the cold, bleak Minnesota winter. I thought about styling this as a somewhat abstract, cubist composition, but was lured into classical representation instead. While this type of portrait is not necessarily my forte, it has been a fun and challenging project so far, and I’ve frequently found myself lost in the long moments of focus/meditation on careful color mixing, delicate glazing and developing depth. In the end, I want the subject to have a glowing, warm feel radiating from the center of the composition, in stark contrast with the hard, chilly light of the surrounding seasonal blues. As I work, I’m trying to channel portraits by Degas and Manet, to name a few. At this phase of the painting, I’m ready to break from reliance on the photo reference and deepen some stylistic elements, embellish the scene and let the visual poetry play out.

“It is all very well to copy what one sees, but it is far better to draw what one now only sees in one’s memory. That is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory.” – Edgar Degas

Vessel Work or “Paint, Do What You Will!”

Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 36"
Vessel Work. Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 36″

A still-life of prismatic containers divides cold winter light into rainbow jets of color, filling my studio space with a brilliant playfulness that leaps away from November’s funeral pall. My assignment was to rework an old watercolor sketch based on a dream about water basins. It became a meditation on the warmth, love and trust inherent in my art practice.

In October I began volunteering at Vine Arts Center, a local community-run gallery in my neighborhood. During one of our exhibition discussions, another artist discussed his view of people in the world as “vessels,” each in a varying state of being filled, empty, or something in between. Vessels can be reservoirs for anything we can imagine inside them. They can be a potential space or a void. They can be man-made or naturally occurring. Vessels can be filled with physical matter or the intangible. Vessels can be broken or leaky. They hold valuables or transport. Vessels can protect. In short, vessels do a lot of work. I frequently find myself pondering this metaphor as it relates to art and the human condition – I have been curious about how to incorporate it in my work.

With this commission, I decided to start with a simple composition of arranged “vessels,” the various containers, plastic jugs, mason jars and empty fruit cups repurposed for paint that litter my studio. I “filled” or imbued the skeleton drawing of the piece with the “core” of my own formal artistic sensibilities: expressive color and brushstroke patterns, heavy contrasts between muted, cold tones and vibrant, living hues, struggle between linearity and ambiguity, representation and abstraction. Throughout the process, I paused to examine my thoughts and actions, took notes, looked inside to acknowledge the intuition that guided my hands, something I have rarely done on purpose. In this way, Vessel Work feels like a deliberate meditation on the spiritual, inner aspect of art creation and what it means to me personally.

Warmth and radiation of light are treated with paramount importance. The elements in the working space are tied together and interconnected by their participation in light, their energetic vibrations in the field. The work is related to love – making a painting about (simply) what I love to do is freeing and spontaneous without constraints of any kind. And yet there must be constraints, that tension between rule and misrule, which mystifies and generates beauty. And through this sensibility comes trust. Trust that the work will become what it will – I am reminded of Schmendrick the Magician from “The Last Unicorn,” yelling “Magic, do what you will!” as he grasps at the reigns of a force he can’t control. I cling to trust that in the end, the painting and the artist (and yes, the client) will be satisfied if I play to my strengths, challenge my skills accordingly, and take risks in the creation of the illusion. Trust that in painting no act is final, and the painter therefore has relatively less control than it would seem.

Three Gold Figures (Essay in Cubism)

Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 " x 30"
Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 ” x 30″

Coming in the midst of a furious week of art production, here is the formal result of my recent research into cubism! This commissioned piece moderately deconstructs three poses (one model – unharmed in the production process) and the studio space around them. I treated this subject with all of the cubist sensibility I was able to scrape together from online searches, a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and biographies of the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. My final composition borrows heavily from Picasso’s bold “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and samples the palette of Picasso’s blue period, Braque’s somber spectrum, and adds an iridescent gold flare because decorative art!

This being my first relatively abstract, non-photographic commission piece, the ideas and prototypes came together through consultation. Trading pictures of murals, famous paintings, and devising color schemes, we carved out a shared mental model of the painting to come.

I began working on this piece by reading and observing. I was curious to find out what my giant art history textbooks, the internet, and our local free museum had to say about cubism. I was surprised to find that certain aspects of cubism were similar to what I was trying to do with “time-lapse” figure painting in the latter half of my art school years, so picking up that line of work felt a bit like coming home. Read more on what I found out about cubism’s “greater context” here. Once I had determined how cubist sensibilities could fit into my style, I invited over a friend to model for some gestural sketches. These loose and expressive sketches helped me form the basis for the figures and I built up the geometric environment around them. From there, the challenge became walking a thin line between decorative, calculated abstraction and representational figure painting, my client preferring something in the middle. See process snapshots below.

I could go many directions from here in order to fully invest in this way of working. Some cubists section off the surface in such a way that objects and bodies are barely recognizable, obscured by geometry and the conceptual/perceptual notions of cubism. Which to me is less interesting as I am still in love with drawing and painting the human body. Another idea is to fully push the idea of poses changing through time. I recently attended a figure drawing cooperative at a local art academy, and wondered how I could incorporate all the 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses over four hours into the same composition. The final result would probably be something quite abstract but also quite recognizably human. Overall, I have befriended cubism and feel like I’ve grown a bit as an artist after examining and producing in this way. I’m eager to get deeper into the water.

(Monumental) Work in Progress

Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Waking up one morning shortly after the recent Charlottesville, VA riot, I read a headline about Baltimore, MD’s confederate monuments being removed by overnight work crews. Gleefully scanning through the report, one particular photo in the article caught my eye and I immediately wanted to make a painting after it. In the image, a hulking Robert E. Lee and mount are lifted by a crane and balanced by work crews as they are carried away from a public-facing pedestal. Onlookers line the background snapping photos with their phones as the piece is hoisted up and away, towards a consuming yellow light at the top of the frame.

For some time I have wanted to challenge myself to paint in a traditional/classical style as a way to exercise my formal drawing, composition-building, and glazing skills. The Romantic movement painter Eugene Delacroix’s work has been a particular favorite of mine, with deep contrasts, expressive brushwork and attention to narrative drama and intrigue in his choice of subject. The snapshot of General Lee’s flight from public presence in Baltimore brought to mind several epic paintings of horses and social struggle rendered by Delacroix. Below is an example I chose to guide my work on this piece.

Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Eugene Delacroix. Collision of Moorish Horsemen (1843-1844). Oil on canvas. 32 x 39.

A revelation in working at this style has been the liberal use of dull gray tones, something that is fairly alien to my regular practice. The muted earthy hues contrast sharply with areas of color to help direct focus and create drama, a use of color I am beginning to more fully understand. In order to achieve the lush, complicated surface in Delacroix’s work, I’m working at glaze layers and attention to detail where I want the viewer to focus. At this point, I’ve blocked in most of the compositional elements and contrasts, and the surface is ready for finer treatments of the overall atmosphere, details, and stylistic features. Lastly, I am intrigued by the conceptual interplay of painting in a “historical” style while calling into question the notions of history, justice and public space currently in debate.

Figure Study: Spacing, Tracing, Placing, Human Face-ing

Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18" x 24"
Figure & interior study. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Returning to figure work with this study of a certain live model in my partially re-packed apartment a few weeks prior to moving. It is beyond exciting to come back to the classic and familiar gestural sketch of art school, and then combine that sensibility with my slow but eager, semi-abstract exploration of figure in relation to space and place. I’m trying hard to transmit how the sunlight filtered by the tree outside my window washes into and fills up my living room, now rendered a “transitional” space as recognizable domestic shapes are packed up and stacked in boxes and piles to the right. Transition or “interval” is central to my exploration of the time inherent in painting. This piece reminds me of an older figure study, but my risk-taking with color has certainly evolved. A time of change is ripe fruit to crack open, let the creative juice flow.

Beagle Beneath Blanket

Beagle Beneath Blanket. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Beagle Beneath Blanket. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

I received this portrait commission a few days ago, and had fun with the composition and colors! The most challenging aspect was converting the neutral gray tone of the uppermost comforter into more visually appealing hues. The lines and shapes of the drapery challenged me to concentrate on the drawing through all stages of the piece. While putting on the final layers of paint, I actively worked against my instinct to preserve thick, dark, illustrative lines around everything. This tendency is evident in many of my other paintings, and I believe it originates from my “comfort zone” of line drawings. Other considerations: working on creating the illusion of space and depth, as much as a zoomed puppy close-up will allow. See the underpainting below.

Beagle Beneath Blanket Underpainting
Beagle Beneath Blanket Underpainting

Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds

Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds. Acrylic, charcoal, ink on canvas. 40" x 40"
Dynamo I: Nine Blackbirds. Acrylic, charcoal, ink on canvas. 40″ x 40″

I finally “finished” this painting after tabling it 2+ years ago. Sometimes, it takes a long time of living with artwork on your walls, glancing at it every day, before it becomes clear what to do with it next. Now I’m looking back at what I wrote about the work in 2014:

Why “dynamo?” Strictly speaking, “dynamo” indicates a generator of some sort, which converts electrical energy to mechanical energy. I once came across this word in a short story, used to describe a dark forest ravine. I never got away from the imagery of the ravine filled with the energy of frog croaks, insect whirrrs, leaves rustling, water flowing etc. Earth/Nature as limitless battery, endless potential for conversion, transformation and sadly, exploitation … It’s fascinating to observe the world this way and to recreate the exchange of energy in the act of painting, which is itself a form of exchange and re-genesis.

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One “Red-Head-Little-Mermaid-Girl” or Another Maternity Study

Kirstin. Acrylic on canvas. 8" x 10"
Kirstin. Acrylic on canvas. 8″ x 10″

A mini portrait of my cousin Kirstin, preparing for her first baby, who will arrive in the next few weeks. I first met toddler-Kirstin at a wedding – she was a curly-haired fireball in a white skirt, and we tore it up. Growing up, Kirstin and I sketched gargoyles, invented games with old tools in the garage, pretended to be mer-children, strung wild daisy-chains, plucked handfuls of Indian paintbrush bouquets for Grandma, terrorized our little sisters, hiked in the mountains, and choreographed dances to Disney movies, Ace of Base. The hard, inevitable facts of growing up make these kid memories sweeter. In reflection, these scenes seem to be from a different place – an alternate reality bordered by long hours, long summers, recesses, a cabin in a valley, and family gatherings with Kirstin’s mom’s fabulous cheesy potatoes. Despite the oft-bleak adversity of adult life, not all is lost – when we catch up today, we revert to our goofy childhood selves. Thankfully, we can remember. Mostly, we laugh!

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Fjellhytte (Mountain Home) Still Life

Fjellhytte Patio Progress
Fjellhytte Patio Progress

Emerging darkly from the petrified air, a wooden plaque carved onto Smokey The Bear warned fire danger was “extremely dry, extremely high.” No campfires, no grills, no cigarettes, no huckleberries under the desiccating pines of Northwestern Montana. Grandma had texted (expertly, with many emojii) “we can’t see our mountains!” The drive up highway 83 this year, approaching our mountain refuge, was brimming with smoke. Flowing downwind from blazes in Idaho and Washington, the roil blotted out Montana’s Big Sky, tainted the Sun and Moon with toxic orange, and sent Glacier Park road-to-the-sunners scrambling back to the drawing board, travel guides and gas station free attraction brochure stands. Continue reading

Study: Eros Bendato Screpolato

Study. Charcoal on heavyweight drawing paper. 14 x 17"
Study. Charcoal on heavyweight drawing paper. 14 x 17″

This monumental cranium, titled Eros Bendato Screpolato (Bandaged, Cracked Eros) by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj has rolled onto the front lawn of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (now referred to as “The MEE-yah”). Our plan to sketch a naked human in the drawing studio fell through, so we spent an afternoon on the wet museum grass, sketching Eros’ bandaged cranium in bronze instead. Continue reading

Life Drawing in the Home Studio

Study, Pregnant Woman. Charcoal and conte crayon on drawing paper. 14″ x 17″

First live model session in my home studio setup was very successful. I kept thinking this must be one of the only occasions during which one can acceptably sustain eye contact with another human for more than a minute. Or even several seconds.

River Dogs

River Dogs. Acrylic on canvas. 14" x 11"
River Dogs. Acrylic on canvas. 14″ x 11″

My parents have always raised Golden Retrievers as family pets, pretty much becoming third and fourth children. In our family, they are hunters, rough-housers, mattress hogs, spoiled brats, and friends.

Painting from a photograph on this one, but trying to keep it as lively as possible with light, natural color quality and vibrating brushwork. I started with a pastel lavender under-painting and I’m slowly building up the other colors around it. Water is always challenging, but a great exercise in color and motion.

“Wild Things” to “Lisa Frank-enstein” – Dynamo II: The Epic Journey

Dynamo II. Acrylic, charcoal, aquarelle, collage on canvas. 36" x 60"
Dynamo II. Acrylic, charcoal, aquarelle, collage on canvas. 36″ x 60″

Migration, exchange, transformation, and natural cycles all take central roles in this new large piece I just finished. I’m feeling good about the final composition/content, which seems to be a sort of “Lisa Frank-enstein” multi-phased inner tube journey through dream territory, symbolism, and imagination. The loon and the salmon both make epic journeys during their lifetimes, interacting in a larger wheel that mills out change, promotes adaptation and learning.

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Dynamo I: All My Relations

Dynamo I (All My Relations). Acrylic, charcoal, ink, collage on canvas. 36" x 36"

Here is where I’m leaving this painting for now. Dynamo I is the first stage of a three stage project I’m doing on large canvases that emphasize nature, color, and increasingly concerned with the concept of “energy exchange” – in natural systems and in organism interactions. There is a little bit of my bio-nerd coming out in this theme … It’s fascinating to observe the world this way and to recreate the exchange of energy in the act of painting, which is itself a form of exchange and re-genesis.

Why “dynamo?” Strictly speaking, “dynamo” indicates a generator of some sort, which converts electrical energy to mechanical energy. I once came across this word in a short story, used to describe a dark forest ravine. I never got away from the imagery of this ravine filled with the energy of frog croaks, insect whirrrs, leaves rustling, water flowing etc. Earth/Nature as limitless battery, endless potential for conversion, transformation and sadly, exploitation …

I finally put the “legs” on this painting last night, which means I painted the canvas sides, and I’m ready to table it for now and see where the next two canvases go before I decide that it’s work ready to show. That being said, it’s neat how complete the piece feels when the sides are actually filled in … :)

Art and Kung Fu … Tiger Style! (Rawr!)

Tiger Claw
Charcoal and conte crayon on Strathmore drawing paper. 14 x 17 inches

“The Year of the Hobbyist” – a personal auto-characterization of my last approximately twelve months. My sister has made plenty of snarky comments about the several pass-times I have picked up and tried to juggle, not without mocking for the ones I have let fall into the dirt. She’s right, though … I recently bought a guitar and I was good about breaking into it, practicing for the first few weeks, only now for the last several months it has been leaning against my living room wall like another still tableau instead of an instrument. I purchased a French-made tagine with (feebly sated) ambitions for Moroccan cooking, a fishing pole hungry for more fish, running shoes that could at this point have seen a little more pavement, and a small fish tank with five tiny tropical fish (to whom I will say I am hopelessly devoted). However, one new thing in my life that has persisted is kung fu. Today, after nearly one and a quarter years training at the local dojang, I am fairly obsessed with it.

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Winter’s Mirror – Selfie Portrait

Selfie portrait
Selfie taken with phone, sketched on newsprint

It has been awhile since I posted anything, but that’s not to say I haven’t been busy. This time of year in Minnesota, the dark winter days are dragging on and each week brings a fresh few inches of snow, which now is melting into deep black pools of chilled, creeping mud. The last several weeks have been cold enough that it’s not worth leaving one’s apartment save for the most obligatory of activities. The Midwestern cabin fever has certainly set in.
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Des couleurs, des corbeaux

Color and form progression
Color and form progression

In my relationship to color, I have never been careful.

I’ve just arrived at the end of my next session on this painting, and I can see some rudimentary color “themes” coming forward and some birdlike things happening with form. I began developing the color fields and establishing the noisy, frenetic lines of the tree branches – the painting has begun to take on a more significant weight. The experimentation with hue usually takes place right on the surface of the canvas, and if I don’t like what is happening, I treat it as a challenge that must somehow be incorporated or subordinated.
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About: Color

Initial color progressions
Initial color progressions

Starting a new painting is exciting. There are so many possibilities to consider, and watching where the piece begins to move, stepping back every twenty or so minutes, helps decide whether the formal decisions are beneficial or useless. The composition of this piece comes from a photograph I took in a friend’s backyard after I helped him dig a ditch for a French drain at his new house. I was exhausted and sweating, and looked up to see sun filtering through the changing leaves of Minnesota’s autumn. I snapped a quick picture and translated the tree forms onto this square canvas.

My formal goal with this piece is only to explore the possibilities of color, starting with stark fields in a slightly geometric formation, and build them slowly to maximize subtleties. I have a lot of ideas for how to proceed as the colors develop, but for now I’m enjoying the simple rapports between the hues and tones cutting up the white space.

White space can be intriguing in its absence (as I wrote in my last post) however when I start again with a solid idea, it’s a race to get rid of it, to fill up that void with something physical, workable, without destroying the potential of the surface. The image is taking form and life and breathing all that open, white air to begin its own progress towards something unique in its own. The artist is the image’s careful guide, in this case.

The Raucous Group

The Raucous Group
The Raucous Group. Acrylic, charcoal on canvas. 18″ x 24″

In “The Raucous Group” I’m still exploring themes of human bodies in relation to space as in “Man with Drapes” and “Tuberculosis.” The figures find themselves in a somewhat neutral zone of abstraction, however in this piece their surroundings begin to take on a little more form.

While working on this painting I was trying to move away from these sort of amorphous, indefinite environments I was placing figures in. Realizing I was getting too comfortable with overworking the figures themselves and paying little attention to their physical “place in space,” I attempted to build the environment with as much intent and care as I constructed the figures. For me this was challenging – most of our structured human environments are rigid, geometrical, which doesn’t lend itself to the fluid energy-based stroke I was used to. I layered the interest in the background and foreground using a combination of color washes, “dredging” with charcoal and paint, and copious applications of medium with a palette knife.

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Shadow Palm


Shadow Palm (working title)
This is a large painting started in my bedroom. I had this big canvas leaning against my wall and woke up one night to see shadows playing on the surface. I decided to trace the shadows in the middle of the night, which were coming from light outside interacting with my palm tree (now dead!), and begin a “progressive” painting with multiple sessions of tracing and then painting. It’s still not finished, but it makes a nice decoration for now. Hoping to “finish” it this summer.