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

Art 4 Shelter

Snapshots of three postcard-size collages I submitted to this year’s Art 4 Shelter benefit. The event is an opportunity for art-lovers to snap up original artwork from emerging and established artists, with proceeds going towards housing and advocacy efforts for people experiencing homelessness. Excited to participate in this dynamic event! This year I’m focusing on work that relates to environmental justice – this was a great way to start off on the right foot! For these pieces, I thought about the global environment as life’s universal “shelter,” and how we must do what we can to protect it or suffer the consequences.

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait)

Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36" x 48"
Resuscitation Rite (Self Portrait). Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 36″ x 48″

Incubation. Gestation. Uterus/Heart. Growth & Development. Ripening. Maturation. Evolution. Vessels & Hollow Organs. Heart/Uterus. Impulse. Creative Stream. Universal Generativity. Revival. Resurrection. Resuscitation. These are a few of my favorite things! And/or the wayfinding words I was jotting down in my project book/journal as I set out to rework a ten-year-old self portrait that just needed something more.

The former painting, a half-baked figure drawing of myself lying in semi fetal position, came from the tail end of my art school years when I was working on expressive figure sketches, mostly in rote, frothy charcoal and muddled with bright, concentrated color (see “Imaginary Figures”). Working through how to transform this piece into something I could be proud of was an interesting process. In many ways, I felt like I was having a conversation with my younger self, recognizing what I was trying to do 10 years ago, and letting that dialog with today’s sensibilities, changed as they are. I found that several of my old tricks and practices have endured and perhaps matured over the years. The same joy in speed and gestural energy is there in the old and the new way of working. I have a better grasp on color and inventive palettes now, something I really missed ten years ago.

As I worked through this painting I began thinking more deeply about what it means symbolically to come full circle on a self-portrait. I came across my desire to reinvent without fully destroying this object that my 22-year old self made. I’m reading a biography about artist Jasper Johns, and I was intrigued at a part of Johns’ career where he systematically destroyed his older work after he found his creative niche, erasing the traces of his incremental growth. I have certainly had the impulse to obliterate old paintings, but I so value the idea of ritual transformation that I find inspiration and meaning in the process, the traces leading up to a certain point in time. I like to see the arc of things. Perhaps I really am a “big picture” thinker – my partner mentions it frequently. I remember how lost I felt at 22, facing graduation and the bleak world outside art school, and I wonder if that uncertainty contributed to the savage, transitional quality of the original image. I wish then I could have seen the long view and trusted it. It sounds so sentimental…I tried to have a little overdue self-compassion as I helped this old portrait find a way out of confusion. The result is a somewhat spiritual (if not a little corny), surrealist affirmation of our constant state of change and transformation, a theme that is ever more important in my art practice and my perspective in general.

“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.” – Jasper Johns

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio)

Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12" x 16"
Coagulation Study (Golden Ratio). Mixed media. 12″ x 16″

“Coagulation Studies” is an ongoing series of abstract work utilizing old paint and automatic ways of working. Salvage and collage of old materials such as paint chips, solidified or “coagulated” media, and remnants of product labels addresses the concept of time by juxtaposing media at different stages of transformation or life cycle. Formal aesthetic decision-making is minimized by using archetypal, automatic compositions and a palette limited to the leftover paint from other projects. Additional themes explored in “Coagulation Studies” include the nature of various media, physiological processes and shapes, interconnectedness and complexity, and creative systems.

(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.

Cubism’s “Greater Context”

Three Figures. Charcoal and conte crayon on drawing paper. 14" x 17"
Three Figures. Charcoal and conté crayon on drawing paper. 14″ x 17″

Here is a preparation piece/study for an upcoming project I am doing for a friend. I had another friend model and tried to render the figures in three separate perspectives using a cubist sensibility in my analysis and reworking of the visual field. I am so satisfied with this composition and treatment of the figures that I am considering making a full-size painting out of it, but perhaps it is best left alone as a study.

I started reading about cubism in the past couple of weeks to understand the theory behind this distinctive style. While I have not always been a fan of the blocky, dead-feeling paintings of Georges Braque and Jean Metzinger, the cubism of Picasso really speaks to me, perhaps because it seems almost decorative in the same vein as Gustav Klimt, alive with color and movement. What I found in my reading described the cubist’s attempt to portray a greater sense of reality by presenting a subject from many sides/perspectives, and in turn creating with the visual field a “greater context” around the subject for the viewer to have a fuller experience of the art. Within cubism’s paradigm is also a theme of temporal shift, with a subject changing slightly through different points in time. This last idea struck home with me as I recognized my own interest in early attempts at “time lapse” painting, which I termed “progressive” painting at the time. What I find fascinating about cubism is the attempt to imbue the static media of paint with the inherent transitional qualities of living structures in time and space.

Working and thinking through cubism comes at a time when I try to find a “greater context” for myself, both in my art and life in general. My RN job is challenging but I’m finally creeping up the learning curve and trying to get more involved with our unit. I’m reaching out my feelers for arts organizations to volunteer and contribute in meaningful ways, instead of painting in obscurity. As Summer fades, I feel a slight pressure to get more irons in the fire to keep me busy and warm through the long Minnesota winter.

 

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.

Night Shifts and the Amazing Technicolor Yellow Lab

Stewie. Acrylic on canvas. 11" x 14"
Stewie. Acrylic on canvas. 11″ x 14″

Working on this pet portrait commission in the hours between three consecutive night shifts! A vibrant underpainting and loose, expressionist style is giving me ample room to explore simple depth and intermediate tones. I’m trying to mix color quickly and intuitively to avoid the traps of overthinking. The result is so far quite beautiful and reminds me of Van Gogh or Paul Gauguin palettes.

Coagulation Studies: Blob Job

Coagulation Study 2. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 8" x 10"
Coagulation Study 2. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 8″ x 10″

A few new acrylic blobs for you this week! Thinking about cells, fragment poetry, cascades, automatic art, classification and taxonomy, time and transformation, decoupage, the border between painting and sculpture, bug collections, miniature paintings, sedimentation, among other things.

Traction in Abstraction and the Budding Shape of Life

Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flying Shapes (working title). Acrylic and ink on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Making abstract art is difficult. Trained mostly as a representational painter, I have always found navigating the ambiguity of abstraction a murky, sometimes arbitrary task. However, that foggy negotiable space is crucial to what I admire in painting, and factors into the creative process I’m developing. I’m often seeking a particular balance between real and unreal, objective and subjective, visual equivalents of prose and poetry. Thus these days I have committed myself to explore terra incognita and foray into non-representational pursuits when I’m not painting a cute doggie.

Why is abstract painting so challenging? [Start stream of consciousness on the subject of abstraction.] Without a reference, there are endless options, and I’m repeatedly puzzling over the questions: what am I doing? Why am I doing that? How does this relate to the concept I am trying to convey? Should I even be thinking about this so hard? What is life? What the f*ck? Mostly, I end up sort of making progress on a general concept, and then find myself working through several aesthetic “problems” that I try to address using my creative process. The biggest question here is “what do I do next?” When I’ve hit a rut and I’m thoroughly in the weeds, I’m usually trying to find an interesting way to create visual balance or break through that particular point in the painting’s creation. The tricky thing is finding a solution that makes sense with the original concept and so forth, which may in turn create another aesthetic “problem” to be solved. The second tricky thing is going through these cycles in a way that is not something trite or [insert distasteful word here]. Maybe I’m not sure how to describe what I’m specifically avoiding. Probably kitsch. There are more unmentioned tricky things.

As you can see, I still have not fully jumped off the cliff. The “abstraction” above involves some very recognizable shapes: craggy peaks, a glacial lake from high above, water reflecting the sky, some distant road networks. The chevron-esque shapes invoke migrating birds, hang gliders, proteins folding into themselves, or chromosomes. This unfinished piece is somewhat related to a concept I have been working on called the “shape of life,” or critical, redundant shapes and patterns in nature that iterate at microscopic and macroscopic levels and carry meaning. More to come on this at a later time.

Returns

Base painting for Returns
Base painting for Returns

Another semester of nursing school is slowing down, which means I’m finding oodles of time to catch up on my oft-neglected creative projects! I’m celebrating my return to art with some abstract work in this playful piece.

This is a re-worked old abstract piece that I got sick of (see left), looking at it for a few years hanging in my bathroom. The colors were too muted, the paint accumulation too thin. In the end, I let remnants of the old piece peek through the new one.

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

Angry Fupa Cat, terminé

Monster portrait. Acrylic and graphite on heavyweight paper. 11" x 14"
Monster portrait. Acrylic and graphite on heavyweight paper. 11″ x 14″
Graphite plan for feline portrait

Monster Study #1. Acrylic and graphite on heavyweight paper. 11" x 14"

No longer unfinished art as of 5/21/15. This cat face was a nightmare! It feels so good to peel off the tape and see the crisp white borders and put a little signature at the bottom :) Satisfaction. At left: progress on cat portrait… The graphite plan and under-painting. Layer-by-layer glazing approach helped build up colors and thicker surface of the final painting. The biggest challenge here was getting the paint cat to resemble the real cat – minor variations in face structure and lines have a huge impact on recognition, just like on human portraits!

A Sense of Place

In-progress Portrait. Acrylic on canvas. 11 x 14

Truth: it is hard to find time for painting in the crush of full time work and full time school. Fortunately, another truth exists: the harder it is to find time to paint, the more I want to do it, and I fantasize about long hours with my easel, surfaces, brushes… Knowing my capacity for hedonism, I shouldn’t worry about losing my craft. But starting this piece, I was more than a little wobbly getting back to the process. For now, this is just an under painting, and I’ll be working on layering in richer color, more exacting line work, a truer depiction of my friend in the foreground. The stiff, scary Chucky Doll face I unintentionally rendered will need to be worked over. The distinctive bridges in the background create movement and ground the portrait in Minneapolis and the Mississippi. Continue reading

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.

Mega Kicks!

Er qi jiao
Er Qi Jiao. Acrylic, ink, graphite on canvas. 8″ x 10″

O Feiyue shoe, how can I express my love for you? These paintings are about the ubiquitous canvas and rubber martial arts shoe. My goal is to have four of them to arrange in a set. I have gone through so many pairs of these things since I started martial arts training, wearing holes into the soles on cement, replacing material with duct tape and random extra shoelaces, clumsily teetering around while wearing a fresh pair.

I suppose these qualify as a type of still life, but the Feiyue shoe does not like to be still. No, the shoe demands the dynamic! In accordance with the shoes’ wishes, the paintings recall Kung Fu kicking techniques. An appropriate set title is thus, Mega Kicks! These shoes were made for kicking, and that’s just what they’ll do. And, one of these days, these shoes are going to kick all over you. This post is done.

Xuan Zi. Acrylic and graphite on canvas. 8" x 10"
Xuan Zi. Acrylic and graphite on canvas. 8″ x 10″

Study: Crushed Bird

Study. Graphite on newsprint. 18" x 24".
Study of a crushed bird. Graphite on newsprint. 18″ x 24″.

First drawing using an improved studio space in my new apartment. This study comes from a photo I printed from an article online awhile back – I believe the photographer’s intent was to capture the effects of wind turbines on wildlife. I find the image at once raw and elegant.

Schematix / Studio Nights

Dynamo II Schematic. Ink, colored pencil, mechanical pencil and embellishments on copy paper. 8.5" x 11"
Dynamo II Schematic. Ink, colored pencil, mechanical pencil and embellishments on copy paper. 8.5″ x 11″

My treatment of this migrating bird palm tree schematic draft is a hybrid of planning, playing, experimenting with shapes and colors, and journal entry. The thoughts and feelings I have about the work are sort of just poured onto this little sheet of paper and I decide how to use them on the larger piece as I go. It’s another kind of painting palette, maybe, but sans le paint.

Sometimes I have to make a rough draft. Or anyway find a visual means to process the themes in a miniature format before tackling a big working space in the confines of a small studio. This particular piece will eventually be projected onto a 5 x 3 foot canvas so I’ve been playing with this small copy paper version as a way to organize the elements. Honestly at times this feels counter-intuitive, because an energizing part of my work is the reactionary process with changes and transitions. Part of this, though, is that this is a previous painting I’m reworking (see my much earlier post about Shadow Palm, which will essentially be the under-painting). As with any rough draft, though, I can count on the final composition to look and feel much different from the initial, procedural steps.

Inkjet cutouts. T'ai chi poses.
Inkjet cutouts. T’ai chi poses.

Finding enough – time – to work on art is the biggest barrier to my practice. Between work, increasing need for sleep, all the personal relationships, worries about school, the daily grind of household and general life/hygienic upkeep, art somehow tends to fall down the priorities ladder to my unending guilt. I know someday I will have more time for art, but it is not an excuse to put it on the back-burner now. Despite this priorities pattern, I’ve been dedicating at least every Wednesday evening, without too many expectations. Last night for instance, I didn’t get much real “painting” in, but I did cut out a lot of cool inkjet prints of myself in various t’ai chi poses for collage elements, as well as work up the above schematic – in which some epic migrating waterfowl are centrally featured!

Snapshot of cutouts collés. Inkjet print on canvas with Liquitex heavy gel medium.
Snapshot of cutouts collés. Inkjet print on canvas with Liquitex heavy gel medium.

At times, when feeling guilty about not doing it, art-making becomes a chore. To get past that, I try to just allow myself the “studio time” to do whatever I want with (like cut out nearly nude pics of myself), as long as it is in some way art-related. It’s kind of like stretching; it’s not a full workout, but it’s getting ready for the real stuff. Every artist needs time to reflect, to spread out their tools and their inspirations, and just do what feels fun or productive for that particular mood or moment. Art should never feel like a chore, and when it does, I can’t see how creativity can thrive.

Dynamo Closeups

Just a couple quick photos from painting session a few nights ago. The sheen from my acrylic extending medium gives some unexpectedly rad effects on collaged cutout embellishments … Qué rico … Publishing from phone for first time … XD

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A Total Ecology of Painting

Work in progress. Acrylic, charcoal, compressed ink on canvas. 48" x 48"
Work in progress. Acrylic, charcoal, compressed ink, aquarelle on canvas. 48″ x 48″

“Wandering” / “Exploring” / “Essaying” / “Probing” … These are just a few ways I could characterize my approach to painting, especially when working in a relatively larger format. I don’t rely on a lot of planning but rather sort of let my process guide me through the work. In this piece, there are several overlapping sketches and paintings … you can see the initial stages in my previous post “About: Color.” I work through these quickly at first and then slowly consider what is emerging, making decisions on the fly. In this way, the different levels of the painting tend to merge and present themselves all at once, which for me is a potent way of tying time together and presenting this work as an idea/process that may suggest something pointed or simply observe in a non-linear fashion. I often feel my role in a painting, and certainly in large works that fill my entire scope of vision, is that of the explorer, as ready to discover as I am to make formal decisions about the direction of the piece. Central to the way I work – and to the practice of painting itself – is the idea that whatever happens remains visible … Decisions made in the past remain in existence and are presented all at once to the viewer, which separates painting from most sculpture, video, performance, etc.
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Periplaneta americana: la cucaracha!

Periplaneta americana underpainting
Periplaneta americana underpainting. Acrylic and graphite on watercolor paper.

This was a quick project that I’ve put aside for now, as predictably I have moved on to something else I find a little more interesting than a painting about this ubiquitous insect. Cockroaches live all over the world and come in several species, the worst of which I hear are migrating to my part of the world at a terrifying pace. The initial inspiration came from finding some small specimens in my sink and my subsequent battle with the seemingly limitless reinforcements that back up their fallen compatriots. Luckily, there are some handy dandy and non-toxic ways to deal with minor infestations of them.
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