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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Completing a Painting

In class couple weeks ago, one of my students asked a question that has stuck with me: "How do we know when a painting is done?" My reply, at the time, was something general like... when nothing bothers you about the piece and you can't see where to take it further then it's done. Temperment also plays a part, when you find that you are no longer enjoying the painting (of course everyone goes through creative trials) but when you just look at the piece on your easel and dread picking up a paintbrush to work on it? Then it's time to call it quits, discard it as a work in progress and move onto something else that you can pour yourself into. Of course this is fine to tell students who are just exploring the process. For a professional artist who, for example works on commission and cannot merely abandon a painting, completion must be achieved through a rigorous criteria in aesthetic and intention.

When I approached the final layer on the commission, I evaluated EVERYTHING: perspective, color balance and rhythm, value relationships, drawing proportions, light sources, the balance of detail and non specific passages, and the overall "feel" of the piece.

My first step was to rectify the "collage" issue. Since I had used two separate images for the background and figure, the painting didn't have an accurate sense of space. Immediately I saw that if the girl were to be truly seated in a field of flowers then the flowers directly beside her (on the same plane) would need to be treated with the same amount of detail as her dress. But something else was bothering me about the isolated figure and background... and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. So I started an online hunt for inspiration, looking for more detailed images of lupine and how fields of flowers behave....

As luck (or perhaps tenacity) would have it, I stumbled upon fields that struck the resonant chord. The addition of California poppies was exactly what this painting needed. It not only made the entire field pop in a diversity that is much more natural, but it successfully united the figure within the scene. The burnt oranges and golds of the petals perfectly matched Nicole's dress so the colors became balanced and rhythmical throughout the entire painting. I purposefully painted many of the poppies closed, still in the beginning of their bloom, to symbolize the beginning of this young girls path to womanhood. And of course the poppies had a sweet resonance with me, personally, as I'm a 5th generation Californian and these vibrant little flowers proliferate the memory of my childhood.

As much as the field began to feel like a natural background setting, the light source was still an issue. Nicole was obviously lit with a bright, directional studio light. The dark shadows that cut her neck, nose, and right eye shriek of artifice. Lightening the shadows created subtle transitions and gave the painting its final diffused glow.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Music in the Painting Process

I find myself continually intrigued by how deeply interconnected all art forms are within the creative process. Working primarily in a single artistic field (visual, literary, musical or otherwise) it's easy to become isolated, to create only within a comfort zone. That's not to say that all forms aren't appreciated by artists who have focused their energies into a particular media, just that we are most confident working in a kind of compartmentalized system. I think this is a natural occurrence (not something institutionalized by society, per se) as we all have particular gifts that lend themselves to this kind of division. The product of this compartmentalization is apparent in how we define the art (the painting, the novel, the song) with little regard to how the PROCESS was affected by other genres. It is oftentimes impossible to see this crossover, unless, of course, the artist specifically intends to communicate it. Or you are a film maker. Film is the prefect example of the melding of different artistic categories... visuals with words and music.

When I began filming my painting process the issues of genre crossover became an exhilarating new concept to work with. Up until this point I had worked primarily in a secretive fashion, alone in my studio, only releasing images of works in progress to a select few. But creating films opened it all up... questioning how I express the process rather than just communicate through a completed painting.

Music became the prevailing (and oftentimes frustrating!) focus in my filmmaking. I have always painted with music going in the background. And I have always chosen my music by what emotions it brings forth in me that I want to influence the painting. For example, in the portrait of the young girl I have been commissioned to paint for her Bat-Mitzvah, I created a Pandora station of music I listened to when I was about her age. Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell... strong female artists that speak to the unnerving poetry of misunderstanding. But when it came time to put a soundtrack to my film, the modern day issues of copyright infringement hampered my full artistic expression. The only music I could find (unless I could pay $80 to license a royalty free tune) were educational recordings of classical music written before 1920. I "made do" in the first layer films with Chopin, an obvious choice as a lot of his music deals with subtleties of emotion and introspection, but ideally I would have liked to accurately portray the process (and conscious musical decisions I had made) while painting.

After discussing my musical frustrations with my dear friend Harley White Jr. he proposed a kind of collaboration for part 3 and 4 in the commission series. For the dress details I wanted something upbeat and fun, vibrant like the flowing gauze in orange, red and yellow. And this is what spontaneously erupted from the strings in the first take:

In part 4, with the detail work in the field of flowers in the background, Harley played one of his original compositions "Spring"

Witness the final touches on "Nicole's painting" in Part 5 of the commission process. Film will be posted as soon as a tune comes together. If only I had a musical bone in my body this hunt wouldn't be so difficult...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Commission in Process

I believe artists create for themselves. Of course every artist wants their work to speak to others, but ultimately we paint, sculpt, sing, dance, and write because we HAVE to. So to produce work for someone else is an incredible challenge. Painting on commission allows for an opening of the artistic process. It stretches the artist's solitary pursuit to include others' points of view and creates a new design and purpose for the painting. Ideally this process remains open, allowing the artist to make decisions that best execute the purpose of the painting. However, quite frequently, there are severe limitations....

Most of my commissions are painted from photographs because the subject is unable, for whatever reason, to sit live. Obviously working from life is the preferred approach as the eye can always see three dimensional form better than a camera can render a two dimensional image. But a photo is essential in most cases. Getting a GOOD photo for reference, however, is the greatest challenge I face in commissioned work.

The commission I started yesterday has an intense due date, giving me less than a month to do an oil painting (with all the dry time in between layers) and ship it to the East Coast. Obviously we didn't have time to do a photoshoot (geography and the surprise gift of the painting also rendered this important part of the process impossible) so I had to use photos my client already had.

This is where conflicting artistic visions wreak havoc! I have serious issues with how the professional photographer staged this young girl. Her long, thin limbs create a distraction through the composition, forcing the viewer to spin off through the extensions instead of resonating in the core of her person. And the light is very harsh, creating high contrast shadows with very little subtle variations in value and color. But I did find her "look" intriguing and the orange dress is just fabulous. I could work with this.

My first response was to crop her legs out entirely and to have her peacefully seated. Holding onto the swing rope sexualized the gaze somehow, so eliminating it had to happen. For the background, I wanted something symbolic for her age (this commission is a surprise gift for her Bat-Mitzvah) so a field of flowers seemed appropriate... blooming and feminine. I chose lupine in particular for the complementary color relationship with the orange in her dress and balancing of the lavenders in her skin. Since I am basically collaging photos together, it's up to my own imagination of how the figure and the background would actually relate to each other in real life. This is going to be extremely difficult, as I usually have to SEE it to paint it, but I look forward to the challenge.

I thought it would be interesting to see how a commissioned painting comes to life so I am filming the whole process and will be posting videos throughout the next couple weeks.