Master Copies with Crayola Crayon

Master Copies with Crayola Crayon

It’s been 4 years since I’ve completed one, but the Crayola bug has bit me once again! I recently was fortunate enough to be able to make it over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to see the van Gogh exhibit there – it was wonderful, and really, really packed for a Tuesday. I shudder to think what it was like to visit it on a weekend. There were several pieces I’d never seen before and some sketches as well. Seeing these paintings in person is sort of like hitting a ‘reset’ button for me. The daily monotony of working and then painting is pretty tiring sometimes, and seeing others’ art refreshes the well! It’s ecstasy to drink in these pieces in person! The MFAH has an incredible permanent collection as well, and it’s always a treat to visit with some of my favorite paintings in that collection. Last time I was there I was taken in by Georges Daniel de Monfreid’s self portrait, and it was so lovely to be able to visit it again. Another piece that captured me on this visit was František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale”.

The first is my photo at the museum. In the second, sadly, much of the pinks are washed out.

Sometimes you see a piece of art that simply floors you, that sucks the air right out of your lungs and everything else in the room ceases to exist. You make a beeline for it, as if magnetized. This painting did that to me. Kupka eventually went on to make abstracts, and this self portrait makes me a little sad about that, even though it makes sense as he was primarily interested in color theory. This study of yellow is a commanding portrait. An artist friend of mine said “The sheer arrogance of it almost knocks you over.” It’s well said. You can’t help but to wonder as to what this artist was like in person and what he was thinking as he posed for himself for this piece. It strikes at the heart of what is so compelling about self portraiture – how intimate the self portrait is. While I believe that in its way, every piece of art made is a self portrait of the artist, literal self portraits are brazen and boldly open, honest and revealing. They are exciting and fearless, as personal and daring as an artist can get. To make one and then to share it, to remain in the world past your years as a picture on a wall for countless strangers to connect with you is a compelling act. This painting in particular, with Kupka presenting himself in his robe, holding out his cigarette, staring at you as if to dare you to look at him – this is pure gold, pure connection, an intimate stare into the human condition. He challenges you to accept or deny him, to really see him if you are willing to look. This is why when I copy master paintings, an invaluable tool for learning from those before you, I prefer them to be self portraits. I prefer to spend time with the artist, this allows me to converse with them in a more personal manner, going deeper then their composition, color choices and brushstrokes.

Georges Daniel de Monfreid “Self Portrait” 1905 and Henri Mattise “Self Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt” 1906 (See my earlier post “Painting at the start of the 20th Century” for more on that topic.)

My choice to do the majority of my master copies with crayon is also a deeply personal choice. It’s a challenging medium, an unforgiving medium. It’s hard on my hands, too. Every single one I have done harbors mistakes that can not be covered or hidden from view. They do not aim to create a copy that is indistinguishable – they celebrate their mistakes and differences. I enjoy the challenge of translating the medium, even when thick impasto brushwork must be sacrificed. Color correctness must also be sacrificed, the range of crayola colors is limited and requires extra thought into layering to achieve something that’s sort of similar. I could buy a wide range of fancy, adult artist crayons, ones with more pigment and colors with familiar names, but there is something soothing and reminiscent of the pureness of drawing as a child that I enjoy, the olfaction is a large part of it. The act of drawing with crayons keeps alive that sheer joy of just sitting and exploring with waxy color. Applying the drawing skills I have as an adult to the medium of early childhood is something deeply satisfying, it feels like coming full circle as a celebration.

My aim, over time, is to complete a series of 20 self portrait master copy drawings. On my list for the next drawings are Ludwig Meidner (second attempt), Gwen John, van Gogh (of course), and if I’m feeling extra fancy, Kahlo and Lucien Freud.

My Sister Subconscious

My Sister Subconcious_blog
My Sister Subconscious, 2019, 24 x 36 in

 

A philosophical topic that used to really capture my interest was the mind/body question. What bridges the gap between who we are and the physical transport we are housed in? What spark makes me ME, what binds soul to body? Over the last decade, I’ve slowly come to think that it may simply be explained by the electrical impulses and transfers of neurons, I find ontological queries much more captivating with an agnostic eye. I find the incredible world we live in to be full of natural wonders and mysteries in their own right, I find awe in that which we can see and in the prospect of what we have yet to learn.

Now that we are in the right frame of mind, this painting, My Sister Subconscious, has been maturing since 2010. This is the 5th iteration of the image and there will be one more before I am done with it.

The original, My Sister Subconscious, 2010 and two studies from 2017, attempts to transform the figure with realism and a choice to move towards moon vines in place of the geometric shapes that hide that magical, mysterious place where the conscious and the subconscious meet in a shadowed hallway of the mind. The night blooming flower, Ipomoea alba, while not technically a Datura, still of the Solanales Order, can easily be used, leaving the possibility for symbolic amalgamation. Conjuring the Datura is desired, but I could not resist the night blooming aspect of the Tropical White Morning Glory.

Our subconscious protects us. It functions to store memories and to filter out expansive experiences and information that allows the conscious mind to find presence, to get on with the business of living daily life. The amount of information (correctly stored or not, but for the sake of brevity…) kept there and how our conscious mind taps in to it or doesn’t – that is something that I find endlessly fascinating. What do we hide from ourselves? Is anything better left unexplored? How can we access it when we have the desire? I firmly believe living a life of introspection, which creatives must, and all people could, means exploring the hidden recesses within us. It means going to the hidden places, understanding our processes, revealing the cogs that churn into each other – the subconscious and consciousness, symbolized also as the seeing eyes peering out from behind the glazed over conscious mind. When we don’t look below the surface, when we live without examination and curiosity, the conscious mind gets away with a lot of bad behavior. Compassion is born of connection, of humility and of understanding we are mere repeating patterns in nature. It’s the kind of work that is never finished, human condition and all.

I may return to the conscious mind’s eye being totally blind in the final version as it is in the studies. In the 2019 version, I wanted to experiment with the figure being more accessible, more whole, then the original concept of a mysterious nocturnal creature with a split face. This removes the bud hiding the point of connection, however, removes exploring a pin point in philosophical and physical space that I will probably never stop fully questioning.

“Visual Reality” – A nod to Magritte

“Visual Reality” – A nod to Magritte

I just finished a piece that I’m very excited about, and as a fellow (and much admired) painter put it – Making an Art Joke. It is an art joke, and also dropping a big heavy anvil clue as to one of the artists I’ve drawn a great deal of inspiration from over the years. So much so, it crept into my psyche to the point where I wasn’t even thinking about it consciously as this piece progressed, up until it was a chuckle over how obvious it was. That is why I decided to just chuckle to myself, have fun painting, and stick a floating rock in the background. The rock is from Rene Magritte’s “La Bataille de l’Argonne” (The Battle of Argonne), and I relished in getting to have something of a conversation with him during this “master copy” inserted into my own work.

This idea for this piece was born in a PetSmart. I was browsing languidly to buy a food bowl, and stopped to look at the beautiful tiny birds for sale, and was struck by their gorgeous coloring and stripes. I took a bunch of photos deciding to paint one of them. I’d been thinking about making a painting exploring and weighing the concepts of Free Will vs The Law of Causality. This is a topic that has haunted me since college philosophy classes, which spun me around and pulled me in two directions at once while I struggled to blend the two ideas into something I could live with. As I age, I keep leaning more and more into Causality being the responsible party for our lunch choices and more, tugging at the strings of our hearts with a cold firm grip. But let’s keep it light, shall we?

Originally, I decided the live bird would represent Free Will and a stone bird to represent The Law. I thought about this for a long time before even sitting down to sculpt the stone bird (which turned out a little derpy to be honest, so the painted stone bird does not resemble the prop I made) for my model to hold during the photo shoot. The model is my friend Katrina, someone who works tirelessly to help those around her, supporting and building up her community of artists and volunteers.

kat hand detail wip_web
WIP Detail of looser paint application attempt!

I think my favorite part of the entire painting, to be honest, was solving the puzzle of painting lots of little braids. I still think they look a bit like dreads (which I’ve painted before and adored every moment), but I’m happy enough with the results. I had to figure out both the color and the application technique – darks down first, then mid tone, then highlights. Solving this was vexing at first, but as it started to click things flowed smoothly, and the experience was joyful. A lot of my painting time is trying to solve problems and failing! I go through a long list of what doesn’t work before finding something that does. The most vexing part of the whole piece was the clouds – I painted them several times, and now have a photo file of cloud reference photos, because making them up didn’t work out quite how I wanted. My clouds will evolve to be certain, needing a lot more practice! But those are fluffy and floaty and do fine for this piece. There will be more clouds in the future. Finally, I really enjoyed the flesh tones recipes I used here, but think next time I paint these wonderful tones I will use the limited pallet to develop more broken up color. The colors here are off a base of yellow ochre, cad orange, b. sienna plus titanium white, with the reminder that lead whites make for less chaulky mix.

Sandra as Chronos – “Get to it!”

Sandra as Chronos

Something I think about constantly – and you likely do as well, is time. It doesn’t feel like there is ever enough of it to accomplish what I’d like. This is definitely because I went back to working a day job and paint around that now, which is why my production slowed so much the past 6 months. One the one hand, working a day job is great, obviously for the financial security that being an artist doesn’t always provide, but also because it makes me appreciate the time I do have to paint more, and forces me to be more productive with that time. I had started back full time, and now getting ready for a bunch of shows, I’ve gone to four days a week, so I can focus more on painting again. It’s also great because it takes so much pressure off of what I do make. I don’t need the sale to pay the utilities, I’m free to make what I want, for myself, and then just put it out there and see what happens. If it stays with me for a time, that’s okay. I made it for me anyway.

This painting is definitely for me, I made it while ruminating over time, what I’m doing with mine, how I spend my nights after work, and it’s really just a little kick in the butt – a painting about getting back to the work of painting. I don’t have forever.  None of us do. The urge to paint for me is a compulsion, but if I don’t have the energy, I can’t always force it. If I go too long without painting however, I start to feel… itchy. Unsatisfied, lazy even. I feel unfulfilled. Once I get back to work, all feels right again, I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing with my time. The precious little I may have, and there are so many paintings I want to make! I struggle a great deal with maintaining balance in my life – work, painting, family and friends, and simple alone downtime, those things all need to happen, and they need to be balanced. Too much of any one thing, and everything begins to feel a little claustrophobic.

So this is my good friend Sandra, personified as time. It’s okay for her to tell me to get off my ass, because we support each other a lot. She’s never actually said anything like that, but it felt right for her to be the subject in this one. I had envisioned it as a female Chronos, the keeper of the ticking moments, though definitely sans the whole child eating thing. She’s staring hard at me, goading me, saying  “Hey, quit wasting time. Get to it.” The original reference photo has black lace draped over the chair, but I decided to leave it out because it didn’t need the extra reminder of death, it keeps it a little lighter,  more positive and I can’t bring myself to cover the peacock chair. Man, I love that chair.

Sandra in progressThe experience of painting this feels like a bridge in a strange way – I’m happy with the painting, I’m proud of it, but there are a few things about it that vexed me throughout and still do – it’s best to be seen as a learning experience for sure. Proportional issues and edge work, brushstrokes and all. I love painting large hands, because I love hands, but it really bugged me here once I got there. If slightly larger hands are a mark of my work, I’m for it, usually. I was working on it last night and listening to an artist interview podcast, and the artist said something that really struck me as being exactly how I felt at that very moment – the reason I’ve been so frustrated is because I’m learning and growing. All the things I see that are wrong with this painting are because I can now see what could be better about it. All my successes with it are points to be proud of, for sure, but the problems are glaring at me like a neon sign. The hand placements was different at first. I got over a week behind schedule dealing with it. Here’s a peak at what it was like, I felt it was unnatural looking and the entire arm was moved!

Process and creative flow

Many people ask me questions about my artistic process, and sometimes I find myself a little stumped. They want a peek into how and why artists make what they make, and if the person asking doesn’t make art, it turns out that usually what they want to hear is less technical and more abstract. I started this blog because I wanted a forum for discussing the more technical aspects of oil painting. That’s why it’s called what it’s called. As I go through the process of teaching myself how to glaze flesh tones over verdaccio and grisaille, as I go back and forth between indirect and wet on wet pieces, and as I explore the possibilities of the medium that I love so dearly, it would be great to have a public place to share all these things with other people who are also learning or interested.  But I’m realizing that actually, I also want to use the blog as a forum to tell my story and to explain to a degree why I make what I make. Talking to people directly about my work is absolutely something I must learn to do with ease and grace, but like many artists, I am heavily introverted, and am more comfortable alone in the studio.

I get asked often where my ideas come from. The honest truth is, they come from everywhere. They come from articles I read, people I know, from conversations I have, and they come from my personal writing practice as well. When I become very stumped for ideas, I take strange photos of myself. That is how quite a few of my paintings have been born. I greatly admire those artists who start with what they want to say, and build a piece around it. I have only successfully managed that a few times. Very often, I start with a basic idea or image, and I allow it to grow organically. I may allow a piece to sit in my head for a year or more before I decide it’s ready to be developed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Dream before Sleep, 2009

Sometimes the images finalize themselves in that space just before sleep, when the conscious and subconscious are brushing up against each other. That’s where this old painting comes from. The butterflies are ideas being born. The figure is illustratively cartoonish, because I jumped out of bed and made it.

I will admit something personal – sometimes I make a painting and I don’t understand it until I’ve stared at it for a really long time – days, weeks, even months. Sometimes I paint what I admire, things I want to do, but don’t because learning the skill seems intimidating, and I’d rather paint. I’ve been playing guitar on and off for about two decades, and will likely never get that good at it, but the desire to play guitar has never left me, so I continue to play it maybe once a week or once a month, but that’s not enough to steadily improve. Instead, I made paintings about women with guitar necks, and then spines.

I imagined vertebra morphing into tuning keys, and these two paintings are the outcome of this imagining. And yes, of course I am fully aware of Man Ray’s’ Le Violon D’Angres. There was a procession of images that lead to the guitar spines however. It started with the Guitar Neck Woman, a painting from around 2010 that I wish were more technically proficient, but hey, we all start out somewhere. I strive to always grow and improve, hopefully for the rest of my days. If you think that’s strange, you should know the Guitar Neck Women I used to doodle evolved into Guitar Neck Peacock Women. Then the necks became like vacuum hoses. That got really weird.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We all start somewhere. Gosh, this is strange.

 

It’s fun to see the progress though, and I hope that by showing older works it might inspire one of the many people I meet who tell me they tried to make art, but it wasn’t any good so they gave up. Don’t give up. That’s what it takes if you feel discouraged about making art. The saying for poems is the same for making art. Write one hundred poems. Throw them out. Write one hundred more. Some of those will be good poems. So maybe don’t actually throw out your paintings – maybe just paint over them. I’ve made scores of paintings that don’t exist anymore, because they were bad. I’ve even burned a few, and out of all of those destroyed pieces, I only regret destroying three of them. So be careful about what you destroy, but if you need the canvas to make another painting, just do it. You need to make a lot of bad paintings to figure out how to make a good painting, and man, those bad paintings take up so much space.

(Note – I wrote a post today for the first time in forever, and then found this half finished draft saved and forgotten, so I went ahead and finished it.)