Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Still in progress

I got bogged down in administrivia today, but still managed some quality easel time, in particular working on the brush. One of my greatest satisfactions as a painter is being able to watch objects emerge from indistinct sketchy masses to almost take on an individual life and breath of their own.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Progress

In Progress: Hake Brush on Wineglass

This painting has more of a monochromatic color scheme than I'm been working with lately. I find that a more subdued palette leads me to rely more heavily on other things, such as the dramatic lighting and a more intentional approach to juxtaposing warm and cool tones.

Of course, with the poor quality of this image, you'd never know that; you'll just have to trust me.

More tomorrow.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Special Effects

In Progress: Teacup and Teapot

There's a whole lot more to making a good painting than trying to capture dramatic visual effects. Concentrating on just those can even cheapen the artwork.

Right. That's what I should say. Blah Blah Blah.

What-Ever, though, cause DAMN I love it when I try an effect and it comes off. I couldn't name it if my life depended on it, but years ago I saw a 19th century still-life where the objects were emerging from soft-edged shadows and in turn casting very hard shadows. I think it was a Fantin-Latour piece.

It was a gorgeous effect that I've often thought about, so I wanted to have a go at it myself; in this case the right edge of the small teapot.

Not perfect, but I really like this one. Sometimes it is all about the effects.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Miniature: Marble Trio

Marble Trio
Oil, 2 x 2.5 inches

I have nothing particularly clever to say about this painting, so I'll just leave it as is.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Working with magnification

Since I work small in general, and this week have been doing true miniatures, I thought I'd post about the magnification I use. A few months ago when I started considering magnifying the work, I wound up looking at the high-end products intended for specialized manufacturing.

This was overkill.

Fortunately, I decided to try a low-end approach first, and then lay out the big bucks if really necessary. So far, it's worked very well. I purchased 2 clamp-on flexible magnifiers, one of 2x magnification and the other of 3x. Between them, they provide me with the range of views I seem to need. They are easily moved out of the way, and I don't feel undue eye strain for the most part. I don't remember the details offhand, and don't feel like looking for the invoice, but I think the total cost was less than $20.

The effect on the painting was immediate. It sharpened and cleaned up the detail like I'd almost never been able to do before. For reference, the painting in progress above is 2x2 inches.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Miniature: Red Coffee Mug

Red Coffee Mug
Oil, 2 x 2 Inches

It would seem I'm doing a painting a day this week...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Making movies

A couple months ago I made a slew of painting movies; basically time-lapsed photos of the work in progress, stitched together with some music. I got a lot of positive feedback, and lots of views on YouTube.

They were fun to make too, but they took a long time. Basically the process was to shoot a whole bunch of stills while painting, using my all-purpose digital cam. At the end, download them, crop and resize ALL so the sequence wouldn't look too choppy, add them into my video software, adjust as much as possible for lighting etc, add music, and compile.

Could mean hours of editing for each one.

I think it is actually important to be able to show this kind of process, and I'm eager to do more. Just not eager to spend as much time on it.

I've been looking for ways to speed things up. I dug up an extra webcam we had, and experimented with it while working today. Unfortunately, it's not the answer; the image quality sucks, as you can plainly see above.

Back to the drawing board.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bits & Pieces

Stepping Up

Lately I've caught a few cooking shows, and it's inspired me to think some about presentation. Average food gains appeal when it's artfully arranged on a plate, and even great food loses a little something when it's just slopped on.

Likewise, I'm trying to be a little more careful with some of the appearances around my paintings. Until recently, I've just been hand-writing the painting's information on a label pre-printed with my name and contact info. From now on, though, I'll be printing out the labels. Just a small professional touch, but I've got to think that these little details add up.

On the Wall

It's nice to see a finished painting, well-framed, up on the wall.

Chris Howard

My friend Chris Howard's novel Seaborn is officially published this weekend.

Chris and I started working together 7 years ago when the company I was at purchased the company he had co-founded. In the interval between the deal and Chris moving his family from Silicon Valley to the Boston area, there was some impressive buzz about him floating around the office: dot-com entrepeneur, rockstar software engineer, expert on Aristotle, speaks Greek and Japanese, etc.

It was all pretty accurate, but he still turned out to be a really nice, down-to-earth guy. We soon got to be friends (and I'm forever grateful that he and Alice were among the very first to buy a painting from me!).

One thing I learned early on was that he aspired to be a writer. He actually had written in the past, but put it aside for years while he was starting software companies, and was only then picking it up again. It was fascinating to watch him start from square one; write, submit, collect a pile of rejection letters, write more, submit more, get a few short stories in print, get an agent, get a publisher, publish the first novel, and have 2 more in the pipeline while you're at it. All this while raising a family and having a responsible grown-up's job.

The dedication and perseverance was amazing... and inspiring to me as I was trying to get my own artistic career off the tarmac.

Anyway - it's a well-deserved success, and the first of many I'm sure - Congrats Chris!

I almost forgot - on top of all that, he's an accomplished artist as well, doing among other things some really great illustrations based on his current writing projects. Some people just do it all...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Grim news

Lascaux may be doomed. An apparently bungled air conditioning installation has given rise to the second outbreak of fungi on the cave walls in 8 years. Current abatement efforts have failed, and the damage continues unchecked. Having survived for 17,000 years, some of the paintings may now be lost in as little as 6 months.

Unless the responsible authorities can get their act together, Unesco is threatening to place the caves on its list of endangered world heritage sites.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ongoing studio rehab

A couple years ago I decided my studio should have really dark walls; deep chocolate brown, matte. The thinking was that this would make it a lot easier to control light by minimizing unwanted reflections. It had the intended effect, but it was also like being in a cave. I actually do like small intimate spaces, but this just ended up feeling claustrophobic and depressing.

It finally got to me.

So I spent a few hours today starting the job. Since the current paint is so dark, I'm putting up primer, just to be sure. I haven't yet decided on the final color I'll use; something lighter (of course) and neutral.

I'm not doing it all at once, either... just a few hours at a time, here and there. I've done a couple of these kinds of big studio jobs straight through in the past, and the result was I went as much as a week without producing any new pieces. I'll be looking at tacky priming for a while, but at least I'll be painting... the real painting, that is.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Red Coffee Cup

Red Coffee Cup
2 x 2 inches

I mentioned last week that I was thinking about doing some very small pieces. With my regular-sized paintings taking 2 or more days to complete, a change of pace seemed like a really good idea. So it was. I really liked being finished with this by the end of the day.

I'm not sure what to do with this yet. My regular paintings sell pretty well, but I've had mixed results with these miniatures. Maybe I'll do several and offer them as a set. Or something else. We'll see...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

HDR Photography, Part 1

No painting today; I was working on a number of other studio tasks instead. One of them was preparing a few still-life compositions for future paintings. Since this involves taking digital images, I thought it would be a good time to start a series about my use of photography in the studio. Rather than one really long article, I'm going to break this topic up into a series of small posts, sequentially covering the process.

Photography has become a fixed part of my process, but not just any photography. The limitations of standard photographs in capturing "true" color and value range are well known. A technique known as HDR (High Dynamic Range) Imaging goes a long way to addressing those shortcomings.

In a nutshell, the process starts with at least 3 bracketed versions of an image; one at standard exposure, another under-exposed to capture details in highly-lit areas, and another over-exposed to capture detail in the shadow areas.

Here is the series from a recent still-life setup:

Once a satisfactory set of bracketed images has been taken, the software processing can begin. With the next post on this topic (probably next week), I'll start to look at that phase.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Finally got to the end of this painting, and that makes me very happy. Some pieces are easy, and some tough... this was definitely the latter.

Will do a final photograph and posting to eBay tomorrow morning.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bits & Pieces

In Progress

Despite being Sunday, I carved out a few hours to continue working on this piece, and made some headway. It is going to be finished tomorrow... it is.

Sackler Museum
A friend and I decided to go to the Sackler Museum at Harvard yesterday afternoon. Years ago I lived around the corner from it, and went almost every month; really nice collection of Eastern art & artifacts; Byzantium to Japan.

We got there and the sign on the door said it was closed until August. Real let-down. Of course I'd glanced at the website before leaving. When I got home and checked again, I found this information was in fact there, buried several clicks down. Seems like the kinda thing you'd put right on the home page.

Anyway, it was a good excuse to wonder around Cambridge for the afternoon instead; maybe we'll try the museum again next month.

Friday, July 11, 2008

It's all relative

This type of brush is one of my real workhorses - the Cotman 111 series 0000 synthetic round. Primarily a watercolor brush, but I don't let that stop me. Every time I buy them from my local supply store, the old guy behind the counter tells me I must have the patience of a surgeon. Every time.

Yet sometimes it actually is too big, and I keep looking for smaller brushes I might like. I've heard that Willard Wigan paints his miraculous little sculptures with brushes he makes himself, using the leg hairs from dead houseflies (they have to be previously deceased from natural causes; he doesn't wish to kill anything for the purpose of making the art. It's admirable).

I probably don't have to go quite that far yet, I'll just keep shopping around. If anybody has a favorite small brush, I'm all ears - leave a comment on this post.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Slow going

In progress: Olive Oil and Red Apple

After a couple days working on other paintings, I got back to this one today. I'm having trouble with it, and it's really slow going. It probably doesn't help that I'm not even sure if I like it yet.

I don't have any doubts about whether this is the right style of painting for me; it is the direction I should be following at this point. If I do worry about anything, though, it's the time it takes me to complete paintings now. I used to work fast - really fast - cranking out paintings in a few hours - sometimes even big ones. There are artists who do marvelous work at that speed, but I realized I'm cut from a different cloth. I'm much more satisfied with my artwork now, but the output has slowed dramatically.

And so, with good discipline, I can produce an average of 2 of these paintings every week. Lately I've thought it might be nice to do a series of tiny pieces, just to have the satisfaction of completing one in a single day. I'm thinking like in the 2x2 inch range - same style, same standards, just really, really small. Yes, back to a painting a day... It could be a healthy change of pace.

Meanwhile, the Marmalade Jar painting I posted in-progress images of last week is up on eBay. For information, click here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

From the ground up

In Progress: Teacup and Teapot on Green Slate

Being mostly self-taught has downsides, but big advantages, too. Developing my own solutions to problems gave me an experimental approach to painting. I've held on to that mindset even after I got a little bit of formal training, and learned one of the "right ways" of doing things. I'm sort of a garage inventor in my studio, and it serves me well.

My very basic approach to making paintings and many of the general techniques I follow change frequently as I try out new things. I recently made one such tweak concerning the order in which the final paint layer is applied. Previously I would first paint the objects and then work outwards into the background and foreground, or else begin at the top and more-or-less work downward into the painting. Lately, though, I've begun painting the entire ground - both the background and the surface the objects rest on, letting it dry, and then painting the actual objects... last. In the above in-progress piece, I've just completed the entire ground, next week I'll paint in the teacup and teapot (what you see right now for those objects is just the color-wash underpainting).

This new approach means I don't have to worry about exact color matching, which used to be a little tricky if 2 adjacent areas of the background were done on different days. I also don't have to deal with the "drying lines" between these two areas, which can create an unwanted boundary. Another benefit I've found is that it's a lot easier now to paint the really delicate and subtle light effects that occur around the edges of the objects - half of the area I'm working on is already dry and won't muddy the paint I'm applying.

That's how I do it today, it'll probably be different next year...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Bits & Pieces

A couple of shorter items:

Self-portrait blog
I got an email yesterday about submitting a self-portrait to a blog devoted to that genre. I did send an image of a SP I did in late 2006 (above), but found later that in order to be included, the actual physical artwork must be donated to the blog owner's collection. This made me raise an eyebrow for about 30 seconds, then I realized that it's in fact a perfectly ethical proposition. There is afterall nothing wrong with simply asking for the art, and in return providing a coherent, respectful forum for displaying the work.

I declined to make the donation since I'm attached to that particular painting. But, a blog devoted specifically to the self-portrait genre is a neat concept, and I did offer to do a similar smaller piece for him at some point in the future.

It's one hell of a brilliant way to build a collection, and a worthy blog, to boot:

Herndon VA Plein Air Competition.
I was recently contacted about a weekend-long plein air contest in Virginia. It's considerably out of my neighborhood, and I'm concentrating on still-life these days, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who would be able to get involved. Info is here.

Opening the eyes, opening the mind
Over the last 8 months or so, my life has been a little tumultuous, and I haven't made a regular effort to be a good art-blog consumer. There were the dozen or so regular reads, and sadly, that was about it. Yesterday I decided to change that, and spent from late afternoon until nearly dawn visiting blogs I knew from before, and discovering a whole lot of new ones. It was really refreshing, and I'm glad I did it.

I also added a whole bunch of links to the already-mondo blogroll on State of the Art. Links seem to mean different things to different bloggers; recognizing friends, making statements and boundaries about style and quality, and also mutual link-swapping (sounds durty, I know). I don't have much of an agenda with the links I keep. There's a really wide range of style, quality, and blogging aptitude, but in general there was something about each one that caught my eye. It's basically just a set of bookmarks for blogs I'd like to see again at some point in the future.

Other people's blogrolls are probably the best way of finding good new sites... and let's face it, who doesn't like to see their name on somebody else's list? If you're looking here for your blog, though, forget it. I am not gonna manage 2 separate link lists. Look here instead.

Roasting alive
It's been miserable in my studio the last couple of days. Really awful. The upstairs AC units (mid-century house, no central air) usually do a decent job keeping the ground floor comfortable too, and that's where the studio is. This winter, however, I reconfigured the lighting and added more halogens. They were desperately needed, but they really pump out the heat. With temps outside floating in the 80s/90s, it's been an oven in here, and I've been very cranky. Good thing I don't have to play well with others during my workday.

Fortunately, Sean picked up a new AC tonight, so hopefully tomorrow I should be working in serene coolness.

Restaurant Porn
I've never seen American Idol or most other reality shows and I'm ok with that. Somehow though, I got sucked into Hell's Kitchen last year and haven't been able to shake the habit. Tonight was the current season finale. It was down to a pair of total rockstar competitors. I was rooting for Petrozza, but Christina won, and she was eminently deserving too. Man... working in a professional kitchen seems like a rough way to earn a living.

Almost everybody hates Gordon Ramsay, but I've warmed up to him. It's like he's Mussolini with better hair and hidden charm. I suspect that away from a TV camera, he's actually a decent guy.

Ron English Mural Brouhaha

This is the building in Boston where I had my previous studio. I find it amusing that it was actually another gallery that got pissed off and called the police.

Monday, July 7, 2008

William Wray

Guess it's safe to plug other artists here in addition to my own shameless self-promotion...

I just got an email about a show in California by William Wray. Bill's an absolute master of painting urban blight, and often transforming it into something serene and beautiful. I used to paint a lot of urban landscapes - factories, abandoned warehouses, etc., and Bill was one artist I really looked up to... a lot. Obviously, my painting has changed a little (I think we all have to pick something, give it a good run, and make it our own), but I still love looking at his pieces, and wish I had painted most of them.

Almost makes me want to spend the afternoon out in the great industrial wasteland, brush in hand...

Oh - I should add I was enjoying his work on Ren & Stimpy long before I was looking at fine art on a regular basis...


What I don't know about marketing, including internet marketing, would fill a pretty large textbook on the subject. There's also the question of time to devote to the task; it could pretty much be a full-time job in itself, even for very small businesses like mine. Nevertheless, I do keep stabbing in the dark, hoping to move 3 steps forward for every 2 back. It's naive to think I can just sit in front of my easel and paint.

Ideally, I'd love to spend some quality time getting a good, cohesive graphic design going across my blogs and static website, as well as a great logo and header graphic to use on my other sites, like my eBay store and my squidoo page. Again, the time thing, and I'm no graphic design guru either.

I have, however, been playing around with producing a favicon (it's the tiny icon that most professional websites have - it sits in the address bar of the browser directly to the left of the URL), and get some consistent branding going. The first pass at it is above - large, and then actual size (the standard is 16x16 pixels!). For now I'm just going with my last initial, which is... guess? It's not quite ready to put out on my sites, and it will probably be re-done when I have something like a consistent design, but it's a step in the right direction.

Painting a day: Knife, Wineglass, and Peeled Lemon

I posted this new painting up to my store as well today; click on the image for more info. There's also a brief discussion about it here.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Linen vs. Panel

The majority of my paintings are done on gessoed masonite panel, with a perfectly smooth finish ideally suited to the highly detailed work I've been doing lately. About 1 in 4 of the paintings, though, are done on linen mounted on panel.

There isn't any particular rationale for choosing linen, nor do I decided based on the painting I'm about to do. Linen certainly lasts longer than cotton canvas, but compared to panel, I'm not aware of any superiority as far as longevity. When linen is mounted on a panel, it will not be subject to as much of the expansions and contractions that can cause paintings done on stretched fabrics (pulled around traditional stretcher bars) to crack. The one possible archival advantage of linen on panel vs. straight-up panel is that the linen (with painting on top) could be removed from a damaged panel. I imagine, though, that most things that would damage the panel would probably also do a number on the painting itself.

Basically, the real reason I use linen sometimes is that I just have a lot of it. Back when I did larger paintings (16x20 up to 24x30 or so), I bought several big rolls of oil-primed linen (Claessens - decent product; I've been pretty happy with it), as well as many yards of unprimed linen... buying in bulk is economical, right? All in all, there's probably enough linen to fully cover the dining room floor of an average-sized restaurant. Now that I work so small (average painting is roughly the size of a paper-back novel), it's tough to imagine I'll use half of that material during the course of my entire hopefully long and fruitful career.

There is one potential disadvantage to linen. A gessoed panel presents a perfectly smooth surface, allowing the paint to be sculpted in great detail, limited only by the range of the artist's vision and the size of the brush. The pattern of the linen's weave, on the other hand, limits this ability somewhat, and can produce a little bit of a pixelated appearance - click the above image for a detailed view. I do use portrait-grade linen, with a dense weave and high threadcount, so the effect is reduced. Standing two feet away, I simply can't notice it. Getting in close, however, and working under magnification as I often do, I am aware that the surface is not as perfectly responsive as a gessoed panel would be.

It's the kind of thing that probably only the artist notices and frets about, but on the wrong day, that can be very important, if only psychologically. In general, materials should work with you, not against you.

Nevertheless, there's a LOT of great, highly detailed photorealist painting done on linen, and I will continue to use it as a support for some of my own pieces.

I hate to waste good art material.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Happy Fourth!

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration of Independence
J.L.G. Ferris

To all my friends here in the U.S., have a GREAT holiday.

Ben Franklin (see above) is one of my very favorite Dead White Males. By happy accident, I even live on a Franklin Street. Jefferson is pretty high up on my list, too.

John Adams... I'm not so sure. I don't know much about him at all, so I was really looking forward to the recent HBO miniseries, and TIVO'd the whole lot.

It was a beautiful, well-made disappointment.

At least as he was portrayed in the series, he came off as pretty unappealing - something of a vain and petty manipulator (Paul Giamatti's a great actor, I just didn't like the character). It didn't do such a hot job either of showing what Adams' accomplishments were (I assume they were plentiful), so I ended up not really knowing why I should care about him.

In all fairness, I only got through 5 of the 7 episodes. For the sake of completeness, I probably will watch the remaining 2; hopefully there's some grand personality transformation in the end. One of these days I should also get down to Quincy to visit his museum.

In any case, I've always liked Gilbert Stuart's brilliant portrait of Adams as an old man:

Oh... and I think it's one of the all-time amazing coincidences that Adams and Jefferson - founding fathers and 2nd & 3rd presidents respectively - both died on July 4th, 1826, 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence.


Photographing Paintings

Painting a day: White Carnations Study

I just spent the last few hours photographing the current batch of finished paintings, cropping and editing the images, and preparing them for posting and sale.

This is probably one of my least-favorite studio chores. There's a lot of trial-and-error to get a decent image, and then a lot of busy-work for the editing. None of it is exactly stimulating either, more like drudgery. But... it's kindof important if I care about anybody else seeing the paintings, which I absolutely do.

Taking photos of paintings isn't just point-n-shoot, and there is a specific process I go through. This is the kind of thing that would probably interest some people, so the next time I photograph a batch of finished pieces, I'll plan to post on the process as well. That should be in about 2 weeks.

The above painting is from the newly-finished batch. Click on the image to see the eBay listing.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I'm really happy with the final result.

I'm also glad it's done.

Not that I get bored working on specific pieces, but once a painting's been in front of me for more than 2 days, I'm ready for the next thing. It wasn't several solid days working on this, I just had a lot of other projects and interruptions going on as well. Actual working time was probably between 10 and 12 hours. I'll put it up for auction later next week.

Next up is probably finishing this piece, which I might even get going on tonight:

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Enough already...

Can't get this damned painting off my easel. I got off to a late start today and had a whole bunch of other delays. It didn't help that I also stopped to watch Hell's Kitchen... kinda hooked on that show, which makes me feel kinda dirty.

All I got done was the label. Lettering used to drive me insane, but I've come to enjoy it. Like most other kinds of detailed, intricate work, it has a certain meditative quality to it.

Anyway, I'm exhausted (bad night's sleep last night), so I'm gonna pack it in for the evening. I'll have to finish slaying this beast tomorrow.

Laying out the palette

The last day and a half have been given over to business-related drudgery. A couple important things I was really glad to finish, and a huge blind alley task that seems like a complete waste of time at the moment, though I'll probably revisit it later. Effective time management is one of the trickiest things about running a small business, and I've still got lots to learn about that.

So... I'm gonna spend the rest of the day painting, and step one is setting up the palette. I've written a lengthy post about the paints I use here, but the pic above shows how I keep the tubes laid out. My work area is very much an ongoing project, and one thing I have yet to do is build a movable shelfing unit to hold the tubes, and free up some space on the table (this table sits immediately to the left of my easel, by the way).

I've tried a lot of different ways to store paint tubes, and this seems to work best; not least of all because it allows me to turn the tube over with each use. I've had significant problems in the past with oil separation (squeeze on a tube and twice as much oil as pigment comes running out... annoying), and rotating the tubes regularly seems to fix the problem. Presumably it keeps any unbound oil constantly on the move inside the tube, and less likely to gather at the opening.

I always set up my palette with a small bead from each and every tube; 72 paints currently. Accurately rendering color is tough and often very surprising, so no matter what I'm painting, it's extremely important to have the entire range of pigments available. Laying out all the paints usually takes about 30 minutes. You'd think this would be mind-numbing, but I actually kinda like it... something gentle and medatitative about the process.

I generally go through this routine this every working day. Sometimes I will get lazy and place the whole palette in my deepfreezer overnight, which drastically slows the oxidization (drying) of the paints. In the morning, when it warms up to room temp, the paints are in basically the same condition as at the end of the previous working day. I do this with some hesitation, though. Some people say this might adversely affect the chemical properties of the oil; if anybody knows any technical evidence or studies about this, please let me know, I'd be curious to learn more.

In any case, fresh paint is always better, hands down. After a full working day, even some of the very slow-drying pigments can start to get a little tacky, and I hate working with gummy paint. Some days, small things like the working quality of the paint make all the difference, psychologically, at least.

OK - time to get squeezing.