Tuesday, September 29, 2015

“The Half-assed Laid Plans of Mice and Men…

… something something”, I think is how that quote ends.

OK, so here was my plan, to write a post showing step by step how I make my paintings. I thought I could touch on things like how I think of tones next to one another and their relationship rather than in layers of tone atop one another. Or how I use crappy brushes to make really cool marks and how I find myself less enchanted with nice brushes because they pretty much give you what they’re designed to give you, which can be awfully boring. Or how I work a wash, then hammer in some black paint, look at how things dry, maybe try another wash, sprinkle a bit of white paint in for effect and then wrap it all up with some virtuosity with the last strokes of black.

Yeah,  I had all of that in mind and more. The plan was to use the painting I posted last Friday (on my website and twitter feed) as my example. I drew the sketch, I took a photo of it, then I went to the easel and got ready to work. Next thing I know, 30 or 40 minutes were gone and the painting was done. That whole, pause and take photos while I do things, yeah, that went right out the window the second the brush hit the paper.

Unfortunately, all you get to see is the initial sketch, and this pretty much what I use as the basis for any illustration or painting. I know, it looks like there’s nothing there. 

And the finished painting.

Obviously, I need a biographer with serious photography skilz to document my life and bring it to you in HD. 

However, this failure in execution does allow me to refer to the crazy focus I wrote about last week. It’s not something that happens occasionally, like a gift from the gods. It’s something that happens every day. And most importantly, it’s a learned skill. We all do it, at one level or another, but if you want to bring your A Game to anything creative, you simple must master the ability to do your thing when it’s time to shine. Otherwise, you’re not going to survive.

In a world of endless distractions and opportunities, getting down to work on something that only has value (at the moment of creation at least) to you and you alone is very hard to do. The only advice I can give that is practical is to say do it every single day. I don’t know what it is for you and I don’t care. Do it anyway. It is only through constant practice that you can achieve the clear headed thinking required to not give a damn about anything beyond the task at hand.

Each day, well I am trying to take weekends off which is proving to be more difficult than I imagined, I find myself before the easel, blank sheet of paper on the board, and I make myself  work. Some days it’s awesome. Things work, accidents lead to revelations and I am giddy with excitement at the results of my labor. Some days is sucks. Nothing goes right, accidents lead to crumpled balls of paper in the trash can and I am exhausted after two hours of painting like a drunk chimp. The annoying thing is that I never know if it’s going to be a giddy day or drunk chimp day. There is no omen or sign to warn me. I can take the greatest, liveliest sketch and turn it into something amazing or turn it into recycling material.

Regardless, it’s what I do. Which means each day, I get down to business, giddy or chimpy, it hardly matters which. And really, compared to the profound dislocation of time and space that came with 12 or 15 or 18 hours of pen and ink drawing, putting in 2 hours at the easel is like drinking a whole can of Diet Art. All the taste and none of the calories.

So that’s what’s going on around here. I crank out paintings and then get on with my day. Slowly but surely, the paintings get better and better. I would like to think in a year, they’d be at least 365% better. Or more, since the reality is I’m making more than one painting per day.

The next trick is going to be creating a format which allows me to bring all the cool things I’m doing with paintings together with what I like to do with writing and get them out the door. As part of the overhaul of my book making system, I’m trying to invent a format which is as quick and flexible as the painting and the writing. I have a few ideas, but I’ll have to finish everything on my desk before I can really go crazy with something “new”. But I’m itching to get to work on new things, which means I need to keep my head down and plow through all the nearly done work thus clearing a path for a very different, productive world. Good times, good times.

With that, I’m off to do my thing. Get out there and do your thing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Long Term and Meaningful

Since I’m not writing a blog about relationship advice, clearly I’m talking about the obsessive need to create stuff and all the  nonsense which comes with it. After years of study, endless exploration, profoundly good professional focus and establishing a rather fine reputation for being a bit of an outsider (which was half cultivated and half thrust upon me)… I find myself wondering about the long term and the meaningful.

The idea being, in a world where very few artists make enough cashpie to survive on their work alone, that we do this for other reasons. I can tell you that I’m no where near making my living as a working artist, despite the fact that being a working artist is essentially all that I do. Were I equally successful in any other line of work, you would tell me to quit and find a new job. That’s how crazy it is to do the artist thing. And because I’m hella good at doing the artist thing, no one actually tells me to quit and do something else. I live in a bubble of optimistic delusions. Which is utter madness but really off topic.

Finding something long term and meaningful to do with artistic talent is very different than finding something short term and commercially viable to do with artistic talent. I’m a bit of an expert on the former and totally ignorant of the latter. Such things are neither good or bad, just facts. That said, since my career did not put in me a place where I can sit on the beach all day while hordes of literary agents feed me freshly peeled grapes while chanting about my ever increasing royalties, I find myself  very much ensconced in the intellectual/spiritual debate about long term and meaningful actions.

Oddly enough, this mental puzzle did shed light on a facet of my personality I hadn’t quite seen before. Let’s call it The Crazy Focus Thing.

If you do any research into positive cognitive psychology or creativity, you run into a concept known as Flow. In layman’s terms, it’s being in The Zone. Basically, you get to a point where the normal perception of the world falls away and you just do your thing. Time doesn’t exist, bodily functions don’t exist, distractions don’t exist. You are in a world all your own. In theory, everyone experiences a state of flow at one point or another. The best example is when you take a long car ride, reach you destination and realize you don’t recall much of what you drove past because taking in the sights isn’t part of the focus necessary for driving safely from point A to point B. You were in a state of flow.

I mention all of this because for me, getting into a state of flow is pretty much second nature. Which I suddenly think might be problematic. I know, that sounds weird. Like who would complain about such focus? The problem becomes apparent when you take into account what a pain the butt that is when you can apply it to most things. For instance, I get equally absorbed by doing research for a book as I do doing research for guitars I can’t afford to buy. Or I lose as much time and energy trying to write a silly song about Galileo as I do painting illustrations for the latest book proposal. Or how about that Saturday when I was doing the Punk Ethic and I sat down at my desk “just for a minute” to do a little inking and ended up sitting there for ten hours instead of doing whatever it was Mandy thought we could do. It’s no wonder almost all of my “sort of” friends bailed on me when I started making books, because I surely bailed on them.

Of course, being the afflicted, I was probably the last to see just how crazy I can get about things. Sure, I knew that I was weird, especially when compared to people who said they wanted to do the same things I wanted to do but never seemed to actually do them. I’ve known lots of people who wanted to write novels but haven’t. Or wanted to learn how to play musical instruments but haven’t. I always chalked it up to a lack of self discipline on their part. And I’m not being judgmental, most people say they want to do things they will never do, it’s a pretty basic, human foible. I never stopped to think that maybe it was my foible that was the oddity. But now I’m starting to wonder.

Which brings me back to long term and meaningful and my problem of too much focus, although you should see where I’m going with this. The stuff that is worthy of long term attention and that proves to be meaningful is rare. Look at the oeuvre of any artist worth his or her salt and you’ll see a person who is really interested in a handful of subjects at best. In fact, the fewer the interests, the stronger the focus. Turner’s landscapes and seascapes. Klimt’s portraits. Michelangelo’s sculptures. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Focus plus clarity of interest plus time equals meaningful production.

So what do you do when you can get lost in practically anything? You get distracted. Not by the bright and shiny things that distract the lazy or easily entertained, social networking and Youtube have almost value in my world, but rather by things which are cool and all but not cool enough to be worth the time and energy spent upon them. I don’t need to know anymore about guitar manufacture because I don’t make them and I can’t and don’t need to buy them. I hardly need to learn even more guitar tunings because that’s like learning to play the guitar all over again… And that’s just one example of my crazy. Ask Mandy, she’ll tell you my crazies are legion.

And here I sit, contemplating what it is I need to do that is both long term and meaningful. And that’s ‘meaningful’ to me, not you, not the wider world in general. It might take me a little time to work my way through this, but I’m pretty sure that when I emerge on the other side, things will be interesting.

Off to paint. Pees out!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Forward Momentum

I can never get enough momentum. It waxes and wanes and generally drives me nuts. But with the coming of autumn, I feel the momentum growing. There are times when I think I’m still programmed with an elementary school kid’s sense of time. Summer is lazy, autumn is crisp, winter is long and spring is pretty much a blur. Lazy, crisp, long and blurry kind of describe my mental state for those seasons and I’m sure it reflects on the work I accomplish during those times.

So, I’m on the cusp of crispness. Finally. Add to that a rather healthier working method and things are going pretty well. High production, low stress. Considering I come from a low production, high stress past, what with inking a book every two years only to watch it vanish into a vast sea of other books jostling for attention in the unfriendly world of publishing, this is still a source of surprise and joy. And imagine my surprise on figuring out how to both write and paint in a given day as well as do things like work, the dishes, the laundry and interact with strange beings known as friends and family. The days still fly by at an alarming rate, but that mostly has to do with finding myself in a state of flow in which time as no purpose or meaning. It hardly matters if I’m inking for 15 hours straight or painting, then writing, then messing around with some musical instrument, the loss of time is the same. At least it’s time well spent.

I think one of things which makes this transition possible is that I’ve finally accepted that I don’t have a clue as to what I’m going to do next. When I first got going, I settled on pen and ink because it was the best medium for reproduction. As my artistic successes grew, I stayed with pen and ink because I thought it was the key to doing “the next project”. ‘Cause that’s how success works. You do one thing, it works, you repeat it. Unfortunately, other facets of life changed and suddenly what worked in the past no longer does the job. We evolve or die. Evolving is hard as balls, though mostly in a psychological sense. Switching paint for ink is painless. Writing novels instead of picture books is painless. Getting my rather slow brain around the notion that I will be doing everything in a new way is incredibly painful. We are creatures of habit and tossing every aspect of the old habit in the rubbish bin while inventing new habit is counterintuitive. But it’s what I must do, so I’m doing it. If it works, then I’ll run it into the ground. If it doesn’t work out, then I’ll change. Which will suck, but so be it.

The focus remains on painting. Turns out, I’m doing two kinds of learning. The first is learning how to make paint do what I want it to. The second is learning what paint can do for my illustration ideas or more importantly, what paint will not do for my illustration ideas.

The first lesson is the driving force behind my daily paintings. Yes, it allows me to work through some of my deeper thoughts in ways that illustration does not, mostly because I don’t have to explain anything to anyone. With all that silly, artistic mumbo jumbo out of the way, I play the game of seeing if the paint wants to work and play well with my ideas. When it does, I get something worth posting. When it doesn’t, I add another sheet of paper to the recycle pile. The speed with which I’m working allows me to hit the learning curve with serious effort. Unlike pen and ink, where a mistake would take hours to manifest and even longer to solve, this painting thing is like near instant gratification or fury. Do something cool, it’s instantly cool. Do something stupid and chuck the paper. Or experiment. Which is the beauty of painting for painting’s sake. I have room to explore ideas and techniques that is totally unlike anything I’ve previously done. With that comes learning and application.

Which gets me to lesson two, figuring out what paint brings to illustration. I could add “as opposed to pen and ink” to that last sentence because that’s what’s really going on. I found myself tripped up when I first started painting my illustrations because I was working with a mindset based on what a pen could do, not what a brush could do. So I kept screwing myself over by working with sketch material or half-finished ink drawings, attempting to translate them into terms of painting. Turns out, that doesn’t work. In fact, it’s a mess. It took me the better part of three weeks to realize what I was doing. For instance, I would try to make a painting based on a sketch I’d intended to ink, only to end up with an image that was crap pie sans crust. Then I would make a painting based on the loosest sketch imaginable, something just whipped up do see if it would work, and low and behold, it did. I couldn’t quite figure out why I would mess up the pieces that I assumed would be successful and then take ideas that were half-baked at best and knock them out of the park. Once I realized what was going on, I took everything that had even a hint of ink stink on it and put it out of sight. The only way to approach illustrations in paint is to think of them as paintings, playing by the rules of painting alone, and make them happen.

As an aside, and what with crispness on the horizon, my dreams of bringing a band into being are back on the table. Yep, I’m still trying to do some punk rock, educational songs. Most of my issues have been with how to package the whole thing. I’ve been all over the map. I’ve thought of webcomics. I’ve thought of podcasts. I’ve thought of novels. I’ve pretty much thought of everything to make this silly project seem clever. Basically, I’ve crapped up a simple idea in every conceivable way. Turns out, it’s about the music.

So… rather than keep crapping up a good idea, I’m getting back to my roots. Simplify, simplify, simplify. The goal is to make a DIY album by early 2016. In order to reduce the number of options facing me, which are legion, my band of cohorts, otherwise known as Magma Tron, has decided  that the album will be recorded using cigar box instruments made by my father, or for the most part those kinds of instruments. That means no keyboards, no zithers, no cowbell. To make it even  more interesting, I’m going to play in open tunings, which means I won’t spend days noodling around sounding like a jerk-ass guitar god wannabe. I’m going to hammer through simple, clear chords (though distorted to hell and back). We’re talking garage band making basement tapes.

The goal is to have some fun. It’s time for some fun. If you have any ideas for science-y/history-y songs you’d like to hear, please drop me a note. But I’ll warn you, I think I’ve got the Kreb’s Cycle covered. What? You don’t know the Kreb’s Cycle? Don’t let your cells know that…

Off to crisp a bit.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

I Keep Forgetting to Blog

Honestly, I take that to be a good sign, like I’ve finally found my groove. I swear, there were at least three times today when I stopped and said to myself, crap it’s time to blog, only to find myself eyeball deep in paint yet again.

So, progress report:

Painting is going swimmingly. Well, some of it. The black and white paint on gray paper is going extremely well. The daily paintings come almost without effort and the illustration paintings are slowly piling up into something substantial. On a whole, this step into a new world is really just the same old question of self discipline. Sure, I get to stand at my easel, which I love, and make a swirly mess which somehow turns into a cool painting, none of which is anything like the endless hours hunched over a desk making minute marks on a piece of paper with a tiny pen; but the reality is the mindset needed to do either activity is essentially the same. What surprises me is how easily it has been to totally immerse myself in this new style. I thought I would have the usual pangs of longing for the pen and ink, but having packed all my old supplies away, I haven’t thought about them once.

The part of painting that is not going so well is the black paint on white paper. I’d still like to be able to do it at a high level of competence but it’s just not happening. I’m about 10% successful, which is far from where I need to be in order to feel like a kick ass artist. And since my gray paintings are coming in at an 85% success rating, I find it hard to keep bashing  my head against the black paint only wall. As I’ve said many times, you’ve got to follow your blocker. Or you get creamed. I’m tired of getting creamed. So if the toned paper is creating the openings I need to pick up yardage, then I’m going to duck behind the gray paper and pray for daylight.

I intend to keep my self discipline in check. I don’t intend to spend every waking hour painting, as I want to do, but my working hours will continue to be high octane. At this rate, I’ll continue to knock out 5 or 6 paintings a day, so long as the ideas  keep coming. Of course, the more work I do, the more ideas I have, so that’s not really a problem either. I just have to remember to come up for air.

On other fronts, as soon as this book proposal thing is out the door, I’m going to wrap up editing my remaining books for Box Books. My goal was to get four books out this year. I can still achieve that goal, but it will require some serious effort. That sort of effort requires time and time goes into painting these days, so the books languish. It’s very annoying. This whole having to sleep thing is truly a curse.

Not sure if I have any other stories for you…

If anyone finds themselves near St. John’s University, in Queens, NYC, on the 17th, they can take in a show of the work of my friend, Jamison Odone. A good time should be had by all since Jamie is a ruthless professional and unstoppable force of nature. Plus, I’ll be there saying things about his work like “interesting composition” and “these elements are intriguing, was the artist a bed wetter?” Come and be social with people who are lousy at being social. You’ll shine like the brightest star in the heavens, I promise.

Off to clean up for the day and plan tomorrow’s offensive. My new fear, running out of paper.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

In With Both Feet.

I bought an easel. I don’t think there’s anything I could have done to distance myself from my inky past more than investing in three legs of aluminum. Not only do I have an easel, but I’ve also taken over what we commonly refer to as The Crap Room as a studio, which means I’m not spending all my waking hours in the same room I spend my handful of sleeping hours. Add to that all the black and white paint, the jars of brushes and small mountain of gray paper and I’m well on my way to putting some serious distance between my detail oriented/anal to the point of madness past and my free wheeling/gesture rules the world future. Progress, I tell you, progress. It’s weird.

And with all those changes comes the work. It’s going quite well. I’ve worked out a lot of the hiccups with various kinds of paint. I’ve started sussing out which brushes actually do what they are supposed to and which ones get a swift trip to the trash can. I still need to experiment to find a high quality paper for paintings, but as far as illustration goes, when I work at a high volume, I’m set. It’s taken a while for all the pieces to come together, but they seem to doing what I’d hoped they would.

The biggest hurdle was learning how to rein in my drawing mentality. Now, there are people out there who say I’m just drawing with paint and they can go to hell but the reality is that I tend to solve problems with a drawing mindset, which doesn’t always translate with what paint can do. Most of the paintings that fail do so somewhere between the sketch and the application of paint. And that failure is rather easy to work through: pencils don’t do what brushes do, so to make a sketch and assume I can mess with paint and have it resemble the solution created in graphite is moronic. With that at the forefront of my mind, things have picked up a bit. The sketches are loose and open. That means I have more room to let the paint do what paint wants to do. The end result, paintings that look like paintings and far less crumpled paper in the recycle bin.

The funny thing is, I’m still trying to invoke my inner Wyeth. The funnier thing is that since I’ve hit the gas on the painting thing, I find myself stealing tricks he used in his drawings. I’ve always felt that his drawings were the best of his work. The watercolors and temperas are nice, but the piles of drawings are where all the magic is. I’ve tried to make those piles of my own drawings, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but never with enough oomph to really take things to a more interesting or personal level. Somehow, my pencils always let me down. But, when I use the paints in a fashion, mostly compositionally speaking, as he used pencil, things start to click. I have no idea why nor do I have a clue as to where it will take me, but I hardly care. The motion, the forward momentum, the work generated is reason enough to keep going.

In addition to posting daily paintings (Monday through Friday) on Twitter, I’ve started adding them to my eponymous  website. I’m still leery of Instagram but we’ll see… At any rate, I hope you guys like them.

And that’s about it. Working on getting my brain around all this painting. I do a good bit of work each day but with considerably less time consumed in order to bring about good things. It’s a major change to my life, to feel like I’m accomplishing something in just a few minutes. After an hour or two, I feel like I’ve done enough and can go about my life as if I’m not drowning in unfinished work. My stress level alone has dropped like 15 points. I expect it to hit zero before long. God knows what will happen at that point.

Now, if I could stop thinking about guitars… Well, everyone has their obsessions.