Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Glance in the Rearview.

It’s cold, the leaves are changing hue, perfect weather. That means I’m amping up my production. I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for the chill and long, dark nights. If I had a fireplace, I would be set. I could do anything. Oh well, someday…

You missed Mandy’s second, artist salon… in our living room. A good time was had by all. There was music, there was reading, there was spoken word and monologue performances. It’s kind of like a TED Talk meets Vaudeville, but with Rice Krispie treats. And there was a chunk of wall covered in my latest paintings. Which was strange. It seems part of my brain has not caught up to what I’ve been doing since the end of the summer. 

In the past, when we had shindigs of a creative nature, I put up my current work, which usually meant 10 or so ink drawings. Given the amount of time it took to make a decent body of work in my ink style, my production was always relatively small. Breathtaking, of course, I am awesome, but still, the display didn’t even begin to dominate my allotted space, let alone the room. 

But that wasn’t the case on Sunday. Just the last two weeks of painting filled a third of the wall with ease. In fact, I found myself having to edit would make it to the wall, a new problem I have no issues with whatsoever. When it was my turn to present my work, I found that I had to grab my entire pile of paintings to explain what I was doing and what I intended to do in the future. It was the first time I held all the work I’d done since August in my hands at once. My daily paintings looked like this…

The rough numbers are something like 50-odd daily paintings, 30-odd Civil War paintings, 30-odd random paintings and a ton of failures (which are part of the learning curve). It adds up to 100+ paintings in 10 weeks. That may not sound like much to you, but compared to my inky days, that’s huge. I would’ve been excited with 20 or 30 ink drawings in 10 weeks. And that would be 10 weeks working 12 hour days, bouts of insomnia and self-imposed social isolation. Because without that kind of devotion, there was no way for me to do my thing in ink. But with the painting, I’ve knocked out a stack of paintings working 2 or 3 hour days, then moved on to all kinds of other stuff: editing my novel for Box Books, laying out a picture book, working on my idiotic infortainment songs for my equally idiotic band, visiting family and friends, working my part time job and doing “city” things just because I can instead of saying no to everything because I have to draw. It’s weird.

And it’s not like I’m going to slow down. As I mentioned above, things are moving faster. And since faster was part of this new take on art, everything is getting better as well. Which is stranger still. 

Of course, there are still setbacks. Not with the work I’ve been hammering out. I seem to have found the magical combination necessary to getting things done: black and white paint, gray paper, lots of music and odd ideas out the butt. 

However, for some reason, I keep trying to do other things. Dumb, Tim, dumb. Like this week, I thought if only I could find a paper, larger and better quality, then I could do… well, I don’t know what, my reasoning didn’t really go that far. Consequently, I found some larger, better quality paper to experiment with only to run into the same kind of failure I’ve come to expect when I deviate from the functional path I’ve discovered. I know what I should do with my time, at least for the foreseeable future, and all this ‘what if-ing’ just gets in the way.  

And with that, it’s time to get back on the path and path my way to something cool for today and then have a life and do all the stuff you people do like grocery shopping and commuting. Oh the excitement!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Ol’ Step by Step

It took some wizardry and a whole lot of self-restraint but I finally pulled off a step by step series of how these gray paintings come into being. Maybe, somewhere down the line, I will make a video so you can see the whole thing come together, but for now, you’ll have to content yourself with still images. Yeah, it’s a little less exciting, but on the bright side, you don’t have to listen to my inane color commentary. Or for those blogstalking me from the UK, colour commentary.

This is what I do, every day, or almost every day.

Step 1. The Drawing… I’ve said, many times, that when I draw for myself, I make sparse images. I love line, I love simplicity, I love gesture and I love gestalt theory. Put those four things together and you end up with the haiku version of a drawing. I guess I feel that a dense, over-wrought drawing is evidence of an idea that would be better served by another medium. There is a swiftness and lightness that only drawing has and I prefer not to hide that magic under a basket.

I’ve learned a good drawing is key to a good painting. If the sketch has life, if the proportions are accurate and if the composition feels right, the end painting tends to work out too, so long as I don’t mess it up during the application of the paint itself. This sketch is pretty good. Definitely good enough for the five minutes it took to make it. If I lived in a dream world, in which I didn’t feel compelled to make work that was easy to reproduce (via paint or ink or whatever), I would be happy making such drawings, millions of them, though I would prolly put another 20 to 30 minutes of work into it. The end result wouldn’t look much different than the sketch, it would just be more “right”. Instead, I put that time into the painting.

Step 2. Gray Washes… This is where the painting takes over. I guess that isn’t surprising. With drawing, there’s always a certain level of control. You can try and get messy, get your scribble on, but the device, be it a pencil, pen or chunk of graphite, is limited as to where it puts marks on the page. Of course, part of me likes that control. To be able to pull off a good drawing is a feat of skill and dexterity. Anyway, laying in shadows and or tone to a drawing is a time consuming process of constant re-evaluation and comparison.

With the gray wash, which is black paint mixed with water to create the desired density, it’s a game of “get it right the first time” combined with a whole lot of “wow that just happened!” If the sketch took five minutes to draw, the gray washes take about 30 seconds. Either I get it right or I really mess things up. If I do make a mistake, there’s a chance I can save it in subsequent layers, but some of the time, the painting is dead in the water and I have to start over. That’s just part of the game. Fortunately, the more paintings I make, the more I learn what works and what does not.

This is a good place to talk about tone as shadow and tone as local color. The tone as shadow is easy to explain, it’s where you expect to find a shadow caused by light hitting a three dimensional object, in this case, the underside of the chin or behind the ear. Those strokes of gray convey form and light. Tone as local color is trickier. In this image, the ends of her T-shirt sleeves as well as the V-neck are examples of local color. The tone in those places does not explain form or light. It’s there to give you the impression that in those places, the fabric is a different color than the rest of the shirt. It’s one thing to mess around with local color when you use a full color palette. It’s another thing when you are limited to grays, blacks and whites, because the opportunity to create confusion rather than clarity is high. As you can see, there’s no difference in the wash designed to tell you about the shadow behind the ear and the local color of the sleeve. It’s only by specific choice and arrangement that you, the viewer, are able to see one as shadow and one as local color. Learning how to create such distinctions is part of learning the craft.

Step 3. Black Paint, Part 1… Once the gray wash dries, and yes, a good part of my daily process is watching paint dry, I hammer into it with black paint. Now, each image is different, so when I say “this is what I do” keep in mind there are times when I don’t actually do it. Sometimes, I skip the gray washes entirely or do several layers of washes in different densities. For instance in this painting, when I started painting the black for the hair, I decided I needed a tone on her cheek, which caused me to mix a gray wash and splash it on the paper, which at first I thought was an epic fail, but as it dried, I decided I liked it.

Anyway, back to the black paint… The idea is simple, clarify things. In this case, the clarification has to do with creating an accurate likeness while defining her body and clothing with as little paint as possible. This is where my time spent sumi-e painting pays off. In art of a Western Tradition, the game would be to gob on paint, layer upon layer, to define her head, hair, neck and shirt. It’s an insufferable practice which bores me to tears. However, in an Eastern Tradition, it’s acceptable, nay encouraged, to use just the wisp of a line to define her head, hair, neck and shirt. And as I mentioned, being a devotee of neither tradition, I steal what works from both and use it to my advantage, though I tend to lean toward the East…

Step 4. Black Paint, Part 2… If you don’t see any difference between this image and the previous one, don’t feel bad, most of them are rather small. Basically, I let the first round of black paint dry while I rock out with my guitar, writing science songs for the soon to be released Magmatron album. The idea is simple, get away from the painting so I can approach it with fresh eyes. This is something I simply didn’t have time to do back in the inky days when every precious second had to go toward getting things done. This luxury of time allows me to spot mistakes or see room for improvement that in the past I would have missed, only to see it when it was too late to do anything about it.

After rocking out, surely annoying my neighbors, I touch up things with a few more dabs of black paint. The hair above her forehead is darker, there’s a new shadow below her lower lip, a few swipes at her right shoulder, more paint on her braids…

Step 5. The White Paint… I’ve lost more paintings to the white paint than all the other steps combined. When I first got going, I would make good painting after good painting only to reach the moment of adding the white and watch it all fall apart. I made the same mistake over and over again, I kept thinking that the function of the white paint was to define light, mostly because that’s the function of white when you are taking photographs or painting in a traditional Western style. White is light. Yeah, well for me, it’s not. And it took a good couple of months and a lot of failed paintings to figure that out.

The sole function of white paint in the images I’m currently making is for accent. White is a compositional device, a way to move the viewer’s eye around the painting, to create interest and to explain how different elements in the image relate to one another. It’s a hugely important role which can lift a painting from a bland pile of crap to something kind of cool in just a brushstroke or two.

There is a Goldilocks Effect when it comes to the white paint. Too little and the painting is boring. Too much and it’s awful. Just right is hard to find but essential. It’s sort of like adding the salt to a recipe. Too little and you can’t even taste it, too much and you can’t eat it. Just right, however, and you have perfection.

And that’s about it. My painting for Monday, October 19th… 5 minutes of sketching, 30 minutes of paintings (about 10 of that is drying time, but I like to add it to the total because it is part of the process). Some days, it takes considerably less time, others, considerably more. My current records are: 10 minutes for a fast painting and 90 minutes for a slow painting. Either way, it’s still a blazing speed, which is part of why I’ve fallen in love with this odd style. But more about that next week.

Get out there and do something.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Out the Door

I hope you enjoyed the holiday weekend, ‘cause I don’t even remember it. I don’t think it rained, but that really is all I recall. Why, you might ask? I was just too busy. Doing what? My, you are nosy today…

After a year of research and experimentation, the graphic novel book proposal my nephew and I were working on is out the door. So, fingers crossed everyone. With that bit of work accomplished, I’m running in Post-Show Depression mode. Those months of intense effort and focus, they all go “poof!” once the ball is on the publisher’s side of the net. All we can do is wait. I hate waiting. But that’s how things work.

With my novel for Box Books in the proofing stage, there’s even more Post-Show Depression. That’s another project, months of effort, pretty much done.

But as I said, with these long term projects finally coming to an end, and yes I know if we get a contract to do the graphic novel I’ll be hard at work on that project again, I have a chance to work on some new ideas or at least give some old ideas a very new look.

First up, my Rapa Nui story. A 32 page picture book. Nice and sweet. Or nice and simple because my picture books are rarely sweet. What excites me about this project, is that it will be the first one I tackle entirely in paint. See, after many months, nay years, of being wishy-washy and daydreaming about this medium or that medium, I’ve decided this painting thing has to be my only thing.

Clearly, I can invent innumerable reasons for taking drawing in a certain direction or picking up my camera to do such and such for this and that. I have no problem imagining myself doing a whole host of things. I can even sit down and logically go through how to implement such ideas. It’s really not that hard. But the truth is, I’m a single-minded artist. There are no two ways about it. I do not multi-task. I do one thing really damn well, period. It’s been hard to focus, what with all the options before me, and that means I’ve been wasting time, energy and resources. I hate doing that. It’s better to commit to one thing and go for the ride. I’m committing to the painting.

That said, I’m very much at the beginning of the painting ride. Or it seems like it. Though when I think about it, I started dabbling with paint again five years ago. To me, it feels like yesterday, but that’s only because my output for the first four years was rather small. That’s what happens when you’re non-committal, you don’t make of anything. Since there is little for me to look at, it force me to do a lot of thinking, which is why it feels like I just started yesterday. But any artist worth their salt will tell you that it’s only through tremendous production that you learn anything about what you’re doing.

After my summer dalliance with ink, I hammered into painting with more gusto than I have since I was 17. Way back then, pretty much all I did was paint. I was terrible, but I was worse at drawing and things like photography and printmaking were unimaginable. It was either painting kind of poorly or do nothing. I’d rather be a lousy painter than a lazy consumer. Plus, linseed oil, turpentine and cheap paints have an allure that is nigh unstoppable… However, what tripped me up back in the good, old days was the cost factor. I simply could not paint as much as I wanted to. Paints and canvas were and remain expensive, or they are if the goal is to knock out a painting or two a day, every day of the week. There was no way I could make that work.

When I got to college and found out I could draw and draw rather well, it opened the door to speedy production. I could blow through a sketchbook rather quickly and not break the bank. That was good for my productivity, but it did nothing for my painting skilz. And, unfortunately, I fell into the hatchers’ curse, which is to say drawings take time because a pencil or pen point is rather small in comparison to the surface area of a sheet of paper. What I gained economically by working on paper, I lost to the gross amounts of time required to make drawings work. Sure, if I wanted a linear drawing, I could move along at breakneck speed, but my goal was always something more and attempting to achieve that cost heaps of time.

That pretty much explains my inky decade as well. While my materials were cheap and plentiful, my cost in time was enormous. That was great at first but as life moved forward, I wanted to find something, and anything that would put in me in a position where my materials and my medium would allow me hit the gas and hit the hell out of something.

I’m pretty sure that my dabbling with sumi-e painting opened the door for everything that has occurred subsequently. Sumi-e is fast. And relatively cheap. It combined my love of line with the ability to sweep across vast swaths of paper with brushstrokes of tone. All in all, it was a complete game changer. The only problem, it took my conscious mind a long time to come to grips with not be much of a Western art tradition guy. Like three years of thinking I could play by one set of rules which I’ve always looked at as defining “Art” when the reality is I have no desire to play by those rules. And really, I don’t have much of a desire to play by the rules of any particular Eastern tradition either. I just want to steal the things that work from both camps and have at it. I’ve done enough thinking. Now I just want to paint.

Which is pretty much why I’ve found such success as of late. I’m done worrying about how things will look or who will do the looking. Such questions are irrelevant if I’m not actually making anything. Fortunately, I’m making a whole mess of paintings. In fact, in the last two months, I’ve made more paintings than in the previous two years. I’ve not been so productive since college. Which is saying something because I’ve never been much of a slacker, even during the dark times. All of which has to do with saying painting is the thing. I have a million ideas, in all shapes and sizes; but the only way they work, the only way I can realize them, is to say painting is the thing.

So yeah, painting is the thing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Everything Old Is New Again

Nothing like getting punched in the face by the wind and rain of Joaquin to know that summer is over and autumn is here to kick a little ass, like mine on 59th Street last Friday night while trying to get to a play. But that’s what we city folk put up with to see six plays based on short stories by Tennessee Williams… not to be confused with Tennessee Ernie Ford. That would be a totally different show. That said, I do relish the coming of the bitter weather. All the omens are in place: the falling leaves, fewer tourists wearing clothing no one in the city would be caught dead wearing and the migration of the homeless to the train stations. Out goes the air conditioners, in comes the electric blanket.

With the longer nights, I’ve started working at full speed again. Though, full speed ain’t what it used to be, which is quite a lovely change. Like this morning, I worked on a last round of revisions for a novel I’m publishing via Box Books, then I drank tea with an unhealthy amount of sugar in it, then painted my daily painting and was preparing dinner and cleaning all before 1 PM. Now, in the old days, I would have had sixteen cups of tea and spent those hours sitting on my butt doing nothing but inking a single image. And then I’d have to find time to cook, clean, eat and do revisions of a novel… So, my full speed doesn’t look like I’m doing as much as I used to, mostly because of all flitting around, but the reality is I’m completing more crap each day and with time to spare, which leads to even more stuff being completed. It’s all very strange. I’m sure, in time, we will all come to understand this brave, new world.

On to the updates.

As I mentioned above, I’m putting a novel out with Box Books. It’s taken me some time to commit to the project because I’m a crazy person and spent the summer going from one idea to another hoping something cool would happen. But nothing cool happened because cool things only occur with sustained effort. For instance, writing a novel is a sustained effort. And, it turns out, producing a novel is also a sustained effort. However, during the last two weeks, I put the novel on the front burner and will soon release all the details necessary to gloat over my latest, literary triumph. Then you guys can read it. The book, not the gloating.

Meanwhile, there’s the painting. The daily paintings seem to be developing. I don’t know into what, but that’s not really my problem. I’m just supposed to make them and get them out there. I’m still battling the desire to work larger than 8.5x11 inches. We’ll see what happens with that. I may solve the issue of scale when I solve the purpose of some of these paintings. For instance, if a painting is made as an illustration for a book, then it has to fit on my scanner. Plus, really, it will never be seen larger than “page size” so there’s no real need for it to be a large painting, which I will then need to store for the rest of my long and healthy life. But if a painting is meant to clutter someone’s wall… well, then I might be inclined to work larger so that people don’t have to walk up to it in order to see it. Sure, there’s something delightful in the Mona Lisa Effect (it’s a tiny painting, people, not worth the trip to the Louvre) but when you’re painting something to be viewed at a distance, you might as well make it big. Part of me doesn’t want to solve this dilemma because if I do, I may start worrying about color and whether I should waste time using it. I should not. But as soon as my brain is less trouble with the problem of scale, I’m bound to start thinking stupid nonsense such as whether I can bring my love of orange into my painting world…

So, with the novel on its way to createspace to become a book and the paintings for my Civil War graphic novel book proposal nearly complete, there’s a looming, project vacuum on the horizon. And what happens when I don’t know what I should be doing? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Days spent in my PJs, eating chunks of rock hard, brown sugar and time wasted looking for new, musical instruments I’ll never learn to play.

In order to avoid that specific version of Hell on Earth, I’ve decided to try something I haven’t done in three years, I’m going back to the 32 page picture book format. Or something close to it. I have no idea what will happen to this kind of project once complete, but I also don’t care about such things anymore. I’ve lost too much time worrying about what happens once I complete something. The only thing that comes out of all that anxiety is an incomplete project that will go nowhere. Yeah, I’m done with that.

I looked at my file of picture books I never got around to doing, mostly because drawing one in ink took years to accomplish and partly because I moved on to graphic novels and novels, and found a few good ideas. It’s time they became something. First up, the Easter Island book. Now, I’ve messed around with this book for years, trying to shoehorn it into a variety of formats with no luck. But with my newfound success with paint and with Box Books as a ready platform, I can take the initial idea, a simple, picture book, and make it a reality. Oddly enough, running with the classic, 32 page format, it’s possible I can do all 32 illustrations in less than a month. That’s 1 painting per day at the price of single hour per day. And that’s it, the book will be done. That’s such a strange reality that I have trouble getting my head around it. If you recall, inking my picture books took 12 months, working close to 10 hours a day for as many days of the week as I could possibly work…  So, I’m kind of excited about this stuff. I don’t intend to put out 12 picture books next year, but I don’t think producing 6 is really all that crazy. Honestly, I just like the notion that good ideas, which have remained locked away, unfinished, can now become something beautiful. I mean, that’s the whole point of doing this. Taking a beautiful idea and realizing it so that other people can enjoy it. Right? Yes, in fact, that is the point.

And with that, I’m off to do something. Perhaps it will be creative. Or perhaps it will just involve cleaning the fish tank. Either way, I’m still working at full speed and that always feels awesome.