Friday, September 30, 2011

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

     Pam and I just spent two long, hard days of driving from Pray, Montana to our doorstep in South Texas.  We were invited to participate in the Buffalo Bill Museum Art Auction, and spent the last 10 days in beautiful Cody, participating in the Auction & Sale, before traveling to spend a few days with good friends in Montana.  On the trip home I was reminiscing about some of the adventures and experiences that have come our way during the 16 years of this art journey.
     Sixteen-hour days of driving gives one lots of time to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly of one’s career….hence the name of this blog.  Let’s begin with the "Good".
Artist John Potter
     After the Artist Preview event at the Buffalo Bill Show last Thursday evening, Pam and I were invited to attend dinner with a couple of artists and their wives, and the Director of the Art Show.  At dinner, I met, for the first time, a fantastic Native American artist named John Potter.  I felt an instant connection to John; we were both Illustrators at one point in our early careers.  In fact, the other artist in attendance and my good friend, Mikel Donahue, also has an Illustration background.
     Along with our wives and hosts, we had some great round table discussions about the Economy, Art, and our careers.  But the most moving part of the night was John’s prayer before we began dinner.  I believe John is member of the Sioux tribe, and his words (though I could not understand them) were moving and heartfelt.  This wickedly funny, and creatively sarcastic man momentarily transformed us as a group.  Reverence is the best word to describe the spirit of the moment.  Heated and passionate discussions about Politics, the Economy, and Art followed, but that Native American prayer set the mood for the evening.  It transformed us and bound us together.  It definitely represents the "Good" in my reflections.
"Rosebud Repose" by John Potter

     As I continued to drive and Pam dozed, I happened to pass a sign for Highway 40 to Vegas.  I was instantly transported to my early Art Career days with a fellow artist named Red.  Red was the first friend I met in my first year of participating at Cowboy Christmas during the National Finals Rodeo.  We were the first group of artists to participate in the tent at Cashman Field the year the show outgrew the main facility.  A 100-yard long tent was set up in the parking lot to accommodate the extra artists added to the show.  And Red and I were the first wave of new exhibitors to show in the parking lot in the tent. (This is before the show grew so large that it is now housed in the Las Vegas Convention Center).
     Anyhow, Red and I hit it off and we set out to conquer Vegas.  Actually, he set out to do Vegas.  I was mostly in charge of logistics.  I was the guy behind Red, telling him such and such wasn’t a good idea---rarely with any success.  Our first year ended spectacularly.  The last night of the show we decided we would skip the teardown crowd and the madness and chaos of 500 booths trying to load out all at once.  We would be smart and get an early dinner and break our booths down the following morning, when it would be much easier.  (I must interject that this wasn’t solely our idea---our artistic mentor Buck Taylor advised us to take this route.) 
Cowboy Christmas at NFR in Vegas
     So we hit Binion’s, in downtown Vegas, for a rare Rib-eye and short night of Black Jack.  I lost my self-designated $30 limit early, and headed for the hotel.  I knew Red would gamble to the wee hours of the morning.  I was up at 6 sharp, grabbed a quick breakfast and headed for the show tent to start my teardown.  When I topped the hill, I was shocked to see that the entire 100-yard tent was gone! Totally and completely gone!
     The only things in the entire parking lot were our two booths, with paintings still hanging.  So there is my booth with 20 original watercolors (that I had spent months painting); they are hanging exposed to the elements, theft and wayward birds.  I phone Red and verbally illustrate our predicament.  The F---ing tent is gone!
     Six minutes later, Red flies over the hilltop at breakneck speed in an old 1982 Isuzu Trooper.  We quickly tear down our booths, dodging construction workers who are loading the stacked poles of the tent.  This experience would start a long friendship that was based on clearing this hurdle with little more than a heavy layer of dew on our paintings.  This was definitely an example of the “Bad” I’ve incurred.
     I then asked Pam about the ugliest moments in our career.  We agreed that all in all, we’ve been blessed with a fantastic adventure, but there has to be an “Ugly” to finish out this blog, right?  Try this one on for size.
     We had just finished the Phippen Museum Western Art Show & Sale in Prescott, AZ and were headed for home.  We’ve made this run so many times that we know where the cleanest bathrooms are, the best gas stations, the friendliest Subways, and the safest motels.  This is a run we own.
     We know when it’s the best time to hit traffic in El Paso or Tucson and we know the back roads around Phoenix; we know this run.  One thing we didn’t know was the best place to blow a tire with no spare. 
     Iraan, Texas is in the middle of nowhere; right between Fort Stockton and Ozona, on the desert floor.  I have to qualify our location---we weren’t actually in Iraan.  We blew our tire at the Iraan exit sign.  I heard it pop and when I looked in the side mirror, the entire fender of my little Wells Cargo trailer was blown skyward by the separating belts of the tire.  The twisted mess of metal that was my fender flew about 30 feet in the air, directly at the windshield of a Lincoln Town Car behind me.  The fender missed the top of the car by what seemed inches.  The Boss Hogg driving the Lincoln never knew how close he was to eating his cigar for good.
     I backed out of my pedal and eased off the 80mph speed that was customary on I-10.  The silence at Exit 325 was deafening.  I unhooked the trailer and left Pam on the side of the road to guard it (adequately armed, I assure you) while I drove to Sheffield, Texas and the only tire shop open on Sunday. 
     I had visions of purchasing a $187 used LT205/75R15 more commonly known as a P.O.S. trailer tire.  But the tire man was looking for a Sunday friend, and let me off for $65.  We changed out the tire, hooked up, threw our dead fender in the truck bed, and headed for home.  It was definitely “Ugly”.
     So there you have it.  And I wouldn’t change a thing about any of it.  The Good Lord has definitely taught me some lessons along the way, and I am grateful for all these experiences.  And a simple moving prayer to the Great Creator sets the tone for all Life’s offerings.   

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Atmospheres & Backgrounds

     Welcome to my 200th post!  I hope I have been able to offer you insights into the world of a professional artist, and to give you valuable and useful suggestions to make your own art successful.  Thanks for sticking with me!

     One of the greatest attributes of watercolor is its’ ability to create lifelike atmospheric effects.  On a vignette this adds a realistic feel to the subject.  One of my blog friends, Shelley, has asked for some suggestions and help on her painting of a polo player. 
     I had originally planned to repaint her photo to the point where Shelley has hit the “background wall”, but I opted to use one of my photos that presents the same basic problem, and show you how I solved it.
     Here’s Shelley’s painting of the polo player.  Her questions to me were based on her uncertainty about adding the background.

Shelley's painting

    I will show my progression, without much fanfare, to get to the same point as Shelley.  I thought you might like to see the process.

     So here we are with a painting very similar to Shelley’s.  It’s a finished subject floating in a sea of white.  So where do we go from here?
     The first consideration before we ever get to this point in Shelley’s painting is to start integrating our background washes as early as possible.  Let me stress this again:  The way to integrate a background into a painting is to start early.
     My first step towards resolving my background problem is to just start the process.  I start with a wash of Burnt Umber to indicate dust being kicked up by the horse and calf.

      I let my first wash dry and prepare for another layer.  You should understand this will be a multi-layered approach of adding glazes of color to create my final effect.  

My second wash is Burnt Umber again, but I add some textural brushwork to break up the color and give it a painterly feel.
      Here’s the painting after glaze #2 of Burnt Umber is complete and dry.

     Now I add Ultramarine Blue to the background I created a basic cloud-like shape so the Burnt Umber would appear to be in front or in the foreground, in relationship to the blue.  No pre-planning was needed for this shape.  Dust clouds are rather random in nature --- keep it that way. 

     I also added a touch of Cadmium Orange around my cowboy subject.  I want an interplay of colors working together.  (If you want to study a master of cool and warm washes, get Thomas A. Daly’s book “Painting Nature’s Quiet Places.”  Daly is a master of glazing warm and cool washes to create this interplay of color).

     The details are hard to see in the photo, but I darken the shadow under the horse’s neck and add a weak wash of Cadmium Orange over the entire background.  This serves to unify the atmospheric effect and bring the total painting together.
     Shelley, I hope this helps. If you have problems with your background, don’t hesitate to contact me.  Good Luck!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Don't Ask your Mom ....

     One piece of advice I received from my first art teacher, Amado Peña, was “Don’t ask your mom if it’s good.  At the Anderson High School Art Department, Peña ruled with an iron prisma color (a weak attempt at art humor).  He was no bullshit.  If your art was crap, he would tell you straight away.  He expected every piece to progress nicely from the last.
     We’ve discussed self-critiquing before, but this bears repeating.  Your ability to critique your own work is of paramount importance.  If you only show your efforts to a small inner circle of friends, you will only get positive feedback.  I suffer from this dilemma myself ….. and it is with my wife, Pam! 

Art Critic by Norman Rockwell

    Sometimes I know she’s reluctant to give her honest opinion, because I usually take it poorly.  But I have to admit, she is usually right!  She knows my work better than anyone else, and can honestly critique it from many angles.  Sometimes I just don’t want to admit she’s right on the mark. 
    Did you ever write a paper in college that took so much out of you that words like the and dog start looking wrong?  The same phenomenon happens to artists after 20 hours of drawing or painting.  We artistically forget how to paint the – and others can see that it is not a correct representation.  The question is will they tell you?
     Chances are they are reluctant to hurt your feelings, or they feel the overall effort is fantastic from their limited art perspective.  Either way, you are going to get bad information and think you’re “the gift”.  My advice is to find some inner circle of art friends who aren’t afraid to tell you that your painting has broccoli in its’ teeth.  Your job is to learn how to take the bitter pill in a civilized and gracious matter … something I, myself, have yet to perfect.
     Look at the critique with serious introspection.  Are they right?  Could their suggestion make the painting better? 
    This goes both ways.  When you are providing an opinion, please do it with a professional attitude.   I don’t offer an opinion unless someone asks.  Then I preface my opinion with a disclaimer:  Don’t ask me unless you want the truth.” 
     Michael Bane, a TV host on the Outdoor Channel, gives wise counsel: generally, people will love you if you tell them something like the truth, but if you tell them the truth they will despise and disdain you.

Hard Candy by William Matthews

     So my advice to you is stick with professionals and artists who act like professionals.  And don’t be afraid to praise your peers.  Let them know they have impacted you and your work … it’s why they do it.  I remember two years ago at the Coors Western Art Show in Denver when Willie Matthews and I were discussing his work at the show, and I mentioned that I really liked his painting, titled “Hard Candy” (a painting of a buckaroo with a tootsie roll pop).  He got animated and we had a great discussion about the painting.  It was executed beautifully and is, in my opinion, an iconic painting by a master watercolorist. 
     So there it is …. be a critic with a light hand and a helping heart, but speak the truth.  And if you want to honestly know if it’s good ….. Don’t ask your mother, ask your wife.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Break Some Eggs!

     At least once a week, I break an artistic egg.  In art vernacular that means chunking a $10 piece of watercolor paper (with 10 hours of drawing on it) in the big round file, commonly known as the trash can.  At the beginning of my career, this really hit me hard.  The loss of a $10 piece of paper, when I didn’t have $10 to waste, was a bitter pill to swallow.  Then the loss of the time invested in my drawing, and the mental set back, all helped to convince me that I had failed.
     My response to this perceived failure was usually manifested in a fit of rage, happily married to a string of colorful expletives.  Usually this occurs because I made a snap color decision that turned out to be wrong. 
     Green has been particularly adept at beating me about the head, then sending me packing.  Me and Green have an old ongoing rivalry where, for the most part, he continues to win on a routine basis.
     I have, to some extent, started to embrace my failures as something worthwhile.  No one likes watching their efforts reduced to a crumbled mass of 140 lb. cold press debris, but I have come to realize that this process (of screwing up) is making me a better painter.  How is this possible?
     Well, the first and most obvious benefit will come when I redraw my painting.  My second attempt will give me an additional 8-10 hours to contemplate my original failure.  Some of us require multiple failures to “tune in” to the painting process.  I’m afraid I fall into this category.  Also, I won’t try the method or technique again that brought me to this point in the first place.  Even an artist won’t put his hand on the hot stove twice.
     The real growing opportunity lies in a larger philosophical outlook, and it is this…..I’ve come to realize that when I experience failures, it’s because I’m expanding my painting knowledge and pushing myself to a new and higher level.
     Typically, after a catastrophic mistake, I produce a painting that is obviously of a higher quality.  The real secret to this process is to maintain a positive attitude during the first failure.  If I fly off the handle in a fit of artistic rage, I ruin my chances of pushing to the higher level.  You must become a mature artist who embraces his monumental failures with grace and a spirit of learning (kind of a WWJDFA – what would Jesus do for Artists). 
     It sounds easy, but when you blow that first effort, everything in you wants to come apart.  This is tougher for firebrand personalities, and guys, in general.  But trust me, it is an artistic truth.  Now go forth and paint in a calm, controlled manner.  And learn from your mistakes!

FOOTNOTE:  Socks, the cat, is still refusing to find new owners.  He has sunk his taproot with Pam and me (and four dogs who are still intent on pressing the nine lives issue).  However, he has started earning his keep with the following “captures” under his belt:

-- 2 lizards
-- 1 Cicada
-- 1 Gecko
-- 1 Coral Snake
-- Numerous grasshoppers
-- 1 Failed Rabbit Stalk 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gaucho Demo & Finished Painting

     Today, I will give you all the information to finish your painting.  In this next image I start establishing my early light washes, which I will build on.  I used Cadmium Scarlett on the stripes of the pants, and then laid in some weak washes on the reins and breast collar of the Gaucho’s gear.

     The next step is to start building the folds of the shirt.  I want to get every portion of the painting moving along at the same pace.  The scarf is a weak wash of Cobalt Blue that will serve as the lighter color of the Panuela, or scarf.

     Here’s my painting after I’ve put in three background washes!  

The first was Ultramarine Blue over the entire background.  Next was a light wash of Raw Umber to knock the blue back a bit.  The lower portion of the wash is Light Red.  I will wait to see how the rest of the painting moves along until I add further washes.

     I’ve jumped around the painting, working in different areas, still trying to maintain an overall working method instead of working from one area outward.  I tend to have better value control.  As I bring up different areas in intensity, I personally make better value and color choices with other portions of the painting blocked in.
     The painting has neared the finished stage and I take one final moment to evaluate my progress.

     The painting is now complete after darkening some crevices and adding a unifying wash of Cobalt Blue over the entire background.  Very little of this wash is perceptible, but it works to neutralize and unify.

     Thanks for tuning in for the demo and let me know if I can help with any specific problems you might have run into.  Remember, there are no bad paintings if you learn from the process.  Good luck!