Friday, June 21, 2019

We Portrait Artists

We Portrait Artists

Jackson, Oil on Canvas, 24w x 30h, by Pat Aube Gray
When young, we noticed a person with awesome beauty or features seemingly carved from stone, or a mature elder, a long life etched into his face, seeping from the outer corners of sentient eyes.  That face elicited a persistent gnawing, an ache too overwhelming to ignore.  We took crayon in hand, then, later, a pencil, and naively drew that face on paper, any paper, even a napkin.  We placed cockeyed features on out-of-shape heads and produced quasi-likenesses.  To become better, we turned to those who were - in books, on videos, at schools, at workshops - for drawing skills, technical knowledge, color and temperature comprehension, composition and edge sensitivity.  We sought enlightenment - to learn to “see,” which is to feel, an attitude suggested by a pose or tilt of a head, and the often elusive emotion emanating from the eyes.
We worked in graphite and charcoal, smearing ebony dust into shadows with tortillons or our fingers.  We used pastels, sticks of chalk-like color; we needed hundreds of them, one in every hue, in multiple values, because they could not be mixed.  We employed aqueous media, managing to control with a brush the unbridled flow of tinted water on specially treated paper.  We painted in oil, which, in the days of the Old Masters – Rembrandt, DaVinci, Caravaggio, Vermeer - was finely ground pigment, found in nature, mixed into linseed oil.   More recently, brilliant, audacious oil colors contained chemical additives.
We prepared our surfaces, wood panel or canvas, brushing on layers of rabbit skin glue or gesso, sanding between coats until they had the preferred texture.  We placed one on our easel, its center at our eye level.  We wore old clothes or an apron dappled with dried paint that had been dripped or wiped from hands or a brush.  We twisted caps off tubes of paint, squeezed a mound of white near the edge of a palette of varnished wood.  To its right, along the edge, we placed a smaller squirt of each warm color, from light to dark (yellows, oranges, reds, siennas); to the left, the same for cool colors (blues and greens), followed by earth tones (ochres, umbers, greys.)  We left the center empty, space for mixing colors.  On our taboret stood an old can of our best brushes, bristles up, a jar of turpentine, a small cup of damar varnish, palette knives, and lint-free rags or paper towels.    We placed our model before us, usually on a platform, at our eye level, and shone a light on him for the best pattern of light and shadow.  We took a deep breath, tried to calm our nerves.  It was time to paint.
With a brush loaded with a thinned, middle-dark neutral, we loosely drew the head and shoulders and blocked in shadow areas.  On our palette we mixed four or five values, from light to dark, of our subject’s skin tone.  With brushes, we carefully laid them in, leaving the shadow areas as they were, squinting at the model to distinguish the lights, middles, darks, and then warming or cooling the color as necessary.  We roughed in the ears, the eyes, the contours of the face, the nose and mouth. We added a little more red here, a little blue there.  We mixed and loosely scrubbed paint into the hair and clothing.  We stepped back so, with just a slight shift of our eyes, we could view the model and compare it to the painting.  We assessed proportions; was the bottom of the nose the right distance from the eyes, were the lips the right distance from the bottom of the nose, was the chin too long, was the forehead too short, were the eyes too far apart?  We moved back to the easel, rubbed out paint with a rag and made corrections, constantly measuring with our eyes.  Once we saw our subject on the easel, we reveled in the joy of it, felt the flutter of euphoria in our very being.  We lovingly touched the surface with careful, deliberate strokes, “combed” the hair, softened edges, moderated transitions in value, sharpened edges.  We perfected the eyes, the color of the irises, captured the magical translucence, dotted in the highlights.  When, finally, the portrait looked back at us as the model did, that thing we were meant to do was done.  A wisp of air escaped our lips, a sigh of relief, a soft whisper of fulfillment.  We smiled.  Then we wondered who would be next.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

It's a New Day!

Oh, my, it has been almost eight years to the day since I last posted!  SO much has happened in all that time!  But I am back...back to painting, teaching and writing,  eager to immerse myself once again in creative endeavors.  I just read my last post and it certainly brought back thoughts of the unpredictable world of art.  Be that as it may, my thrust is different now.  I have nothing to prove, no one to impress, no living to make ( though any extra income will help!) I will paint for the pure joy of it.  I will teach because I love to share what I have learned and know that I will learn more in return;  I will write because it gives me that same gnawing in my gut that drawing and painting do.  Looking forward... always looking forward. Please join me on this renewed journey!  Enter your email in the sidebar under my photo to be on the blog mailing list.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Sea of Unpredictability

Life as a visual fine artist is remarkably different from most other life pursuits. It is a path taken when the passion to create art and become better at it usurps even the most rational thought processes about traditional academic education; about steady, reliable income with reasonable expectations of financial growth; about licenses, degrees, certifications, or just the consensus of experts that our knowledge, skill and qualifications are sufficient to earn a living or gain entrance into specialized organizations; about acceptance and acknowledgment from experts in the field; about social interaction at our daily workplace.

The life of a visual fine artist is rewarding, satisfying, and, sometimes, necessary. Like many other endeavors, it has its good points. We enjoy what we do. We can do it anywhere. We can do it in our pajamas. We enjoy the process. We can often make money at it. We can teach it, earning extra money, and enjoy sharing our knowledge. We can listen to music while we work, we can decorate our homes, we can make gifts and donations of our life’s work. Our families can be with us. Our friends, relatives, clients, teachers and our peers pat us on the back and tell us how “good” we are.

But the life of an artist also has its not-so-good points. Art is one of the first products to suffer in a recessionary economy. The quality and beauty of our work, even for the most successful and skilled artists, is always subjective, always in the eye of the beholder, and subject to trends and fads. While some may think our work belongs in the Metropolitan Museum, others, including jurors, newspaper critics, gallery owners, and art collectors (and even some relatives and “friends”), may tell us to keep our day jobs. We may get into a juried exhibition and win a ribbon and not even make the cut with the same art in the next one. We may apply to one prestigious organization and be welcomed with giddy gratitude for “someone like you” being willing to participate, only to be rejected by another for work that is not to their standards, or lacks maturity and depth. The style and quality of our work may earn us a highly touted exhibition in a reputable gallery, while an equally successful venue nearby wouldn’t consider showing our work. A piece of art we consider our best work sits on a gallery wall without notice, while one we didn’t want to sign our names to receives a stream of accolades.

While our real “mission” is to make art, selling it, having it positively judged, and having it accepted and praised are integral factors in the measurement of our success. Confidence, a positive spirit, and motivation can be difficult to maintain in this sea of unpredictability. One week we are on a high due to an acceptance or award, and the next we are trying to understand why our work was declined. We have difficulty assessing the quality of our own work. We fully understand that each juror who views our work will have a unique opinion, we understand that we are at the mercy of that one single person, yet we can’t help but feel inadequate if our work is not “accepted.” Now we may even consider going back to our day jobs! Or, in an effort to preserve our psyches, we may decide that the juror doesn’t know good art when he sees it!

So how do we cope with the emotional roller coaster, with the ups and downs of our careers, with the less than steady incomes? The answers to that question are as different for each one of us as the art we produce. I believe it is important that we support one another, not just with praise, but also within our organizations, with critique groups, with educational opportunities, with shared information about techniques, tools, methodology and theory. And, yes, help with constructive criticism or suggestions. Read, share with your friends, and comment on each other’s websites, newsletters, blogs, facebook entries, and photos. The more we put art in the public view, the greater the number of artists we promote. The more the public views our art and reads artists’ comments, the more aware and, hopefully, appreciative they become. Maybe they will even become collectors.

When our muses are sitting on our shoulders and we are free from insecurities, we are able to paint with excitement and vigor. But even on less inspired days I believe we must continue to work hard, remaining vigilant for that elusive sensibility that will allow us to move closer to excellence, and tune in to the satisfying realization that the artistic hunger of our souls is fed by every mark we make.

Completed Oil Still Life with Progress Photos

Oranges, Pear, and Eucalyptus, (Only Just Begun),oil on panel, 16 x 20, copyright 2009 Pat Aube Gray

Oranges, Pear and Eucalyptus, (Almost There), 16 x 20, oil on Panel

Oranges, Pear, and Eucalyptus, oil on panel, 16 x 20, copyright 2009 Pat Aube Gray

This painting was started in April the week that Charles Walls was a guest instructor in my teaching studio. This was the first painting I had ever done on Ampersand's gessoed panel and I absolutely LOVED the surface! I only got as far as somewhere between the first and second photos that week, and worked on it many more hours than I thought I would have to in the following months! But I was very happy with the finished painting, which was sold before I finished it! I just love it when that happens!

Because the surface of the panel is relatively smooth (do not confuse this surface with Ampersand's clayboard surface or much earlier version of this panel), toning it first helps give the paint a little more to grab hold of. As you can see in the first photo, the background, for example, is still rather transparent. There are a few more layers on the final version, but the luster of the finished painting is wonderful! (I used M. Graham's walnut alkyd medium, which also adds to the quality of the finished surface.)

You might note that there is a fourth branch of eucalyptus in the finished work. The actual set-up contained only three, but the space between the eucalyptus and the highly lit pear really bothered me. It was as if there were no connection between it and the remainder of the subject matter and tended to lead the eye up and out of the picture plane. Adding the fourth, rightmost branch, directed at the pear and catching some of the light, helped to tie it all together nicely. As artists, we must continually reassess the painting in and of itself, regardless of what the actual source displays. However, I must admit that a more thorough assessment of the set-up in the first place may have revealed this shortcoming!

Oil Still Lifes, Still a Work in Progress

Time for Tea (Just Started), Oil on Panel, 24 x 18, Pat Aube Gray

Time for Tea, (Still in Progress), 24 x 18, copyright 2009 Pat Aube Gray

I have wanted to paint a still life revolving around tea, and this is my first attempt to do that. I started this painting when Charles Walls was a guest instructor at my teaching studio. These were all objects that I brought from home and set up for the concept Walls was teaching, that of of using depth and aerial perspective in a still life set-up. I did not get very far on this painting that week, but worked on it a good bit at a later date. As you can see, it is far from finished. These photos were shot in a very dark environment, so they are very grainy. Hopefully the photos of the completed painting (if and when) will be much better!