Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sleep Deficit

It is important to avoid building a sleep deficit. Five years ago I could get through the week on a few hours of sleep a night. Now I can really feel my exhaustion start manipulating my judgment and emotions. It is a dangerous combination for painting.

Last major studio melt down.
I used to have studio melt downs pretty regularly. They were intense too. Lot's of tears and smashing things on the floor. I don't think it was the painting failures that I was stressed about as it was my financial failures and complete lack of a coherent portfolio. Regardless, it was a pathetic display. Melt downs and flip outs should only be a strategy for those day job bosses that you never respected. Nowadays, I figure: Why put yourself in line with those people?

So much wasted paint.
Even back then I never took pride in destroying my studio. I usually just sat in it afterward and stressed myself out about how I couldn't afford to ruin all of my painting supplies. If you feel yourself get too stressed to function, switch into some light sketching or a brainless task like gessoing canvas. Though you should keep your routine and paint even when you are working from a sleep or inspiration deficit, you shouldn't force yourself to paint through debilitating aggravation. Keep making the art but go easy on yourself for the day. Keep your emotions manageable and your judgment clear so you don't accelerate life's natural evolution from self deprecation to self defecation. We all probably have some embarrassing high school writing/art buried in a drawer somewhere. Why make more of it now?

A very real Mike Steffen drawing from high school.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Get There 1.4

At this point it's hard for me to know how I feel about the painting. I am really banking on this thing doing one of those magical last second turn arounds. You know how sometimes there will be some commercial development in your neighborhood. For months there will just be a hole in the ground with a bunch of rebar sticking out of it. Then, one morning, there will magically (yes, MAGIC) be a huge building sitting there. Yeah, I'm kind of hoping for one of those.

I should mention, it is more of a standard technique to lay in general areas of the painting and then come back in for detail. For these paintings it has worked best for me to lay in the large areas piece by piece and color by color with a small brush. For this painting (the land portion of it) I started with a larger 1/4 inch nylon brush.

They may advertise many synthetic bristle brushes as acrylic/oil brushes but I have found that when used with oil they leave dusty bits of brush in the paint. This is in part to the mineral spirits on the brush and the scumbling technique I use for the hazy, soft blends.

This is a good example of what happens to a square edge, nylon brush after giving it a few rounds scumbling with oil paint. Though the natural bristles on the right hold their shape, they are too firm to blend the paint as smoothly as needed for this particular part of the painting.

I sometimes dip my brushes in linseed oil if I am talking a break. Normally I wouldn't worry about oil paint drying out in my brush in that short of a period of time, but since I use so much dry brushing in the lower portion of this painting I get a little paranoid. Normally the linseed oil dip keeps the brush good and wet and there are no problems. Unfortunately, I was so focused on holding my hand steady to take this photo that I accidentally forgot to clean the extra linseed oil out of the brush. It was terrible. I was looking through the camera view finder and once the brush hit the painting I saw that the bristles clump together (as pictured above) and proceeded to try solving the problem by swearing at the painting and flipping it off. It didn't work.

When you paint as thinly as I am accidentally hitting the painting with too much linseed oil is the worst (even worse when a bit of turpentine gets on there). You can't just wipe it off because if you apply too much pressure the it will thin the layers of paint below and start removing them. If you just try to work through it the paint will not adhere to the surface properly and you will just end up making this weird oil stain circle (as pictured above, though not pictured well (see the first sentence of "Treasure Islands Pt. 2")). You have to just let it dry. And stare at it. And get angry.

Don't even consider using your most awesome filbert brush to try to blend it out. You might be thinking, "But it worked on the nice blue skies, right?" Seriously, don't bother, it won't help. That stupid linseed oil spot doesn't deserve your most awesome filbert blender.

Since, by this point, I am completely dispirited, I decided to take a photo of the ridge of the vegetation to demonstrate how using the 1/4 inch brush and too much scumbling has made my painting blurry. This is a particularly rough problem because it muted out all of my dark values. Painting the dark shadows between the grass on top of the muted layer would make the dark paint visually pull forward too much, breaking the proper depth of field of the piece. So, the only option I have is to repaint the dark layer with a small brush and wait for it to dry. And stare at it. And stare at it. And stare at it. And eventually after more swearing and flipping the painting off I will be able to use the same little brush to paint the lighter values on top of it all over again.

So there I am and there is my painting.

Fortunately, I don't have to waist time watching paint dry. Nothing beats going through a pile of paperwork! We spend all day dealing with paperwork at work, why not share that love with the studio? Frustrating? Stressful? Just store the stress in a lump on the back of your head.

Take it easy ladies, this guy is taken

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lucian Freud at Auction

Copywright Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud recently passed away. He was 88 years old and one of the greatest and most awkwardly humble painters who ever lived. His skill was unparalleled. He is also one of my favorite artists whose work I have never seen in person. This can be attributed to two reasons:

1. I don't travel enough.
2. His paintings are too valuable and museums can't afford them.

I can't escape the feeling that out there right now are a number of wealthy collectors that couldn't be happier about his demise. The auction market doesn't deserve his paintings. Sotheby's and Christie's do not deserve Lucian Freud paintings. It's a terrible feeling to see one of his paintings get sold to a private collector instead of being placed in a museum's permanent collection. The only thing that would make me happier than seeing a Lucian Freud painting would be to see the end of the auction market. Until then all I can hope for is unparalleled museum donations, a show on loan in the US, and a handful of vacation days at work.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Treasure Islands Pt. 2

Up to this point I should clarify that I do not consider myself a photographer. I'll use photography for references for my paintings but I do not consider myself practiced enough to have my photographs stand on their own. Sometimes this fact troubles me when I feel I am in a particular interesting environment with my camera. In the end I don't consider my photos as being all too engaging. I'm sure most of everyone that owns a camera has a pile of photos of old buildings somewhere.

Photography is my sketching tool. Since a pencil and paper doesn't help me practice the painting techniques that are crucial to my work I usually preemptively focus on the basic visual aspects of a photograph to layout my paintings. It's where and how I decide my palette, composition, value scale, etc.

And in the realm of photography I feel that, as a whole, I take more influence from film than anywhere else. This isn't to say that I do not prefer and love painting. I do. But for my working process and inspiration I find that the visuals of film tend to engage me more immediately than paintings. This isn't true in all cases. I would always choose to study the work of my favorite painters over the work of my favorite directors and cinematographers. But since there seem to be so few paintings that speak to me with the urgency of film (I am aware this is my fault) I tend to invest more research in the latter medium.

It is also fair to say that it is more than just the visuals of films (I really want to say "movies" instead because saying "films" in this context feels wildly pretentious--too late though) that I take into consideration when making my paintings. I am not all that interested in narrative paintings but I have a growing appreciation for way films address the passage of time and the way the narratives are placed in a historical context. I think this is what draws me to representational painting as opposed to abstract.

Abstract painting's historical context tends to be more relevant to its relationship and interpretation to other abstract paintings whereas representational work takes the challenge of addressing interpretation of your surroundings more directly. When representing recognizable objects you have to constantly make decisions on how you want your viewer to read your work.

There is less room for error in representational art. I know that statement would be strongly opposed by many artist but that doesn't concern me because I do not agree with them and that idea is a driving influence to my work. If that influence leads me to my desired results, which in this case it does, then it doesn't really matter if it is true to anyone else but myself.

All of these buildings use to be relevant. All of these buildings had a purpose. They all had employs who would leave there asbestos filled apartments (see Treasure Islands Pt. 1) and visit them daily. At a certain point in time, they needed to be functional and held some level of value to the goals and purpose of the island.

The details of these photos tell the story of the island. A comparison of the wood used to erect the buildings versus the wood used to board up the windows can teach you a lesson about engineering. Compare the paint on the wall covering the graffiti vs. the paint on the wall covering the natural grain of the buildings wood and stucco siding.

What was the building used for? What is it used for now? Did the current shelves of wine use to store ammunition? Is there something important to read into that fact? Perhaps too much would naturally be read into it. Does an odd sphere of wire serve any purpose beyond design and aesthetics? Can it's purpose change when it's technical functions are no longer applicable?

How will text and signs affect us? They hold a pretty intense visual element. Perhaps they are too loaded. They could either make the image political or they could simply be a descriptive element. Does the way sign post bend signal a car accident or a couple of bored teenagers? How can we control the way a person reads such opposing ideas?

How does someone interpret this landscape? Are their ideas for others to see or just their peers? Are they absolutely convinced that this pool will never function again? Would they care regardless?

Can we address sound in an image? Can composition be deceiving? Perhaps if I showed the birds up close from a low angle, with their necks straining and their beaks wide open you could assume that it was not a serene moment. In this case, the verisimilitude of symmetry shows a serene environment while completely ignoring the dozens of birds just beyond that rooftop, screeching, swooping, and drowning out any sense of comfort and placidity. How do we decide to address these issues in our work?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Photos from the opening reception of Insight at 5 Claude Lane. Artwork by Maya Kabat of Mercury 20 and Ross Fink.

Scott Jennings of mosshouse and 5 Claude Lane

Britney Storey

Nancy Howell and Micah Lebrun of 111 Minna

Lonnie and Ken of Vessel Gallery

Jesse Siegel of mosshouse

Simon Hubbard

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Get There 2.1 (Stretching and Gessoing)

This is how far apart I like to space my staples, roughly 3-5 inches. I have seen some artists get out of control with them. Too many staples leaves too many small tears in the canvas that can easily rip later. Once the canvas starts ripping, you're toast. Normally I wouldn't put the staples this close to the edge of the stretcher bars but the metal on these particular stretchers left me no choice. I have seen many people (and pre-stretched canvas in art stores) have the staples on the sides of the stretchers as well. I always thought this didn't look very good since I usually buy heavy duty museum bars and don't frame my paintings. (I also believe in painting the edges with a solid dark neutral tone. I always thought that the unpainted edges looked distracting and paintings with the image stretched around the edges looked cheap and sloppy). I know an art restorer that uses more staples than I do, which makes me second guess my spacing but, then again, he knows how to re-line a canvas and can fix just about anything. I think it is safe to assume that he is more than likely concerned with the immediate presentation of each individual piece more so than it's longevity. That's probably not true at all.

I have been gessoing this canvas with a watered down professional grade gesso. I prefer professional grade because your painting is only as strong as your first layer. There is always the chance that the professional grade is not different than the student grade, merely just thicker. I don't have the chemistry set to tell me but even if that is the case you are going to get a hell of a lot more mileage out of thinning professional gesso anyway. I thin the gesso to about the consistency of...I was going to say syrup but it is a little thinner than syrup. Thin your gesso to the consistency of lunch room syrup. You want to make sure that the gesso doesn't leave texture and settles flat. You are going to have to do a little sanding with some finer grit sandpaper anyways but it is always better and more effective for the canvas to do many thin layers as opposed to one thick one.

Sorry, this photo is pretty terrible.
Black gesso is pricey but effective. It leaves a nice warm, flat black that is a good base surface. It is a nightmare to evenly cover a canvas this large with black gesso. It dries faster than any other paint I have ever used. I tried to spread it quickly with a plastic drywall knife (I tried metal first and almost punched a hole in the canvas, oops):

That somewhat worked but I still couldn't hit all of the ridges with a brush quite fast enough to smooth it out in time. I also tried brushing a layer in bit by bit but I remember hearing a while back that it is not good to gesso in patches. Is that true? I have no idea. Good luck out there.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Get There 1.3

The path started looking pretty decent but I didn't care much for how intense the brush was looking. I wanted it to be bright and saturated, but it was too intense with too much green chroma showing through.

I tried muting it all down with a brown glaze. It didn't go too well (see "glazing" post below). I wiped most of it off but it did leave a subtle layer that looks nice. It won't be enough though. I'm going to have to figure something else out but I'll probably just move to the next step for the time being. Above the Knolls piece, I also have two small paintings that I just laid in the black grounds.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Framing Pt. 1

Framing is a pain in the ass. It takes forever and it can be expensive as all hell. One of my favorite sources to buy frames is from a company called GWI. I know their website doesn't look like all too much of an artist resource. They don't even really update it either. Buried in the "wood frame--square corner" section, though, are these really nice shadow box frames (they are items 83041 and 83042, they say that the mat is for a 5x7 picture but actually it is for a 4x6, sic). They are very basic and have about a 1/2 inch riser to elevate the glass off of the mat. These make perfect floating frames for drawings and works on paper. Finding a cheap, white, floating frame is far more difficult than it should be. These little gems are only $7.50 each. They used to carry larger sizes but, as I was informed by the distributor, there wasn't enough of a demand for the manufacturer to keep making them. I was astounded when I had heard this! Find me a contemporary drawing show without white frames and I'll show you an unframed drawing. The problem was that they were pitching these as photo frames. Most casual photos don't look very good in white frames. Had they had advertised these as art frames and threw them on Amazon they would probably have made a killing. Maybe I'll suggest that idea to the distributor.


The other day I tried making a glaze that was 1 part turpentine and 1 part linseed oil. After I struggled to not make it bead and eventually had to remove it I realized how lucky I was that I didn't end up ruining my painting. As I was preparing the glaze I couldn't remember the recipe so I just tried to make my own simplified version. I didn't even use damar, which I am pretty sure is almost mandatory for a good glaze. The actual recipe may have been 1 part damar, 1 part turp, and 1 part linseed oil...or was it stand oil?

Times like this is where Robert Massey's Formulas for Painters comes in handy. And it looks like it is now out of print and over $50 for a used copy. Oops. That's too bad. That book was packed with good info, though it did tend to reference materials that you normally wouldn't come across to easily.

Ralph Mayer's The Artist Handbook is also a pretty big standard as well and probably has some useful glazing info. That one is not out of print.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Treasure Islands Pt. 1

Strangely serene and foreboding at the same time

I would assume that this is really a precautionary measure for asbestos as opposed to radiation

At least, I hope so because there are active residences across the street.
Every Saturday I drop Emily off at work in San Francisco. On the way back over the bay bridge I always have this odd urge to explore the military buildings on Treasure Island. Unfortunately, there was a bike race that day and half of the island was closed. Inevitably, thanks to the redirection of the traffic, I ended up in the residential district at the back of the island. It was an interesting area in its own right. I would have like to have explored the old abandoned residential district but ran into the sign above. Originally, Treasure Island was built for the World's Fair, and then later was taken over by the military. That's where my interest came in. I have always been pretty drawn to anywhere there is was a military presence. They always seem to know better than anyone where to root down in the best landscape. I know it is primarily a strategy and defense issue for them, but check this out:

Point Sur

Wendover (this landscape is an acquired taste)

Marin Headlands
Following the military history of the United States is a great way to develop a sense of the American landscape. Most of my paintings are of the land around the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. As a biological weapons research facility and test range you could say that it has quite a spotty history. Some UFO conspiracy theorists consider it the new Area 51. That could be a little much but at the very least the thought brings me back to a time when Area 51 was an intense top secret facility of which only a small handful of photos have ever been taken. The thought of being able to do this was unheard of:

Google will even make the buildings 3D for me too! Maybe one day in a few more decades the base will be abandoned and we will be able to wander around the old buildings and take photos of the surrounding land. It can be pretty amazing to see how the military carves and measures that land too. From a birds eye view the functional patterns are hard to discern from works of art:

Military or Art?

Astronomy or Art? Both?

Aliens or Air Force? Both?

Then what is it?