Monday, November 30, 2009

Photographing Art: Conclusions

Last week I was searching for a solution to having too much texture and glare in the photos I had been taking of my paintings. I have a small studio and the lights need to be rather close to the work. A gentleman at the camera store suggested I put cheesecloth in front of the lights to help soften the lights. Here are results from some experiments I did with lighting my images while taking photos.

Each set of images was taken once under similar conditions except one with cheesecloth in front of the light, one without cheesecloth. The lights were tungsten lamps. I retouched each image in Photoshop by only increasing the contrast the same amount for each image:+27.

The first two images are with the lights at about 60 degrees in front of the painting. The first is with cheesecloth in front of the lights, the second is without cheesecloth. Although it is hard to tell from these web-images, I feel the one with cheesecloth is slightly more accurate with color. But there still are highlights and glare on the texture of the canvas.

With this second set of images, I moved the lights more to the side of the painting - about 45 degrees to the sides. This removed much of the glare. Again, I found that the image on the left, with the cheesecloth in front of the lights produced a more accurate color and tone to the painting. It is hard to tell in these web images, but the one on the left has more grey in the whites. The one on the right has a little more yellow in the whites and the background is too reddish.

This third set of images shows what happens when I move in more closely to shoot my images. The one on the left is with cheesecloth in front of the lights. The right without cheesecloth. As I move in closer, even with the lights at 45 degrees. more glare happens. I also have to add more contrast as they are more washed out than the shots from farther away. Again, the one with cheesecloth provides slightly more accurate color and contrast.

These last two images are of close-ups taken with a x2 magnifying lens. Again, the left is with cheesecloth in front of the lights, the right without. Again color is better, but there is still some glare as I get closer to the painting to shoot.

So, in conclusion, I found that adding the cheesecloth in front of the lights created more accurate color and warmth/coolness to the images. I found that making sure the lights are at 45 degrees from the painting instead of more in front of the painting cuts down on glare dramatically. I also found that the images look the best when taken from a medium distance (3 feet) instead of taking extreme close-up shots from a few inches away. The most accurate image of all of these is the third image on the page. I will be shooting images of my paintings with that configuration from now on.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oil Painting: Chipping Sparrow

Here is an image of a 4" x 4" oil painting of a chipping sparrow after the first stage. I blocked in the colors and shadows while drawing the bird as best I could. I let it dry for a few days before going back into it and adding details.
This second image is the final painting. Overall, the middle and deep colors were lightened while the lighter areas were darkened. Surface detail was added with a very small brush. I also changed the background color slightly to match the cap better and to smooth out inconsistencies. The beak was tricky in that the original drawing was not off by much, but enough that it felt "added on" instead of being part of the bird's head.

I currently have a couple of chicken paintings and two landscapes hanging at The Grand Hand Gallery for their holiday show. Check out the gallery, it is a wonderful place for holiday shopping.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The End of Fifteen Years of Teaching at Como Zoo and Conservatory

Today was my last time teaching art classes at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, Saint Paul, MN. I began art classes there fifteen years ago, on December 1, 1994. Back then, I would arrive in the evening at the conservatory, unlock the door, turn off the alarm, turn on the lights, set up chairs and teach art. Then I would put away the chairs, turn off the lights, set the alarm, lock the door and go home. In the intervening years an education department was formed, murals were painted, a gallery space was developed, a botanical and zoological arts program evolved, art installations were created by kids and teens, $21 million was given by the State of Minnesota to build an education center and, sadly, today, arts programming has come to an end.

I ran the arts programming and set up the education systems at Como for nine years. The last six years I have continued to teach in the program. For the past year, none of my classes, and many of the classes in the program, have not run. It has been a slow downhill slide since I stopped coordinating the program.

There are many reasons for the demise of a program that once was busting at the seams. I had a public meeting where people were literally throwing checks at me ordering me to offer more botanical arts classes. At one point we were running ten art classes per session. Not bad for a small zoo and conservatory with a fledgling education department.

One highlight was beginning the Botanical Arts and Illustration program with Vera Ming Wong and Marilyn Garber. Although Marilyn left early-on, it was a great experience developing and expanding the program with Vera. This has lead to many other rewarding activities shared over the years.

Today I performed a portfolio review for the last student to achieve botanical arts certification through the program. At the time the botanical arts and illustration program was developed, there were only five botanical art certification programs in the country. Now there are many. The review was with a student who is typical of the students that were in the program. Barb is passionate about art and about plants. She loved the program and took classes for the last five years. Her achievements and friends in the program are important to her.

What could sink a program with devoted students, good attendance, excellent teachers and uniqueness? As I mentioned, there were many factors, but the most outstanding factor to me was that this community of artists, these talented people of passion and devotion, were no longer fostered as a community. As time went by, the program was run by non-artists and became about numbers, not about people. Whenever an arts program doesn't foster a community, it will eventually fail.

Vera was supposed to be there at the portfolio review today but was sick. It seemed fitting to me that I was there alone with a student at the end. Like when it began - just me, unlocking the door, turning on the lights and teaching a class. Today it was just me, walking out the door and going home for the last time.

I want to thank the hundreds of people I have taught, and taught with, through the Como program over the years. You are a beautiful highlight of my life.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Art Lesson: Details and Surface in Oil

This is an 8" x 8" oil painting of one of my friend Meghan's chickens. Meghan has eleven chickens and is my source for all things chicken. I enjoyed painting this piece quite a bit for the following reasons:
- there is a good amount of inconsistent pattern in the feathers
- there is a lot of little detail in the face area
- it is just fun to paint chickens

The feathers in particular were fun for me in that I had to create a changing pattern that was soft and feathery. I layered the black and the greys in the feathers several times to get the pattern I wanted. While building up each layer I would stroke one color into and through the other to get the feel of individual feathers laying over other feathers. Once I was happy with the pattern, I took a dry sable brush and gently stroked over the wet paint on the surface (this technique is actually called feathering) to give a soft feel to the surface. I would stroke mostly in the same direction as the wet paint strokes on the canvas, but would occasionally "feather" at angles to give a more random effect.
Before creating this odd face with skin folds, individual hairs sticking out here and there and areas where it meshes with beak and heavy feathered areas, I first created the skin surface (middle picture). In this earlier stage you can see how I developed the surface of the skin before adding the smaller detail on top of it. In this earlier stage you can also see the body feathers after only one attempt to block in the pattern.
This last image shows some of the detail in the head area. I had to use very small brushes to produce individual feathers. Stroking them on with one stroke did not look good. The feathers looked like paint strokes instead of feathers. So I went back in and painted around the feathers with the skin color. I also stroked over each individual face feather with some grey. Between these two techniques each feather began to feel part of the face instead of being a paint stroke on the face.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Art Question: How Do You Find The Time To Paint?

A question I was recently asked by Cece W. is "How do you find the time to paint?"
Finding time to paint can be very difficult and is probably the #1 reason for people not continuing with art. There are several factors that get in the way of finding time to make art, write or be creative in your own personal way. Schedule and time are always something artists struggle with. Most of us are not making a living from our art and have to split our time with a day job. That day job usually has to be a priority as far as schedule goes. For this blog entry, I am going to focus on the Day Job and how to strategize ways of making your Day Job support your creative activities. (For the sake of this entry, your Day Job may not be a paid position, it may be daily commitments you have that get in the way of your making art)

The Day Job Dilemma
If you have read this blog you know that I work for the City of Saint Paul for my day job. I am very happy with my job; if I have to work for someone else I'm happy it is to make the city I live in more beautiful. But, the truth is, I would rather be making my own work and selling and finding supporters for what I want to do.

My first step is to make my job work for me and support my life activities.

How much do you need to work?
My first question is how much money do I need and can I work less than 40 hours a week and still cover my living costs? I currently work 32 hours a week at my day job. I would be more comfortable financially at 35 hours and would feel downright wealthy at 40 hours. But working 40 hours a week would be too exhausting for me and I would feel emotionally and creatively impoverished. 32 hours seems to be an amount of time that works for me. The one thing I have learned is that you need to ask for what you want. If it makes sense, especially if it is somehow beneficial to your company, many bosses will give it a try. One boss appreciated my skills to get things done so much that she let me rewrite my job description annually.

Perform Similar Activities At Home and At Work
Once in awhile I notice that I am working 24 hours a day, at work and at home, doing similar activities. If I am having to reorganize my studio, I also end up reorganizing my office. If I have to do a lot of work on webpages at work, I end up reworking my personal webpage. Over the years I have noticed that if my mind is working in one mode for half the day it often continues working in that mode the rest of the day. I find that this can make things easier. Instead of having to shift gears between my Day Job and my creative life I can just shift physically, not emotionally or intellectually. Also, performing a similar activity at work stimulates my mind about the similar activity in the studio and will often give me new insight into my artwork.

Do Opposite Activities At Home and At Work
Of course, sometimes you just need to get away from work and anything similar to it. If I need to rest or to blow off some steam, I do it. But otherwise, the act of drawing, painting and creating is so polar opposite to some of my work activities (especially those that involve difficult people) that I make it a place of refuge. I have even figured out which studio activities effect me in which way. I like writing after a hard day at work because it lets my mind escape to another world more efficiently than painting. Painting is relaxing in the sense that I am focused on a real world physical activity with quick results. When I am done writing I feel I have gotten away (escaped) and when I am done painting I feel I have accomplished something (unless, of course, my painting sucks).

Tell People At Your Day Job About Your Art Activities
Telling people at work about what you do in your studio has several benefits.
First: when people understand that you have artistic interests, passions and commitments beyond work they will talk to you, give assignments to you and generally treat you as a creative person. This will create less of a contrast between your two worlds of work and studio and make the transition a little easier.
Second: learning to talk about your art and your activities in a manner that an average non-arts person can understand. Learning how to talk about your art will expand your audience.
And Third: networking. Don't be afraid to use work contacts to meet other artists, dealers or potential buyers/sponsors. We work to make money (resource) so we can do live the life we really want. If your Day Job is going to support what you really want to do, why limit it to only monetary gain? Of course, how you go about using work contacts can be tricky and must be done in an above-board manner. Don't always push it - people will get annoyed with you.

Do NOT Combine Your Day Job With Your Studio Activities
This cuts both ways. You should not be doing your own personal art activities at work and you should not be doing Day Job activities in your studio. The first aspect is obvious. You are not paid to perform your own personal activities at work. Some work environments are casual about this. I had an artist friend who worked at a parking garage so he could sit and journal in between customers. So, in some cases there are some allowances. But, if you work in an environment where it is not welcome, or if you have fellow workers around, I would not recommend it. Co-workers get resentful that you're not working as much as they are, or feel you are taking advantage of the resources and equipment at work. Personally, I might feel so much guilt that when I am in my studio it would eat at me.

Likewise, keep your Day Job out of your studio. It is hard enough to focus on the tasks at hand without bringing your Day Job into the studio. Keep your studio a sacred creative place, or else you might find your precious time getting chipped away.

Oil Painting: Chicken Painting II

This is a 6" x 8" oil painting of a chicken I call Buff. Buff is eating with her friends. I began this painting in a more realistic manner. The way I have started paintings for years - decades. I started to video the painting as it was being made, just like the previous chicken painting I made of a silver-laced Wyanndotte. But the painting wasn't working. It lacked contrast and the shapes were not separating from each other. The shapes, themselves, had no life and seemed off somehow. Don't even ask me about the color - ugh! Dull, dull, dull, dull.

I turned off the video, cleaned out my brushes and walked away. I came back to it yesterday and remembered that I am not painting the old way anymore. Do I want realistic space - no. Do I want mottled and atmospheric color - no. Do I want an element of drawing in the piece - yes. Do I want a sense of the artist's hand - yes. So I decided to draw over the painting. In this manner I could use the color of the original painting but give it more contrast, more life, more character. Tonight I sat down quickly and repainted the color in the faces of the chickens and added some glazing to make the parts of the body "pop" a little more.

I like my finished piece much better. It is more alive, seems consistently handled across the whole painting and has a nice balance between well drawn areas and some areas with more abstracted shapes. I will probably sleep better tonight.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oil Painting: Rabbits

This is a detail from an oil painting I have been working on for more than a year. The painting is called Rush to Innocence and includes two children in the upper left hand corner of the painting running toward these three rabbits. Why has it taken more than a year? This is one of the first paintings for me going in a new direction. I have let the painting sit and percolate for several weeks at a time before going back in and painting. I have probably put more thinking time into this painting than any I have painted in the last five to ten years.

The star of the painting is Snownose the rabbit who has posed for me a couple of times, along with his brothers. Snownose was rescued by a co-worker. Snownose and his family were living in a garden near a busy road. The mother rabbit was killed by a car and my co-worker, who was tending to the garden, took Snownose and his brothers home and raised them. Rabbits do not usually do well when they don't have their mother to help them, but Snownose and one brother have survived for more than a year now.

It has taken me many trials to make these rabbits right and I'm still not done. The outline of the rabbits was originally closer to the edge than I wanted, so I had to move them all about an inch to the left. Each time I paint them, it seems like their body silhouette changes and becomes more accurate. Which means I was way off at the beginning. This painting will be in my solo show at Homewood Studios in October 2010. Most of the works in that show will be of a new style for me and will be pieces never exhibited before. I am very excited about this opportunity. I am also excited to have made much progress on Rush to Innocence lately and can see a light at the end of the tunnel.