29 October 2013

Silver Jubilee Part Two: Portraits

In Part One of my look back at my 25 years of painting, I talked a bit about Jon J Muth, Kent Williams, and Bill Sienkiewicz, the three key artists who inspired me so strongly that I absolutely needed to paint in watercolours as a direct result of seeing some of their work in the medium. Because I saw their work exclusively in comics, there was naturally a lot of figurative and portrait-like content for me to consume, and I loved the way they all handled skin tones/textures a little differently from each other.

In my last two years of high school, however, I was lucky enough to have a good teacher for once, Anthony J. Batten, who worked primarily in watercolours, and became another major inspiration for me.

Admittedly, my approach to learning how to paint people wasn't very effective since all I did was look at my photo reference (from magazines, what else? I hadn't started shooting my own reference yet) and try to paint what I saw. The results were okay, but I would have learned more had I tried to deconstruct how those guys painted and tried to emulate their approach. Or if I had a good teacher (Batten didn't do much figurative or portrait work that I know of) who knew how to paint well in watercolours. My high school art teacher (also mentioned in the previous post) seemed to discourage us from painting in watercolours by first saying that it was an "unforgiving" medium, and then further by saying that painting people in watercolours is extremely difficult. I don't remember if I was naive or defiant (probably a bit of both) to heed her warnings, but, having already put brush to paper a few times in class, my mind was set, my heart was engaged, my soul was irrevocably ensnared...I was on the watercolour road and there was no turning back.

I don't remember how I chose Michelle Pfeiffer as my first portrait since I had no exceptional affection/admiration/interest/attraction to her –it could have been anyone– but I found a suitable photo in a magazine and proceeded to get her likeness completely wrong.

14" x 11", watercolour, 1988, private collection

There are some interesting things going on, however: despite the largely monochromatic skin tone, the glazing effect is pretty good and I like the looseness.

It would be a few years still before I got a decent camera and started shooting my own photo reference, composing my own images using my own models (mostly friends), so in these early attempts, magazine reference was crucial. I could have had friends pose for me and painted from life, but, as enthusiastic as I was about watercolour painting, I was too reluctant/shy/afraid/uncomfortable to venture outside my studio/room (which wasn't my bedroom, but a separate room in which I did my homework and art (sort of like my own office), the most important items being my desk and my stereo). Besides, I still prefer to paint from photos as I get to take all the time I need without worrying about the light changing or my subject shifting; everything is locked in place the way I want/need and I'm free to simply paint.

approx. 12" x 16", watercolour, 1989
private collection

Continuing my self-education in watercolour painting, I decided to challenge myself time and again, obsessively, at times, with painting the human figure. The painting above is from late spring, 1989, and is one of the better pieces from this time, showing a tiny little bit of progression. I have photos of my other paintings from this time, but I'll save myself the embarrassment and keep them to myself.

From fall 1990 until spring 1992 I attended the Ontario College of Art (which now calls itself OCAD University) and I studied Drawing & Painting as well as Film & Video in my second year. The first year was a Foundation year where we took pretty much all the subjects, including watercolour.

Because I had been painting in watercolours for a couple of years, I felt I wanted and needed to keep advancing in my studies, so when my first year watercolour teacher had us doing the basics from square one, I skipped a bunch of classes, waiting until we were covering something new to me. Call it ironic, call it inevitable, call it just desserts, but when I showed up for my watercolour class on the morning of Wednesday 9 October 1990, I was told by my teacher I "didn't have to attend" anymore because I had missed so many classes (I don't remember how many...it could have been two, three, four...). I walked out, kind of stunned, kind of unworried and went down to Queen Street to treat myself to some comic books and later a nice lunch: it was my birthday, after all.

I am a much better and more patient student now, willing to look at any approach, regardless of how redundant to my own knowledge it initially seems; there's always something to learn.

My second year at OCA was where I really learned stuff in a more concerted way, my Monday Figure Drawing class (3 hours in the morning, 3 hours after lunch) being the most important part of my training. This is where I "learned to see" (a common art phrase that actually means a lot and is very important, but I won't get into it as I'm already rambling on quite a bit).

I left OCA after only two years, thinking I'd go straight to Sheridan College to study animation, but I didn't get in, so I just went to work, largely based on my Film & Video training, at The Shopping Channel, of all places.

22" x 15", watercolour, 1994
private collection

It was in the 90s that my skills in watercolour painting improved, and, with my new camera, created my own images and scenarios. This post focuses on portraits of famous people because that's how I started my figurative painting in 1988, but these only make up a very small percentage of my overall body of work.

16" x 14", watercolour, 1996
private collection

Most of these celebrity portraits were done to show art directors that I can paint likenesses fairly well as I tried, for years in vain, to get illustration work.

I had another surge of much needed skills development in 1998 where I challenged myself to painting one painting per week for the year. I ended up doing 63 rather than 52 during what I called Operation: Waterstorm. As you do when you work on something conscientiously over a long period, I got better as a watercolourist. Would my skills have been at this point sooner had I not been so arrogant/dismissive/ignorant/naive back in my watercolour class at OCA? Who knows...the point is hard work is what I needed, and, even though it was a period of years and years, I found a way to teach myself.

I'm still teaching myself.

15" x 11", watercolour, 1999
private collection

Below are more celebrity portraits intended to get me some (ultimately intermittent) illustration work. I was, however, doing a lot of commissions and selling my own paintings more frequently at this time. Note the use of the "matrix" pattern in the background of some of these. It still gets put to use from time to time (even in my oil paintings).

22" x 15", watercolour, 2001
private collection

22" x 15", watercolour, 2001

22" x 15", watercolour, 2001

22" x 15", watercolour, 2001

Shirley Manson
22" x 15", watercolour, 2002
private collection

22" x 15", watercolour, 2002

20" x 26", watercolour, on Yupo, 2009

Click on the names of any of the people here to see my original blog post about my painting of them.

28 October 2013

Silver Jubilee Part One: Beginnings

Every year as November approaches and onward into late December, I usually put on Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), and Document (1987), three albums by R.E.M., one of my favourite bands. They’re playing right now as I write this, and this limited playlist will be playing –off and on, because I need to listen to other music as well– until about mid-December. Along with those R.E.M. albums, I also have Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars by Edie Brickell and New Bohemians somewhere in the rotation. This was the music I listened to, over and over and over, while I first experimented with watercolours at home, which, of course, was an extension of my first real attempts at the medium in my high school art class.

I vividly remember sitting in that class in the fall of 1988, looking at an assortment of random objects arranged in the centre of the room, our desks encircling it, and our assignment: draw it, paint it, whatever. I think I did some drawings of the whole arrangement and probably some closer studies of specific areas, but none of that survived the decades. What does remain is my first finished watercolour painting (below) and in it you can see parts of that arrangement, specifically, the two blocky shapes in the bottom left, the big white curve in the lower right, and the thin wiry lines (they were, not surprisingly, wires). I don’t remember why I added Gumby, but looking back, I now see him (like a thumbprint next to my signature) waving hello as though he's knowingly pinpointing the exact moment of my long journey into painting.

Stuff II: Gumby's Perspective
approx. 18" x 15", watercolour,
1988, private collection

By this point, I’d already been strongly admiring watercolours through the medium of comics for a few years, poring over the work of Jon J Muth, Kent Williams, and Bill Sienkiewicz. I'm sure I didn't fully understand what I was looking at and how it was made, but I fell deeply in love and, even though I didn't know what I wanted to paint, I knew that I wanted –I needed– to paint as beautifully as they did. 

artwork by Jon J Muth
"Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown"
Volume 1, 1988

artwork by Kent Williams
"Blood: A Tale"
Volume 1, 1987

artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz
"Elektra: Assassin"
Chapter One, 1986

These artists didn’t exclusively work in watercolours, and the books I was looking at contained a wild variety of mixed media, but it was watercolours that fascinated me most. There was something about its complex delicacy in the way transparent layers could sit atop each other, combining to form new colours; there was something about the way it would form a darker “crust” around its edges at times; the way it could also be opaque and bold; the way wet-into-wet works; the beautiful gradients; the chaos of it all.

My art teacher at the time (I would have been in Grade 12) said at least once how watercolour was very unforgiving, and it seemed to me that she had a frustrated, adversarial relationship with the medium. I loved the way it looked (in the expert hands of the artists above) too much to be dissuaded myself, so I dismissed (but never forgot!) her warnings.

That Gumby painting is not really a painting but an experimental battleground/amusement park where I formally introduced myself to the medium and its various behaviours and idiosyncrasies, trying just about every possible effect I could make. But that was just a fleeting glimpse of the tip of an iceberg whose depth I still don’t fully comprehend.

For some reason (perhaps an assignment, perhaps whimsy) I partnered with a friend and classmate, Peter Kovacs, and did my next two paintings with him as a sort of collaborative jam, sometimes working simultaneously, sometimes trading the paper back and forth. I think I did the drawings because they’re so bad (but who can properly draw that maple leaf, anyway?). 

Cultural Mess (with Peter Kovacs)
15" x 22", watercolour, 1988

By the time we did Fruitful Mess we were calling ourselves the Group of Two Cubists (with a cute shorthand signature) but we didn’t collaborate further; there was no falling out or anything, we just stopped. The part I like most about the flag is the bleeding of red into blue on the left and right edges. The part I like most about the fruit is the intersection of the three facets on the left (encompassing carrot, apple, and background), which have the same colour and tonal value, making it look like a window showing the true image behind broken glass.

Fruitful Mess (with Peter Kovacs)
approx. 11" x 15", watercolour, 
1988, private collection

I’d been drawing those intersecting lines for years, mostly just in pencil, so I’m sure their inclusion in these paintings was my idea. A friend of ours, Ian Anderson, referred to this pattern one day as “matrix,” thinking that was actually the proper “art world” name for it. I didn’t have a name for it (I’ve seen it elsewhere, so I’m not the first person to stumble upon this form of doodling) and we didn’t think it was really called anything, but we looked up “matrix” and one of the definitions (“something shaped like a pattern of lines and spaces”) was appropriate enough that we started referring to it that way. I’ve been incorporating matrices in many of my paintings ever since. In this case, “ever since” means “for 25 years.”

Listening to those R.E.M. CDs propels me back to 1988 so strongly that realizing that was two-and-a-half decades ago seems surreal, as though I exist in that little room, sitting at my desk, exploring watercolours, and at the same time I exist in 2013, sitting at a different desk, writing about the past from a future perspective I couldn’t have imagined. The next few blog posts will be my celebration, my Silver Jubilee, of this landmark.

Next up: I try a portrait.

21 October 2013

County 101: UPDATE

I've set up a County 101 channel for the live stream of my painting marathon which will begin at 4pm (perhaps a little bit before) on November 18 and end at 9pm (perhaps a little bit after) on November 22. You won't find anything going on until then, but feel free to bookmark the page.

All 101 ink paintings will then be on exhibit at Williams Family Diner in Picton. Their food is delicious, the space is nice, the staff friendly, and the location central. The opening reception will be on December 1 from 4–8pm.

Each painting will be available for sale at $101, half of the proceeds going to Puppets Without Borders.

Click the logo above to read more about the project.

11 October 2013

Alice Munro

17" x 14", ink on Bristol board, 2013

I was asked yesterday by local book shop Books & Company to paint a portrait of Alice Munro to be part of their new window display in honour of her winning the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work. It was a fast turnaround, but here she is, ready for display today.

07 October 2013

Blue Jays

Oiseau 11, 16" x 20", oil on canvas, 2008

Oiseau 13, 16" x 20", oil on canvas, 2008

Lately there has been a blue jay (perhaps more than one) hanging around our front yard, eating the seeds from the sunflowers we planted here at Small Pond early this summer (the flower bed frame was built and installed by Krista and Georga Ryan, our first Australian resident). I really don't mind their squawking call if it means I get to ctach a fleeting glimpse of their beautiful plumage every now and then.

Below are a couple of photos I took at night during a full moon (which looks like the sun in the bottom pic), experimenting with long exposures using my new DSLR (having –only semi-reluctantly– forsaken my Minolta film SLR). My initial shots looked like they were taken in mid-afternoon with green grass and shadows and everything, so I decided to add flashlights and get some shots that wouldn't be possible in the daylight. Getting the Big Dipper in the upper shot was a treat.