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.

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