Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Vincent shows me how not to become a basket case.

For Christmas, my very nice sister Chris often sends us mail order fruit from Harry and David.  (This is ironic because her husband's name is David, and the label always says "Fruit from Harry and David with love from Chris and David" - which always sounds vaguely like an edgy new sitcom to me.) Anyway, Harry and David is a company which sells the most beautiful and delicious fruits imaginable, then ships them to you just prior to their peak of ripeness.

At the end of January, we received a holey H&D box, which I opened to find a dozen beautiful oranges nestled in a protective foam lined bed.  Because this particular type of orange has a bell shape, these tasty beauties are called "honeybells," and they are so dense and juicy that Harry and David also sends along plastic bibs for you to wear when you eat them!

I left the fruit in a basket on the counter, and, after we ate several (causing us to have to hose off our hands, arms and the counter - these things are really juicy!), I decided that they would be an interesting subject for a painting.

Vincent had done a few tasty renditions of citrus, including his 1888 still life with basket and six oranges (below.)

So I grabbed the basket in my collection that I felt was the most similar to the one that Vincent used.  Please note that my basket was close only in color and in weave.  Vincent's choice was flat, open, and had no handle; mine was high sided with a broad carrying arm.  These minor differences would soon turn into a major headache for me, artistically speaking.  I decided to set up my still life to photograph in front of one of my living room windows, because the light was particularly good (right then) in that spot.  Below you can see my basket of oranges, lights and shadows.

I got out a student sized (11X14) canvas board and started to draw.  I had no problem rendering the oranges, which are basically round balls with nipples, but the woven basket was a nightmare... I would get lost in the weaving in and out of the branches of the basket, and I knew that actually painting the shadows would be kind of impossible, to say the least.  As I sketched, I determined Vincent's flatter basket choice was probably only roughed in (by him) with an extremely loose (and turbulent?) hand as he started on his painting - note how impressionistic his basket is in his final version - it is not so much a basket as the suggestion of a basket.  He may not have even done an initial sketch on his canvas at all - wisely, Vincent allowed us to fill in our own details on the weave of his vessel, and his painting (in my opinion) is the better for it.

I had drawn a border around the perimeter of the canvas because I thought it would help me with the composition, but it really just made more of a margin problem for me to solve.  It was like when I had to copy something exactly (in handwriting) as a kid - the first words in the line were even and beautiful, but the closer I got to the right margin the more tiny and vertical my letters became.

I drew and erased, then drew and erased some more - until I finally looked up from my smudgy canvas and saw my nice, flat, handle-less glass fruit bowl.  Eureka!

Not only would the green glass be easier to draw, because it was smaller, it would put more of the focus on the fruit rather than the container.

At left you can see my tribute to the sunshine state of Florida - Although the material of my vessel is markedly different from Vincent's, I think this is going more in the direction of his original work.

OK, not really, but I think it will be flat out easier to paint.
Here is my sketch, from right in front of my living room window.

The first thing that you may notice is that in my sketch, the perspective I present was more directly from the side than Vincent's three quarters downward gaze.

And although my bowl is flatter than my basket was, it is still not as flat as the one in Vincent's painting. The fact of the matter is that the glass bowl in my drawing is just too high sided.

At left and below you can see the bowl sans fruit.

The height of the bowl is made even more challenging because it is a mid century (Ikea knock off) design that is asymmetrically elliptical, presenting the fruit in the manner of a child sliding down and back up a very unsteep slide.

It is a beautiful bowl, and well worth the ten bucks (or whatever it was) that I spent on it at Ikea, but with the reflections and shape, it was a real challenge to render.

 I did not help myself by constantly changing the angle at which I was viewing the bowl.  The fruit was stationary on a cabinet in my studio, but my chair is on wheels; whenever I rolled between my easel and desk I changed the perspective.

Vincent's flat basket was a wonderful choice.  Clearly, that's what made him Vincent (and me the person who writes about him).

 However, at this point I am sick of correcting annoying drawings, and ready to move on to a bit of brush work.

So, at right is the photo of the fruit which ( I am saying) is seen from the angle that I will be painting from.

I love oranges, limes, lemons and especially grapefruit - the combination of fresh, astringent, tart and sweet makes anything citrus one of my favorite flavors... but, unlike a typical still life subject that we can only look at - a bowl of juicy, ripe and appetizing fruit is something that we experience with all of our senses - not just our eyes.

When I look at almost any citrus, the color that I see most predominantly is the yellowish undertone to the fruit.  I don't know if this is because I am aware that the yellowish/whitish pith is just underneath the colored peel, but whenever I look at citrus - oranges, limes, grapefruit, and of course, lemons, I see an undertone of yellow first, then the orange, green, pinkish, or more intensely yellow hue above.  Perhaps this is because, while cooking, I have zested more than my fair share of citrus and know just how thin the colored skin really is, or perhaps it is because, when I look at an orange, I am doing more than just looking with my eyes - the yellow that I see may be me actually smelling the color... who knows?

Therefore, I decided to begin by painting my oranges to look like lemons.  I am using some creamy, orange-y yellows, and a bit of violet to make the curvy orbital shading.  I like the violet and yellow so well together that it seems a natural to vibrate the lemony oranges on an intensely purple background - the painting is simultaneously heated and cooled -

As I start to think about how to paint the bowl, I notice that there is a lot of cooling blue in the greenish Ikea glass - but I don't want to do anything to make the glass appear more opaque.  After looking through my blues, I  decided on a completely transparent dark blue hue - the impossible to spell indanthrene blue.  Notice the little scumbles of purple and blue on the fruit that is suspended in the bowl - I am hoping this application of color will appear as reflections as the painting develops.

At left, you can see how much color - lights, darks, and shadow - is in the underpainting.  You can also plainly see the pencil marks that I have begun painting over (albeit with transparent paint), indicating highlights and lowlights, as well as the cute little belly buttons of the naval  oranges.
You can see on the right that I have added in more color to the bowl, mixing greens in with the blues.  I have also added in some greenish blue reflections on the fruit - I think this helps (dimensionally) to put the fruit into the bowl, as well as to add depth and roundness to the orbs.

You can see a close up of my progress on the glass at your left.  I realized as I was painting it that I was just being vain about the shape of the bowl.  It was fun to paint the translucent vessel, and even when I realized that the shape was completely wrong, I doubled down on the error just because I loved the way that I was making the glass look.  This was not the biggest mistake in the history of the world, but, in the interest of fairness, I should point it out.

Below are the photos that I almost forgot to take.  Initially, I had drawn in the view that is just outside where I had set up the still life.  You can see (above) that there was a lot going on in my sketch.  When I started adding color, I tried to paint a true image of what I had seen, however, once painted, I did not like what I had done.  I started to smearily cover over it, until I remembered my camera, and that I was also writing a blog!

Looking southward, (from my second story window) you can see a large tree that is growing just across the street.  Beyond the tree, across a narrowish river that we locals call "the lake," there is a hill that is cut by a winding road.  What is off putting is that the road and hill are a good half mile from the location of the (actual) tree in the foreground.  The lake and shoreline are too low to be seen from the window, so there is a large swath of missing real estate in my view.

Well, after I had painted it, I hated the tree.  It looked very weird -  Even though it was (approximately) what you see when you look out that window, the tree  was just so big compared to the hill behind it, and was nothing more than an ugly brown distraction.  It did the same thing for my painting that jumping teens do in a live news shot -

and that is why paint is awesome - I had (ready in my brush) a liquid ax that felled that snagally tree in no time!

Painting something in or out allows you to edit the world in any way that you want - this is a powerful and good thing, I think.

So in the view at left and below, please note that the view out my window is now just of the hill and the road -

I also gave the sky some scudding light clouds, because, with my newfound powers, I can even use my mighty paintbrush to change a weather pattern (at least in my painting)...

As I look back on these photos, the thing I am noticing is how carefully I am painting.

There is no turbulence at all.

What would Vincent think?  What do you?

And yes, I rouged up my oranges, and laid down a tomato red tablecloth, to boot!

I don't know why I chose red for the table cloth - but I am liking it.

The cool and heat are layered in the composition - I am not sure why I think it is working, but it is working (at least for me).
You can see above and beside that I was moving the painting around as I shot the pictures - that is what is making the differences with the darkness and lightness of the oranges and the glass bowl.

Although it looks nothing like the actual shape of the Ikea vessel, I was pretty pleased with the way the glass looked in the shot at right.  You can see additional red reflections in the glass, along with yellows and orange.

As a finishing touch, I added in some highlights on the oranges, as well as some darks to add depth to the navels.

On the day that I started this painting, I had an evening commitment to attend a white elephant party where everyone was supposed to bring an item that they had received for Christmas (or any other occasion)  but did not want.  I decided to take a painting because I wanted to challenge myself to complete a painting in the hours between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and I thought I could pass the unwanted item test by using a canvas that had been given to me because it was damaged (a slight nick in the corner of the board).

I was pleased at the party when the painting was fought over (for one round only - it was a very small and extremely polite group of ladies, and really, some of the other gifts were not bad at all...), but eventually, the finished piece went to my good friend, Jan.

But I felt bad for the original picker, Marcia, who was clearly sad that her "good" gift had been stolen.  So, before the oranges had been eaten or turned into juice, I decided to paint them three more times.

I set up my bowl and three canvases, and painted factory style during the next two days.  I tried to paint with turbulence.

Below are all four finished paintings, #14, #15, #16 and #17.  Number 14 went to Jan, 15 to Marcia, 16 to my Mom, and I kept #17 in the VP collection.

Below are the photos -

#14 - for Jan

#15 - for Marcia -the bowl is better!

#16 - for my Mom - check out Vincent's similar bowl/background solution!

#17 - for the collection

And a final bonus - my last painted orange in the series (I accidentally dropped it on my wet palette!)

After I made the paintings, the oranges were getting a bit past their prime, but the artdemigod took them and made delicious orange juice.  By adding vodka, I, in turn, turned them into delicious screwdrivers, and cocktail hour was solved!

Thank you for reading, and I welcome your comments....

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Although it had nothing to do with Vincent's death, apparently, smoking kills.

Well, where the heck did January go?

Happy groundhog day to all - Brio did not see his shadow, so I guess that means 6 more weeks for him of laying on the sofa and sleeping all day.  That being said, I can assure you that if he had seen his shadow,  the result would have been the same.   The only real prediction that can be made about Brio is that he is darn good at laying around and sleeping all day.

Speaking of laying around and sleeping all day, while Duncan was home for his College Winter Break, I decided I would paint something for him, hoping that that he could use it to decorate his dorm room.

I knew that neither Duncan nor his room mates would really appreciate the aesthetic quality of a landscape painting or a sweet picture of a vase of flowers, so I decided to take a look at some of Vincent's more bizarre works.  All of the following can be found at the online Vincent van Gogh Gallery, which is a fantastic resource for all things van Gogh.

Some of the weirder subjects in the van Gogh catlogue include:

a crab 

Vincent van Gogh's Crab on Its Back Painting

 two rats -

Vincent van Gogh's Two Rats Painting

a bat (or, as it has also been described, a flying fox...) -

Vincent van Gogh's Flying Fox Painting

bloaters (some kind of fish?) on a piece of yellow paper -

Vincent van Gogh's Still Life: Bloaters on a Piece of Yellow Paper Painting

the famous bandaged ear self portrait:

Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe Painting

a portrait of a one eyed man -

Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of a One-Eyed Man Painting

                                                                          and, of course, the skulls:

in profile

Vincent van Gogh's Skull Painting

                                                                             head on (no pun intended)

Vincent van Gogh's Skull Painting

And the most famous skull (and partial skeleton) of all, the one with the smoking cigarette:

According to the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent probably painted this portrait during the time he was a student at the art academy in Antwerp, in the winter of 1885-1886.

I think that it surely says something about how Vincent viewed the strict academic environment of the academy, or perhaps he or another student set up the scene as a joke.  Either way, the image lives on.  Which is pretty good for a skeleton.

You may be thinking that you have seen the smoking skeleton before.  It was used as the cover art on one of humorist, author, and wickedly entertaining speaker David Sedaris' books,

Notice the title!

and a quick web search reveals that, in addition to being tattooed on every imaginable part of the human body,

the smoking skeleton has been reproduced or reinterpreted on everything from coffee mugs, to neck ties to even a banana!

My favorite, though were the needlepoint interpretations; this clash of media and subject is absolutely awesome!

So the skeleton would be my next project.  I used a small, portrait sized wrapped canvas, and began by laying out Vincent's original with the triangular frame method of transfer:

I drew my sketch in with pencil.  The skeleton was very challenging to draw, primarily because it was very intricate in the way that the  bones fit together.  I think  that I was also at a slight disadvantage because I was not drawing from an actual skeleton, but rather Vincent's interpretation of an actual skeleton.  It was also very difficult to keep straight exactly where the darks and lights, foreground and background were going to be on the finished canvas.    

Next, it was time to mix up some colors.  I observed the the background, and even the skeleton in Vincent's original had a very greenish cast, so I started with Payne's grey, Phthalo green (blue); then later added in Phthalo green (yellow) and the ever popular sap green.

I filled in the background and eye sockets first, adding in ivory black to the greenish bluish black I had already mixed.  I did not do one color all over, but instead laid down dark, closely matched swirls of blended colors.

For the skull (above), I added in titanium white and a little unbleached titanium to the original dark color I was using for the background.  The teeth without lips seemed to be much simpler to execute.

OK, I will make an admission here.  I just got so caught up with the painting, and I was trying so hard to work in a very turbulent, rapid fire way, that I (again!) forgot to take all of the in between photos of the work.  Yes, I could blame Zombies, and you might even believe me, but the truth is that I was very focused on the painting, and (sadly, sorry!) not on the blog that would follow.

When I finally noticed my unused camera lying on the desk, this is what I had:

I did take additional shots as I made minor adjustments to the shading, contours and placements, but really it is difficult to see the differences between the shots.  I will throw each of them up below, and let you determine if you can see what I did.  The last piece is the final painting I sent to Duncan.

His roommates reportedly pronounced it "bitchin' awesome..."

I will take that as a positive critique.