american dream

Painting scenery

My University of Washington Drama students and I went on a little drawing excursion this month to a train station that isn’t really a train station, with stone walls that aren’t really stone. No passengers have embarked upon their adventures from Seattle’s Union Station since 1971 when the last train stopped here. This 1911 beauty had stood vacant and unloved for thirty years until a local developer restored it to its former glory. But you still can’t get on a train; you have to walk across the street to King Street Station to do that. I brought along a suitcase anyway, for our model to use as a prop.

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On previous drawing visits, I had struggled a bit with the color of the stone walls in the Great Hall. They were kind of creamy, kind of yellowy, not quite sandstone; and several different variations of this non-color in a random pattern of big blocks. As it turns out, I might have just consulted Sherwin-Williams for the color numbers.

On this day, a tall scissor lift was set up in the corner, with a couple of men doing some kind of work on the walls. I assumed they were masons making repairs to the stone.

scissorlift

When I got closer, I saw that they were actually just painting.

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Well then. I touched the lower part of the wall and finally figured out that the large blocks stone were actually textured plaster. The “grout” lines between the blocks had been carefully taped off, rendered smooth, and painted yet another shade of off-white.

I’ve done some faux painting in my time and this looked like the job from hell: a boring palette, a labor-intensive-yet-subtle finish that barely registers to the casual observer, a confusing rotation of annoyingly similar colors, ceilings and arches guaranteed to permanently disable one’s neck, and, of course, the absurd sisyphean nature of the task.

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The irony that I had taken a bunch of scenic and costume designers to draw a giant room full of scenery was lost on no one.

measuringOur next drawing destination of the day was a little-known historical site neither ironic nor fake. Yes, I’m talking about the Birthplace of United Parcel Service. The 1967 plaque on the sidewalk outside is delightfully cold-warry and totally unironic:

In August 1907, in a 6 by 17 foot office under the original sidewalk here, a few messenger boys began the business which their many thousand successors extended throughout the vast regions of our country covered by United Parcel Service today. Exemplifying the opportunities open to private citizens under the Constitution of the United States of America, this plaque was placed in January 1967, with the cooperation and appreciation of the Seattle Historical Society.

Take that, Commies, with your inferior state-run parcel services. As if you could order any stuff in the first place.

Inside the imposing gate is a lovely and very loud courtyard enclosure, a private park open to the workers during workdays, filled with blooming plants, waterfalls, and, on this day, a horde of children who, like us, were out on a field trip.

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Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

WTF: Learn to Draw Horses!

I grew up with five older siblings. We had around the house lots of books and toys from eras past, representing the accumulated passing interests of a slew of children. I never knew where most of the stuff came from or to whom it originally belonged. It was just there. Of these random vintage possessions, the most influential on my development were two books by Walter T. Foster (1891-1981), “How to Draw” and “How to Draw Horses”.  My cousin and I spent hours on end with the horse book, first copying the drawings, and then using his method of constructing the animal out of ovals, boxes, and lines (which also happened to be WTF’s method for drawing grapes, humans, landscapes, and most of the visible world).

wtfhorsemethodwaltertfostergrapes

These kinds of how-to books are a remnant of a time in America when leisure time was newly accessible to a wider demographic (thanks, labor movement) and their proliferation testament to the new consumer hobby market publishers sought to tap. Most of the authors were successful commercial illustrators and admen pitching their foolproof, easy methods to a public with time on their hands and an admirable wish to better themselves, for fun or profit or both. Unlike similar ventures into this market, for instance, paint-by-number, these books actually taught you a skill, and could be a starting point for a budding serious artist who found them lying around the house. They vary widely in their usefulness, production values, and applicability to fine art, but they all share an insistence that ANYONE CAN LEARN TO DRAW!

These are a few from my present-day collection.

carlsonicandraw funwithapencil getinthereandpaint coverhowtodrawhorses

Walter T. Foster was possibly the most prolific of the bunch, and he was more geared toward realism than those who were riding the comic book wave of the 1940’s and 50’s. He began his own publishing company, Walter T. Foster Publishing, which produced other artists’ how-to books as well as his own. Possibly one reason he could be so prolific can be found in the off-the-cuff, sketchbook quality of his books. They are full of bits of advice, hand-written in pencil, that usually, but not always, correspond to the illustrations, as if he just remembered something important and had to write it in the interstices of the drawings before it slipped his mind. Sometimes the drawings run right off the page. Possibly they are just his sketchbooks, barely edited and annotated.

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He’s full of advice and encouragement. In the example above he is mighty specific about the exact size of drawing board you should use, as well as where you should lean it. Elsewhere, after laying out the 1/3 rule of composition, he exhorts:

Don’t hold to any cut-and-dried rules. Think for yourself and apply what you learn from all sources.

On drawing a vase of flowers:

Fine, go ahead, but if you have trouble just know it isn’t an easy thing to do.

Many of his snippets of wisdom are indeed signed “W.T.F.”

Here’s a helpful, if confusing, hint on the pitfalls in composition, which also looks like a recipe for a successful cubist painting:
waltertcomposition

The irrepressible Andrew Loomis, author of “Fun With A Pencil”, mixes instructions for drawing cartoon caricatures right in more with realistic figures and perspective theory. His formulas are rather more formulaic, but he also proves a pleasant companion for your drawing journey. “Never mind if they are a little off” is timeless advice for learning any new skill, and people particularly need to hear it when they’re drawing, since the disastrous results of early attempts are always staring you in the face.

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This chart of standard facial measurements is from 1939, so we’ll cut him some slack on his ethnocentricity, of which, trust me, this is a more mild example:

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The ideal American is not only white, chiseled, and afflicted with lines all over their face, but is also possibly transgender. Note the identical features transposed from Mr. Ideal American to Ms. Ideal American.

Actually, I do hand out a version of that formula to beginning students tackling portraits for the first time. I find it helps them to see what’s in front of them, and usually if not always keeps them from putting the eyes at the very top of the head.  I do add the warning, “actual results may vary,” which one should keep in mind regardless of the subject’s ethnicity.

loomisslicing

I’m not entirely sure what this diagram is supposed to represent. It doesn’t even really make sense internally: why is the brow line perpendicular to the ear line? And, besides, one should NEVER use a real knife to draw another human. While we’re at it, let me also state that real children should never be allowed to play unsupervised with perspective.kidwithballoon

Next to the Ideal American, the most important formula for the budding commercial illustrator to have in their back pocket was the Pretty Girl, the pleasingness of which, according to Loomis, is “99% in how well you draw it”. Incidentally, this validates Jessica Rabbit’s oft-quoted observation that she wasn’t bad, just drawn that way.

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Even into the late 1960’s, it was still important to keep those gender roles straight when learning to draw.

boysplayball girlsskiprope

George Carlson, author of “I CAN DRAW!”, from which those were taken, was no Walter T. Foster, but WTF is a valid response to these unhelpful diagrams. This book was aimed at children, but evinces little respect for their ability to distinguish drawing from tracing dotted lines. What is “The head is drawn this way” supposed to mean? Those are two identical pictures, except one is red and one is black with an arrow pointing toward it, but no further instructions.

Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouched

Mona Lisa is painted this way.

Mona Lisa is painted this way.

W.T.F. himself wasn’t immune from the illustrative conventions of his time, either. In his books, men’s hands are to be drawn realistically, while ladies’ hands tend to taper unnaturally.

wtfladieshands

In my experience, drawing a “leaf shape” first has never, ever been helpful in drawing a hand. It is only helpful in drawing a leaf. You can’t argue with this, though:

Hands are not easy to draw and you should devote much time to them.

Unlike the learn-to-draw-in-five-days-and-get-rich school of art instruction, Foster doesn’t sugarcoat the sheer hours and sweat it takes to learn to draw. You can tell he really loved his vocation and wanted to make it accessible to anyone with the inclination. As a child I had the inclination but I didn’t know any artists (or horses for that matter). Doing the exercises in his books gave my initial inclination some focus and direction. Breaking horses down into their component ovals, however formulaic, demystified drawing for me. I started with his horses and grapes, but I kept on drawing while Foster assured me that, although it was bound to be difficult, I could get it with practice. “Do not let it scare you. Just take your time.”

Horse by the author, circa 1970's. Crayon on found office paper.

Horse by the author, circa 1970’s. Crayon on found office paper.

I will give Mr. Foster the last word:

Draw everything you see, it will come in handy when you start making a living at it. Sure you can. Try.

W.T.F.!

Trouble in Florence City

Poor Paolo Uccello (1397-1495). He could have been a contender. According to Giorgio Vasari, Uccello would have been “the most delightful and inventive genius in the history of painting” had he not wasted all his time and talent away on the excessive pursuit of– was it fast women, drink, hard drugs, or gambling?  – no, the worthless undertaking upon which Uccello wasted his life was…Perspective. Perspective ruined poor Paolo’s career and on top of that, “did violence to his nature”, making him “solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and impoverished.”  He had trouble, with a capital T and that rhymes with P which in quattrocento Florence that apparently stood for Perspective.

Now I read this ominous passage in “Lives of the Artists” within the past year. Did I pay any attention to the obviously-well-thought-out advice of Giorgio Vasari, the father of Art History, that had been passed down to me over the ages? Did I heed this wisdom that had survived 500 years of wars, floods, famines, the rise and fall of empires, to appear to me in my native tongue in my own century in cheap, readily-accessible paperback format ?

Of course not. There came a day I found myself working on a painting that had some serious problems. They were the kinds of problems I described in a previous post, Lose the Christian Theme Park. The various parts just weren’t serving the whole.  I was much too attached to these utterly extraneous and unrelated – if individually interesting – parts. The painting was a mess and it needed a total makeover.

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After changing the colors and patterns of both floor and table, the type and size of the dessert, and the fireplace a dozen or so times EACH, I decided I needed to paint everything out in white except for the chair and the fabric bits, i.e., the lady and the curtains.

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Once I rid myself of the ceiling and windows, the space of the painting became a blank slate. Almost: the bits of striped curtain, remnants of past choices, were exerting undue influence on my possible choices for the painting’s future. Their angled tops and bottoms still hinted at the old perspective. So they, too, succumbed to the white paint.

ctp1

It became clear to me that since the woman is viewed from above, what she required was a vast and memorable floor that seemed to stretch on forever, like the suburbs in which she lived. I wanted the space of the painting to be believable but slightly dizzying. It needed tiles, the tiles needed to recede precipitously, and they needed vanishing points to approach. Normally I work these problems out in the drawing stage, but this was a remodel. Drawing lines with a ruler pointing toward vanishing points drawn on the wall, my usual method, felt cumbersome and not exact enough. I had a roll of twine lying around so I began laying out the tiles with it, taping the twine to the edges of the painting and pinning it down at the vanishing points.

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Sarah Vowell, in writing about Civil War re-enactors, observed that they all considered anyone less obsessed with authenticity than themselves a poser, and anyone more obsessed than themselves a wingnut. This observation can apply to any undertaking that is difficult, interesting, and/or obscure enough to allow for large quantities of time to be spent, some might say wasted, on it. Vasari placed Uccello firmly in the wingnut category. There was a time when I would have tried to wing the spacing of the tiles, but now I was headed in a dangerously Uccello-like direction. Winging it was for posers.

For you posers out there, the widths of the tiles as they recede in space diminish along lines that all converge on a vanishing point on the horizon line. Those lines are the strings. They meet at two pushpins on a line drawn on the wall slightly below the top edge of the painting, the horizon line, which also corresponds to the viewer’s eye level, which is somewhat above the lady’s eye level since we are looking down on her.

But the tiles are also going to appear shorter as well as narrower as they recede. Here’s where it gets fun. The way to determine how much shorter the tiles should get is to find the midpoint of a sample square. You do that by drawing two lines joining its opposite corners, making an “X” across the tile. The lines meet at the midpoint. If you were looking at a real tile and you actually drew the lines with a sharpie, the midpoint would be a point actually equidistant from the edges.

However, we want the midpoint of the imaginary tile in the imaginary world of the painting. That imaginary midpoint will be slightly closer to the edge of the tile that is supposed to be farther away from us.

The midpoint of two matching tiles is the same as the midpoint of one giant tile the length of two of them together. If you draw a line from one corner through this midpoint-of-them-both, you get to the far end of the second tile.

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Which means, in the imaginary world of the painting you can find the depth of the second tile by drawing a line from a near corner of the first tile through the midpoint of the far edge and it will lead you to the far corner of the second tile.

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Then you can draw a line from the near corner of the second tile, through the midpoint of its far edge, and find the end of the third tile, and so on, until you have spent your life making imaginary tile floors that recede into infinity. Vasari might regard you as a wingnut but Uccello would probably dismiss you as a poser.

Here is the finished painting, a world in which even the lines of the hors d’oeurves meet at a vanishing point on the horizon.

Only Suburban has so Many Wife-Saving Features, 2014

Only Suburban has so Many Wife-Saving Features, 2014

As for Vasari and his forecast of gloom, I’ve not yet become solitary, (more) eccentric, melancholy, or even impoverished. Those things could still happen, but I did sell the painting.

A Poodle Grayscale, a Fake Historical Site and Other Treasures of the High Desert

In Southern California for my show this winter, we took a little detour to the gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park, known for its fabulous boulders and breathtaking scenery, but also for the oddball collection of artists who have made the area around it home. Looking up into the hills, you might spy a little compound  – an old Airstream, say, a few broken-down trucks and toilets scattered about, a collection of dwellings made of corrugated metal or tires – and you think to yourself, who’s living up there? Artists or rednecks? It’s really hard to tell, and just as likely to be the one as the other. Welcome to Joshua Tree!

Up in the rocks here you can see a little glowing obelisk from the highway.

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It’s a untitled piece by Sarah Vanderlip, made from welded truck bumpers. It’s glowing because the sky and the light of the desert are reflected in its smooth surface.  The whole ten-acre parcel is called Behind the Bail Bonds (which was helpful in locating it) and features some rotating projects as well.

obelisk

Onward to Krblin Jihn Cabin, the promised fake historical site, complete with official-looking plaque and backstory involving a made-up religion (isn’t that redundant?) and made-up religious civil war. It’s an old miner’s cabin, of which the area boasts many, retrofitted for an imagined past. The actual history of the American West is so full of cults, revelations, weirdos, and skirmishes over promised lands that this fake version, with its taboos against certain vowels and nine-pointed compass, really doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

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This cabin is the work of artist Eames Demetrios. For his whole constellation of fake history sites scattered around the globe, you can check out kymerica.com.

For some actual history, we proceeded to Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, the artist’s home and studio that have been preserved pretty much as he left it at his death in 2004. Mr. Purifoy was instrumental in recognizing and preserving the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and himself later created sculpture from the burned remains of the Watts riots in the 1960’s. He decamped to the desert in the late 1980’s and spent the next fifteen years creating the large-scale found object constructions that fill the ten acre parcel. His neatly sorted bins of scavenged objects are preserved there, too, awaiting the next project.

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

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An homage to Frank Gehry

An homage to Frank Gehry

Some of the art you could walk right into. . .

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. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

legspurfoybowlingballspurfoyceilingpurfoybikes

Toilets, presumably also military surplus, figure into many of the pieces. Simultaneously creepy and banal, there is something really disconcerting about encountering something so private in such an exposed space.

toilets

Another site, Andy’s Gamma Gulch Parcel, rotates site-specific art projects. We hiked out to, and climbed into, Gradually/We Became Aware/Of a Hum in the Room, a triangular structure with circular holes cut into the walls, framing the desert. The interior is painted with colors that reverse the colors of the sunset, according to the artist’s statement. I can’t assess whether or not they were successful in that intention, as I was there in the middle of the day…

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..but the effect of the winter light projected through the circular cutouts onto the painted walls was striking it its own right.doghole

In the town of Joshua Tree itself, we visited Art Queen, the studio and gallery of the lovely and welcoming artist Shari Elf. Shari curates the World-Famous Crochet Museum, a Fotomat-like pod painted lime green and stuffed full of some spectacularly ill-advised craft projects, all crocheted, as the name implies.

crochet

I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain’t the turkey. Unless the pink pony or Mother Goose gets to those tasty pilgrims first.

I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain't the turkey. Unless the pink pony gets them first.

Here is the rest of the poodle grayscale:

poodlepano

And I am wondering how I managed to get through this much of life without having previously encountered a crocheted taco. Genius.

crochettaco

Speaking of tacos, perhaps the most memorable art emporium of all wasn’t in the Joshua Tree area at all but in the middle of Riverside, on the way back to Los Angeles. Tio’s Tacos is both a tasty lunch stop and a city-block-sized art project, the work of artist and restauranteur Martin Sanchez, who immigrated from Mexico in 1984 and proceeded to build this visionary dream house.

Take a stroll on found-pottery-mosaic colored paths and into small chapel-sized buildings made of stacked and cemented bottles.

tiosbottlehouse tiosbottles

Entire palm trees have been made into benign giants who stand guard over all this abundance. These lovely ladies are made of rusty #10 cans: whole ones encased in chicken wire form their torsos, and overlapping flattened ones wrapped into cylinders are their legs. Their hair is made from fishing nets.

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Even the lights are anthropomorphic (more can-people) and the palm-tree creature on the left is partly constructed of plastic bottles. I am partial to the cowboy-boot-shod lineman. And of course, Santa-on-a-bike.

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The whole desert art tour embodied for me something quintessentially American: Visionaries light out for the wide-open spaces, where they build unexpected paradises of weirdness out of quite ordinary detritus of our throwaway culture, redeeming it, and maybe us a bit, in the process.