art classes

The Ghosts of Industry

After six weeks of figure drawing in a very crowded studio, my University of Washington Drama grads were finally able to spread out a bit. We were lucky enough to score a field trip to the Millworks building in Seattle’s SODO Industrial district, and had the entire two-story vacant former sawmill to ourselves.

The building is mostly empty, its gorgeous beams and planks exposed, but the few items that remain are intriguing. They lent themselves to oblique narratives once model Amanda got hold of them: several potbellied stoves, wall-mounted phones, a traffic light, a piano. The last one particularly piqued our curiosity about the former occupants: Did the mill provide live music for its employees while they toiled? Or perhaps they just had really good Christmas parties, a la Mr. Fezziwig? There is certainly enough room in there to dance a reel or two.

stairspianoNatural light pours in from huge windows on either end of the long second floor, and from a giant skylight overhead. The whole building is one solid block of wood, the fir planks aged into different shades that create random stripes along the walls.

facingwestI encouraged the students to look for oblique points of view and dramatic scale shifts when they chose their compositions. It’s not very often one gets to draw so much empty space, with no distracting trees or furniture.

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The model’s point of view from the top of the stairs.

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…and the sketches from the bottom of the stairs

The highlight for many of these theatrical types was the creepy basement, where “low clearance” signs in a passageway were a bit of an understatement. We stayed for just one drawing down there in the mustiness, in an Escheresque forest of lumber racks.

basementpianodrawingsphoneBig thanks to Urban Visions for making this possible!

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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.

fauxfinish

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.

panorama

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.

The Demonstration Painting

I have a myriad of strange, unloved paintings shoved into various corners my studio that I’ll never actually exhibit but I can’t bring myself to throw out, either. They are all the paintings I made in front of classes I was teaching, in order to demonstrate a particular technique, to participate in whatever sadistic exercise I’d dreamed up for them to do, or just to pass the time while the students worked things out on their own. One of the many things I love about teaching art is that I get to draw and paint for the sake of modelling a process, with no requirement that the end result qualify as capital-A Art. That is a luxury, maybe even a necessity, for a professional artist with an established body of work and style and market. The pressures to produce more capital-A art can sometimes hinder my experimentation and risk. I get paid to teach, and so if teaching requires me to make quick decisions and wacky compositions, I can harness that relentless work ethic in the service of making pointless, but totally necessary, quick and dirty and weird paintings.

The images above and below are results of an exercise in which I require students to choose two disparate images, then divide their picture plane in half unequally, and compose the two into some kind of coherent whole. The source material for the one above was stolen from art history: Van Gogh’s boots crowding out Vermeer’s Music Lesson as if in a cinematic “wipe.” I found a common formal element in the tile floors and ran with it. Limiting my palette to the same three primaries on both sides helps tie it together as well. It is also acrylic, which I don’t own very much of, and which dries quickly and fosters immediacy.

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The second one is a bit odder, possibly because it’s source material is more random. Many years ago I found a set of a couple of hundred photo cards, called the “All Purpose Photo Library,” in a thrift store. The box sat around for a long time and survived several studio moves before I finally found a purpose for it. Its original function appears to have been as some sort of elementary-school learning tool; holding up the pictures would apparently provoke meaningful discussions amongst the youngsters about communities, homes, transportation, professions, musical instruments, extension cords, plastic containers of generic cottage cheese, and the like. The set is divided with little index tabs into categories such as “food,” “inside home,” “outside home,” “land animals,” “insects” –  which pretty much covers the known universe. The photos are seriously low-budget affairs dating from the late 1970’s. It looks as though on certain days a professional seamless backdrop was scored for the shoot; other days they had to make due with posing a lemon on a paper Chinet plate. In other words they are pretty much perfect, just have the students blindly choose two of them and then make a painting out of it. Ego investment, overthinking, preconceived notions about high versus low – poof! GONE!

In a related exercise, I had everyone bring in a bunch of magazines, from which we made collages, which then became the basis for paintings. I’ve since lost the collage for this one, but I appear to have made a handy unisex bathroom sign should the need for one arise.

manwomanlegs

I also have a fondness for simple still lives, which I would never take the time for in “real life”. But it’s really great to just PAINT sometimes, not worrying about the “Art” part of it; I remember why I do it in the first place. These are from “Color Boot Camp” demonstrations of limited palettes. The first was from a Saturday afternoon quick demo at the Bellevue Art Museum years ago. Space and time were both limited, so I grabbed a bone from my bone collection and four tubes of paint, showed up, and painted it in front of a group of random strangers, making up the blue background on the spot.

boneHere a lime and a paper bag were the props on hand. (It’s harder than you’d think to match the color of a paper bag.)

lime

My favorite demonstration paintings, however, are the ones that end up reflecting and distilling the true concerns of my real work, anyway. I paint people all the time – slowly and from photographic sources and in great detail, sometimes hiring a model for a missing part of the pose, and working carefully around the edges of the fabrics I paint on – but when I’m teaching a figure painting class I can work loosely and quickly, making fast decisions about color and composition and not worrying about the edges.

I borrowed a gumball machine from one of my studio neighbors, hung up a striped sheet, added some furniture, a mirror,  and a telephone, hired Ruth, and asked my class to make a narrative out of it. Or not.

gumballmachine

At Pratt many years ago I taught a class called Pattern, Rhythm, and Pictorial Space. This painting I did of Megan in their sun-filled classroom – a former Wonder Bread factory outlet store – is one I like to pull out and look at for inspiration sometimes.

pattern2Most of the fabrics I used in the set-up have since disappeared into paintings.

In the same class, I organized a “still-life potluck”, in which everyone brought patterned objects from home, all of which I arranged into a cacophonous still life. Always thrifty about the materials for these throwaway paintings (which never seem to get thrown away), I painted this on an old piece of mdf that was once part of a floor in a play at ACT Theatre.

pattern

A truck stop for fishermen

The University of Washington Drama drawing class wrapped up with a field trip to Fishermen’s Terminal, a moorage for both working and pleasure boats, with restaurants and services for fishermen and -women. We we accompanied by our intrepid and always-dapper model Amanda. Context brings so much life to life drawing, but is inexplicably left out of most figure classes. There is, for one, the light to contend with, changing the color, bouncing around, casting shadows, and reflecting off of water in this particular situation.

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Here is everyone’s first go at tackling the complicated scenery, with its plethora of vertical masts and fenceposts.

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The scale of the boats in relation to the figure also presented interesting composition problems. Less expected was the element of text: Boats have names, and those names are writ large. Artists sometimes freeze up when confronted with text. They go into what used to be called left-brain mode and forget how to draw. Words have a way of obliterating the rest of the drawing. Something about “Ricky K “, however, was so juicy and tempting that most of the students (and I) wanted to tackle it. Those who included it really succeeded in keeping it in its place as a visual element. The drawings hold together, in spite of being so texty.

rickyK

My polka-dotted skirt appears twice in in this peripatetic panoramic photo of the last pose of the year.

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Make that second-last pose, since Amanda’s and my coordinated outfits also begged to be documented.

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Reverse-Engineering the Masters

In the movies, painters tend to be seized by bouts of inspiration at unpredictable intervals, upon which seizure they spontaneously and spasmodically squish paint into a masterpiece. Mike Leigh’s recent film Mr. Turner was no exception. The spastic-inspiration trope is the default mode for films about more Jackson-Pollocky types, of course, but Leigh’s William J. W. Turner was seized by this affliction when he gazed at the sea or the English countryside, naturally. In reality, painting and drawing a landscape is rather difficult, and Hollywood cliches like these are misleading about the mechanics and intentionality of composition that are actually required to make a picture of anything, including abstraction.  It’s too easy to assume that good landscapes come about through some kind of direct channelling of the scenery, making it all the more frustrating when beautiful or interesting scene you see in real life does not make a beautiful or interesting painting on your page. Even landscapes have to be composed by the artist. Composition is the mechanics, or machinery, of a picture. It’s how it directs your eye from here to there, lets in linger in some places, and return to the subjects that the artist wanted to you focus on. In the class that I just wrapped up, Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition, a group of experienced painters exposed the picture-making machinery of the masters, teased out the separate elements of that machinery, and began to employ those strategies to their own ends.

We began the first few classes with gesture-drawing from art history. Recording what you see in the first minute of looking at a painting tells you a lot about where the artist has directed your eye.

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth's Christina's World in ink and pencil

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth’s Christina’s World in ink and pencil

Gesture drawing of Giotto's Annunciation

Gesture drawing of Giotto’s Annunciation

Your eye tends to look at the largest form first. In order to better see the hierarchy of forms, we broke them down into two tones, grey and white, simplifying shapes, to get a better idea of the overall order and direction in which one views the painting.

Sandy's two-tone interpretation of Vermeer's sleeping maid

Sandy’s two-tone interpretation of Vermeer’s sleeping maid

Vermeer - Girl Asleep

We also made quick five-minute interpretations in black and grey paper cutouts of projected paintings. Here are four different student’s quick collages of Manet’s 1862 Portrait of Jeanne Duval

: manet

And the original…

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Four interpretations of Andrew Wyeth’s Master Bedroom

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And the original . . .

Master Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth proved to be particularly helpful to study for composition. His subjects were deceptively simple, and he mastered the art of editing and simplifying, while working in the style we erroneously call “realistic”, as if it involved copying from nature. Really, nature is a mess, and you have to tame it. (Just ask Mr. Turner.)

Wyeth’s Brown Swiss, which seems to the untrained eye to be a straightforward rendering of a farm house, is actually a feat of engineering.

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957  Image: Artstor

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957
Image: Artstor

A photograph of the same spot reveals that the composition didn’t just present itself. The placement of the house just a wee bit from the left edge makes your eye run over there, too, but then jump down to the reflection before you fall off, then hang a right, sending you back into the painting.. The stream as a big, light, horizontal bar across the lower third was a deliberate choice: water can be dark or light depending on when and where you look at it. The reflection of the house didn’t just happen, either: The artist chose it as an element, its presence and shape dependent on where he stood and the time of day he decided to grab it from. The long shadow on the side of the hill under the house is essential, as is eliminating the sky: the long horizontal shapes are ordered by size, and alternate dark/light. Everything in the picture serves the composition. We can’t say the same for the actual site, which is a lot busier. Granted, the evergreen tree apparently wasn’t big enough to block the house when he painted the picture, but if it did I’m sure he would have found a way to make it work.

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Here is a sketch in which he worked out the composition. It’s possible he started with a more literal drawing and just kept blocking out what he didn’t need with ink until the shapes looked right.

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We tried to get inside long-dead artists’ heads and learn their tricks by reverse-engineering a composition. This is one student’s analysis, of shape, value, and directional lines, of The Judgment of Paris by Cranach the Elder:

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Lucas Cranach the Elder - Judgment of Paris

Students took their own subject-matter, in the form of personal or magazine photographs, and inserted them into the structure of the masterwork. Here a Vermeer becomes the armature for a reinterpretation of one student’s old family snapshot.

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Treasured snapshots are as difficult to work with as nature. You’re usually too close to the subject matter to know why you like it: Is it the figures, the furniture, the faded colors, or just its emotional associations? It’s nearly impossible to know what is worth keeping and what should be discarded in order to get to an interesting, successful painting. Sometimes the accidental nature of the composition, its very awkwardness, is the best part. This exercise was a way to get a bit of objectivity, and license to move reality around to suit the artist’s purpose.

A continuation of Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition will begin in late April.

New class!

Making Your Own Work: Subject & Composition starts February 18 and will meet in my studio. This class is for painters who are looking to develop their own voice and a consistent body of work, with an emphasis on composition. Through hands-on exercises using ink washes, drawing, and collage, students will analyze the compositional strategies of master works and apply it to their own subject matter. In-class experiments will be followed by the further development of selected projects in paint or other media. There will also be space to critique and discuss other work you might have in progress and the direction and development of your work as a whole. The class will run for six consecutive Wednesdays, in three-hour sessions. Info on registration is here.

wyethsketchgiottosketch

Quick gestural studies of Wyeth and Giotto from last year’s “Digesting the Visual World” class.