design

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.

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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.

Shhhhhhhh!

My UW Drama grads and I made our annual pilgrimage to the spectacular Seattle Central Public Library in November, accompanied by the ubiquitous and always-stylish model Amanda, dressed to match the architecture in a pattern of multicolored trapezoids that referenced the steel grid covering the building.

We met up at nine and had an hour to kill before the library opened its doors, so we engaged in a bit of guerilla urban sketching in a large office building across the street. Usually this sort of thing goes well for me, attracting generally positive attention and curiosity. This time it got me in trouble with the building manager.  Talking fast yet amiably, I managed to successfully convince her that we were harmless, and by the end of the conversation she was dragging chairs out of the cafe for us to sit on. The epic Henry Moore sculpture in front of the building had apparently given me a falsely arty impression of the building; like many corporate glass and steel towers, it boasts an impressive, artfully furnished, and utterly underused lobby. Heck, we were doing them a favor, “activating the space” as they say in urban planning parlance.

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At the library, by contrast, we were warmly greeted by event services manager Cara Cronholm, who has been welcoming my classes there for the last several years. We began in the fourth-floor shiny red organically undulating hallway, where the utter strangeness of the space forced everyone to actually look at their surroundings rather than fill in from whatever is in their head. You can’t  make this stuff up.

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For the second pose in this area, Amanda stood down a narrow side hallway from us, backlit by the capricious Seattle winter light projecting through the harlequin grid of the library’s exterior. Everyone had to sort out and filter the cacophony of colored light, reflections, and reflections of reflections to interpret the scene for themselves, resulting in a great variety of compositional and material choices.

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We were joined by my pal Jeff Scott, a painter and scenic artist who will be teaching these same students theatrical set painting this winter. Claiming to be rusty at drawing, he nevertheless came up with this forced-perspective stunner:

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Onward to the tenth floor to visit the Reading Room , although I don’t know how anyone can get any reading done surrounded by that visual feast of geometric pattern, light, and encompassing views of the city all around you.

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While there’s plenty to be said for the time-honored practice of academic study of the human form in a controlled studio setting, humans exist in historical times and physical places. Judging from the work done by even the least-experienced drawers among us, inspiration for theatre, painting, and any other visual art can be had in abundance just by getting out in the world and drawing them there.

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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

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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.

Lose the Christian Theme Park!

In the Making Your Own Work class, while we’re looking at people’s work in progress, we continually come back to the question: How much stuff should there be in a painting? Usually the answer is something along the lines of “less than what you have.” Anne likened it to Coco Chanel’s directive to remove one accessory before one leaves the house.

And sometimes the thing you have to remove is your favorite: the one you thought was so utterly brilliant and clever. But it just doesn’t serve the painting, and it needs to be the piece of jewelry you leave on the hall table before you dash out the door.

Many years ago, a friend of mine, Michael Barrish, went on a long bicycle trip intending to visit every town named Freedom, Justice, and Liberty in the contiguous United States. That, while interesting, really has nothing to do with my point. Along the way he visited many old friends, and brought news of them to the subsequently visited friends. (You see, kids, in the old days, people didn’t broadcast their every activity on the internet, so we had to wait for messengers to bicycle between towns delivering news. It was slow but it made for better stories.) When Michael stopped here in Seattle, he told of some old college buddies who had moved to LA, trying to break into screenwriting. They had made a big pitch to a Hollywood producer for a goofy John Candy/John Goodman vehicle called “Fat Chance”. The premise, which seemed kind of thin, was that they were fat jewel thieves; hijinx ensued. The hijinx culminated in a chase scene through a Christian Theme Park. The thieves at one point get swallowed up, or perhaps chased, by a giant mechanical whale loudly intoning “JO-NAH! JO-NAH!” as it pursues them through the park.

The producer, who in my mind is a guy out of a 1940s movie chomping on a cigar, had five words for the would-be screenwriters: “Lose the Christian Theme Park!” The image, which I made up, of this short guy with the Brooklyn accent pounding on his desk is permanently etched in my mind.  However, I was a little mystified by his advice.  It seemed to me that without that bit of weirdness, the purported movie would have nothing left to recommend it.

One day in the studio it occurred to me what he meant. It was late and I was on a deadline finishing paintings for a show. One painting in particular was giving me a lot of trouble. The parts weren’t adding up. Deep down I knew what had to go: it was a checkerboard tile floor that I’d spent hours working on, thought was brilliant, and had grown way too attached to, but it just didn’t serve the painting.  I heard shouting inside my head. What could it be? Why, it was my inner cigar-chomping studio exec yelling for me to LOSE THE CHRISTIAN THEME PARK!

If the bones of the painting are no good, all the Christian-Theme-Park chase scenes in the world will never save it.

Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly delights, detail; Above, Bosch, The Last Judgement, detail. The original and best Christian Theme Park paintings!

Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly delights, detail; Above, Bosch, The Last Judgement, detail. The original and best Christian Theme Park paintings!

Drywall Chevrons at Lowe’s

Pattern is everywhere, and it can punctuate an otherwise boring trip to Lowe’s with a moment of beauty and wonder. Imagine my delight when I turned the corner from the lumber department and came across these stunning piles of drywall arranged artfully in the humble, yet hip, chevron pattern in two colorways, with a possible third green variety coming when they restock.

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Hexagons

I took this photo of a Moorish tile pattern at the Alcazar palace in Sevilla during a visit to Spain three years ago. Recently as I’ve been preparing for the Pattern For Everyone workshop, I have been noticing the underlying structure of patterns, not just the colors, shapes, or novelty motifs that grab my attention. The hexagon theme pops up a lot, since a hexagon is one of the few basic shapes that can tessellate, or fit together with a bunch of its hexagon buddies with no spaces in between them.

This turtle (RIP) is sporting a pattern of interlocking hexagons, squeezed a bit to fit into his or her oval shape, complemented nicely by a fetching border pattern:

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The starfish (also RIP), if you look closely, has hexagonal pattern in the skeletal structure supporting it, lines radiating from the center of each one and interconnecting the whole thing, similar to the Moorish tile design.

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However, if you look from the top, the structure modifies itself a bit to reflect the radial 5-pointed shape of the animal:

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This pattern of interlocking hexagons is found in many molecular structures, too. Some British designers in the early 1950’s ran with the idea, producing crazy home-furnishings textiles based rather literally on specific molecular structures. How about a dress of boric acid:

Wallpaper - Boric Acid 8.34(images: Victoria & Albert Museum)

Or perhaps insulin, in which the hexagonal molecules, rather than interlock, are arranged in a half-drop pattern:

Wallpaper - Insulin 8.25

These designs and others like them were inspired by the new technology of x-ray crystallography, and were displayed at the 1951 Festival of Britain, a kind of post-war atomic-age art and science fair. You can see how they eventually gave birth to the more freeform “atomic” style.