everyday pattern

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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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Let’s go to business school!

They do get all the good architecture. Last Friday my UW Drama drawing class went on a little field trip across the street to Paccar Hall, home of the Foster School of Business. There’s an abundance of glass and steel, and a sweeping overlook of the bustling cafeteria. Our model posed on the sleek staircase, and down below in the atrium while we drew her from above, peering over the edge through the glass wall.

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For some of the students, it was the first time drawing a model in such a busy, perspective-heavy environment. Here’s one successful sketch, done on gray paper in black and white pen by the lady in the purple sweater.

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An unsuspecting business student (or some other kind of student who just likes hanging out there) inadvertently  modeled for us as well, adding some context and a nice visual counterpoint.

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In the film “Drawing on Life“, one of the sketching architects they interviewed estimated that a stranger in a public place will “pose” for you for about three minutes before moving. This reading woman posed a little longer. In my experience, if the person is stuck waiting, in an airport, say, they will eventually go back to the same position so you can finish your drawing. This one is unfinished only because I had to go and help other people with their drawings.

In sepia ink wash and ballpoint pen:

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The angles and long depth of field posed challenges, but also provided some guides for placing the figure, and for measuring and proportion. Someone asked me where to start, the figure or the ground. The real answer is “both,” but that wouldn’t have been very helpful. As a practical solution, I told him to start with an obvious straight line that intersected the figure, horizontal or vertical first, then move on to the oblique lines that you have to visually measure.

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Shifting your focus back and forth between figure and ground does not come naturally. We’re hard-wired to focus on a single item in our overcrowded visual environments. Those of us who stopped to gaze at the intricate patterns made by the grasses of the savannah were eaten by lions before they could reproduce. Which means we are basically descended from philistines, which should surprise no one.

These students, focusing diligently on the shapes and shadows before them, are in very little danger of being eaten by wild animals,  but I suppose someone could steal that coffee that’s just sitting there.

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Skyscrapers, boats, and a freeway overpass

For today’s final Drawing on Location class, we’ll be heading to the Olympic Sculpture Park and hoping for the best, weather-wise. Here is a little recap of this intrepid group’s adventures so far.

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For our first class we met at South Lake Union Park, next to MOHAI and the fabulous Center for Wooden Boats. (The latter deserves an excursion all its own.) Besides the obvious really cool historic ships to draw, there are also across-the-lake views of Gasworks Park, surrounding tall buildings and construction sites, a landscapy lawn with crisscrossing paths and a gaggle of our feathered Canadian friends.

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We spent most of the time making small thumbnail sketches of the ships, working fast & loose to get a handle on the incredibly busy confusion of ropes, gangways, masts, and signage. This is Breanna’s take on the signage, after a discussion of how hard it is to “draw” words in a picture. The temptation is always to write them habitually and insouciantly, rather than taking the time to look at their shapes and how they might fit into a composition. Somehow you have to disregard their meaning, after a lifetime of looking at them only for their meaning.

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The next excursion was to a corner of the Eastlake neighborhood, also hugging Lake Union. It involved fence hopping, a scramble through blackberry brambles, a rope swing, and some of us setting up shop on a unreliably secured tiny floating dock. The focus this time was more on rendering the water itself, and handling subjects at short middle, and long distances in the same sketch. The temptation (and there always is one) is to treat them all with the same amount of detail, a temptation successfully overcome in the drawing above, with some nagging on my part.

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This successful rendering of water’s motion was possibly aided by the fact that we were experiencing it as we drew. Every time a medium-sized boat went by in the harbor, it rocked our dubious little platform.

The name in the lower left corner is not a signature — it’s a note to look up Paul Hogarth, a twentieth-century British illustrator who traveled widely and published thousands of memorable on-location sketches. He was an expert at leaving things out, and I mean that with the utmost reverence. It’s probably the hardest part of drawing on location; the trick is to leave out what doesn’t serve the drawing, not the stuff you’re just too lazy to draw. Hogarth composed with the white space, where you know there is water or cobblestones or some other busy substance, but he doesn’t need to fill up a square with stuff for its own sake.

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Continuing to avoid tourist traps, we moved down the street to this tiny, noisy park under the I-5 bridge. Industrial subjects have always attracted me, possibly a byproduct of my Rustbelt upbringing. When you actually go to draw them, though, it’s always kind of daunting just how complicated yet repetitive they are. You kind of have to push past the monotony, embrace it even, and get to a place where it’s not boring anymore. It also helps to focus on a single aspect: the angles, the negative shapes, the colors or reflections. It also helps not to start the project at 4:00 after you’ve been drawing for two hours in the sun. This student managed to pull it off by dealing with the larger shapes and working small:

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Our third location was a public, free, hidden-in-plain-sight rooftop deck with a sweeping views of downtown and  piers below us, close-ups of surrounding taller buildings, and peeks at other faraway landmarks through the slots between the skyscrapers.

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I managed to pull off a couple of quick studies here, with the promise to myself to return later this summer without a class.

I was taken with the reflections in the old Washington Mutual tower. Actually, I’m usually taken with reflections. They’re a really swell abstract subject, and also useful to me in the paintings I’m working on right now.

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And the aforementioned transcendence of monotony that is drawing gazillions of windows:

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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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