Painting on New York City's steamy summer waterfronts, oil oozing out of the paint on the sun-struck palette. Barge workers yell profanities as they churn up the still stinking, soup-like Gowanus Canal, as landscape workers prune the shrubs outside the new luxury apartment building overlooking it. Is that really a rowboat, does the Dredgers Canoe Club really paddle these waters? Dumbo now teems with tourists, its once-gritty waterfront re-sculpted and beautifully dressed in native plants. On the Manhattan side, the Fulton Fish Market got evicted to the Bronx; a bike path now overlooks the few remaining barges. Everywhere, new towers defining the skyline. And over and through it all, enormous iconic bridges, stacked and intersecting highway and pedestrian bridges, even a city street that's a drawbridge.
Oil paint: rich, sensual, subtle. My great love in the studio. And one hot mess to pack around outdoors. It's a learning curve summer, with a seemingly unending string of technical challenges. The medium demands a level of precision I don't usually bring to quick plein air work. I'm painfully aware that I don't draw straight lines, and my buildings dance all over the place. Humbling, and too much fun.
It is my good fortune to be studying with urban landscape painter and superb teacher Nicholas Evans-Cato.
This is my third winter of painting at the Art Students League, and for the third time I've had the good fortune to paint Laetitia. Although I need to take into account my usual lack perspective on my latest effort, I think I've captured something richer this time. It's not as simple as improved brush handling, paint mixing, underlying anatomy or any other technical skill. I think it's a difference in what I'm observing these days. Fun for me to see these 3 paintings together as a series.
Getting ready for the Flatbush Artists Open Studio event, which kicks off at noon today. I've never seen so many of my paintings and drawings splashed about all at one time. It's a tough call, deciding what makes the cut and what doesn't. I'm sure I'm not the first to waffle between "I want everyone to see everything!" and "who the hell am I to ask people to look at so much of my work?".
Although I'm finally installed in my home studio, bathed in light and able to work without (too much) distraction, I'm showing with my friend, neighbor and fellow Art Students League colleague Douglas Graham, in the community room of our apartment building. Easier for visitors to get to, and nice to have the camaraderie.
There is a glut of Venice images, from masterpieces to pizza placemats to Facebook selfies. After reviewing my sketches and paintings from Venice I checked out a lovely book, Whistler and his Circle in Venice. I think I've adequately chided myself about not having anything new to add.
Near the Rialto bridge I ran into a teacher, happily drawing while his architecture students were elsewhere. The teacher said that their trip was about learning to see. We are so bombarded with electronic images and tied to electronic design techniques, he said, that staying in one place and drawing what you really see is a rare experience for his students.
And for most of us, I think. In Venice I overheard "did you capture that?" so many times, saw people glued to their phones and pads through this ancient watery marvel , making sure that they themselves are the main subject of their snaps, jockeying for the "best" background for their selfies. Do you really have to wait until you get home to see what you saw? Can you imagine yourself there, without the selfie?
I had some fantastic meals, a few wonderful conversations, spent a fair amount of time in museums and churches (same thing, and aren't museums redundant in Venice?) and even braved some of the major tourist attractions. But the time I spent drawing and painting was the highlight of my four days there. I wished I had more time and would happily go to Venice to paint again, seeking out the quieter neighborhoods and smaller subjects. Just seeing, with my eyes and hands.
In May I did a landscape workshop taught by Art Students League's virtuoso abstract painter Frank O'Cain. The ideas that work for me: taking notes on the light and colors, looking at composition rather than detail, not looking to create finished paintings as much as capturing a moment. Arezzo was perfect for such a workshop-- all the light, color, architecture, trees (and food!) that make Tuscany special, with minimal Disneyfication.
I also experimented with watercolor (last 3 pictures of this set), much more portable and discreet than acrylics, although more difficult to control.
If anyone had asked me a year ago, was I interested in making portraits, I would have said definitely not. Yet it's hard for me to resist focusing on a model's face. The general plan is, with few exceptions, always the same. What's engrossing: the subtle shades of difference in bone, skin, light, and expression, the deviations from symmetry dictated by the pose and the person's own face. Not to mention the luxurious responsibility of gazing intently at one person for hours on end. I drew Tsering four times (here are the 2 profiles) before I started to paint the oil (center).
I've been back nearly a week from our winter getaway in Guadeloupe, and promise I'll post some of the lush colors from that beautiful place in a few more days. Meanwhile, news from a dear friend of my youth (say it isn't so that another friend is dying, dying of AIDS, no that still isn't over...) sent me on a search in my graphic archives. There, I found some of my own younger faces, as seen by my younger selves. Growth rings of a tree, nesting Russian dolls, memories and emotions jam packed in simple images.
Whether we know it or like it, we (the artists) are often drawing (out) our own desires, dreams, fears and memories. Maya is a fantastic model, with graceful gestures and cherubic vulnerability, but also for me a muse. Looking at her, and later looking at these drawings, I remember being eight years old, reading over and over the story of Saint Agnes. Because at the age of twelve Agnes wouldn't agree to an arranged marriage, she was paraded naked through the streets of Rome. A man dared to look at her with something less than the reverence she deserved, and was struck dead, presumably by the hand of God. The sublime personified, seen through the eyes of a pre-pubescent 60-year-old.
This week I struggled with "accuracy" when painting that most traditional of subjects, naked white ladies. Where's their navels, what color are their inner arms, do their heads really tilt that way? Have I managed any illusions of depth, roundness, softness of skin? No wonder the faces of both these ladies look stressed out; that's what I was feeling, and projected onto them. As a break and a relief, I painted just the face of the blond lady, Monica (center and then right). Monica has the delightful quirk of not holding her face in a neutral mask. She periodically breaks out in giggles, makes eye contact with those of us struggling to depict her well, even does an occasional fish-face, much to my delight. It's hardly an accurate portrait but I think my pleasure in painting it was much purer than the absorbing but almost impossible task of depicting an entire, detailed, accurate human.
Flatbush is packed with artists, but you don't actually see any of them/us outside doing our thing. The colors of the London plane trees are amazing right now and the architecture is quirkily fun. So I leaned on a tree and drew. Did passers-by stare? Felt like it, but maybe not. Added color (water soluble colored pencil) later.
By the way, I'm super excited to be included in the Flatbush Artists's salon exhibit on December 5 and 6. More about that soon!
I'll admit it, I've become one of those annoying people sketching other people on the subway. Sometimes it's just feet or hands, and I feel, perhaps ostrich-like, less detectable. Other times it's angles of heads, fleeting impressions of faces or eyes. Occasionally someone will stay in the same position long enough to get a more developed sketch. No one yet has said "hey, you stop that!". One guy asked if he could take a cellphone picture of the sketch of himself. A woman asked if she could have the sketch. (Flustered, and not ready to tear the sheet out of the book, I said "no"-- but next time I will.)
Super happy to be back at the Art Students League, New York City's storied "by artists, for artists" learning space. I'm once again studying with Terence Coyle, who at 90 years old still has an eagle eye for composition and for the human form. Attending full time gives me more of a chance to draw and try different approaches. I haven't done much with underpainting yet, so I gave it a try. Here I started with an overall sepia wash and "wiped out" the image. The next day I worked more with the form and color.
It's a delight to be home, but I'm missing plein air painting. Why not do it here in Brooklyn? Well, I feel self-conscious. Will all the zillions of passers-by find me pretentious? Will they want to comment? Anyway I'm not feeling brave enough.
So I went back to work on a picture I started in June at Joe Perez's wonderful landscape class at the Salmagundi Club. I'm working from a photo I took in Bayeux, France a few years ago. Still some work to go.
When I was a kid we took trips to Port Jefferson, New York; as a theatre student I spent a summer there; and I've been there by boat before. One of the biggest, busiest harbors on Long Island, there are thousands of moored boats, frequent ferries, and freight traffic. A power plant looms over the town. But just around the bend there is an area marked on the nautical charts only as "spoil ground" (with no depths, buoys or other detail), sometimes called Mount Misery, that all the locals know as Pirate's Cove. Remains of an old sand quarry, there is rusting machinery, crumbled bits of dock and towering sand cliffs. It's completely different on a sunny weekend afternoon, when power boaters abound, with booze, boom boxes and boisterous kids. When they leave, Pirate's Cove/spoil ground morphs back into a strange and mysterious home to shellfish and seabirds.