Still Life Update

I am currently in what we painters call the “dead coloring” stage of the painting. Shadows are established, then the lightest light. This gives me a value scale that contextualizes the rest of the painting and dictates what colors I will choose in later layers.

I really like the hues in this setup. The delicate brown-orange of the bottle are in nice contrast to the high chroma green cloth. The hardest part of painting is balancing the intensity of a color. Sometimes it looks too flat, or worse, too bright! The further I go, the less forgiving my mistakes will be, so this dead coloring stage will take me a few weeks.

I use color isolators to help me. They are basically two swatches of grey cardstock I have put a hole-punch through. If I want to check myself, I look through the hole and isolate the area on the setup I am trying to paint. Then I hold the other card up at the same time to my painting. If it is way off, I’ll see it immediately. Wipe off, try again. It is all in the beginning! My palette choices and my vision have to be set before I start, or I will merely fumble and spend time reacting to mistakes.

I’d rather go slow and steady, owning every single one of my choices. Sip and paint this ain’t. 😉

Painting Observations

My latest still-life setup: notice the flowers I’ve suspiciously erased.

So much green!

I learned how to paint flowers this past summer and I am eager to incorporate florals into my setups. These fake flowers will have to hold my place for now as I am sure real ones would die in my studio/garage setup. The cold weather might stall things, but instead of one day to paint I might have two. (Florists refrigerate flowers to make them last longer.)

Perishable subjects, like flowers, are incredibly hard to paint. Normally I like to take my time with the drawing, but a flower’s petals will curl inward, expand, or die as the light changes. The key is to be able to sketch it in paint, flawlessly, in one go.

I am teaching a high school painting class for the first time this semester. I showed them studio basics like cleaning and setting up a limited palette. After giving them a talk about method discipline, I turned around and tried to rush my flower sketch and had to start over. Perhaps I will play back my own lecture for myself.

Starting over is so obnoxious, but what I have learned is that in the artistic life, the artist is always the student. Sargent would wipe out a portrait fourteen times before he was satisfied. Until I get to that point, I won’t be the kind of artist I want to be.

That is, a Master.

The Complexity of Being Simple

The self portrait continues!

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The key to a method like this is the ability to look at a complex face with its many features and details and to ignore them for the underlying structure. When I was new to drawing I always drew what appealed to me first- the hair, the eye, an ear. These drawings never came out the way I wanted them to.

Starting with the simplest form- the construct- is very hard! It requires a lot of fact-finding: where is the top of the head? Where is the chin? Now get widths. Break the face into thirds and place the nose and eyes before moving on.

From left to right: The Construct, The Cartoon, Mapping planes of the face

Once the Construct is done, then it is time to move on to the Cartoon. Now that I can be sure where major features are on my face, it’s time to block in the shadows. I do this by drawing smaller shapes. We call these “shadow-shapes.” It is important to have one light source that never moves for the duration of the portrait. Drawing natural light is what makes realist art look, well, real. (As opposed to a photo!)

Once I’m sure I’ve got the shadows as they are, I shade them in lightly to differentiate them. I then take a piece of tracing paper and map the planes of my face. They should look like tiles, or puzzle pieces. This map will help me as I shade in my values in charcoal. (The image up top is at this stage!) Planes tell a viewer what light is bouncing off of. The bridge of my nose will have dark shadows, and where it recedes from the shadow will require lighter values. Some planes are the same on every person (the forehead must protrude, for instance) and then additional ones must be articulated to fit the model.

Patience, practice, layers. This requires a lot of dedication and discipline. I’ll be sure to update as I render further!

Self Portrait

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I’d like to say something observant about COVID stealing our faces from us, that this exercise which requires me to stare into a mirror is in reaction, but I’m not that sage.

I am attempting to draw my face. Every line and unflattering shadow is on display! (Yes, one eye IS puffier than the other. Thanks for noticing.)

I cannot draw a live model during quarantine, so I’m all I’ve got. The historical setting in which I draw this portrait, this situation that forces me to confront myself, isn’t lost on me. We’re all doing this, aren’t we? Confining ourselves to small spaces and limiting interactions. Living with ourselves, essentially. Ironically, we do this so that we can live for others. Bit it is still hard.

This portrait will be a reminder of this time.

We Deserve to Live Well

As I write this, a wriggling 8 month old is trying to see how far my bottom lip stretches. The 3yo has a cape on. My son is shooting nerf arrows onto the roof. I see no reason to interfere.

In this time of global crisis, the school-aged children are home for the foreseeable future.  They’ve turned to me, I who am disheveled, pajamaed and anxious, to run their school day. Ha! This is what streaming content is for. Don’t want to do your math today? Fine.

Productivity. I define myself in terms of my creative output. Being an artist and a writer is like being a sponge: I am either wrung out or brimming. I can’t expect my children to work diligently if I myself cannot even muster the will to plan a project.

I’ve realized that I need to think differently. What is productivity, right now? Closures of schools and workplaces, cancellations of events: it all feels dark and very scary. But, what is happening is a collective social sacrifice. Solidarity. We are coming together in our isolation from one another, oddly, in order to give our medical workers and institutions a fighting chance. We are saving the lives of our fellow citizens.

That is worth doing.

Why does that feel strange? I don’t think we like working, but we’re afraid not to. Capitalism is not amenable to a collective slowdown. I make money for no one when I decide to bake bread and paint or read a story to my children. Previously I’ve had to decide whether or not I deserved those activities. Did I get enough done in any given day to justify slowing down at the end of it?

What I hope we all realize is this: we’ve always deserved to rest, to eat well, and to enrich ourselves with the development of domestic skills. We are owed this, to be treated with dignity and to live well. Currently the necessities of life are acquired through wage slavery: I cannot eat, live, or receive medical care unless I work. If I cannot work, I suffer. Is it foolish to wonder if this crisis will force us to re-imagine the way we live?

I will continue to let my children play whenever they want. The guilt I feel has been planted there by the greed of a collapsing system, and I will instead try to live in a way that upends it.

Writing About Titan and Giant Bugs

Cirsova’s Fall 2019 issue is out, and included in the collection is a story I wrote about life on Saturn’s moon Titan! It’s meant to be a hard SF (with regard to the territory) mixed in with the charm of a monster movie from the 1950’s, sans the damsel in distress. (The heroine is more competent than her male companion, whom she is always saving.)

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Fall 2019 Cover

I spent a year researching Titan for a novel project I trunked. After doing so much work I was determined to put it to good use, so for a bit of fun I wrote Titan in an evening. I tossed it to a few beta readers who told me one thing: more giant bugs! I heeded them and sold the story right after those edits.

It was important to me to depict Titan’s treacherous surface accurately. There’s quite a bit of research available, including video from Huygens’ descent that shows us the moon’s surface. Scientists know quite a bit about the moon, so I spent the year trying to visualize what it would be like to walk around (well, bounce) on the surface. Titan is covered in tholins (Gk. Θολός, meaning “hazy” or “muddy) which combust in an oxygen environment – a bit of a problem for humans who would need to build habitats with oxygen to breathe! Colonists would have to be meticulously clean or risk disastrous fires. Hydrocarbons are abundant, meaning that Titan’s surface organics far surpass oil reserves on Earth. This moon has a dingy sky and is covered in ice and carbon-bearing materials. While all of this is technically interesting to scientists, I wanted to depict the drama of living in such a place.

I’m certainly not the only SF writer to attempt this. There are novels such as Ben Bova’s Titan and Michael Carroll’s On The Shores of Titan’s Farthest Sea, both written with great attention to the terrain and how colonists would likely live. One of my favorite short stories about Titan is Michael Swanwick’s Slow Life which is available to read in Lightspeed Magazine.

After all of this reading I added the giant bugs. Why? Because it’s cool, that’s why. I’ve been fascinated with Cicadas since my childhood. I used to collect their perfectly preserved exoskeletons and put them around the house: on curtains, on my cardigan, etc. (Sorry, mom.) I lived in Ohio during a 17 year emergence cycle and the bugs were so abundant that the grass in my front yard moved like undulating water. The air was full of their screams and they hung like bats from the trees above us, their white bodies dotted with thousands of bulging red eyes that seemed to observe us as they let their fleshy wings dry. The birds could not keep up. I remember walking to the bus stop with glee as the ground crunched under my feet. My parents were upset about the trees being ruined but I was unable to fathom those adult concerns.

Once I decided on Cicadas, it was only natural that I give them the only predator that made sense: wasps. And so the poor colonists in my story not only have to fight to survive on an inhospitable moon, they find themselves caught up in a war between giant insects.

Titan has been reviewed by Tangent Online and is available on Amazon. Consider giving it a read!

 

Sources to Check Out

  1. Infrared Images of Titan (Cassini) from NASA
  2. Maps of Titan’s surface pieced together from images collected by NASA
  3. Let’s Colonize Titan: The Scientific American
  4. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix
  5. Entomology: An Aid in Archeological Studies

In Anticipation of Reluctant Spring

So I hear it’s March. I’m still writing “2018” on checks and school permission slips and paperwork at doctor’s offices, even thought I know intellectually that it has been 2019 for several  months.

I am tired.

March solidifies everyone in amber. Time stops. Normal life seems inadequate. “Never make life decisions in March,” an old friend once told me. Wait it out. I understand that now. This time of year makes me impatient. I feel burdened by my lack of progress, my goals far outpacing my actual abilities.

I know it’s not just me. My Latin students forget their declensions. They look at ut clauses and offer feeble interpretations, and mix up all the ablative uses because really, there are too many of them. They are smart, and they do good work, my students. They are merely tired. I announced no homework over the weekend, and the collective sighs of relief confirmed I’d made the right call.

I feel kinship with them. I finished revisions on a novel draft of 100k words  last month. I feel as if the life has been sucked out of my bones. I now stare at that blinking cursor in Word, and will myself to write anything before closing the laptop an hour later. My art studies have hit a similar wall. I’m working in charcoal, and there’s no rushing it. I spent weeks on a color study that should have, by my standards for myself, taken an evening.

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There’s nothing to do but wait. Replenish. Shovel the snow even when the sun is out, even when it feels like winter has overstayed its welcome. Clean the house again. Make some tea. Read a book for fun, for pure indulgence. We Catholics started Lent this past Wednesday, and so I’ve imposed upon myself a routine of prayer and reflection that I find regenerative.

I am learning to give myself a break. To wait for spring with hope instead of frustrated dissatisfaction.

You should too.

In Art, Failure is Good

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The back of my head as I work diligently to paint my model.

Art is a discipline. Like every other subject worth studying, like every skill worth honing, it’s possible to fail.

For some reason,  the average person treats the arts (take this to mean writing, painting, sculpting etc.) as a a vehicle for their own personal validation. If one bothers to paint, praise is expected no matter the result.

The Italian painters in Florence have no time for such sensitive souls. If a student botches the drawing stage and moves on to paint over the top of it, they accuse that student of “polishing a turd.” Vulgar and harsh, but true. Drawing does all the work and painting gets all of the glory. The artist I studied with these past two weeks revealed to us that each of her paintings went through several rough drafts before she got it right. She’s an award-winning realist oil painter, and she fails all the time. The analogy to the writing process deserves some bearing out, I think: each story goes through multiple drafts, feedback is sought out and absorbed. In the end, the result is a work of art, or something set for the trunk.

Failure.

There’s such a stigma around failure. It’s so painful, but so necessary. I think the confusion is here: we conflate artistic skill with individual creativity. The skills involved in painting, the ability to think three steps ahead, to compose and set the color are tools set to the purpose of the creative vision. There are tools and there are standards, and these things must be learned. What each artist does with these skills is what’s unique.

Criticism is personal because my art isn’t something I can objectively separate myself  from. It’s ironic that this discipline requires a thick skin while demanding that I rip my heart out, splatter it all over a canvas or a page, in order to show others a vision I think is worthwhile.

Now I come to it:, I failed to complete my first portrait from a live model. I don’t feel bad about that. I know more than I did two weeks ago. My brain is exploding with new information: I’ve developed instincts, learned how to solve problems, learned how to be more deliberate with every stroke. I’ve learned how to fail.

And I feel just great about that.

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Stages of the portrait: Drawing, Underpainting, First Pass, Full Color