Thursday, March 31, 2016

Truth or fiction: Drawing & Painting from Life vs Photos

 Photography can be a funny thing.  You can select different cameras and different lenses with different focal lengths, totally flattening or curving space and altering perspective. You can adjust how much or little of your image is in focus.  You can adjust color balance.  And that's just when you are taking the picture!  Then there's editing... Consider, for example, my photo above.  The only editing done after-the-fact was cropping it and flipping it upside down for hopefully a surreal effect. 
So when you draw or paint from a photograph, attempting to make something look 'real', what are you really getting?  It very much depends on all the choices made by the photographer.  I'll admit, that while I'm a big fan of working from direct observation, I recognize that sometimes it is not convenient.  And my painting style does not aim at photo-realism, anyhow.  I prefer to capture the spirit and energy of my subject (I hope).  I'm sharing the paintings below, all mine, all done from photos for various reasons, to help me make a point a little later in this post.
The image above is of my son when he was in college, painted at least 6 years ago, and is acrylic  on canvas and incorporates collage (bits of colored glass, odd little toys and doodads, string and yarn, and a bass guitar string on the frame).  I used the collage to help capture the spirit of my son.

And below is a painting I did several years ago, from a photo I took while scuba diving when I was young and single.  It also acrylic, on Masonite, with a shell and coral collage on the frame.  I don't think I have to explain why I worked from a photo.
This oil painting on canvas below, done decades ago, is of a scene that I regularly saw while on a toll highway, especially during drives too and from my college town.  One day, with a blustery sky, traffic was light so I pulled over and took a quick photo.  Again, there was no way to paint the scene live.  One little photo was all I had to work from.
The acrylic painting of flowers below actually began from observation, but as the flowers were quickly fading, and I wasn't done, I took photos to help me complete the painting. 
But I've been thinking more about observational work lately, and I'll tell more about why this is on my mind in my next blog post, in a few days.  But meanwhile, I've talked before on this blog about drawing from observation, in particular here.  And I want to dwell on why I think it is such an important thing to teach.

Below are two photos taken from exactly the same location, totally unedited.  Two different cameras, two different focal length lenses.  Which one is "right"? Both?  Or neither?
Let's say you wanted to draw/paint this location in the two photos above this paragraph, or the two photos below, also shot with two different cameras/focal lengths.  How would you approach it?  Do you take a photo and bring it back to your studio to put on canvas or paper?  But which image do you select?  Which is the "right" one?  If you set up an easel on the dock above, or the walkway/bridge below, and drew what you saw, what would it look like?  The first photo or the second?  Or perhaps neither of them.  Personally, in the top pair, I prefer the more dramatic perspective of the first photo.  I'm not so sure about the pair below. If I drew the dramatic perspective of the left-hand photo, I'd be concerned that it might look as thought the bridge walkway was tilting, because of the sharp angle of the shadow lines. 
 Certainly, if I want to do drawings or paintings of these locations, and am unable to draw or paint on location, I can take photos and choose what I prefer to use for my composition.  But what if you are using a photo someone else took?  Then, hasn't the photographer made the aesthetic decision about how to view the scene? And if you are trying to make it look "real", what does that even mean??  Which one of the photos in the pairs is the way it "really" looked?

Or maybe you've got a drawing just the way you want it, but you are in your studio trying to recall the colors of the scene you are painting.  Below are two different photos, taken from exactly the same location, with the same camera, but a different color balance setting.  Which one is "right"?  Which one would you use for reference for your painting?  Since I took these photos just a couple of days ago, I can tell you, neither one is a good representation of the colors I saw in the water that day.  How better to get it right than to paint it while actually looking at it?  So that the colors you perceive with your personal vision influence what you choose to put on your canvas or paper?
Here's another pair of pics, taken within seconds of each other, with two different camera settings.  Which picture represents what it really looked like that evening?  It was a pretty sunset, but again, neither one of these photos is a true representation.  Of course if I tried to set up my easel outside and paint what I saw, there would be two problems: first of all, the light was diminishing quickly, so it would have been a challenge to see what I was doing without falling off the dock into the lake.  Second, the color was incredibly fleeting.  Five minutes later it was dramatically different, and ten minutes later it was gone completely.  So I would have to add my personal interpretation, since, light and color change so rapidly.  Case in point would obviously be paintings by Monet, of a cathedral, or a haystack, for example, where he returned and painted the same scene many times with different light quality. 
Look at the incredible color of that sky in these images below!  Do you think this is real?  I took both these photos, so I can answer the question.  The photo is not edited, but still, the answer is NO.  I used a polarizing filter on my camera lens, which, when used appropriately, will substantially darken a sky, and cause white clouds, for example, to dramatically stand out.  (It will also remove glare from water or elsewhere.)  So would it be wrong to paint the sky this fabulous blue?  Of course not!  It is your artistic CHOICE.  But to paint the sky that color simply BECAUSE THAT IS THE COLOR IN THE PHOTO is just blindly copying, not creative decision-making.
In recent years, as I've looked at exhibited drawings and paintings by high school students, it seems there is a lot of skill, beyond what I was ever trained to do: the kids have learned to copy, to render, to carefully shade, and their work is often impeccable, and photographic in detail.  But what I have missed is the spirit that shows me who the artist is inside.  Many of these carefully rendered works of art seem to have the life sucked right out of them.  I would like to see the energy of a Kandinsky, the joy of a Matisse, the whimsy of a Miro, the emotional warmth of a Cassatt, the inner glow of a Rembrandt, the sense of inner light of a Vermeer, the mystery of a Di Chirico, the quiet of a Hopper, the angst of... the humor of.... the anger of.... (You fill in the blanks; I could go on and on.)
It's been 30 years since I was a high school art teacher, and I realize the world has changed.  But, when I walk through a major museum like the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Brooklyn Museum, or MoMA, or the Met, or even a tiny museum like our local gem The Hyde Collection, I am still most moved by those works of art that have a sense of the spirit of the artist.  I am not moved by a technically perfect piece that has no soul, no emotional connection, that is nothing more than an impeccable copy of someone's photograph.  (I think that's why I love elementary art students - because they have not yet un-learned the joy of creating.)
I think we can never re-claim that spirit, that joy, unless we STOP depending on using other people's photographs for the primary source material for our art.  Our kids need to look up from their screens and start to really look and SEE what is in the world around them.  If you are teaching kids of any age, set up still life arrangements to work from, have students take turns as models, take your classes on mini field trips outside to draw, give them mirrors to draw themselves, have them, as my college drawing teacher assigned for us, do endless drawings of their hands.  (Actually, the specific instruction was "endless articulating cube studies of your hands", but I digress.)  Have them do blind contour drawings of all sorts of organic objects.  Bring in taxidermy animals for drawing source material.  Have them look at and draw their feet. Borrow the human skeleton from the science department of your school to be a model, put a hat or scarf or sunglasses on it; pose it.  Have students open a random drawer or cabinet and draw the contents; have them pick flowers and examine them prior to drawing them.  Have them draw spontaneously with a felt tip marker or ball point pen or even a crayon.   If they MUST work from a photo for reasons like the ones I had for my paintings above, don't constantly resort to having them graph the photo to get it "perfect".  (It is a good skill to learn, but remember, it is just a skill.)  Instead,  ask that they use the photos as a reference, a starting point, for creating a piece of art that reflects the artist inside.  This is my challenge to you all!

It is my hope that 50 or 100 years from now, when the next generations step into an art museum, that they see works created today that express the humanity of the artist, and that move them the way we are moved by, perhaps, that Picasso, or O'Keeffe, or van Gogh, or Klimt......  rather than seeing technically perfect pieces that lack a soul, and that fail to elicit any emotion from the observer.
Thanks for reading this massive post!  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Highlights of my visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

Lorette with Cup of Coffee; Henri Matisse
It's always great to see works of art that you've never seen before, that really grab you, especially by favorite artists, like the one above.  I totally am blown away by the close-cropped composition, and can't think of another Matisse painting like it, including the very neutral color scheme.

While I didn't get to see everything I wanted during my recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the van Gogh exhibit was so crowded that I got claustrophobic and escaped without seeing most of it, I have some pieces from elsewhere in the museum that I want to share.  But first, let me share my mola dress, that I made! My camera was missing for a day, so I had to rely on what pics I could get others to take of me.
In the left-hand image, I just completed presenting a workshop on blogging with Laura Lohmann of the blog Painted Paper, and Cassie Stephens, who has a self-named blog.  On the right is my annual colorful hair pic with a gal from Massachusetts.  I think her lovely mermaid hair really outshined my blue tips and steak this year!  I got the mola through Crizmac, and bought assorted colors of double-knit fabrics (to match the mola) from Mood, the fabric store in NYC where they shop for fabric on Project Runway.  I'm pretty pleased with the way the dress turned out!

Now, back to my visit to the art museum...  I was sure this pic below was going to say it was by Andre Derain.  But I was wrong.  Nevertheless, I love, love the colors!
House at Chatou; Maurice de Vlaminck
 And I was fooled again by these two paintings. I was guessing maybe Kandinsky.  I don't think I realized that Braque ever painted with such lively colors!
Landscape at L'Estaque; Georges Braque
Antwerp; Georges Braque
 These below, however, WERE painted by Kandinsky, who has forever been another of my personal favorites. 
Landscape with Two Poplars; Vasily Kandinsky
Painting with Troika; Vasily Kandinsky
I was tickled to discover that this lovely painting with a complementary color scheme had been painted by a woman, and she was American! 
Landscape; Marguerite Thompson Zorach
And another Matisse I've never seen before.  This painting is so expressive; I am smitten. 
Woman before an Aquarium; Henri Matisse
And this has a Matisse-ness to it, but it is NOT a Matisse.
Summer; William Zorach
Here, I might have guessed Manet, and of course I was wrong again...  Instead, it's painted by another American woman!
Shoe Shop; Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones
Another that reminds me of Manet...
At Mouquins; William Glackens
But maybe my favorite pieces that I came across in the museum were both surprises by George Wesley Bellows.  These paintings are very different, color-wise, than the Bellows paintings I am familiar with.  They are both so rich, so vibrant! 
Love of Winter; George Wesley Bellows
When I got to the Bellows painting below, a young couple was raptly staring at it.  They turned to me and asked "Do you know where this is?"  And I was able to answer!  The Palisades are a mountain cliff area on the New Jersey side (the western shore) of the Hudson River, just north of New York City.  When we visit NYC, we usually travel there by Amtrak train, on a line which runs along the eastern (NY) shore of the river from Manhattan northward.  The Palisades are visible from the train, so this is a view I have seen many times.  The painting is lush.  
The Palisades; George Wesley Bellows
I had also never seen this painting below before.  Isn't it just spectacular?  Usually I expect to see Magritte paintings with a color scheme centered around blues, so this red-orange seems very unusual to me.  I wish my crummy museum photos did justice to the incredible richness of color in these paintings I am sharing with you.  I
The Banquet; Rene Magritte
This painting below was also alive with rich warm colors and movement.  I can hear the music playing!!
Nightlife; Archibald J. Motley, Jr.
And look at this fun Lichtenstein painting! 
Woman III; Roy Lichtenstein
I love this painting below because it just "feels" like the Maine coastline, which is probably what Marin was interpreting in this artwork. 
Movement: Boats and Objects, Blue Gray Sea; John Marin
I can't share van Gogh's Rooms with you, because, like I said, the exhibit was beyond crowded, actually shoulder-to-shoulder when I was there.  Being short, dealing with the crowd, and having a woman with a shrieking infant behind me were all too much, so instead I escaped and spent a lot of my museum time viewing Chagall's vibrant stained glass American Windows.  Here's a few pics.  The window panels represent 5 different topics: music, painting/art, theater, the American Bicentennial, and reading/literature.  I enjoyed reading about the process of their creation, as well as seeing the complete piece.   Here's a few views.
I hope you've enjoyed this little museum tour, without having to leave home! 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Empowerment and Validation NAEA 2016

Hello everyone!  I've been missing!  It has been a whirlwind few weeks, prepping for and attending the 2016 NAEA National Convention in Chicago, where I was a presenter for two workshops, attended various workshops and speakers, connected with old and new friends, ate some good food, organized a pajama party photo shoot, participated in some silliness, saw some sights, visited a museum, took some pictures, lost and found my camera, lost and found my fitness tracker, tired myself out, and finally came home with a LOT to share.  The photo below is a taste of one of the sillier moments: a pajama party/photo shoot!
Attending a convention with a diverse collection of 5000 like-minded people can be an opportunity to turn your world on it's side.  (Does that make sense?  Can you be BOTH diverse and like-minded?)
Having your world flipped and stretching your brain can be an incredible and sometimes even life-changing experience.  If you attended the convention, I hope you had your brain stretched a bit and your world flipped at least a little! 
So - the title of this post is Empowerment and Validation, and I need to use a part of my own conference experience to share why.  One of the workshops I presented was about using papier-mache.  I figured I'd be in a typical workshop room, and have maybe 30 or 40 attendees.  So, when I found myself presenting in a small auditorium, kind of a lecture hall, with a podium and a microphone, and at least 200 people in the room, the panic set in.  Here's a pic of part the crowd that attended.  Not seen in this photo are the 20 or more people sitting on the floor along the wall, on both sides.  That's me with the silver and blue hair; to my right is a sign language interpreter!
At first, I kind of felt isolated like this pic below (that's me in the middle, all alone, taking the photo).  I had expected and prepared for an intimate workshop.
But I ditched the podium and mic, flipped on my PowerPoint of images, and shouted "CAN YOU HEAR ME IN THE BACK???"  And they could, so that's the way it went, for the next 45 or so minutes.  The time swooped by and *poof * it was done. 
 For the rest of the conference, I was randomly approached by people who had been in the workshop, each one of them telling me how the workshop had impacted them.

For example: "I haven't done papier-mache since 1994 and I'm retiring in 2 years, but I'm ready to try it out again when I get back to school!" 
Or "I'm a new teacher and I thought papier-mache was unmanageable in my classroom but now I'm sure that I can handle it!" 
Or "The last time I did papier-mache with my students, everything was a disaster.  Now I think I can be successful!"
All I can say is WOW!!  It is beyond humbling to know that I have empowered so many to be able to do something they didn't think they could. And it validates, for me, the worth of the effort that goes in to preparing a workshop, assembling the necessary materials, and giving up your personal time to both prepare and to present.  It is an uplifting experience.
So - I'm curious: what experiences in life have you had that have empowered you to have the confidence to try something that you didn't think you could do?  If you attended the conference, did you have experiences that made you feel empowered?
And how about validation? I often found, during my teaching career, that I received the best validation from the words and actions of my students.  I know that many of you do not receive the validation from your administrations and school boards that you would like; I, on the other hand, admit that I have been lucky in that regard.

We all need an occasional pat on the back, someone to tell us we have done a good job.  Receiving validation and feeling empowered are essential for a confident teacher to be successful.  When, for example, your budget has been cut, or you don't have a classroom or the necessary supplies, or your schedule is insane, or you and your program are being constantly undermined, where do you go to receive the validation you need to be confident about your success?  Certainly, one such place to go is somewhere that like-minded people, who will understand your challenges, gather.  It can be in a place such as the lively Art Teacher group on Facebook, or some twitter chats, or elsewhere on social media.  But in my opinion, nothing beats the experience of physically being in the presence of these like-minded people.  For me, attending the national convention or my state convention (and also being a presenter) provides the validation that makes the process of preparing, and the monetary expense (I pay my own way) worth every bit of effort and every dime.  You will see me at these conventions again next year!