Category Archives: Figure

Storytelling painting

What attracts you to a work of art? As I write, looking around my living room, I see two patterns. First, I see paintings that act as windows into places I want to be, and the state-of-mind that appeals to me, like peace/tranquility, love or a place that sparks a memory.  Second, I see paintings (typically those with figures) as the starting point for a story. One particular favorite by Francesco De Benedetto is of a beautiful young woman, head turned looking over her shoulder. Her expression loving. What is she thinking? What does her glance say about what she’s seeing?

The art I’m drawn to either provides an escape or sets up a story.

Figurative Storytelling

Of course, non-figurative art can tell a story, but having the human element in a picture places us in the world the artist created in a more compelling way. As a tribal species, we’re naturally inclined to connect with and understand others.

There are cases when a story is clear cut, such as Picasso’s Guernica, meant to get the viewer to see (and then feel) the atrocity of war. And there are open-ended stories the viewer invents through their own interpretation. Think Leanardo’s Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile.

I’m thinking more about storytelling as I paint more figurative work. I’ve painted plenty of beauty (and will continue!), but as I seek to broaden my art’s impact, I think of storytelling as “the next level.” But how?

How to Improve Storytelling

I’ve gathered a list of tips to help better tell stories in a painting and use one of my paintings as an example.

Man Regarding Bird (Chinatown, San Francisco), Oil, 12×9″
  • Setting. The place you illustrate is the start of the story. This is perhaps the most important context we can give the viewer. This setting is Chinatown in San Francisco. Other than the storefront sign (“Asian Ambia”), this doesn’t scream Chinatown, it only suggests it. What was important to me wasn’t the neighborhood, but the fact that these are two living creatures in a man-made, urban world where nature is precious.
  • Framing the Subject. How much space does your subject or center of interest get? Does it fill the picture frame or is it a small part with other design elements emphasizing it? Here, I surrounded the subject with lots of architectural space that support the relationship between the two figures. These living beings stand out because they are surrounded by man-made, flat, fixed linear objects in space.
  • Senses. Of course, the physical nature of painting limits how many of our senses are activated, but there are subtle ways to represent senses beyond sight. Depicting a burning building could evoke the smell of fire or warmth in the viewer. In this painting, I used the sense of sunlight to convey a clear, warm day. A perfect time to appreciate nature in a city.
  • Posture. The posture of figures depicted in a painting say a lot! Think of the figures in motion by masters like Titian and Caravaggio. Where the figure looks, movement or stillness, articulation of musculature that can depict tension or relaxation–all play an essential role. For this painting, I sought to show a man, relaxed standing in the sun, taking a break. With his arms crossed, I’m trying to convey the fact he’s thinking, regarding the bird in front of him with curiosity, but remaining still leaning on the fire hydrant so the bird doesn’t fly away. And of course, the posture of the bird facing the man suggests mutual curiosity, or perhaps, a potential source of breadcrumbs!
  • Emotion. A vital purpose of storytelling is for the viewer to experience an emotional response. The best books take us through a series of well-planned emotions. In a painting, there are practically infinite methods for doing this, so I’ll stick to this painting as an example: With this sparse setting, and through specific shapes and colors that surround these figures, I sought to draw the viewer to the connection between man and nature. The scarcity of nature in a city setting like this makes the bird special. Other than the man regarding it, the bird is the only depiction of nature. This makes the man curious about the bird, but with a calm appreciation (shown through his posture).

Want to learn more? Some of the best artists today are working in film and TV. Among them, Pixar is a leader, and lucky for you, through the free Khan Academy they’ve shared a beautifully produced and easy to understand online learning module on storytelling. Although meant for moving images, I found plenty in it to support painting.

How do you tell stories in your paintings? As always, reader comments and ideas are welcome!

San Francisco Pride Exhibition

For Pride month in San Francisco, I’ll be showing at both Spark Arts in the Castro and this national exhibition at the Harvey Milk Photo Center. Join me at the reception June 22nd. The works below can be purchased online now, but understand they can’t be shipped until after the show closes on July 21.

Exhibition Dates: June 22-July 21, 2019
Opening Reception: June 22nd, 2019 from 5:00 pm to 8:30 pm
Location: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St. San Francisco

In honoring the Stonewall riots 50 years ago, Harvey Milk Photo Center proudly present the Stonewall 50 Years Anniversary Art Exhibit. This exhibit is intended for artists to showcase their best contemporary artworks focusing on celebrating LGBTQ community.

I’m proud to exhibit the three pieces below.  The first has a LGBT theme, while the others are just simply beautiful paintings the center wanted to show. I really appreciate it when exhibitions like these don’t get hung up on homoerotic images, but instead embrace all the art our community creates.  Thank you Director David Christensen.

Cruising Laguna Beach, B.G. (Before Grindr)

Cruising Laguna Beach, B.G. (Before Grindr)
14×11 inches
$500 *

Point Lobos Water

Point Lobos Water
10×10 inches
$325 *

California Cove

California Cove
20×16 inches
$1,200 *

The show is presented by: Dave Christensen, Director, Harvey Milk Photo Center; Nicola Bosco-Alvarez, Entertainment Producer; with exhibition illustration by Illustration by Gordon Silveria.

Trans portrait show

Over the past several months, I’ve joined artists Alexander Nowik, Billy Douglas, and Steven Pomeroy under the leadership of Thomasina DeMaio and with the help of trans activist Donna Persona. Well over 100 portraits of local trans community members on display, including photographs, paintings, digital drawings and graphite.

As each person sat for their portraits, they told us of incredible stories of survival in the face of widespread bigotry and transphobia. Here’s what Thomasina DeMaio had to say about the project:

“It has been a joy working with my fellow artists on this Donna Personna project..she has put her heart and soul into bringing to studio not only leaders in this community of transgenders but individuals with stories and histories that changed and educated me as to who and what its all about.It has been enlightening and I feel privileged to be able to participate in documenting this incredible community. Our intention is to leave behind a comprehensive series seen through 6 different artists eyes for the public to view ,eventually in a book( fund raising for trans issues) and for the public to embrace and understand what has been in front of them for years and is not going away. Two spirit individuals are powerful, special and simply a force to be reckoned with. I will always treasure this experience and I thank each and everyone of our subjects for taking the time to come and sit for us…you made it happen!”

Join us at the reception Saturday, May 11, 6-9pm at the Eureka Valley Rec Center, San Francisco.

Maceo Passon, Oil on wood, 20×16″
Valentina Duran ,Oil on linen, 20×24″
Donna Persona with Stephen Pomeroy, Oil on panel, 16×16″

January San Francisco Show

I will be showing the landscapel below at the Harvey Milk Photo Center January 8-February 7 with Art Saves Lives, curated by Thomasina DeMaio. The reception will be held January 18th, with live music featuring the incredible Tribal Baroque! It will be an amazing reception, hope to see you there.

  • What: Winter Exhibition
  • Where: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott Street, San Francisco, CA
  • When:
    • Reception: January 18th, 6-9pm
    • Show runs January 8-February 7

Padre Place Color Study

Padre Place Color Study
12×9 inches

Montana de Oro (Last Light)

Montana de Oro (Last Light)
9×12 inches 

Ragged Point Sunset
9×12 inches 

Show at Spark Arts

Spark Arts Gallery in San Francisco is a great arts community hub for shows, teaching and all kinds of events.  This community show sponsored by ArtSavesLives opens Thursday, December 6th as part of the Castro’s Art Walk. Curated by Thomasina DeMaio, the show includes a wide variety of local artists, including Anthony AnchundoAdam EisendrathAlexander PrestiaBilly DouglasCarl LinkhartCJ SchakeMichael LownieDavid ChristensenRené CaponeGregory ConoverHank StrohbeckJack Mattingly, John FarnsworthLiam PetersMatt PipesMike Pierce, and Steven Pomeroy.

You’ll see my paintings below, and can purchase at anytime here online. The show runs through December.

Where: Spark Arts, 4229 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94114
When: Reception Thursday, December 6th, 6:00-9:30PM, shows runs through December.

Bay View From Park Hill

Bay View From Park Hill
14×7 inches, Original Oil on Panel, Framed

Castro Bag Lady
10×10 inches, Framed, Original Oil on Panel

Park Meetup
The Conversation (GGP)

16×12 inches, Framed, Original Oil on Linen

Riverbed #2
Riverbed #2

9×12 inches, Framed, Original Oil on Canvas, 9×12 inches

From my popular “Beach Men” series:

Ventura Beach Men 5 Asleep with Stripes
Ventura Beach Men #5 (Asleep with Stripes)

6×6 inches, Original Oil on Board, Unframed

Ventura Beach Men 4 Green Backpack
Ventura Beach Men 4 Green Backpack

6×6 inches, Original Oil on Panel, Unframed

Ventura Beach Men 3 T Shirt

Ventura Beach Men 3 T Shirt 
6×6″, Original Oil on Panel, Unframed

Ventura Beach Men 2 Yellow Shorts
Ventura Beach Men 2 Yellow Shorts

6×6 inches, Original Oil on Panel, Unframed

Anchoring Abstraction

Impressionistic realism has been the foundation of my art for many years, but that’s starting to change as I explore mixing identifiable forms that are relatable to abstract forms that work on a different level. Abstract art has merit, but I hadn’t pursued it until now because I struggled with how to communicate with it.

Recent Abstract Experiment: Mission Dolore Park, Oil on board, 11x14
Recent Abstract Experiment: Mission Dolore Park, Oil on board, 11×14

For me, the human figure is the most relevant symbolic subject in art.  People are complex: outwardly transparent, but inwardly hidden.  We respond to the Mona Lisa because while her body is drawn to perfection, her veiled thoughts through her smile intrigues us and draws us to this painting.  So how can a painting be both approachable and mysterious?

Fast forward 450 years from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the 1950’s Bay Area Figurative movement (lead by David Park), when an intriguing fusion of figurative art combined with Abstract Expressionism. Painters in this school ( David ParkRichard Diebenkorn, Elmer BischoffWayne Thiebaud…) had different reasons for mixing figurative representation and abstraction, but many found a dead end in Abstract Expressionism’s ability to communicate. They resisted being constrained by a formal “school”, but instead believed in taking freely from both figurative and abstract traditions.

I’m working on a series now that uses the figure as an anchor, like this movement.  In one of these paintings (“Green Shorts”, below), a solitary figure stares out at an abstracted plane, resembling the sea. (or, is it a clouded sky?).

"Green Shorts", oil on board, 16x12"
“Green Shorts”, oil on board, 16×12″

The figure is used as an entrance into this world of sunshine and contemplation.  He stands on the picture plane as if an observer himself to the alternating bands of blues, violets and grays.  It’s designed in such a way that his surroundings are open to interpretation: he could be in a museum (barefoot—probably not allowed!) surrounded by a large painting himself.

I had a lot of fun with this one.  While the reference photo I used is in fact of a man at the beach, the viewer can have fun with this and imagine other scenarios. For example, he could be standing on flat land, looking out at distant snow-capped hills, sky, and clouds above.  If you were not told this was the sea, could you see alternative realities like this for his view?

This ambiguity is what interests me, because I believe strongly that the best art requires participation by the viewer. Just as decoding the Mona Lisa’s thoughts are the viewer’s creation, I seek to give the viewer the opportunity to find their own meaning. This makes the painting theirs through co-creation between viewer and artist.

So that’s what I’m working on.  It is fun creating these worlds, but not easy—art never is!

Postscript: This series will probably be shown in San Francisco at Spark Arts, in April, but specifics TBD.

Figurative Watercolors

Mike and I have planned a trip to Maui! It’s been a long time since we’ve enjoyed a vacation together, so I’m really looking forward to it. Since I don’t plan to travel with my full oil setup, I will paint watercolors plein air. I think there’s something about Hawaii and the tropics that lends itself well to watercolor–the lightness of it all.

To prepare my watercolor skills (which are minimal), I’ve started to paint the figure. It’s a great way to “kill two birds with one stone”: both learn the medium and continue to improve my drawing skills. Of course, painting the figure is the best way to improve drawing because it’s obvious when you make even the slightest error. The first two studies below were painted at a local gay bar (Moby Dick). An artist in the neighborhood thought it would be nice to have a drawing group there, and I have to say, it was really fun. It is a gay bar, so lots of pulsing music and local characters, but I ended up having a great time. It’s Monday nights (at least through the Summer )if you’re interested (7:30-10:30pm).

The last painting is just another tennis player study, in oil. I’ve been doing a seriers of these. The strong light on a tennis court makes for some very interesting color situations–especially reflected light. Enjoy!

Atelier Moby Dick 1, Watercolor, 6x6
Atelier Moby Dick 1, Watercolor, 6×6

Available on my website for purchase here.


Atelier Moby Dick 2, Watercolor, 6x6
Atelier Moby Dick 2, Watercolor, 6×6

Tennis Player 3, Oil on Linen, 10x5.5
Tennis Player 3, Oil on Linen, 10×5.5″


Testing Solvent-Free Oil Paint

What I love about being an artist is the opportunity to continually learn and explore.  My focus recently is learning to use new and different materials. Royal Talens sent me a set of Cobra solvent-free oil paints to try, and these are my first results.  The benefit is I don’t have to use solvents, which even though labeled “odor free” really are not, and it’s nice so nice to clean up with soap and water!

As I explore how to work with this paint, I’m find myself painting with a much thicker impasto technique–and I’m enjoying it!  Trying new materials can push artists in new directions and open up new possibilities.  I hope you enjoy these studies, all done in San Francisco.

Monterey Cypress (Lands End, San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 8x10
Monterey Cypress (Lands End, San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 8×10

Crissy Field (San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 10x8
Crissy Field (San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 10×8

Ravine, Oil on Linen, 10x8
Ravine, Oil on Linen, 10×8



San Francisco Plein Air

I’m so lucky to live in a city with so much beauty to paint!  I’ve neglected it too long, often looking for inspiration in Carmel, the Central Coast, and elsewhere.  I may eventually paint citiscapes again, but for now, enjoying the beauty of the coast.  The only work not from San Francisco below is from Alta Lake, a friends home in The Sierras we get to visit a couple times a year.  Enjoy!

Lands End Morning (San Francisco), Oil on Linen (Plein Air), 12x9"
Lands End Morning (San Francisco), Oil on Linen (Plein Air), 12×9″

Lands End Hike (San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 8x10
Lands End Hike (San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 8×10

View at Sutro Baths (San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 8x10
View at Sutro Baths (San Francisco), Oil on Linen, 8×10; plein air.

Simonds Loop Presidio of San Francisco, Oil on Linen, 12x9
Simonds Loop Presidio of San Francisco, Oil on Linen, 12×9 (Plein air)

Lake Alta (From The Millers), Oil on Linen, 8x10
Lake Alta (From The Millers), Oil on Linen, 8×10 (plein air)

Tennis Player

I’m thinking of Summer, which is why I suppose I selected this reference photo to paint.  I wanted to depict a sun-filled day (just as we had in San Francisco, today). Speaking of sunny weather, I’m headed to San Miguel de Allende this Friday, where the forecast is low 80’s all week.  Although Mike can’t make this trip, I’m looking forward to a full week dedicated to painting with Frank Gardner.  I’ll try to post from Mexico, if I have decent WiFi at the hotel.  Cheers.