Category Archives: Citiscapes

How the Internet is Destroying Grand Art

The meaning of art on a grand scale was reinforced after a recent visit to an art museum after months of COVID-19 isolation. Having spent so much time viewing art through a smartphone or laptop, I was reminded of the impact large-scale art has when experienced in person.

The art world is in distress: we experience less and less in person, creating a disconnect between the artist’s intent and the viewer’s experience. Galleries who survived the e-commerce of Etsy and e-Bay are now being sunk by a virus. I’m hopeful they’ll return, and just maybe, post COVID-19, appreciation for the arts will increase. A silver lining. For many, the arts have sustained us during this time of isolation. Yes, even Tiger King is art: it’s storytelling. It’s like watching a car crash, but you have to hand it to those filmmakers, you couldn’t look away. All art is storytelling.

For the arts, the Internet has been a double-edged sword: democratized access to a world of art previously only seen in museums or books; but at the same time, viewing art has shrunk first to the size of a PC screen, and now further to an Instagram post on your smartphone. We experience more art, but not in the intimate form for which it was intended: personal immersion. Viewing art digitally has diminished the impact we experience standing in front a Rothko at MOMA or a Titian at the Louvré. Viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel online isn’t much different than looking at a cartoon. Rather than feeling enveloped by the scale of a grand Rothko, we see online instead what looks to be test color paint spots on a bedroom wall.

I am big! It's the pictures that got small.

Is the medium the message?

“It seems there is no area in our culture that is not touched, changed, even swallowed by the Internet. It’s both medium and message, mass and personal, social and solitary.”

John Battelle

If the Internet is the medium of experience, it can’t help but shape the viewer’s observation and therefore the message. The medium isn’t exactly the message, but it has overwhelming impact.  Perhaps we should create two kinds of art from the source medium of our choice (e.g., oil, watercolor, whatever): online or in person?  Today I’m painting for an online audience, tomorrow, a gallery or collector where scale matters. That’s a fundamental change to art making that most artists aren’t thinking through.

In my growth as an artist, I was progressing toward larger works—usually based on plein air paintings.  My collectors always would ask, “do you work bigger”?   But now and even pre-COVID, 99.9999% of people who see my art see it online, where scale doesn’t really matter.  Seeing art digitally destroys scale. The question of working at a grand scale is based on commerce: is your intention to create something that thousands of people will view online, or is it for a collector’s wall?  Is the art to be viewed or experienced?  I suppose this is a false choice: we need both.  As artists, working large stretches us in new ways. Tring to scale up sketches drawn from plein air or live model sessions requires artistic alchemy.

I, for one, will continue to push art to a grand scale, but I’m being driven less by medium over message, but more so because it’s a skill every artist should explore and one I want to conquer because in the end, I’m the first message recipient and the message is mine.

I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment.

Smoky Ventura Sunrise, oil, 12x9"
Smoky Ventura Sunrise, oil, 12×9″

 

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!

Color Spots Demonstration

To help fellow artists achieve their color goals, I’ve documented how I approached a recent painting in terms of color and composition. 

I’ve taken many workshops, read many art books–but at the end of the day (at least for me), practicing the craft by covering miles of canvas is essential.  It’s funny too how I’ve not really grasped much of what I was told (or read) until later in my art career.  There are many skills I thought I learned years ago, but I find myself now revisiting them, developing a deeper understanding.

An essential book on painting is Charles Hawthorne’s “On Painting“.  He wrote, 

“Painting, is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and Color it.”

Sounds simple, right?  If you’re a painter, you know better!  I keep coming back to his advice because it’s so powerful.  Simple ideas always are.  I followed Hawthorne’s advice in this painting.

To get started, the first priority for me is design/composition.  A strong design will attract the eye when the viewer is across the room.  It will draw people in.    

My first step was a simple charcoal drawing on paper, where I could adjust and experiment with ideas easily.  Since the subject is architecture, there are design constraints.  Unlike a cloud or seaside white water, I don’t have the complete freedom to create shapes that play well together.  So for this image, the architecture needed to be solid, but I had to ensure all the components (trees, sky, etc.) supported a coherent design. 

In this sketch, I thought about the big shapes and how they related to each other.  I considered principles I first learned by reading Edgar Payne’s “Composition of Outdoor Painting“: creating balance among large shapes; balancing organic, loose forms (trees) with architectural elements; ensuring there’s a comfortable amount of space between primary shapes; avoiding repetitive shapes; etc. For example, I shifted the bush in the lower right of the painting leftward, so I could intersect those greens against the garage door’s complementary reds.

Ingliside Preliminary Sketch (charcoal on paper)

Next, color. Given this subject is primarily architecture, it’s a bit easier to find the right color. Flat planes like walls don’t have a lot of variation (like a tree). Even so, I approached mixing color the same way. I mix a pile of color (see pic below) for each of the major areas of the painting on the palette before I touch the canvas, one pile for an object in light, the other for the shade side of the object.

To get accurate color spots, I use a technique I’ve written about before here called “brush in front.” Also, to increase vibrancy, I started with a single color that is key to the scene, and built the rest of the painting around it. For this painting, I started with pure Cadmium Red Light for the garage door in light, and then mixed a completely different color for the door in shadow. I’ll often apply this to other paintings: start with the most exciting color, place it on the canvas, and then make all the surrounding colors relate to it.

Another point about color I’ll make here. In nature, true color in a scene is rarely duplicated across objects–unless of course the objects (tree type, whatever) are the same. Think about the hillsides you’ve seen with various types of trees and vegetation. If you observe closely, none of the colors are the same among disparate objects, so why use the same base pigments to represent them?

To make objects stand out (my goal was a sunlit-colorful design), I use color separation and avoid repeating color formulas for objects of the same hue. So, for example, the greens in the building were mixed using a different set of blues and yellows on my palette than those of the trees, and the grass was yet another combination of pigments. This becomes apparent when you look at the final painting below. See how the character of each green is distinct.

Palette

After drawing the design on canvas, I applied spots of paint to key areas where I could judge the adjacency of color. For example, if you look at the garage door and driveway, I placed the three spots together in the drawing so I could ensure they relate before painting the entire area. In the upper left, I placed the sky color right next to the tree, and so on. Placing these spots allows me to further adjust color as needed on the palette, because as Hawthorne wrote, it’s the relationship among colors that’s important. An alternative is to paint directly on canvas and then continually adjust paint there, but I find that that muddies the color. I’d rather get the color right the first time on the palette, and this mixing technique does it for me.

After making some adjustments, I filled in the drawing with paint, keeping things as simple as possible. I believe that simplicity results in a more powerful image. While I did model the tree on the right a bit with some dark and light colors, in general I kept the planes of color flat. If I’ve mixed the correct lit and shadow colors, form will happen.

Ingliside, Oil on linen, 12×9″ (click to purchase)

I’m happy with this one. I was able to recreate the feeling I had when I saw this scene. I hope you see the same, and that you found this demonstration was useful! Feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in comments below. This painting is available for purchase here. Happy painting!

Painting with Purpose: Color Spots

The problems most growing artists try to solve often boils down to a lack of singular purpose. For example, a common question plein air painters ask is, “how much time should I take seeking a location to paint?” I’ve been there, all too often taking longer to find a scene than painting—a frustrating experience I know many of us share.

Seemingly simple questions never have simple answers, but the solution depends on the goal for going out: are you out painting today to work on a particular technical skill, like color or drawing?  To prepare for a show?  To commune with fellow painters?  Do it all?  When I go out, even though like anyone I’d prefer to be inspired by a scene, I: choose a goal; quickly narrow my visual choices to achieve that goal; and then focus on it alone.

The most common goal for me is understanding natural light, and with that, accepting the constraints of plein air painting. Most of the time, we only have about 90 minutes to finish a picture before the natural light shifts to the point where the scene has changed enough to require a new start. The skills I’m most focused on is composition and color—and sometimes just one of the two. I try not to expect too much from one 90-minute painting: draftsmanship, color, selling, or winning a competition (or “likes” on social media).

Plein air painting is an essential tool for understanding natural light. When I judge a show, I can easily distinguish between a painting that captures natural light and one where the artist spent too much time and “followed the light” too far, for example, spending 3 hours on a scene where the light has moved far past the original light moment. To illustrate this, I’m sharing two plein air studies where I had the singular purpose of capturing the effect of light. Capturing light can be achieved by mixing small, exact color spots. I learned this from reading Charles Hawthorne.

Charles Hawthorne understood how to capture natural light through color spots. If you’re a plein air painter and haven’t read “Hawthorne on Painting,” by Charles Webster Hawthorne, you’re missing out!  Buy his wisdom immediately!  He describes an essential truth in painting in general, but especially true of plein air,

“Painting is the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another. That’s the fundamental thing.”

This is a simple, essential truth often missed by painters who expect too much from a single painting session.

Here’s a color spot example. I was out on a beautifully clear day in San Francisco, a city where subjects to paint are endless. I ended up at a favorite, Crissy Field, where I could have painted architecture (including the Golden Gate Bridge), beachcombers, rocks and surf, long city views, hillsides, etc, but I was struck immediately by the dramatic color of this building. 

I started a color notes journey by painting small color spots for each element: the main structure walls in light and shadow; roof; lawn; sky and distant bay water behind the building (see below).  I didn’t fill in the broad shapes of color until each spot related first to each other.  And if one color note was off (I first painted the roof too dark), there’s a domino effect and adjacent colors notes change too. In this study, I repainted the sky color spot several times after all the other spots related correctly.

Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8x10"
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8×10″

To keep focus, you’ll notice the building has no windows or doors.  Of course, it actually has, but painting that detail would have taken time away from my singular goal.  Having captured these key colors in this study I can later paint a larger studio work that includes this detail, but there was no need to do so in the 90 minutes I took to capture color notes here.

This is another example, a Pacific Grove scene of color notes I painted last week.

Give it a try, let me know how you do!  Also, to capture accurate color notes, refer back to this post on how I mix color outdoors.

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
SOLD


Castro Bag Lady
10×10 inches, Framed, Original Oil on Panel
$325


Park Meetup
The Conversation (GGP)

16×12 inches, Framed, Original Oil on Linen
$450


Riverbed #2
Riverbed #2

9×12 inches, Framed, Original Oil on Canvas, 9×12 inches
$175 


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
$125  


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

6×6 inches, Original Oil on Panel, Unframed
$125 


Ventura Beach Men 3 T Shirt

Ventura Beach Men 3 T Shirt 
6×6″, Original Oil on Panel, Unframed
$125


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

6×6 inches, Original Oil on Panel, Unframed
$125 

Palm Springs Plein Air

I had a great time painting plein air in Palm Springs last weekend!  I need to get back soon.  The combination of blazing, clear light; nature; and modern architecture make it a great destination for plein air painters.  Enjoy!

Indian Canyons (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 8x6"
Indian Canyons (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 8×6″

"Chilis Retreat, Palm Springs", gouache on paper, 8x6"
“Chilis Retreat, Palm Springs”, gouache on paper, 8×6″

"Chili's Retreat, by the pool (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 6x6"
“Chili’s Retreat, by the pool (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 6×6”

Using Art to Balance Life

Duboce & Buena Vista Park, Gouache on Paper, 4x6"
Duboce & Buena Vista Park, Gouache on Paper, 4×6″

I’ve enjoyed a long, fulfilling career in Silicon Valley.  It’s an incredibly diverse, constantly changing place and state of mind. It’s easy to be consumed here in a world where creating disruption is your job. It see it everywhere as I walk the city (my favorite past-time). I notice the first-time tourists who see San Francisco through fresh eyes contrasted with the emerging technology class glued to their latest device. Watching them, I ask myself, do they miss the wonder in the eyes of newcomers around them?  Can we maintain curiosity, and see the world anew every day?

As an Industry Analyst at Altimeter Group, my job now is to understand and council others in technology disruption. But I need a constant: a foundation that puts these ceaseless changes in perspective. How can you understand change without understanding the starting point? For me that starts with family of course, but also, seeing and expressing the undeniable beauty around me every day. So, I paint and sketch. Every day. Maybe it’s a “left brain, right brain” thing, but for me, creating something of lasting beauty in a world of ephemeral apps, devices and marketing campaigns gives me the foundation I need to notice. And noticing—being aware—is the first step in understanding the world as it is and can be.

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico is a real gem. The centro’s architecture is Spanish Colonial, and the people there are  wonderful.  Love painting there, and finally got Mike to go on a visit recently.  Here are some paintings in watercolor and oil.  Enjoy!

Joyce's Pool #2 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor
Joyce’s Pool #2 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor

Joyce's Pool #1 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor
Joyce’s Pool #1 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor

 

San Miguel de Allende, Watercolor
San Miguel de Allende, Watercolor

San Miguel de Allende (from Casa Schuck), Oil on Linen, 11x14
San Miguel de Allende (from Casa Schuck), Oil on Linen, 11×14

San Miguel de Allende Sunset, Oil on Linen, 8x10
San Miguel de Allende Sunset, Oil on Linen, 8×10

 

 

 

 

Balboa Park (San Diego, CA)

Balboa Park in San Diego is a painter’s paradise.  According to Wikipedia, the park is “Named for the Spanish maritime explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the park hosted the 1915 Panama–California Exposition and 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, both of which left architectural landmarks.”  The architecture is great, and the park is surrounded by beautiful gardens.  I had some fun with this one.  Enjoy!

Balboa Park (golden light), oil on linen, 12x9
Balboa Park (golden light), oil on linen, 12×9

Sunrise or sunset?

Whether this is a sunrise or sunset depends upon your perspective, however, I think it’s a false choice.  It’s not one or the other–it’s both.  It’s sunset in San Miguel de Allende and sunrise in somewhere else. I find this same truth in life all the time, and I try to recognize it when it happens so I can see both sides of any situation.  Enjoy!

Sunset (San Miguel de Allende), Oil on canvas, 12x9"
Sunset (San Miguel de Allende), Oil on canvas, 12×9″

Catching up with new work

I have a couple of different recent paintings to share as I continue to explore new ideas and materials.

I painted this plein air work in San Miguel de Allende a few months ago, but it sat in my studio unfinished for a while. It needed just a few adjustments.

San Miguel de Allende Chapel, Oil on Linen, 12x9
San Miguel de Allende Chapel, Oil on Linen, 12x9

I love painting a dramatic sky!  This was painted from a reference photo I took while staying at Red Rocks for the 1st Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo.  I liked the counterbalance between the drama of the sky and the distant lights of the Las Vegas Strip.

Vegas vs Nature, Oil on Linen, 12x16
Vegas vs Nature, Oil on Linen, 12x16

And finally, I’ve been experimenting with new materials.  This oil on paper work was done with new Cobra water soluble oils.  I love the idea of painting with solvents!  So far I like the, although I don’t have enough colors to truly judge–and I haven’t painted on anything other than paper so far.   You may recognize this study, based on another done plein air in regular oil paint.

Desert Color Study, Oil on Paper, 8x10
Desert Color Study, Oil on Paper, 8x10