Be Still My Art!

First of all, I apologize for the terrible pun- gotta find some way to jazz up the ol’ still life. Still life, as a genre, sort of gets a bad rap- traditionally it’s ranked dead last in the hierarchy of artistic genres. We were once sworn enemies, only for Wayne Thiebaud to forever change that. Most of my senior work for my BFA was paintings of objects (not fully posed in a still life, but still with the same idea.) But since graduating I’ve taken a bit of a break from painting objects to painting faces. So, it was pleasantly refreshing to take a still life workshop at Scottsdale Artist’s School to revisit the unique challenge presented by the genre.

I gained a real appreciation for the complexity that exists even in really “standard”  traditional still life setups. You not only have to “pose” objects in an interesting configuration, but you have to consider the relationship between those objects (is there enough variety of shapes, textures, colors, etc?) as well as light the scene in a way that will showcase them to their fullest potential. Just finding objects that would relate to each other effectively was a big challenge.  As with making any piece of art, no matter the style or genre, it all just boils down to problem-solving.

After a lot of mulling and moving different objects in and out, I eventually arrived at this setup:

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I loved the yellow bowl, and kind of tried to find objects to complement that. I decided that the purple onions were a natural source of contrast, while still having a similar shape. The leaves would draw the eye down to the focus of the piece.

The class was taught by modern master of the still life, Jeff Legg. He was a fantastic instructor, and I love that he spent so much time doing demos for us. I got to see him make multiple paintings (pretty much) from start to finish and was excited to experiment with his own way of working influenced by the old masters. His technique is so different from my own way of working- in that it involves a lot of glazing, working from a toned canvas, and the use of black, which I tend to use sparingly at most- that it felt refreshing to try something different.

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And here is the finished product:

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oil on canvas

I’m pretty happy with the result! I’ve definitely learned to appreciate what a privilege it is to be in a classroom setting and to have an (immensely skilled!) instructor sharing with you and looking at your work. Even if you’re an incredibly self-aware person, you still tend to fall back on working in ways that feel comfortable and/or familiar. That’s why we all need to dive into something new every once in awhile, if just to keep us on our toes!

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Obligatory Reflections

Even though my rational side understands that the concept of a “new year” is just an arbitrary marker of the passage of time, which is itself a human construct and we will all die alone in the end…. I admit, I become much more reflective during this time of year. I can’t help but look back at the work I’ve been making and the progress that I’ve made as an artist.

2015 was my first full year of being a post-BFA graduate. I was thrust into “real life” without the constant supervision of my professors and peers. Upon graduating,  I essentially felt like that guy from the first Jurassic Park movie who, upon sitting down for a leisurely poo, watches all four walls of his little outhouse fall to the ground around him like Popsicle sticks, revealing a hungry T-Rex just outside its (in actuality, probably cardboard) walls. To make matters worse, and more comical (in the movie at least) his pants are down. In this metaphor, the T-Rex is REAL LYFE!!11! Just a few hours after graduating, I remember sitting in my room when a wave of dread and panic came over me. I couldn’t help but think that the T-Rex of REAL LIFE was going to thoroughly kick my ass and I would end up one of the many BFA grads who ends up not producing any new work shortly after graduating. But really, nothing so tragic or dramatic has happened. I’m still making work, and even thought it doesn’t always feel like it, said work is developing.

I went through this whole year making work in a pretty wide variety of media- everything from watercolor, oil, acrylic, various other painting mediums, mixed media, even embroidery.

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a sampling of my “2015 best 9” posts on instagram, which showcases the variety in my work this year pretty well.

I kind of have 3 main “series” of work that are in progress. Because of this, I basically felt like I was all over the place, because I kind of was, medium-wise.

I have my “Doe Eyes” series, which really just started as small sketches, but gradually turned into a series of small mixed-media works on paper:

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Doe Eyes: Green Mascara | gouache, watercolor, crayon on paper | 5×7″

Then, I have my Fixation series, which is mostly done in acrylic paint/mediums on canvas:

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Fixation: Eye III | acrylic, false eyelashes on canvas | 12×12″ |2015

Finally, I have my “Clown” series, which is the most recent. It’s a series of self portraits:

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Self Portrait: Clown III | oil on canvas | 20×30″

All three of these series, although different medium-wise, share a common thematic concern: they all have to do with feminine beauty rituals: the type of beauty that is dabbed, smeared, and applied. It’s not like I’m never conscious of this commonality while painting, but I can’t help but feel like I’m all over the place when I’m jumping from watercolor to oil to acrylic gel. I even went through some old portfolios and ended up destroying a lot of things from school in the name of new year’s cleaning (sorry, Mom,) where I also ended up finding a lot of examples of me exploring these kinds of ideas as early as freshman year of my BFA. It’s interesting to see how far back the core ideas for work that feels “new” often go.

So, 2015 was a year of experimentation, but experimentation with a pretty focused set of concerns and ideas. That seems to be a pretty good place to be in. I’m also pleased to say that I sold my highest volume of work this year at Art One Gallery. I still have a long way to go in my burgeoning art career, but I look forward to continuing to explore and develop in 2016, hopefully with less existential fear of T-rex attacks.

Transforming Reference Images

Now, I’m a firm believer that absolutely, any 2-d artist should be able to work from life, and should whenever they can (these skills are essential in simply being able to paint well. Full stop.) BUT, there are always going to be those situations where it just makes more sense to work  from a photograph. Now, some artists (especially the more “old school” ones)  take issue with working from photographs as opposed to direct observation. But I believe that one can work from a photograph while still making a great painting that isn’t a mere copy of the reference image.

For example, I did a painting of a grenade using a reference photo. I found it simpler to do this because of the placement (flat on a table) and lighting I wanted would be easier to reference from a photo rather than having to do a setup where I would somehow have to position my face directly parallel to a table while trying to paint.

Grenade Reference

The photo gave me the key information I needed- things like proportion, angles, major color/value changes. But as you can see, the finished painting isn’t an exact copy of my reference:

Grenade THIS (800x798)Grenade, oil on canvas, 12×12″, by Megan Koth

I think a good rule of thumb is to not spend too much time looking at the reference itself. Especially once you’ve got the key information down, you have to look at the painting that you’re making, and make decisions based on how to make your painting a successful one- not a mere copy of the reference photo. Basically, as I go, I look less and less at the reference (it helps that all my reference photos quickly become obscured with paint smudges anyway.) The camera can be the enemy of a great painter, but it can also be a great asset. Like most tools, it’s all in how you use it.

 

How Artists do Selfies

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Ah, the oft derided “selfie.” Those crazy kids these days with their shallow documentation of their own appearances! No one remembers that the (much longer!) process of immortalizing ones appearance in art is a longstanding, and respected, tradition!

Probably anyone who’s ever pursued art in some capacity has (maybe begrudgingly) had to face (get it?!) the challenge of depicting their own likeness from a mirror. Whenever I was given such an assignment, I seem to remember most of my classmates moaning and groaning while I was at least mildly excited. It just always seemed to me like such a cool, “artist” thing to do, to sit down and paint your own portrait.

Artist self-portraits are also great because you’re basically seeing the face, more or less, that you make when working.

SelfPort_MeganKoth (771x1000)Self portrait by Megan Koth, Oil on Canvas, 18×24″, 2014. 

Apparently, I look pretty stern while working!

However, I understand how it can be scary. The portrait assignment is kind of the perfect challenge for students because it’s a great way of getting them to paint something from life that they actually feel personally invested in. It’s hard to get invested in getting a crumpled paper bag or some random kitchen utensils right (we had some pretty terrible still life setups,) but their own face? Now that’s something a student isn’t likely to want to mess up. There’s also a unique personal intimacy that comes with painting a great self-portrait. I mean, you have to look at your own appearance at a level you never had before- noticing every detail, including every “flaw.” I can see how the latter would make some uncomfortable, and that probably explains a lot of students lack of enthusiasm for the assignment. But I’ve found over the years that painting myself has made me more accepting of the “flaws.” In that way, the self-portrait can end up being much more than just an assignment, but a process of self-discovery and acceptance. Or, if you’re not an artist and just wanna take a picture of yourself because you look fly as hell today, you can do that too.

 

Hilarious top “Mona Lisa” image courtesy of Sangerous on Imgur

It’s What YOU Make of it

Lets just say that sometime in the recent past, I saw a really, really terrible senior show at my school. Just terrible. And these were seniors. People who had, presumably, been here for four or so years honing their craft, diligently listening to professors and peer criticisms and suggestions. I was baffled. How could this be all they have to show? This is their “cream of the crop?” And it dawned on me that some people are just completely and utterly unwilling to learn. Militantly resistant, even. Unfortunately, I see this all too often in the weird world of BFA pursuers.

One often overlooked quality that makes a creative degree uniquely challenging is in how lofty its value can be. Being on the cusp of graduating myself with a BFA, I’m tempted to compare the act of pursuing this degree to say, deciding to backpack through Europe for a few years, to “find myself.” Now, I’m not saying this in a derisive way, but only to make the point that the value of this thing that an art degree is is not just contingent on showing up and doing what needs to be done, acquiring easily defined skills in the process to list on some resume- but in “what I make of it,” as cliche as that sounds. Just as someone could trudge through Europe with a closed-minded attitude and end up wasting four years, someone could similarly trudge through art school for the same amount of time, emerging no more capable of producing even decent artwork than when they arrived.

Basically, the biggest demand in the successful acquisition of an art degree is in being internally motivated- motivated to learn less fun and more academic things like perspective, anatomy,  replicating objects and the human figure from life (NOT PHOTOGRAPHS OMG,) and in delving into mediums and subjects unfamiliar to you. In order to succeed as an artist, you have to be motivated enough to learn the stuff you don’t like, because ultimately, at least some of that stuff is gonna make executing the stuff you do like to make a whole lot easier (or even just slightly more possible.) In fact, what you like making may be kind of boring, actually, because it’s 1. stuff you feel comfortable doing for a reason, and 2. stuff you’re making with very little art historical context/life experience behind it. For instance, I used to really hate still life. Thought it was dumb, because all I’d been exposed to were weird, dark, Renaissance-era paintings of fruit and dead chickens:

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Sorry, but I’ve always found paintings like this to be super tacky. But then I was exposed to Wayne Thiebaud, and all was right with the world:

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My point obviously being: I changed. As a result of going to school, allowing myself to be exposed to new things, I changed a really myopic view (more like bias) of mine for the better. And I’ve made a myriad of other positive changes as well. I’ve become a much better figure painter/drawer, not without struggle, mind you. I somehow learned to like watercolor. And I’m really proud to say that I feel that I’ve successfully befriended all of the studio professors I’ve had. And some students just don’t seem willing to do that. They go to every critique as if ready for battle. They see any honest attempts at criticism as personal attacks, undoubtedly feeding into their own self-constructed persecution narrative. “They just don’t understand my ART!” They’ll think. I had a classmate in a figure painting class once express frustration during a critique that he was “sick of being objective!” i.e. he was sick of being expected to paint what he actually saw in real life. He wanted to paint these crazy fantastical scenes and put in fairy girls or whatever. But you know what makes painting a kick-ass fairy nymph a whole lot easier? knowing how to paint an actual human girl accurately first. And he clearly was not there yet.  I see so many people like this- students who want to skip squares one, two, and three all the way to four. These are people who take some sort of weird pride in resisting internal change. Like they’re some rebel defying the evil institution and professors encouraging such things as personal growth and artistic development. They somehow have twisted their own immaturity into an achievement.

Look, we’ve all had slumps. The thing with relying so much on being internally motivated to better yourself and your craft is that it can be draining. And sometimes I find myself closing off to criticism that I really need to hear. But the thing is, I eventually reflect, and realize I should listen to that advice, and I move on. And my work gets better in the process, adding value to my education.  Unfortunately, some make the mistake of letting that “slump” last all of four years, ending up  not only wasting the time of their classmates, professors, and loved ones, but their own. At least they’ll likely have some sizable student loan debt to keep them company.

Yes, Art Literacy is Essential

Lately my art-related thoughts have started to dwell on some pessimistic observations of how we value art education here in the US of A. I observe talented and dedicated friends/mentors struggle to keep art programs alive in our schools, only to, more often than not, be faced with apathetic administrations and lack of resources and marketing. In high school, it was pretty obvious that the art program wasn’t seen as an essential part of the curriculum. Art class is just where kids go to fingerpaint or whatever, right? That’s the impression that I left with, and it’s actually quite frightening, having some serious ramifications to the quality of our culture.

For instance, I think that it’s ridiculous that someone could basically go through all tiers of our education system, acquiring a degree (or degrees), and therefore be considered an educated person, while not knowing a Monet from a Manet.

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I dunno, brah, they look the same to me.

So many complete their education with the whole “art” thing still eluding them. A comparable oversight would be someone whose literary education stopped at Hop on Pop. We’re taught how to analyze fine works of literature in school- not only that, but how to appreciate them. How to notice subtleties in mood, recognize thematic elements, and literary devices. If your favorite book is above the elementary school reading level, then the only reason you can appreciate that work is because you were taught how to do so. I’m sure if your education on literature had stopped at Dr. Seuss, then you hearing your friends fawn over the latest great American novel would sound alienating and embarrassing to you. You’d probably become defensive and insecure, calling those people pretentious or claim that they couldn’t earnestly enjoy such a, to you, esoteric work. Sound familiar? this is how most people view the art world. Because they were abandoned in the Dr. Seuss level of Art understanding. And that needs to stop.

When people aren’t educated on how to look at artworks critically, something really crazy also happens: our culture becomes really stale. If one never looks at, say, the history of painting, or writing, or music, or whatever, as a discipline, then there’s the tendency to start treading really familiar ground, all while asserting a false sense of originality. As a result, we start noticing that all the popular songs sound the same. Sub-par Artwork that doesn’t really further the discipline sells like crazy among uneducated buyers. And, for the vastly uneducated public, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad, unoriginal creative works clogging up the channels and justifying their sense that art really is a load of unapproachable BS.

So, please, donate to your local arts programs/centers. Volunteer to teach workshops if you can. Don’t vote for legislation that slashes through art programs. We all get the culture we deserve, and if we continue to treat art programs in our education system as disposable, be ready to be completely underwhelmed, or even annoyed, by any future music you listen to, movies you see, buildings you live in, or 2-d surfaces you look at.

Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol

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Recently I had the privilege of watching this Chuck Workman documentary on Andy Warhol. It’s kind of impossible to be in any way culturally aware and not to have some sort of familiarity with Warhol and his work, but I wasn’t really familiar with who he was as a person, beyond the outlandish persona. The film offered some really fun, often intimate details about Warhol’s work and life that were sometimes funny, oftentimes incredibly sad.

For instance, I’d only been familiar with Warhol through his persona, which led me to believe he was kind of an ass. And I was right. In the film, it’s mentioned how, upon learning of the death of “friend” and colleague Edie Sedgewick, Andy replied “Edie who?” The other “superstars” and factory workers also lamented on how much of a tightwad Warhol was: they practically had to beg him for money, and Warhol would revel in their begging.

Despite these less-than-flattering details, I also realized something about Warhol during the film that made me sympathize with him. Apparently, Warhol lived, perhaps even entirely, a celibate/asexual life. He was also quite sickly (being described as “anemic,”) and this showed in his appearance. I saw this as incredibly tragic, and I even started to better understand his trademark obsession with celebrity culture. Celebrities offer us this very strange sort or relationship, in that we know them, but we don’t really know them. We often know very intimate details about their lives, but couldn’t even call them acquaintances. One of Warhol’s friends in the film mentions how Warhol didn’t like the “messiness” of intimate relationships. In some way, I think Warhol’s celebrity worship/obsessions acted as a sort of surrogate relationship. You can’t really be “hurt” by the ending of such a relationship. Their presence just sort of cleanly fades out of your life…

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Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962. Silkscreen on Canvas

Overall, a very compelling and entertaining documentary. Lots of very notable people also appear in the film (Grace Jones! Liza Minnelli! Fran Lebowitz!) Definitely worth the watch if you can get your hands on a copy (online or otherwise.)

My Tribute to Thiebaud’s “Rabbit”

I’ve never done a tribute of any sorts to a famous artist’s work before- yet I see this all the time in art school. I’ve never so much as kept an art book open while working. I guess a part of me thought it was wrong to look at another artist’s work for enough inspiration that it became really noticeable. BUT, I’ve come to realize, that when you really love and admire another artist’s work, sometimes a fun little tribute can be just fine!

In my Painting III class right now, I basically can paint anything I want. I took advantage of this freedom to paint something I’d always wanted to paint but somehow never found the occasion to do so: a hamster. Now, let me explain: I love hamsters. I couldn’t have a dog, or a cat, or any sort of large, allergenic pet growing up. So, I had hamsters, and subsequently came to think of them as just about the most adorable, lovable animals out there.

And then, there’s this painting by Wayne Thiebaud, which shows a rabbit in the most interesting way I’ve ever seen a rabbit (or any cute and furry animal) painted:

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Wayne Thiebaud: Rabbit.

Ever since seeing this painting, I’ve told myself that I would do a painting of my own as a sort of “tribute” using a hamster as a subject. A few years later, I finally did it:

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Megan Koth, Hamster, Oil on Canvas, 2013.

This was something I painted solely for myself, just for fun. I’m in the middle of developing my body of work for my thesis exhibition, so I haven’t painted something just for the heck of it in awhile. I’m glad that I took a break to paint something fluffy (both figuratively and literally) and fun!

Undergraduate Juried Exhibition

This is oldish news, but back in December (and through to January) I had a piece in ASU’s Herberger School of Art’s Annual Undergraduate Juried Exhibition!

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The inside of ASU’s Harry Wood Gallery.

Here’s a closer view of my piece titled, bluntly, Lipstick:

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Megan Koth, Lipstick, Oil on Canvas, 2012. Better pic in my portfolio.

This was my first time really submitting to a serious group gallery exhibition. As artists, sometimes we take for granted the positive reinforcement that can come from other people’s approval of our work. We tend to get so absorbed in our own (often hyper-critical) head space that we forget that there are people out there who really like what you do. Unsurprisingly, it feels really good to have a successful, knowledgeable person in your field deem your work worthy of some special recognition. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Abstracting Realism

Last semester, in one of my painting classes, I was given a rare challenge. I don’t tend to be much fazed by the assignments my professors throw at me, but this one was surprisingly difficult. The premise was simple and maybe even trite- take a largely representational/realistic painting and abstract it. I chose Vincent Desiderio’s Sumo:

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Vincent Desiderio, Sumo, 2008, oil on canvas

I was drawn to the sense of movement and weight of the forms, which I thought may translate well into abstraction. This was my result:

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Megan Koth, Sumo, Acrylic on Canvas

During the whole process, I was constantly having to stop myself from making it too realistic- pretty much the opposite of what I had planned in my head. I approached the project thinking “I’m gonna make this so abstract as to be mostly unrecognizable to the original.” Obviously, that didn’t happen. I think that challenge came because my abstracts tend to be almost strictly formalist- I don’t look at references or have “subject matter” in mind when doing my abstract work. So, having to look at some serious subject matter while doing an abstract painting was a huge challenge for me.

I’m not necessarily happy with his painting in the sense that I think it’s a really good painting and I would put it in my portfolio or anything, but I’m happy with the painting in relation to the original and the assignment. My current professor said something partly in jest yesterday that I think apt: “your guy’s problem is that you all want to make good paintings.” Sometimes, we have to abandon our tried-and-true tendencies (especially as students!) and be willing to fail, in order to truly be challenged, and therefore to grow, as artists.