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:

legg_workshop2

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.

legg_workshop1

And here is the finished product:

Legg Wkshop adj_Megan Koth_WEB

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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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.

 

Art Book of the Day: Wayne Thiebaud, A Retrospective

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I finally got my hands on this somewhat rare art book from Acquavella showcasing some beautiful new and previously unpublished works by Wayne Thiebaud. As you all know, it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of his work. This is also my first nice, hardcover art book of Thiebaud paintings! It’s one thing to see the works online, but there’s something about holding a book of high quality reproductions in your hands that brings the whole experience just a little closer to seeing them in person.

I’m a huge fan of Thiebaud’s recent work, which includes gorgeously lush, vibrant (and kind of perspectively ambiguous!) landscapes:

Wayne Thiebaud_Layered Ridge

Wayne Thiebaud- Layered Ridge , 2010, Oil on Canvas.

As I said, the book features previously unpublished work both from Thiebaud’s own collection and that of his wife, Betty Jean!

Thiebaud-Ice-Cream-Cone Cigar Box

This is a cigar box that he painted for her as a gift! D’awww.

And that’s just about the only thing about Thiebaud that’s shocking- he’s so normal. Besides his extraordinary status as a masterful painter, he seems like a normal guy, with a middle class upbringing and now a comfortable, married life. No dancing on tables at the Chelsea Hotel, not dropping acid at studio 54- just a normal, well-adjusted guy. He speaks delightfully candidly about his own work as well. The book includes some snippets from interviews, and in one Thiebaud remarks how he isn’t interested in the commercial status of his subjects (like the pop painters) but simply saw a slice of pie as “a triangle on a round plate.” Maybe it’s this normalcy and candid nature of his that has largely kept him out of the limelight, in the sense that he has never achieved say, Richter-level status of celebrity.

And he’s still going! A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that yes, he’s still alive and, yes, he’s still painting away and showing regularly. John Wilmerding, in the forward to the book, aptly states “In a contentious, cynical, and chaotic age his art brings to the table optimism, humor, and order.”

Reservoir-and-Orchard-2001

Wayne Thiebaud, reservoir and orchard, 2001.

In Defense of Silly Art Books

I love art books. There are some seriously fancy ones out there (with similarly fancy price tags) and I love dreaming about getting them whenever I’m in a museum gift shop or something. And I own some pretty nice art books with fancy bindings, glossy photos, and interesting anecdotes about some amazing artists’ life. But you know what? I love looking at “fluffy” beginners art books as well, even though my skills are pretty well past the beginner stage.

This lady clearly knows how to party

This book was given to me by my aunt a few years ago. Not a huge fan of this lady’s art. But I love leafing through this book because it has so many tips and tricks to painting different subjects that, even if they may seem obvious, I don’t necessarily think to do when on the spot.

Start with the fragile color! GENIUS!

Even though I don’t do cheesy paintings of flower pots and “old masters” style still lives, I still just love looking at the process that she goes through, even if I don’t personally find the end result aesthetically pleasing. Books like this are useful in gathering things to add to my mental checklist when approaching certain subjects, which is always useful. For instance, I wouldn’t have necessarily noticed on my own that it’s useful to think of most flowers as conical in shape, to help with establishing value. Sometimes it’s good to review the fundamentals even if you’re at an intermediate skill level. I just think of it like Olympic athletes doing ordinary stretches/warmups that we all do before a workout before doing their superhuman feats.

Even though I know color theory and color mixing, I still love thumbing through books about them.This book is really useful in that sometimes I have a painting that needs a little something. Some sort of color to really bring it to life, or that will tie disparate colors together, etc- only I can’t seem to retrieve that color from my own mental catalog. In those cases, I whip out this book.

It basically just gives a bunch of color combos and how to achieve them. It also talks about how to mix specific colors and how to work with them (working with grays, greens, etc.) Sometimes it takes looking at a color on a page to realize that it’s exactly what a painting needs.

Sometimes we forget really basic techniques- they sort of get shuffled to the bottom of the toolbox. When that happens to me, I can just look through one of these books and be reminded “oh yeah! I can do this!” The endless possibilities that art making provides means that locating that special something, whether color, technique, or approach, can sometimes be difficult to find in our own cluttered minds. And sometimes, all one needs is a cheesy art book to retrieve that special “something.”

On Painting Using Photographic References

Over my years of pursuing art and being an art student, I’ve encountered many people- and they all often had strong opinions about using photographic references for making work. In my experience, the “older” instructors I met were more hostile towards using any kind of reference other than “real life” to make a painting. My younger instructors, mostly graduate students, were much more accepting and even emphasized that good photographic references could be necessary for a successful painting. The thing is, I agree with both of these sentiments, to a degree.

I absolutely agree that there is really no replacement for drawing/painting from life. Being a student, and therefore having participated in many critiques, it’s often immediately obvious when the entirety of somebody’s drawing “skill set” is essentially derived from their finding cool pictures online and copying them. The images, although of real life objects or people, become flattened and dull because of their limited source material. I’ll provide a picture of a horrible drawing I did in middle school as an example of this:

You can see the flatness I’m talking about (in addition to other problems…) They may be well executed copies of another 2-d image, but the aren’t great works in their own right. Seeing this kind of stuff is depressing because these people don’t realize that they pretty much don’t have any real drawing skills. I mean, drawing pictures from magazines or of your favorite actresses or whatever can be helpful in developing a more accurate eye/understanding of proportions, but being able to copy a 2-d image accurately isn’t exactly a difficult feat (although, maybe to a middle-schooler…) I mean, I was in an art marketing class this semester where a student was seriously shocked- SHOCKED! that he was violating copyright by drawing a favorite album cover and selling it. Or a girl who was SHOCKED to learn that making batman fanart could never (legally) make her any money. I weep.

Which is why, of course, one has to develop fundamental drawing/painting skills- and that means working from life. Transferring 3-dimensional space into a 2-dimensional composition presents a more involved challenge, and requires a higher understanding of space, lighting, anatomy, etc. than just working from a photograph. And it’s these skills that will make working from photographs when you need to much more successful- the idea is to make it look like you drew/painted from life, even when you didn’t have the opportunity to for whatever reason (models are expensive, for instance.) Understanding what a photograph does to a 3-d object and working with that knowledge, and the actual skills you have from working from life, is what it’s all about.

Megan Koth- Pointe Duc Hoc (16×20)  © 2011

For example, here’s a pretty recent painting I did based on a photograph that I took on a 2010 trip to France. As you can see, I didn’t exactly replicate the lighting and color. Instead, I created a more apparent and appealing cool/warm contrast with the rocks in the foreground and the grass in the background. I also decreased the blinding whiteness of the sky to a more neutral grey (part of that is just the bad lighting in the photo of the painting.) It’s not perfect, but is more interesting to look at than if I had directly copied everything in the photograph, especially if I had done so with no knowledge of working with 3-d space.

At the end of the day, a photograph is a captured moment in time- whereas a painting isn’t (although some mistakenly claim they are). For instance, when you look an someone’s self-portrait (not from a photo, of course) you’re usually seeing the face of the artist in intense concentration, and their face after making any number of small or large adjustments along the way to subtle changes in expression as the process goes on. In other words, a painting is an image that constantly changes- until it’s finished, that is.