Category: rambles

Composition playground

Composition is one of those aspects of paint learning that will never be complete.  You can never sign off and say, “Well, I learned that now on to painting”.  Composition possibilities are endless and fascinating.

An art friend and I were talking composition a bit ago, specifically joking about JPI–jolts per inch.  In truth not a laughing matter.  In many schools of composition the punch of your composition or design takes precidence over everything else in the painting.

Any of your favorite illustrations and movie stills have that NOTAN/JPI punch and drama.  The rest of the story is subordinate to that initial kick in the teeth, mainly with your values.

A design of lights and darks that frame the design and all fits within that.

This is one important school of composition.

One thing I have been experimenting with though is applying the composition concepts of Pollock, and Tobey to my figurative work.  Not designing with NOTAN punch but subordinating image elements to the overall flow of the color and rhythm.

In this portrait I broke up all the architectural rigid forms, the lighting and even the figures.  This same composition could have been a very crunched NOTAN design of crisp dramatic lighting and dark shadows. but i purposely broke everything up with pattern and sun dapples.

Making technique organic to the work

One of my goals lately is to make my technique organic, to the story in the piece, not try to impose one technique or process on the entire composition, but rather to have each bit of the vision speak in its own technical voice.

I mean if I decide to paint a scene in a very realistic sense then I impose that technique evenly over every aspect of the scene, the figures, the lighting, the perspective, the bricks and mortar and the atmosphere–to make it all work as one cohesive illusionistic whole.  This is all well and good.  However, if there is one thing that the 20th century artists taught us is that even if you are a realist, there are myriad ways to tell that real story.  For example, Picasso has some powerful paintings of his children, a mother teaching her child to walk, children on the floor drawing.  These have a visual strength, punch in a simple story that had he painted them in a late nineteen century style the paintings would have been trite, treacle.

So different things call out to be painted differently.  And I have never, in my head, been pinned to one style.  But only recently have I been trying to bring that style choice into the workings of one canvas.  In stead of deciding the overall style language first and building within that frame, now I am trying to lefft style choice be left open and to be planned within the painting process on the brushstroke level.  Each to its own voice.

The serious risk is off course, total and ugly disastrous chaos.  But hey, no risk is boring.  If I didn’t love risk I’d be working a paycheck job.  I may end up with all disasters but maybe somewhere in all the trying will be a small gem that shines.

judging art

I recently read someone’s comments concerning Jeff Koon’s enormous hyper-polished steel balloon dog sculptures.
It got me wondering how we can or should judge art. I saw Koon’s gallery show in New York a while back with rooms of these brightyly reflective, highly chromatic balloon animal creations. Now I could have reacted in several ways. I could have gone in the gallery wanting, say, Rubens and then felt the dogs were a slap in the face. High art? Ha! No way. This is trivial nonsense on a large scale. Or conversely, I could go into the gallery, just curious, and found a fun room of silly huge but oddly pretty dogs…I could smile, cheer my day and take that away with me.
Now I am sure I could also read dense tomes about the deeper meaning of these dogs, a commentary on today’s facile and vacuous over blown society. But by themselves, they are colorful, amusing, very large, well made balloon dogs. Small balloon dogs amuse and a room of huge shiny balloon dogs, amuses me too in a bigger kind of way. My day in NY was cheered.
But is it art? Well I think so. It is well crafted, made with an eye to being pleasing and it has a story either big or smaller, depending on if you read the accompanying tome.
But is it Rubens? Is it Rembrandt? Is a shiny dog, an equal to Donatello’s David? No, of course not…but that is the point. If I enter the gallery hoping for Rubens or grand sculpture of Michelangelo I am doomed to be disappointed, if not irritated. But then comparison in art is a precarious stance. If I were to look at Chardin expecting Rubens, then I might think Chardin is small, provincial, quiet, bordering on boring. And conversely if I were to judge Rubens with Chardin as my ideal, then Rubens might come off as supremely pompous and overblown.
As it turns out, I love both Rubens and Chardin…and yes, I like Koon’s dogs too just for the fun of it all. They are shiny, colorful, well crafted, fun and big enough to create their own environment.
It’s a huge shiny dog. Perhaps laughing is the point. I have come to think that tragedy is easy, it is the laughing and happiness that is so very hard to for us to find. Maybe a joyous shiny dog is more important than another tragedy in paint. Perhaps.
Emerson said we should judge art anew, each generation. He didn’t want his work to be prejudged by his predecessor poet’s works. Maybe he had a point….to a point.
If an artists invites us in to enjoy his work, whether by beauty or story or cleverness or whatever, but stretches out a hand to invite us in, then step one of art is accomplished…then next step is up to me the viewer.
For me, Rembrandt, Rubens, Chardin, and, yes, Koons have, in their own quirky ways, extended the invite.

Art Now

In his video arguing against modern art Robert Floczak’s selections of both 20th century art and previous periods of art are well, very selective, extraordinarily biased. Anyone who has studied art in any depth beyond a couple of survey books of great masters knows that there has been tons of crap created in any period, and great works as well.  If you pick good examples of one and bad examples of another your are making a false argument.  And it frankly, just cheapens what could be an interesting debate.
Second point is that his view of “good art” leaves out creations from any period or culture except western European art from Renaissance through the late 19th century academy. Where is asian art and its gorgeous but non western use of perspective, composition and anatomy? Where are the fabulous forms created in African sculpture? What about the highly refined art of the Northwest American tribes? Where does medieval/gothic art fall into his narrow little Art alley? By his definition the great art in any 11th century cathedral is not worthy…we might just as well bull doze it, like the extremists do in the middle east.
The third point is that if you remove the 20th century from the realm of great art, for starters you lose all the wonderful advances in composition and color use. If he has eyes to see he should have at least included those elements from the 20th century if he can’t stomach art that isn’t rendered to the last pore.
I would be the first to admit that many great skills and pools of knowledge were shelved when the academy art techniques were subordinated…but this doesn’t mean that we should now return to the 19th century. But rather we should open our eyes and use everything at hand. I don’t fit in the 19th century, I don’t want to quote greco roman art in my paintings. I don’t wish to paint people in togas. I like the 21st century.
If in his view art was a progression over several centuries to its highest pinacle in the late 19th century academy, then that leaves us poor slobs today merely copyists of era gone by.
Well, to hell with that. The definition of creativity is not simply to copy. Did rembrandt copy, Did Caravaggio copy? No, they created new…that’s why we like them. Let’s revisit the skills of former eras if we so choose, but make them our own. This is what the high Itallian renaissaance did revisiting greco roman art. The skills are similar but we would not be likely to confuse a Michaelanglo with a Phidias.
If Ralph Waldo Emerson is not too avant garde for this Florczak fellow then I would suggest we follow Emerson’s idea that each new generation of art needs to be created anew and judged, not as compared to high dusty ideals of old but but rather judged today, by us, those who live now. But don’t lock me into a 19th century parlor.

Portrait of Jenny

Shown and sold at the 2005 Contemporary Realism Show, Center for Living Arts, Mobile, Alabama.  The use of wax medium (beeswax melted in turpentine) facilitates the more open treatment, allowing a watercolor like fluidity, while retaining the richness of oil.  It is good for a sketch feel while you are working.  This is my wife and favorite model for over a quarter of a century, the artist Jen Cart.

sold to private collection

figure study for “Ledges”

study on toned paper, conte and pencil

Mother and children, Kennebec Mural

Detail from Kennebec Courthouse Mural, 2015

a Revolutionary period woman and her family, tending the garden and waiting for her husband to return from sea.

logging on the Kennebec, mural detail

Logging was very important on the Kennebec river up until the 1960’s.

voyageur, detail, Kennebec Mural

No mural of the Kennebec river history could be complete without reference to the trappers who explored the river and hills.  I had drawn out the composition and the pose for this main figure in this panel, but I didn’t yet have a face I liked for him.  While at the courthouse working on the mural, this man, one of the building painters came by.  My wife Jen spotted him and said, “what about him?”  Perfect! He was a great model, getting right into the drama and quiet action of the scene.  Wonderful.  Thank you.

From that point on many people associated with the new Courthouse building became part of the mural…construction workers, attorneys, their kids, the architect, even a couple of the Justices.

wharf crowd, detail, circa 1890, Kennebec Mural

just another detail of my Kennebec mural in Augusta, Maine.  the mural is 14 x 40 feet, over 500 square feet with over 50 figures, ships, animls, period tools…a lot of life.  the brushwork is quick not laboring over each pore.  Love working big.

This section, the dark wharf overshadowed by the bows and rigging of many ships, I painted dark first and pulled the figures from the dark with muted midtones and a few punched highlights.

wharf-detail-boy-with box

Granite industry, detail, Kennebec mural

The granite industry was very important for this region Maine.  Stone cut from Hallowell hills was renowned for its clarity, lightness in color and its relative ease of carving.  The cut stone was shipped down river by sail or on the rail road.  The towers of the Brooklun bridge were build from Hallowell granite, as was the Faith statue in Plymouth and the New York Surrogate Court Hall of records building. (See more here)

surrogate court

crowded wharf, detail, Kennebec Mural

Here is a detail from my Kennebec mural.  This region was a bustling river highway back in the days fo sail and this panel portrays the crowded piers in the various towns and cities along the shores.  One historian wrote of Gardiner, Maine that some days the waterfront was so full of ships tied up to piers and rafted to each other that you could walk across teh river from deck to deck.

My cat, a wannabe wharf cat, made it into this section.


Eastman Johnson

johnson-homeOut on a walk and I just found out that Eastman Johnson lived just over a mile from here on Winthrop Street in Augusta.  I love knowing this.  He was a fabulous artist and to know he was was at his easel just down the road is wonderful.

From Wikipedia:

Eastman Johnson (July 29, 1824 – April 5, 1906) was an American painter and co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, with his name inscribed at its entrance. He was best known for his genre paintings, paintings of scenes from everyday life, and his portraits both of everyday people and prominent Americans such as Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His later works often show the influence of the 17th-century Dutch masters, whom he studied in The Hague in the 1850s; he was known as The American Rembrandt in his day.

Google results here.


woman on pier, detail, Kennebec Mural

a detail from my Kennebec Courthouse mural…a woman waiting to get on the steamboat pier.

1607 Popham explorers, detail Kennebec Mural

This is a closeup of my mural panel of the Popham Colony explorers from 1607.  The built the first ship, the Virginia, and also explored up the Kennebec up to at least the site of the current Fort Western, in Augusta.  this is fairly loose paint, details blown out in the brigthness of the moring mist glare.  These figures are not big, compared to others onthe wall…only a couple of inches.  You can see the scale by evident weave of the canvas here.


Sister, MOther, Lover, Daughter, Friend

An oil for an exhibit about human trafficking.

Passage of Time, a composition

summer-entourageIn the ongoing conversation on composition I thought I would dissect this painting, Summer Entourage, a large oil, 52 x 52 inches.  Summer Entourage is about many things, family, friends, summer days of Augusta, and also about the passage of time. Some lyrical moments of summer can seem both timeless and fleeting, beautiful moments, glimpses of magic slipping by and yet eternal.  In the painting you feel the haze will burn off, there is a freshet of breeze picking up; the weather will change. The family is heading up the path, the beach adventure done? or off to new things? we don’t know.

To tell a story with paint, composition is the most important tool. This painting is a fairly ‘blond’ piece, no dramatic lighting, no strong chiaroscuro effects, so I have removed one compositional ‘punch’ tool of strong contrast.   I wanted to portray one of those hazy, sun-bleached days of high summer on the Maine coast, where the light from the sun is snagged in the air and on the water; all are intense and rippling around us.

summer-compCompositionally, one thing to remember is that geometric shapes are strong, eye grabbers. Making the reddish parasol a nearly complete circle pulls our eye right away…and the strong points of the parasol structure intensify this.  Even though we have a large foreground figure which would normally draw the eye I wanted the action to start at the back and move forward. so we have the solid the round parasol…also note the most saturated color in the painting is the red band on the woman’s white hat right in the middle of the parasol. and her overall reddish block.  When I am creating a painting lots of thoughts roam through my head.  Remember this is a hazy morning so for me the round parasol, just cresting the horizon is like a big rising sun…as we know red sun in morning means change in the weather.  Okay, so my mind wanders all over the place…but it makes for paintings that are not just someone else’s cookie cutter.

So the parasol grabs our eye and starts the motion.

A lone figure can be strong but here we have a group…and groups within this group.  The two left figures are linked visually with the deeper values and the strong verticals of folds of the parasol lady and stripes on the guy’s t-shirt…and red echoing each other.

summer-knotThe two right-hand foreground figures are tied together with the bunched action or knot of the woman’s hand holding a book and wedged between  her braid and the angled pink shirt tail of the woman behind…note the strong red accents.   In my initial sketches I had the braid on the other side of her neck but moved it to help tie the visual knot of these two together.  The intense red of the braid links us back with the left duo.  This is a family, each with her own space and thoughts but happily together as well.

To help pull these two forward I stabbed in with pure black leggings against the white sand path.  The strongest value contrast of the painting.  And form a color block when woven together with the black in the striped leggings behind.  Patterns are strong and pull the eye.  You will also note the echoes in these figures with the stances and gazes of the left hand pair.  Similar tilt and hat to the background figures of each pair. And the guitar guy, my son, and his new wife (with the book) both stride and gaze in the same direction….their arms also mirror images of each other. Is this composition or concept? So you see they are inseparable.

summer-comp2Little things: the guy’s shirt was a problem for a bit. I had it in my head to keep the shirt pale so he would merge with the background…but this was not working…so that is when he went dark and tied in as a visual block with the background woman…that worked much better.  The last thing I added was the stripes to his shirt.  He is very close to the canvas edge….as close as I could get without losing the head of the guitar.  Being this close, combined with his gaze off scene might make him fall out of the canvas.  So the stripes echoing the red robe folds and the strong black/white stripes that are tight on the opposite edge of the canvas hold him in.

The right hand trio are much ‘blonder’ and are tucked in an inverted triangle.. that echoes the inverted triangle of the vertical parasol, the bent elbow the “v of the white over shirt and green shirt decolletage.  I wanted these three to continue the slow walking up the path.  Their clothes are very blond, visually merging with the blond grasses.  You can create motion with strong contrasts but sometimes you can entice motion by letting shapes slip passed each other.

The painting is full of paced verticals, particularly in the left and right figure pairs.  Vertical stripes, arms. braid, beach blanket, shirt tails.  These verticals march across giving a slow steady pace.

The other parasol and central figure, (Jen, my wife, by the way), this figure changed a lot as the painting evolved in the sketch pad.  At first she was walking along lost in her own thoughts, gazing to the right, her parasol tilted to the right as well…note the watercolor study.  But somehow having them all slowly walking made the painting more static.  Yes, more static, and interestingly made them lose their own thoughts, they were just cogs in a moving pattern, not what i wanted.  I wanted thinking, moving individuals but all part of the adventurous band, my family.  Then in one scribble on the drawing pad, I stopped this figure and turned her to look at us.  Suddenly the painting had a lot more motion and was much more dynamic.  You have to keep pushing a composition until you squeeze everything out of it.

Once I had stopped her it all came together.  I brought her parasol almost, not quite, but almost to vertical.  Full vertical would have locked her in place.  I put in the accent of the pure horizontal island so we could see the parasol’s tiny slant.  The tiny cant gives her pause in her stroll but she will continue on in just another moment.  Then the rest fell into place…merging her skirt with the grasses. Putting her elbow bent and strong against the greens.  Her head rounded to echo the round parasol, her body facing right, but the breeze swept hair trailing left to help accent that breath of pause in her walk.

summer-comp-trianglesNow one thing to keep in mind, faces are very important in compositions.  Very strong…they draw our eye instantly.  So I kept Jen’s face softly undefined for two reasons:  so that our eyes might not land on her face first…I wanted  motion to begin with the round parasol.  Also, I wanted Jen glancing up at us but I wanted to leave her with her own space, her own privacy…she has noticed us, the viewer, but we can’t see enough to intrude on her.

Composition is all about color, shape, value, placement, pattern, motion line…but that is only part.  We cannot escape our heads, our thoughts.

To build the sense of time passing the thought of the internal clockworks lurked in my head, gears and levers slowing, inexorably ticking along.  The big round parasol a central gear, the guitar and vertical parasol, levers ticking back and forth around it.

Do people see this kind of composition idea? Perhaps not, on the surface, but symbols are strong in our heads and I think we do see things in the back of our minds.  And if not, I like building these thoughts in for my own pleasure.

There is more I could discuss but we both probably need to get back to painting.

This seems a lot packed into one beach painting…but I live and breath these things.  Ideas bubble up and get included, intertwined, evolved.

The Studio

I have always been interested how other artist’s have their studios. Are they neat and tidy? Chaotic? Eclectic? So, along this vein, I thought I would start a small series of images, when I trip over them, of other artist’s studios.

Here is mine to start this off. I did clean up recently, but I seem to have a lot of projects going at once and this results in, mess…but it is my mess, so it’s okay.


Ghost Story Bookcover

This is another bookcover illustration, watercolor on paper. This one for a book of seacoast ghost stories.

Mural Plan for the Kennebec County Courthouse

The finished full color mural will be called “The River Road” and will be a journey through time and travel on the river.  It will be 14 x 30 feet, and will feature boats and people of the Kennebec.  For more information and the artist’s thoughts on this ongoing project, click here.