Saturday, August 31, 2013

Chinese Characters As Tattoos

My wife was reading me a funny post from Facebook by George Takai, Sulu of Star Trek fame, about the use of Asian characters as tattoos.  I too have noticed that a lot of white, black and Hispanic males seem to favor Chinese characters. I wonder, do they really know what they mean?
Defining Chinese Characters

To prove my thesis I asked an Asian friend of mine to translate the next tattoo we saw together and see if it made any sense. As you can see from the photo to the right, the characters and what that character means, you don't always get what you want.

Much like English, just because you know the word, doesn't necessarily mean you know how to use it.  As a matter of fact, at the first one we saw, his eyes got big and he started to laugh. I mean really laugh. When I asked what was so funny, he admitted that while I may not understand it, I could count on the fact that the grammar was wrong, very, VERY wrong.

Which leads me to the photo I saw of David Beckham not too long ago where he bares his torso to show a string of Chinese characters tattooed down his left side.

My friend explained to me, that knowing the character and its definition is not the end. Characters and their meaning also depend on context, not unlike English and while each character has a meaning, when you string them together, the meanings often change.

As a graphic designer, I have to admit that these characters have a lot more graphic style, that they are far more interesting than Roman characters.

There is mystery, unusual strokes, and hidden meanings in each and every one. However, those getting these tattoos should also hope that the "artist" doing the work is aware of these limitations as well.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Let's Hear It For Palette Knives

I am just now beginning to process all the photos I took on our European Trip to Norway, Denmark and Amsterdam, Holland. Since we literally flew in to Oslo arriving in the afternoon, then meeting our Danish friends that evening we never had time in Oslo until after our train, boat and finally car experience! We jumped on the train to Bergen the next morning. In the process of looking at those photos, many shot from a skyrocketing train, I happened upon this bucolic shot.

Norwegian Hillside
I knew from the moment I shot it, and then saw it in iPhoto, this was destined to be a painting.

The scene was rather complicated and in some ways very difficult both to see and to replicate. While it is not finished, this is what I managed to complete in about two and a half hours.

Other than the sky, the entire background was painted with DecoArt's Black Green. I figured it was better to start with the dark and work my way to the light. The sky, still not completely resolved was a very boring completely cloudless blue. I have played with several colors and am still not satisfied. This was done with a brush. Then tackling the mountains, again with a brush, I just didn't seem to get the texture, the dimension that I wanted.

Grabbing one of the two palette knives I keep in my brush case, I mixed up green, blue and grey to get the mountain colors. They were far away but had glints of green, blue shadows and other rather indistinct colors. Then, when I started with the hillside greens, and yes, they ARE that brilliant even in late July, a brush just wasn't cutting it. So, laying out some olive green (bad name, its much brighter than any olive I have ever seen) I wiped the palette knife from left to right. (I am left handed). I was surprised by the sweep and when you moved away to see it, the incredible texture you got. The houses were blocked in so I didn't care if the palette knife got careless. And now, after painting, them, I think they could use a little palette knife ruffing up as well.

Back and forth I went. Adding a little Avocado here, Black Green there and finally, getting all of the shadows, began to work on the snow. As real as it looks, it took less than 5 minutes to do. Continuing a little palette knife work on the stream at the lower left, I moved on. There is nothing more than needs to be added. The snow, or what I saw of it is perfect. ALL done with a palette knife.

The irony here is that the palette knife allowed me a freedom I have never known with a brush. And yet, despite that freedom, I also realized that it created a near realism image that I never sought but that makes the painting more real than anything else I could have ever done. The slope of the hills, the distant mountains, the meadow, the shocking green, this is all what I saw, what the photo shows. I know that while the image might fail, the painting has a good chance of living just as it is for centuries.

After I finished with the houses, and putting in the rough roadbed in the lower right, I realized that I had made a mistake with the houses. It wasn't that they weren't right, it was they seemed to be from a different painting. They were too smooth, too finished. When taken from a distance, those problems are resolved in a harmonious whole, however, I worry about the closeup view.

There are some details I would like to add, maybe some messy electrical lines I might ignore, but all in all, this painting is finished. No one viewing it would ever have a problem understanding what it is. And maybe, just maybe, I should leave well enough alone.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Is Grey The New Black?

Grey Checked Shirt
One of the things I first noticed on our recent trip to Europe was that everyone, especially the men, were wearing a lot of grey clothing.

Grey? Really? I thought it was just a few people I saw in Oslo, then many more in Bergen. It seemed to be everywhere, even the sticks of Myrdal and other out of the world places up north in Norway. Grey pants, LOTS of grey shorts either plain or with plaids, shirts, t-shirts, printed T's, and even shoes, leather and running type.

I wondered, is grey the new black? Has everyone finally gotten tired of black? I mean, truthfully, after a few washings many black cotton things are very soon grey anyway.

Then when we got to Denmark I again noticed the same pattern. T-shirts that were usually black were now grey. Printed designs and such but spiffy new ones in grey. Same with pants and really handsome men's dress shoes. I almost stopped one guy to inquire where he got his shoes. He wasn't a kid either but a middle aged man dressed well but not formal. Mostly in grey.

In Amsterdam I must admit I saw color combinations in men's clothing I had NEVER seen before. We had an AFS student from Austria who made disparaging remarks about the way Dutch dress (trust me his brown jeans and orange-yellow-white striped shirts are anything but haute couture) but after a few rides around town had to agree. Lavender polos over spring green jeans, teal and pink stripes on a dress...the list could go one and on. In fact, those wearing grey seemed dressed up!

After a few days home after our European trip, we flew up to Portland, OR for my 50th High School Reunion and again was surprised to see men dressed like their counterparts in Northern Europe. Grey everything including some shoes I nearly bought. I did buy grey Columbia sneakers at their airport store though but really had my eye on the grey wingtips that were really, really sharp. No such thing has yet appeared in SoCal.

I can remember a comment on Sybil Shepard's show from years ago that stated "We're gonna wear black until there's a darker color." That got a good laugh but maybe, finally, the laugh is finally on them. Grey may not be much different but for the greying boomer generation it is kinder on greying heads and beards. If there is anything that shows the lines on a face or something near to your face over the age of 40 or so, its black! Remember the kindly old grandmother who dyed her hair black until her dying day? Remember those wrinkles? Nature has a way of softening our faces against the hands of time. Its called grey hair. Maybe its time to apply that color, for young and old!

Monday, August 26, 2013

And the Winner Is....PLUMERIA

After I missed the Las Vegas Painting Convention, something that was more than shattering to me at the time, I was encouraged to apply to teach classes for the 2014 Session. Personally drained from my severe back pains and the fact I missed out teaching my first two classes I was scheduled to teach, I submitted six paintings that I felt were both teachable and were very different from what I had seen in years past. Here they are with a little history of each one. I also wanted to submit crafts but have been unable to secure a steady source for some of the birdhouses I wanted to use.

Five Persimmons
While each of these paintings are a different size, some smaller and some larger, you get a better chance to see the actual work when everything is the same scale.

Here, FIVE PERSIMMONS, a work I talked about last year, was the second in an attempt to create a colorful, peaceful yet vibrant still life. The color palette is limited and it was completed (the second time around) in a bit over two hours. This, I thought, would be the best possible painting for a beginner to Intermediate artist. Sadly, it was not chosen and there is nothing like it in the 2014 catalog.
Flowering Cactus

Making Guacamole

Exotic Fruit
 Southwest themes are very popular today, and in some areas of the country always are. While walking my dog I became more and more aware of the cactus plants on our path and then one day they all started to flower. I snapped a photo of this scene with my brand new iPhone 5 and was stunned at how much the camera in the phone had improved.

I loved this scene and had to paint it. It was one of my first serious all acrylic paintings and there were many missteps along the way. However, when I continued the series of four I learned more and more on how to handle this subject. It would have been a 6 - 8 hour class for Intermediate and above. It is a lovely piece and as good as just about anything else out there.

When you see the actual piece you realize there are many layers. One of the beauties of acrylic is that it is easy to do as it dries so quickly. I think this could have been a real challenge but one an artist could complete and be proud of.

Still lifes are always popular and what better scene could their be than the ones you see quite often in your kitchen. If you have an avocado tree and tomatoes in your garden along with lemons that seem to be growing everywhere, home made guacamole is a natural, at least here in Southern California. Watching my wife whip some up one day I realized that my subject was right at hand!

Another submission that failed to make the cut.

EXOTIC FRUITS was another attempt to paint still life's and it still remains one of my favorites. My wife's students bring her fruit as gifts and so one day looking at the persimmons and a Fire Dragon Fruit I couldn't get over the contrast between the vermilion of the persimmons and the magenta of the Dragon Fruit. It was just too great to pass up. Adding the various greens and placed on a neutral but vibrant and complementary background, it was for me at the time a triumph. AND, the best part it didn't take all that long to do either. 

This was so unusual that I felt that it would be a winner but alas, it was not. Possibly it was too bright, the colors more than most people would be willing to place in their home. However, it is in a wonderful wide and simple gold frame and is simply stunning. It hangs in my office.

It would have been, if nothing else, a challenging course on color.

YellowDaisy was another submission that didn't make the cut. To be fair and honest, there have been similar flowers and color ways. However, it is cheerful and colorful and would easily find a spot in more artists homes. Add a bit of color if you will.

The winner? Plumeria, shown below.

It was a last minute choice after I discovered that I had, for some reason done a very good job of documenting what I did. I did a complete underpainting in DecoArts Americana Peaches 'N Cream. Then started adding the greens, again from dark to light. It really doesn't make as much

difference with acrylics but it saves time along the way. By keeping the darkest colors in the back, it was easier to add lighter and brighter colors as well as highlights over the dark background.

This was actually a shot from my back yard of a plant that I have been nursing for years. My yellow blooms like mad but this plant needed more time and patience.

Oddly, it almost never got finished. I found that I liked the peach and green palate and it was very striking.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite? Why not let me know. And by the way, if you are planning on going to the 2014 Las Vegas Painting Convention, there is plenty of room in my class, #170, PLUMERIA. All paints, instructions and canvas will be provided. All you have to do is bring your brushes! It will be taught on Thursday, Feb. 27th from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. Its a six hour class but we will have a lot of fun! Hope to see you there.

Be sure to check out my store at

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Challenge of Realism In Art Today

While reading my newest issue of AMERICAN ARTS - Quarterly, I was struck by the fact the quarterly profiled artists of today and of the past who dealt with artistic realism. From Minoff of today to Sargent's minimalist watercolors, Dürer's gouaches and Max Ginsberg's social commentary.

Triad, 2013 by Edward Minoff
The lead article is about artist Edward Minoff's "Challenging the Ocean" but in reality he is known for much, much more. However, the painting they show, Triad, 2013 is definitely the ocean and brings with it both quietude and tension. It is a remarkable break from previous seascapes, both his and many others.

At first glance it appears to be merely a reflection of rocks at the shore with an unusually quiet shoreline. Upon closer inspection you realize the surface of the water on the upper left is more intense than the areas below. Its unusual and he moves away, one might say at last, from the standard waves breaking on the shore.

Minoff has YouTube videos showing a variety of techniques that are interesting and very informative. He has many life studies and still lives besides his plein air work. It is Triad though that I find amazing. It is something that can be studied and a small detail here or there will finally be noticed. This is realism but with a purpose, a direction that he has not taken before.

The author of the article, Jakes F. Cooper, notes that Minoff joined a plein air group in 2007. Another artist of the group ventured to note that painting from nature conveys a psychological and spiritual intensity, comparable to working from the human figure. There is a universal quality that connects all these artists together - beauty. "Beauty is the victim of much contemporary art from the seminal work of pioneer modernists such as Cézanne, Degas and van Gogh, " notes Cooper. I think that many of us, artists and patrons alike would argue with that. Instead I believe that once color was freed, it opened the door to abstract thought and much of it is, well, ugly.

The Impressionists tried to bring light and life to staid paintings of the Salon. It is interesting to note the various rebels over the centuries are remembered much like Mozart is beloved and Salieri forgotten.

A walk through any museum today follows in the same footsteps. People will rush past the staid landscapes and formal portraits to the lush colors of Impressionism, Expression, even the glittering colors of the Pre-Raphaelites and earlier artists like El Greco, Rembrandt, Titian, Caravaggio. The overall desire though is one of beauty. We want things to be beautiful in a world that is often not beautiful at all. Picasso's Guernica belongs in a museum, not on a wall we stare at everyday. It is a statement and while important not one that we oftentimes want to be reminded of.

When the Getty Museum bought Van Gogh's Irises, we found it stuck in the back of their new multi-media room. They paid $56 million for it yet didn't seem to know what to do with it. Spotting it finally after hunting all over the Malibu museum, I told the person there I had a better place to hang it. "Where," she asked. "Over my fireplace in my living room," I replied. "I would look at it every day!" And you could bet I would too.

While I don't know that beauty has to be realistic, there are abstract paintings I admire, I do know that in the art world, as well as my own technique, artists are moving that direction. The challenge though is to make it both beautiful and arresting, not like what has been done before but in a new direction much like Minoff has done with Triad.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Death In The Family

When I was 16, my world suddenly changed. While visiting an aunt and uncle just after the wonders of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, my father suddenly passed away. The world, that was still pretty much a fun place for a 16 year-old, became a place of sorrow.  The overwhelming feeling was, what happens to me, my family?

It turns out that my father suffered a blood clot, or pulmonary embolism (PE), something that struck me the first time when I was 55. In his day there were no medicines; in my day, a derivative of rat poison created Coumadin and Heparin, drugs that dissolved the clots and kept the blood thin enough to hopefully stop additional clots, saved my life. While I survived, it turned out that I have an anomaly they are not sure what it is. However, we DO know that Coumadin or the generic Warfarin will keep me alive. I can go anywhere I want as long as I carry my PT/INR testing machine and syringes of Lovanox.

My first, and only I might add, high school reunion was last week. I went to a Polytechnic High School in Portland, OR, a wonderful place for boys to learn trades to become men. But as guys, well, they don't plan social events very well. It took them 50 years to get their act together.

It was a wonderful visit filled with family time and recollections and I reconnected with old family friends. It was also a time, after 51 years to find my dad and share a few private moments.

We never really connected as there was the teenage boy-parent issue. We had some wonderful moments and he made me wonderful things. He was German born but it wasn't until I was in my 30's I discovered the reason he wasn't home when I was born was that he was sent to Germany to act as a translator at the war trials. I had to laugh because when I took German in high school, my teacher asked me what I was saying. My Dad was Saxon and he spoke that dialect. It was not Hoch Deutsch, or high German. So much for that!

Like art, life has its own twists and turns. We can either rise to the occasion or not. I was amazed that all my friends and family commented on my artistic ability as a kid. I never thought much about it and instead admired my dad who could do just about anything with his hands. HE was a creative artist and in fact had taken mechanical drawing in high school before the war. He always wanted me in his shop and I never wanted to be there. However, after he died I had to create some furniture for an architectural drawing class I was taking and remember being amazed at how well I could use Dad's tools.

Talent lies within us. It our job to find what gifts we have and then use them. It took me a long time but finally, I enjoy what I create and find joy when others enjoy those creations as well. While I may never be famous or make a fortune, what I create is a reflection of what I see and feel of the world around me. Can there be anything better?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Lessons of Van Gogh

Since I was a 5th grader in school taking art classes at the Portland Museum of Art, I have been entranced by Van Gogh. Every Saturday for weeks, I would pass his masterpieces as I trudged to art class. They were on loan as they were building a new museum just for his art. In the years since I have read many of the letters, read about his life and of course visited every exhibit of his paintings he made such an influence on me.

My first chance to see his museum was in 1967 when I was traveling to Liberia, West Africa to begin my two years in the Peace Corps. My group had a whole day in Amsterdam so we were out to see the sights. We hit the Anne Frank house first, and leaving there in tears just didn't have it in us to see anything else. I don't even remember what we did after but we were a very sober group on the flight to Liberia, West Africa.
Van Gogh's Perspective Frame

So, it was with great anticipation that I went to the Van Gogh museum last week. I have recounted the carnival like madness of merely getting into the museum on a average summer day. However, once inside, it was worth every minute of waiting.

This museum, like my most favorite museum in the world, the Prado in Madrid, is very accessible. You are carefully guided through his life and work yet the museum manages to include incredible details of his work effortlessly. I learned more in a few hours there than in all the years of reading about him.

One of the things that surprised me was that art did not come easily. He had to work harder than most to get the details right...perspective, figures, all the things most artists seem to understand natively. This frame, the one he used to get his perspective correct was fascinating. In many of his earlier paintings, X-rays have revealed pencil lines showing the work he did before he painted. This frame was made for him in several sizes and is detailed in a letter to Theo.

In reading about his art, you often find that he has sketched over and over again figures, buildings, scenes and such because of his limitations. Yet today, it is those very "eccentricities" that endear him and make his art so unique.

The other busted myth was that he was self taught. That is anything but the truth. He did take classes often struggling to master his limitations. His major teacher was Anton Mauve who while a realist painter, showed him how to use both oils and watercolors. They would do paintings of the same subjects and of each other! He also spent much time with the greats like Gauguin, Degas, Toluse-Lautrec and others and learned from them as well. He became fascinated with the Japanese block prints and several of his renditions of them, along with the originals he saw, showed that he was very influenced by what he saw around them. He must have brushed against Seurat as there is even a pointillist period of which self portraits are in abundance. It was finally in Paris that his colors lightened and he became infatuated with color.

The other lesson, and sad as it is, is that what we are seeing today, no matter how well preserved they are, is the paintings do not look like when he painted them. Many of the colors, the reds and purples especially, have faded and in some cases are non-existent today. This discovery was made when pictures were removed from their frames for cleaning. It was discovered that on the edges, hidden by the frame from light that many colors were far more vivid, in some cases startlingly so. They showed one painting, "Bedroom In Arles" as it is today and also a digitally enhanced version that restores many of the faded colors. While still striking today, the missing violets and purples would make the painting even more compelling. It turns out that many of the oils in that era depended on natural dyes and the red lake and some of the purples faded, often in less than ten years. I wish more of the paintings were shown as they might have been.

If you are an artist, of any style, this museum is definitely one that you should visit. The depth of the exhibit, the depth of the knowledge given is worth every minute. You will come out with so much more knowledge, not just about Van Gogh's methods but with questions that you might want to ask yourself about your own art.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dutch Treat

I can remember in high school, at least in the late 50's, when you went on dates that were not really a date, the guy and girl each paid their own way. We called it a "Dutch treat." I am sure it as named after the frugal Dutch with, as I am seeing, good cause.

Amsterdam is very different from Norway and Denmark. Part of it is because we have no Danes guiding us around but more of it is because of how tourists are treated. Considering the variety of people's we are seeing and hearing, we definitely are not alone. We ask and people ask us. Everyone speaks English and are usually helpful but its frustrating getting around.

When we headed out to the Van Gogh museum on a cloudy day that finally turned into rain it was chaos. I have never seen anything like it. Lines stretched out in two directions and near the entrance was almost a mob...a squirming one at that. My wife went one direction and I headed another to find out where we should be. There was a guide doing her best but clearly she was swamped. We bought a 48 hour pass and were entitled to line three (though she said line 2), so texted my wife and we waited with some vague mob at line two, three or whatever. The right line had tickets for a time. The others well, good luck. We waited over an hour where few moved. There was nearly a riot when a tour bus arrived and everyone was ushered in. Chatting with a Danish couple, they bought fast line tickets. We want in at the same time.

Officials didn't help standing above us wringing their hands. Obviously they had never heard of Disney and crowd control.

We finally got in and it was a wonderful experience but it wiped out the rest of the day.