Friday, December 21, 2007

Musician Portraits

I've never been good at picking art subjects, but this failing was never more evident than in my early paintings. After my attempts at high fantasy, I decided to paint portraits of music icons.

The first musician's portrait I tried was of blues legend Robert Johnson (1911–1938). I had first heard Johnson's haunting whine and dexterous guitar playing on records my brother owned. At first, I didn't like his scratchy, mournful recordings, but eventually came around to blues music and started blowing all my money on music by artists like Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and John Lee Hooker.

There exist two known and authorized photographs of Robert Johnson. One features the bluesman holding his guitar, wearing a dapper suit, and smiling handsomely at the camera. The other shows a less-polished Johnson with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his powerful left hand pressing down the strings of his guitar. I chose, in my portrait, to recreate the latter photograph. Unfortunately, the painting didn't go well. The likeness was poor and I didn't finish important aspects (like the guitar's frets). I eventually abandoned the picture in frustration.

A year later, I attempted a painting of Jimi Hendrix. Though the portrait wasn't based on a particular image, it wasn't very original, either. Any likeness to the guitar legend was owed entirely to my imitation of his eccentric fashion sense. However, my under-painting, skin tones, and highlights were showing considerable improvement.

Just when I was starting doing some new and interesting things with colors, I threw it all out the window and painted a largely monochromatic picture. I owned a copy of The Band's self titled album and really liked the high contrast, black and white photo on the front cover. In a dazzling display of how unoriginal I could be, I attempted an exact recreation of the picture on my canvas. I made a lot of mistakes, but largely achieved what I'd set out to do. Sadly, I had not aimed particularly high.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tolkien Paintings

In 1994, I entered the 10th grade and signed up for an elective art class. It was great. The teacher passed around hand outs on art history and we took a few obligatory quizzes, but for the most part, class time was spent working on our projects.

My parents were not enthusiastic about the cost of art supplies, but ultimately shelled out for a cheap set of acrylics and a couple 16x20 inch canvases. I was excited about working with "real" paints, but when I got to class with my first blank canvas, I was completely stuck. I had no idea what to paint.

Eventually, I settled on a character from one of my favorite childhood books, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." In the novel's latter chapters, Bard the Bowman heroically defends a town from a terrible dragon. I decided to paint a picture of the hero, standing on a dock before the serpent's deadly attack. In retrospect, it was probably not the best choice of subjects for a beginner, but it's all I could come up with at the time.

The painting turned out absolutely lousy. I had yet to learn about techniques like under-painting. Threads of the white canvas peeked out from coats of dark colors. Bright colors were slathered across the canvas, never blending into subtler shades. I tried to render a heavily stylized, hellish sky while keeping my subject subdued and understated. The result was a sloppy and garish hodgepodge of colors that did nothing for each other. My sense of perspective and proportion were wretched. If there was a mistake I didn't make, it was only because I didn't think of it at the time.

In the years since, I've come to appreciate my picture of Bard the Bowman for it's novice failings. I should have trusted the world of fantasy to more skilled artists. However, nearly a year after my struggle with Bard the Bowman, I once again mined "The Hobbit" for inspiration. This time, I tried depicting a scene in which the wizard Gandalf and his companions climb trees to escape murderous wolves and their goblin masters.

Tolkien writes:

"Gandalf, listening to their growling and yelping, began to be dreadfully afraid, wizard though he was, and to feel that they were in a very bad place, and not yet escaped at all. All the same he was not going to let them have it all their own way, though he could not do very much stuck up in a tall tree with wolves all around the ground below. He gathered the huge pine-cones from the branches of his tree. Then he set one alight with bright blue fire, and threw it whizzing down among the circle of the wolves."

The resulting painting was not a great success, but was a vast improvement over my first effort. The brush strokes were sloppy and the perspective poorly chosen. I was still not blending colors well, but at least was choosing them more tastefully. And this time, there was a very small bit of action in the painting. My aesthetic was gradually improving. Even today, I still like the pine cone set ablaze with blue fire.

Though my paintings of Tolkien characters were some of the earliest depictions I derived from pop culture and literary inspirations, they would not be the last. I went on to create uninspired portraits of movie stars, rock stars, and even a painting of Michael Jordan. The Jordan picture was a poor likeness with the ball looking about the size and firmness of a Nerf basketball in His Airness's hands. Even so, a classmate gave me twenty bucks for it. I never took a picture of it and it was the only painting I ever sold.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Blurs and Pixels

These images are from some of the first digital cameras I owned. The cameras were bought on clearance for about ten bucks each. One was a Polaroid "iZone," that took both low resolution digital pictures and photos that "instantly" printed on tiny stickers. The other camera, I can't remember. (They both broke within a year). What I do remember, however, is being so overjoyed at not paying for developing, I went around taking pictures of everything. It didn't take long, though, before the excitement subsided. Over time, I deleted most of the blurry images from my computer, but these are a few I liked enough to keep.

One day, I snapped a picture of bamboo sitting in front of a kitchen window. Light shone through the weave of a curtain, creating a "hatched" gray pattern behind the plant and window panes. The poor resolution really shows in the detail of the stitching, but I like the organic shapes against the hard, uniform window panes. The dark lines of the bamboo also remind me of the curves and brush strokes of Chinese cuneiform.

Another day, I went out when it was raining. I'd always liked the look of light reflecting from wet surfaces, but the sky was so cloudy and gray, nothing stood out. I looked down at the Nissan Altima (dark green) and Geo Prism (gray blue) parked in the driveway. Though the colors were drab, something about the lines of the vehicles caught my eye. Japanese automakers will be pleased the elegant curves of their automotive engineering are not going unappreciated.

One night, I found a neat trick for getting the most from of my fuzzy images. I started taking pictures that were intentionally blurry. I walked around the house--looking at everything through a drinking glass--hoping to find a background that would distorted in some weird way. My cheap digital camera didn't have a preview screen. Everything was clear through the viewfinder, but I knew if the lens was close enough, the result might be kind of crazy. I took a few shots and loaded them on the computer to see. This one had a certain symmetry to it because the rim of the glass ran from the bottom left corner to the upper right, shinning brightly and playing off the underlying shadows and colors. It's chaotic imperfections seem to complement the vague order, creating a sense of movement and wonder.

So there you have it: a few pictures from my earliest days experimenting with digital photography. Thanks for stopping by.


I grew up doodling constantly. As a child, I thought I'd end up some kind of illustrator, but--like my hopes of being an astronaut, a professional baseball player, or the pope--the art thing never panned out. In high school, I took up sculpture and painting. Later, I dabbled in photography. I was never good at any of it, but the arts kept drawing me back in over and over again.

Art is an elusive fascination for me. Trying to steer my instincts toward a satisfying result has always been a little like chasing my own tail. I don't think I've ever looked at a drawing or painting with the relief that it was "finally finished." Clay sculpture always seems to dry just before the crucial detail is pinched, pressed, or carved into it. Art poses frustrating challenges, but they're ones I love.

Most things I've learned about art over the years has come from imitating other artists or a process of trial and error. Public school art classes never taught me as much as dumb luck.

Admittedly, I've made plenty of things I'd be embarrassed to display on anything but a bonfire. Perhaps I'll post a couple of them here for a laugh. But mostly, I want to share the weird stuff, the fun stuff, and stuff that's got a story. I probably won't explore a lot of sophisticated, "elitist art" on here. (Certainly, none of mine is).

Some of my favorite art is from CD covers, tattoos, comic strips, and complete accidents that just turned out to be something pretty. A friend of mine once came to my house while I was stressing over a huge mess. A pressure cooker had exploded and sprayed bean juice all over the kitchen ceiling. She looked up and said, "That's awesome! You've got to leave that!"

One person's culinary disaster is another's art.

I'm excited to share some of my art/mistakes, as well as others' works that have meant a lot to me over the years. Let me know what you think. Thanks for dropping by.