I have been working from 1950’s and 1960’s magazine ads for about thirty years. My temporal relationship to the material is strange when you think about it: The first time I started cutting up and mining for material an “old” magazine that I’d found in a thrift store, the images were thirty or forty years old. Now they’re sixty or seventy years old, which seems more like an antique. Antique that they might be (and I’m getting close to that myself by that standard), I’m not precious about them. They are my still-living source material. I tear out things I find interesting or telling or oddly relevant, or maybe I just like the colors. I file the torn-out images in rough categories. I have a drawer overflowing with manila file folders of ragged magazine photos with labels like People, Children, Kitchens, Decor, Patios, Lawns, Pools, Appliances, Food, Cake, Disembodied Hands. That’s basically my system, and when I’m working out a composition and I need, say, a husband for someone, I look through the People file until I find a few candidates for the right guy, in the right pose, with the right clothes.
Some people just come in handy, time and again.
The little boys above were posing with their “My Fair Lady” outfits with a row of little girls in equally silly garb when I came across them in a magazine, McCalls maybe. When I used them in a painting, I placed them out in the wild to better showcase their feral quality. I used a fabric with an overall pattern of olde timey maps of a vaguely colonialist flavor, which seemed like a perfect match for the little suits of little capitalists in training.
I felt a particular bond with the little boy on the left. Steve said he looked like Drake Deknatel’s images of himself as a little boy, which he’d painted right before he died. Indeed, the painting’s eventual owner, with no knowledge of that conversation or of even of Drake himself, told me that that boy was her favorite one, and then spontaneously dubbed him “Frederick”, which, chillingly, happens to have been Drake’s real name.
But I digress. A few years later, I snuck the same boy into a newspaper that a smoking dad is holding in this piece, Cowboy Diplomacy. He’s at the top left.
Cowboy Diplomacy (detail)
And here he is again, looking over the fence at an execution in an homage to Manet’s homage to Goya.
Detail, Better Homes Project Plan #3305-2 (Maxine)
I finally gave him a solo show about two years ago, overtly acknowledging the homage to my late mentor. He’s changed a bit since I started painting him, and he seems happiest in his mayhem now. I think Drake would have liked this one.
Last month I had a nice chat with Jeffrey D. Shulman, a professor at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, on his Seattle Growth Podcast. In Season 6, he’s focusing on how people find and build community in a changing city. We mostly talked about ’57 Biscayne in 2011 and the Good Arts Building, and how those interlocking communities were formed and what I learned along the way. Of course, he also asks the inevitable “how has Seattle changed?” I’ve been here almost thirty years, but since I am rather ornery, I talked instead about what’s managed to stay the same. There are two interviews in the episode; the first one is interesting, but if you want to skip to mine, it starts at 33:44.
I also was a guest on the show a few years ago, along with my Good Arts partners Ali Ghambari and Greg Smith. We described how we came together from very different perspectives to create the wonder that is the Good Arts Building. Jeff had interviewed us separately and used the interview with Greg in one episode. He was about to scrap the rest, when the 2016 election happened. He felt like he really, really needed a heart-warming story of people setting aside their differences to work together to do good in the world—that’s us!—so he produced a Very Special Episode out of the outtakes.
For the sixth year in a row, my colleague Dara Solliday and I will be organizing and curating the 100 under $100 show at ’57 Biscayne. I love doing this. We gather art from a whole bunch of artists we know, and usually a few that we don’t, all of it priced under $100 (as the name would imply) and wrestle it into a surprisingly coherent show. The first year we put it on, it was kind of thrown together at the last minute (we frantically raided a lot of our neighbors studios to get to 100 pieces) but nevertheless went pretty well. There are collectors from that first event who still come back year after year. We’ve got it down to a system now: The work has to be ready to hang; the artists have to drop it off at prescribed times and enter their own information into a form (I spent several evenings sliding down the hall with my laptop on a chair with casters as Dara fished out post-its and tried to match them to artworks); and we’ve gotten really good at herding a big fat mishmash of art into aestheically pleasing groupings that make their own kind of sense. In other words, it’s a real show now. And until the day we hang it (with some help from other Biscaynitos), we really have no idea what it’s going to look like.
One of the many pleasures of this show is giving some newer artists the opportunity to show their work and actually sell it. However, many established artists look forward to it as well because it’s a chance to do something outside of their known style or medium, to play around a little bit. We can take risks with something brand-new, or conversely, dig up something old. I’ll be doing the latter this year. I found some oil studies for paintings from the turn of the century—studies that were actually done after the works themselves were in progress. The paintings have long since left my life and gone to good homes, and the studies are like memories of them. They’re also fresher and looser and less precious, from a time before I learned to be loose in my “real” work.
Study for “Second Date”, 2001, 6″ x 8″
Saturday, April 27 is Independent Bookstore Day, a day set aside to celebrate all those havens of civilization and culture where you can browse in the old sense, touch and leaf through physical books, and talk to real people who read a lot.
In Seattle, the celebration includes the Passport Challenge, in which one tries to visit all 25 participating bookstores in one day. Arundel Books of Pioneer Square is one of them. Their house imprint, Chatwin Books, who published my Fabric of the American Dream in 2015, will be presenting a series of readings by Chatwin authors at the store that day.
As one of their art book “authors,” rather than reading from my book I will be talking about the paintings that are in it; about my subsequent work; and then about two artists of my choosing, Edouard Manet (of course) and Norman Rockwell (about whom I wrote a piece for ArtDish a few years back).
My talk starts at 3:30 PM PDT. The event will be live-streamed on Facebook, but to reward actually showing up in person, which is kind of the point, champagne will be served at the bookstore.
Sleek shiny cars, gleaming ribbons of freeway, convenient modern handheld devices like TV remotes and light meters—we’re all nostalgic for the future that never happened.
My show of recent paintings on vintage fabrics, remixing images of mid-century car ads and real estate porn into dissections of the American unconscious, is up through this Friday, April 26 at Atelier Drome Architecture + Design, 112 Prefontaine Ave. S in Pioneer Square. Hours are 8AM- 5PM Monday through Friday.
Recommended by The Stranger as one of the top shows to see this spring.
When I was a model for painting classes, I often heard one professor tell his students a story about a Chinese artist who received a commission for a painting of a fish. Some months had passed when the patron inquired as to the status of his fish painting. The artist replied he was still working on it. More months passed, the patron inquired again. Still working on it, the artist replied again. A year goes by, the patron asks after his fish yet again, and the artist once again tells him he’s still working on it. Another year later, the patron finally just goes over to the artist’s studio and says, please, I really want my fish, I’ve been waiting for two years now, can I get my fish painting? The artist pulls out a brush, ink, and a piece of paper, then deftly paints a fish on it and hands it to the guy. “Wait, why did it take so long if you could just make one in five seconds like that?” the patron wants to know. The artist walks over to a closet, opens the door, and out fly hundreds of pieces of paper with fish painted on them.
I’m not sure if I have all the details right from the professor’s version, let alone whether it’s really an old Chinese fable—the professor himself might have just made it up, for all I know. It really doesn’t matter where it comes from, because the story as I have come to understand it (and retell repeatedly to my own classes) is wise and useful regardless of its fuzzy provenance. The point is that you have to make a whole lot of bad or mediocre art in order to get even close to making good art. You have to fill rooms and rooms with bad, or just not-quite-it, fish paintings. And you have to keep doing it. I’ve been painting and showing and selling paintings for over twenty years, yet I am still filling up the fish closet with crap. I’ve learned to embrace it.
When I made the series Floor Plan for the American Dream (AKA the Manet covers), I started one piece that never, ever worked out. The working drawing, pictured above, gives you an idea of how I tried to squish way too many people into an overly complicated composition. Yet I persisted in squishing and started the painting itself on two panels, one of them truly weirdly shaped. It only got worse from there.
You can tell by the wildly fluctuating color changes that I was grasping at straws. Eventually I figured that out myself and stopped painting, separated the panels, and whited out everything except the curtain and two ladies.
I put those panels away until I’d finished the rest of the show. I occasionally pull them out and do stuff to them. They might make their way out of the fish closet and be reborn as completely different works, but it’s OK if they don’t.
The last four years have been boom times for the fish closet. The slight distraction of buying a building happened to coincide with the distinct feeling that one period of my work was ending and it was time to find the next evolution. That particular alignment of stars meant that the experimentation, focus, and long, seemingly unproductive hours of making work destined for the fish closet was further complicated by a lot of unrelated interruptions. I messed around with a lot of processes and ideas that would probably never make it into finished form but had to happen anyway.
Experiments included ink sketches of patterns set in the traditional prototypes I found in a 1948 book for textile designers; tiny square magazine collages; paintings of patterns based on carbon atoms and organic molecules; and attempts to wed the painted patterns to existing fabric ones.
Meanwhile, I was also trying to learn to compose in a circle. I had kept my first tondo paintings simple—single objects centered on a patterned-fabric ground—but I always intended to get back to narratives and architectural space.
Let me tell you, it’s not easy to squish the entirety of the American Dream and its discontents into a circle. I had managed to get people to behave themselves a little bit, by keeping to an intimate scale and leaving out the complicated architecture. These paintings felt like they had the right amount going on in them for their fourteen-inch diameter.
But I craved big ideas, big spaces, big hunks of steel. I confidently and foolishly built two 42-inch panels then spent two years figuring out what to put in them. I had been wanting to explore the cult of the automobile, its shiny finned candy-colored midcentury rockets luring us to planetary demise. For a setting, Albert Frey’s gorgeous Aerial Tramway gas station of Palm Springs beckoned.
Doesn’t that yummy car just want to drive up to that yummy gas station? Not so fast, buster. What do you think this is, a RECTANGLE?
Two great tastes don’t always taste great together.
It didn’t work but, determined to marry the car theme to the architecture, I pressed on. I stumbled upon a picture of this lovely car dealership in Las Vegas.
Don’t even think about putting this in a circle. Not gonna happen. Additionally, in both scenarios I couldn’t figure out where the people would go. The buildings steal the entire show.
Then I found this stunning interior. Finally, something that looks like a car dealership but there’s a place to put the people! And it’s even in one-point perspective, which is something that works just fine in a circular composition.
I tried adding the car, but it was still weird.
I have a wall in my studio that is its own fish closet, just for humans. Lots of them are drawings of people I ended up using somewhere, but in a different size, so these wrong-sized versions accumulated on this wall. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to put them all in a painting together some day. This seemed like the moment to try it, as nothing else was working.
And neither was this. (Although it was fun to try.)
Oh, and I also had this guy. I loved that he was shining his car until he could see himself, looking like an overenthusiastic housewife with her Lemon Pledge. I gave him a car upgrade, but I had trouble deciding where to place him along the hood, and then he wouldn’t fit into any of the other spatial settings I’d drawn, let alone into a circle. He’s still on the wall and may be destined for the fish closet, despite the fact I still have a little crush on him.
Sometime in 2017, in the midst of these forays into the abyss, I did stumble upon one image that worked in a large circle. This fancy lady in her automobile is straightforward, focused, in one-point perspective, with a clear center, and she knows what she wants. The circle demands simplicity, which is nearly impossible to get right, but sometimes you stumble upon it.
Smart as Tomorrow – Yours Today
However, doing something once is easy compared to following it up. I spent another year and a half struggling to come up with a second composition. In a book about Los Angeles architecture, I found some black and white photos of their famous freeways; one under construction, and another of an interchange known as “the stack.” Rather than try to squeeze one or the other of them into my mold (like tuna into a ring of lime jello), I made a new image out of parts of both, and then I found the perfect family to drive on them, in an ad for the wonders of asphalt.
Clearly, after all that endless, angst-filled, fish-painting, the only solution was to break every known rule. Put a big gray concrete post dead center. Crop people across their faces. Make the perspective ask more questions than it answers. I painted it relatively quickly (if not as fast as that Chinese artist with the patron breathing down his neck). Quickly, that is, if you don’t count the four years of filling the up closet with all those fish.
A re-issue. Originally posted on Making Your Own Work, my previous blog, on March 8, 2016.
Horse by the author, circa 1971; crayon on found office paper.
I grew up with five older siblings. We had around the house lots of books and toys from eras past, representing the accumulated passing interests of a slew of children. I never knew where most of the stuff came from or to whom it originally belonged. It was just there. Of these random vintage possessions, the most influential on my development were two books by Walter T. Foster (1891-1981), “How to Draw” and “How to Draw Horses”. My cousin and I spent hours on end with the horse book, first copying the drawings, and then using his method of constructing the animal out of ovals, boxes, and lines (which also happened to be WTF’s method for drawing grapes, humans, landscapes, and most of the visible world).
These kinds of how-to books are a remnant of a time in America when leisure time was newly accessible to a wider demographic (thanks, labor movement) and their proliferation testament to the new consumer hobby market publishers sought to tap. Most of the authors were successful commercial illustrators and admen pitching their foolproof, easy methods to a public with time on their hands and an admirable wish to better themselves, for fun or profit or both. Unlike similar ventures into this market, for instance, paint-by-number, these books actually taught you a skill, and could be a starting point for a budding serious artist who found them lying around the house. They vary widely in their usefulness, production values, and applicability to fine art, but they all share an insistence that ANYONE CAN LEARN TO DRAW!
These are a few from my present-day collection.
Walter T. Foster was possibly the most prolific of the bunch, and he was more geared toward realism than those who were riding the comic book wave of the 1940’s and 50’s. He began his own publishing company, Walter T. Foster Publishing, which produced other artists’ how-to books as well as his own. Possibly one reason he could be so prolific can be found in the off-the-cuff, sketchbook quality of his books. They are full of bits of advice, hand-written in pencil, that usually, but not always, correspond to the illustrations, as if he just remembered something important and had to write it in the interstices of the drawings before it slipped his mind. Sometimes the drawings run right off the page. Possibly they are just his sketchbooks, barely edited and annotated.
He’s full of advice and encouragement. In the example above he is mighty specific about the exact size of drawing board you should use, as well as where you should lean it. Elsewhere, after laying out the 1/3 rule of composition, he exhorts:
Don’t hold to any cut-and-dried rules. Think for yourself and apply what you learn from all sources.
On drawing a vase of flowers:
Fine, go ahead, but if you have trouble just know it isn’t an easy thing to do.
Many of his snippets of wisdom are indeed signed “W.T.F.”
Here’s a helpful, if confusing, hint on the pitfalls in composition, which also looks like a recipe for a successful cubist painting:
The irrepressible Andrew Loomis, author of “Fun With A Pencil”, mixes instructions for drawing cartoon caricatures right in more with realistic figures and perspective theory. His formulas are rather more formulaic, but he also proves a pleasant companion for your drawing journey. “Never mind if they are a little off” is timeless advice for learning any new skill, and people particularly need to hear it when they’re drawing, since the disastrous results of early attempts are always staring you in the face.
This chart of standard facial measurements is from 1939, so we’ll cut him some slack on his ethnocentricity, of which, trust me, this is a more mild example:
The ideal American is not only white, chiseled, and afflicted with lines all over their face, but is also possibly transgender. Note the identical features transposed from Mr. Ideal American to Ms. Ideal American.
Actually, I do hand out a version of that formula to beginning students tackling portraits for the first time. I find it helps them to see what’s in front of them, and usually if not always keeps them from putting the eyes at the very top of the head. I do add the warning, “actual results may vary,” which one should keep in mind regardless of the subject’s ethnicity.
I’m not entirely sure what this diagram is supposed to represent. It doesn’t even really make sense internally: why is the brow line perpendicular to the ear line? And, besides, one should NEVER use a real knife to draw another human. While we’re at it, let me also state that real children should never be allowed to play unsupervised with perspective.
Next to the Ideal American, the most important formula for the budding commercial illustrator to have in their back pocket was the Pretty Girl, the pleasingness of which, according to Loomis, is “99% in how well you draw it”. Incidentally, this validates Jessica Rabbit’s oft-quoted observation that she wasn’t bad, just drawn that way.
Even into the late 1960’s, it was still important to keep those gender roles straight when learning to draw.
George Carlson, author of “I CAN DRAW!”, from which those were taken, was no Walter T. Foster, but WTF is a valid response to these unhelpful diagrams. This book was aimed at children, but evinces little respect for their ability to distinguish drawing from tracing dotted lines. What is “The head is drawn this way” supposed to mean? Those are two identical pictures, except one is red and one is black with an arrow pointing toward it, but no further instructions.
Mona Lisa is painted this way.
W.T.F. himself wasn’t immune from the illustrative conventions of his time, either. In his books, men’s hands are to be drawn realistically, while ladies’ hands tend to taper unnaturally.
In my experience, drawing a “leaf shape” first has never, ever been helpful in drawing a hand. It is only helpful in drawing a leaf. You can’t argue with this, though:
Hands are not easy to draw and you should devote much time to them.
Unlike the learn-to-draw-in-five-days-and-get-rich school of art instruction, Foster doesn’t sugarcoat the sheer hours and sweat it takes to learn to draw. You can tell he really loved his vocation and wanted to make it accessible to anyone with the inclination. As a child I had the inclination but I didn’t know any artists (or horses for that matter). Doing the exercises in his books gave my initial inclination some focus and direction. Breaking horses down into their component ovals, however formulaic, demystified drawing for me. I started with his horses and grapes, but I kept on drawing while Foster assured me that, although it was bound to be difficult, I could get it with practice. “Do not let it scare you. Just take your time.”
I will give Mr. Foster the last word:
Draw everything you see, it will come in handy when you start making a living at it. Sure you can. Try.