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.
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.
Opening reception is Thursday February 7, 5-8pm at Atelier Drome, 112 Prefontaine Place South. After that, hours are M-F 8am-5pm (make eye contact with the front desk person to be let in). Show closes April 26, 2019.
I pilfer images from old magazines—feral children who are up to no good, beatific high-heeled homemakers, cigarette-smoking proto-hipsters, futuristic dream houses, gizmos tucked into tiny spot ads in the back pages—extract them, mix them up, put them back together into new configurations. Much like a recipe for twice-baked potatoes or some other mid-century labor-intensive foodery. These advertisements are the sacred texts of capitalism, and essential records of the history of our collective aspirations. Our aspirations seem to have changed very little since the advertisements were first concocted. We continue to lust after real estate, buy more stuff, and lovingly cradle electronic devices in the palms of our hands.
Next month, I’ll be showing some brand-new paintings that look at the golden age of the automobile (for which we are paying dearly), along with some paintings of the last few years that concern themselves with gloriously futuristic spaces of yore. Travel Brochures for a Past Future opens February 7 at Atelier Drome, 112 Prefontaine Place South, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. There’s an opening reception from 5-8 PM on February 7 during the neighborhood’s first Thursday art walk. The show continues through April 26, and is viewable during business hours (8-5 weekdays) and by appointment.
Composing in a circle continues to challenge, inspire, and occasionally frustrate me. It’s damn harder than it looks. According to some theories, that is due to its gravitational pull being in the center, rather than at the bottom. A rectangular drawing or painting, by contrast, mimics the way we experience the world, a vertical orientation with gravity at the bottom, and a horizon line, real or implied, running across it horizontally. That center keeps exerting its influence, and you have to be careful what you put in there. You can’t hide anything in the corners, either. Which makes it difficult to fit a sprawling architectural space into it, let alone a road. Both of those things scream “horizontal! vertical!”
Here are some small sketches of my attempts at putting a freeway in a circle.
Why paint circles? Well, I have no idea why other artists do it, but I came to it arbitrarily. I had to ship a large, unstretched painting to Canada for my friend Lauren; she’d sold the work, by her late husband and my legendary studio-mate, Drake Deknatel. I rolled it up into a giant piece of cardboard tube, and then I needed end caps, i.e., circles. My handy partner and personal technical director Steve casually mentioned that I could cut them out of plywood by turning my router into a compass, using only a long, flat piece of plastic. Screw one end to the router base, and the other to the center of the plywood. The distance between the screws is your radius. Presto. Perfect circles in minutes.
I later exchanged the plastic for a fancier aluminum compass arm, to keep it from wobbling around on the bigger cuts:
That’s the entire reason I started painting on circles, because I leaned how to make them.
The first set of circular paintings, or tondos, I made were a bunch of single objects in people’s hands. I’ve since progressed to more complex spaces and perspectives, starting small and working my way up to larger pieces. The new auto-pia paintings that will be in the show are 42″ in diameter. Here’s one on the table with just the fabric:
And another on the wall, further along. Note how the one-point perspective of the car interior sucks your eye into the middle.
The themes of house, home, and the American Dream of owning one recur so often in my work, it seems natural that people in the businesses of building selling homes would gravitate to it. For example, one of my earliest collectors and supporters was the late real estate goddess Jan Sewell. Her niece now has possession of the appropriately-titled This is the House You Ordered:
This is the House You Ordered
Last year, while I was in the process of scanning old slides and organizing my archives, I posted some older work on Instagram, including this painting:
A Wonderful World of Your Own
My friends Kim and Chavi, the dynamos behind Team Diva Real Estate, saw it and wanted it to hang in their own wonderful world. Alas, the painting had been sold in 2009 by a California dealer. I suggested to the gals that they commission something.
Many artists don’t like commissions, but I love them. Maybe it’s because my collectors are such a self-selected group who share my sensibility, and we both understand from the start that it’s my vision they’re after. I’ve never once had someone try to micromanage me as I worked. What would be the fun in that?
What I did do is ask what it was they loved about Wonderful World. They said it was the feeling of abundance and hospitality; the anticipation of sharing one’s home and food with guests who are about to arrive. The fact that it is an abundance of weird, mid-century, overengineered food just makes the people more endearing (you almost forgive them for living in such a pornographically modernist palace.) Which all made sense, given that these gals, in addition to being residential real estate moguls. are enthusiastic and frequent hostesses.
So the food was a given (and I LOVE painting food) but I also intuited that the structure of the piece, which pops the table and the food into the space you’re standing, was also integral to the draw of the piece. I’d made Wonderful World on two attached panels: I covered the top one in a striped fabric and formed the couple’s outfits out if it. The bottom panel I cut by hand to match the curve of a round tablecloth, which as a bonus was trimmed in classic dingleballs. I covered the bottom panel with a piece of the tablecloth, lining up the bottom with the bottom of the panel. The shadow that curves across it is translucent paint, which gives the illusion of the table jutting into the room. The top half of the table is painted to match the tablecloth. This whole construction was an idea I’d been wanting to revisit anyway, so I decided to try something similar for the commission.
I started, as usual, with the house.
I based it loosely on a photo from a Better Homes and Gardens decorating book from the 1960’s, much edited and simplified. (I really just liked the staircase.) Then I had to go looking for the right characters. The short list of potential co-hostesses is on either side of the drawing below. As you can see, I made reversed versions of each gal in order to try them out on both sides.
I drew a couple of them in the right scale and pinned them to the drawing. The one on the left was a keeper, the one on the right not so much. Her bending down so steeply seemed a little weird, and the hand going missing behind the table makes her look like she’s going to lift it with one hand.
The next one worked much better, but the hair was going to have to go. Too dowdy.
The fabric is usually kind of an agonizing choice, especially when I need to choose two of them. I was fairly certain I wanted to use this odd, scallopy Finnish tablecloth I had for the table, but getting them into the right outfits and somehow tying it all together chromatically would be a challenge. I ended up using a piece of the same striped fabric that I had left over from the painting of ten years ago, turned horizontally this time.
Here is the bottom panel turned on its back on the work table. Ten years ago, I’d cut the curve with a small Japanese handsaw, but this time around I used the whole thing as an excuse to buy a jigsaw. (Who knows what other wacky shapes I might want to paint in when I finally move on from circles?)
Here it is a few stages in, when I was ready to start blocking in the food. The final piece can be seen on my commissions page.
Update: Join me for Industry Night on Wednesday, October 24, 5-7 PM. There’s still some great work left in the show, and I’m also offering a rare sneak peek at the Salon Rue de Cerise, a creative project I’ve been working on that supports artists in Pioneer Square.
For the fifth year in a row, Dara Solliday and I are presenting “100 under $100” at ’57 Biscayne Studios. Each year, we gather work from numerous artists of our acquaintance and curate a show of 100 pieces of art that go for less than $100 a pop. Some of the artists work here in the building; others show with us frequently; some are established in their careers; others are just starting out. This year they range in age from 9 to 94. It’s a great community event and despite being a lot of work, one of the highlights of my year. I love seeing people become collectors for the first time, and empower themselves to like something, acquire it, and support (and usually meet) the person who made it. And they can take it home that night.
It’s happening this Thursday, October 4, from 5:30-9 PM at ’57 Biscayne Studios, 110 Cherry Street in Pioneer Square.
It’s also a chance for artists to clean out their closets, and show work that doesn’t fit in anywhere else: I’ll have some weird demonstration paintings from classes I’ve taught, some old pattern experiments, an artists’ proof from an etching series (above), and other odd bits. In my studio, I’ll have more recent smaller paintings, watercolor sketches, and some studies that may offer a sneak peak at future paintings.
I talked with New Day Northwest host Margaret Larson on KING 5 television, about You Are Here Too, the map show I co-curated with Annie Brule at the Good Arts Gallery. In a strange twist of meta-mapitude, the KING 5 studios, where the show is taped, happen to be located on the exact spot where I had a studio in the 1990’s. The Atlantic Street Studios were in a tiny two-story 1920’s building attached to a loading dock that took up the entire block and overlooked the Kingdome. Our building has been long wiped from the landscape, and unlike the Kingdome probably forgotten by most people. Atlantic Street is now known as Edgar Martinez Drive, all of which plays nicely into one of the show’s themes: how ephemeral and slippery are the names, mental constructs, and visual representations of places.
I have just finished curating, organizing, and hanging a new show with Annie Brule, artist, book designer, and cartographer extraordinaire. Artists love maps. We invited a bunch of them to create artwork using maps & mapping as a jumping-off point, and they jumped. The result is You Are Here Too, a wide-ranging and totally fun exhibit of paintings, works on paper, assemblage, ceramic bowls, crochet, and embroidery.
It starts at the Good Arts Gallery, inside Cherry Street Coffee House (my downstairs neighbor in the Good Arts Building), and winds upstairs to ’57 Biscayne Studios at 110 Cherry Street on the second and third floors. The show, and the studios, open Thursday May 3, with a big, building-wide open house during Pioneer Square Artwalk. The fun starts at 5 PM; perennial favorite Victor Janusz will serenade us on the piano from 7-9 in the second floor lobby.
Above: Detail, Les Demoiselles d’Illinois (in progress), maps, ink, glue, paper