Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Few Stories

Story Number One  Yesterday was the palette auction in Hammondsport. Three friends of mine had painted palettes and we were all anxious to see how it would go. This is the third year of the event. In the spring artists are asked to paint or sculpt anything they want on a giant palette (guessing 3x4 feet?). Then a local business displays the palettes for the summer. At the end of the summer they're auctioned off in the town square. Half the selling price goes to the artist; the other half goes to support and promote local art. 

My friend Jackie had done a beautiful portrait of Dr. Frank (local celebrity who 'discovered' wine-growing/selling in the Finger Lakes region.)  Jackie spent a lot of time on her palette - a lot. Bruce and I saw the process. She stretched and glued Claessens over the surface, painted a grisaille and finished off with a beautiful rendering. It was on display at Dr. Konstantin Frank's vineyard all summer. 

Bruce had an outstanding lake scene. Dustin Boutwell had a top-notch still-life of grapes, wineglass and opener. Knowing how much time was put into the paintings I expected them to easily break $1000 and that wouldn't have been enough. There were a few other notables, especially Ron Dixon's. 

To make a long story short - none of them broke $1000. Jackie's went for about 2/3 of that and it would have gone lower except Bruce bid on it and won. I've never seen Bruce angry before. Really . Yesterday, like Mrs. PotatoHead, he had his angry eyes out. 

Some bystanders were overheard saying they thought the prices for the palettes this year were much more reasonable than last. Not a chance. Setting aside the time put into the paintings, they should have gone for more money based on just the quality.  Perhaps its the economy, perhaps it was the rain yesterday... still it's a shame....

Story Number Two   A few weeks ago I was able to spend some time with my brother. We don't get together much. He's a simple man and I mean that in the best sense. He likes his meat and potatoes, a good book, and a beer with friends. He cuts trees for a living and is good at it. He knows his stuff. He can also tell a great story. When he's 'on' he'll have you spitting out your nose.

This summer my brother did some work at the home of Bronson Pinchot.  Mr. Pinchot, also a funny guy, has a home on the NY/PA border. That's pretty much "God's Country" and needless to say there's been a bit of a culture clash. As my brother quotes Mr. Pinchot, "They hate me. They really do and I don't care."  

I can't do my brother's story justice. You had to be there.  My brother was cutting trees for him and deep in thought walked around a corner. He came face-to-face with this celebrity, surprising them both. Mr. Pinchot recovered first and said, "A paddy face! I just came from Ireland and I saw lots of paddy faces!"

My mother and I locked eyes and I said to him, "You know he insulted you?" She seconded it. My brother didn't care. He shrugged it off thinking it was pretty funny. I guess we do have 'paddy faces' and there's no getting around it. We've too many Finegans, Killeens and Kellys in our genes.

Story Number Three  A retired friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous) was filling in at a local general store in Pine Creek, PA. this summer. A gaggle of college girls came in asking directions to a remote waterfall. Since it was the end of his shift he volunteered to lead them there. This place was really remote and directions would probably have been useless for anyone not familiar with the area. 

After a forty-five minute hike they arrived at said waterfall. The young women expressed some disappointment, expecting it to be a fairy-tale pool with a thundering cataract.  My friend told them there was another waterfall above the first that was really beautiful, but it was another 15 - 20 minute hike uphill. They wanted to see it.

This second waterfall was magical. Water fell in a thin, cold stream from 40 feet into a deep, green pool laced with ferns. The young women stripped down to bikinis right there in front of him and plunged in.

 I thought the story ended there.  With a twinkle in his eye my friend said he waved good-bye as they shouted their thanks. He looked at me and said, "Jeff, I knew what was going to happen the moment I was out of sight. I knew." So he snuck back around and hid behind a tree.

Sure enough when the coast was clear the bikinis came off. He said it was one of the most wondrous sights his tired, old eyes had ever witnessed.  I can only imagine. With envy. 

Some readers will be offended by this story. Some readers will think my friend should have been turned into a stag right then and there, to be ripped apart by his own dogs. But before you go all Actaeon on us let me say this: I have some female friends who if the situation had been reversed, if these had been buff college guys, they would have felt no shame whatsoever in creeping back around to hide behind that tree.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Led by a Nose

Earlier in the summer I took the kids and our dog to North Country Outfitters in Nelson, PA. Jim Oman and I put a couple birds out for the dog. This was to give her some fun and exercise working them. She worked the first bird no problem. I flushed it for her, and it took off for the opposite hill.

Then the second bird was pointed and I duly flushed it, but instead of taking off it fluttered up, then down, and ran. No big deal, and we weren't hunting, so I told the dog to work the bird. It had run about 75 yards, but she didn't know where it had gone. The dog circled twice, then backtracked, lost the scent, and circled. While watching her I half-listened to Oman explaining to the kids what the dog was doing. He told them a dog, especially a hunting dog, 'sees' with it's nose. He said she wasn't using her eyes at all, but instead was busy decoding the information her nose was flooding into her brain. This dog was literally being led by her nose.

While driving today this scene popped into my head for some reason (probably because bird season isn't far away). I can't even imagine the reality of a dog with a sensitive nose, but I see the behavior. Smells fascinate them. Odors are their reality. What would a fine work of art be for a dog? It would certainly be very smelly.

We humans don't have that refined sense of smell. We're visually oriented. Artists even more so. I guess we're like the bird dogs of vision. I've seen this in action during critique sessions. A group of artists sitting around and a painting is put in front of them. Immediately they're all on point. It goes beyond the pleasure of vision; it's almost involuntary.

As an artist I devour images. It doesn't matter if they're photographs or drawings, paintings or etchings, they grab my attention. Most for just a fraction of a second, the better ones for longer, and the best hold my attention for a long, long time.

Does anybody else enjoy browsing in a bookstore just to look at the book covers? Usually I use Amazon to buy books, but Amazon in one sense can't beat walking around a Barnes & Noble or Borders. That sense is vision. The sheer wealth of images surrounding me on every book cover... if I give myself over to the pleasures of looking I don't even care about the book's content. Lately I've been trying to slow down when a cover catches my attention, attempting to analyze exactly what caught me, but it's hard when right-brain is asking for more, more, more - to do the left-brain thing.

Back to that bird. The dog worked the puzzle out in her head and locked up on point. My God an English Setter on point is beautiful. This time the bird held and I had to kick it into the air. The dog watched it fly out of sight, then turned and looked at me. I could see the realization in her eyes that that was it for the day, the realization and the disappointment. Not unlike the look in my friend Bruce's eyes when he realizes there are no more paintings for critique that day.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sketch from Wednesday's Model Session

About 45 minutes. The model liked it. For more finished paintings please visit West End Gallery or

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Sorg Easel: A Review

Nine years ago tomorrow my Jullian easel arrived. I know the date because my daughter arrived the same day. I'd like to say I'm still using that easel, that I love my Jullian and wouldn't trade it for anything. Unfortunately none of that is true. (For the record I DO love my Jillian and wouldn't trade her.)

Down in my basement:
  • Jullian full box easel

  • Jullian half-box easel

  • table top easel

  • Open Box "M" 11x14

  • Easy "L" easel

  • Stanrite steel field easel

  • Gloucester Easel

  • two home made pochades

  • Guerilla Box

  • 6x8 Guerrilla Thumb box

  • Guerilla Cigar Box

  • One Utrecht Portable Sketch Easel

  • Open Box "M" Palm Box

  • Julian Thumb Box

  • Plus a variety of different tripods, including a surveyor's tripod.
Do I own an art supply store? No. Does my wife think I'm totally nuts? Yes.

For many years I was on a quest for the perfect easel; one that worked hard in the studio, was very portable and could stand up to all kinds of abuse in the field. AND it had to have a reasonable footprint. After nine long years I've given up.

Three weeks ago I bought a studio easel: the David Sorg studio easel. I ordered it from his website and paid $790. That price is one reason I wasn't jumping up and down in excitement. It's a chunk of change, and I wanted to decrease odds it would end up in the basement. So before committing myself I called David Sorg to get some questions answered. I called him in the morning EST, and after dialing noticed the address was in Colorado. Oops. He answered the phone on the third ring.

Questions I wanted answered:
  • what quality wood is used? Italian beech imported to China.

  • will it fit in a room with 7.5' ceilings? Yes, but I won't get full use of the easel for larger paintings

  • how long before delivery? Depends on Jerry's Artorama. They handle the shipping.

  • footprint dimensions? 31 in. x 31 in
Mr. Sorg says under an agreement he has with Jerry's Artorama they handle shipping and inventory. The easel can be ordered from the Sorg website or Jerry's. If ordered from the Sorg website he includes some wax sticks to lubricate the grooves, a beefed-up top bracket knob, and detailed assembly instructions. I asked Mr. Sorg about competing easels. He says the "cadillac" of easels has always been considered the Hughes Easels, but he thinks his is a very close second. Apparently Mr. Sorg has taken all the best ideas from various studio easels and engineered them into his own. He also advised me to cut off the top of the center bracket when assembling the easel because of my low ceiling. We had a long pleasant conversation during which all my questions, and some questions I didn't know I had, were answered. It was apparent to me Mr. Sorg is very proud of his easel and stands behind it.

I was a little leery of having anything to do with Jerry's Artorama due to many past bad experiences. They were only handling delivery of inventory though, so I decided to go ahead. I ordered the easel from Mr. Sorg.

To my great surprise the easel arrived in five days. It probably would have been sooner, but the five days included a weekend. Also to my surprise it arrived on a semi-truck. The rig couldn't get near my driveway. Luckily I've a pick-up and I met the driver on a street corner near the house. The shipping container weighed 160 pounds. I unpacked it in the bed of my truck and carted the parts inside.

Assembly took half an hour, but only because I had Mr. Sorg's assembly instructions. If I'd used the instructions shipped with the easel from China it would have taken...days. The easel fit the space perfectly and I was getting paint on it within an hour.

Before I get into it's features a word about how I paint: standing up on New Traditions Boards, the largest so far 20x24. I'm six foot and I hold a rectangular palette in my left hand with a few brushes. I use OMS as a thinner and have Gamblin's neo-megalip in a cup on the palette. Even though I hold some brushes, I like to have a selection near at hand along with a large container for my OMS.

The easel shelf is at about mid thigh-height. There are two stainless steel containers on either side: one for brushes and one for OMS. The shelf is sturdy and handy for placing knives or a coffee cup. Above the shelf is another grooved shelf for brushes. I keep two stainless steel rulers there. Two grooved "wings" extend from the side of the larger shelf, another place for brushes or miscellaneous tools. A paper towel holder is under the shelf. Very handy. The entire easel is on beefy metal casters; the front two of which lock. They are also adjustable for leveling. The hardware is all-over solid. The wood is solid and nice quality.

The real beauty of this easel is its bracketing system. Top and bottom brackets are surfaced in a heavy grit sandpaper. The bottom bracket runs the width of the easel. The top is about ten inches. I can place a panel in the brackets and have the surface flush, ramrod straight with no jiggle, wiggle or after adjustments. There is no annoying shadow cast by the top bracket. I can paint over the entire surface of my picture at any time. What luxury!

If I had higher ceilings I know I'd be raving about the pulley system for adjusting the painting. With two fingers you can raise or lower your painting surface, without taking it out of either bracket. The pulley system still comes in handy with my low ceiling, but when lowering it I also lower the brush holders and OMS container. They can end up around my shins, so I'm stooping over to rinse/select brushes or grab some paper towels. A word on the paper towel holder: not the greatest. It works fine, but it's plastic and I have to struggle every time to place the roll. Then I use it without thinking. Very minor gripe.

The bottom bracket has two adjustment knobs. If I'm not careful my painting won't be level. For this I have a line level I use, keeping it handy on one of the "wings". A line level can be bought at Lowe's for, I'm guessing, fifty-cents. Definitely worth it. I place it on the bottom bracket, level, and tighten knobs. A few seconds.

So there you have it. Am I going to get all gushy about this easel? No. My highest praise is this: the easel allows me to do my job. It's solid, my surface doesn't move, there are no pesky shadows and I can work without worry. Once the painting surface is placed I can PAINT, in comfort, without interruptions from my easel. High praise indeed. Definitely worth the price.

Now if I can only get my kids to obey our House Rule: "No Talking to Daddy When He's Working Unless There is Bleeding or Something is Broken." Ya, like that'll ever happen.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Artist's Statements and Titles

A journalist to Sorolla: " Maestro, you have had such a brilliant success with works on social themes, will you please tell me what you think about them?" Sorolla: " My friend, I just paint pictures – other people do the explaining!"

For myself one of the most dreaded duties in the art business is writing an artist's statement. Galleries want them because it's good promo material. They can hand them out to interested collectors or as a media packet. But does anybody ever read them? And do they say anything? I bet most artists would say they just BS the whole statement. It's not hard. There is a whole lot of gobbledy-gook artspeak in the culture. Or they make a bland, generic statement about their love of light and form...

Artist Alex Kanevsky doesn't include an artist's statement because he wants his art to speak for itself. Yup...that's what I think too, and if it's good enough for Alex, it's good enough for me.( Come to think of it I've never read an artist statement from Wyeth, Sargent, Hopper, Homer, Innes, etc. either. When did it become de rigueur to have an artist statement? I'm going out on a limb here wondering if maybe it has something to do with that period when art needed to be explained? Maybe around the time of abstract and conceptual art?

One problem with writing an artist statement is that the darn thing is obsolete almost the minute I dot the last period. What I think about my work and my goals changes hourly, though it does tend in a general direction. (Okay maybe not hourly - but it changes.) It's why I have such a hard time titling pictures also. Picture titling is right up there with that odious artist statement. Maybe I'd just rather paint than write?

In my humble opinion the painting is a dialogue between viewer, painting and artist. Anything that comes between that dialogue siphons away some of the richness and power of the relationship. A title can do just that. Here's a list of some titles from paintings in an OPA catalogue: "So,What'll you have?", "Three's Company", "Imposing View", "Warm Winter Wishes", "Beloved Hope", "Grapes and Pears", "Wanna Ride?", "Lemons in Box", "Pigtails, Princess and Pilar". Without even looking I can say "Grapes and Pears" and "Lemons in Box" are still lifes. Gonna look now...Yup I was right. Think the viewer needed to know that? Wouldn't it have been better if the painting were "Untitled"? I mean it's lemons in a box so whatever emotional import the viewer brings, a title doesn't help them. But they look away from the painting to read the title and lose a moment to feel the painting. If it were up to me I'd have every single one of my paintings "Untitled", unless it was extremely important for me to give the viewer more info than the painting provides.

There's another reason titles and statements are dangerous, ie what the artist felt painting the picture may have nothing to do with the emotions I feel looking at the picture. Here's an example; take Wyeth's "Brown Swiss". When I look at that painting (or a repro) I'm about 16 or 17 sitting on a hill on a cold evening ,watching the shadows lengthen across a farm pond. I've got all the time in the world to sit and future to spend - yet I'm a little sad and scared because I don't know where that future will take me. The wind is sighing in the tiny pines behind me and I know soon I've got to go down the hill - but for a few moments I can sit here....

The reality is Wyeth painted that picture with completely different emotions. He knew the farmer in the house was German and that fact got all tied up with emotions about Wyeth's relationship with his father and family, with Karl Kuerner and Germany and ...cows. (Brown Swiss is a cow - I think.) All that means nothing to me when I look at the painting, nor should it. I have my own world I bring to the painting, and I don't need to know his reasons. It's a powerful picture.

Am I starting to sound a little shrill here?

Okay, knowing the history of an artist's intention can add to the richness of the viewing experience. It just doesn't need to be in the viewer's face. To go back for a moment to Wyeth's "Brown Swiss', the information given about why he painted the picture wasn't in an artist's statement. I believe it was given years later during an interview. The hook can be set, the painting made personal, and then the viewer can go back to explore the artist's intentions. Nine times out of ten the viewer will say, "Hmmm that wasn't what I thought/felt at all when looking at the painting."

Yes, yes I know I'm no Wyeth or Sargent. It doesn't mean I have to like writing an artist's statement - just that I have to do it. And for the record if Arcadia Gallery calls I'm all over it.

About Me

My photo
Elmira, New York, United States
In many ways I think like a photographer. The image itself is becoming more and more important to me; the actual application of paint less and less. Blasphemy in some painterly circles. I choose to paint figures and portraits because I consider them the most difficult subject.