Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Long time, no updates! Ow!

Long time no posts! Sorry about that. I've had a bad year with massive health problems and only gradually begun picking up my activities again. Limited Internet access threw me mostly offline for about a year for financial reasons, then I got sick and also depressed (natural consequence of being that sick) and basically did nothing for a long time. Now that I'm active in various communities again, writing again and drawing and painting again I might be back more often. But it really shouldn't be called Daily Painting any more.

I have chronic illness. Daily Anything doesn't work. There's days when all I can accomplish is have home health care come over, or appointments. Actually, appointments are when I'm most likely to draw or paint, as I have wait time for transport van and always bring art materials and journals. This is a new 7" square Stillman & Birn Delta journal. I haven't tried a square format before and I'm beginning to really like it!

I've also figured out something. Why, in landscapes, I rarely put buildings in or people. A lot of articles suggest putting people in your paintings, or buildings. I hated that, would much rather feel like I'm alone in nature than have a house in it or a family of hikers or something. I couldn't put my finger on why, but now I've got several reasons.

1) If you put a figure or a building in a landscape, it will become the center of interest automatically. Viewers associate with that little figure. This is why so many artists put tiny distant figures right in the center of interest as a way to draw the viewer's eye to it.

2) Little distant figures are easy once you know how. They don't have to be detailed, a couple of strokes will do it and they're implied, not stated. Houses are more difficult! Without practice, putting in a house or barn or fence into your landscapes takes a chance it'll be way out of proportion, unreal, funny looking or ruin it. The ugly part is right in the center of interest. Same if you're not experienced doing the "red carrot" style figure, you can lose the painting to a one inch tall blob that looks like he's distantly morphing into a werewolf when you intended that to be his summer hat. Oops!

3) The ones in the references are boring. The tiny distant figures not so much, though they always seem to turn into women with dresses on the same principle as the bathroom door icon. The buildings especially may either look like Industrial Milk Crate or Suburban Ticky-Tacky. The style of suburban housing has only a few variations and it's the same coast to coast, North to South, modern buildings look like the outlying scout of a developer who's going to plow up that whole forest and put in a thousand more turning the wonderful place into someone else's lawn where you'd be trespassing.

The solution of course is to combine references. A thatched cottage from a friend's vacation in Wales gives a very different impression and is actually easy to paint at a distance. Old stone ruins are as flexible and open to interpretation as trees and rocks - how much of it fell down, what its proportions are, that's up to you. It's not a jarring hard-edged geometrical element in the middle of a flowing organic scene where I've already moved the trees around, changed the height of the mountain and put the creek in from a different reference. If I'm doing that anyway, why not pick what the star is?

The middle ground or near ground figures uniformly seem to be white middle class people, usually on vacation or in their leisure time. Is there some reason, any reason, living in San Francisco, why I can't do sketch references of my diverse neighbors and put an interesting old Chinese lady or my big husky Phillipines neighbor or that tall Hispanic guy or the black lady with the braids to her hips? I could change the feel of the beach and creek and rural scenes immediately by making the people more diverse.

Even the red carrot - that fisherman in the distant boat could get burnt sienna and a touch of black for his head and still be "distant fisherman." In fact, I've got another artistic reason for increased diversity of people in paintings, besides the point of fighting invisible racism.

Brown people are easier to paint. You can start with Burnt Sienna and modify from there. All the great earth tone pigments in your set, be that watercolors or pastels or whatever, you can use those for skin tones. You can choose the figure's complexion to fit the scenery and create a more breathtaking painting that way, rather than spending half the time trying to get the precise sunburn-pink of a white figure without a hat. Seriously. A shot of Burnt Sienna will give you a figure that could be black or Hispanic or Indian or Native American and they're too far away to tell, it's just a cool little brown person next to the one with the blond blob for hair. Or by themselves.

I am not trying to make a living on art. I am not trying to sell to a conservative market. My books don't appeal to conservatives, why should my paintings invisibly imply that America is only inhabited by white people? Lots of brown people farm and have cool ramshackle old farm houses and barns to fit the rural-idyllic style - which I have done because those old barns and houses have character. That does not mean the owners look like American Gothic. That rancher might not have immigrant ancestors at all. Or might have gotten the farm after manumission and have a long family tree of black people on that land.

This does not always apply to portraits as a genre. I look at portrait competition winners and often the painters have found the beauty of a young black man or Asian woman, a Filipino elder, a Native American child. Painters who do people don't all have the white gaze. I think many of them discover that Burnt Sienna might be the universal human skin tone, adapt and modify to whoever that is, and have fun with the real variety in diversity. It applies more in crowd scenes and distant figures in landscapes. Middle ground and distant figures default to white even if it means that you spend fifteen minutes mixing the hue in order to put one dot on top of the jacket squiggle.

It happens often enough though, that it's disturbing to me. So I might start making an active effort to do the opposite, when I do put figures in I'll make them diverse. It's like making up the side characters in a story - they don't need detail, but the one first thing you notice about them will carry a wealth of meaning. That and put in the effort to practice squiggles with female figures in pants rather than default to "dress at knee length" bathroom door icon for distant women. Then deal with the silliness of swimsuits by letting distant figures go skinny dipping. If it's going to be in the center of interest, give the figure a reason to be there and something to say - even if it's that concise.

That and maybe let my imagination go, put in robed figures and fantasy garments instead of just sticking to contemporary. They don't even need to be human. Why not centaurs or dragons, fantasy figures? A tip for doing those - small painted metal figurines make really great models for fantasy figures, especially at a distance. The cloaked warrior can be turned to maximize drama, the little dragon put at the right angle to fit the painting, presto, cool fantasy painting instead of Suburbia Invades The Rockies.

I swing both ways. Diversity comes into my fantasy novels too, so there's no reason the cloaked warrior couldn't be black or brown. I'm just not going to paint as if my grandparents' Des Plaines subdivision took over the world of my art - it never did and that doesn't need to start.


  1. Draw and paint when you can and are up to it. Hope you feel better soon!

    1. Thank you! It's very hard to accept what my disabilities limit me to sometimes. I don't expect it when something goes wrong and it's that last little thing that tips my balance. Thank you so much for understanding!