Sunday, February 1, 2015

Confidence, Art and Life

I have a weird attitude. I may be giving bad advice sometimes by coming from a completely different perspective. Or I may be giving good advice where it's needed most. I could be doing both in the same paragraph, depending on who's reading it. So take this as an essay both in general about art and specifically on pastels, because pastel has become my heart-medium.

Pastels are instant gratification. I want to paint it, bang, I do. There it is. Big and bold and visible across the room. I paint small for a pastelist except on very good days but pastels make it possible for me to paint at all most times, because of that speed and power.

This essay is in answer to a forum post where a new friend said something that made me think. I had mentioned I didn't have the space to paint large complex still lifes, so I've been doing small simple studies. I'm drifting into the 6" square format of the Daily Painters and thoroughly enjoying it. This friend compared that to my dipping my toe in the pool, then wrapping the towel around my hips and walking away calling that my daily swim.

Well yeah, actually that is my daily swim. The fact that I was able to do it at all makes it a good day. On a bad day my daily swim would be a two inch long gesture sketch of my cat while he sleeps, something I could probably do without even looking at him because I've done it hundreds of times. He said it was a mystery because other painters with even less space managed to do larger, complex still lifes.

Well, the mystery is solved. I did answer and tell him it wasn't just space but disability. Because he's right. If I was abled, I wouldn't mind getting up and sweeping ALL the food stuff off the dresser, set up a still life, sketch and photo it, live out of boxes for eating for a while till the painting's done (or just work from the photo) and then put all the food back. About like the kind of vigorous housemate who lets the apartment turn into a wreck and then every month or two blitz cleans it over one weekend - and saves time for video gaming overall because that blitz was relatively easy for him.

Heck, I might still live in a place too small for complex still life and just go out to sit on the sidewalk and paint a window display in a shop instead, because that caught my eye. Even make more than one bus trip to get back to the antique shop to do that. There's more than one way to scan a cat.

I adapted to physical disabilities before I knew I had them. This has shaped my attitudes about everything in life and I was constructively lazy for most of it so far. Everything I do to make myself comfortable has an immediate self rewarding effect that I'll actually do more. Someone abled and overworked might find comfort irresistible and prefer to sleep or watch TV or socialize when they could be painting and would enjoy painting if they gave themselves a bit of a push to do it. But someone who's always in pain and usually too tired to live is bored stiff with just watching movies or laying in bed and seizes on any moment when activity's possible as a break in the misery. This is the truth of my life and why I always dive for my Comfort Zone.

It's in my Comfort Zone that I'm able to do anything at all. Add extra challenges onto the logistics of trying to live in my body and chances are I'll wind up using up what little body energy I have in creating the setup or getting out the materials.

So maybe Comfort Zone is a problem like weight loss. Many people are a little over and could stand to lose a few pounds, but you really do not want to suggest that to an anorexic. They might push it to the point of death if you do. It's never a temptation to just do nothing, it's always an unpleasant frustration. I cannot keep the pace of the abled and I find my limits in unexpected and unhappy ways if I don't follow my intuition on what I can do right now, this day, this hour, this weather and what I ate and who said what to me online earlier.

Stress comes into it too. Stress isn't good for people in general, but most people need a certain amount of it to be happy, a comfortable pace. Some people actually thrive on a moderately high level of stress and excitement, depends on personality and metabolism and culture.

Fibromyalgia means that emotional stress, even something like reading the wrong news story at the wrong time when it gives me a shock, will knock me into total exhaustion and physical agony. Crippling pain washes over me. This will also blur my vision, wreck my memory to the point I sound like an Alzheimers patient, leave me forgetting my phone number or not finding something right in front of me. In that state I don't paint well even if I push myself hard and try to paint.

There were some kinds of work I could do in that state but all were left-brained rote activities. The entire 1980s were my "pain robot" years.

That said, I think there's something strange that goes on between attitude and confidence.

I'm continually surprised at how the level of confidence painters have is almost disconnected from their skills. It's not like the best painters beat themselves up more than beginners. It's more that some people are really happy with their own art and others not.

I am usually happy with my art even when it's flawed, because there'll be something about it that I like. I may want to redo it later but probably not by reworking on the same piece. I'll probably apply the critique later to some completely different subject, but if I'm not happy with something I am as likely to be wrong as when I'm thrilled with it.

But I have also got other challenges in life a lot heavier than whether a painting works or whether it's finite perfection. I strive to improve overall so that my worst come out pretty well and someone will like them. I reached a point of liking my own drawings very early in childhood after a long life study of one pet and from there just assumed I'd keep getting better at difficult subjects, but I approach them slowly. I also don't even do them until I've got all the tools I need to do it right sometimes.

But, back to the physical. When I paint, it makes me happy. Especially when I go right into my Comfort Zone and choose a subject with bright colors like a macaw or hummingbird or flower or fruit, or a cat, any cat, a landscape without any other people in it or signs of human habitation where I know I'm not going to get hassled by anyone and can amble through at my own pace without running into those abled hikers with their huge backpacks warbling about "It's only another mile or so" to the water. Better not be or I'm dead. I like to see the water right in the scene.

I like those moments with wildlife where sitting still long enough lets them relax and understand I'm not hunting them, so they wander out and show themselves close. Wild cats especially but most wildlife too. I didn't get to do it often but I have had some moments to remember and love documentaries.

What happened is that because I couldn't run and play as a little boy, I got very good at reading, writing and drawing, the things that were still fun when you sit still for a long time. I did and do lots of little drawings that can be finished before I'm too tired to do it well. I learn a lot and over the past few years have learned so much more than I ever expected, WC is tremendously stimulating.

I get decisive when I paint. A mark is there when I've done it. Removing marks in any medium takes a lot more time and effort than just taking it for what it is and moving on, dealing with it by changing what I do next. That's just a physical fact. Anything that makes it slower and harder to finish a painting means I'm less likely to even manage to do that painting, so my reworking paintings usually isn't cost effective.

I have seen great painters brag about throwing away 19 out of 20 paintings they do. This makes me cringe. I can't count the number of times I hated something I finished, but other people loved it, and then years later I found out why and that what I thought was my worst was actually my best because I'd leaped beyond myself and intuitively practiced a principle I didn't consciously understand at the time.

The thought of wasting that much effort is horrifying too, but on body energy I'm on a budget something like a single parent of five kids working a part time Wal-Mart job. All physical activity takes five times the body energy given my skeleton, that's a limit I had from birth. I took much longer learning to walk than other children and was extremely clumsy being cross eyed on top of it, the eye operation helped but didn't change all of it.

So if I had to cross the room to get more paper, I did so five times. If I have to get out a different box of pastels, I did it five times. If I set up the easel or stand at it, I did it for five times as long and my scoliosis kicks in. Between pain and spasms, I can get too excited and push my back to where I'm stuck with days of bed rest. I have to stop at the first twinge, so slight it doesn't even register as pain, or I will pay bitterly later on.

But maybe for someone passionate and physically vigorous, brushing off a huge piece of Kitty Wallis paper 20 times till they're emotionally satisfied isn't a big deal.

I am currently trying to settle in and rearrange my life to be able to paint more, paint better, paint larger someday. That's a slow process and a good deal of it is a matter of literally rearranging furniture with the help of home care workers. I manage to paint when I can't even take a bath without help, because having help in the bath means I have some energy left to paint the next day. Literally the actions involved in scrubbing my body are sit-ups my back won't tolerate. I can manage two to wash my hair and if it ever gets so bad I can't keep that up, I'll get them shaving my head because I dislike other people washing my hair.

I live on disability for a reason. I'm hoping to get back to painting for a living, or more realistically supplementing old age Social Security by painting on the side. If I wasn't disabled at all, I would have made a good living as a painter probably from the time I was 20 and started getting cash money for little pen and ink dragon drawings. I'd have had the energy to do enough of them and most of all, paint them bigger and colorful and get to enough conventions, do the full sheet starscape and nebula beyond craggy moonscape astronomicals too, live in the sci-fi fandom but drift toward fine art on the side.

It's also screamingly funny to me to look at different art markets like the museums-gallery fine art circuit, the sci-fi fantasy fandom, the graphic novels and murals style of modern art, and see that each one has its own expectations about subject and ideas and "originality" which usually means "Do some old familiar favorite really well and be good enough at this style we can tell it's you without the signature. Share what the dragon or water lilies or mountain goat means to you."

Some people here like tough critique and most of all prefer to see flaws pointed out, because they are tired of compliments and lean toward perfectionist, get disgusted if they feel something's wrong and can't put their finger on why. Or don't trust it if it looks good.

Others blossom under the support. WC excels at both, the critique guidelines here are just broad enough to make it very comfortable for both the tough-critique "exciting challenge" crowd or those that thrive on support and encouragement. I got a lot of encouragement as a kid because sitting still made me get way ahead of any healthy child. I had the time and boredom to do it.

So what works for me may not work for you. Or it may work well for you. Please don't throw away your paintings! Just sell them to other people who like them, they may be right, they sure are for themselves and it'll make them happy. Let it go and use the money to get more paper. Remember that your worst is still way beyond what a lot of people can do at all and they'll still love it as much - just as they do still love the one they bought a decade ago that's not as good as what you do now.

There are always better painters. It's open ended. If you're up in that range you're already so specialized in your own style that the others that great are doing things you'd never think of doing, and so there's something cool to learn, including what you'll invent tomorrow. Or what happens when some chemist creates a new pigment or manufacturer an entirely new medium. There is more to learn about painting even in one medium than any one artist could learn in a human lifetime or even a dozen lifetimes because all of us are also always inventing. Art is not a zero sum game.

I think some ideas, like ranking it best and worst, are bad when applied to it because it gets so subjective and holistic. Your personal taste is going to apply to all of it and so does that of your buyer or gift recipient. Your skill at communicating with those art viewers is only going to increase, though sadly physical illness, pain and injury can reduce it. But that can be worked around. Skill can compensate for lost capacities.

I might get more detailed again if I got prescription glasses. Or I might not because I'm coming to enjoy working loose and concise. It's all fun.

What's the point of this essay? You have to judge for yourself. It's real obvious to me now that yeah, I don't do things the way other people do. What's easy for you is nearly impossible for me, but some things that would be hard for you are stone easy for me. I've had one major still life painting planned for almost a decade now and may well paint it someday - little by little by little and without actually owning any of the objects. It involves an expensive wooden sideboard, a lot of lovely crystal and glass, a mirror and a beautiful white cat sound asleep in the middle of it. Which of these things is going to destroy all the others? Guess!

If I had that stuff I sure wouldn't pose the cat in the middle of it but I may get good enough at planning paintings and rendering those objects to put it together entirely by design, capture my Siamese in the right pose, work out the reflected colors on the white fur and remember the exact hue all of it gets in the mirror because the slightly greenish glass cools everything. It'd be a fun painting. It won't be watercolor even if it'd work in watercolor because Getting Older is not going to make me more capable of stretching a full sheet of watercolor paper. Its most likely going to be pastel on sanded paper. It won't be realism. It will be impressionism.

It's simultaneously going to wow with its beauty and shock you with the thought of all that broken glass a moment later, make you want to reach in and gently catch the pitcher, pick up the kitty fast, if I do it right you will have about a 50-50 chance of saving the situation provided you know cats and that cat trusts you like your cat does. I could remove Ari from a pile of breakables on a good day and I'd move the at-risk pitcher before removing him - in that direction in case he decides it's Rowdy Cat Play Time.

But that's the fun of it. I see that paintin gin my mind and slides of it in watercolor, in oils, in oil pastels, oil sticks, oils by painting knife, pastel realism, pastel impressionism, all different ways, exist where you can't see them. And someday I'll have the skills to do it. Then sketch. Then get to work on it about once or twice a year till it's finally done. Not something I can live on, but it will get done or I'll die first. And that's how my life is shaped.

Know yourself. Know what you do and what you don't and why. Stop beating yourself up. Neither you nor your art has to be perfect. Perfection only exists in finite unliving things and art that's too perfect isn't, because good art has and shows the imperfections in life. Compensate for your barriers and weaknesses, play to your strengths and do what's right for you, because that's also where your style comes from. Past a moderate level of skill, others who know you can tell it's yours before you sign it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Breaking Pastel Sticks

Red Flowering Maple
9" x 12" pastel on paper

This post is mostly for new pastelists, though old timers and experts please chip in with comments to reinforce the point!

It's hard to deliberately break a pastel stick when you're starting out. There are so many reasons. The brand new pastels cost a lot of money. The set looks beautiful when it's full and you have all the colors available. The tips of the sticks look broad and blunt no matter what brand they are, even narrow rectangular hard pastels look wide compared to the tip of a colored pencil. How can you get detail with those wide tips? It'd be like trying to use a big graffiti scale marker to draw something tiny and intricate, right?

The first pastels I got in picking up the medium again were a 60 color box of vintage Rembrandt. Not one stick broken, all still had their labels, two or three were slightly worn down as if an artist sketched with them. These pastels were hand me downs from an oil painter who tried the medium and hated it, who'd been given that set by a different oil painter who tried the medium and hated it, all the way back to whoever bought the set back in the 1950s or 60s to try the medium and hated it. I felt lucky they all hated it.

I've now found out why those oil painters did, they never broke the sticks to use them on their sides. The painting I posted as today's example is a perfect reason to do it. I could not have done that painting without side strokes. Even working loosely on plain paper, broad side strokes with a half stick become expressive marks. They get painterly results. Pastels aren't usually a tight medium.

Of course for some painters they are - but the experts approach tight realism more the way oil painters do. They block in first to get the general shape and color, maybe the big shadow shapes, then start refining and getting more detailed until at the very end they bring in small details and hard edges.

If you'd ever used colored pencils, you know how fast you'll use up the sky blue pencil in a landscape, or the greens. All the greens. One undersea painting will kill all the blues. A decent sized sunset or a close-up of a red-orange flower will slaughter the reds and oranges too. I went through Prismacolor Premier pencils like I was smoking them back when I did Prismacolor realism. You can never have enough colors. In fact, I did more mixing when I had 120 colors than when I only had 72 in that old favorite brand. Nuances like dusty gray-violet over a red in just that little area of a petal became possible and the waxy pencils are translucent.

So you can imagine how I felt using those Remrandts. For some time I kept them exactly as they were. What helped change my mind was buying a set of Sennelier half sticks to go along with them. These already came out the right shape and size.

There's two reasons I recommend half sticks to anyone starting in pastels. One is that you get twice as many colors for about the same money and the same size of box footprint. The other is that you don't have to face breaking beautiful new pastels until you're ready and know what you're doing with them.

120 Unison half sticks

They look so fine in their boxes. I don't have a photo of a box of pastels with the labels still on because I've gotten used to breaking them to provide usable lengths. I think the toughest time I had was when I lucked and got 200 Winsor & Newton pastels in a wood box when they were discontinued. I'd always wanted a full range big set of pastels, I never had exactly the right color I wanted, it was so frustrating and all the artists I admired on Jackson Square swanked about with 250 or 525 or at least 100 Sennelier pastels in a wood box.

That was when I found out I didn't have a table big enough to spread out all 200 of those brand new sticks. The wonderful big new range went fallow for almost two years because it was unusable. Literally I'd have had to keep it open and keep moving the top tray off every other stroke to get at the cool colors and neutrals but get back to the warm colors. It might have worked with a long table. But it decided me to snap all sticks and get rid of the labels. I'd never be able to replace those pastels anyway. I bought up as many extras as I could, they were going for 50 cents to a dollar a stick on closeout. But when they're gone, they're gone, that's it, and I'll still have a beautiful wood box slowly filling up with Rembrandt and Art Spectrum ones.

I moved halves back and forth till I had all 200 colors in one tray and from then on I was able to use the set. I'd take out just the top tray and be able to find the colors I needed. More to the point, I wasn't limited in my strokes to the width of the tip of the stick. 

It's possible to get decent results just with the tip, especially if you do some finger blending the way I did a lot during my portrait years. It goes faster and looks better to be able to use a piece an inch to an inch and a half long on its side and block in the background looser. You can get distinct broad "flat brush" looking strokes and a lively look that way - and it looks natural to a painting to do that. That's why it's called painterly. You can still tell what it is but you can also see that it's a painting.

Sunset 7" square pastel on paper

You can also move a side stroke back and forth on the same direction as the stick, getting narrower marks that are very expressive. I did a lot of side strokes in this little painting, twisting the sticks and turning them and twirling them. The detailed tip strokes came at the very end. I even used relatively small pastels, the Blue Earth ones are short small squares that don't need breaking or peeling.

As opposed to this type of pastel drawing done mostly or all with the tips:

Two bananas and apple, pastel drawing on paper

This one was almost entirely or completely done with the tips of my pastels. No, I can see I used some side strokes blurring out the shadows. I started with a charcoal pencil, created a tone drawing and worked over it with medium soft pastels mostly using the tips. I didn't finger blend much, just kept the textures as is. It's possible to get good effects using the tips but it takes longer and may result in filling the tooth of the paper faster.

As mentioned, the best way for a new pastelist to get over that panic is to buy half stick sets that are already a convenient size and shape. They usually aren't labeled either. Some hard pastels and a very few soft pastels come in a convenient size right from the start. Terry Ludwigs, Blue Earths and Townsend Terrages come in a convenient size at the beginning.

Terry Ludwig Violets set and Sunset set with one V100 stick

The advantage of the block shape in Terry Ludwigs is that you can get very fine lines with the sharp edges of the block in either tip length or stick length, and very small dots with the eight corners of the stick. This makes them wonderful for sky holes and twigs and catch lights in the eyes of anything, fur textures, a lot of uses for Terry Ludwigs. But they are very, very soft and so are the smaller Blue Earth pastels.

So are the convenient little Mungyo Standard student grade half sticks that I love so much for color studies and sketching. This actually is the best cheap set for putting your toe in the water, it's a bit over $10 at Jerry's Artarama or Amazon and has a large enough range for a beginner.

Mungyo Gallery Standard 64 half stick set

All pastels crumble. They lose little chips. The crumbs collect in the foam padding and sometimes a stick breaks in transit shattering into two usable pieces and a dozen little crumbs. Once in a great while even with the well designed set boxes, whole sticks will be reduced to little crumbs.

I use regular prescriptions so I collect a lot of pill bottles. Save those crumbles in pill bottles, baby food jars or any other container that will let you sort by color. If you don't sort them by color, what you'll get are interesting muted colors, grays and browns created by mixing many different pigments. It's possible to grind up the crumbles from many different pastel brands in a mortar and pestle, then add a drop of distilled water to make a paste.

Mold that paste into a stick shape or a half stick shape and set it in a tinfoil drying rack, let it dry out naturally. You can remold entire broken sticks that way, if the whole stick is gone the dust and crumbles can still be reconstituted. I'm saving them by hue and value, spectrum hue. My handmade leftovers sticks may be a little mixed-up or muted by having blue greens and yellow greens together, but they should come out definably green or red or blue or brown. 

The important thing with that is saving enough dust to make at least one stick and then being sure to grind it up fine enough it doesn't have inclusions of chips that are a distinct color. Terry Ludwig deliberately did some confetti pastels though so even that may be a fun, unique recycled stick. I haven't collected enough crumbs to try this yet, but I've seen a number of online friends create beautiful hand rolled sticks from the leftovers.

So don't throw out the dust that accumulates. The dust from the bottom of your easel, where hopefully you put a foil dust catcher, can also be poured off into a jar and used to make a neutral stick. Each one will be different based on the palettes you used. Even the smallest crumbles still are valuable. Pieces too small to paint with just go into the jars.

But you'll be surprised at how long it takes for a stick to wear down. The reason my pencils vanished as if they were Pringles was that a colored pencil is mostly wood with a little core and half the core material's thrown out in sharpening. Woodless colored pencils wear down much more slowly, as do pastels. Also, the more colors I have, the slower they all wear down.

With only 60 colors, the White and Ivory sticks wore out fast. so did one of the reddish mid-tone browns because I used it in almost all skin tones. That was back in New Orleans when I mostly did portraits of tourists using a 30 color basic assortment and 30 color skin tones set, both Grumbacher. Now that I've got a much larger assortment, I haven't run out of any one color. 

White vanishes fast for the same reason it does in paint - making tints with pure colors. If you have a half dozen near white tints, it becomes easier to choose the right one to shade what you're doing. That's not always matching it. Doing a lavender rose, it might be great to use a near-white pink for its highlights to warm them in the sun, and a blue for the highlights in shadow. Black can wear down for the same reason if you're using it to make shades, though having charcoal handy will reduce the wear on the black stick.

More colors gives a better range of nuances. But here's where we get into table size too. I did have to break my Winsor & Newtons or I could not get 200 of them into one tray.

My best recommendation for beginners is to get the largest half sticks set you can afford, in a good artist grade brand. If it's a casual interest, start with cheap student grade ones but get a big box. If you come out of using colored pencils, go for the big 120 color half stick sets, those are complete enough to be a comfortable palette. If you come out of paint and too many colors are confusing, 60 colors is about right. Make sure your set has all the spectrum colors including violet, it's more useful than you think. If possible make sure it has both warm and cool darks and lights. 

I don't recommend subject specific sets like landscape or portrait because they often leave out colors essential to doing those subjects. Check on them to see if there's violet or purple. You need violet in landscapes, a lot, it wears down fast. You also need it in portrait shadows. Blues appear in highlights, eye colors and clothes as well as backgrounds. Greens show up reflected into skin. As a second set portrait sets will give more earth tones and muted colors, landscape sets more greens and blues and browns, but a basic assortment is best to start with and get the largest one you can.

Of course you might have the budget to jump right in with a full range set in your favorite brand. If you do that... get ready for a slow process of peeling and breaking. You won't regret it. The chore does get easier with time and a lot less shocking. If you hesitate and get scared to wreck them, give yourself a reality check. You're just preparing them for use the way the best painters do!