Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Good Night For A Goddamned Change

Well, I really had to force myself to take care of business last night. I've been sleeping even more poorly than usual the last few nights and yesterday was brutal by my standards -- I had class, a Digital Arts Club meeting, and then a reception for the release of the new Milvia Street magazine. It's depressing to think that even with the freedom to stand and sit at will, something that isn't even a full day for an office worker leaves me thinking that I need to refill my prescriptions. When itchy twitchy Vicodin starts seeming preferable to pain it's just not good.

But everything else was swell. There was an emergency call for large scale art for a nice gallery show out where the rich folks live -- I may or may not get in but I was all over that. And there was some swell stuff at the reading, good poetry and prose and people. My social skills did not fail me. I wasn't a jerk or a feeb or a creep.

And the Milvia Street reception gave me a very gratifying series of ego boosts. People I respect admiring my work? A genuinely good writer thanking me for how much I taught him? Getting an invitation to join an elite writer's group that has a totally different approach from my beloved Monday night mob? Getting hugs and attention from attractive women? (Not that the other hugs and attention weren't swell but there are hugs and there are hugs.) Getting gruff praise from the gray emminence behind the multimedia arts program? Seeing my work projected ten feet tall? Finding a number of readers for the novel?

My back feels like shit and my sciatica is giving me that lovely barbed-wire tickle and I am exhausted. But tell you what -- I'm feeling good right now and I'm gonna ride this mood as far as it'll go.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Reasonably Successful Experiment

I did this for an aborted project, a children's book that wound up collapsing after a good bit of effort on my part. Let's face it, I get an R for language, sex, and drugs and an X for violence and there ain't no use in fighting it. Anyway, this was the only finished piece I did. I tried an intereting technique. I started off with a crude, quick sketch done using colored pencils.

When I've worked with colored pencils before I used a technique called burnishing. In burnishing, after you've laid down your rough tones (as above) you go over the whole drawing and use a white pencil to blend the marks on the paper. The end result is a smooth, continuous tone.

After I did the pencil sketch I scanned it in and opened it in Photoshop, where I made selections and then used the smudge tool to do the same kind of burnishing I would have done with the white pencil. The results please me -- while the trees and cliffs are pretty crude the painterly quality of the rendering is kinda nice. I also like the way the colors worked -- I'd never have achieved that kind of variations if I'd rendered the whole thing in Photoshop from a sketch.

In the future I want to try more of this -- and I think some interesting results could be gained by incorporating other media like Conte crayons, felt tips, watercolor, etc. Anything that lends itself to quick and dirty work. I'd also like to learn more Painter so I could use their blending tools, which are much, much nicer than the Photoshop smudge tool.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Quick Progress Report

Just to start off, tomorrow night I'm going to the reception for the latest issue of the award-winning Milvia Street magazine. They used four or five pieces of mine, depending on whether they published one or both of the hyeanodon drawings. Here they are! I'm pretty sure they gave Bluehive a color page but we shall see.

This one actually turned out to be my first print sale. The missus's dad was staying with us and when he saw the large print of this he wanted to buy it. I'm letting her handle the financial side of things...

This is one of a series of drawings I did for my sister's aborted website. She wanted a retro look so I obliged.

So I decided that since the novel was going awry and it was getting harder and harder for me to do anything but visual art stuff it was high time for a little tough lovin'. The rule is now a thousand pages-I-mean-words a day. Every day. Creatively I'm a sprinter, not a marathon runner, so this kind of rule is hard for me to stick to.

But I've been doing okay so far. I topped 70,000 words this morning -- for you non-writers, that's a respectable length for a novel, one of those big fat bestselling rat-smashers runs about 100,000 words -- and I can see the end from here. I can imagine being done with this draft inside of a month. We'll see, but it's possible.

As for short fiction. My tough guy dinosaur story for David Byron isn't talking to me -- I should have finished the damned thing in one go. Note to self -- knock out the rough draft to a short story in one sitting if at all possible.

But the story I'd planned to give to Milvia Street was three times longer than they'd publish. So I sent it off to Rob and it's going to be in Swill. This suits me fine -- it's one of the best things I've written and I really, really like the idea that Ellen Datlow, editor of horror half of the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror will get a chance to read it. It's called Hate Her, Hate Her, Tribulator! and it wasn't until I'd finished the second or third draft that I realized it was a deal with the Devil story. Instead of the usual approach where the point is to come up with a twist on the fulfilled wish (there is one of those but it's not the center of the story) I show how the devil-character, the Tribulator, is destroyed by culture shock. It also features very, very jaundiced views of both of my romantic relationships -- something I didn't know I was doing while I was writing it.

Oh, it is a mean little unit.

Which means the creepy/funny SF bar story I'd written for Swill is now free. I'll do a rewrite this weekend and get it of to Mr. Byron to compensate for the loss of the story I'd promised him before.

So I need to come up with something for Milvia Street and something for Monday Night. One piece is going to be about my first three clear memories -- bedwetting, agnosticism, and a doberman attack. The other? I'm hunting for inspiration.

I'm putting off scheduling a print day for my art until I'm done with the Anomalocaris canadensis piece. Yesterday I spent some time studying Illustrator techniques for handling color rendering. One that looks interesting is to use the gradient tool to lay in rough tones, then convert it to a gradient mesh and refine it. So that's the tack I'm taking. Soon as I get this posted it's gonna be time to pick some colors and start laying down gradients...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

But Is It Art? Part Two: Ego, Identity, And The Big Question

Here's a thought for the future -- the next time I'm looking around for a project, why not do linoleum cuts, scan them in and enlarge them to show the paper texture and the way the ink goes down in high-contrast detail? Treat the image to bring out the physical qualities of linoleum cuts. Get into some good paper. And work small, blow up large to enhance the contrast. Possibly mount the linoleum cut in some relationship to the print -- perhaps on an expanded border.

(As an aside, I decided to see what happens with this approach so I'm scanning this in at high resolution to try experimenting. Right now the scanner's running and the motor grinds away and every so often I hear a series of taps. They are great -- the rhythm has a jazzy quality, a lot of weird syncopation but it all hits the rhythm. It sounds so organic -- there must be some component of randomness to whatever's making the noise. I should record it, put it on a loop.)

(This post was inspired by my initial on-line encounter with Glendon Mellow and by a conversation in my Digital Drawing class.)

Is it art?
This is a question that gets asked a lot. I've asked it myself. It leads inevitably to the big question -- what is art? Here's my opinion.

Art is what you can get away with.

Or to put it another way, art is a word whose strictest definition is totally negotiable.

But if you want to know whether something is fine art or commercial art or illustration there is a clear definition -- and that is determined by the nature of your participation in the marketplace. If your art is a commodity used to enhance printed works you're an illustrator. If your art is used in advertising you're a commercial artist. If your work is displayed in galleries and museums and if your clientele consists of museums and private collectors you're a fine artist.

Like it or not artists seek validation and they have to eat.

Because of this art is almost always associated with the marketplace. Art that isn't -- truly private art created for its own sake -- is almost never technically proficient. This runs against the romantic image of the self-propelled artist whose inborn genius dominates his life.

Tough shit. If art never enters the marketplace then we, the audience, never see it. The idea of art for art's sake is true in that many of us are compelled to create and many choose not to market their work -- but there are very few Henry Dargers around whose creations enter the public mind through discovery following death.

If a living artist wants to make his work known -- especially if he wants to be able to devote himself to his work rather than give it the dregs of his time and energy -- he has to be willing to go to the market. And like it or not, all markets for art are two-cylinder engines, one cylinder being trends, the other novelty.

But the market shapes the artist. As I take my first steps toward being a working artist I'm already finding that out. My creative process is already being shaped to a degree by the needs of the marketplace.

One thing that I find fascinating about the relationship between fine arts (which are frequently not particularly fine -- the word's intent no longer suits its meaning) and commercial art is that the world of fine arts perceives itself to be degraded by proximity to commercial art while commercial art looks to fine art for inspiration. As a result the world of fine arts has to look for areas of novelty and outrage to try and keep ahead of their imitators in the commercial art world. Since commercial artists are frequently art students and fine artists are frequently teachers this little Red Queen's race gives any fine arts trend no more than a few years before its influence hits the commercial arts. Sometimes less.

Okay, I'm an outsider to the fine arts, someone who tries to understand the fine arts while being in many ways ignorant of and alienated from them. But to me this seems to be one of the two reasons why the fine arts keep running off the rails.

The other reason stems from a stance that is one of the root appeals of fine art -- the feeling that someone is in on something good that a lot of people don't know about and don't appreciate. I'm not going to denigrate the pleasure but it isn't healthy for the actual work.

(A related aside. There is also a close link between fine arts and the academic world. The academic world seems actively hostile to one who would be a practitioner of the arts. This is because in the classroom there is a strong bias for work that needs to be explained and against work that is self-contained and self-explanatory unless it can be placed in a cultural context -- which needs to be explained. There is also a strong desire to make the critic or observer of the arts a more important figure than the artist. As a result the aspects of art which call to the creator and demand devotion are frequently regarded as essentially meaningless if not actually degraded. These attitudes are to a lesser degree a component of the fine arts world as well.)

As an outsider I see many of the excesses of fine art to be examples of outrage tolerated by an establishment whose authority is partially based on a perceived ability to see significance where lesser minds are unimpressed. Let me give you two examples.

When I was going to school at Santa Rosa Community College there was a show of drawings at the campus gallery. It was gorgeous, with works ranging from exquisitely observed pen-and-ink works to a huge abstract in color. Figures, landscapes, shapes and patterns -- it really gave you a feeling for the sheer possibilities of working with marks on paper.

But one of my teachers was very, very much a maven of the fine arts. He took me to see two drawings. They were by the same artist and each consisted of a few scratchy, shaky lines drawn perpendicular to one another so as to form a very loose grid.

"Just look at the composition," he said. "These are the best works in the show. By far."

Now to my mind they failed the 'chimp could do it' test. I've got a decent eye for composition (admittedly, much of it came from this teacher) and I could not see anything attractive or interesting about these pieces at all. Period.

What if he was right? This really really bugged me -- if these actually were the best works in the show and they were totally lost on me what did that say about me as an artist? As a person? I asked Maurice Lapp, a really good painter and teacher who was a bit of a mentor to me in those days, what he thought.

"The man is an ass," Maury explained.

Still, there is that lingering doubt.

Years go by and I find myself reading a magazine on the arts. There was a fascinating article about a company whose business was restoring art. Not paintings, drawings, or conventional sculpture, though.

The Sweet & Low example I gave above was not a sarcastic mocking of fine art. It was one of the pieces this company had to reconstruct after someone gave the pile of Sweet & Low a good kick. (This I could understand.) Working from photos they were able to reconstruct the appearance of the pile -- but as I recall there was some doubt about the integrity of the reconstruction due to the inability to duplicate the hidden layers of the work.

Another example involved a sculpture from the Netherlands who took an eighty-pound wad of butter and jammed it in an upper corner of his studio. A Spanish collector visited him and saw the butter wad.

"I must have it," he said.

But when it was transported to his place in Spain guess what. The butter melted and he called in the art restorers. After much effort they found that due to the way cattle were fed in the Netherlands their butter melted at a higher temperature than that of Spanish cattle. In the end, the collector was forced to refrigerate the room with the reconstructed butter sculpture.

Maybe if I saw that butter sculpture I'd understand. I doubt that I would if I saw the Sweet & Low. Sometimes that there Emperor really is naked.

Trying to introduce myself to a world that sees significance in such things is terrifying. What could they possibly see in my work?

Won't know til I try.

One thing that's been really damaging a previously-invulnerable sense of disdain for the fine arts is the reaction in both myself and others to my prints. I went in assuming that when you printed something larger it was bigger and that was it.

It's not true. When you present something in the context of fine art it does change it -- and this is where I have to admit that fine art isn't just a marketplace. My prints have a power to them that my illustrations never had -- even when they are the same image. If they were displayed in a gallery setting that power would be further enhanced.

So I'm forced to consider the possibility that I know a lot less about this than I thought I did. That many artists whose work I've judged on the basis of reproductions may carry a weight I won't be able to recognize without seeing the actual pieces. Maybe Jackson Pollack paintings are stunning when seen live. Maybe Gauguin's colors just don't print well.

Look, I am a straight-up gutterboy. I am far more comfortable having a fight bounce off me in a ghetto liquor store than standing in front of a canvas in a gallery. But the human need to feel a sense of understanding has allowed me to be judgmental about things I really don't know about and I'm becoming very aware of this.

As a result I'm having to let go of a lot of firmly held judgments. This is one of the reasons I'm so intimidated by my Digital Drawing class. The teacher is strongly affiliated with the fine arts and right now my opinions on the subject are in flux...

All I can do is roll with it and try and grow a little.

If you look at the image above you'll notice smudges, stray lines, all kinds of minor but correctable flaws. I thought about fixing them in Photoshop but then it struck me that I hadn't fixed them in the original print. This isn't a rough print out of a run; this is the only print I did from this cut. I put the baren down, slowly peeled the thick soft fibrous paper free and turned it over and looked at it. I decided it was a complete failure and I put it away and never looked at it again.

The biggest obstacle I face as an artist is the difficulty I have in showing respect for myself or my work. Physically my pieces are creased, smudged, in some cases stepped on. This is part of a larger pattern. I try and work hard on my art and writing but I flat-out fail to do the kind of hardcore driven labor for myself that I have always given to employers and managers. Why should I have so much trouble thinking of myself as an artist when it's what I do?

Am I an artist? Is this art?

The only way I can answer this question is to take the work to the marketplace...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Color Exercises

Anomalocaris Canadensis 4: Full shapes.

Well, nearly full shapes. I need to figure out an approach for the claws/teeth/creepy pointy things on the front grabbers/jaws/things with creepy pointy things all over them. And as an aside, my earlier statement that the tail fins were hardened? It was moon talk.

Here we go with the next state of Anomalocaris. Time to start studying color techniques for Illustrator...

Oh, and the novel seems to be back on track. I'd guess I'm about four to six weeks away from finishing this draft of volume one! Look out -- jump back!

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Revelation In The Early Morning.

The digital drawing assignment mentioned below involved doing a set of color exercises. When I was done I liked most of them but three were just not strong enough for me to want to print them. Here they are. This one makes me think of either Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoons or artificial fruit flavoring.

So I was up in the middle of the night as usual and I was hit by an inspiration as I examined my most recent work for my digital drawing class. I liked it. I was thinking about printing it. I wanted to see these compositions at a large size -- and that's the benefit of Illustrator. I designed eight of these compositions on a letter-sized space and I can print them at any size I want.

But the idea of turning out a series of eight prints based on the work of a few days seemed a little odd to me. If I was going to try and market these as prints... Hmmm. My intuition told me that I just wasn't working hard enough to make these worthwhile art pieces.

The process of generating a print digitally, then printing it digitally seems too easy. What would make the print seem as though it were a real artifact, not something just rolling out of a machine as a standardized unit of production?

These, on the other hand, are unremittingly drab and were clearly done to get the monochrome composition out of the way fast. Next!

And then it dawned on me. Someone in class had printed onto mylar, then mounted the transparency on a piece of textured paper. I thought about Ruth Leaf's prints and how much attention she paid to the paper, to texture -- to the print not simply as image but also as object.

Perhaps this is one of the key differences between the artist and the illustrator. I am going to explore the idea that making the digital print is only one step in the production of an art piece. I want to find ways of using constructive techniques to create artworks using my images rather than simply printing them.

I'm going to start talking to the people in the print lab about printing on paper other than that provided in the lab. This will involve treating the paper with an emulsion that will accept the ink. For now I want to print on some nice Japanese print paper with plenty of foreign objects and irregularities, nose around and see what else is out there.

The assignment here was to depict an emotional state using color. Could anything be more obvious? More clumsy? More maudlin? The van-art gradients aren't helping.

But that's just the start of a possible avenue of exploration. I could decoupage my work onto plywood or chipboard. I could create multilayered shadow boxes. I want to learn about papermaking and bookbinding. I need to find out more, think more about what can be done, physically, with printed images.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Just an Image to Keep My Hand In

So I've been leafing through this book on working as a fine artist. The author states that it's good practice for a an artist to have five shows on tap at any given point. I think I've got an idea of what I want to do.

First off are the Bonelands show and the show featuring the Anomalocaris.

Then I want to do a series of Mesozoic landscapes in a style strongly influenced by Japanese prints and Taoist landscape painting. I want to go for a more distant, moody, impressionistic quality than you usually see with this kind of subject matter.

Then I want to do a series based on the next set of illustrations I do for Swill. I intend to use photography more extensively and incorporate photographs of settings and people in the mix this time around.

And finally, I want to do a series of linoleum cuts based on drawings of botanical subjects and make use of all the wonderful botanical gardens we have in the area. I'll scan the prints from the linoleum cuts into the computer and manipulate the image to accentuate the grain of the paper and any irregularities in the ink, etc, etc. before coloring it.

And there we go. I now know what I'm doing over the next few years...