27 February 2009

A Tibetan Buddhist and her Border Collie.

Leon Mott has come back for more. This time it's for a gift for his mother on her 60th birthday. I'm honored. The only information he gave me was that she loves her Border Collie and that she is a Tibetan Buddhist. He wanted me to run with that. I instantly thought that this was an awesome request, and a challenging one.
I spent a lot of time reading cliff notes versions of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and looking at pictures of Border Collies, which I guess are great herding dogs. My original idea was to have a Border Collie herding animals into nothingness to illustrate the transitory nature of the physical world. I began painting this on my tiny wood and quickly realized that this was not going to be effective in small scale. I needed something different. I emailed Leon and asked if his mom liked Tibetan art. He said "yes" and mentioned "thangkas", which is a type of Himalayan Buddhist iconography. I had never heard of them before, but after seeing a few images I was taken. I thought I could maybe borrow something here with the style. The symbolism was so dense in these paintings that I knew I had better keep my fingers away from it unless I really wanted to study (which I still may well do).
I was very unhappy with my initial painting so, even though I was nearly finished, I gessoed over it and started new. This is the first time I've done that in this project. I turned the block vertical and began again, this time using a flattened perspective and bright colors. I outlined almost every object in the painting and stole landscape elements from the thangka paintings. (Funny enough, I often use a flattened perspectives and dark outlines in my own work but with a Byzantine reference. It's strange I didn't jump on this first). I avoided using images of the Buddha or a Bodhisattva because I don't know what I'm doing with the religious part. I'm not Buddhist. It didn't seem sincere to me.
I'm not expecting anyone to look at this painting and think it was stolen from a Himalayan monastery, but I think some of the aesthetic is there.

Part of my reason for doing this project is to open myself up to working in ways that I wouldn't normally work and to expand the bag of ju-jus that I pull from. I don't want to get constipated. This painting was a great experience.
Thank You.

23 February 2009

Birds Flying Quiet and Vague.

My five year old son is often with me when I paint. His name is Themistocles, but usually he goes by "Theo" for short (though my father prefers the diminutive "Themistoclaki"). Sometimes Theo sits next to me and paints as well, but usually he works on something else. He always does a lot of gluing and cutting projects but lately he has favored stringing plastic beads that, when finished, he tries to sell for $53.
Theo often wants to keep the paintings I make for this blog. When it comes time to send them out, he sometimes pleads with me to give them to him instead. I've told him that I will make one for him when I have a little break. I didn't have a line up of orders this week so this seemed to be the time.
I asked him what he wanted and his immediate response was "birds flying".
About a week ago, the two of us went to pick up Beth, his mother (who I happen to be married to), from work. As we were waited for her in the car, we watched a huge flock of birds as they flew in circles above the buildings.
"I wish we were all birds", Theo said, "then you and Mama wouldn't have to go to work and I wouldn't have to go to school". Having the mind of a child, I was instantly sucked in and imagined us just flying around all day in bliss. It sounded beautiful.
When Beth got into the car and Theo repeated this, she reminded him that birds actually do work. They have to make nests and hustle for food. Sometimes the mothers have to leave their babies in the nest alone for long periods of time. Beth is obviously more sophisticated than I am. I agreed and pretended to turn it into a lesson for Theo.

I had a dream a couple of nights ago that that someone was ripping off this blog, making the same paintings that I have made and writing similar entries. It turned out to be Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. I got an order to do a painting of the Philadelphia skyline. Since I'd been there and had a feel for the city, I decided (for some reason) that it would be perfect to paint all of the buildings in yellow and brown. After I finished, I checked John Edwards' blog and he did the exact same thing! Jerk.

I wanted to make this bird painting quiet and vague like Theo's imagined bird life. I consulted him throughout the painting and he kept asking me to add more birds. So I did (within reason). Why not? On this painting he was the boss. He seems happy with it now.

In other news...
I've found out that it takes about two weeks for acrylic paint to start molding in a "Sta-Wet" pallet. Just a white fuzz. It's not revolting and doesn't smell but I think it would add a strange texture. Maybe there is a use for that.
So far I've received one drawing from the suggested "Bend in the Wire" drawing exercise. When I get a couple more, I'm going to find a place on the blog to post them. So, please start drawing and don't be too critical or shy. It'll be better that way.
This week I have an order I'm excited to paint. It involves a Border Collie and Tibetan Buddhism. Really. We'll see how it goes. It should be up by the weekend.

17 February 2009

Existential German Kitten Earnestly Considering What It Means To Be Good.

Karen Lillis is writer who currently lives in Pittsburgh, but from what I understand, she has lived almost everywhere. I've just read her recently published novel The Second Elizabeth which is a beautiful piece of writing. It reads like long, rhythmic prose poem and is incredibly introspective and a little hypnotizing.
Karen Lillis is also the person who gave me the term "Paint-on-Demand" which is what I'm using these days when describing this blog. I love it. It's to the point and ridiculous.
I wanted to make a painting for Karen. I emailed and suggested she close her eyes and think of what she wants to see and to not over think it. In about two minutes I got and email back that simply said, "Kitten being good".
That's not what I expected from an experimental writer. But it did make me think about how cute kittens are always depicted as being mischievous. Actually, cute everything. Mischievous is cute when it's not on your watch.
My Aunt Katina had a picture hanging in her kitchen of about a ten year old boy hiding in a doorway sneaking a cigarette. The boy had big eyes and it was painted in soft colors. This is one of the few things I remember about her apartment in Athens where my family visited her when I was a preteen. Kids smoking was cute in Greece in the 1980's. Cats destroying screen doors and and knocking over food is cute to Americans always.
So, how does a kitten be "good"? My only real answer was "use the litter box". By strange coincidence, my family adopted a large long haired cat this week (someone told me he is a Maine Coon?) and my greatest hope for him was that he knew where to put his poop. Luckily, he did.
I started this painting as a more straight forward cute cat picture with pastely colors and soft lines like the Greek smoking boy. It looked like something you might find in the bric-a-brack section of the Salvation Army that was made by Hallmark decades ago. Unhappy with that, I sabotaged it the next day and gave it a German Expressionist edge. I made it harsher with stronger colors and sharp unusual angles and took away some compositional elements to make the room emptier. In this version, the cat seems to be having some existential woes. Maybe he himself is contemplating what "being good" means.
Here is a link to where Karen Lillis' The Second Elizabeth can be found.
-or for more Lillis info-

13 February 2009

Bend in the Wire.

Leon Mott gave me the vaguest request so far. This is what he gave me to go on:

My beautiful girlfriend's name is Steph. We have been living together for 10 years. She is a music teacher. Her band is called Grey Skies. I would very much love for you to work your lyrical magic with these very few and ill-defined semi-musical variables as the Guide.

I emailed back asking if he wanted to clarify any of it and he said "no". I asked if he wanted Steph actually in the painting and he said "not necessarily".
This leaves things incredibly open. Obviously, music is a major theme in both of their lives. Leon told me he plays in a Dead Kennedys cover band (really, there is such a thing) called The Suede Denims and gives music lessons. So, it has to be musically inspired.
When visual artists try to express music, usually one of two things happen. Either they make a literal image of a performance or a it is bunch of swirling colors and floating cubes. I didn't care much for either of these options.
I decided to approach this like a game that my wife, Beth, and I used to play when people came over. Everyone would lie flat on their backs and close their eyes. I would drop the needle on one of my many old instrumental albums (it could be anything from Billy Strange "Plays the Hits" to Sun Ra and the Myth Science 2000 Arkestra) and we would let the sounds condense as images in our heads. Then, when ready, each of us would sit up and draw. When the song was over everyone presents what they have. (I guess it's not really a game because there is no winning).
Luckily, Leon provided me with a link to a page where I can stream some songs from Grey Skies. I put on headphones, picked a random song, laid down and closed my eyes. The first image that came was of inch worms limping across a branch. When the lyrics began, the worms and branch became an electrical wire. (It turns out the song I picked was called "Bend in the Wire"). The sky was, of course, grey. A bent wire means trouble, sparks. An airplane is flying by, but is it involved. I drew and used this as my preliminary sketch for the painting.
I painted the electrical mess from life. We have a similar scene outside of our bedroom window (minus the bending and sparks). I decided to edit out the apartment buildings and the YMCA across the alley to make it more sparse and dramatic.
I listened to the songs the whole time I painted and got to really like them.

Here is the link Leon gave me so you can listen for yourself:
Please click on it and try this drawing exercise. If you do, email me an image of what you drew. I'd love to see it!

09 February 2009

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

Yes, the word "buffalo" written eight times with a period at the end really is a grammatically correct sentence. It seems the word "buffalo" can be used as many ways. Annie Kalow taught me this when she commission this tiny piece giving only the buffalo sentence and a Wikipedia link as a guide for the painting.
The sentence means something like a buffalo buffaloes(bullies) another buffalo in Buffalo. There is not a lot of occasion to use it in daily conversations.
I was excited and intimidated by the vagueness of this request. I got stuck for a little bit, which I can't do in this project. So, I just plowed through and approached it literally. Two buffaloes getting Buffalo with one another in front of the Buffalo, New York skyline. Only I decided to put them on a rooftop because it brings them closer to the recognizable tops of the buildings, and because I thought it was funny.
I finally changed my pallet (though all the paint was miraculously still wet)because things were getting too messy. I still had a lot of pink on it left over from the aquarium painting. It's nice to have a clean palate.
However, I had trouble keeping my lines clean because my trusty #2 round brush is getting raggedy from all of this tiny painting. I'll need to replace it. The smallest brush I've been using is a 0000. It looks like one fat hair. I originally bought it to make the needles on an acupuncture painting I did a couple of years ago. Now it comes in handy.

Here is more linguistic info about the buffalo phenomenon that Annie linked me to.

My next commission has an even vaguer request. I'm preparing my brain and I'll post it on Friday.

06 February 2009

The Lucky Tree from which the Devil Hanged his Mother?

When Leann Keenan wrote and asked me to paint a rowan tree I immediately agreed but had no idea what that was. I turns out that the rowan tree is indigenous to Northern Europe and is particularly prevalent in the British Isles. It is said to possess mystic qualities in Finish and Celtic Traditions among others. In England, to according to Wikipedia (which I trust?), it was said to be "the tree from which devil hanged his mother". (I'm not sure how to process that one, never thought of Satan as having a mom). It seems that several cultures have the tradition of keeping the rowan tree around to drive away evil spirits.
Leann's daughter is named Rowan and I would imagine that she must have been named for the elements of goodness and protection that are attributed to the tree. I decided to make two trees, I thought it would be more interesting. One for Leann and one for her daughter. (Her husband can fend for himself.)
The Rowan tree is visually interesting in that it has a lot of poky branches with few leaves and berries that sit seem to sit mostly on the tips. When seeing photos, I immediately thought of painting in 19th century french pastoral style. I thought about Jean Francois Millet. I think the reference in my painting is there but I got a little angular.
Leann also suggested that I might put Celtic symbols on the painting but I chose not to do this for two reasons. One, is that I think the rowan tree is beautiful enough to strand on it's own. Two, is to avoid what I will call the "Deformed Man Toilet" factor. "Deformed Man Toilet" is a deplorable translation for "Handicap Accessible Restroom" that I saw in a book about bad English translations in China. There is a similar book about poorly translated Chinese tattoos on Americans. I didn't want to make this painting "happy lucky super cat wish tree" because of my ignorance.
Anyway, I'm quite certain that the protection is still there.

I've started using a new pallet that is made to keep acrylic paint wet for long periods of time. It is a shallow square container with a lid. In the container you place a big flat sponge and cover it with a piece of paper that you have to boil before using. Really. It's called the "Sta-Wet" pallet (no "Y"). It seems to work well but is kind of like storing paint on swamp bread. I'm using the same paint I set up a week ago! No mold yet.
Please leave a comment if you've had any experience with this strange product.