Finally took that easel out for an expedition.
Looking at my Faigin Still-Life Atelier first-year portfolio, it strikes me that I’ve become a gimmick artist.
I’ve done gimmicks of unusual perspectives…
…unusual arrangements of ordinary items…
…ordinary arrangements of unusual items…
…hiding acrylics under oil paintings and then revealing parts using solvent…
…a headless painting for selfie-takers…
…household objects arranged like flowers…
…flowers arranged like a face…
…fruit arranged like a face…
…guitars with faces…
…and an animated fighting shrimp jumping into the still-life painting of a wok.
My biggest gimmick so far: A free camera lucida, or virtual projector. Using an invented technique using Zoom and open-source software OBS, I can overlay live video feeds of my canvas onto my still-life setups, and any reference photos to form a single, live, composite video image on a computer monitor. With this approach, I can easily rearrange a still life and immediately see what it will look like against any background image or even on the canvas of a painting in progress. Also, I can use the combined images on the screen to mark the canvas for size and position, which offers a tempting shortcut for doing accurate drawings.
Such labor-saving, time-saving, value-maximizing shortcuts are very much the domain of the gimmick, as described in depth by Sianne Ngai in Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2020). We react to a gimmick with a combination of repulsion and attraction (as we might with puns), and as Ngai writes, the gimmick’s “unwanted transparency” reveals paradoxes:
The gimmick saves us labor.
The gimmick does not save labor (in fact, it intensifies or even eliminates it).
The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too hard.
The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too little.
The gimmick is outdated, backwards.
The gimmick is newfangled, futuristic.
The gimmick makes something about capitalist production transparent.
The gimmick makes something about capitalist production obscure.
Within years, if not sooner, we can expect that my clumsy video compositing technique will be supplanted by AI-powered augmented reality goggles that allow their wearers to generate previously unimaginable images at industrial speed and network scale.
As for visual gimmicks, we don’t have to look hard to find similar examples in the contemporary art world, which is replete with gimmicks of every variety.
Maybe painting’s clever tricks of light and dark and contrast are themselves gimmicks, and if that’s the case, even as a gimmick artist I’m heading in the right direction.
These are the last paintings of My Atelier Year, 2020-2021.
A painting to honor the PPE, disinfectant wipes, and pantry goods that we gathered in March 2020. The “sports drinks” are included as part of the what-if-I-get-sick supplies.
A classmate asked, “Where’s the toilet paper?” Duly added.
Here’s the familiar Zoom view of the atelier class, the camera view replaced by thumbnail versions of others’ paintings. Except for my self-portrait at the end.
These were done very quickly, about 10-15 minutes per square, and I certainly didn’t do them justice.
For better depictions of my classmates’ wonderful artwork, visit the Gage Academy Faigin Atelier Show while it’s still there.
Also, see Gary Faigin’s exhibit at the Harris/Harvey Gallery in Seattle, now through October 2, 2021.
My sincere thanks to the entire class for helping me to make it through a difficult year with your friendship, dedication to craft, and nurturing atmosphere. Special thanks to Gary Faigin for your patience, candor, and encouragement, along with your permission to write up the class notes, an exercise that reminded me of how much we learned and how far I have to go as a painter.
Thank you for reading!
In addition to having this space to share my latest activity with classmates, friends, and family, I’ve been thrilled to see people from around the world discovering this blog through the WordPress feed. Your virtual presence here has been greatly appreciated.
Stay tuned for plans for the upcoming year!
ivan @ ivantohelpyou.com
Here are three value studies done in vine charcoal on 18″x24″ BFK Rives printmaking paper.
The first is a Kensett seascape. Kensett was among the list of value-shape painters whose work would make a suitable subject for this exercise. I got the shapes right using the camera lucida gimmick.
The second is a Soutine painting of a side of beef. Soutine had an actual blood-soaked side of beef hanging in his studio.
From my very first painting (“The Picnic”), Gary pointed me toward Soutine, a very “loose” painter (as opposed to a “tight” realist) who uses bold colors and textural paint.
Soutine was big in France. He was part of the “Paris School,” a name given to the group of foreign, mostly Jewish, painters who were said to have come to 1920s Paris for its rarified artistic heritage, museums, history, climate, light, and liberty. By way of differentiation, the French-born artists of the time were known as the “French school.”1
You can see Soutine’s works in the United States thanks to Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia art collector who made his money from the antiseptic Argyrol, which was used to prevent and treat STDs and other infections until antibiotics were invented. Barnes bought 52 of his paintings in one purchase, and 21 of them are in the Barnes collection in Philadelphia.
For my Soutine value study, I started the drawing without the gimmick but then I may have used it for some corrections.
I didn’t use the gimmick at all for this value study of a Van Gogh, and the result was my strongest effort for this particular exercise. Just as the year was drawing to a finish, I was able to finish a drawing.
1 Stanley Meisler, Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 77-79.
My still-life setups were placed on a table (also seen in my Hobbies paintings) in a corner of our living room, with just enough room to set up my light, easel, paints, palettes, and brushes. I wouldn’t have been able to turn the kitchen counter into a second painting studio in our 1BR, and so I brought the wok and part of the oven grate over to the still-life table.
With this configuration, I focused on the appetizing play of light on the hand-hammered, carbon steel wok.
I was going to invent a stove, but it became apparent that it wasn’t going to look right. And so I turned to my free camera lucida setup. I put my smartphone on a tripod and pointed the camera toward the stove at about the same angle as my earlier view of the wok on the table. On my laptop, I could line up the ellipse of the wok in the painting precisely with the image of the actual wok on the stove, and then block in the contours of the stove, the rest of the grate, the front panel and knobs, and the side counter.
Upon that foundation, I touched up the background, the marble, and the hot-cool flames.
On the display, I added a couple Japanese kanji characters for “empty” and “fry” (空炒). This isn’t an actual word, but you might pronounce it “karaita,” empty fry, similar to “karaoke,” empty orchestra. I was thinking of this painting as the base layer, the empty fry version, of a larger project.
Part of the deal of being in any atelier at Gage is that you can take another class of your choice. I waited until the end of the last term to make my pick: Introduction to 2-D Animation, taught by Brianna Fecarotta.
Here’s my final project for this super-fun class:
The soundtrack is straight out of the built-in samples from the Teenage Engineering “Street Fighter edition” PO-133, an inexpensive sampler, sequencer, and effects machine.
To demonstrate what it does, here’s “Ode to Joy x PO-133.”
El Quijote in a blender
Through which appears a vision of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance and his faithful galgo.
The initial idea was to have an everyday object in the foreground creating a shadow in the background, a shadow to be coaxed into resemblance of Don Quijote. I also wanted to include his galgo, about which I had an academic research paper published in 2017.
GF: I don’t think you should pursue this idea. It doesn’t matter what it says or what it’s about, it doesn’t matter how good or bad your idea is, it has to work on a visual level. Visual effectiveness is color, value, shape, contrast. It’s really easy to get seduced by a great idea that doesn’t translate into visual terms. There’s no way you’re going to be able to get your viewer on board with this. It’s not visually interesting. It’s monochromatic, and the shadow is not an interesting shape. There has to be organic unity of how a picture comes together.
I took that as a challenge. Going away from the still-life setup, I drew from imagination the figure of a younger Alonso Quijano, along with the animal heads and the shadow of a racing greyhound, the galgo corredor. I also amped up the colors and put some items into the blender — a pocket-edition book, a lime, and a severed finger, the bloody knife still visible on the counter.
Gary liked this new version of the painting, and asked me to present it at “All-Atelier Day.”
The ¡Libros Mezclados! sign promises “blended books,” like when you combine visual arts with literature. What comes out depends entirely on what you put into it.
I’ve never taken the French easel outside my own garden for a plein air expedition.
It’s been about 12 years since I took this Traveler guitar “Speedster” away on a trip. There it is, hiding in the steamer basket, suffering from stage fright and shrinkage.
Most often, I play the nylon-string classic guitar.
The guitar is listening to home recordings that need editing, mixing, and mastering. The guitar’s expression says it all.
I must take my hobbies more seriously.
Maybe by not calling them hobbies.
Études in Strings
Fruit paintings using strings
In painting, a string consists of pre-mixed paints of a covering several values of the same approximate color, from the lightest light to the darkest dark. By mixing several strings in advance, you can not only ensure that you’re using the full value range, but you can also put in different colors of the same value for a “broken color” effect. Those are harder things to do when you’re mixing colors one at a time.
Using strings to various extents, and with an eye on color and value, I did a series of fruit paintings.
The first was a tomato that looked like an apple, or an apple that looked like a tomato, I can’t remember.
GF: The shape is different, the color is different. A tomato is more symmetrical, and more orange. You’d never see an apple that orange. An apple tends to be more purple, with that funky shape, almost tippy. Do them side by side.
Next was a very tomato-like tomato with a funky stem.
GF: I’ve never seen a tomato stem look like that. Differentiate the shadow and the stem, the shadow needs a different quality. Make it clear what’s happening with the stem. Kill the sticker.
I left it alone. The stem looks like a reclining figure, doesn’t it? And I wanted to keep the produce sticker, an apt symbol of our hyper-quantified age.
And I definitely needed the stickers for this next one.
The next exercise was to work on the different greens of the lime and the pear, and the reds of the apple and tomato. And you can just tell that the Heinz ketchup is being framed for the crime of some off-brand ketchup.
GF: The apple is more blue, darker in value. The tomato is more yellow, lighter in value. The lime and the pear are also nicely separated in color, with the lime a little darker. I like how you’re getting sensitized to little color shifts. Excellent set of observations.
For my last in the series, I upped the difficulty level by posing a pineapple. And then, while working on the background, faces emerged.
GF: The person is intruding on the space of the table, and the figure plus pineapple is unresolved. It has to look like there’s a visual logic.
Seeing eye to eye with a goat
During Spring 2021, we worked on mixing master copies with still-life paintings, and so here’s a Corot painting of a goatherd wearing a red hat. (In a green-and-brown landscape, it always helps to have a little dash of red.)
And here’s my version:
And here’s me adding an ink jar and a retractable tape measure to the foreground.
During the critique, we discussed eye level. I had thought to have the top ellipse of the ink bottle read as if eye level was even with the mountain range just under the goatherd’s hat. But in this case, there was some ambiguity as to the location of the horizon line and vanishing point. Maybe the eye level is aligned with the city nestled in the hills, or perhaps it’s even lower, at the level of the goat.
I went with the goat’s-head stoop. Here’s the final version:
Free Camera Lucida
How to trace images and live video feeds using free software and your smartphone and PC cameras
I was having trouble with my drawing skill, which was holding back my ability to complete paintings. And so I looked into computer-aided shortcuts.
I don’t consider it cheating, first because I was open about my process to the point of giving an in-class demo, and second because the way to learn a difficult skill is to break it down into constituent parts.
Here’s a painting by Valenciennes.
I did a drawing of the Valenciennes, and uploaded it to an appropriately-titled website: https://www.whatswrongwithmydrawing.com/
As a value study, it’s not too bad, which means that I was making progress on that particular skill. But the drawing itself was off, and the website lets you see exactly where, using comparison lines placed on landmarks on the source and on your drawing. As you can see, the foreground is too large, the trees are too compressed and slanted, and the roofline silhouette is imprecisely drawn.
Checking your work is impeccable pedagogy. You’re doing it on your own, and then only using technology to measure accuracy.
But what if you could shorten the review cycle? What if you could evaluate, in real time, every mark you make on the canvas?
I figured out how with my second attempt at the drawing.
That looks much better, doesn’t it? The trees look the right size, the composition is accurate. But how accurate is it really?
Here’s how I did it:
The task was to overlay a transparency of live video of the canvas on top of the still image of the source photo, and then adjust the position and transparency of each.
The open-source Open Broadcaster Software OBS Studio essentially works as a video mixer. You can combine multiple sources, connecting to your laptop camera, an external device, or an application window.
The result is that you can see both images, video feed and still image, one superimposed as a transparency on the other.
At the beginning, it’s just the onion from the source image. Then, whenever you place a mark on the canvas or paper, you can watch the monitor to see your hand placing that mark exactly where it belongs. You’re drawing on the paper, but you’re looking at the screen.
You can use this technique to copy a source image onto a canvas, or you can take it step further by putting a camera in front of the still-life setup. This means you have two live video feeds: one for the canvas, and one for the still-life setup itself. With this approach, you can mess around with a 3-D still-life setup until it looks good on a 2-D canvas, without thumbnail drawings.
Our class had been working on a project to insert our own still-life objects into a master copy of a landscape painting. In my case, I wanted to add a new condo building in front of the Villa Farnèse in Valenciennes’ painting.
With OBS, it was easy enough to add another camera feed from my smartphone. I’m sure there are dozens of ways to do this, but I went with Zoom. I started a Zoom meeting from the PC, and used OBS to capture the video from the Zoom application. Then, I dialed into the meeting with the phone (turning off audio). With the phone on a tripod, I could then position the phone with a straight-on view of the still-life setup.
I adjusted the camera height until the perspective looked right.
I had the block just where I wanted it.
The next step was to trace the outline and key landmarks of the still-life object onto the drawing. Again, you’re looking at the screen, tracing an object that’s entirely out of view, while moving your hand on the canvas off to the side.
And there you have it, The Poplars Luxury Condominiums at Villa Farnèse.
I know it’s a bit complicated, and I’ll have to shoot a YouTube video to do this explanation justice. In the meantime, if you want to try out something easier, it turns out there are all sorts of “camera lucida” apps for sale in the various app stores, and some of them look really slick.
But my approach has the advantages of price (free) and scalability (unlimited). You can do much more than just copy a still image, and by adding as many cameras as you want, you can do all sorts of things you could never do with a single camera.
Give it a try, and have fun!
And share your work!