More WIP

Further work on my commission

Here is my further progress on my pet portrait commission. I have tried to punch up the contrast a bit but I am still very unsure of the expressions. My source material is so scant and I barely know the annimals in question having only “met” them once. I guess I will let this dry for a bit and then finish it off.

Commissions – WIP

Cuddles & Minou[/caption]

I have always avoided commissions (usually by quoting such an exorbitant price that I manage to scare the client away). I was once asked to do something “about this big” (gesture with hands to indicate a piece about 24″X36″) in “browns and blues to go over my daughters bed”. Her budget was around $200, I suggested she visit imagekind and select something she liked. I have finally got a commission that I haven’t been able to avoid though. It is a portrait of two pets, the only “children” of a couple of friends of mine. I visited and tried to get some photographs but was unable to catch them together, I also have a couple of snapshots provided by the client, one is literally of their backs. I have put together a pastiche with Photoshop and am trying to paint something from that. I kinda feel like it is the commission from hell. I have never been a pet portraitist, the only animals I have painted being my own, ones I know intimately and don’t really need photos for.

Here is my progress so far. I will come back to it after the holiday and see if I can pull my ass out of the fire.

Art & Originality

I spend some time worrying about my lack of personal style and I know I am not alone in this, recently a few other bloggers have raised this issue, notably Catherine Jeffrey and Mary Anne Cary.

Robert Genn runs an interesting blog called “The Painter’s Keys”. This week he wrote an article about Claude Lévi-Strauss and his theories on individuality in art The artifacts of our cultures. It was Lévi-Strauss’s contention that originality is only a requirement of recent Western culture. In other societies (not just “primitive” ones) the role of the artist has been to study the forms and styles of the past masters and reproduce them as closely as possible. Innovation is something that merely evolves over time and is often accidental. Our current obsession with originality is quite new and is not actually considered necessary in all art forms. Musicians still seem to consider it quite all right to spend their lives studying and performing the creations of others and even amongst composers and popular song-writers it is OK, in fact expected, to borrow styles from the past.

Mr. Genn says:

Now something about us. If we enter our studios with the idea that we are simply going to dip once more into the pot, our little egos may just float off into Neverland. Work might become the simple honouring of past myths and current genres. While that thought may be upsetting for some, this approach kind of makes you feel good. It may even promote a new freedom of expression, and unburden the artist from a stifling egocentricity. Taking part in a great and noble tradition, we might take the pressure off.

The best art is meaningless

Art doesn’t have to be about anything to be good. In fact, the easier it is to say what a work is about, the less interesting that work becomes. The greatest art takes a lifetime to understand; the slightest takes a moment. And if it really is reducible to an explicit message, is it actually art at all?

Thank you Jonathan Jones, I couldn’t have said it better. Not that I am claiming my scribblings to be “Art”. I have long maintained that I am merely a painter, not an “Artist” and I would rather be compared to a good illustrator or graphic artist than someone who claims to make “Art”.

I have written about this sort of thing before, I have spent my life fighting against the idea of there being any kind of meaning in my paintings. I was steered away from a career in art by a high school teacher who felt that my ability to draw was of no account because my paintings didn’t “say” anything.


Am I being impossibly stuffy when I admit that bad spelling drives me crazy? So many of my fellow bloggers seem to make certain elementary spelling mistakes over and over again. I don’t mean typos, which we all make from time to time, or misspelling of unusual, seldom used words. The ones that drive me nuts are the ones that I thought we all had drilled into us in primary school: to, too, two, their, there, picture, pitcher. Actually I saw this last one misspelled outside a school just the other day, as in “Don’t forget pitcher day September 29th”, sad really.

I also find it rather sad that so many Canadians don’t bother to change the default US dictionary when they install software programs. A whole generation is growing up assuming that the only correct way to spell colour is “color”, centre is “center” and honour is “honor”.

I suppose that distinctive Canadian spelling may have reached the end of its usefulness, but there will always be a need to distinguish between pictures and pitchers. On Halloween it’s a good idea, when looking at two small crones, to know which witch is yours even when they’re the same size and their costumes are similar too.

What is art?

I have wanted to write a blog post with this title for along time. According to Wikipedia

Art refers to a diverse range of human activities and artifacts, and may be used to cover all or any of the arts, including music, literature and other forms. It is most often used to refer specifically to the visual arts, including media such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking. However it can also be applied to forms of art that stimulate the other senses, such as music, an auditory art. Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which considers art.

Art critic Alan Gowans says in The Unchanging Arts (1972), “To know what art is, you must define what it does. You can define art only in terms of function. High art historically grew out of low art, and the functions of low art have remained unchanged throughout history.”  Those functions might be to convert the sinner, to define the human form, to tell a story or to perpetuate power. This applies equally well to popular culture. “The Unchanging Arts” was written before the invention of video games but I think Gowans would certainly recognize them as a form of “Low Art” (not a pejorative, in his view).

The low arts, might sometimes be called crafts, or graphic or commercial art and design. They also include most photography, illustration, cartooning, architecture etc. He contends that both high art and fine art grow out of the low arts. High art fulfils the same sort of functions as low art but stands out by virtue of extraordinary skill, originality or beauty. Fine art on the other hand fulfils no function but is low art taken out of context and produced for its own sake. Remember, he was writing at the time that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were at the height of their careers. He says that the concept of fine art is largely a modern one, although he gives some examples from antiquity. Fine art is art for arts sake, unlike high art which is always for a purpose, often religious, sometimes practical.

Basically he felt that art is defined by its function not its style or method of execution. Art is (and has been for all time) produced for one of four purposes:

1. Substitute Imagery (creating a likeness). This function has been taken over almost entirely by photography and film (and now their digital equivalents), but there would be a few other examples, map-making and theatrical maquettes perhaps.
2. Beautification (and decoration). This is fairly obvious and covers everything from wallpaper to airbrushing.
3. Illustration and Narration (telling, or helping to tell, a story). Comics to epic film making.
4. Conviction and persuasion (making a point, be it religious, political or commercial). Advertising and iconography.

One of his more quotable quotes: “Once objects are saved solely as Art you may be sure that for all practical purposes they are dead, and you may suspect that the civilization collecting them for only that reason has begun to die too.” Gowans died in 2001, I wonder what he would have made of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the dawn of the 21st Century?

Using Social Networks for Marketing

I have been working in Marketing and Development (fund-raising) for many years and have always been aware of how the mindset of the two disciplines differs. Marketing, and to some degree low-end fund raising, tends to be about being in-your-face. Keep on asking, stay front and centre all the time, sometimes even bombard people with materials with the thought that it can’t do any harm.
High end fund-raising is different. There is a term “moves management” which refers to the careful management of the relationship with the prospect. Sometimes years can be spent cultivating and stewarding a donor without any guarantee that there will be a payoff. But sometimes it can pay off very handsomely indeed, with a multi-million dollar gift or bequest.
It has recently occurred to me that the use of social networks by marketing has a lot in common with moves management and perhaps marketers could learn something from fund-raisers.
It is very difficult to measure the success of Twitter or Facebook unless there are direct click-throughs to you web-pages that can be measured on Google Analytics. But if all you are doing is posting links to you website and doing in-your-face marketing there is a good chance that you will be blocked or ignored on Twitter and Facebook and who is going to subscribe to your blog unless you have something really interesting to say or are offereing discounts every week?
In Development we offer many value-added experiences to our lower end donors, always trying to educate our donors or bring them closer to us. We want them to understand more about us and feel part of the family. The more engaged they feel the more that they (some of them at least, the ones who can afford it) want to support us in any way they can. It is sometimes very hard to justify the cost of these events to Management because they often don’t result in an immediate donation or upgrade.
I think that companies that want to use social media for marketing need to learn some of these same lessons. Don’t look for an immediate sale; build relationships, build trust, engage and educate your customers, give them something that interests them and keep them coming back for more. The payout is down the road but it will come, just keep managing the moves.

Secret Knowledge

I am currently rereading David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. The premise of the book is that painters have been familiar with the use of optical aids since at least the early 15th century and possibly as early as the second. As Mr. Hockney points out, it is only in the last few years that improvements in art reproduction, and internet access to high resolution images of the great collections, have made his research possible. He created a wall of images arranged in a timeline that allowed him to see the startling trends and changes that took place.

Contrary to the accusations of his opponents he doesn’t suggest that all, or even most, artists were copying projected images. These critics hotly deny that the “Old Masters” would have needed any assistance and were more than capable of drawing realistically without optical aids but I don’t think that is his point. Although it is in fact perfectly possible (though darned difficult) to create photo-realistic images by eye alone, nobody actually did so until the Dutch introduced a startlingly different style of painting, quite suddenly, in the early 15th century.

Starting with van Eyck, the style of rendering, especially the human figure, but also still life, changed within a remarkably short span of years. It wouldn’t have been necessary for all artists to be using lenses and mirrors as artists have always learned by copying their masters. When the masters learned by copying a two dimensional projected image, a whole new style of drawing was born and this style would have been copied by those who came after.

His thesis fascinates me despite the fact that it is often dismissed as a crackpot theory and he is in fact vilified by some of his detractors. It is obviously a very emotional issue for some people who find it necessary to make highly personal attacks on Mr. Hockney in order to refute his theories. Actually I got the impression that some of his critics had not in fact read the book, or only skimmed it very superficially. This is unfortunate because it isn’t actually very long. I have always been attracted to controversial theories and I think that Mr. Hockney makes some excellent points. This book is definitely worth a read and it is so lushly illustrated that I felt the need to add it to my collection.

Cigar Box Pochade Hardware

I spent some more time finishing off my pochade.
I replaced the hinges and clasp and made a brace from a couple of mending strips. I have an old camera tripod which is missing the block that is supposed to screw into the camera. So I made a mounting block out of three pieces of boxwood and glued and screwed them into the botom of the cigar box. I actually used it today for one of my Daily Paintings. I am still on the look out for some accessories. I need a suitable palette and a way of securing it in the box so that I can transport it without the paint getting all over everything. I would also like to find a good way to secure the panel while painting. Watch this space.

Pochade Clasp

Pochade Clasp

Pochade Brace

Pochade Brace

Pochade Hinges

Pochade Hinges

Pochade Mount

Pochade Mount

Mounted on a Tripod

Mounted on a Tripod

Making the pochade

Well I made some progress today. Whether this will be worth the time I am putting into it remains to be seen. I must have spent two hours this morning seeking out the right hardware. Everything I have read insists that it is essential to replace the existing hardware with something sturdier, so I have found some small brass hinges, a new clasp and a pair of brass “mending strips” to use for a brace. I have also used some box wood from a fruit box (the sort of thing that mandarin oranges come in) to reinforce the back and front where the new hinges and clasps will be attached. The cigar box is made from very thin cedar and I want something for the screws to go into. I cut the reinforcing strips with a box cutter and am gluing them with carpenters glue. So far so good.