Thursday, May 29, 2014

Portrait of Alan Cohen, M.D.

Painting a portrait is always a unique adventure. When I get a commission and I first meet the person I'm going to paint, I feel like I'm entering unknown territory. I might know a little about the person from an online biography or things people have told me, but nothing prepares me for the actual face-to-face meeting. When I first met Dr. Cohen we talked about his career, his life and family, and what he wanted in a portrait. As usual I was taking notes in my little black book while trying to really look at him and get a feeling for his personality. Since I'm not a multi-tasker, this can be really difficult because I have to switch between writing, listing, and observing at top speed.

I imagine that the experience of entering unknown territory is similar for the person being painted. Dr Cohen chose me as his artist, but that's just the beginning. He might have decided he liked my work from looking at photos of other portraits, but will he like how I paint him? And what's the process like? Most people only have their portrait painted once. So not only do they not know what to expect, but also they are feeling this is a big deal for them, and as an artist I have to keep those things in mind.

The commission is a partnership between the artist and the client. The client will tell me what he or she wants, and I have to take that into consideration. On the other hand, I am inspired to paint someone a certain way, and I have to follow my own inspiration. So you could say that both the artist and the "subject" have a responsibility to respect themselves and the other person. It's important that they continue to communicate through the entire process if the result is to be a success.

The portrait shows Dr. Cohen in his office with Buddy, the unofficial and beloved therapy dog.  Behind him are several significant objects: a baseball, a photo of his granddaughter, and a globe which is rotated to show the location of his many travels. In his hand is an old VCR tape of "Hemo the Magnificent," the TV show he watched as a kid that inspired him to become a hematologist.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Happy 96th Birthday to Joe Krush!

If you are familiar with the "Golden Age" of children's fiction, the 1950s when books like The Borrowers and Gone Away Lake were written, you might remember the wonderful line drawings   that helped transport you into the worlds within these books.

They (and many, many more) were done by a husband-wife team of illustrators, Beth and Joe Krush. When I was a kid I wanted desperately to meet the Krushes, to see how they worked together and just to know them, because I had a feeling they would be as nice and interesting as their drawings indicated, and I wanted them to teach me how to draw like them. Beth's and Joe's drawings were so good (people and animals and even architecture with cool perspective angles) that it was impossible to imagine these books without their illustrations. It almost seemed as if they had written the books. Joe wishes he and Beth had been able to illustrate Harry Potter and I agree, that would have been amazing.

About eight years ago I finally called them up and arranged to meet Beth and Joe, and I am so happy I did. Here is a portrait I did of them:

Beth passed away several years ago at the age of 90, but Joe is now celebrating his 96th birthday. Today I stopped by at his house for a visit and mini-celebration. While I was there, I brought out my latest plan for a mull-figure composition because Joe is a master at this kind of thing. If there is a flaw in a composition, he will spot it. As I thought, he gave me some excellent advice.

The Krushes' work is so exceptional, and has touched the lives and hearts of so many people, it should be duly recognized. It is my hope that the Krushes' work will be honored in Joe's lifetime with a retrospective exhibit at one of the wonderful art institutions in the Philadelphia area.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Does "Self-Taught" Mean, Anyway?

I always understood the term self-taught to mean, simply, that you had no formal art education. It does not mean that you've never been inspired or influenced by anyone, or that you didn't learn something from studying the work of another artist.

I don't exactly enjoy saying, “I’m a self-taught artist,” but I don't try to hide it, either. When I went to college there were no schools (at least none that I ever heard of) where an aspiring artist could learn traditional methods, so I had to pick them up myself as best I could. I'm sure many artists of a certain age range were in the same boat as I. When I say that I'm self-taught, it's only in response to the question, "Where did you go to art school?" I don't go around bragging because I don't see it as a bragging point. Someone actually accused me online of bragging about it and/or lying about it after I admitted I was self-taught in a podcast interview.

 I'm thrilled that so many ateliers have been established because now artists can get the kind of training I craved. However, the emphasis that is put on what atelier you went to, who you studied with, etc. today can have its drawbacks. There are galleries who use this as a selling point and don't want anything to do with artists who were not atelier trained because it helps them sell work to say it. There are artists who will snub you, criticize your work, and exclude you from shows of realist art because you are not formally trained, i.e. you are not "one of them." That's a pity because what the “Realist Movement” needs are more inclusive shows and a greater variety of galleries that show representational art.

Obfuscation abounds in the art world. There are artists who will let you believe they work only from life when they actually use photographic references. (I don’t have a problem with that myself and I often use them.) There are artists who say they studied with a long list of people without making a clear distinction between a short-term workshop and long-term intensive instruction. Whatever shortcomings I have, and I’m sure I have quite a few, at least I can say I don’t misrepresent myself. To be a good teacher it is important to reveal your process. To be a good example you need to be truthful. And to be honest with your collectors you need to let them know your background. When all is said and done, the artist’s work transcends the process and has a voice of its own.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Celebrating the Portrait as Art"

Nan Talking, oil on linen, 32" x 26"

When I was in my 20s I was told that portraiture was commercial art and that I could not be taken seriously as an artist if I kept on painting portraits. Having lived through that era, continuing to paint portraits while determinedly showing other work in galleries, it's satisfying to know the portrait is once again appreciated as fine art.

 Gary Haynes of Haynes Galleries takes portraiture and figurative art seriously. He attends the annual conference of the Portrait Society of America, and work by many of its award winning artists are hanging in his gallery. This month, Haynes Galleries will be hosting a group show:

Celebrating the Portrait as Art
April 18-May 24, 2014
Reception Friday, April 18, 5:00-7:30 p.m.
1600 Division Street, Nashville, TN

The show will open first in the Nashville gallery space and travel to Thomaston, Maine this summer. Here is a link to all the pertinent information:

I will have one portrait in the Nashville show. (I don't show in Haynes' Maine location since I show at the Dowling Walsh Gallery up the road.)

With portraits by many outstanding artists including Ellen Cooper, Lea Colie Wight, Aaron Westerberg,  Terry Strickland, Linda Tracey Brandon, Joseph Bolderer, Suchitra Bhosle, Diane Feissel, Alia El-Bermani, Stephen Bauman, Katie O'Hagan,  Lisa Gloria, Linda Lee Nelson, T. J. Cunningham, Cindy Procious, and many others, this will be a show worth seeing!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Plein Air in Monterey, CA

In April I'll be heading to the 3rd Annual Plein Air Convention in Monterey, CA. I attended last year as a field painter and I had a wonderful time meeting artists from all over the United States and beyond, listening to the variety of presentations and demos, doing my own demo, painting, and  sharing knowledge. One thing I discovered is that there is a plein air universe out there, a group of artists who go to outdoor painting events and competitions all over the world, and they know each other just like all the portrait artists at the Portrait Society of America conferences. I'm used to hanging with the other East Coast artists, many of whom paint outdoors, making finished paintings and/or studies for larger paintings in the studio, who show in galleries and call themselves simply "landscape painters." So, for me, meeting these artists was an eye-opening experience.

 There's something about outdoor painting that makes people relax. You can't worry about how you look when the wind is blowing your easel over or your palette falls in the sand or the mosquitos attack you or a thunderstorm threatens. I've had many days when the weather has been so uncooperative I'm happy to just have something down on my canvas.  By the time you have spent the better part of the day battling the elements, you are ready to roll. Yes, this is a lively crowd, in case you were wondering. They know how to enjoy life.

I'm one of those artists who has to know a particular landscape to do it justice in a painting. So I'm glad that, this year, the convention will be in Monterey again. One of my favorite children's books, A Spell is Cast by Eleanor Cameron, is set in Carmel, and the descriptions of the area are so evocative I wanted to go there myself to see if it was anything like what I had imagined. It was, but even better, more vivid. The huge cypress trees with their gnarled trunks and gesticulating limbs, the lush wooded areas, the deep turquoise of the ocean, remain in my head and I am looking forward to going back (after re-reading A Spell is Cast one more time of course) and painting there again, allowing the scenery to work its way into my soul.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Saying Yes to Things that Make You Nervous

Those of you on my newsletter mailing list may have noticed that the link to my interview with Peter Trippi was broken. I often have bad luck with links, even when I cut and paste them.  But here, hopefully, is a functioning link to the interview.

I want to talk a little bit about anxiety, and doing things you're scared of. As a child, I was extremely shy. I could give you a long list of things that made me nervous and embarrassed. But after I started my adult life as an artist, someone gave me an extremely important piece of advice: "If someone asks you to do something you know is important for you to do, always say yes."

Saying "yes" doesn't mean saying, "Wellllll. . . I'm not sure. . . let me think about it. . . . okay, all right, I'll do it." It means saying "YES" without hesitation. With pleasure, even. And maybe adding, "Thank you, I'd be honored." If you break into a sweat and bite your nails and feel your stomach churn afterwards, that's fine. But you can't hesitate--that is, not if you want to go places and share experiences and meet people and live up to your potential as a human being.

I'm sure you've heard people say "fake it till you make it." Lots of people do just that without a problem. They start teaching a subject they know a little about, and they convince their students they know something, and before long they really do know something, and then they know quite a lot. Why? Because they learned through doing. They took the opportunity because it was too good to pass up, they acted confident, and that led to true confidence.

The truth is, I am actually incapable of faking knowledge. I would not want to bullshit my way through a subject relating to art. I'd much rather listen to and read about what other knowledgeable artists have to say, and think a long time, and try things for myself before coming out with any proclamations.  Once I form ideas, I can talk for hours on one subject which is unfortunate if you happen to be   listening. But public speaking is another matter. The words just dry up in my brain. In high school we had a public speaking class in which each student was handed a piece of paper with a topic written on it and, with no preparation, was required to stand up and talk on the topic for five minutes. When it came to my turn, I stood in front of the class, stared at the faces looking expectantly up at me, and broke into non-stop hysterical laughter for five long, long, long minutes.

One thing that helped me was a story my father told me about his first lecture. He had put all the slides in the projector right-side-up, so when they were projected on the screen they were upside-down. He was so undone he simply walked out of the lecture. But later on, he developed into a decent public speaker. The way he did this was to repeat his ideas to all his family members and friends ad infinitum. For instance, he would talk at the dinner table about "Silence and Light" because he was preparing to give a talk on it. I began to realize this was a good technique for me to use in preparing to talk publicly--but instead of making people listen to my practice sessions, I talk to myself in the mirror, or in my head while riding on the train.

So I apply the saying "fake it till you make it" not to knowledge, but to confidence itself. I have to fake confidence until, gradually, I gain it.

When Peter Trippi asked me if he could interview me for the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center series of artist audiocasts, I felt honored to be in the company of prominent artists who had been interviewed before, but I was also nervous. What if I became tongue-tied? What if I said something stupid? What if I started a long, rambling sentence and got lost in the twists and turns of grammar?

So I prepared for the interview by making a list of possible topics. Peter sent me some of his ideas. I went over my thoughts in my mind until I knew them thoroughly. And, as usually happens in life, the actual interview took on its own direction, and not only did it go well, but also it was fun. I have to add that Peter Trippi made it fun. He has a talent for engaging people and following promising lines of thought.

But this post is not just about an interview, but it's also about saying yes to anything that scares you. Remember, if someone asks you to do something like give a presentation, be on a panel, paint a portrait, teach a class, or give a workshop, they are asking you because they feel you can do it, and do it well.