Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hell and Earth

12"x18", oil on gessoed masonite
The finished painting, from the drawing posted previously. This is fairly true-to-color, beyond a bit of glare at the bottom.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sketchbook Pages pt. 2

Continuing from Part One, my sketchbook! Now with more celtic knotwork and life drawing sessions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sketchbook Pages pt. 1

Since we're having some technical difficulties in photographing my new paintings properly, have some sketchbook pages! This is about half of the used part of my sketchbook, and there's a little bit of everything from doodles to nude model sessions to thumbnails to idea scribbles to drawing on the train. The first pages are from early-mid last year - November or December - up through this past summer.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Great Beauty Drawing

At some point, this got away from me and became a completely finished drawing, as opposed to a very tight sketch. Not that I minded! I enjoy this kind of thing.

Hell and Earth Drawing

This is not to-value, because I finished this in one 12-hour run from 5pm to 5am (yeah, I know) and by the end I could barely even bring myself to care about how out-of-perspective the background was, let alone anything else. (I did wind up correcting the background drawing before it went to the board, but forgot to document it.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Ink and Steel progress shots

First, the drawing: 
Really loose blocking, to place everything in the composition - this is often transferred from the thumbnail. Then, I start on the face. (I write notes to myself as I draw, which are more often than not just self-abuse and sarcasm.)
I work from the face down, with some toning in the background to place the figure as I draw it in.
Drawing just about done!

When I'm done with the drawing, I scan it, blow it up to the size of my board, print it out, and transfer the lines with transfer paper. Then I paint:

My working setup: reference (color, value, misc), the drawing, ghetto-fab mahl stick (dowel + c-clamp), rag. Painting starts are ugly things. (Don't ask me why I toned my board orange.)

Still ugly.

Less ugly, but I've lost a lot of the drawing in the face.

End of the first pass on the face.
I stopped taking progress shots after this, it being around the time that I had my hissy fit and almost gave this painting up as a gross ugly stillborn failure. By the time I got over myself, I'd completely forgotten about documenting the progress.

Ink and Steel

(this is the piece that ended The Suck)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Conscious Incompetence

The two pieces I posted the other day are notable for two reasons.

- because they were the fulfillment of the high water mark I set myself at the beginning of the semester and constitue the first (stumbling) steps I took toward figuring out paint handling for myself.
- because the two months I took to finish them (well... there was a month of fractured pelvis in there, too) led almost immediately into the most intense wave of conscious incompetence I've ever experienced.

Conscious incompetence is this: that lurching shift of perspective, after which you suddenly come to the realization that what you've been doing is nothing but bad (which is an overreaction) - but you're pretty sure you know not only which mountain you now have to climb, but also possibly how.

As I'm sure no one will be shocked to learn, I'm able to articulate this because of an essay Elizabeth Bear wrote, in which she named the process The Suck. It's worth the read.

For those frightened by the word 'essay', here's the bones of it:
"Supposedly, we go through four stages in learning a new skill--unconscious incompetence (where we aren't any good but we don't know we aren't any good, and don't have any idea how to get better); conscious incompetence (where we kind of know we suck, and we kind of know how to improve); conscious competence (where we know what we're doing, more or less, and we know how to do it); and unconscious competence (where we have internalized the lesson and do it automatically).

"'s the first part of the mechanic of the Suck, or the plateau. It requires that the artist have recognized, consciously or not, that she could be doing something better. It's conscious incompetence."
Reading this was like a lightbulb going off. Before, I didn't know why I hated my two best paintings with a passion I usually reserved for deep moral affronts - I just knew I did. I could, in fact, barely look at Blood and Iron, even though I could identify actively successful elements in it every time I forced myself not to turn away with a huff. It was painful and frustrating and bled into my process, culminating with a really stunning prolonged hissy fit over the new piece I had started painting by that point.

I was in a pattern I'd observed in myself before: tantrums of greater or lesser drama and patheticness tended to presage a noticeable upswing in my art. And suddenly, I got the first inklings of why.

It's simple, in the end: It's the painful emergence from a place of comfort into a place of struggle, and casting off old assumptions is always hard - especially when they're lovely assumptions about the quality of my own art. It sucks, because realizing that what I'm doing Is Not Good Enough is usually crushing (to greater or lesser degrees of the word) and it's hard to pull oneself out of the self-pity and frustration and carry on. More Elizabeth Bear:
"Anyway, somewhere in here, the Suck first hit. I realized that my stories weren't working, that I wasn't writing well, and in fact what happened was that they looked worse than they had before. Not because they were worse, but because my brain had identified was that they could be better, but I was still writing at the same level. I had moved, in other words, from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence."
She's talking abut her writing, but I could take that paragraph and replace all of the key writerly nouns and verbs with arty nouns and verbs and tell you about my life. I have a friend who gives me the same 'I am only tolerating this conversation because I love you' look every time I trashtalk these two paintings, because I came down so hard on them (and myself) when The Suck first hit and I didn't understand it enough to compensate. I very nearly scrapped what turned out to be a turning-point painting because of it - but:
"...that brings us to the next stage of evolution of the writer: conscious competence. This is the point where the plateau breaks, and suddenly, one is writing better, and one knows it. (I suspect this applies to other arts as well.)"
It does. I finished that painting I nearly scrapped, and it wound up being the best thing I'd ever painted by such a margin that my professor advised me to scrap the rest of my portfolio and start from that painting as a baseline. Since then, I've completed two more at or above that level, meaning that wasn't a random spike.

I feel like I have my feet under me for the first time - which is what I've said at the end of each Suck Plateau for the past year and a half. Which is the beauty of the whole thing, really.
"And the trick is, the Suck never really stops. You get a breakthrough, you get off a plateau, but then the back brain is happy enough to hand up another complex of things you could be doing better, and a whole fresh wave of Suck starts. And it doesn't actually mean you're writing worse, but it fells like you are writing worse, because the things that you were aware of doing well before--"hey, I figured out this characterization thing, go me!"--have receded to the level of unconscious competence, so you are no longer aware of doing them well.

"Because that's just baseline now, and it probably could be better. But it doesn't suck as much as this one thing right here.

" one improves, one's standards of incompetence come to embrace things that others would consider competent. Because one learns the difference between serviceable and elegant.
"It never stops, unless you stop improving. But you can become inured. Even somewhat Zen about the whole thing."
Hopefully, I will never stop improving, but being a little more Zen about the process would be nice. That was one hell of a hissy fit I threw, after all.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Failing with ambition

At the beginning of the year, I began an illustration under Tyler Jacobson's mentorship. I had just finished my summer of painting project, and had no way to tell whether 123 quick still life paintings would translate into better illustrations - so I decided that I would find out in a trial by fire.

This was the sketch I wound up with:

This was already miles ahead of anything I'd done - or even attempted - before, and I had absolutely no idea how to paint it. Here was my process, over the course of... about two weeks, I believe:

And the final, with Photoshop post-work.
For reference, this was the last illustration I'd finished previously:
From the spring, four months before.
A big jump, right? A huge amount of improvement in composition, value structure, drawing, painting - in short, proof that my crazy summer project had been useful.

I went around calling it a failure.

People were justifiably confused and sometimes strident in their efforts to tell me I was clearly insane. I'm pretty sure some people were annoyed, assuming I was fishing for compliments. What I meant, and was not explaining properly, was that I had failed with ambition, a la this quote:
"There's more honor in over-reaching and failing with ambition, than in limited success. And if we measure our goals by the best of the best, at least we're unlikely to run out of challenges."
-Elizabeth Bear
 I had reached absurdly high with this illustration; I had produced a sketch I had literally no hope of executing to the standards it demanded. It was better than I was, and so I became better than myself in my efforts to paint this impossible thing. It's easier to show than to tell:

One of those things is not like the others. And get this: these three paintings are arranged in chronological order. The latter two paintings are where I was actually at, skill-wise, but the first painting is so much better because I presented myself with a monumental challenge and rose to it.

I called it a failure because it didn't actually meet those sky-high expectations: I still didn't quite understand paint handling, or color mixing, and my referencing wasn't that good so certain things (the candles, for example) were just incorrect, and my value structure and composition were both just okay, not really good. So I failed - but because I failed with ambition, the painting itself was more successful than anything else I'd do for another month and a half.

I have experienced an astonishingly intense period of growth in a short time, but as each painting improves upon the last, I try to keep my goals a step or two ahead of my ability. I have that hunger to thank for my growth, and for that hunger I have to thank the constant knowledge that each painting is a failure in terms of my ambitions for it.

It's an effective system.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The difference a year makes

In the two portfolios I've posted, there were only two pieces that survived the intervening purge, and they didn't survive unchanged.

The originals are on the left, the edits on the right. They were completed almost exactly a year apart, and in that year I leaned things like referencing and anatomy and value structure. They're most assuredly not perfect, but I'm especially proud of The Narwhal Woman's growth.