Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Clawing my way up the damn mountain

If Riverdaughter was one of the easiest paintings I've done, Holding the Pass was easily the hardest.

I began the groundwork on this painting seven and a half months ago. Seven and a half months ago! That's absurd! This is an 11"x16" painting, it should not have taken me nearly eight months to finish! But everything about it was hard, and every step of the way was an uphill battle, and for all that this is a painting I'm shocked at being capable of, I earned every damn bit of it.

My mentor on this piece, Tyler Jacobson, threw me a huge challenge when he sent me the assignment. A group of three - a group of three interacting, no less! - and a creature I had to design, and a mountain environment... this was too much, on the same level that the Elf Cleric was too much a little over a year ago, and as before I looked at the mountain I was proposing to climb and then just threw myself at it.

That worked with the Elf Cleric. Not so much this time.

It took two and a half months from getting my rough sketch approved to finish the tight drawing and the first round of revisions on it, and even considering that the IMC happened within that time period, that is absurd. Especially because it then took another month to get the last big revision done - clocking the time I took to do the drawing in at three and a half months.

And, okay, I was depressed during that time too, which is an actual valid reason for struggling with art, but that does not explain why it took another four months to paint the damn thing.

It took a month to get half of a first pass on the board. Then I picked at it for a month before hitting a solid brick wall, which didn't budge until Tyler sent a paintover my way. (note to self: value structure value structure value structure) And through it all, I was in a fury because almost nothing in the painting was happening without a bloody uphill battle - but I couldn't just give up, because even through the ugliest parts of the process I could see how good the damn painting was.

I could see it, but I didn't know how to paint it. I would catch these shining glimpses of its potential, as if cresting a wave in a storm and seeing land - and then down I would plunge again, into the awful morass of how do I even paint mountains, why are they fully a third of the entire composition.

This painting got finished because, for all that it fought tooth and claw, I fought back. Riverdaughter was about relying on the ability I had; Holding the Pass was about gaining the ability I lacked through sheer bloody-mindedness. And I'm proud that I did, because this damn painting, this source of so much frustration and more roadbumps than road, is something I can now call mine.

It is mine, and I achieved something here. I don't mean the technical aspects of the mountains or the interacting figures (though I am very proud of both of those things): I mean that I found a way to make a very not-me assignment into something that fits thematically into my body of work. That frost giant is not a monster being slain by heroes, you see - or, I hope you see. It was my goal to throw the very stereotypical setup into some grey area, if not to flip it entirely, and though it's hard to see my own work clearly I think I succeeded.

And that, boys and girls, is worth the seven and a half goddamn months it took.

Holding the Pass

Oil on gessoed illustration board, 11"x16"
There are a lot of thinky thoughts to be had, but I am holding them for a followup post.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Oil on gessoed illustration board, 12.5"x23"

For those unaware, the first sketch of this was actually done back in November, as part of my drawing-a-day project. It was just the lady, no composition or environment, but something about that drawing sang: everyone who looked through the book stopped at that page, and I had more than one person tell me to please take it where it needed to go.
And then Jon Schindehette posted the Nymph ArtOrder challenge, and I knew I had a piece.

Everything about this clicked. It is the right drawing, the right palette, the right shape. The reference was right. The color study was right. Every time I sat down to paint at it, it was right. It is most certainly not a perfect painting - I feel a little like I got it to 95% and stopped, which kills me - but I can't emphasize the surreality of feeling a painting like this flowing through me.

This has happened before, but because it's out of my control, it feels that every moment could be the last in which I know how to go forward. After one such moment of fear, though, I sat back and realized that I knew how to paint this. I'd challenged myself with the long composition and large negative space, with the extremely limited palette (cadmium orange, viridian, burnt umber, titanium white, ivory black), with the foreground content and detail, and everywhere I looked, I knew what to do.

It's only really hit me in the last few months that I could consider myself a good artist without the gods striking me down for gross hubris. This past Illuxcon was a big part of that, but there's been that insidious voice in the back of my head that it's a fluke, that Tristan and Isolde was an IMC Miracle - and this painting did a lot to still it. For all that it ran from my hand onto the board like water, for all that I felt like I wasn't in control of the process, this is a painting that I'm as good as. (As opposed to Tristan and Isolde, which I called a 'future painting' at the time because my skills were not actually on its level as I painted it.)

So here's Riverdaughter. It feels good to have it out of my head, a real painting which I can look at and be proud of, a new piece to grow my recently purged portfolio - and a big ol' screw you to that awful part of me which still whispers that I'm not very good.

I painted this: it is mine, and there will be more.

Monday, January 7, 2013

On my plate

At the moment, there are three in-progress paintings in my studio and in a perfect world they'll all be done in time to be entered in Spectrum. Spectrum's deadline is the 25th of this month - but one of the pieces is for the Nymph ArtOrder challenge, and that is due the 21st.

As of right now, this is how I stand:

First pass, done. Nearly everything is the wrong color, value, or both - but the bones are all there.

First pass not done, but it's... not a complicated piece, just big for me (23"x16.5") and therefore slow.

This sonuvabitch will never die.

This is going to be an interesting two weeks. My priority is finishing Riverdaughter (the first one) really nicely - of the other two, Holding the Pass (the last one) is closest but I have more momentum with Precious Burdens (the middle one).

It feels amazing to have the wind at my back again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

There and Back Again

I don't really know how to talk about this year behind me, so instead I'm going to write a postmortem for the drawing-a-day project I just finished.

Six months ago, I was reeling in the aftermath of graduation and the IMC and a new job and the process of moving to a new apartment. There was a lot going on, and I was very, very overwhelmed: I started the drawing-a-day project I'd promised Iain McCaig I'd do with something like desperation underlying the 'I said I would do it therefore I will'.

I  had... no real clue what I was doing. There was some idea that I should be analyzing every step of the way (as self-reflection has always proven to be helpful for me), but since I started the project in something of a panic I didn't even know where to begin.

For the first few days I copied art and wrote about my feelings and reactions to the originals - and then I spent two months copying photos. It was a bad time for me: I was so incapable of approaching my own art that I couldn't even begin to think about self-generating, and as is pretty much always the case I was too close to even see it, even though I knew something was wrong. Iain McCaig's directions for the project had been a simple "draw what you love" and "draw every day", and I knew the goal was to rediscover the art I loved to make - but it took a long time to even find the path.

When I finally realized that drawing photos wasn't cutting it, that I was focusing on copying things I liked instead of making things I liked, it was... something of a revelation.

I've learned things about myself and my art over the past few months. It's easy to make the jokes about my endless flowey ladies - and trust me, I've made most of the jokes myself - but for all that they make up a significant amount of the project, I've figured out that it's not about them so much as it's about what I use them as a vehicle for.

Emotion has always been at the heart of my appreciation of art. Not the overt, dramatic kind that you see in a lot of things - but the subtleties, the things going on under the surface or behind the eyes, emotion that I could connect with even hundreds of years after the artist who'd shaped it was dead. And that's what my flowey ladies are an attempt at: a channel for these emotions I want to create, especially the theme of melancholy and longing that is emerging in my portfolio.

I could talk about discipline, or how really good structure is for me, or 2012 in general, but I won't. Because I called this project 'there and back again' pretty flippantly, in the same self-deprecating manner I called my painting-a-day project a 'Quest for Jenius' - and it's turned out to be far more of an apt title than I could have ever believed.

Over the past six months, I've been on a journey not to discover some new kind of art to make, but to get back to where I was about two years ago. I'm back there, at once on familiar ground but with an entire new world opened to me: I can see what I was trying to do, fumblingly, with The Narwhal Woman and with Saint Pangea, and I can see what broke to the surface with A Great Beauty and Bramble Weaver, and I am on firmer footing with my direction now than I could have even dreamed of when I graduated.

Which is not to say I don't have a long way to go. The idea of 'there and back again' is to take a journey in order to enable an even greater one to start.