Thursday, January 30, 2014

Floodtide Serpent

Once again, I shall reveal to you how the sausage is made. Hopefully, you still find said sausage delicious by the end, but it's entirely possible that you will be at least a little sickened by what you see herein.

So, Magic: the Gathering is about to spill forth its most recent expansion set, Born of the Gods, and this is the only piece I contributed to that set. I'm sure there's a reason why I didn't take on more work (assuming, of course, they'd have offered it if I'd asked), but I cannot recall what that reason is. What I can tell you is that this piece was painted at the same time as the Washout painting I also did for Magic.

Anyway, as with any Magic assignment, this one began with an art description. Normally, I'd include the full description, but it would be unfair to you, the reader. Three quarters of the description are references to images in the style guide. Being as I can't show you those, you'll just have to accept this highly edited version:
Action: Show a sea monster coming out of the ocean to attack a town. Have it in the process of terrorizing and/or destroying parts of the human enclave.
Focus: The sea monster.
Mood: There goes the neighborhood.
That part about the mood was really in there, and despite its light tone this piece was meant to be straight up monster movie material.

The first thing I had to decide was what the monster looked like. I was given a variety of options from which to choose in the style guide and I went with one that was more like a fish than a crustacean. The second thing I had to decide was just how the thing was going to be threatening us. I though long and hard about having it looming above the viewer and tried some thumbnails out, but didn't like any of the compositions.

I ended up going with a composition that was more about the monster's silhouette and used the city itself as a way to frame the whole thing.

©Wizards of the Coast
I admit that this is kind of a mess of a sketch, but it I think it's still pretty clear what I was going for. We can see that the thrashing of the beast is causing huge waves that are destroying the city below. By pulling back away from the beast, I was able to directly show the devastation, the city, and the monster's scale. Or something. Truth is, I don't really think about things like that when I'm working. Things either feel like they're working or they don't. If they don't feel like they're working, I adjust stuff until they do. That being said, there's a lot that doesn't fully work in this awful sketch, but it's all stuff I knew I could adjust as I painted.

Point is, that it got approved to go to paint.

Before I actually put brush to surface, however, I did a lot of reference hunting. Primarily, I pulled a lot of photos from the internet of whales breaching. In addition, I pulled reference of tsunami waves (something that I felt was necessary, but resulted in my seeing a lot of stuff I wish I could unsee). Lastly, I built a small clay model of the big fish as seen below.

As rough as the sketch, but quite valuable nonetheless.
Armed with all this reference, I finally charged my painting palette and went to work. This is the result of my efforts:

©Wizards of the Coast
The painting is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 14 inches wide by 11 inches tall.

In comparison to the sketch, you'll notice that there's a lot less water exploding off the surface from the monster's breach. This is an adjustment made after seeing how little disturbance is caused by whales doing the same. I tried to scale it up as this thing is much larger than a whale, but I tried to keep it relatively proportional.

You may also notice that there's a statue missing in the foreground. This I eliminated fairly early in the painting process. I felt that the statue obscured too much of the water's destruction below. Seeing more of the devastation helped better tell the story. It also added visual clarity as a whole, and allowed for a less-muddled image when shrunken down to card size.

Speaking of card size, here's what it looks like in frame:

The post-game analysis of this one is pretty simple. It was more fun than I thought it would be, and it came out a little better than I thought it might. As with most of my work, there are some things I'd change were I to do it all over again, nevertheless I'm pleased with the result. If nothing else, the water surging in to destroy the buildings came together nicely (as disturbing as that is to say), and considering that that was the aspect of the piece that most worried me, I guess I came out ahead.

Monday, January 27, 2014

On Moving a Studio

Given that I've recently moved again and have done so a couple times over the last few years, I had a couple requests from folks that I talk a bit about relocating my studio. It's as good a topic as any, and while I'm not much of an expert, I figured I'd give it a try. Hopefully there will be something in here that proves useful to one or two of you.

Not surprisingly, I've found that moving my art studio isn't all that different from moving the rest of my house. I mean, there's furniture in my studio and oftentimes there's stuff inside that furniture, just as there is in my living room. Like the stuff in my living room, some of the studio's stuff can be crammed hastily into a box and some of it is breakable and should be handled delicately. If you're moving yourself then you should know what's what and how to handle it. Seriously. I mean, you bought or borrowed or stole all that stuff. Treat it as you will. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (I should know as I'm not one, myself) to successfully move your own stuff from one place to another.

If you've got pals who can lend a hand and you all have the time to do it, then clearly moving your own studio is the best option. It's cheap and you are in control. Much of my experience over the last few years, however, has required me to relinquish control and hire someone else. With that in mind, I've created a list of rules that I've applied to my moves in order to make things a little easier on myself.

This is that list:

Rule #1: Get rid of as much as possible.

This is a hard one, but it's a little easier for someone like me who is not afraid of throwing stuff out and destroying old work. That's right, I'm now callous enough to toss things willy-nilly should they be even remotely questionable. The reasons for this are many and varied, but the most important one is that I come from a clan of pack rats. Left unchecked, my piles of stuff become overwhelming and make my studio largely unusable. Over the years, however, I've forced myself to become more self-disciplined about policing the clutter and I bin just about everything I can.

In preparations for the three relocations made over the past few years, I've gotten rid of all but a few pieces of high school work, kept about 20 pieces from college, and saved only the professional work that I'm not ashamed to show anyone. As a result, I have a pretty streamlined collection of my own work.

Also culled has been the collection of materials I don't use. During college, I was encouraged to experiment with all kinds of mediums that I'd never used before (or since). As a result, for a long time I had a wide range of art supplies in stock that would put most high school art departments to shame. Trouble is, I kind of settled on oils for the majority of my work with occasional dabbles in only a few other mediums and a lot of things just stayed in drawers or unpacked boxes. So, I went through and sorted what I actually use from what I was keeping out of some bizarre sense of obligation. Pastels? Not my thing. Don't need 'em. Air brush stuff? Yeah, gone. Gouache? Good-bye. Print-making supplies? I don't own a press, soooo....

Before any of you environment-minded folks put together the fact that a lot of art supplies are toxic and likely shouldn't be tossed into normal garbage, let me assure you that wasn't an issue. Most of my stuff was in pretty good condition so I found a place to donate it. Turns out that there are a lot of locations that accept art supply donations, and I was happy to gain the space, get rid of some clutter, and give to some folks who needed the supplies more than I did. Win/win.

The bottom line is that the less you have to move, the easier the move becomes. That being said, I still have a lot of stuff and several pieces of large furniture in my studio (like a set of flat files and a large, wooden taboret). You know who could help with that?

Rule #2: Hire good movers.

For me, there is no alternative. The last few moves I've made were a minimum of four hours each way per trip and the most recent one was across the North American continent. That's why I hire insured professionals with excellent reputations. I know it can be really expensive, but I've never regretted it once. First of all, moving your business is oftentimes a tax deductible expense (keep your receipts and consult your accountant). Second of all, with pros moving my stuff I don't run the risk of injuring myself trying to carry studio furniture that weighs more than I do down a flight of stairs. Third, movers are faster than I ever could be at the job. Seriously. It's amazing what they're able to do in a very short period of time.

Speaking of time, as much as we've tried to plan the moves well, invariably an assignment has gotten caught up in the whirlwind of each move. Speed is of the essence and having the move completed quickly is a huge benefit to my work (not to mention sanity). And not to harp on the injury thing, but a crushed hand or a busted back could wreak havoc with deadlines.

Personally, Amy and I have either hired movers who have moved people we know or movers who have an excellent rating with the Better Business Bureau. It's pretty much a common sense thing, but it's worth stating that we didn't just pick someone at random from the yellow pages or go with the lowest bidder. The movers are moving my livelihood and we needed to feel good about the company and be sure the knew what they were doing.

But even if they do know what they're doing, there's some pretty specialized stuff to be handled here, so the best course of action is to...

Rule #3: Explain everything thoroughly.

It's extremely likely that weird pieces of furniture and valuable artwork will not be foreign to your movers. All the same, I explain to them how everything comes apart if that's necessary and even do it myself wherever I can. For those instances I could not (like pulling my flat files apart, for example, which is a two man job), I carefully showed the movers exactly what needed to be done and answered any questions they had.

Before they began to pack stuff up, I did a walk through with them to point out what was fragile and what wasn't, what was potentially dangerous and what they could toss around casually. Usually they could tell, but going over everything with the movers at least increased the chances of us all being on the same page. Plus, it just might have saved a piece of furniture from getting damaged or kept a box of art supplies from being crushed by piles of book boxes.

Still, all that being said, there is one thing I try and do myself every time...

Rule #4: Handle your own artwork.

I don't like having movers move all of my artwork. They don't seem to like it either. While the stuff I've got framed and hanging on the walls seems to travel okay, it's hardly the bulk of what I've got. Most of the work I've done or own is without a frame and stored in my flat files. If at all possible, this vast majority comes with me in my car to my studio's new location. The way I see it, if anything gets damaged, at least it was by my hands or crappy packing abilities. Somehow, it makes damaged work easier to bear. Fortunately, I've never damaged my work during any of the moves, so that's really more of a theory thing. Still, my work is important and easily fits into my car. Of course, being willing to toss out old work helps keep that possible.

An opposing point of view is that if a company is insured, you should be covered. Yeah. I suppose. But the fact is that artwork isn't like an easel or my flat files. I can replace those. Some of the artwork I have can't be replaced or repaired. Some has been done by folks who aren't even alive to repair it should it need fixing. All things being equal, under these circumstances I'd rather have the artwork than its cash value.

If there is no other alternative to having the movers relocate your expensive, irreplaceable art collection, don't be surprised if it's dealt with differently both handling-wise and insurance-wise. It'll depend on the company, but it's best to be up front about everything and go over things thoroughly.

Aside from the artwork, you know what else is expensive to replace?

Rule #5: Don't ask the movers to move your chemicals.

One of the biggest things I've learned over the past few moves is that movers don't typically like to deal with chemicals. Being an oil painter, I happen to have a lot of these and the last thing I want is for a container of turp to suddenly start leaking in a box. First, it exposes the crew to harmful fumes. Second, it could potentially damage a lot of my own property stacked up around it. Third, it's flammable and fire tends to be the enemy of one's belongings. Obviously these are all bad scenarios that I'd like to avoid. Oddly enough, most moving companies are looking to avoid all that too, which is why they typically don't want to move that kind of stuff. In fact, the last move I made was done with a company that refused to move any of it. Heck — they even refused to move batteries.

So what did I do? Well, I got rid of as much as possible (see rule number 1), and I moved it all myself. Not in the same boxes as the artwork, of course, but I did transport it personally. Not exactly the most optimal thing having a box of chemicals packed in one's car, but everything got sealed, put in plastic bags, packed with copious amounts of packing materials and stowed safely in transit. Between the much higher flash point of the painting chemicals and the amount of packing involved, a box full of painting supplies is safer than the gas in the tank of the car. It honestly wasn't a problem, and was no more dangerous than driving the newly purchased oils and turp home from the store.

Like I said, though, I tried to pack all that stuff thoroughly. In fact, I did that with the artwork too. How?

Rule #6: If you're going to hoard something, hoard packing materials.

I know this kind of contradicts rule number one, but hear me out. If you're going to be packing your studio and the artwork in it, it helps to have something to put it all in. Every time I buy a frame? I keep the box. A large order of hardboard gets shipped to me? I keep the box. Large pieces of furniture get delivered? I keep the box. Why? Because the boxes tend to be good ones and tend to be perfect for dragging my artwork around.

Sure, there are excellent boxes you can order from ULine or Masterpak that are top shelf for this kind of thing, and many folks have been known to build their own crates. But you might not have the money or time to do that for every piece you've ever done. My solution is to hoard the aforementioned packing materials.

Now, I'm not saying that you have to keep everything. I certainly don't. I keep the stuff that's in the best condition and reasonably fits either framed or unframed work. Generally, I tend to keep enough of this kind of thing on hand so that I could ship the amount of work I'd need for a show like IlluxCon or Spectrum Live, plus a little extra — just in case. When not being used for shipping or moving, these boxes tend to contain work that I've done or own that I don't currently want up on the wall. So, they're always serving some sort of purpose.

Besides that, such materials are good for shipping pieces you've sold out to the locations of their new owners. Places like Florida. Or Toronto. You know, exotic places.

So... yeah.

That's pretty much all I have to say about moving a studio. Obviously things might be different if you work completely digitally, but computers and hard drives are no less delicate than jars of chemicals and stretched canvases. They just tend to come in their own packaging that makes them easier to move. You do keep those, right? Right? I'm not the only one?

Well, there's something else I hoard, I guess. Styrofoam inserts and all. But I gotta tell you, nothing protects a piece of equipment quite like the box that was designed for it in the first place. Seriously, they're really helpful for moving your stuff.

Anyway, hopefully this has been... helpful. Most of it seems obvious and stupid, and it's not exactly the most entertaining thing I've ever written, but maybe years from now you'll be prepping for a move and it'll occur to you that you'd seen an article on this old blog of mine about relocating all your precious art stuff. Until then, this is just something else for you to skim the first couple of paragraphs of before going back to whatever it was you were doing before you bothered to click your way here in the first place.

Friday, January 24, 2014

From the Flat Files 10

In light of Lauren Panepinto's post on artist selfies over on Muddy Colors and a coincidental encounter in my flat files, I bring you this old self-portrait of mine.

Painted in room 420 of Leo J. Pantas Hall in August of 1996, this was something I did for the heck of it before the fall semester of my junior year began at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. I was nineteen years old and bored. I had just completed a ton of paperwork for my job as a resident adviser so I grabbed a banged-up piece of illustration board and went to work.

This is a rare piece for me. I remember exactly where I was when I did it, I remember what the weather was like and how the breeze blew in through my window, I remember the strong afternoon light bouncing around the courtyard outside, and I can even recall which t-shirt I was wearing as I got my acrylics out and started slapping paint down on top of an ink drawing. I used only one or two brushes and a painting knife. And I remember that this was a fast piece. Two and half hours — maybe three at the most.

When classes began again, I took the finished piece with me to show one of my professors, George Pratt. I approached George with the piece after class and asked for his thoughts as he began to set up his chess board for a quick game with a friend of his who'd tagged along for the day. As was his way, George gave me an honest critique — not brutal, mind you, but focused and concise. The piece was a decent exercise, but could have been composed better and perhaps been more carefully planned out. There was some fun stuff happening, but it could be better (an opinion I now have about much of my work).

For my part, I was on the fence about the piece. I knew it wasn't technically as good as it could be, but I felt that there was something there — some seed of quality. It felt important somehow. That being said, I took George's words to heart and the piece suddenly felt a whole lot less special. In the end, I verbally dismissed the piece as being "just a piece of crap anyway."

If the painting had been unimportant before then, what transpired next would cement its importance and is the reason I've kept it all these years.

George grabbed me before I could leave the room and looked me square in the eye. "Don't ever say that about your work," he said. "If you keep saying that about your work then eventually it'll be true."

I don't know why, but those words have stayed with me ever since. But it didn't end with those words. George and I talked for a little while (well, he talked and I listened). He reminded me that not every piece will be great and some will be downright failures, but that doesn't make them crap. Every piece painted has value — be it as a means to an end or the end itself.

Now, there's nothing revelatory in the words above, and some might even say it smacks of cliché. But it was exactly what I needed to hear at the precise moment I needed to hear it. Whether George understood that or not, I can't say. Either way, I cannot thank him enough for it because the way I view my work fundamentally and permanently shifted that day.

As down as I've ever been on my professional work, I have continued to value even my greatest failures. That doesn't mean I treat everything like priceless treasure and delude myself into believing I'm in any way brilliant (read any of the self-analysis I do on any given piece and you'll see). Sure, I've made some epic missteps, but those have been necessary to help make the paintings that work happen at all.

Despite the strength of that memory and what it's done for me, it surprisingly wasn't the thing that came to mind yesterday when I laid eyes on this self-portrait. My mind did not drift back to that classroom or George's words as I pulled the painting out of the drawer. Instead, I looked at the piece and began to wonder about the kid who painted it all those years ago.

The painting itself is definitely not a portfolio piece. It was done by a kid who didn't know what he was doing, but didn't care. And its value goes well beyond the memories attached to it. The paint handling is far looser than I can bring myself to do today, and there's a playfulness to it that somehow feels foreign. I look at the piece and I wonder if I'm even capable of letting go to such a degree anymore.

I suppose it's an interesting exercise to ponder where my life might have taken me if my work had been more in keeping with that aesthetic. More importantly, however, I have to wonder where the guy who painted this piece go? Is he still hanging around in my head somewhere? And if so, how do I get him to come out and play again — even just a little?

Over the course of the years that have gone by, my work has evolved and continues to do so. I have gotten better. But I wonder if I didn't lost something along the way.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On Tap For 2014

Sure, 2013 is over, but the very positive things that came out of it are more than just mere memory. They're my reality. I still wake up each morning in Seattle not New Jersey, and I still giggle at random moments when I'm reminded of the improbability of that fact. Couple that with the many, many sunrises I've had the privilege of witnessing each morning and you've got a very optimistic Steve at the beginning of this new year of ours.

Unfortunately, optimism just deals in theory, so here's a bit of reality:

At present I have the least amount of travel planned in quite a long time. Travel for work, that is. Right now, I have but a single show lined up for all of 2014. That show is IlluxCon. As of a month ago, I had every intention of showing at Spectrum Live again in May. Alas, scheduling conflicts have made that impossible. So, if I'm able to make it there at all, it will likely be for just a couple days as an attendee so I can visit and chat with my fellow artists as much as possible.

By contrast, at this time last year I already had six appearances lined up, so the lack of shows or Magic events on this year's agenda is somewhat jarring. But believe it or not, there's actually a huge benefit to the lack of public appearances. You see, I  have unfinished business. There's a piece I have neglected for far too long. What's worse is that there is new business I'm looking to dig into and this old bit of business is standing in my way. I'm talking, of course, about this piece:

This image is the most recent I have and depicts the piece its current state. A little further along since last I posted anything about it, this piece continues to nag at me as I sit in my studio trying to get my other work done. It's about time I give her some attention and I'm hoping the additional weeks I will gain by not not making the various appearances will allow me to do just that. Then maybe I can move on to one of the new large works I've been planning.

Essentially, this lack of travel will allow me to do the very thing I'm increasingly feeling the urge to do: work for myself. As I admitted in the last post, I am fairly uncertain where I want to take my own work, but the one thing I'm positive about is that it's a terrible idea to be idle while I'm trying to figure that stuff out. I'm pretty sure that my predicament is one that I need to draw and paint my way out of, as much as think my way out of. Or something.

Either way, I am looking forward to seeing what results from the effort put forth in the little room attached to the kitchen of our rental home. Once a porch then converted into an extra bedroom, it is also the coldest room during the winter and the hottest during the summer. It is the room with the crappy, polyester curtains which I use to regulate the light streaming in from almost every direction. Familiar furniture sits in an equally familiar configuration. The off-white walls remain unadorned. No posters or postcards. No paintings or sketches. It is where the magic will happen. It is my newest studio.

Here's hoping that 2014 gives us a fun ride.