Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Good intentions

Hi, everybody. If you are visiting this blog, you'll note that up until this post, the last one was in 2013, about our late and well-loved cat Heddy. I posted irregularly on here up until then, but nothing since. Well, I had good intentions of posting regularly, but life and laziness got in the way.

So, now I have more good intentions. I really plan to add posts on here at least once every couple of weeks. The first one after this "re-introduction" will be about the incredible trip Mary and I had floating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

For those of you who are coming to this blog through the link I gave on the message boards where I regularly participate, I still plan to post on those sites (especially Ozarkanglers and Riversmallies) frequently, but on here you will find more expanded and detailed versions of some of those posts.

As before, my posts will run the gamut from my art and the observations I make of the wildlife and western art world, to fishing and outdoor subjects...and anything else that interests me (and will hopefully be interesting to you, the reader, as well.

Al

Friday, March 1, 2013

Just a Cat

There was an inch of new snow on the ground when we buried Heddy this morning. Heddy was just a cat. Guys aren't supposed to get emotional about cats the way they do dogs, right?

It was 20 years ago, and we hadn't been in our new house for very long when we came back from a trip to find a cat in our front yard. It was an obviously young but nearly full grown, medium-long haired calico cat, with a beautiful pattern of very distinct bright orange, jet black, and clean, snowy white. It immediately came up to us, as friendly as could be. Living in a rural area, we sometimes have people drop pets off on the highway when they want to get rid of them, and this cat had obviously been cared for, unlike the feral cats that also appear occasionally.

The female (apparently all calicos are female) continued to hang around the house, and we began to feed her, waiting to see if anybody showed up to claim her. But she was a very sweet little cat, and we didn't have a pet, so after a couple of weeks, we had named her Heddy (short for "hedonistic") and decided to keep her. Our neighbor, Andre, is a vet, and we brought her into his office to be checked out and neutered.

Andre looked at Heddy and asked, "How long have you had this cat?"

Mary said, "Oh, she just showed up a couple weeks ago."

"I thought so. That's actually my cat."

Andre went on to tell us that he had a collection of calico cats, but Heddy had a bad habit of running into his house every chance she got, and finally one day he got fed up with it and tossed her out an open window. He hadn't seen her since. Apparently, Heddy, having a mind of her own, decided to look for greener pastures, so to speak--and found us.

"Oh well," Andre said. "You like her and she obviously doesn't like me anymore, so you go ahead and keep her. And by the way, she's already neutered."

And so we acquired Heddy. We soon made her an indoor cat, which was what she definitely wanted, since she was as bad about running into our house as she had been at Andre's.

I've always been more of a cat person than a dog person. I like dogs, but there is something about the unconditional devotion a good dog gives that somehow makes me uneasy. Maybe it is my own anti-social tendencies, but I like how cats can be independent souls, who seem to think it's your good fortune that they decide to befriend you. And while Heddy certainly befriended us, she considered herself at least our equal. Still, she was such a pleasant companion. She would jump into our laps when we sat down to relax in the evening, expecting just a little petting before she settled in to nap on our legs or on the couch next to us. When we went outside, she went, too, and if we went walking in the woods behind the house she often accompanied us, although if we went too far, she either turned back, or expected one of us to carry her part of the way back to the house.

And for a couple without kids, Heddy didn't quite become a surrogate child, but she was always there when we needed someone to care for, or to care for us. Our nephew that we were closest to was only a couple years old when she came to us, and his two sisters were born afterwards, and never knew us without Heddy. They were our surrogate children, but I can remember many times when something went wrong or I was feeling low for whatever reason, I would pick up Heddy and pet her, listening to her gentle purring, and things would somehow get a lot better.

Oh, Heddy wasn't perfect. She was terrible about scratching the furniture, and she was forever bolting her food and then barfing on the floor. She shed hair prodigiously. And she was a consummate hunter, so if we let her out for long, we'd find dead birds, mice, voles, chipmunks, baby rabbits, and even once a flying squirrel, deposited on the doorstep.

When we'd leave for a trip, our neighbor Kelli would take care of Heddy, and when we'd return, we'd have to suffer her displeasure at our absence. The way she'd do this would be to jump up in our laps as always, but turn her butt to us, tail up, and grumble for a while before she finally turned around and settled down to be petted.

But she was such a sweet, even dispositioned cat. Only once did she get neurotic on us. It happened in late spring, when we had the garage doors open. Heddy was wandering around the garage. The wind was blowing, and the door from the garage into the house was not tightly closed. There was a barely discernible moan of wind rushing through the door into the house and through the open windows of the house. Heddy suddenly heard this, and for some reason it freaked her out. She backed away from the door, all fuzzed out and ears laid back, and left the garage.

We didn't see her for the rest of the day, and when we called her to come in that evening, she came reluctantly to the door, stopping at the doorstep, obviously scared. Finally she leaped over the doorstep into the house, turned around looking in all directions, and went slinking through the house with her tail down. She jumped at every sound, and when she saw a pair of shoes in the middle of the floor, she crept up to them, batted one tentatively with her paw, and leaped backward. It was as if the sound she'd heard that day had convinced her that something scary and dangerous was somewhere in the house.

This went on for two weeks. She would hardly touch her food, and when she was in the house, she was always extremely nervous, not sleeping, losing weight. Finally we decided to take her to Andre. He listened to what was happening, and said, "Well, the only thing to try is Valium. A few days on Valium should settle her down. So he gave us a prescription for Valium, made out to "Heddy Cat Agnew". And he was right; after three days of taking Valium, Heddy was back to her old self.

About five years after Heddy arrived, we came out of the house one day to find another cat on the doorstep. It was a half grown, light yellow tabby that had been mauled by some creature and was scared, but when we picked it up, it purred loudly. So another cat acquired us. We took her to another vet because Andre was on vacation, and he bandaged her, neutered her, and treated her for ear mites. We named her Hazel.

But Hazel was nothing like Heddy. For weeks after she arrived, we thought the she and Heddy would never get along. They avoided each other, but when they met, both would puff up into big fur balls and growl at each other. Our niece started singing, "Heddy and Hazel, sitting in a tree, h-i-s-s-i-n-g." But finally they became friends. Hazel, however, was never a friendly cat. She would let you pet her for a few seconds, but if you tried to pick her up, she'd instantly go stiff, sprout about a hundred sharp claws, and start squirming and scratching. I never once picked her up that she didn't draw blood. She was simply a stand-offish cat, but we liked her, and since she was lean, muscular, and short-haired, she became the model for many of my cougar and bobcat paintings.

We discovered that our youngest niece was highly allergic to cats, so Heddy and Hazel became "outside cats" so that Eva could spend the nights with us without suffering. For a number of years they were quite happy roaming the outdoors, spending the nights together in a kitty house with a heated sleeping pad. When we'd climb into the hot tub, they were always there, especially in the winter, to sit on the edge of the tub and soak up the heat.

One day, Hazel just disappeared. She was probably about 12 years old, but she was perfectly healthy, and had never been gone from the yard a whole day, so when she didn't show up that evening, we began to worry. We never saw her again, and we surmised that either a coyote or one of our resident bobcats had taken her. So Heddy was by herself once again, but it didn't bother her. Nothing much bothered Heddy, except not being fed and not getting petted.

As she grew older, she became slower, and stopped hunting. We were concerned that she wouldn't be able to escape the predator that had apparently killed Hazel, so we bought her back into the house, letting her stay in my studio but not giving her free run of the rest of the house. The studio opened onto a small deck, with stairs leading up to an observation deck on our roof, but it was also a full story above ground. Heddy figured out how to climb up and down my racked canoes against the side of the house to get to and from the ground. But as she grew older, it was becoming more difficult for her to climb the canoes, so I built her a "handicapped kitty ramp", made of planks attached to the siding of the house and letting her walk up to the deck.

It wasn't always pleasant having her in the studio. She was always good about using a litter box, but she still puked occasionally, and shed hair that found its way onto my wet paint. As she continued to age, she began to be more finicky about what she ate, and Mary began to make cat food by adding supplements to chicken meat and liver that she ran through the blender. We didn't realize it, but Heddy's teeth were going bad, and she no longer liked to chew her food, so we would mix the cat food with water to make it "lappable". She also began to be more finicky about her litter box, sometimes refusing to use it if it was too dirty, and for some reason, she hated getting her paws into the litter, so even though she still had the instinct to bury her waste, she would try to do by scratching the floor outside the litter box. So the waste often remained unburied and smelling until I did Heddy's burying job for her.

But she was still a good companion as I painted, and when I'd sit back and study a painting in progress, she'd jump into my lap and ask to be petted. Petting Heddy was highly conducive to relaxing and working out problems in my painting.

We knew she was old, and wouldn't last much longer, but up until this week, she seemed as healthy as could be expected for a cat that was over 20 years old. But she had gone completely deaf. And she was steadily losing weight, even on the healthy diet of homemade cat food. At her healthiest, she was a "fat cat", weighing in at nearly 18 pounds. Now she seemed to weigh almost nothing when we picked her up. She spent most of each day sleeping, and moved stiffly. And this week, she just stopped eating. So we took her to Andre.

He pointed out her rotten teeth. He told us she had cataracts in both eyes. He confirmed her deafness. And he said he suspected she had serious problems in her digestive tract. He could do blood tests to check for diabetes and other ailments, but the truth was that she was going downhill fast and there was nothing we could do about it. He gently suggested it was time to put her to sleep.

Mary and our niece Hope had taken her to him. Mary called me and told me the bad news, and asked if I wanted to have Andre put her down there, or if I wanted to have her brought home to say goodbye, and Andre would stop by on his way home in the evening and do it. I had to see Heddy once more to say goodbye.

She was mildly sedated when Mary brought her home, and mostly lay limply, very quietly purring, as we all petted her and held her. Mary was crying. Hope was crying. And I was barely holding back the tears. We turned on quiet music and spent the evening taking turns holding her. Finally, Andre called to say he was on his way, and Mary gave her another shot to make her sleep until Andre administered the final injection.

As he prepared her, Mary held her head in her arms, dripping tears onto the still clean, still pure white, jet black, and bright orange fur. I petted her gently and cried as well. Andre leaned over and said, "Old girl, I'm sorry for throwing you out that window all those years ago."

Mary said, "It was the best thing you ever did."

She leaned down and whispered, "Heddy, you were the best and prettiest cat there ever was." And Andre put the needle in, and Heddy went quickly and quietly.

She was just a cat. Guys aren't supposed to get emotional about cats. But I'm crying again as I write this.

Goodbye, Heddy. You'll be sorely missed.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What happens when your reference doesn't help

I'm in the middle of a big moose painting, with two bulls sparring. The idea for the piece came from a quick sketch I did, and I liked the sketch enough that I wished to do the finished painting with the animals in the same postures, from the same angle.

In order to convincingly paint animals when you don't have a very intimate knowledge of them, you have to either have excellent reference photos, access to live animals, or you must have the confidence to "fake it". In the case of these moose, with all the great photos I've taken of bull moose in Grand Teton NP, I didn't have any photo that came anywhere close to matching the poses in my original idea. But I spent much of a day looking at every bit of moose reference I had available, and continually reworking the original sketch and refining details from pieces shown in various photos, until I was satisfied with both the general shapes of the animals and the details of body structure. Perhaps the trickiest part of the whole exercise was at the point where the bulls actually physically interact--the tangled antlers. Moose antlers are complex structures, and "fitting" two sets together so that it looked like they were intertwined, while still being true to the angle of view and showing enough of the faces to give some expression to the fighting duo, took a lot of drawing and erasing.

So I plunged into the painting. When I do paintings I tend to work in planes within the image, with the farthest plane first and then successively closer planes. In this painting, it was the background suggestion of trees first, then the ground (grass) in front of the trees but behind the moose, and then the legs of the moose themselves. And here I began to run into snags.

Yes, I had the general body structure worked out in my preliminary drawings. But what I didn't have was the shapes of the highlights on the moose. I had decided I wanted warm, strong low sunlight hitting the bulls from the side and very slightly behind them--raking sunlight across their flanks. This is yummy light, but requires a sure knowledge of how far different parts of the body "stick out" more to catch the light, and whether those stuck out parts throw shadows or just round back into shadow. And in a subject like this, where you want to depict muscles straining, the musculature has to be both complex and convincing, so the various shapes where the light strikes those muscles are going to be complex as well. And while I did have some photos of moose in different poses and angle to the viewer but with the light hitting them at the proper angle for one of the moose, I had nothing on the other.

I spent much of the morning trying to work out the shapes of light and shadow I wanted from my existing reference, but was getting nowhere, and having to paint over or wipe out some of my attempts. So I finally stepped away from the canvas and went to the computer. Actually, I photographed the painting as it was, transferred the photo to Photoshop, and began to draw in the shapes of the highlights on the screen. It was basically coming up with a blueprint that worked...that was a convincing, if perhaps not anatomically perfect depiction of what the light would look like striking those struggling animals.

A painting can be a rendition of near perfect reference photos, where one simply recreates the shapes of light and shadow in the reference image. But somehow it's more satisfying, if also more difficult, to make up stuff, to have the confidence to modify very imperfect reference or to strike out boldly into totally uncharted territory. After all, I always tell myself...you don't have to know everything, you just have to know a little more than the average listener or viewer, and assert your knowledge positively. If somebody goes out and photographs two moose doing what my moose are doing, in the same light, and finds out my shapes of light and shadow aren't right, so be it. But I'm confident the major muscles are shown and hopefully the light is convincing. We shall see if that confidence is misplaced when the moose are actually painted, rather than blueprinted on the computer.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

More random thoughts...basketball

Basketball is almost the perfect game. Compared to other big time sports, basketball is a terrific blend of team play and individual talent. The team that plays together the best usually wins, but an individual can dominate within the team. Football is much more of a team sport. No individual can dominate a football game without a LOT of help from his team mates. Baseball in almost all individualism--each play hinges upon individual effort, and a pitcher can dominate a game almost completely. Soccer is a great team sport where the individual can shine, but soccer doesn't utilize the whole body like basketball. Hockey...well, hockey is too specialized, in that you need ice to play it!

I never played organized basketball other than a few adult three on three tournaments. I was too short, and too unsure of myself, to make my junior high team, and just never tried again. But I've played basketball all my life in pick-up games. I had a goal set up at home when I was a kid and spent untold hours shooting, mostly by myself, on that goal. When I was attending the local junior college, I skipped class all the time to play pick-up games in the gym. I roomed with two other guys when I went away to college, and we were always going to the park or the rec center looking for a game. After I started teaching I'd stay after school to shoot around and play with the students in the gym, and I'd go into the local park to play whenever the weather wasn't too bad.

Once I started doing artwork for a living, I sought out local guys who wanted to play nights, reserved a gym, and began to play one or two nights a week. When I was about 40 years old, I got together with a bunch of guys, all but one of us over 40, to play two nights a week in a small local gym. The only under-40 guy was the law partner of one of the founding members of our little group, so we made an exception for him. That was 17 years ago, and I'm still playing in that group, but the cast of characters has changed. Over the years, we probably had at least 35 or 40 different guys playing with us at different times, but many moved away, some were injured, and others just decided they were too old. As the original group aged, we kept recruiting younger guys to play with us, but it seems it's pretty difficult to find anybody over 40 who wants to play anymore, so we've been allowing younger and younger players over the years.

Now, there are only two of the original group left. I'm well over 57 years old now, and the Karl is pushing 60. Some of the others playing with us these days are well under 40, and we have a few semi-regulars that are teenagers or young adults. It makes the game challenging, to say the least.

Over the years I've been fortunate to not have suffered many basketball injuries. I've torn tendons in the soles of my feet, I've strained knees and ankles, jammed a wrist, and now my biggest problem is a chronically sore shoulder, apparently a rotator cuff disorder. It hurts a bit to shoot three pointers, which really sucks because that's a big part of my game these days. I used to be one of the quickest players in our group--I had to be because I'm still only 5' 8". Now, I can still beat some of the older players off the dribble, but mostly I sit outside and shoot threes.

Who knows how much longer I'll be able to play. But I still love the game, and the exercise gets ever more important. I'll play as long as I can get up and down the court without totally embarrassing myself, I guess.

I've often said that one of my biggest regrets in life is that I wasn't 6' 4". Which, in a way, is the only flaw in the game of basketball--on higher levels it's a game for tall people.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Random thoughts

North light...conventional wisdom has it that the perfect artist studio MUST have north light, a big window or two facing north. North light is never direct sunlight (well, at least it isn't direct sunlight in the northern hemisphere, I guess) but is clear, clean light that gives one true color rendition.

Hmm....

The problem I see with that theory is that the painting, once completed and exhibited or sold, will probably never be viewed again under north light. At best it will be viewed under color-corrected lamps. Back when we did a lot of art shows where we had a booth with paintings hanging, our lights were either incandescent or halogen. Incandescent lights especially are very warm, and make reds really pop and blues really weak.

So...what is better, to paint under perfect light and then have the painting look entirely different once it is hung, or to paint under some kind of light that will be fairly close to the usual light in which the painting will be viewed?

Jim Hautman, one of the Hautman brothers famous for winning the federal duck stamp multiple times, once said to me, only half joking, that he painted all his entries under a 60 watt bulb because that's about as good a light as they would be viewed under by the judges.

Another thing that really gave me fits back in the heyday of limited edition prints was the fact that paint on paper or canvas reacted to light very differently from printing ink on paper or canvas. The printer would do an initial proof under their high class color-corrected lights, with the original right there under the same lights for comparison, and it would look great to them. Then they'd send it to me (this was when I was with a publisher in Minnesota who had their printing done in Minneapolis, so it didn't make sense for me to be there at the printer's). I'd look at it under the lights in which I painted the original (not color-corrected) and the two images would look totally different. Thing is, there is at least a chance that an expensive original would be hung under color corrected lighting, but practically no chance a cheaper print would be...they'd all either be under incandescent, or fluorescent lights. So I figured they should be proofed under incandescent lights. It took a while for the printer to get used to my insistence that they check the proofs under an incandescent light before sending them to me.

Chances are that, due to their environmental impact, incandescent lights are on their way out. Which now brings up even more of a problem. The fluorescent lights that are phasing out the old incandescents are not only not color-corrected and not exactly the color temperature of incandescents, but also vary considerably in color temperature. It's enough to make me pull my hair out if I dwell upon it.

So my solution in the studio is to have a variety of light sources. I've got east light, which is almost as good as north light after lunch (!). I've got south light that is okay in the summer but I have to keep the shades down in the winter when the sun really slants in. I've even got a little west light. I have a couple incandescent bulbs shining around. I have compact fluorescents in two different color temperatures. I figure I've got just about every possible light covered, and the overall light is a pretty good average!

Keeping time...

I have one of those calendar books that have one month for each two page spread, with room on each date to write things down. I've kept one of these each year as a "daybook" of sorts since 1994. In it, I write down all the time I spend doing art-related things, in several different categories. One is actual painting time, the time I spend with the painting in front of me and the brush in my hand. Another is development, the time I spend working up ideas for paintings. A third is lumped under miscellaneous, and that includes everything from straightening the studio to framing and shipping to filing photos. And then I keep a record of days spent in the field gathering reference, days spent at shows and seminars, days spent doing business-related things away from home. And...days spent fishing, in which I write down the highlights of my fishing trips.

At the end of each month I list the paintings and other artwork I did that month, how many hours I spent on each piece of art, the medium used, and the final size of the image. I also add up the different categories. And at the end of the year I add everything up to give me the total working hours and days I spent that year.

It's interesting that those total hours don't really vary all that much from year to year, even though I don't keep "regular" painting hours.

If a person works a 40 hour week for 50 weeks a year, that's 2000 hours of working time. In my case, if one doesn't count the days spent at shows, gathering reference, etc., my actual time in the studio averages something around 1200 hours per year. So I guess I don't work very hard!

Actually, though, it isn't so easy to quantify "working time" when there are a lot of snippets of time I don't count, such as the time spent in the evenings reading about my subjects or about art, thinking about paintings, and even doodling ideas on scratch paper. I also haven't counted the time spent typing this, even though it certainly qualifies as art-related time!

More random thoughts later...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Composing a painting using Photoshop


For me, working out the design of a painting used to involve a lot of looking through my collection of reference material, a lot of drawing and re-drawing of the subject matter to work out details not included in my reference photos, and a lot of thumbnail sketches to work out the placement and proportions of the major elements of the painting.  I have always enjoyed the sketching and drawing process, but it was time-consuming and sometimes frustrating.  And at the end of it, I still had just a preliminary monochrome drawing of the painting.  I never liked to do color studies because they always seemed to take away some of the spontaneity in the painting process once I got to the final painting.  So often I would begin the actual painting with the idea of the whole color scheme only in my head.
Enter Photoshop.  The computer, along with digital photography, has been one of the greatest things to come along when it comes to managing reference materials, and the Photoshop suite of applications has really changed the way I work.  My recent fox painting is a good case in point.
The genesis of the idea for this painting was simply that I wanted to paint a red fox.  I had no particular idea in mind, unlike some paintings, where the idea is in my head before I begin.  For instance, the last red fox painting I did started out with me doing the kind of “doodling” thumbnail sketches of critters that I often do while sitting in the living room at night.  I came up with a pose I really liked of an unspecified canid—could have been a wolf, coyote, or fox.  But it ended up being a fox after a lot of re-drawing and some studying of various fox photos and drawings from life I had done over the years to make sure the details were right.  I had no reference that was anywhere near the pose I had come up with originally, so the photos were only helpful in working out a few details.
But this time I had no pose in mind, nor a background.  In that case, I usually just start looking through my reference material, waiting for some image to turn me on.  I had decided I wanted the painting to have a Western setting, though not any vast landscape with an easily recognizable locale, so the first group of reference photos I paged through were photos I’d taken over the last few years of locations around our cabin in Montana.  This is where the Photoshop suite has first streamlined my working habits.
Before digital photography, I took most of my animal reference photos with print film, and the landscapes with slide film.  I wanted colors to be as true as possible on the landscapes, which slide film best accomplished, while with the animals exact color wasn’t as important and it’s easier to work from prints than from slides, which require some method of viewing them while working.  I have a huge set of slide drawers full of slides, and five large drawers full of prints, categorized by locale, species, and pose—for instance, my fox photos, taken over many years from animals both in the wild and in captive situations, are divided up into “close-ups”, “young”, “action poses”, “lying and sitting”, “standing facing”, “standing broadside”, “standing away”, “walking facing”, “walking broadside”, “walking away”, “running facing”, “running broadside”, and “running away”.
Since I’ve been taking print and slide photos for more than 20 years, and have only taken digital photos for the last six or seven years, my digital library isn’t quite as large, but if I’ve taken a lot of digital photos of an animal, I’ll have those photos categorized the same way, placed into various folders with the same names as my print photos.  Eventually I’d like to digitalize all my prints and slides, but with tens of thousands of non-digital photos, it’s a time-consuming and expensive process.
At any rate, I can easily browse through my digital photos on the computer using Photoshop Bridge, which is a wonderful photo management tool.  Call them all up on the screen, browse quickly through them, zoom in on anything that looks interesting, and send it to Photoshop.
One photo immediately caught my interest.  It was this one, a photo I’d taken on a hike Mary and I had done at the headwaters of Tom Miner Creek near Yellowstone Park.  I loved the complex design of the cluster of roots and trunks of these pines, and the play of sunlight and shadow.  However, I didn’t like the background, because it didn’t look like typical red fox habitat in the West.  Red foxes prefer areas with grasses where they can hunt mice, and the background on this photo looked too sterile.
I also did not want this painting to be a summer-time scene, since one of the joys of painting foxes is depicting their luxurious coat, and summer coats are not all that luxurious.  So I downloaded the photo into Photoshop and continued looking.  I soon came upon this photo, which was a grove of autumn aspens I’d taken along the highway approaching Yellowstone Park from the south. I imported it into Photoshop.
  So now I had a foreground and a background, but I still wanted to show some grass to give it the feel of good fox habitat, so I picked out one of my many photos of grassy areas in Montana and Wyoming and imported it.
I decided I wanted the fox to be coming through the trunks toward the viewer, as if it had been hunting the grass but was sticking pretty close to cover in the bright daylight.  I don’t have many digital fox photos, so it was time to dig into my old print photos.  I started flipping through the “walking facing” section of my red fox photos and soon came upon this one.  I liked the general look of the fox, but of course the photo had several basic flaws—it was a winter photo in snow, the fox’s foreleg was lifted much higher than I liked, and it was taken on a very dark, cloudy day with no light and shadow and dully colored fur.  But I scanned it on my scanner and imported it into Photoshop.

At this point, I had a good idea of the basic elements of the painting, but was far from sure how they would all go together.  I still find that I’m able to think best with a pencil in my hand, so I did a quick thumbnail sketch or two of what I had in mind for the composition while looking at the photos arranged in Photoshop, mainly working out the dimensions of the painting (its aspect ratio—how wide it would be compared to height) and the size of the fox and other elements in the painting.  After I had that worked everything out to my initial satisfaction, I opened a new, blank canvas in Photoshop that had those dimensions.
I selected the entire aspens photo and dragged it onto the blank canvas.  That would be layer one, the layer that is underneath the others.  I scaled it to be a little smaller than the total canvas.  Then I selected an area of grass, using the lasso tool, from my photo of a grassy area, and dragged and dropped the selection into my growing canvas.  It would be layer two.  I scaled it to roughly fit the area where I wanted it to be visible, which was a small section on the left of the design.  Then I selected and dropped in the photo of the pine trunks, making it layer three.  This layer almost totally covered the other layers, because I’d brought the whole photo, including the background landscape, into the composition.  So I then had to use the eraser tool to erase all of the background, after scaling the photo so that the tree trunks roughly fit into the design the way I wanted.  Erasing the background areas let the underlying aspens and grass show through the erased areas.
 Finally, I went to my scanned fox photo, and used the lasso tool to carefully outline the fox and separate it from the background.  Along with the erasing I mentioned above, this outlining with the lasso is where another terrific computer tool comes in very handy, and that is a Wacom tablet, a pressure sensitive monitor upon which you can draw directly with a stylus.  Instead of having to use a mouse to draw the lasso around fox or erase the background, a process that would be awkward at best, I could actually just trace around the outline on the screen with the stylus, or use it to erase exactly where I wished, just like I would do it with a very sharp and efficient pencil eraser.
Once I had the fox selection finished, I dragged and dropped it into my Photoshop canvas.  It became layer four, the uppermost layer.  I flipped it horizontally and scaled it to be about as big as I wanted in the design.  Then it was a matter of playing with the four layers, moving them around slightly, making them a little bigger or smaller, working out their relationship in size and location.  For instance, I reduced the background aspens a bit, and enlarged the pine trunks so that more of the trunk on the right bled off the image.  I moved the fox around until I had what I thought was the perfect composition and reduced it slightly to make it more proportional to the trunks. All of that resulted in the entire composition looking like this.

  At this point I had several obvious color-related problems.  The lighting strength and direction in the foreground and background was pretty well matched, but the light “color” of the aspens was more golden yellow overall than the rather clear, white light on the foreground trunks.  And that fox, of course, had no strong light at all.  In addition, there was little contrast between the aspens and the pine trunks—in fact, the trunks seemed to be lighter in value than the aspen background, which made the whole scene confusing.  So first I had to make those aspens recede into the background, and I did this by adjusting the levels of the aspen layer, making it appear much lighter, as if there was some atmosphere between it and the viewer. Then I selected the foreground layer with the tree trunks, used the levels adjustment to make it appear darker, and started playing around with the color balance, adding more yellow and a bit more red to the middle range and highlights until the color of the foreground seemed to fit into the colors of the background better.  The grass, flooded with sunlight in my original photo, now fit both the other landscape elements well.
 Then, I selected the fox layer.  I first used the saturation slider to make the overall color of the fox stronger.  I used the brightness and contrast sliders to darken the fox a bit.  Now I had the fox looking like it was totally in shadow.  Using the paintbrush tool, I selected a bright, light orange and a thin brush, and actually “painted” patches of the fox to look like dappled sunlight hitting its back.  Then I began working out the way the light would be hitting the fox’s face, the most important single piece of the painting.  Because of its importance, it was imperative to figure out to my own satisfaction exactly how the light would fall on it.  To that end, I grabbed a small sculpture of a wolf head that I’ve had for many years, and directed a strong light on it from the direction light would be coming in the painting, noting where the edges of light and shadow fell.  In order not to mess up the fox’s face during the trial and error I’d be doing in working out the conversion from wolf facial features to fox facial features (something I can do because I’ve studied both animals extensively), I opened a new, blank layer upon which to “paint” the bright highlights of the fox’s face.  Then I painted them in.  Picking a few related colors, I modified the colors of the bright highlights hitting the fox’s fur until I was satisfied it looked like the right color of sunlight dappling the moving critter.
Then I had to consider that the fox would be throwing a broken shadow on the ground and roots under it.  To add these pieces of shadow, I picked a very dark, grayed blue-violet color, and with an airbrush Photoshop painting tool, after setting the color to be very transparent, I drew in the shadow areas on the ground that I wanted.  Using the dark color and doing it transparently, the details in ground and roots still showed through, and I was able to build up the darkness of the shadows gradually until it matched the shadow areas already in the original photo. 
So at that point, I had a finished composition AND a terrific color study, all in one.  This is what the final design looked like:  
As I mentioned before, there were things I didn’t like about the fox’s legs.  It was time to get back into “real” drawing.  I needed a full-size drawing of the fox to transfer to my “real” canvas before beginning the painting, so as I drew the fox on a separate sheet of paper, I changed the legs and tail to what I wanted, making the tail swing more to the left, lifting the visible hind leg a bit higher, and putting the right front leg more out in front with paw lower to the ground.  After drawing the major outlines of the tree trunks and roots onto my “real” canvas, I added the fox using carbon paper, and I was ready to begin the actual painting, with my computer designed composition and color study on the screen next to my easel.
The finished painting is below.  I made a few adjustments to the color while painting, most notably warming the foreground areas in direct sunlight more and reducing the contrast between them and the shadow areas slightly.  But for the most part the Photoshop-generated color and compositional study was followed fairly closely while painting, with judicious editing of some details.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How I'm painting the Mexican wolf piece

I've never done preliminary color studies of my paintings. Always before, I'd simply do thumbnail sketches to work out the basic composition, then redraw the sketch full size, transfer it to the canvas, and start painting. I didn't want to expend a lot of energy in a preliminary painting, energy that would better be utilized in the finished work. However, this approach requires that a lot of decisions on color and value be made during the course of the painting, and while doing so can be interesting and rewarding, it can also result in a lot of interruptions of the actual flow of putting paint to canvas, and if you make the wrong decision it can require large portions of the painting to be redone.

Enter Photoshop. While most people think of Photoshop as a photo retouching and photo "faking" tool, in recent paintings I've found it to be one of the best tools for composing a painting that I've ever used. The current painting is a good example.

I started out with the idea of doing a 40 X 60 painting of three Mexican wolves in a Sonoran desert setting. I had a general concept of what the wolves would be doing and what kind of background I wanted behind them. But instead of doing thumbnail sketches on paper as I once did, I immediately went to my extensive collection of photos of the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, AZ, looking for photos that would depict the setting I wanted. I found a photo of Gates Pass at sunset, looking toward the valley of Tucson, that was pretty close to my concept for the painting. However, there was not any kind of good middle ground and foreground in that photo, so I selected another photo of a big rock and saguaros in the same area under the same lighting. The rock would serve as the middle ground behind the wolves. I'd pretty much make up the foreground rocks, gravel, and vegetation where the wolves would be walking.

Then I started browsing through all the wolf photos I've taken over the years, looking for interesting poses that fit my original concept. I found one photo of a Mexican wolf, taken at the Desert Museum, that was fairly close to what I wanted for the wolf on the left, although it would take some modification and clarification. I found photos that were close to what I wanted in the other two wolves, but in one of them the wolf's head was too low, so I morphed the head and neck from another wolf onto it. Both these wolves were northern wolves, not Mexican wolves, so I knew they'd require some modification.

Next, I arranged the photos I'd selected in Photoshop into a composition, playing around with fitting the background, middle ground rock and saguaros, and the three wolves together, until I had the basic composition arranged. At this point, I have an actual color composition of most of the major elements of the painting on the computer screen.

The next step is to actually sketch the wolves on paper, the exact size they will be in the finished painting, using the Photoshop composition on the screen as a general guide. At this point, I'm making the modifications and clarifications necessary to make the wolves fit my ideas of what they should look like, not slavishly following what they look like in the photos. The most important part of this is making the two "northern" wolves into Mexican wolves. Mexican wolves, being adapted to a warm desert environment, have thinner and in places shorter fur, larger ears, and the ones I've seen have muzzles that are slightly different in shape. So as I'm sketching the wolves full size, I'm making these modifications in my sketches. I'm also slightly changing leg angles and facial features to fix what I perceive as less attractive or more awkward things in the photos. In other words, I really don't want to slavishly copy the photos, but to make my wolves better than the photos.

In this photo, I've completed the full size sketches, and here I'm cutting out one of the wolves with an Exacto knife.