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.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I grew up on Big River and have fished it every year for nearly 50 years. During that time, I floated the section from north of Bonne Terre to Blackwell at least once a year, until last year, when I didn't get to it. That stretch has always been one of my favorites, and for many years was my absolute favorite float. I caught my first 4 pound smallmouth on that section. I did my first three day float trip on it. I've had days when I caught well over 100 bass.

I usually put in at St. Francois State Park, and take out at the bridge at Blackwell. It's not an easy float. For one thing, it's LONG. A bit over 14 miles. There are intermediate accesses, but other than the road off the old Hwy. 67 bridge, which is only a mile or so below the park and is a shaky place to leave a car unless you pay to park it at Cherokee Landing there, the other accesses are private and require permission. I usually visit the people who own them once a year or so just to touch base and make sure I still have permission to use them, but I hadn't visited them in two years since I didn't float that stretch last year. The take-out at Blackwell is very problematical...no place anymore to park a car. I always cajol Mary into picking me up at the end of the day when I use it. And it's a long uphill climb to the road as well, and after floating 14 miles, it isn't fun.

I decided last night to do that float today, and I drove to the park this morning. As I was putting in about 8 AM, turkeys were gobbling and mist was rising off the river.Attached Image It was very clear for Big River, visibility 5 or 6 feet, and flowing strongly, about spring normal. The fishing was slow to begin with; I caught a couple of small bass in the first couple holes, and then hit a dry spell in the next pool or two. The water temp was a bit under 60 degrees thanks to the cool nights we've been having, and the fish weren't very active. I was trying various things, including my homemade Subwalk, Superflukes, a deep-diving crankbait, willow leaf spinnerbait. Nothing was working well, so what the heck, just tie on my homemade spinnerbait and a Sammy and MAKE 'em bite.

That's when the Twilight Zone intruded. I made a cast with the Sammy to a little almost dead water slough at the bottom of a hole, and got a good strike. Smallmouth, and a nice one. But it immediately tangled me on a snag. I paddled over to it and could see it, hooked on the rear hook, the line tangled. I almost reached it when it gave an extra-hard tug and broke the line. Almost. That would be a theme for the day. Because I could see the fish, lure still in its mouth, beneath a little log in about three feet of water. Aha, I thought, I can quietly reach down with my rod tip, and snag the free treble on the lure. Sure enough, it worked...almost. I snagged the treble, got the fish to the surface, reached down to grab it, and the hook came loose from my rod tip. I watched the fish swim off into deep water and a root wad with my high dollar brand new Sammy in its mouth.

Things were looking up, though, on the fishing front. I caught a couple, and then got a terrific strike. Big fish...amazingly, a spotted bass. The spots have pretty well taken over much of this stretch, which is why it's no longer my absolute favorite, but they've never gotten very big. This dude (well, probably dudette) was a good 17.5 to 18 inches, and FAT!Attached Image

And then the fishing slowed again. I was doing a lot of casting and picking up a strike once in a while. Until the Twilight Zone struck again, a lot worse.

The riffle was a tricky one, but didn't look all that bad. It wouldn't have been if I'd been concentrating on running it instead of trying to stop the canoe in that little eddy to make a cast below. The eddy was just barely upstream from the 4 foot wide gap between the end of the big log and the just starting to grow weedbed, the place I needed to go, so it should have been fine...get into the eddy, then ease out of it and through the gap. Except that the front end of the canoe got over too far into the eddy and caught the shallow weedbed, and of course the back end started to swing around, toward the log. Now things were getting a little more serious. No way I could stop the back end from swinging, so I pushed off the weedbed, planning on shooting the canoe backwards and slightly upstream, and get it lined up to go over the log over toward the root wad end, where it was just enough underwater...except I misjudged my angle and the strength of the current, and somehow got the back end of the canoe against the abruptly dropping bank on the other side, while the front end caught the log. Not good. When you have a canoe sideways to 100 cubic feet per second or so of fast water with both ends anchored, nothing good can come of it. Flipping was just a matter of time, so it was time to bail out before it happened. I was able to exit the canoe into waist deep water that wasn't so strong I couldn't stand, and was able then to stop the canoe from flipping...except it not only took on some water, I somehow, in the confusion, kicked one of my rods overboard, right about that root wad in powerful current 5 feet deep.

I dumped the water out, removed my wallet from my soaked pants pocket, and noticed a horrific smell. I looked around, and there hung in that root wad was a very ripe dead deer. No way I was climbing around on that end of the root wad even if it was possible to see the rod from there. I started to look for the rod. Couldn't see it from the bank. Studied the situation. Figured out I could approach the root wad from downstream, slide the front end of the canoe onto the log at a point where it was just a couple inches under the water, and it would probably hold there while I looked for the rod.

It worked...almost. I could see the gold-colored Prolite Finesse reel, most of the way under the root wad, 4 feet down. I could reach it with a rod tip with a lure snugged up to it. But I should have thought about it a little more. The rod I picked up to snag it was one of my other casting rods with 8 pound test line. I snagged it alright, but when I began to pull my line broke. Now I'd lost a homemade spinnerbait, unless it was still snagged to the reel and I could recover the reel. I did what I should have done in the first place, picked up a spinning rod filled with 6/20 Power Pro braid. You can't break that stuff. Reached down, snagged something...not the reel, a sunken willow limb, and when I dislodged the limb the reel went on under the log. Now I looked just downstream, and could see the rod tip on the other side of the log, with my homemade Subwalk waving in the current. Aha, hook it! I did, with the Power Pro. Should have thought about that a bit more too. Went to pull the lure and rod tip up, and the 8 pound line on the sunken rod broke...and my Subwalk, which does sink, sunk downstream into the next rootwad.

The rod tip was still there. The deer was still stinking. I hooked it (the rod, not the deer, but the current was pushing me closer to the deer) with the Power Pro. It was stuck pretty good. Got it ALMOST up to the surface where I could grab it with my hand. Slipped off. Snagged it again. Slipped off. Canoe came off the log, barely missing the deer. There was a thin limb sticking up that I could grab to hold the canoe for another try. I grabbed, but the current was too strong. Limb slipped out of my fingers, and something on it was sharp and cut two fingers. Now I'm bleeding. Rod tip still visible. Snagged it again, I thought. Nope, a willow limb that it was hung on. Pulled the limb up. Rod comes loose. Rod tip sticks straight up in the air, ALMOST within reach. Starts sinking. I'm draw-stroking frantically to get the canoe within reach. Rod tip is going straight down, ssslllooowwwlllyyyy. I'm stretching out, fingertip touches it...can't grip it. It disappears. Another root wad is just below, in 7 or 8 feet of fast, choppy water. Can't see it anymore. It's gone.

So...I've been trying for it for a good 45 minutes, probably. When you're floating 14 miles in a day, you gotta keep to a schedule, and I'm seriously behind schedule now. There are sections of this float that I always paddle through in order to concentrate on the good parts. Now I have to paddle through a good part. The fishing has gotten bad again. I've lost a $100 reel, a rod that isn't being made anymore and will be difficult to replace, three lures...make that four lures, because somehow I lost my favorite homemade crankbait when I bailed out of the canoe. It was lying in the bottom of the canoe, but it's gone now. I'm a little grumpy.

But it's a beautiful day, and there are lots of interesting things to see. Phlox and bluebells in profusion along the river. hordes of suckers. Big River has more quillback carpsuckers than any other river I've been on, and they are everywhere, but there are also really big redhorse spawning in every good riffle. I'm talking 18-20 inch redhorse. Probably because Big River in this section is ALMOST too small for jetboats, and so it doesn't get gigged much.

There's a big heronry, two huge sycamores full of great blue heron nests. It's been there for many years. There are a bunch of herons on the nest and flying around it.Attached Image

I see a HUGE fish. Paddle over to get a better look at it in the clear water. It's a grass carp, and probably weighs 30 pounds or more. Several big drum. Never used to see drum on Big River.

Pretty bluffs, which is one of the reasons I love this stretch--it has some pretty places. Attached ImageAttached ImageAttached ImageAttached ImageAttached Image I'm back to catching a fish now and then, more spotted bass than smallies, but several are really nice ones, 15 inches or a bit bigger. They are really acting dumb. They'd hit the Sammy, barely get hooked, I'd set the hook and the lure would come flying back toward the canoe, and they'd chase it down and whack it right next to the canoe. I see a very big bass chasing some kind of crippled fish, cast to it, it ignores my lures. Keeps chasing the smaller fish, which is flopping and swimming weakly. I paddle over to investigate. It's a largemouth, probably over five pounds, that's after a 12 inch redhorse. The redhorse looks about half-scaled--the bass must have already had it partway down and it got loose. I leave the bass to keep harassing the redhorse, and catch a 15 inch smallie on my next cast.

And so the day gos. The Twilight Zone makes no more appearances for quite a while. Until late in the afternoon, a couple miles above Blackwell, when I hear a motor. A motor? I said this stretch of Big River is ALMOST too small for jetboats, but these people don't think so. The first people I've seen all day, and they have to be in a johnboat with a 30 hp jet motor, buzzing down the river ahead of me.

They stop to fish. I pass them. They ask me if I'm fishing. Yep, not catching much. They say they are slaying the sunperch and goggle-eye. I leave them to it.

Mary is picking me up at 7 PM. It's getting close to 6:30 when the take-out comes in sight. I'm still fishing, and finally get another great strike on the Sammy. Gotta be another spotted bass. Nope, smallie. pretty close to 18 inches. Attached Image Great way to end the day...but dragging the canoe and gear up that hill isn't so great. I'm sore all over. My fingers are swollen and hurting. Wrists are sore from paddling one-handed and playing Sammies. Realized I forgot to drink anything after lunch--I think I'm dehydrated. Final total for the day, 25 spotted bass, 15 smallies, 8 largemouth. Mediocre for this stretch.

Sure glad Mary showed up on time...ALMOST.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Painting fishing scenes

I've always had a passion for fishing.  When I was a kid my family spent every Sunday on Wappapello Reservoir, the nearest big lake, bass fishing.  And there was a river within a mile of my house growing up, and I spent the majority of my summer days riding my bike to the river to fish, often by myself.  Although I twice had my bike stolen when I parked it under a busy bridge, my parents never worried about me, and indeed it was a different place and time back in the 1960s, a time when, living in a small town, you simply didn't worry about your kids getting abducted or harmed by crazies. 

While I enjoyed fishing the big lake, I enjoyed smallmouth bass fishing in the local river even more.  It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with rivers.  I even made it a lifetime goal to fish a river in every state; I haven't reached the goal yet but I've fished rivers in more than 30 states so far.  Whenever I would plan a reference gathering trip, I always checked to see which rivers were nearby and possible to fish.  In fact, a lot of times I planned the reference trip around the opportunity to fish a certain river.  In the years when I painted wildlife exclusively, streams often furnished the settings for the critters I painted.

So it was probably inevitable that I began to paint fly fishing scenes, based upon the many rivers I had fished.  From the first, the fishing paintings were a success.  I guess the genesis of my fly fishing art came about because I became friends with Tom Manion, one of the best fly fishermen I know.  I had just met him through another friend when he called me one day and said he was planning a trip to Montana and wondered if I would like to go along.  I'd been to Yellowstone Park and Glacier Park a few times, but hadn't otherwise spent much time in Montana.  He had booked a week at a resort on the Yellowstone River, and it sounded good to me, even though I'd done little fly fishing and knew very little about fly fishing for trout.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and Tom and I, along with a varied cast of friends, have fished the Livingston area at least once a year ever since.  The streams we've fished are fabled among trout anglers; the Yellowstone, the Bighorn, the Boulder, the Stillwater, the Madison, the Big Hole, Slough Creek, DePuys Spring Creek.  Our guide from that first trip, Tom Coleman of Livingston, became a lifelong friend as well, and the three of us became fishing buddies, not guide and clients.

Mary was content to let it be a guy thing for many years, but she fell in love with Yellowstone Park and the Livingston area as well, so a few years ago we decided to purchase a cabin in Paradise Valley, the beautiful valley through which the Yellowstone flows between Yellowstone Park and Livingston, with the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains on one side and the Gallatin Range on the other.  So that part of Montana has become our second home, and my fishing time is split between my beloved smallmouth bass rivers in the Ozarks and the wonderful trout streams of Montana.

My fishing paintings are always of real places where I've fished, so it's no surprise that those Montana streams are a common setting.  And the setting is the real subject.  I really consider the paintings as landscapes, with a fisherman present but not really prominent in the landscape.  Although it's usually hard to tear myself away from the fishing long enough to get out the camera and sketchbook, Tom Manion and Tom Coleman have given me many great fishing poses as I've watched them seek those trout.  I've also used myself as a model many times.  One of the greatest boons to the realist artist that has come along in the last couple of decades is the digital camera, because if I need a good fishing pose, I simply put on my fishing gear when the light is right, go out in the yard or on the pond next to the house, get into the pose I want, and let Mary snap a few photos.  Once the best you could do would be to take the film to a one hour developing business, the nearest of which was nearly 20 miles away from our house, if you needed the photos as soon as possible.  Now, I simply go back in the house and download them onto the computer.

So the fishing paintings are pretty straightforward.  Real places and real people furnish the reference material, and it is then a matter of composition.  I'm not wedded to depicting those real places exactly--I move elements around and change perspectives to enhance the composition--but I think that the places are still very recognizable.

My love affair with rivers has thus been translated to a love of painting them.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

New beginnings

I had great intentions once before to start a serious blog, and even wrote some opening statements. And then life got in the way, and for a long time I simply did nothing. In fact, so much nothing that I actually forgot how to get to my own blog!

But now I'm back.

So for those who are reading this and don't know me well...

I am a nature artist. I used to say I was a wildlife artist, but although most of my paintings still depict wildlife subjects, I also paint fishing scenes and the occasional landscape. My paintings are firmly grounded in realism, and in the past they could have almost been called photo-realistic. However, in recent years I've begun to paint somewhat more impressionistic. Most people, looking at a painting, would still consider it to be very detailed. But there is less "laborious" detail there than what I used to paint, and more of the illusion of detail in many areas of the painting.

Why have I gone in this direction?

The simplest reason is that I've simply found ultra-fine detail to be less interesting and less of a challenge than it once was. I enjoy doing a little more with fewer brushstrokes. Unlike many art "critics", I have no problem with highly detailed art. I've always said that detail is the icing on the cake. Some people like more icing, some less. But the cake itself is the most important thing. Composition, color, light, are the building blocks of realism. I've always wanted my paintings to look "perfect" from across the room. That, in my opinion, is the true test of good realistic art. But I've also sought to make the paintings hold up when viewed at arm's length, instead of dissolving into "painterly" brushstrokes. Now I'm seeking an ideal balance between the virtuosity of the brush strokes and the illusion of detail.

When you stop to think about it, the real difference between impressionistic and photo-realistic art is simply the size of the brushstroke. An artist who does fur texture showing what appears to be every hair on the critter does so by making a lot of very thin lines, either one at a time, or using brushes and tricks that produce a "patch" of hair with one stroke. The artist who does fur texture that, when viewed from very close, becomes swathes of color and texture that do not depict every hair but give the illusion of doing so, is working with fewer and larger brushstrokes. The most photo-realistic painting looks painterly when viewed through a magnifying glass!

So I am no longer interested in showing my ability to paint every hair on a bobcat, but I still aim to depict bobcat fur, fur that looks as if you could sink your fingers into it. I'm doing so in somewhat different ways than I once did, but my goal in painting animals is to celebrate the animal and its habitat, not to celebrate the application of paint onto canvas, and depicting a bobcat with fur that looks like bobcat fur is part of that process.

Which brings me to why I paint. The first reason is because I can. We all like to do the things that we can do competently. I've painted wildlife since I was a kid copying the Bob Kuhn covers on my grandfather's Outdoor Life magazines, and was selling my colored pencil drawings by the time I was in junior high school. After a seven year detour teaching art kindergarten through 12th grade in a small southeast Missouri public school, I did two very fortunate things--I married my wife Mary, who encouraged me to take the plunge into becoming a "real" artist (not to mention that she was a registered nurse so we knew we had at least one full-time income), and I entered and won the second Missouri state trout stamp contest, which convinced me that I could do well at wildlife art. The most fortunate thing about the trout stamp was actually that I didn't know how little it really meant in the whole scheme of things. I was equating it to a lesser version of the Federal Duck Stamp contest, which at the time was supposedly worth at least a million dollars to the winner each year. Lesser was an understatement--I certainly didn't get rich winning that contest, but it gave me the impetus to quit teaching and start painting full-time, and soon I was actually selling paintings. And since the most money I ever made teaching was something like $12,000 a year (in my last year, 1982-83), it didn't take much success in art to look really good!

But, there are many more important (to me, at least) reasons why I paint--and why I paint nature. Mary has often asked me if I really have a passion to paint, like the romantic notion of the driven artist. She usually asks me this after I've spent a week fishing and then two days straightening my studio instead of actually getting any painting done. And I must admit that in the past, painting has sometimes become something like real work, rather than a passion, or a calling. But that WAS in the past, when I was "painting for the market". Back when limited edition prints were the big thing, when most wildlife artists made most of their income selling prints, most of us were forced to paint only subjects that were likely to be popular with the print-buying crowd. I was fortunate enough that I really liked painting the "charismatic megafauna" that sold as prints--had I wanted to paint beetles or fruit bats I would have really been in trouble--but there were times when I felt pretty limited in what I could paint, and times when I got tired of painting wolves. The demise of limited edition paper prints as a huge market, and the availability of licensing opportunities, combined to allow me to pursue the subjects and explore the techniques that I really want to do. So in recent years, and especially in the last couple of years, I HAVE become more driven to paint, although I'm not sure "driven" is the correct word. I simply love going into the studio and producing artwork. I wake up most mornings eager to get to work. How many people can say that about their "job"?

So, part of why I paint is the simple enjoyment of painting; the challenges, the decisions, the satisfaction when something goes right and the joy when it goes even more right than I expected. In a very real sense, painting is fun. And the more competent one gets at it, the more fun it becomes. There is true happiness in watching an image that starts out in your mind come alive on canvas. At the same time, even for the best of us, nothing ever goes completely right. There are always problems, and overcoming them is a perpetual challenge that keeps things interesting, to say the least. The artist works first for himself. If he isn't happy, chances are his clients won't be, either.

Ah, those "clients", the audience that views the work. They are the other undeniable reason why we paint. Everybody likes "strokes". When someone likes something you do, it makes you feel good. When LOTS of people like it, you feel better. And of course, if somebody loves it enough to pay good money for it, you feel REALLY good. Art is a solitary pursuit, but eventually we all need validation from the audience.

And there is more to it than just compliments and income, at least for me. In my opinion, good art should have a message, and the more people that view and appreciate it, the more the message gets out. The underlying message in my artwork is the beauty, wonder, and power of nature, and by depicting the natural world I strive to convince people of the value of wild country, wild rivers, and wild creatures. There are concrete ways in which my art has benefited wildlife; the fund-raising prints for various organizations, for instance. But I also hope to make my audience realize the importance of protecting the places and animals I paint.

Which brings me to licensing. For many years my artwork has appeared on licensed products, from useful items like t-shirts and coffee mugs to decorative things like collector plates. Some artists, and probably some of the movers and shakers in the art world, look down on such uses of art. Marketing to the masses seems to be antithetical to the true artist in their opinion. Yet, I think that such an attitude reeks of elitism. It's almost as if they are saying that the fewer people who see and appreciate a piece of art, the better it is. For make no mistake, when you license a piece of art on a popular product, or produce the art for the cover of a mass market catalog, a LOT of people see it. Relatively few of them think they "know" art. But they know what they like, and who is to say that what they like has less validity than what those with an education in "art appreciation" like? If art has a message, and you wish the message to reach people, it seems to me that the more people you reach the better.

There are differences between art produced for licensed products and art produced as "fine art", to be viewed in galleries and museums. I feel that I do both, and sometimes the two overlap, other times they remain separate. It depends upon the individual piece. I don't expect a lot of my t-shirt designs and Bass Pro Shop catalog covers to ever make it into a museum. Yet I lavish as much effort and care in them as I do the original oils. The techniques are often different, but the message is much the same.

Please visit my website, www.alagnew.com, and see some of my work, both fine art pieces and licensed products. In the future here, I plan to talk more about my art, and also about the other passions in my life from fishing to basketball. I'll be showing some of my techniques and painting processes, and sharing more of my thoughts on art, nature, and life. I hope you'll come back and visit often!