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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!