Art School

25 Years Ago, Fall 1991

For whatever reason, I am fond of memories and of tracking time. You'll have noticed that if you've been around this blog for awhile. I mark various anniversaries regularly.

25 years ago, it was autumn, 1991. That is significant for a few reasons, and if you have had an interest in my work, and/or are an artist, maybe you will enjoy this look back.

25 years ago I was three months into my first semester of art school. I remember, having left high school--which I was not particularly fond of--the sense of freedom and excitement I felt to finally be pursuing art single-mindedly, or nearly so. This was before the internet became a consumer thing. After considering a few art colleges like Cornish, Pratt, Art Center, Academy of Art in San Francisco, and the California College of Arts and Crafts (now just CCA) in Oakland, I applied only to the Bay Area ones. The primary reason was that art school--then as now--was almost as expensive as Ivy League schools, just in tuition. My parents both worked in factories of different kinds and managed to pull together a modest middle-class living, somehow, for their three sons. But I did not qualify for nearly enough financial aid to make leaving home possible. I could not move to the north or east bay to be close to school unless I funded it entirely on loans. So I stayed home and commuted from south San Jose to North Oakland 3-4 days a week for long class days. That was a challenge, but was a great decision as I left without crushing debt later.

18 x 24" charcoal on paper 16 year-old me in my Core Drawing class. We were being introduced to different forms of drawing and encouraged to use different techniques constantly. This one included smudging charcoal and lifting out with a kneaded eraser. I even dated it, 10/4/91.

18 x 24" charcoal on paper
16 year-old me in my Core Drawing class. We were being introduced to different forms of drawing and encouraged to use different techniques constantly. This one included smudging charcoal and lifting out with a kneaded eraser. I even dated it, 10/4/91.

My first semester, I entered as I said full of exuberance, only to encounter Core Year. Core Year is the year you are tightly constrained to mostly mandated courses, meant to give you a cross-discipline foundation before you declare a major and specialize. Some of it was necessary: basic composition and materials, foundation drawing, foundation painting. Some of it was a waste, for me, like foundation 3d (sculpture, not digital). Some of it was useful: some humanities, art history.

Much of it was frustrating, however. The 3d class wasn't even an attempt to teach sculpture. It was exposure to materials and mostly abstract assignments and installations. For my purposes, a complete waste of time.

My intro painting class I started with much hope, but it ended up being largely a waste of money. It was by-and-large uninstructed. We would do still life paintings or figure paintings, or paint our own projects, and there was really nothing in the way of color theory, paint handling or materials instruction beyond learning how to stretch a canvas. The instructor never painted with us to teach through demonstration. Through now I was exclusively self-taught, but I hoped to be taught now. Sadly, that didn't really start until my second year, so I made the best of my first year with the self-teaching. I was not confident enough in myself to question this method of "teaching" or to insist on being taught actual, you know, things. Critiques were mostly useless, since no one else knew much either, yet.

I trashed a lot of my student work when I got married and moved out of my folks' house in 1998. You generate a ton of bad work in art school--you're supposed to. So what I kept I guess I considered decent or notable for some reason.

"L'Inconnue de la Seine" 16 x 20" oil on canvas, 1991

"L'Inconnue de la Seine" 16 x 20" oil on canvas, 1991

In my painting intro class, we had a plaster cast I later came to learn was kinda famous. This painting was done I think in two sessions, or in one session but I repainted a bit more after it dried. You can tell because the profile around the cheek through underjaw was re-painted a bit, and ghosting remains. I painted it as it lay on a table, as the painting is shown. Later, I stood it upright and noticed the drawing errors, and corrected them. I also signed it in the vertical aspect, but I prefer it horizontal again.

It's fascinating to look at my 16 or 17 year old self's efforts here. It's not bad, considering age. I'm half tempted to get a hold of this cast somehow again, to give it another go. Of note as well is that it is now 25 years old, painted on basic-level canvas panel from any ol' art store, with at least half a palette of budget student-grade paints, and is holding up very well, materially. I'm not surprised--I have a couple other panels that are 2-3 years even older and are holding up fine.

Why did I paint it so large? It's about 2x life size. I can't tell you, really. I think I had this idea that bigger was better for whatever reason. Or we were encouraged to paint or draw larger. I mean Real Art is usually big, right?

18 x 18" ink on paper, 1991 This exercise involved a brush and pot of ink, and drawing using a free-form gesture line that was supposed to travel or criss-cross the figure. I think we were asked to not lift the brush unless it got dry. Kinda weird. Maybe 20 minutes?

18 x 18" ink on paper, 1991
This exercise involved a brush and pot of ink, and drawing using a free-form gesture line that was supposed to travel or criss-cross the figure. I think we were asked to not lift the brush unless it got dry. Kinda weird. Maybe 20 minutes?

Art school was a wonderful time--finally free to dedicate my time to art, but without all the financial burden of needing to support myself. Living at home helped with that part. I did have a part-time job throughout, working with Thomas Kinkade's nascent publishing company, as detailed earlier. So even at my day job I was involved at least tangentially with the business of art.

I was young, having graduated High School earlier than usual, and I was focused but naive. Because I didn't live on campus, I didn't socialize or make friends at school really, but as I was already dating my now-wife, who was also back in San Jose, that occupied my human interaction time. Even still, there began to be periods where I would have to tell her I wouldn't see her for a short stretch at a time so I could focus on various projects. Things got busier my second year, but already I was busier than I had ever been.

And it was wonderful.

 

Thoughts About Teaching

I've talked a little

regarding my relation to teaching. But now I am a few weeks in, working with the fun folk participating in

Art Camp

this summer. It's my first time being an instructor and spending dedicated time helping others. It's been enjoyable and eye-opening, and challenging as well. Remember, I've been out of a formal class setting for 20 years now. That was essentially pre-internet, certainly pre-digital art in any form in which you'd recognize it today. A lot of water has passed under this bridge; for example, just the fact that I'm doing this instruction online in a forum that didn't exist when I left college.

I thought I'd go over some general comments and thoughts that have arisen consistently among the students, some of whom are going or have gone to art school, some who are in or went to college for other majors and are circling back to a "first love." Some are self taught, and others are attempting to start their careers already. Others still don't necessarily intend to pursue illustration. But the similarities across these groups can be large.

  • Pencils are new? One of the assignments called for folks to experiment with dry media, try new things and so on. I was a little shocked at how many folks had never touched charcoal in their lives. Further shocking was how many people considered doing pencil drawings, "experimental." I have to believe most of them doodled in pencils when young, but perhaps now that is only for a few short years after graduating from crayons and before buying an entry-level digital tablet say, in high school?? I don't know, this blows my mind, but more importantly, this bodes ill because...
     
  • Removed from digital, you see what an artist can do. I have now watched folks, comfortable with digital tools, attempt to draw with traditional media, which they rarely do. This, IMO, is where you get to see what an artist can really do. It's easy to hide your crutches and cheats in digital, and let me say what I've said before: for the purposes of illustration, none of that matters. Only the final product matters. But, there is the art, and there is the artist. The illustration can be good, thanks in part to Adobe and Wacom, while the artist remains far less than the output suggests. And don't get me wrong, I use digital tools in the prep and pre-viz of almost every piece I do. It has its place, but that place is not instead of developing ability. I could forego it entirely, I'd just be slower.
     
  • Impressionism has hampered generations of painters. When artists begin to approach oil painting, it is very common to see them painting very thick from the get-go. It's not like paint jumps onto the canvas of its own volition: to put thick paint down, one needs to load their brush up with lots of paint, place it, and leave it. Where do people get the idea that painting should be thick? I think it is during our formative years of being exposed to Impressionists and their descendants, most of whom used a lot of paint. When "Starry Night" is a cultural touchstone of Great Painting, I shouldn't be surprised to see painters defaulting to thick on their first attempts. If that movement had never occurred, then during our formative years we'd study the masters before them and their forgotten contemporaries: most of whom painted much, much thinner, or who used texture strategically. It would never then enter a painter's mind to put that much paint down, because it'd look wrong compared to their mental picture of how a painting was supposed to look, in that alternate history.
"Starry Night" (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh. I know there's no real "supposed to look" about painting, but if you're starting out, really, don't start here. Move there later if you'd like.

"Starry Night" (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh. I know there's no real "supposed to look" about painting, but if you're starting out, really, don't start here. Move there later if you'd like.

Because they can't handle thick paint, which slides around, won't shift color easily, and doesn't lend itself to accurate drawing (see above picture), students get stuck in quicksand, and the more they try to correct, the muddier it gets. The period of learning through this phase would be saved if it weren't for the above. Believe me, I suffered this same fate when I was in Art School too. Though my earliest paintings were thin, I was sort of shamed into painting "ballsier," which meant, somehow, with too much paint to be accurate. It created bad habits in me that took years to shed, and that after only taking two formal painting classes before abandoning the painting department and focusing on being a Drawing Major.

  • "Master Copies" are good. Copying the work of your betters is a great practice. I self-taught myself this way a lot before, during and even after college. The coursework at Art Camp includes copying others, and I heartily approve. Frankly, I think even in Art School there should be a class on Master Copies. Below is a not-great photo in a not-great lit room (the blues are gone), but a year ago or so I came across a college copy I did, I think in '92 or '93. I wanted to learn more about Darrell K. Sweet's work, which I'd seen not long before when he was Guest of Honor at a local convention in the Bay Area. I've talked about him here before. His work looked like oils, but was acrylic, and I was largely painting in acrylic at that time. So I copied one of his pieces, from a book cover. In particular, I always liked his landscapes, so I ignored the figure/horse in the original painting and focused on the landscape, in acrylics.
Art School study, after Darrell K. Sweet. 16x20" acrylics on canvas

Art School study, after Darrell K. Sweet. 16x20" acrylics on canvas

  • Portraits are not the best place to experiment. Portraiture carries challenges of its own. Even a good painter and draftsman regularly engaged in representational art, but who doesn't practice portraiture regularly, will have to work harder when they try it. I know that's the case with me. Good portrait painters are in the habit of recreating likenesses day in, day out. Those muscles are strong.

    Apart from that, even drawing faces well, in general, is a challenge requiring anatomical study, teaching and a ton of mileage and correction. So on assignments where students are to try new media (wet or dry), I am saddened to see that so many run back to trying this stuff out on portraits, when they haven't yet reached competency in portraiture. What happens is the student will then get caught up and challenged by the formal aspects of portraiture, and focus less as a result on noticing how the new medium works. My advice: when trying something new, do something fairly visually simple like a still life of simple objects. Something you know you can draw and observe clearly. That way, you free up your anxiety to be spent on taming your new medium.

    Again, some of these comments are general advice for students, primarily. If you can practice it early, you'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration when attending a painting class or something online like Art Camp.

Art Camp, Online May 21 - Aug 1

I come from an older-school. It has meant that though I've now been at this for 20 years, professionally, I have only in the last couple of years felt like I could in some way teach others. Probably I was ready earlier than that, but part of the older school is the belief that teaching is only ever for true, Ascended masters. If that were completely true, then I certainly am not ready to teach...and neither are most folks teaching. Certainly half of the professors I had in art school wouldn't have been teaching. There also aren't enough Ascended masters to train all those who need to be trained.

For that reason, when illustrator Noah Bradley posted a blog post called, "Don't Go to Art School," I sympathized. Having done any number of portfolio reviews of younger students (many in or just graduated from various art schools), and having attended a very expensive art school myself, it was really frustrating to think of the incredibly high tuitions being wrung from aspiring artists for what was not commensurate return. I won't go on regarding this point now--I don't sign off on Noah's article entirely, but certainly more than enough to recommend you read it.

Interestingly, prior to starting Art School, daunted by the costs that were going to be involved, I did some work putting together my own self-study program to see if might be possible. In 1991, that was a MUCH more difficult proposition, and I decided not to go that route. But it's to say that I'm philosophically in favor of it, and there has been no better time to do it than now.

I went to school before the current internet age. What I've said elsewhere applies here: I think we are living in a new Golden Age of art instruction. The old structures are trying to co-exist, but they can't compete, dollar-for-dollar, with what can be gained through the various other options.

Noah ran this Art Camp on his own before, and the students seemed to really get a lot out of it. I admit, it seemed a good bit upstart for him to be so recently out of college and then turning around to teach--and on his own!

The nerve.

And then I remembered that at the age of 21, I was hitting up illustrators, all older than myself, and offering to sell their work at my online gallery Daydream Graphics (R.I.P.), which ended up being fairly successful. So I got off my high horse and started talking with him over the past year.

He's running it again. It's $250 for each of two tracks, or $475 for both. $250 isn't a lot of money. At SVA--one of the elite Art Schools with many completely legit instructors, one studio class costs $2250-$3350 per semester (at a 15-credit load). There's a summer illustration course at SVA, running concurrent with this, which is one day per week, 6 hours each class that runs $207 per day. So, do I think that $250 for 12 weeks of exercises, critiques and demos is a good deal? Very much so.

With all of the above in mind I have signed on to be a part of Art Camp staff this summer, along with a few other illustrators, (including one who teaches at SVA). I will be participating in weekly critiques of student work.These critiques will vary in depth depending on the need; whatever's needed for a given piece I'll try to help with. I may be participating in other capacities, but minimally on this front.

If you'd like to level-up your work this summer, or are struggling and can't pinpoint what's wrong; maybe you're in art school but want to supplement your coursework...whatever the case, join up and I'll see you there.

Shameless plug: itching to start learning now? Might I suggest my 2 hour demo video for my painting Alieis?

Alieis

In my 2013 wrap-up, I mentioned a quite large painting I worked on. Now the story can be told. Having been a pretty big project, literally and figuratively, there are a few facets to it, so I'm going to break it into a couple of posts. After all, one can't easily spend over a month on a painting and then cover it with one week's blog.

Vortex study, 5x7" oil on treated paper

Vortex study, 5x7" oil on treated paper

The story for "Alieis" begins in late 2012. I had been doing some work for a client and had produced a painting that required a sort of whirlpool. That piece was a digitally composited one, and in producing it, I painted a 5x7" oil study of a whirlpool, which was digitally altered further, and used in part in the illustration. It was a nice little study on its own. A few months after the assignment had been completed, I pulled out that bit of painting and decided it might be fun to branch it off and continue work on it in an entirely different direction--a practice you've seen me do many times now if you've read here for awhile. But what to do?

My initial thought was to create something to adjust and paint into this miniature painting, and just create something tiny. And then I got buried under assignments again.

When next I pulled it out, I spent some time with the scan, playing digitally, allowing a certain amount of pareidolia to take place (a word I love and which I was very thankful to learn). I made some changes to the background and inserted a female figure, floating within. There was something obscure and brilliant floating in her hands, and some sort of sea serpent rising up around her.

Digital study

Digital study

I wasn't convinced I was quite there yet with this digital study, but I passed it along to some illustrator friends who I work with as part of a critique group to get some feedback. At this stage, there wasn't much critique to give.  I think they needed to see more. Then the image went back in the drawer and I went back to work on projects.

I don't know exactly what prompted the next redesign anymore, but as soon as I understood it, I knew I had my painting. As I often do with non-client studio paintings, I never did a sketch of what would be the final form. I just kept it in my head. I suppose for pieces I've truly seen, there's little reason to play with sketches.

The next step was surprising. For years now I've longed for excuses to paint larger than usual. Back in college I did a few larger canvases. They were mostly destroyed over time because they were horrible student work. I liked working large, even if I was not nearly good enough to justify that sort of square-footage. Working 30x40" was not unusual in those days, though again, very little of it retained any lasting value beyond getting me to the next stage in my own advancement. That's what work at that stage is for, anyway. You don't enter art school looking to have a pile of art that will last for the ages at the end of it. You have to expect you're going to fail. A lot. You don't intend to. But you will.

Me in 1994 at 19, in-progress on a 8x12' collaboration

Me in 1994 at 19, in-progress on a 8x12' collaboration

After leaving art school, I took a few months "off," having finished my first professional client work during my last semester. Before I began to seek illustration work in earnest, I relaxed some, did some landscape painting and projects for myself with no pressure. I also was hired as a studio assistant on a couple of occasions by my college mentor, professor Vincent Perez. He had a giant studio in Alameda, CA and occasionally this meant he was hired to do very large works, some of which were utterly disposable, oddly. As commercial as one can get--paint it, use it, put it in the trash. In one instance, he had to paint large backdrops for some trade show or other, which were meant to go in the trash after, as many trade show displays do. But they allowed me to work even larger, even if it was just on not-serious nor permanent projects.

Once I started working professionally, the size of my paintings shrunk considerably, and stayed mostly small for a long, long time. A few years back I started spreading out again, and now it's not uncommon for me to work 18x24" or 24x30", which are what I once thought would be my average sizes. When I painted "Eschaton" at 24x36", it was liberating and felt like what I intended to be doing all along. So I'd been hungering to paint even bigger. 3x4 foot again, maybe? The idea of working larger still was appealing, but how to do it in my shoebox-sized apartment, and how to justify the time outside of a paying project?

Yet the revised idea of the painting, which I was just calling "Vortex" at this point for obvious reasons, seemed like a candidate for something much bigger. My next kick in the ass was through knowing my friend, fine artist Jeff Hoppa. Jeff had been working on a giant graphite piece entitled, "Ultima Thule," for over three years. Ultima, indeed! We do very different work, but here he was attempting something big, despite his own typically smaller works done somewhat out of necessity from working very precisely and detailed in graphite. He was also working on it purely with time carved out of the margins of his life. It was, as I said, a kick in the ass. The past few years, as Jeff worked on his big piece, I was constantly reminded that I needed to heed my own instincts and find a reason to expand.

So I worked at 4x6 feet, my largest canvas to date (what's in the photo above wasn't wholly done by me, after all). And in the end, I had, "Alieis." Between the two of us, Jeff and I at least share in common odd linguistic titles!

And yet, I yada yada'd over the entirety of actually painting this thing, didn't I? More on that soon. For now, there is this:

"Alieis" 48x72" Oil on linen Available,  please contact for information

"Alieis" 48x72" Oil on linen
Available, please contact for information

Part 2 of this process post can be found here.

Part 3 is here.