The next several weeks I’m cheating.
Florals are cheating. No, really, they are! They’re like sunsets – who couldn’t point any half functioning excuse for a camera at a sunset and not get a gorgeous picture. Or golf courses – it’s near impossible to come off a golf course and not have captured a beautiful landscape or three. I got no begrudge on that (bad grammar intentional); some people make a good living on sunsets and golf courses and more power to them. Florals are like that. Too easy.
And they are for me crystal meth. There are three varieties of flowering cherry trees in my yard alone. And all around: dogwood, redbud, pear, honeysuckle, tulips and tulip trees, roses, lilies, irises, clematis, so many varieties my eyes bug out! All popping out of the gloom of a long winter. I can’t look away or resist their temptation.
So we’re going to see flowers for a time. Oh, I’ve a couple non-florals in the queue just to break things up the slightest little bit, but mostly blooms of all kinds. Some works will be wildly abstract and some, like today’s, appear hardly touched (although todays was actually touched in several ways, albeit subtly). A flower is already an abstract creation – how much push does it take to elevate such to art.
Among the wisest outlooks ever revealed to me is, “In order to see truth, you must give up everything you love and everything you hate”. Wise indeed because we often base perceptions and actions on one or the other, which is why we’re frequently wrong and also why we frequently don’t know we’re wrong. It’s why our politics at present are so catatonic as so many believe ideologically without regard to common sense or human decency. Fair disclosure: I’m among the first to do that.
But this is an art blog, not a political one, so before devolving into histrionics we turn our attention to the subject of intention. When I’m functioning under the above outlook I will open a capture because it interests me in any number of possible ways, without an intention for where it wants to go. Then I will start throwing things at it and see what works. Let the work become what it wants to become – don’t force the question. When I’m NOT functioning under the above outlook I will open a capture with an intent of what I want to do with it, and nine times out of ten I’m wrong. Generally I’ve had the good sense, if the techniques I’ve employed aren’t working, to back off and look to see what does work. I’ve demonstrated that my genre of Abstract Realism can include wide variations, but Noir stands apart.
I’ve stated I believe noir or black & white photo art is just another form of abstract, and while I believe that I also accept that noir strikes a much more traditional chord. On occasion, I will try to develop a work into both a color abstract and a noir version in parallel, and while sometimes that works usually it doesn’t. The two require divergent approaches. There is a point where I may have to accept that a work I might have conceptualized in vibrant color is simply looks better in noir, and vice versa. The more tightly I hold onto a notion I love, or reject something I hate, the more likely I am to screw up. I have artistic sense in lieu of political or interpersonal talent.
This work was part of a series of still lives I did around the home of some friends near Forest Park in St. Louis. I was quite happy with it at the time because, in addition to a number of other techniques, I used multiple lighting sources in a complicated pattern to assure I had both illumination and shadow from two directions – that subtle use of light I like to think sets my work apart. Having once created it, however, the question arose, as it arises for almost every work, “What the hell do I do with it now”?
So, I added it to an art book along with the rest of the still lives created for this setting, titled the work ‘Sex and Romance’, presented it to a number of friends and left it at that.
To put this in context, I have hundreds of works I consider exhibit quality. Most of them exist only in digital on my hard drive (and backed up to two others). I have produced in the analog only a few dozen of them on exhibit quality metal plates. Metal is the gold standard of finishes. Although I will still reproduce a work on photo paper for those who request it, I don’t consider that exhibit quality, and the only guarantee I give for exclusivity are works on metal.
Back to ‘Sex and Romance’ sitting lonely on my hard drive. One of the galleries I exhibit at announced a new show on the theme ‘Icons’ – “…the power of symbolic imagery and the legacy of humanity’s pursuit of the ideal in representative form…”. The thought occurred that nothing is more iconic than sex. Nothing is obsessed over more. And I began to consider that this work would fit the theme. I went back and forth – producing work on metal is not cheap, and there’s no guarantee it will ultimately be accepted for exhibition. It seemed to me the work required an ornate, classical frame, which drove up production costs even more. I decided to retitle it after one of the Greek Erotes: ‘Himeros, Erotes of Uncontrollable Desire’. It was all coming together.
The produced work is sharp, it really is, and has been well received. It’s very worth the trip for a viewing. What I find fascinating is the serendipity behind its production, so separate from the act of creation. Every artist faces two different processes; one to create, the other to market, and they don't have the same rules, and don't follow a predetermined logic. It is unwise to be caught up in the many, many works that go unseen but for a brief posting on-line, which is not to say I don't. It is not personal; it is not a judgement. But it is not easy to be so detached. Each creation seems like as child waiting for the right circumstance to be born into the physical world. Like actors waiting for a breakout role. Like kids killing time in a backwater town waiting for the chance to escape to the real world.
I try a lot of things in my work. I’m always experimenting (some might call it playing…). Sometimes a capture suggests a particular effect that previously resulted in a successful work, and I’ll try to follow that course. But every single work is different. Every one. The same template rarely works twice. In fact one bit of feedback I received at an exhibit was that all my works on display were clearly mine but none of them reflected exactly the same style. I go back and forth in thinking that was a compliment.
So I decide on a capture I want to work with, I start throwing things at it; when it starts moving a direction that appeals to me for any number of reasons I’ll follow that course until it no longer appeals, in which case I’ll start over, or I feel it’s finished. I don’t throw out much. I rarely give up. And when I feel I’ve done with it I’ll throw it out there where people can see it and wait to see how it plays. 99% of the time when I display a new work I believe something about it has value. There have certainly been works I didn’t expect people to like that people do, and works I really, really like that no one else seems to. And, of course, some complete bombs. But I throw everything out there to see what happens.
This work here – I really don’t like it.
I wrote in my last blog that my eye is attracted to strong lines. Edging creates strong lines – edging means the subjects of a work stand out. Edging is usually – usually – after basic exposure and cropping, where I start. This is the opposite of edging; call it ‘diffusion’. Diffusion essentially reflects the works of the late 19th Century impressionists. One of my most popular works, currently hanging on exhibit, uses diffusion. And I agree, it works quite well there.
This work here – not so much.
At least not to my eyes. I went about the diffusing process a little differently here. Usually I use a radial approach. This one uses long, diagonal strokes, and I’ve never done that before so, yeah, it hits me a little different. Normally a work takes a little time to ferment in my mind before I fully know how I feel about it – at least a few months. Sometimes it takes years. Even if I know right off the bat I really like something or I really don’t. Even when I’m positive how I feel about a work, a few months will go by and I’ll look at it in a different light and see something I didn’t before and my attitude about it will shift.
This time, I’m pretty positive, this one is a bomb. But I’ve been wrong before. So you tell me. Really – all of you. Can you hear the fuse tick, tick, ticking … ?
Imagine a favorite work, then imagine reducing it to a series of lines. Aside from outlining the subject, look for lines that place the subject within the broader composition, that provide perspective and context. It’s a standard art class exercise but one that also resonates in practice.
I probably fixate on lines, which could be a strength, or could be otherwise. One of the reasons benches are often part of my works is because of the strong lines they impart, and especially when captured at an angle they create a receding perspective to the work. When I was just starting with photography, which takes us about 200 years, I once captured late winter scene of a barren field in front of a barbed wire fence. A metal fence post had been bent at an angle, creating a diagonal line. An intersecting fence with snow at its base receded towards the horizon at a different diagonal. It was a very grey, colorless scene with really nothing else in it. And I LOVED it! I would bring it out as one of my best, and my colleagues would just shake their heads because they saw nothing there. I was told there was something vaguely Freudian in my attraction towards that work. What I didn’t know then is that I was already beginning to play with lines. To this day I would still trot it out as a formative work.
This new work reflects that fixation and also illustrates my philosophy of finding the art of everyday things. I’d probably sat in that parking lot a hundred times waiting to collect my son. On this occasion, just by happenstance, I parked in a different location. In the mid-afternoon light of an oncoming cold front my eye was drawn by all the intersecting lines of the building and the brick. To my delight, using the computer I was able to bring out color within the thick lines of the brick. Parts of the building had to be worked separately to create greater texture and contrast within the work. The lighting only worked if the cold front approaching from the west was reflected in the sky, but the sky wanted to wash out, so, again, separate layers, separate techniques, complicated by the trees in the background that let the sky through in places.
I invite you in for a drink!
All two-dimensional art, whether photographic, drawing or painting, has two primary elements: Light and perspective. That’s all it is. Every style, regardless of modern or classical or the imaging material used, builds from that base. Rembrandt, Picasso, Ansel Adams, everybody starts there. Light and perspective are the foundation of all things visual.
I have certain favorite tools out of the dozens currently available that can facilitate the creation of photo art; lighting effects is one of them. Often I employ it so subtly it is nearly unnoticeable. It can be used to emphasize the primary element of the composition (there’s the ‘perspective’) and to lighten a part of the work that otherwise recedes into darkness. It can also add color or hue to a work (it’s how I often add color to a black and white capture). It can be rather tricky to use, and can ruin a work if it is applied too early in the process.
(NOTE: Adobe has changed Photoshop such that layers using the lighting effects tool need to be converted to a smart objects first – although that could actually be a bug that they are unable or unwilling to correct. But I’ve noticed they seem to encourage smart objects. That’s a mistake. Smart objects become problematic if the artist tries to change the size or resolution of a work, or if a filter is added after the smart object).
In ‘Abstract Realism’, the genre in which I tend to live, lighting effects seem to place abstract compositions into a more realistic context. In this 1x2 scale work, I wanted to show the small yellow roses within the context of their larger red siblings, but in unfiltered light they were clearly overwhelmed. Simply desaturating, perhaps also blurring, the color red would have proved inappropriate. The answer was a tight spotlight emphasizing the yellow roses while encouraging the otherwise dominate red roses to naturally recede, but not disappear. The art of using light itself as a brush to reveal subliminal emotion.
For anyone keeping tabs, the subject and composition of this work seems a lot like the work, ‘Shadow Heart’ posted on April 7, and it is indeed (shown in the insert here but follow the link to see the previous work larger). This capture was made about an inch to the right and half an inch closer than that one and cropped a little different. Ordinarily, I’d select just one from a series of nearly identical captures and ignore the rest, but in this case the photographs lent themselves to completely opposite transformations.
Taken together they illustrate the diverse paths similar compositions can take when creating photo art. Taken as separate creative acts they represent something else. I’d worked with each capture on different days – this one actually came first. When I began working with the capture that ultimately became ‘Shadow Heart’, I actually had not consciously realized how similar the two captures were. But given the preponderance of red and yellow in the capture which I’d chosen to take to the extreme here, and given that the black and white filter used in ‘Shadow Heart’ allows saturation of separate color channels and that red and yellow are especially dynamic, the seed must have planted itself in my head that the composition would be particularly effective as a noir piece. The ‘something else’ suggested by these works is the shifting vision an artist may take over the same composition on different days or at different times. In the case of these works I can rationalize that I shifted for art; I learned something with this work, or at least saw something I wanted to experiment with, and applied it to ‘Shadow Heart’. I actually, personally, feel ‘Shadow Heart’ is the better work (I know others feel the opposite).
Without really knowing, however, I am indeed rationalizing. Who’s to say I simply got less sleep one day versus the other? Or something in the news on one of the days pissed me off? Or on one of the days the Cubs won? Sure, I’d love to believe I make rational artistic decisions, but there’s a fair body of psycho analysis that art is an act of blowing one’s emotional nose. If a psychologist examined my work what would they see? Would a rational person really want to know? Would an artist give a good god damn?
This tutorial (I’m linking to it here) just fascinates the hell out of me. Not the process that Adobe is highlighting in it’s Create e-magazine (a GREAT e-magazine, by the way, which I highly recommend subscribing to) But that the art form it’s promoting is one I’ve been using for two decades. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they’re doing so – photo art as we know it today would not exist without their product. I’m just realizing that I haven’t noticed Adobe doing much to promote it before. I could be wrong – I’ve been wrong already several times today. I could have missed it, or simply not been as attune to it as I’ve become.
Likely I’m reacting this way because It’s easy to feel alone, practicing the art I practice, when so few others – here, anyway – are doing it, and so many artist communities are resentful of computer-based art. Promotions and tutorials like this both help legitimize the art form and support the artists who do it.
That said …
First, the technique as illustrated requires downloading an additional set of tools for Photoshop, and it’s using A LOT of tools – the technique probably could be accomplished without this download if one is intimately in tune with Photoshop, but the download ties everything together into a neat package. Even so, the video tutorial sort of starts at the end and tries to go back and illustrate how everything works – I couldn’t tell from watching how the heck fire they got there, which, to me, is the bigger question (I’d likely understand it better if I downloaded the package and tried it out). They’re also using something I don’t, which are the brush tools, together with masking, to draw into the image – the instructor states that’s best done on a tablet. I admit it – it’s a bit of artistry beyond my skill set, or at least one I haven’t bothered to pick up. The final work involves not just layers but GROUPS of layers – DOZENS of them and using different blend methods besides. It is astonishingly complex and lays testament to the incalculable depth of the software. One could spend ten hours a day, six days a week, for five years working with Photoshop and still not know all it’s capable of. I watched the tutorial and felt totally inadequate afterwards. My work is so simplistic by comparison; even my most complex works only just scratch the surface of the software’s capabilities.
But in the end … IT’S STILL JUST A WATERCOLOR FILTER!! I’ve said this before, specifically (I’d have to go back and find the exact blog), one can’t just apply a watercolor filter and say they’ve accomplished something. Art is created by the combination of perspectives into a new visual paradigm, not just taking a picture and making it pretty, which is essentially, for all its complexity, what the tutorial is doing.
I have to admit, I watched this tutorial and thought, “I call myself an artist? I suck! I worse than suck! I’m such an amateur! I have so much to learn!”
Still, I must remind myself it is one thing to have technical mastery, and another to have artistic vision. To evoke emotion, passion, and art. Creating from the heart and the gut, rather than the brain. Van Gogh vs. DaVinci. Do I still have both my ears?
I often use a polarizer when capturing photographs outside. I’ve always preferred the deep colors, deep blues in the sky, that a polarizer captures. Indoors, though, I generally pull the polarizer off, as it cuts off too much light for interior shots. Not this time – this time I left the polarizer on to capture the deep colors in the roses and the fruit.
Unfortunately, it also captured the rest of the scene in overt vibrancy. Here’s the thing: Had I not used the polarizer, in my editing software I would have selected the flowers and the fruit and brought the vibrancy and saturation up. In this case, I still selected the flowers, fruit, and anything else in the foreground I wanted to maintain sharpness, then revered the selection and brought down the vibrancy and saturation in the background, as well as decreasing sharpness.
Other filters, of course, tied it all together.
If I were feeling particularly anal (and I have my moments) I might run a few tests to see which option created the better work – polarizer on or polarizer off – increase vibrancy of the subject or decrease vibrancy of the background. My impression, though, is that polarizer on, if lighting permits, results in a more complex work. In other words, better to selectively reduce vibrancy than to selectively add it. But ‘if’ is relative.
There’s a skill to seeing a good noir or black and white photograph through human eyes that perceive the world drenched in color, and I have great respect for those photographers who specialize in it. There are still many people who prefer that genre of photography, find color photographs tedious, and find the kind of color abstract photo art I do most of the time abhorrent. A trick I’ve learned, though, is that the best noir and black & white work starts in color.
A photographic capture specifically made in black and white is locked into the gradients and shadings seen by the camera. Colors cannot be adjusted because it has no colors – just shades of gray – Knights In White Satin. Capture that same image in vibrant color, however, and in post processing it is possible to apply a black and white filter. The filter essentially strips all color from the capture rendering a black and white image, but with one critical adjustment. The filter enables to artist to adjust primary colors to separate saturations. Reds can be made darker; or lighter if that’s where the artist wants to go. Yellows can become even richer; or duller if that’s the thing. It enables creative control of a work on par with the range artists have when working in color.
There is great skill and artistry in using the camera as the final arbitrator of a work. But for all intensive purposes the computer has become an extension of the camera. Seems such a missed opportunity to cease all creativity once the shutter button is depressed.
Every artist has heard this: Never allow your work to be validated by a single gallery or a single show. Never give up on a work you believe in (also the subject of my February 20 post). Something else to understand: The most academic definition of ‘politics’ is, “The study of relationships”. As soon as an artist leaves the studio to show their work, they begin forming relationships. Whether they want to or not.
Pictured here are my three works exhibited as part of the local art club’s annual competition, one of which received a First Place within category. Yes, thank you very much.
The work on the upper left, ‘Ace of Wands’, is a favorite of a couple colleagues – one of my favorites too, as far as that goes. It was created as part of another gallery’s Tarot card exhibit. My wife says it’s the best work I’ve ever done. As the photo here shows, no award.
The large work on the bottom, 'A Walk In Peace Time' was selected by a collection of friends and artists as the best of a group works I was debating producing for exhibit. I don’t always go with the most popular work (history is filled with art that was initially rejected by the art hierarchy, and one of my inspirations is Picasso’s ‘Ladies of Avignon’, so unpopular in the moment it actually drove most of his friends away and sat in a corner of his studio for nine years; it’s now on display at a small gallery in Paris called The Louvre). But I’m glad I did because it came out just gorgeous! Something of a departure, I had it framed in barn wood and it is really, really striking. I produced it specifically for this exhibit. As is clear, however, no award.
The work on the upper right, with the First Place ribbon on it, was a throw in. I was trying to make a point.
For its annual competition this year, the local art club created a new category it called ‘Photography B’ to include original photography edited by computer. ‘Marked Down Man’ , a recent work, was computer edited in at least a half-dozen ways, but those edits were applied so subtly it’s nearly undetectable. It sold almost immediately after I showed it on-line in February, which actually supersedes any ribbon, and my buyers graciously allowed me to exhibit it here before taking delivery. My point was to illustrate to the art club how dysfunctional this computer phobia of theirs is. And they gave it first place!! And gave awards to nothing else in category!!
This is how the kooky, wacky world of art works.
Hey, I’ll take any First Place I can get and thank the local art club profusely! They may not really understand the new category they’ve created – c’mon, a ‘computer edited’ category that only awarded the least obvious ‘computer edited’ work submitted. (In all fairness, it was the judge the club brought in, not the club itself, that made the selections, and the judge, while certainly having good credentials, showed a remarkable lack of diverse understanding for styles beyond her own) But that’s their issue. And it does me no good to internalize it or fixate on it myself (not that I haven’t). All I can do – my end of the relationship – is keep creating.
This work sits on the extreme far side of the scale from my March 25 blog, but still constitutes ‘abstract realism’. Again quoting Ms. Reoch, “Their (photographers) choice of compositional angles and the editing process creates a new image or piece of art out of the real-life image, abstracting reality.” Let me address both the perspective and the editing.
In the example offered by today’s work, perspective is less a question of view point and more of subject. The original image is nothing more than an undressed mannequin bust in a display window outside a Victoria’s Secret store, unadorned in every way. Both the interior and exterior have their own light source. It’s a straight-on capture of a hole in a wall with a female bust inside, the curves of the bust and the square of the window providing contrast. Using Ms. Reoch words once more, “Realism attempts to capture real life moments in time, an image and the personality of individuals or objects who resemble real life.” The capture is real to the point of ordinary – even clinical. (It could be argued that the very clinical nature of the capture is its own abstraction, as though reality and abstraction are not a linear scale but a circle that meets back on itself).
Editing began with Camera RAW to correct the white balance polluted by florescent lighting, then progressed to more clearly defining the edges of the window, its frames, and the bust within. Hue and saturation provided the answer for to adding color where little existed. From there the work diverged into filtering three separate canvases; the first two, one for the frame and one for the bust, required high magnification to apply edits at the pixel level. A third canvas provided a master to form a composite. Special lighting was added to the window interior to create a more contrasting background for the bust, as well as to add additional, subtile color. Final filtering to assure that all pieces harmonize together. The final impression, I think, implies a constrained sexuality, one that outwardly conforms to boundaries but becomes more erotic the deeper it is pursued.
Search for ‘abstract realism’ on-line and a number of artists and definitions arise, although it has yet to have its own Wikipedia page, suggesting that awareness of it is just emerging, nonetheless. But I’m especially taken with Ms. Reoch’s description because it includes its expression through photographic captures (please note that I did not say ‘photography’ – another point for a future blog). The use of the camera and the computer as a medium for creating art is one that still generates angst among many traditional artist collectives, threatened by the use of anything other than a brush or a pencil. Within the art world, indeed any world, angst generates politics. Dread politics. And that, my friends, will be the next blog.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.