Monday, December 29, 2008

Ralph Goings Redux

Nearly two years ago I painted this "Homage to Ralph Goings" as an experiment with the still-life genre. I also wanted to see how the watercolor medium would work with an image made popular by one of my favorite painters, Ralph Goings. He worked in oils and achieved a high degree of realism rivaled by only a few other 20th century American artists. Recently I've repainted a couple of my old favorites, revisiting images from a couple of years ago, in part because I've sold or given away earlier originals, or just want to see how my style has evolved over time. I think the newer version of the Goings still-life is brighter and perhaps crisper, with a sharper contrast between the light and shadow, especially in the salt shaker. 9" x 12" watercolor with pen and ink, 300 lb. Fabriano cold pressed paper.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Annual Christmas Letter

Ebenezer Scrooge here . . . I want to complain about the barrage of elaborate Christmas "cards" that have those annual "letters" to everyone detailing what's happened in the previous year. In the days before email and facebook, one could excuse this kind of excess. (Although a telephone call would have been so much more meaningful. I guess we can't call everyone on our Christmas card list.) Now, however, we get cards that were designed on Shutterfly, Publisher, or other snappy design software. They come printed with full color photos of vacations and holidays worthy of an over-inflated movie review or travel agency brochure. The emailed versions are sometimes even worse, with hyperlinks to Flickr accounts and photo slideshows brought to you by the friendly folks at Wal-Mart photo labs.

Mind you, I'm not opposed to the practice in principle. It's nice to reconnect with high school classmates, bridesmaids, fraternity brothers, and anyone else with whom we've shaken hands over the last three decades. Sometimes it's just nice to know that an old friend is still alive and leading the weekly sing-along at the nursing home in one's old home town. And it's ok to tell us that you're a new grandparent or served as best man at your son's wedding.

My complaint is with the Christmas letters that ramble on for multiple pages, detailing the minutiae of a child's athletic or academic exploits. We don't need to know that your dad had successful surgery for hemorrhoids. We don't need to know about your low golf score or fantastic find at an antique show. If your Christmas letter needs a table of contents, it's too long! I realize that these are the same people who sport the "My child is an honor student at [insert school name here]" or "This car is chihuahua friendly" bumper stickers on their cars. God may be your co-pilot but he doesn't need to be given credit on a bumper sticker . . . Just as we don't need a detailed analysis of your stock portfolio's performance in the annual Christmas missive. If you really want to give out that much information, pick up the phone or schedule a visit, if that's possible. Don't assume that we all want to know you attended the World Series and cheered for the Phillies, because we rooted for the hapless Mets. (These photos came from one of my favorite websites, "Look at Me," which I've mentioned in earlier posts.)  Also, please don't take this post too seriously.  This is essentially tongue-in-cheek commentary.  :-)

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Odds and Ends from Scott Farm

Just some final shots pulled from the 300 photos I took over three days in November . . .

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Friday, December 19, 2008

A Pitiful, Dreadful Life?

A year ago today I wrote a little piece on one of my favorite films, It's a Wonderful Life, and, for several reasons, wanted to repost it here with some updated thoughts. It's worth noting, for example, that the film is now addressed within the context of the current "don't trust banks" mindset - a popular sentiment that punctuated the Depression-era news of bank failures and farm foreclosures. And while recent critics still praise the movie as one of Capra's best, they've tended to focus uncharacteristic attention on the darker facets of George Bailey's life and character, from abuse during his childhood to the thinly-veiled frustration and rage that surface in his darkest hours. But I think this duality is pretty typical of Capra's protagonists, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Gary Cooper) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Jimmy Stewart), to the later State of the Union, with a brilliant Spencer Tracy. More serious critics may dismiss Capra as "corny," but one can't deny his brilliance as a story-teller, nor dismiss the appeal of It's a Wonderful Life. Moviegoers like to see stories of redemption, in which the "everyman" hero triumphs against long odds.

Obviously much has changed in the year since I wrote the following post, and It's a Wonderful Life continues to attract attention. Even the New York Times has taken up the subject with a couple of articles, including "Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life." My original post from December 19th, 2007, follows:

It's a Wonderful Life
I had originally written a long post in response to a bit written by a friend over at another blog. She raised an interesting point about the direction our society has taken in recent years, a seasonally appropriate theme since it involves Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Sure, jaded critics like to point out how corny Capra could be - hence the derisive term "Capra-corn" - but the director was a great storyteller. Moreover, his populist vision of America reflected a very important element in the national psyche during that period. But, alas, a computer malfunction caused me to lose two-thirds of what had become a rather curmudgeonly post on the effects of sprawl and how it is analogous to the depiction of George Bailey's alternate reality - Pottersville - in the movie. (If you've read this blog for very long, you know how I feel about sprawl!)

Last week I managed to watch bits and pieces of Capra's classic on NBC, making sure I saw that unforgettable ending. It's a Wonderful Life remains one of my favorite Christmas movies, along with Miracle on 34th Street (the original), A Christmas Story, The Bishop's Wife, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (just kidding . . . maybe). And I still manage to shed tears at the end, when they're singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Auld Lang Syne."

Why do I love this movie? First, I've always been a big Jimmy Stewart fan. That "aw shucks," "everyman" quality is perfect in this role. (One also has to admit that Donna Reed was hot as George Bailey's wife.) I also enjoy the contrasting visions of the town, between the quiet, friendly Bedford Falls, and the frenetic, noisy Pottersville. The ugly truth for most of us in America today is that we live in scattered equivalents of Pottersville. So it's nice to think there could be idyllic towns like Bedford Falls in which one has neighbors like George Bailey. Moreover, who wouldn't want to be hailed as the "richest man in town," not by virtue of our bank balance or political influence, but measured by the friends and family one can count on in good times or bad. And finally, one has to enjoy the idea of a "do over" or the opportunity to witness how the world would fare without one's presence, thanks to a visit from Clarence the angel.

Jimmy Stewart always said this was his favorite role in a lengthy film career. I think if one possesses a mere gram of Christmas spirit, it has to be a favorite for many people. With its talk of savings and loans, runs on the bank, and possible suicide, it may prove a little dark for my kids. But having experienced Dickens' Christmas Carol this year, they may soon be ready to discover the joys of Bedford Falls and the Bailey family.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Colored Pencil Miniature

A colored pencil miniature - just 2 1/2" x 3 1/2". I was experimenting with some different formats for possible online sale . . . perhaps Etsy? This is a bit brighter than I usually like, since my watercolor palette is usually a bit more muted. But I like the size and think it might be useful for some little pen and ink studies. At half the size, it could be mounted on a 5" x 7" piece of watercolor paper and then framed. I'll continue to experiment and share the results.

We Used To Execute People For Waterboarding War Crimes!

Dick Cheney has admitted to authorizing the use of torture, including waterboarding. As Rachel Maddow points out in last night's show, the United States has prosecuted war criminals for this very practice. Following the Second World War, for example, Japanese officials were convicted and executed - hanged - for committing such atrocities. Obviously Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and complicit criminals should be arrested and charged with war crimes once they leave office.

However, since I don't believe in the death penalty, we would have to find some other means of punishment. Here's a suggestion: Drive Cheney into the most volatile Baghdad neighborhood and drop him off. At that point he can fend for himself. That would be a fitting end for a dictatorial murderer who masqueraded as a champion of democracy!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Happy Accident

On Saturday morning I was playing around with my younger son, Sam, who likes to paint and draw. I had sketched out a stalk of wheat and threw down a quick watercolor wash of blue for a background, while he watercolored one of his numerous drawings of monsters and mythical beasts. I even grabbed one of his colored pencils and dabbed on a few bits of color for the lower grains of wheat. Although at that point I didn't think I'd come back to the image, that night I decided to experiment. I pulled out my own colored pencils - rarely used - and started working on the wheat stalk again. After perhaps 30 to 45 minutes of blending about a dozen colors, plus some pen and ink accents, I finished with the result you see here. In the end I was pleasantly surprised by the results. (By the way, it's a 5" x 7".)

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Mouse Agility - world's smartest mouse

This is TOO funny . . . and what a cute little mouse.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Scott Farm in Color

Ok, despite all of the black & white/sepia-toned images from Vermont, I did manage to take some color photos because the color variations in the wood are just as strong as the pattern and contrast studies. These shots were all taken of the ca. 1864 main barn. The sheep live in the bottom level when not mowing the surrounding fields. Unfortunately, their guard llama, Mac, picked up some kind of parasite which produced encephalitis-like symptoms. By the time we arrived on the Friday after Thanksgiving, he had lost the use of his hind legs. He loved apples, so we gathered leftover apples from the orchard for his Friday afternoon dinner. On Saturday morning, the vet came - and the man to drive the backhoe - so Mac could be put down and buried. My wife, who has years of experience with horses and has been present at many such ordeals, joined our friend Margaret to offer support. The boys understood what was going to happen, but we didn't think they had to witness it, so I took them to downtown Brattleboro for a shopping expedition. Margaret is already checking leads on a new llama and will likely purchase one in the spring. A guard llama is necessary up there to protect the sheep from predators like wolves and coyotes. Enjoy the photos.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Balmy December 10th

I've posted these photos before, but on a balmy 63-degree day in December I'm compelled to wish for a snowy day. But instead of snow we're having sticky, rainy, warm weather a mere two weeks before Christmas eve! Now I know how residents of the Gulf Coast feel in winter. This could be Jacksonville - a depressing thought - or Mobile, or even New Orleans. And while those cities have their charms, once again I'm glad I don't live in the deep South. Give me four distinct seasons, with ample snow and beautiful vistas like Central Park's "Mall" pictured here. I remember snapping these early in the morning several years ago, before the snow plows had cleared the streets and the grime of the city had settled into the shockingly filthy slush that makes the days after a snowfall particularly treacherous for pedestrians.

Under a fresh blanket of snow, New York City is magical, like George Bailey's Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life. Give the city a day or two, however, to trudge through the curbside snow drifts and flooded crosswalks, and one is reminded that our reality is closer to Pottersville, with plenty of Lionel Barrymores to sour the mood. In the end, I guess there are many of us who put up with the inconveniences of this city just to experience those occasional moments when New York City actually resembles the Hollywood fairytale version. At those moments it all seems worth it.

P.S. I love these old photo borders!

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Perry Street Revisited

If you've followed this blog from its early days you might recall this subject from an earlier work. I first painted this window and fire escape on Perry Street about two years ago. One of my favorite paintings, I included it in last year's show and sold it to a woman for whom the subject evoked memories of her family's World War II-era Harlem apartment. I was sorry to see the picture go - but happy to have sold a painting.

At the time I promised myself to revisit the picture - sooner rather than later - but didn't take up the project until a couple of weeks ago when I made the initial rough sketch. Last week I realized it would be a perfect image for a detailed pen and ink drawing with watercolor washes. So for the last several days I've worked until 1 and 2 a.m., squinting through my glasses to get the India ink details just right. Once that was done, the watercolor portion moved rather quickly. This time the image is slightly larger - 9"x12" rather than 8"x10" - and I cropped the view just a little. The results, I think, are as satisfactory as the original. And this version I will not sell! On to the next project! (9" x 12", pen and India ink, watercolors, Fabriano paper) You can click on this thumbnail for a larger image.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

More from Scott Farm

Some miscellaneous details from the ca. 1864 barns . . .

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Barn Door, Scott Farm

After about two weeks of work, I finally finished my latest project. Although the subject is typical for me - a closely focused architectural element - the process proved a bit different. Although I've used pen and ink highlights in other paintings to accentuate key details or more clearly define the boundaries between objects, I haven't really used that medium as the foundation for a painting. There are those artists who employ consistently the pen and ink drawing/watercolor wash combination. Among early watercolorists, for example J.M.W. Turner, a carefully rendered pen and ink drawing nearly always represented the "bone structure" of a study, while muted washes from a very limited palette formed a secondary element.

Having studied this mixture of media over the last month, I decided to experiment more extensively with pen and ink. The result is this tightly-focused study of a barn door and rusty hinge from Scott Farm in Vermont. As you might have seen from many of my earlier farm photos, the wood on these 19th century barns displays incredible variation in weathering. Some boards retain large patches of whitewash and others stand with their intricate grain patterns bared to the harsh Vermont winters. In the end I was happy with the results, but recognize that this can prove a time consuming process on more intricately detailed subjects. Wood grain isn't easy to create! (9" x 12", pen and ink, watercolor, Fabriano paper)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


This old Dodge pickup truck sits abandoned in one of the barns at Scott Farm. It's a late 40s/early 50s model and has likely been parked here for a long time. Still, it's amazing how well the body has held up with its cab exposed to the harsh Vermont winters. Are you familiar with the recent bestseller, The World Without Us, in which Alan Weisman examines "how our planet would respond without the relentless pressure of the human presence?" Basing his conclusions on extensive research, he speculates on how long it would take for our buildings, infrastructure, and other man-made items to decay. Obviously these old Detroit-made behemoths of steel would take many years to rust away and fall apart!

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Fleecy Weekend

After spending a lazy Thanksgiving day at home, we traveled to Vermont for the remainder of the holiday, visiting our friend Margaret at Scott Farm near Putney. Between the sheep and Kip, the border collie, it was a fleecy, hay-covered weekend. I still have the sound of the more-chatty-than-usual ewes in my head after three days of walking through barns and fields, camera in hand. By our departure on Sunday afternoon I had taken roughly 250 photos, so obviously this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg. As always, Vermont proved entrancing, a result primarily of the quiet and lack of suburban clutter. I'll post more in the coming days.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Art Show

Three weeks ago I was again lucky enough to have four paintings in a group show of ten artists. Here are my four. I think I've shown all of these on here before, but never framed. The black frame and mat work for these images, I believe. They seem to enhance the colors.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

"Cashmas" or "Giftmas"???

Whether we're ready for it or not, the season of "Cashmas" or "Giftmas" - take your pick - is upon us. I remember writing here last year about the disturbingly early appearance of decorations in that interlude between Halloween and the onslaught of "the holidays." But this year the whole production seems to have started even earlier. No doubt the economic crisis has fueled the premature appearance of Santa and his elves. And "Sale" signs are already popping up at major retailers across the country. Santa has already appeared at local malls and the same is true in Virginia, according to my parents - more than two weeks before Thanksgiving!! What happened to the tradition of Santa making his appearance in those first harried shopping days after Thanksgiving? Even the big retailers like Macy's and Lord & Taylor have already unveiled their holiday windows.

I understand retailers' desperation at this point. Many smaller stores will barely survive into 2009. (Here in the city, many have beaten the January stampede and closed their doors already.) Several national chains have also announced that they will close all or many of their stores in the new year. Discount chains (ie. Wal-Mart, Target, etc.) will enjoy higher sales, I predict, simply because more shoppers are searching for bargains, especially bargains for toys and games.

We haven't even begun to think about Christmas yet. I'm normally very enthusiastic about Christmas and the holiday's trappings, but I'm already sick of the piped-in Christmas songs that echo in every store and bodega. (Who in god's name decided that "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music is a song appropriate for Christmas?!) I may yet become a Scrooge!

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Future of the Republican Party?

I saw this posted in Chelsea and couldn't resist sharing. Can you believe there are still people out there who honestly believe she is the future of the Republican party? If she's the future, we can just assume that the Republicans will be even more ill-informed and ignorant than they are now. As Bill Maher observed on Jay Leno last night, referring to Palin's failure to know that Africa is a continent: "That's some mighty powerful stupid."
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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Election

Obviously I haven't had a chance to use this forum to reflect on the election, and even now do not have the time to respond properly. Needless to say, I'm overjoyed at the result and relieved that we won't have to put up with four years of McCain and Palin - especially Palin! Nevertheless, I'm afraid we haven't seen the last of her, given her media whoring over the last week. She's determined to remain in the national spotlight and may just get the chance in the near future.

Yes, there is plenty to celebrate in President-elect Obama's victory. It represents a signal moment in U.S. history - a moment that is already prompting reconsideration of this country's direction around the globe. Nevertheless, I'm a political realist and understand that presidents are not "saviors" in the messianic sense, able to single-handedly lead a nation to salvation or some idealized, patriotic "promised land." The latest issue of Time casts Obama in the role of FDR, potentially offering a "New New Deal." As an admirer of the Depression-era New Deal, I fervently hope that Obama will succeed in changing the governmental paradigm of the last eight years. The country needs bold action and leadership that is willing to tackle fundamental problems - economic and social. Washington, of course, isn't the same place it was in 1933 when Roosevelt had a clear popular mandate to effect change. Obama will not have the opportunity to experiment in the same way FDR and his "brain trust" attacked the Great Depression. Still, we can hope that the severity of the current crisis prompts a unity of purpose between the White House and Congress in the coming months.