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Bad paint­ings of Barak Obama.

That’s a lot of bad paintings.

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The vision thing

In order to paint or draw, an artist pretty much needs to be able to see.

Over the past cou­ple of years, I’ve been expe­ri­enc­ing what I con­sid­ered to be nor­mal age-related declines in vision (I’m 46). I’ve had more and more trou­ble read­ing small text. When read­ing for too long, my vision locked into that dis­tance and I became unable to focus on greater dis­tances for sev­eral min­utes. My dis­tance vision became notice­ably less acute (road signs were harder to read, for exam­ple). I couldn’t see as well in low light. I began mak­ing plans to visit an ophthalmologist—something I should have done much earlier.

About a 6 weeks ago, after doing some research, I began tak­ing vit­a­min D sup­ple­ments in rel­a­tively high doses (6,000 iu per day) in gel­cap form (solid pills have not been shown to increase serum blood lev­els of vit­a­min D). I did this because I’d read about research on reduc­tion of can­cer and dia­betes in peo­ple tak­ing sim­i­lar dosages.

Well, I still don’t have can­cer or dia­betes (as far as I know). Yay for me. The unex­pected effect, how­ever, is that my vision has dra­mat­i­cally improved. I can read smaller text with­out strain. My vision no longer gets blurry when I read for too long. My dis­tance vision is more acute. My night vision has improved. I don’t have the 20/15 vision I had when I was 25, but my eyes cer­tainly work a lot bet­ter. It appears that the reduced flex­i­bil­ity of the corneas that hap­pens with age has been to some degree reversed.

I can’t be cer­tain that vit­a­min D is the cause of the improve­ment, as I made other dietary improve­ments at about the same time (cut­ting out almost all processed foods, refined sugar, and wheat, for exam­ple). I’m also unwill­ing to stop tak­ing vit­a­min D for a month or so to see if my vision declines. But I think the most likely expla­na­tion is the vit­a­min D. I’m pretty pleased.

I’m not a doc­tor and you should not take med­ical advice from me. If you were to do this, the results would prob­a­bly be dif­fer­ent from mine, but I thought I would pass this on.

Posted in personal.

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Grisaille work in progress

Sorry about the very long delay since the last post. That’s for two reasons:

  • I’ve been very busy with work, help­ing to raise a three year old, and tak­ing an online grad­u­ate course.
  • I’ve been fin­ish­ing up the large com­mis­sion I started over the sum­mer, and I have allowed that to kind of block my abil­ity to do other paint­ing. That’s just about done, how­ever, so it’s time to move on.

I had a whole day off today, so I took the oppor­tu­nity to start a new painting.


This is “Lay­over.” It’s 20 × 20”, oil on linen primed with lead white, toned with red earth and raw umber. This is a mono­chro­matic underpainting—a grisaille—which will be glazed over once it’s dry. I used var­i­ous mix­tures of Doak’s flake 1c and Nat­ural Pig­ments black earth (an iron oxide black).

The key is a lit­tle too dark for opti­mal glaz­ing (since glazes tends to darken what they cover). That means I’ll need to paint into the glaze with white to get the lights up.

I’ll keep you posted on this, and I’ll try not to let such a long time pass before putting up other stuff. Unfor­tu­nately, post­ing will prob­a­bly be inter­mit­tent for the fore­see­able future.

Posted in David's work, demo/in progress, oil painting.

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The other day I was look­ing through an issue of Amer­i­can Art Col­lec­tor and saw a brief arti­cle on an upcom­ing artist. It showed some styl­ized paint­ings of peo­ple, mostly women. So I quickly scanned through the text and imme­di­ately found the sen­tence I thought I would find. It said that the artist had really found his style after tak­ing a work­shop with Milt Kobayashi.

My imme­di­ate thought was, “Dude, you didn’t find your style. You found his style.” The paint­ings all had the same sort of pretty car­i­ca­tur­iza­tion that is the hall­mark of Kobayashi’s style. It’s attrac­tive, but rather cloying.

I’ve had this expe­ri­ence before. I’ll see a few paint­ings by an “emerg­ing” artist and think, “clone of David Lef­fel.” Then I’ll look and see that Lef­fel is cited as a teacher. Or once I was at an open stu­dio event and saw a bunch of expres­sion­ist paint­ings. “Oskar Kokoschka,” I thought. And darned if her bio didn’t state that she had stud­ied with Kokoschka.

I’m not sure how I feel about this phe­nom­e­non. Once upon a time, it was pretty nor­mal for a stu­dent to develop a style sim­i­lar to a master’s: c.f. Van Dyck and Rubens, for exam­ple. These days, how­ever, it seems a bit of a shame when a painter is pre­sented as some sort of great tal­ent when that tal­ent really amounts to repli­cat­ing another painter’s sig­na­ture style.

That doesn’t mean that you should have no influ­ences, but bla­tant copy­ing of a style seems rather much, I think. Beyond that, I tend to be a bit dis­ap­pointed when all of the stu­dents of a famous teacher such as Lef­fel seem to turn out paint­ings just like the teacher’s. It seems as if the job of a paint­ing teacher is to help each stu­dent paint their own paint­ings, not more of the teacher’s work.

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Writer Steven Press­field has a post on his blog on main­tain­ing momen­tum. He’s a pro­po­nent of the value of work­ing every day.

Momen­tum equals power

Momen­tum pro­duces another crit­i­cal pay­off. As we work day after day with focus and inten­sity, energy starts to con­cen­trate around us. That energy acts like a pow­er­ful elec­tro­mag­netic field, draw­ing to us all kinds of prov­i­den­tial aid and assis­tance. Ideas come. Insights accu­mu­late. We even get help from out­side sources—friends with money, col­leagues with con­tacts. Serendip­i­tous meet­ings pro­duce happy out­comes, seem­ingly ran­dom occur­rences bring unex­pected allies and lucky connections.

When Paul said, “Start the next one tomor­row,” what he meant was, “Don’t mess with your momentum.”

Paul knew that the inter­val between the com­ple­tion of Project L and the com­mence­ment of Project M is a power moment for Resis­tance. Resis­tance loves that moment because it can jump all over us with its arse­nal of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, self-doubt, inde­ci­sive­ness and self-befuddlement. It can par­a­lyze us.

The time to decide on Project M is while we’re in the mid­dle of Project L. We should know what we’re going to do next. Oth­er­wise we’re sit­ting ducks for Resistance.

This is exactly how it works for me. If I am work­ing on a paint­ing and can do some kind of work on it every day, then the momen­tum car­ries me through. If I stop, there’s a lot of effort involved in get­ting started again.

Go read the whole thing.

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Spam, spam, spam, spam

I get more than 23 spam com­ments here for each legit­i­mate one. Spam fil­ters catch most of them, but occa­sion­ally one slips through and I have to delete it man­u­ally. And once in awhile, a legit­i­mate com­ment gets tagged as spam, so I have to res­cue it. (Some­times I miss those and they get deleted. If I did that to one of yours I apologize.)

Oh, how I hate those parasites.

In case you’re not aware, com­ment spam is valu­able because Google and other search engines rank sites based on how many other sites link to them. Google tends to fil­ter out any site that’s just a bunch of crappy links, so just mak­ing sites solely for that pur­pose is a waste of time. But a link in a com­ment from a site Google con­sid­ers legit­i­mate (this site has a Google page rank of 4 out of 10, which is not too bad for a blog with a lim­ited audi­ence) does count. Enough such links, spread out over the inter­net, gets a site onto the first page of Google search rank­ings and decreases the cost of pur­chas­ing ads.

That’s worth money, so scum­bags write pro­grams to scour the inter­net, find­ing sites where auto­mated com­ments can be entered. They are often writ­ten to look kind of like a generic nice com­ment, such as “Excel­lent points. Keep up the good work!” with hid­den links. If you write a real com­ment that looks generic like that, it’s likely to end up in the spam filter.

Sigh. Sorry for the non-art post, but it’s kind of frustrating.

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In progress

Here’s a pic­ture of what I’m work­ing on. It’s oil on can­vas, a lit­tle over five feet tall, so it stretches the lim­its of what I can put on my tri­pod easel. The pic­ture is pretty awful, because it’s hard to pho­to­graph an oil paint­ing this size with­out a lot of glare.

New JeansThis is a com­mis­sioned piece. The cus­tomer wants a paint­ing of this pair of jeans (sup­plied by him) against a black back­ground. We went back and forth on the com­po­si­tion, even­tu­ally set­tling on mak­ing it look as if they were being worn by an invis­i­ble per­son. That entailed hir­ing a model to wear the jeans as I paint, since I’m pretty bad at work­ing from photos.

As you can see, I’m work­ing my way down. I mixed and tubed a base color and applied that as an ini­tial dead col­or­ing layer. I am work­ing on top of that. Right now, the jeans are hung in midair so that I can paint the inside parts. The cus­tomer wanted to cap­ture the iconic nature of Levis 501’s, so the inside tags—especially the one that will have a bright red 501 on it—are important.

I’ll try to post bet­ter pic­tures later on.

I like how it’s com­ing at the moment. In some ways this is an inter­est­ing and excit­ing project, and in oth­ers it will be really good to get this done, as it also rep­re­sents a block on my other work.

Posted in art business, David's work, oil painting, painting.

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Conceptual art

90 years ago, Mar­cel Duchamp did some­thing kind of funny by pre­sent­ing a uri­nal as if it were legit­i­mate art.

The art world responded by repeat­ing the same joke, with slight vari­a­tions, over and over, while pre­tend­ing to take itself seri­ously in the process. Much money was made by sell­ing ran­dom objects to rich suck­ers. Now the whole joke may finally be start­ing to fall a bit flat.

Den­nis Dut­ton writes in the New York Times:

The appre­ci­a­tion of con­tem­po­rary con­cep­tual art, on the other hand, depends not on imme­di­ately rec­og­niz­able skill, but on how the work is sit­u­ated in today’s intel­lec­tual zeit­geist. That’s why look­ing through the his­tory of con­cep­tual art after Duchamp reminds me of pag­ing through old New Yorker car­toons. Jokes about Cadil­lac tail­fins and early fax machines were once amus­ing, and the same can be said of con­cep­tual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 dec­la­ra­tion that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a def­i­n­i­tion of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s med­i­cine cab­i­nets. Future gen­er­a­tions, no longer engaged by our art “con­cepts” and unable to divine any spe­cial skill or emo­tional expres­sion in the work, may lose inter­est in it as a medium for finan­cial spec­u­la­tion and rel­e­gate it to the realm of his­tor­i­cal curiosity.

In this respect, I can’t help regard­ing med­i­cine cab­i­nets, vac­uum clean­ers and dead sharks as reck­less invest­ments. Some­where out there in col­lec­tor­land is the unlucky guy who will be the last one hold­ing the vac­uum cleaner, and won­der­ing why.

But that doesn’t mean we need to worry about the future of art. There are plenty of prodi­gious artists at work in every medium, ready to wow us with sur­pris­ing skills. And yes, now and again I walk past a jew­elry shop win­dow and stop, trans­fixed by a sparkling, teardrop-shaped pre­cious stone. Our dis­tant ances­tors loved that shape, and found beauty in the skill needed to make it —even before they could put their love into words.

Posted in the art world.

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Whatever you do, don’t paint from the heart

Occa­sion­ally you see books, arti­cles, or work­shops ded­i­cated to help­ing artists “paint from the heart,” loosen up their style, whack them­selves on the side of the head, dis­cover the light of Tus­cany, or some other damn thing.

It’s crap. Your heart will never have any idea how to paint.

Of course, there are a few artists out there who could ben­e­fit from some loos­en­ing up. For every one of them, there are a hun­dred oth­ers who need to learn how to actu­ally paint. This entails the acqui­si­tion of dif­fi­cult skills and the mind­set to use those skills to achieve spe­cific goals. Some of those skills are:

  • How to draw
  • How to draw exactly what you see
  • How to draw the figure
  • How to draw the portrait
  • Pro­por­tion
  • Per­spec­tive
  • Fore­short­en­ing
  • Color the­ory
  • Color mix­ing
  • Com­po­si­tion
  • Brush han­dling
  • Ren­der­ing
  • Art his­tory
  • And lots more

That is the case even if you want to paint loosely. Read Richard Schmid’s book on paint­ing (he paints in a loose alla prima style that is won­drous to behold) and you’ll see how hard it is to learn how to paint that way, too.

Heck, it’s a lot of work learn­ing to paint abstractly, if you want to do it well.

Paint­ing from the heart is for lazy peo­ple who just want to schmear paint around, feel artis­tic, and find peo­ple to tell them how won­der­ful it must be to paint.

Instead, learn to paint with your mind and your soul. That’s a lot harder, but will take you much fur­ther toward mak­ing paint­ings that belong on a stranger’s wall.

Posted in art technique.

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Avoiding the pasted-on look

Some­times you look at a paint­ing in which each pas­sage is com­pe­tently exe­cuted, but the over­all look just doesn’t hold together. The parts don’t look like they exist in the same visual space. Usu­ally, the prob­lem is with incon­sis­tent key­ing, with edge con­trol, or both.


Key refers, of course, the the range of col­ors in the paint­ing. The most impor­tant key is the value key. If the degree of light and dark on one object doesn’t fit that of other objects in the paint­ing, then they won’t look like they belong together. It’s easy to get so involved in one par­tic­u­lar pas­sage that its value key doesn’t fit that of other parts of the paint­ing. Another pos­si­ble look, besides that of being pasted-on, is that some pas­sages fade out inexplicably.

It is, of course, pos­si­ble to sim­i­larly mess up the chroma key or the hue key of the paint­ing. Value is a more com­mon and notice­able prob­lem, however.

The best way to avoid incon­sis­ten­cies in key is to fre­quently step way back from the paint­ing and either squint or throw your eyes slightly out of focus. Incon­sis­ten­cies tend to stand out.


Another way to inad­ver­tently achieve a pasted-on look is to make all your edges equally hard. If all of the edges are the same, then all of the objects appear to come for­ward equally and the paint­ing fails the verisimil­i­tude test. Some oth­er­wise excel­lent aca­d­e­mic real­ists make this mis­take. So do many begin­ners who have begun to develop the abil­ity to render.

Softer edges recede, harder edges advance. Con­trol edges and you con­trol the dimen­sion­al­ity of each object in the paint­ing. Do that con­sis­tently and the paint­ing looks like each pas­sage is part of a whole.

Posted in art technique, painting.

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Jeans study

Study for a com­mis­sion I’m prepar­ing for. Graphite on paper.

Jeans study

Posted in David's work, drawing.

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The first post here was July 2006. Post­ing has become inter­mit­tent, but I still find it worth­while to keep going. Here’s to another year.

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Gift Shell

Oil on panel, 10 × 12”.

Gift Shell, oil on panel, 10 x 12"

This one has kind of a story to it. For the last 50 or so years, my wife’s fam­ily (on her mother’s side) has used this conch shell as a joke gift. It’s been passed back and forth many times. The real gift is hid­den in the shell, or the shell is included as a part of the gift. Big laffs. Right now the shell is in my wife’s pos­ses­sion, but who knows how long that will last?

Posted in David's work.

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Suppliers page

I’ve added a page list­ing sup­pli­ers of art mate­ri­als whose prod­ucts I like and who pro­vide good ser­vice. Call it the All the Strange Hours seal of approval. Over time, I’ll expand the list.

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Preparing stretched linen

So lately I’ve been stretch­ing and prim­ing a large (5 × 3.5 feet) linen can­vas, along with a cou­ple of smaller ones. A few obser­va­tions (learned in part from hav­ing to cor­rect mistakes):

  • The eas­i­est way to stretch a large can­vas evenly seems to be to put it on the stretcher unprimed, some­what loosely. How loose? Put the can­vas on the floor flat under the stretcher. Tack the edges of the can­vas to the back of the stretcher with­out pulling. You then size it with a thin layer of hide glue. The glue tight­ens the can­vas. If you do it right, the can­vas is taut with no wrin­kles. This is eas­ier than try­ing to get it right using can­vas pli­ers and try­ing to make the ten­sion even across the whole canvas.
  • I like using reg­u­lar office thumb tacks ini­tially, fol­lowed by sta­ples or cop­per tacks when you know you’ve got the ten­sion exactly right.
  • The lead oil primer made by Nat­ural Pig­ments is very easy to apply. It is much less vis­cous than other oil primers I’ve tried. That means you don’t have to thin it and it’s less likely to get all over the place. It dries to the touch very fast. A poten­tial down­side is that it doesn’t tend to fill the weave of the can­vas like thicker primers do.
  • It’s good prac­tice to rub the sur­face of the can­vas lightly with a pumice stone before siz­ing in order to open the fibers up some­what to accept the glue. If you do this, how­ever, you will cre­ate small blobs of fab­ric in places. After prim­ing, you’ll need to wet sand or use a knife to cut these away.
  • Upper Canada Stretch­ers makes really good stretch­ers. Check out the dis­counts for good deals.

Posted in art materials, oil painting.