Saturday, December 18, 2010

10 questions: Are you a Professional or a Prima Donna?

Are you a Prima Donna? Decorative painters seem to have a bad rap from contractors sometimes. We spend a lot of time and money fine-tuning our portfolio, printing promotional material and developing our web presence, but sometimes we neglect the importance of our real-world presentation on the job. I've been guilty of most of these at one time or other myself. It's no wonder I have time on my hands to write blog entries, instead of being too busy answering the phone to new clients. This stuff comes back to bite us in the end. Time to step up our game and spruce up our image. 

Have you ever walked around the job-site with a coffee cup in one hand and a brush in the other? Have you ever come in to work and found yesterdays latte still hanging around on the scaffold?

Do you wear your regular clothes to work instead of painters white pants and an apron?

Have you ever asked one of the other contractors if you could borrow a tool that you forgot to bring?

Do you take long lunch breaks? Do you take lunch breaks at a restaurant instead of eating your lunch sitting on a bucket like everyone else? Do you disappear for long periods on errands?

Are you generally the last one to show up in the morning or the first to leave?

Have you ever complained to the client or designer about conditions on the job-site? Ever complained about the condition of the toilet or the dust? Ever moaned out loud about contractors in 'your' space?

Have you ever talked about money with others on site?

Ever hit the client up for more money at the end of a job because of 'unforeseen' circumstances?

Ever leave your brushes sitting in a bucket of water overnight?

Do you sometimes skip taking 10 minutes to sweep the room and tidy away your tools at the end of each day? Do you leave full garbage bags on site overnight? Ever just throw a tarp over everything and call it a day?

A professional demeanor goes a long way towards securing future work. Repeat business from designers and recommendations from General Contractors should be of paramount importance, and as such we would do well to pay close attention to how we present ourselves while on site. 

Make a job-site checklist of all tools and materials and refer to it before packing for each job. Brought your own garbage bags? How about enough ladders, lights and tools to remove hardware? If you need to use a scaffold, be sure to establish that while estimating: don't assume that the GC will be okay with you climbing on hers, as there is a very real liability issue for her whether or not the designer tells you it's okay. 

Take a moment while preparing your estimate to consider real-world conditions: will you be required to put down Masonite or other protection in the room and corridor? Where is the closest paint store? Is lunch available close by or should you ask your workers to brown bag it? What time does the freight elevator close? What are the building access hours and issues? If other contractors are going to be working there too, you may need to account for slower progress, touching up damage to your work and more time spent mitigating dust and cleaning up at the end of the day. All of these affect your profit, which affects your mood. If you're stressed while working it'll be apparent. Nobody wants to work with a stressed-out freak. 

There will be legitimate add-ons to any job. Be sure and have a price agreed before doing them. What you don't want to do is surprise the client at the end by charging a "getting off my ladder every five seconds to open the door to let contractors through" fee. 

Nobody likes talking money, but being up-front and realistic about expectations will make you a happier worker. 

Establish a friendly relationship with the GC and contractors. Bring in a box of donuts every now and then. Buy the elevator guy a coffee. I know a decorative painter who places a bunch of flowers in the house every time she finishes a job. 

Under no circumstances talk about money while working. Other contractors always want to know how much you're charging. Make no mistake: it's not an innocent inquiry, and they will be happy to underbid you on the next project. At the very least, talking money builds jealousy and bad feelings which means you're less likely to get the call on the next job. 

Make your area the cleanest on the site. Using a paper-hangers table to mix your colors looks really good. You can drape a canvas drop cloth over it and store all your other junk underneath. You can be sure that the client and/or designer will be doing after-hours walk-throughs, and you never know when they'll decide to drop by unexpectedly while you're there. 

Pay close attention to your appearance. Ever notice that the best painters are also the cleanest? Buy a new apron and painter's pants before every big job, and make sure your workers dress the same. Do not allow anyone to use their pants as a paint rag. That's what rags are for. 

You can buy large canvas bags and have your company name or logo put on them and your clothing quite cheaply these days. 

Make sure you have business cards and photos of other completed projects. You never know where the next job will come from. 

Keep the music turned down (or better yet wear headphones), and for ¥#%$ sake; no cursing! For that matter, never bad mouth the client, designer or other contractors on site or on your Facebook page: you never know who's listening. 

Make sure you're there on time every day, and stay all day. Besides maximizing profits, it just looks good. Be sure you can start on the day you specified, and bend over backwards to be out of there when you said you'd be. You're the only one that cares that it took you an extra day to re-glaze a wall because the electrician dug a channel for a sconce down the middle of a finished wall: the client doesn't want to hear it. Hire extra help if you need to, and if you haven't agreed to an extra cost for damages, just suck it up and say nothing. With a smile on your face tell the designer that you'll take care of it. You'll be seen as a problem-solver, not a problem. 

Guard your recipes and techniques. Tear the labels off those Home Depot paint cans, and develop some arcane method of marking your pots. Keep your medium in a glass jar. I'm not kidding! Think how cool it would look to a client if you had bell jars of obscure dry pigments and your best polar bear fur brush out for show. Who cares if you never use them. 

The European Guilds played their cards close to their chests for a reason: if people realize how easy it is to do what you do, you can't justify the exorbitant prices you wish to charge. 

It's all about the appearance of professionalism. Okay, enough procrastinating and sitting in my car typing. It's time for me to get back to work!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

As Autumn into Winter slips

'In his Autumn before the Winter comes Man's last mad surge of youth.' -A Town Called Alice

Nothing like the Russians when it comes to capturing the starkness of approaching Winter. Maybe this was the height of Summer over there, who knows? Seems like all their paintings look like this. Maybe that's why I love them.

This canvas entitled 'Осенью', by Maria Konstantinowna Baschkirzewa, hangs at the State Museum, St. Petersburg. My guess is that 'Осенью' is not Russian for 'Happiness'.

Here is a set I posted of 150 huge high res paintings and etchings of trees, for anyone interested.

I've been researching images for a 9' x 12' folding screen that I have been asked to do, and noticed that all the trees I've been looking at are distinctly Wintery. I'm not sure how that happened exactly as I'm not quite ready to admit that it is actually Winter yet, so here's a poem that pretty much sums it up for me.

As Summer into Autumn slips, by Emily Dickinson
As Summer into Autumn slips
And yet we sooner say
"The Summer" than "the Autumn," lest
We turn the sun away,

And almost count it an Affront
The presence to concede
Of one however lovely, not
The one that we have loved --

So we evade the charge of Years
On one attempting shy
The Circumvention of the Shaft
Of Life's Declivity.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In Defense of Decorative Painting

"That man who is without the arts is little above the beasts of the field." 
Haldane MacFall, The History of Painting
Well, if that's not a sweeping generalization I don't know what is. Fortunately, 'the arts' in this case is such a broad term as to render this comment weak: Is any of us not 'with the arts'?

Things seem to have changed a little since 1911, however. There is an effort (mostly from the marketing department) to compartmentalize these arts into high and low, drawing an arbitrary line in the sand between Decorative - and/or Commercial - and Fine Art.

This distinction is a relatively recent trend. William Morris would not have agreed with it, that's for sure, nor would a whole host of others who were perfectly at home with their work hanging in a gallery, or printed on a plate. Yet since the advent of Modern Art the notion of the decorative element in painting has been sidelined as irrelevant, even beneath contempt. God forbid your work is described as 'pretty'.

One glance at Islamic Art and Architecture and it becomes obvious that Art can be both 'Decorative' and 'High' at the very same time. So why is it that a simple Google search of 'decorative painting' yields not much, if anything, in the way of crossover between high and low Art? Why is it that the headlong race to separate from populist art has left a vast dustbowl in its wake?
"This apparent absence of internal critical writing may be because many lowbrow artists began their careers in fields not normally considered fine art, such as illustration, tattooing and comic books. Many ... are self-taught, which further alienates them from the world of museum curators and art schools.
Many in the art world have deeper difficulties with lowbrow's figurative focus, its cultivation of narrative, and its strong valuing of technical skill. All these aspects of art were deeply disparaged in the art schools and by curators and critics throughout the 1980s and 90s." Wiki
Yawwwn, I'm sleepy. 'Everyone I have ever slept with' by Tracy Emin

And yet, so much Art these days seems to mistake being brazenly incoherent for some sort of street profundity, dusting off the art-terrorist tag to protect against accusations of being pointless and just downright ugly. Take Tracy Emin. No really; take her.

But let's face it; who wants ugly Art? As far as I'm concerned, all Art has a major decorative element. The market tends to bear this out: despite annual protestations over the 'death of painting' it is the very sale of paintings that keep the galleries afloat. In hard times, galleries fall back on their roster of painters to help pay the rent, leaving the fiscally riskier work of video and installation in the back room until times are good enough again to wheel it out. Doesn't that seem kind of, I don't know, Commercial?
Some of the 16,400 Google image results for 'Jasper Johns Flag'

There's a great story about Jasper "the flag guy" Johns who, after realizing great critical success in the Art world by stumbling upon the decorative use of the American flag as High Art, decided to put all his early works in a pile and burn them in effigy. It always struck me as a great Wizard of Oz moment: terrified lest someone draw back the curtain (or flag), and reveal his art as 'merely' decorative, he scrubbed the trail leading up to it and left the critics to hail him as a genius.

Takashi Murakami

Yet somehow, certain artists such as Murakami manage to slip through the critical net and get away with creating purely decorative painting, while being at the same time lauded as ironic commentators on the nature of decoration and consumerism. It's a handy critical trope that enables them to neatly sidestep accusations of being shallow. But what's wrong with their just being pretty pictures? Perhaps exhibiting his work in Versailles is less a juxtaposition than it is a perfect match.

Critics seem to have forgotten the answer to the question that every child knows instantly: What's your favorite color?

People like paintings on their walls, it's as simple as that. They add a splash of color, and we like what they say about us. We project meaning onto them, adore them as at an altar, and sit back as they reflect at a dinner party that we are wise, cultured and willing to throw money around. But they better not put you off your meal, so for goodness sake make them pretty.
"The over-scaled compositions being produced by so many abstract painters, which are full of movement and use of color, are ideal example, ideal transformations of an entire wall and entire room.... There is no denying that one of the major attractions of these successful large compositions is their structural decorative use in the contemporary scene... That these large canvases can be superbly decorative may not be considered complimentary by some of the artists involved"
Van Day Truex, Interiors, Character, and Color
So what if they don't find it complimentary: here's to Decorative Painting! Thank you, and good night.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Modular Ornament, past and future...

 This gorgeous ceiling was created with en feuille printed papers, made by an unknown Parisian manufacturer around 1780. Une feuille de papier literally means a sheet, or piece of paper, and in this context means that the entire design was created by cutting the design from individual sheets of block-printed paper.

The dark and light grounds, the borders of flowers and fruits, the medallions and even the figure of Diana in her chariot were all cut out separately and pasted on the ceiling to create this wonderful image.

This method of creating custom, one-off installations was the best way at the time for clients and designers to bridge the gap between the bespoke mural and the printed image.

Print Rooms, as they became known, were a highly individual way of decorating walls in the eighteenth century. It seems to have been a trend limited in large part to Ireland and England. The charming and whimsical room at Castletown House in Ireland, above, is the work of the lady of the house; fifteen year old bride, Lady Louisa Connolly. That she took great pleasure in her design is evident in the balanced design of octagons, ovals, circles and squares, all embellished with garlands and bows for a fanciful effect.

These days, photocopies and clip art are substituted for the original mezzotints of old. 

But why stop at cutting up scraps of paper?

Along with my business partner Mark, we saw that there was room for much improvement and advancement of the technique. I firmly believe that the artisans of a few centuries ago would have absolutely loved the digital revolution. The means they used were simply a reflection of the limit of the technology they had available at the time, nothing more.

So we developed the idea of modular designs created entirely on computer, then printed out in large sheets as custom installations. Why bother painting 60 rosettes on a frieze around a room when you can paint a single one, scan it into the computer, then print out rolls and rolls of the stuff? I mean; they're all supposed to be identical anyway, right? 

I started developing my own library of hand-painted shapes. These were little individual sections of ornament, painted in black and white, that I then scanned into the computer and colored and jigsawed together at will on my screen. Anyone interested in those early experiments can check out this blog post on the topic.

Instead of the traditional 'cut-and-paste' technique of the Print Rooms, where the jigsawing of images was done by hand and on-site, we did all the jigsawing of our artwork directly on the computer screen. When we liked what we saw, we simply printed it out on rolls up to five feet wide, and pasted it onto the wall.

The experiment was working! 

We decided to take it all a step further; to create artwork entirely on the computer, without any other tool whatsoever. Scanning hundreds of sheets of veneer, we quickly amassed an incredible library of wood textures. Then, using computer software we drew out our designs in the same way any artisan would lay out a design for marquetry: in simple back-and-white line drawings. These drawings were then 'colored' on the computer using our wood texture library, and custom printed onto sheets of Class A fire-retardant wallcovering. 

In the image above, you can see the 'before and after' of the room.
When we got there, every surface was primed white. We started by hand-painting all the raised moldings in traditional faux-bois. This was because our printed sheets of paper would only adhere to flat surfaces. Then we simply pasted our custom printed papers into the panels, and along the stiles and rails to create this stunning look.

This image shows the incredible authenticity of the effect. This is not a photograph: It is a computer rendered design, imitating wood inlay. The wood textures, colors, even the blemishes and worm-holes, are all added in layers to create the effect of marquetry. This piece is then printed out onto any substrate (including plain maple veneer) and applied to your project. Make sense?

We feel as though we are just at the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more we can be doing to push Decorative Arts into the new century. I really hope this might serve as some small inspiration to those artists out there looking for new ways to rejuvenate a (let's face it) pretty antiquated field. 

It's natural, when new technology comes along, to use it to simply re-create the style that came before. But what would happen if we were not limited by staid historic mimicry? What would it even look like if we took this new technology, this digital evolution, and cranked up the ambition to 11? 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Richard LaBarre Goodwin

What a master of trompe l'oeil! Yet surprisingly it is relatively difficult to find information on him on the Web. These are details from his painting Cabin Door Still Life, purchased by the Smithsonian.

They are beautifully treated and worthy of close study for those students of the art. I particularly love the way he 'carved' his signature into the wooden door:


Monday, November 8, 2010

Jean-Baptiste Pillement, Chinoiserie

Known primarily as the artist responsible for the popularity of Chinoiserie, Jean Pillement was quite the dark-horse. He somehow found time between designing for Gobelin and painting for the King of Portugal to invent the solar-powered electric chair and the straight banana, write Limericks (including the classic "There was a young man called Eenis..."), and fashion a remarkable likeness of his ex-wife out of shaving foam and a dagger. Despite losing all his limbs in a bizarre gardening accident at the age of eight, he once impressed Marie Antoinette by playing 'Flight of the Bumblebee' on the nose flute while stopping a rapidly spinning drill bit with his lips.

Thirsty for more? Check out this gallery of fifty-six of his fanciful Chinoiserie designs that I posted on my Flickr page. And if Chinoiserie is your monkey, this gorgeous panel by Pillement entitled 'Chinoiserie, un couple dans une barque' is worth a closer look.

Nicolas Lancret created panels and folding screens somewhat earlier than Pillement, and it's interesting to compare their styles. Lancret being flatter and dryer than Pillement, whose work shows much of the frivolity we've come to associate with Rococo.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Alphonse Mucha, 'Le Pater' Part II

Stunning 'aquarelle originale', by A. Mucha,  from the frontispiece of Le Pater
You might think that a goldfish, if granted one wish, would choose 'Strength of the Bear' over 'Invisibility', but you'd be wrong. Goldfish would rather be invisible. Sometimes they just get tired of being stared at.

Here's something besides my goldfish that I like to stare at: Alphonse Mucha's illustrations for Le Pater. I did a short post earlier on the same book, but I'm coming back to it with some more detailed photos of individual plates. They really are quite stunning, and he was a master draughtsman, so let's take a closer look.

Drinking a river of milk from the triple-breasted mother of plenty

Incurring Godly wrath for bludgeoning people with a rock. Bad boy

Actually, there's a great story related to draughtsmanship and Mucha: In 1898, the American (ex-patriot) artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler combined his teaching class with that of Mucha and together they taught painting, Illustration, composition and decorative drawing over the course of three years, ending amicably in 1901. According to Jiri (Mucha's son and sole biographer); years later when a student asked Whistler why he had so many of Mucha's posters hanging about, Whistler retorted, "So that I can show fools like you what it means to be able to draw."

Today, I had the very great fortune to study this original copy of Le Pater with a magnifying glass. What an absolute thrill. There were only ever 510 published, on the 20th of December 1899. The first ten containing original hand-painted watercolors by Mucha himself. The second set, numbers 11 through 60 (the set I studied), are listed by the publisher as being "sur japon, avec une suite en couleurs sur papiers spécial à la forme du Marais et une suite en noir sur chine."

It's interesting to me that, in the 1870s and 1880s, so many American artists went to study in Paris (e.g. Sargent, Whistler, Cassatt, Eakins, Homer) because American academic training at the time was generally considered so inadequate. Combine this with a mesmeric American fascination with the Old World, and we can begin to see why Mucha's early trips to the States were so rapturously received. And yet Mucha seemed reluctant to lap up the attention that the gentry and grandes dames of American Society were determined to bestow. Indeed, he was sick and tired of his obligations, as evidenced in a hilariously melodramatic letter he wrote in 1904:
"You've no idea how often I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about"
Poor dear; how hellish it must have been to hang out with the likes "the beautiful" Mrs. McKay, Anne Morgan, Grace Vanderbilt, Elsie De Wolfe and Sarah Bernhardt, not to mention the President himself, sipping tea and cashing checks all day. In hindsight, his relatively earth-bound fame when compared with the likes of the stellar Whistler may possibly stem from his dislike of associating with "vulgar business society". You probably shouldn't have put that one in writing, Alfy. Once again artistic ego gets in the way of enjoying a well-lived life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to draw the Acanthus, Part II

The above image is from the NYPL digital archive.

This is Part Two of what was supposed to be a Trilogy of One regarding how to draw the Acanthus, but then I got confused and added another Part, so I'm not sure where I am at the moment. And besides I've had a couple of those Dogfish Head IPAs. Anyhoo, these amazing images are direct from the source, as in an original 1886 copy (!) of James Page's book about how to draw the Acanthus, called Guide for Drawing The Acanthus.

I read this on a grave from 1812 in Newburyport, Massacussetts:

'To limits fix'd our disten'd course we bend,
And with resistless haste, to death's pale empire tend,
From scene to scene, o'er shifting moments go,
And then return the grave the dust we owe.'

What's the connection? Well, it's a pretty tenuous thread I admit but I happened to really like that poem and hey, this is my blog. The link between acanthus and gravestones is the story told by Vitruvius in De Architectura IV of the architect and sculptor Callimachus, who is said to have invented the Corinthian capital. Here's the tale as told by Vitruvius himself:
"A freeborn maiden of Corinth ... was attacked by an illness and passed away. After her burial, her nurse, collecting a few little things which used to give the girl pleasure while she was alive, put them in a basket, carried it to the tomb, and laid it on top thereof. This basket happened to be placed just above the root of an acanthus. The acanthus root ... when springtime came round put forth leaves and stalks in the middle, and the stalks ... were forced to bend into volutes at the outer edges.
Just then Callimachus passed by this tomb and observed the basket with the tender young leaves growing round it. Delighted with the novel style and form, he built some columns after that pattern for the Corinthians, determined their symmetrical proportions, and established from that time forth the rules to be followed in finished works of the Corinthian order."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Islamic pattern designs

Here's something that I never tire of staring at: Islamic pattern designs from the book Moorish Remains in Spain, by the peripatetic pith-helmet clad Albert F. Calvert. I intend to do an in-depth analysis of the generation of tessellations as seen in the Arts of Arabia and Mohammedan architecture, but only when I can wrap my head around how on earth they did that stuff. I can't help feeling as though there is a key to some small understanding of the Universe hidden away in these images, but it's one that will never be mine. At least, it takes a great deal of study to unravel the geometries involved. I hope this post will help those like me who are avid admirers and amateur students.

Sir Robert Penrose, the English mathematical physicist, armed with only a pencil and notebook, developed a set of 'quasi-periodic' patterns after many years of research. Amazingly, his set consisted of only two shapes (!) that he named "kites" and "darts". The pattern laid down by these shapes is difficult to envision, but as it expands, the proportion of kites to darts approaches the golden ratio, or Phi. These patterns have parallels in the crystalline forms of chemistry, and real-world applications as (for example) non-stick coatings for frying pans.

That Penrose's work has a precedent in Islamic pattern is not a surprise. That his work is pre-dated by over 500 years, is. Physicist Peter J. Lu visited Uzbekistan and found the same pattens in the Bhukara Madrasa. Thank you Sebastian R. Prange for this incredible and fascinating article, quoted in part below:

"The tilework on the Bukhara madrasa is an example of the stylized geometric strap-work—typically based on star or polygon shapes—that is emblematic of traditional Islamic ornamentation. This form of design is known as girih patterns, from the Persian word for “knot.” It is generally believed that such designs were constructed by drafting zigzag outlines with only a straightedge and a compass. But Lu perceived something more: “I saw five-fold and ten-fold stars, which immediately aroused my curiosity about how these tilings had been made.” He wondered how Islamic craftsmen had been able to design such elaborately symmetrical patterns centuries before the advent of modern mathematics."

All images this article are reproduced from the book Moorish Remains in Spain. The New York Times article, announcing the publication of the book in 1905, quoted the author, saying:
"Neither by camera, nor by brush, nor by the pen can one reflect with any fidelity the effects obtained by the Moorish masters of the Middle Ages. In their art is to be found a sense of the mysterious that appeals to one like the glint of moonlight on running water; an intangible spirit of joyousness that one catches from the dancing shadows of leaves upon a sun-swept lawn; and an elusive key to its beauty which is lost in the bewildering maze of traceries, and the inextricable network of design. The form, if not the fantasy, of these fairy-like, fascinating decorations may, however, be reproduced, and this I have endeavored to do."

I've posted an enormous set of illustrations from the volume on my Flickr page, for those interested. There is also a post regarding the book Arabian Antiquities of Spain on this blog, also with many images, that you may wish to take a look at.In the meantime, here are a couple of the (roughly 260) images I posted on Flickr for you.