Friday, September 6, 2013

6 Tips on How To Avoid Work

Star Trek; the Borg
If you've regretted not starting or finishing a painting, then you've experienced resistance. We all have. Steven Pressfield says that, "most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the un-lived life within us. Between the two lies resistance." And, as the Borg in Star Trek like to remind us, "resistance is futile."

Right unicorn, wrong planet
But what if your dreams are unrealistic? My un-lived inner life was once to be a unicorn-tamer on Planet Nipple, but then I grew up and realized that that was ridiculous. Now I crush out the fire of my dreams before they have a chance to poison the monotony of my day. The truth is, painting makes me quite unhappy. It's boring and tedious for the most part, but it's all I know how to do. It's a bit of a trap, and to paraphrase Homer, my own witlessness will one day cast me aside. It's not that I want to do nothing, I just want to do other things. Sometimes I have to admit, painting your toilet-bowl to look like "pink" marble is just not that attractive to me.

I'd like to think I could've done a better paint job

It's not always easy to turn down work, but I've been known to run from it like a cockroach from sunlight. Still, there are times when you might legitimately want to say "no." I was once painting a mural in a bar in Northern Ireland and was approached by a certain Catholic paramilitary organization and asked if I wouldn't mind painting an exterior mural of the pied piper carrying an Irish flag and leading a bunch of kids out of the rubble. It was to be painted between the hours of 2-6am, but don't worry about the cops, "there'll be a lookout."

Monty Python: Michelangelo and the Pope [Video Link]

The most notorious example of reluctance on the part of a painter was a commission for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo first tried to avoid the job by repeatedly telling the pope that painting was not his artistic forte; sculpture was. When that failed, Michelangelo insisted that Raphael could execute a finer fresco.  Yet, as Vasari tells the story, "The more he refused, the more the impetuous pope insisted."

 When that too failed, (according to Ascanio Condivi in his biography The Life of Michelangelo), "When [Michelangelo] had completed the picture of The Flood, it began to mildew so that the figures could barely be distinguished. Therefore, Michelangelo reckoning that this must be a sufficient excuse for him to escape such a burden, went to the Pope and said to him, "Indeed I told your Holmess that this was not my art; what I have done is spoiled, and if you do not believe it, send someone to see." The Pope sent San Gallo, who when he saw it, realized that Michelangelo had applied the plaster too wet and consequently the dampness coming through produced that effect; and, when Michelangelo had been advised of this, he was forced to continue, and no excuse served."

Pope Julius II ordering Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael to build St. Peter's, 1827, by Horace Vernet
This sort of arm-twisting took its toll on Michelangelo, who once confided his resentment toward the pope in a melodramatic letter to a friend: "Here I am, having lost my whole youth chained to this tomb [the church] . . . and my excessive loyalty which is unrecognized is my ruin. Such is my fate. I see many people with an income of two or three thousand scudi [an Italian coin] remain in bed, and I, with the greatest labor, toil at impoverishing myself." No doubt followed by him crying into his lacy sleeves and quaffing cheap hooch from a goblet. Damn papal commissions always getting in the way of a good snooze.

Michelangelo was, I suspect, like the rest of us. It's not that he didn't like painting, it's just that he didn't like it all the time. And he knew when to spot a shitty client when he saw one walk through the door with a papal entourage. Here are some great tips on spotting and avoiding problem clients, which is really the point of this whole post. It's not about procrastination, or unrealistic dreams of becoming a professional frisbee player. It's about taking the good jobs, trusting that others will come, and leaving time for the fun stuff in between.

1. Have a Little Faith.
Trust that as a freelancer, the phone is going to ring and that next job will always come in. You don't have to accept every job that comes along.

2. Get a Little Bit Bitchy.
Nothing works better with particularly nasty clients than a little push-back. Tell them that you don't like to be treated badly, and be prepared to walk away no matter what the cost.

3. Raise Your Price.
A good friend once advised me to pick my highest price, and then double it. Send them the estimate, or tell them the price in person, then say nothing. Keeping your mouth shut right here is the best strategy. If they want you, they'll still hire you, and that added profit margin may make their bullshit acceptable.

4. Leave a Paper Trail.
For God's sake, stick to this if there's even a whiff of nastiness coming off the client. Set up a payment plan, and stick to it. Demand a hefty 50% deposit payment up front. I have friends who've started jobs without even the deposit payment, worked their asses off, then had the client change her mind about the color. My friend got not one penny, and was stuck for some major payroll expenses.

5. Be Specific About Money.
Spell out what is and particularly what is not included in the scope of work. Add a clause saying that any additional work will be charged at $X per hour/square foot. Write in the estimate the date you want final payment (for example: COD, or 30 days after completion of work), and schedule progress payments. Your deposit (if you followed Rule 3) should be enough to cover most, if not all, payroll and material expenses. Tell them exactly when you expect a further progress payment of 25%.

6. Stick To The Schedule.
If they don't make any of your scheduled payments, be prepared to stop the job until that check clears.

Also recommended:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
The Four-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss
How to Avoid Work, by William J. Reilly

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Academic Tradition on Hockney's claims of "cheating" in Classical Painting

Bouguereau (1825-1905), The Flagellation

Everyone loves a secret, but there's more than a whiff of sour grapes to Hockney's assertions about the use of Camera Lucida among the great draughtsmen of the past. The underlying arrogance of his "if I can't do it then nobody can" premise appears to have informed his theories, and blinded him to the possibility that yes, in fact, they were just that bloody good at drawing.

Ingres, Lethier family portrait drawing

Kirk Richards in The Classical Realism Journal points out that it may just be Gladwell's "10,000 hours" theory in action among the likes of Bouguerau, Alma-Tadema, et al. No one's denying that optical aids were available (and most likely used) by artists, and yet Hockney seems to think he's pulled back the curtain to reveal the "secret." At this point Hockney's eureka revelations are old news, but it gives us the opportunity to read a quote or two that serve as a rebuttal and give insight into the meticulousness of the Academic methods of 19th century practitioners.

Chardin, the attributes of painting
"Hockney [in his New Yorker article] alludes to the probability that [Jean-Baptiste Siméon] Chardin used optical aids. Of several artists, including Chardin, he says, "Suddenly they all seem to be able to render the image, just like that, onto the canvas itself." Suddenly? Just Like that? Chardin speaks forcefully to this claim:
"They put a crayon in our hands when we are seven or eight years old. We begin to draw from models of eyes, mouths, noses, ears, then of feet and hands. For a long period our backs are bent over our portfolios in front of the Hercules or the torso, and you have not seen the tears brought on by this Satyr, this Gladiator, the Venus de Medici, this Antaeus ... After we have spent days and worked nights by lamplight before stationary and inanimate forms they confront us with life and suddenly, the labor of all the preceding years seems to count for nothing .... One must teach the eye to see nature, and how many have not seen it and never will! It is the torment of our lives. We are kept working five or six years from the living model before they turn us over to our own genius, if we have any ... He who has not realized the difficulties of this art does in it nothing worthwhile." [source]
David Hockney, camera lucida drawing of Ray Charles White
Dawn signaled the start of a long, sweaty and mostly tedious day for apprentices in Classical ateliers. Grinding pigments, mixing size, unloading heavy materials, stretching canvases. The busy work of the studio spilled out onto the streets of Florence. And that was just the beginning. It took years before an apprentice did any actual painting. As far as Cennini was concerned, thirteen years apprenticing was a necessary and reasonable tenure:

"To begin as a shop boy studying for one year, to get practice in drawing, . . . next to leam how to work at all branches which pertain to our profession... for the space of a good six years. Then to get experience in painting . . . for six more years. If you follow other systems, you need never hope that [the apprentices] will reach any high degree of perfection."

Kelly Borsheim, sight-size charcoal portrait
The traditional sight-size method (above) evidently trumps Hockney's own attempts at drawing a portrait using his own optical aid, a small spherical lens not much bigger than an eyeball attached to the end of a metal rod. Sure, you could use a lens as a short cut, but it should be evident from Hockney's drawing above that a lens is no substitute for solid drawing skills and could never, on its own, replace them.

According to Charles H. Cecil, “When properly understood, sight-size is not a mere measuring technique, but a philosophy of seeing. The method was used by many of the finest painters in oil since the seventeenth century, including Reynolds, Lawrence and Sargent.”

As Degas once said, "Make a drawing. Start all over again. Trace it. Start it and trace it again. [...] You must do over the same subject ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must appear accidental, even a movement. " He also once said that, "Painting is easy, until you learn how."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Enter the Vault

Definitely not a bad Italian restaurant. 
Arches appear in trompe l'oeil murals with predictable regularity. I don't know how many times I've sat in a bad Italian restaurant, staring at an appallingly painted Bay of Naples through some row of wonky arches. Overcooked pasta, bad wine, swirly stucco and a gilded gorilla on a glass pedestal staring me out as I go to the bathroom. We've all been there. With even the smallest of effort, however, these murals could be made better. Not good exactly, but better. 

To begin with, I'd argue that the arch is not the best structure to imply depth. A single row of arches in the foreground, perpendicular to the line of sight and revealing a landscape behind (for example), creates two distinct planes. We are made aware of the picture plane itself, as signified by the arches, and we are made aware of the plane of the background. A distant landscape exists very much on a flattened plane. Murals painted according to this standard model are distinguished by two discrete planes, foreground and background, usually painted without much physically linking them. It's a very static and finite solution to creating depth.

The vault, on the other hand, creates a continuous bridge between the foreground and middle distance. It may even appear to extend towards us, implying a continuous ceiling right over our heads. The painting above provides both examples in one. An arch revealing a scene (on the left), where the illusion of depth is created almost exclusively through use of value, and the receding vault (on the right), which uses both value and linear perspective to create its spatial illusion of depth. The scene on the left appears static, while the one on the right is dynamic.

[Oddly, the light on the background building seen through the window comes from the right, while the light on the vaulted corridor comes from the left.]

Replica of Ghiberti's Baptistry Doors at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hicksville (!)

The number of architectural structures that inherently suggest depth is quite small. If you want to create the illusion of three dimensions in an architectural mural or large-scale painting, you're pretty much limited to the vault. 

A barrel vault may even extend all the way to the background spatially, as in the wonderful Baptistry doors by Ghiberti. The carefully delineated outline of a vault is all that's needed to suggest great depth, despite the actual relief being no more than an inch or so. The action stops at the altar, but or eye travels all the way to the back of the nave.

Massaccio's Trinity

Massaccio's Trinity is a perfect example. The arch does nothing to create depth besides delineating a plane, it's the vault that creates the illusion that wows everyone.

The original "cassetted" vault: Temple of Maxentius
"The cassetted vault was well known from the Roman temple of Maxentius and other buildings. It became one of the great themes of humanistic architecture. Masaccio used it in his Trinity, generally accepted as the first extant work in perspective. Borromini's use of a variant nearly two centuries later in the Palazzo Spada attests to the enduring fascination of this illusionistic form."" [Kim Veltman, The Sources of Perspective]

Architects such as Borromini,  Scamozzi and Bramante, understood that architectural trompe l'oeil was best served by the vault, using it to spectacular effect in their illusionistic built environments.

An arch is more of a decorative frame. It sits in the foreground as a mute barrier. Arches serve as portals, a decorative meme intended to entice us to walk through into the scene beyond. Taken on their own, however, they serve to isolate the viewer from the scene, acting more like a simple barrier than, say, a pathway running sinuously from us and disappearing into a landscape. A long barrel vault is the architectural equivalent of a forest path in landscape painting. Paths are irresistible. They trigger an irresistible urge to explore and see what lies around the corner.

Arches are not. I see an arch in a painting and I feel like there's going to be a red velvet rope with a bouncer telling me I'm not on the list. Whatever drama is unfolding in the painting above, we’re clearly not part of it, just as I'm viscerally aware that I am not invited to Veronese’s Feast at the House of Levi. I'm a spectator, not a participant. On the other hand, Raphael’s School of Athens makes me want to march right up those steps to join those conversations in the crowded vault.

Veronese’s Feast at the House of Levi
Veronese circumvents the static nature of the single row of arches in the foreground by plonking a second row directly behind it. This implies a vault running perpendicular to us between the rows of arches, and creates depth. If the architecture is to run perpendicular to the line of sight, then it's a handy little trompe l'oeil trick to simply place a second row. Notice (below) how much depth is implied by adding the second row of columns. 

Colonnades running away from the viewer, along the lines of sight, imply great depth. "By the end of the (Fifteenth) Century, artists such as Bramante realized that the representation of colonnades was particularly suited for perspectival purposes because these permitted one not only to look into but even look straight through a space." [Veltman]

And, of course, the last word goes to Raphael. As if there was any question on the matter. He pretty much closes the argument. How tempting it is to march up those steps and enter the vault, listening in on the conversations of all those great thinkers. Notice too, how Raphael has chosen to position his key players at the precise point of greatest implied depth in his painting. He knew that we are viscerally drawn to the "deepest" spot, and planned the hierarchy of his incredible painting accordingly. Another example of how depth is intrinsic to composition.