Making Portraits and other Issues

Making portraiture is an interesting challenge and has a lot of socially dynamic ramifications. It can be successful and enjoyable. It can also be not very good and sort of disappointing or even down right bad and depressing.

Before the discovery of photography about the only way to make an accurate image of another person was to have an artist make a drawing, painting or sculpture of that person. In 1826 the scientist, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, discovered photography and changed how we see things. It took a while to develop the technique and make it available to the world at large but once the camera became a common part of our reality the cold hard truth of what we really look like could not be ignored. “Yep, that’s Uncle Bob, alright. Ol’ boy sure has picked up.”

It also became very easy to “take” those images. You just pointed this little gismo at whoever or what ever you wanted a photo of and pressed a button. Click, click, click. Send it off to the drug store and in a week or two you got something new to put in your photo album. You sure as hell didn’t have to take a lot of time and pay some artist a lot of money to make a painting of Uncle Bob.

We also now have professional photographers. You can go to a studio and have somebody who is good at taking pictures have you pose in front of some expensive looking equipment and take a whole bunch of photographs to make sure “you get something you will be happy with.” A little social engineering is helpful. A good studio photographer better have some people skills as well as knowing what to do with all that fancy equipment. If not, he or she may not be in business very long. “Smile..”

After all this consideration about photographers, where does that leave all those folks who used to do all those old paintings in all those mansions and museums? “Geez, Gustav; what do we do now?”

When we take a look at history it seems that the artists just kept doing what they had always been doing but their concept of what reality looked like couldn’t help but be changed by the camera. Now that the main province of the artist to make believable images of people had been usurped or at least challenged by photography, artists could start to do other things with their talents and imagination. In the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds there came along something called “Impressionism”. That certainly was not like the old stuff. All the sudden there were lots of colors all over the place and nobody really cared about staying in the lines anymore. Then people started painting images from their dreams and expressing their emotions. Conveying ideas and “feelings” became almost more important than what the thing looked like. One guy did a great big painting of some people (and a monkey) just standing around in a park with umbrellas and those funny bulges underneath the back sides of women’s dresses. He accomplished this major artistic fete by just making a whole bunch of tiny little colored dots. Makes one think of color TV except it was a painting and didn’t move.

Another guy dribbled paint all over big ol’ canvas drop cloths on the floor. When they dried he took them to an art dealer in New York City and became famous. His friend and his friend’s wife tried it and it seemed to work for them as well although the paintings of some of the women in between those dribbles were kind of scary. Big teeth. There were also some very serious and important guys making big paintings of colored squares and other shapes and selling them for thousands of dollars back when thousands of dollars was a lot of money.

Then some folks came along in the 1960s and decided to go the other way and we got a whole new art movement called “Photorealism”. One guy took a pencil and divided up his whole canvas into two inch squares and started at the top left and painted each square from left to right and top to bottom making these big paintings which kind of looked like those old tile mosaics from Pompeii until you realized you were looking at some poor schmuck’s face. Welcome to the 20th Century and here we are back at Portraiture.

With all this experimentation and a couple of World Wars our ideas of what art is really took a beating. Here we are in the Twenty First Century and it seems like it’s become kind of like that old saying we used to say at the end of hide and seek. “Olly Oxen Free”. Do what ever you want and have a good time. I have taken that advice to heart. I am doing what I want and I am having a good time.

Painting portraits of people is something I have always really enjoyed. I have found, however; that it is wise for me to only paint or draw people who I like. The way I feel about a person I am portraying is impossible to hide. As a matter of fact, I think that is one of the things about the live interpretation of someone’s appearance by another human being that gives it more authority than the mechanical representation of a photograph.

When I was in School here at the University of Missouri, I had the tremendous good fortune to make paintings of the nude figure. I became very adept at portraying those people and was basically painting and drawing, and; in one circumstance, sculpting, full body nude portraits. I learned a lot about what it is to be human and what it is to portray a person in their most vulnerable and exposed circumstances. I am of the opinion that it strengthened all my artistic efforts from that point on, especially portraiture.

In the more recent past I did a series of portraits of people who have been close to me and several of those pieces can be seen in this website. Some of those paintings were done exclusively from life and some were done with the help of a good photograph. I believe those pieces turned out successfully and hope you find them enjoyable as well.

Why Make Paintings of Rusty Old Trucks?

JD King 03/05/23

I have been asked from time to time why I make so many paintings of rusty, dirty, old trucks.  It’s a good question and I have thought a lot about it.

I think these old trucks abandoned on some farm or on the back lot of a construction company are old servants of somebody’s who just can’t work up the nerve to take these things to the crusher or get somebody to cut them up with a torch.  They embody a sense of service and an American esthetic that represents a strength of days gone by that we as a culture seem to have lost.

I used to work on old farm trucks.  I was a welder and a repair guy at an equipment company when I got out of college.  I worked there for a couple of years back in the late 1970s and got a completely different kind of education.  We would do things like repair the power take off mechanism so the bed of the vehicle could raise and lower without problems.  Or we might change the oil and spark plugs and check to make sure the carburetor was clean.  We just did basic maintenance to keep the old soldiers running for another year.

I noticed the farmers would bring in these vehicles in the fall to get them spruced up for harvest and in the spring to get them ready for planting.  Many of these trucks were made in the 1950s and some were even older than that, but they all had very low mileage on the odometers.  They were only used, for the most part, twice a year.  The rest of the year they were parked someplace out of the way but also fairly visible from the road.  That’s where I now find many of them (or at least the ones that haven’t been scrapped) on my various trips around the country when I am on my way someplace either looking for new things to paint or going to some destination for other reasons.  I keep my camera right handy.

When I came over here to Columbia to finish a graduate program in painting my main focus was on the female nude.  At the time it was still possible to ask young women to pose for a painting without their clothes on and not get labeled as some kind of predator.  I had the good fortune to observe and recreate the images of several beautiful young and not so young women and learned a lot about myself and how I relate not only to women but to my whole environment.  It was a very rewarding experience and enabled me to create a foundation of understanding that I think strengthened my artistic abilities in all areas of my endeavors since.  What I did not expect was the fact that I finally got bored painting naked women.

“Well what the hell am I supposed to do now?”  Hey, how about painting some of those old trucks I used to work on?  


Seeing The Art in Person

I have often been amazed at how different things look when I see art work in person. The digital era has been an absolute miracle and has transformed the way we interpret our shared reality. But, there are still aspects of the art world that are more enjoyable and expressive when experienced in real time in front of the real thing. The art of Dance comes to mind. I love ballet and have seen some of the best in the world. I don’t think I would stand around moved to tears in front of a TV watching the Joffrey or the Russian or any performance of dance for that matter on an electronically generated screen. It just doesn’t have the same emotional impact as seeing the live dancers and hearing what goes on in the theater.

I think the same can be said about the world of fine art; especially paintings. When I was in my late teens I got to go to New York City for about six weeks and got to visit some of the best art galleries in the world. I remember going to the Metropolitan and seeing a whole room full of Van Gogh. That was an experience I will never forget. I remember seeing famous works by Monet, Degas, Cezanne and many of the Impressionists and having my way of thinking about everything I had learned up to that point challenged, changed and to some degree thrown right out the window. I also saw works at the Modern which took longer to sink in but had the same effect. Jackson Pollock was kind of hard to take at first glance but I sure got a lot better idea of what was going on then when I had only seen pictures in a book. Those paintings are more than a couple of inches think in many places and there is a guard standing around near by to make sure you don’t reach out and put your hands on them which for me was a very realistic temptation.

One of the things which can not be replicated in digital media is the size of some of these paintings. Those “Lilly Pads” by Monet are big. We’re talking eight by twenty feet and that’s just one of them. To see a whole room full of those masterpieces is like having the chance to go back in time and listen to Chopin or Liszt play their own pianos. It is astounding.

Making Woodblock Prints

Oct. 9, 2022

I was reviewing some images I had saved of photographs I have taken of various scenes around Boone County, Mo., and came up with a pretty nice shot of the Missouri River.  The sky was that weird white and gray bordering on pastel violet that sometimes occurs in early spring when the weather can’t decide whether it’s going to be nice yet or not.  In this image there are a couple of tall cotton wood trees growing out of the same root system and are extending up into the sky and perching precariously over the bank of the river.  It appears that they have had most of the soil underneath their root system washed away by the current of the Big Muddy.  The leaves were just coming out on the trees in this photograph and it appeared to be one of my favorite times of year – First Green.  It must have been late March or early April.  

Anyway, the shot was pretty good so I decided to do a wood block print of it.  At first I thought I was going to have to carve out four or five blocks in order to print all the colors I wanted but after starting to work with the plates and cutting out what I thought would be necessary, I believed I could get by with less.  I figured I could probably print some small isolated areas in a couple of colors on the second block and not have to carve out more than three.

One of the things I enjoy about moving back and forth from different disciplines in the artistic process is how the various approaches force us to think about things in different ways.  In order to make a good painting one has to think about composition, color, contrast and so forth but there is only going to be the one painting.  You paint for a while and then take a break.  Maybe you come back later and realize you’ve made a mistake, or maybe you just don’t like that smile on her face.  With a painting you just get out the palette knife and scrape off the offending areas, re-apply the appropriate paint and fix it.  Hey, now that smile looks great.  

Not so with prints.  Although the same considerations apply in terms of formalistic considerations, in printing whatever you put on that first block is what you’re going to have to live with for the rest of the project.  It forces one to be more thoughtful about how to proceed.  

It’s like playing chess with your own ideas.  “How am I going to accomplish these feelings or message about my emotions concerning this image I have chosen?  How are these colors going to translate into how I feel about this subject matter?  Will the gray in this area look differently enough from the same gray in this other area where it is depicting water instead of clouds?  Will the details in the final block be convincing enough to pull the the whole thing together?”  You have to figure all that stuff out before you ever see any of the actual end results. Of course things never turn out exactly the way one plans but the results often turn out pretty close to the original intent.

In planning out how I was going to proceed with this project I was thinking at first that I would carve out one block and then print that and see what I got before moving on to the next.  When I thought about it I realized that wasn’t going to work.  After carving out the block for the first color I would have to put all the carving stuff away, the knives, the gouges, the wood vices to hold the plates in place and all the other tools and supplies that are required for carving and then reorganize the shop for applying the ink to the first block.  Then I would print the first block of the first color edition of say, twenty prints and I would have those prints hanging there over my work area for the duration of the project. My shop is fairly small and those prints would most likely be hanging right in my face.  Then I would have to put all that stuff away and reorganize the shop again to cut out the second block.  Having the prints hanging over my head as I was cutting the next image into the next slab of wood and that seemed to be a bad idea.  No. Too much work and trouble for no reasonable gain.  I decided I was going to have to cut out all the wooden plates before I started the actual printing process.

Carving plates of flat birch plywood forces one to be diligent in keeping everything relatively clean.  There is a lot of sweeping involved; not only of the floor but also all those little pieces of wood shavings that end up all over the work bench and one’s clothing.  I had to get rid of those little shavings and dust that are an inevitable result of gouging, cutting and sanding the wooden plates otherwise they would have ended up in places where they were not intended or welcome.  

I have also found it helpful when finishing with an aspect of the procedure to reward myself with a break.  I take off my apron, hang it up beside the door of the shop, turn off the lights and go upstairs to see if I can find my wife and maybe have a cup of coffee or eat lunch.  It helps me to be patient and pay attention to details before becoming tired or frustrated.  Printing with wooden blocks is definitely a process of craftsmanship.

Diligence in Keeping things relatively clean is quite important in the printing process.  Especially in applying ink to wood and then the finicky process of getting the paper registered in exactly the right place so the ink on the wood gets where it is supposed to go on the paper.  Having a little piece of wood shavings get in between the ink and the paper can be a very annoying problem. I find it helpful to have a small dull knife right handy to get those pesky little bits of wood or whatever out of the process before they can be a real problem.  It has the potential to compromise several prints if not caught early and certainly the print it affects when it first occurs.   So many things can go wrong when working on woodcuts.  It is not at all the same as having  a nice full palette of oil paint and slinging color at a canvas with brush or palette knife.  It is a very different kind of consideration; not what one would call, “spontaneous”.

Here is another consideration.  I love reading murder mysteries.  One of the nice things about this particular time in history is that the common Joe Schmoe has access to all kinds of literature.  We can go out to Barnes and Noble or the locally owned book store and buy pretty much whatever we want.  Or we can simply go to the library and take home all kinds of stuff for free.  What a lovely time in history.  I am also fortunate that my wife likes to read.  I have found myself in situations where somebody was not terribly happy with the way I was ignoring them because I had my nose stuck in a book. They might feel like retaliating by turning the volume up on the TV or some other dastardly form of retribution or maybe even turn to contemplating murderous thoughts

On the subject of murderous thoughts it seems to me that setting up a good murder mystery is kind of like preparing a woodblock print.  The author describes the villain’s considerations on how he or she is going to do some horrible deed and then we get to watch (or read) as the bad guys go about carrying out those ol’ evil plans and then witness the good guys’ attempts (either successful or not) at thwarting those terrible and unfortunate events.

The process in writing such literature and making prints have quite a bit more in common than one might think.  In printing a series of colors one over the next, an artist is describing an interpretation of a visual experience and expressing some knowledge concerning his or her feelings and thoughts about that experience.  If we look closely at the print we can see how one color has been printed over the proceeding color in an attempt to define another aspect of the vision.  This process is similar to what an author does in explaining how the villain might have gone about planning say, a murder, or whatever other crime the author is depicting.  Both are attempts at offering us a revelation.  These attempts could be considered morally instructive, inspiring, good, bad or maybe just plain evil.       

Carving images on three or four pieces of wood and printing those images could be considered evil by some, I suppose, and I have seen prints that I thought to be pretty wicked.  Thankfully we are still living in a society which values freedom of expression or at least has not caused anybody to be burned at the stake as a result of that expression in quite some time.  Besides; making an image of something interesting is certainly not the same as the actual crime of murder or any of the other awful things people do to one another.  But there are some similarities in thinking about the means on how to accomplish such ends.  Authors obviously have to think about such things if they intend their writing to be taken seriously.  Certainly those processes have to be considered if the author expects to be able to get their point across or sell their stories.  

It may seem somewhat droll but the same kind of planning has to take place in organizing the process of making a woodblock print.  “I’ll have to print this light color first and then this darker color over that.  Will using this color make the sky believable?  Will there be enough detail in the last block to pull it all together and have the whole thing make sense?”  Sort of like thinking about what the bad guy is going to do and not get caught.  Or what the good guy is going to do to catch him and /or her.

I have heard it said that the mind is the builder.  In any of these varied mediums the author or artist has offered an attempt to give a sense of satisfaction in how we express a problem and it’s solution.  It is pleasurable in a seemingly rational and surprisingly obvious way when these varied disciplines are actually successful in interpreting our shared realities.