Last year, my friend Sandi came by the gallery (Krab Jab) during an opening of an art show. She mentioned she recently snagged her dream job, working as an art director for Valve Software, which is a renowned game company here in Seattle. Sandi has an impressive rap sheet of direction jobs with game companies, so I wasn't completely surprised of her new job, but I was intrigued by her giddy excitement over her first project there.
I was aware of the game DOTA 2, although honestly, I haven't played much by the way of online games in a long time. She told me she was directing the new iteration, which was very special (at the time she couldn't say why; we now know its because it was designed by the great Richard Garfield, the designer of Magic: the Gathering). She told me she was recruiting "traditional" artists; artists and illustrators that tend to work in traditional media vs digital. She asked me for Tenaya Sims' contact info, as well as a list of local traditional artists that might want a gig in gaming, and she chatted up my biz partner Kyle Abernethy, who is also a traditional painter. I was just standing there, thinking. After she left, I texted her.
"Hey Sandi," I said, "Can I give this a shot? You can say no."
Sandi has art directed me before; she was one of my directors back in the Magic days. She is also a friend, and knows I tend to get sick or swamped a lot, so I'm a risk on that level. I'm also not an A List talent, like Tenaya, Howard Lyons, or Bastien Lecouff Deharme. But over the last 20 years I have polished up my skills - after all, Tenaya Sims and David Gray are two of my mentors. I can't be ALL bad.
"Just easy ones," I added. "No people. Objects. Things that are boring."
"Okay, let's do it," she texted back.
I originally asked for one assignment, but wound up with a small group of them. The first thing I noticed with this assignment was the sheer load of sketching to be done. This isn't a big deal or unusual, but I realized pretty quickly that digital sketching really comes in handy at this point, especially when the game team wants things sketched at various angles. I suck at working digitally. I have ALWAYS sucked at it, which is embarrassing as I used to work for Adobe Systems for several years.
One of the cards I was assigned had an object at an angle that was particularly challenging, as I was making up the design of the object altogether and it was rather detailed. Without a 3D modeling app, it was a difficult task, and we agreed that while they approved my design, it would be far easier if the actual art was done by an inhouse designer. This was a huge relief.
That left me with two pieces, one called "Healing Salve", and the other called "Traveler's Cloak". The Salve piece was already in the game, they just wanted the art reimagined, with a more interesting background. I sent in a color sketch of the salve bottle hanging from a string, along with various herbs, which was approved pretty quickly. It was a basic, simple still life, although all the elements were referenced off photos or the game itself.
Traveler's was a little more challenging; how do you paint a cloak on its own, in an appropriate background? The descriptor was also odd: "dusty" was a key word. At the same time, they wanted some bling with it. Dusty and blingy. Gotcha.
One of my biggest challenges on this game was having to work back and forth with their team on concepts, with Sandi as advocate. When working traditionally, in oil, its not easy to go in and change a composition or color on the fly or "try something" on a whim. This is pretty easy digitally, but you really have to be on the same page early on with traditional mediums like oil or watercolor. You also have to be ready to ditch your great ideas for the decisions of the team or director; you may think something looks awesome, but the team might see it otherwise. I do recall this from my experience in gaming and illustration, but the twinge of egotistical opposition still crops up nonetheless. Sandi was pretty easy to work with, but there were times when she had to change course on me, and I had to just suck it up.
My nerves also got the best of me; I saw what some of the artists were turning in for the game and it was pretty epic stuff. Most people nowadays know me as a curator or gallery owner, not a painter, so the pressure to succeed was weighing heavy on me. I'd sit, painting with David Gray, and spend a chunk of my time just fretting over everything. He'd tell me to just work, get over it. I was completely freezing up.
I imagined Sandi regretting ever bringing me on board, which added to my nerves. I'm slow, I'm old school, I'm not that good. On the one hand, I was having a blast painting all those birch trees, but the insecurity would seep in and ruin it all. Then I'd just stop and sit there. This is not professional behavior, this is amateur hour.
I did get the work in, just under the wire, and it was approved, which again was a relief. Since we were all under NDA contracts, we weren't allowed to show the art until the game released, and it was put on hold for nearly a year, but DOTA2: Artifact is finally out there. I am indebted to Sandra Everingham for taking a risk on me, and its exciting to be a part of a really cool game. Mostly though, I realized the ghosts of insecurity do the illustrator absolutely no good. Just do your best. That's all. Derp.
Thoughts on St Thecla
About a week ago, I drafted up a post about my most recent painting, "St Thecla and the Deer", which is currently in France for the Chimeria event, which opens early October. The painting was created specifically for this event, which is themed by life-affirming mythology. I was given permission to pursue a Christian subject, and I believe I was the only artist to do so, but only because my case for St Thecla was so impassioned.
However, the post I wrote up was blighted by frustration, like a bad Irish potato. I won't deny that the painting was probably one of my most frustrating creations and even my humanist friends pondered whether it was cursed. Everything that could go wrong certainly did so. But I came at it with a sense of blame, fingering every nearby element as to why things went wrong, when, in actuality, the problem lay in the painting's intent.
Let's start with the initial intent: St Thecla herself. St Thecla was an early Christian, a follower of St Paul. A member of the noble class in Turkey, Thecla overheard St Paul's gospel as she sat by a window in her home. Overcome by the Holy Spirit, she was so moved by the gospel of Christ that she denounced her engagement (she was a young girl with a hefty dowry) and chose instead to follow St Paul and the path of Christ. Her mother, furious, sent the authorities after her, and Thecla was arrested, her punishment being death by mauling of beasts. However, upon being thrust into a local coliseum ring, the female lions amongst the group of animals made a ring around her, protecting her, and her life was spared.
Thecla was not a wilting flower; being very beautiful, she was often accosted by men during her wanderings, and had no problem staving them off on her own, with little help from St Paul or her other companions. Intelligent, well spoken, and deeply committed to the cause of Christianity, St Paul assigned her an Abbey and she became the first Abbess. In her 80s, her Abbey was attacked by marauding Arabs, and she was able to stave them off and save the Abbey.
She was a popular saint up until the 10/11th centuries, when the Church felt she was an inappropriate female saint (versus, say, the Virgin Mary). She was too autonomous and headstrong of a figure, they felt, a poor role model for the weaker vessel, and she was wiped from Western gospels. If it weren't for the Orthodox church, she'd be a blip in Christian lore, but she remained a strong and steady saint in the eastern church, and in the last 50 years her cult has grown.
In Christian symbolism, the deer represents chastity. St Thecla took an oath of chastity, even cut off her hair as a symbolic gesture.
My painting represents the moment Thecla recognizes her calling. She holds a fallow deer in a field, with birch trees in the background and a large, looming cloud. She's mostly in shadow, the sunlight creeping up from behind her. Birch trees are not indigenous to Turkey, but I find them mysterious and interesting and fun to paint. There are brambles in the horizon that look a little like razor wire, representing her hardships to come, and the cloud veils the future. Her dress pattern vaguely resembles the female reproductive organs - I noticed this as I was painting it, it wasn't intended at first. All the things she sheds in life- marriage, children, dowry, family ties - these things were all that mattered to a young affluent woman of her culture, and she shed them all to serve the gospel of Christ. All the things that make her a pretty portrait are just an illusion. I intended to make the deer the most realistic part of the painting, even though it was the actual symbolic figure, in order to drive home the head-flip of fantasy and reality.
So this, in a nutshell, was the original intent of the painting.
I now see that the painting process was riddled with problems because my own state of mind was elsewhere, and that manifested as compositional mistakes, color palette problems, value issues, and finally actual weirdness like my brushes going missing (they were in a traveling case, and the thing disappeared for weeks, and popped back up literally an hour after completing the painting, in a bizarre location nowhere near my studio). The painting should have taken a few weeks to paint at the most, but it took nearly six months. While I was painting, I was dealing with the feels of closing my longtime gallery, detoxing off a medication I'd been on for years, having an Addisonian Crisis and hospitalized (adrenal failure), ending my tenure as a curator, moving my painting studio, fighting with the IRS over tax returns, and finding out our building was being sold. I also realized I couldn't travel to Sedan, France, to the opening of Chimeria, as my health won't allow it.
The frustration, disappointment, and sadness veiled the clear path of creation, making the painting process a very rocky road. My mind buzzed the entire time I worked. I made the weirdest rookie mistakes again and again, often winding up sanding down the results and starting over. The fact that the painting came together at all is a miracle, and really came down to the last few painting sessions, the last few glazes. In hindsight I can see all the missteps, but while I was in the thick of it, I was blinded by the things swirling around me, completely unable to connect with the painting until the very end.
Many of the things plaguing me at the time have since resolved themselves, or I've come to terms with. For me, the lesson of St Thecla was the reminder that there is a Bigger Picture; the tornadoes of Now don't represent the totality of a weather system, and even they have an expiration date. There's nothing wrong with disappointment or sadness, frustration, resentment: they're just feelings. But they can manifest themselves into a reality, gunking things up, especially if they manifest into the creative process. As I channeled all this into the painting sessions, I gave myself a far worse time than it could have been. And much worse, I missed out on the relationship I could have built with this painting.
St Thecla, work in progress
"St Thecla and the Deer" is slowly (I and emphasize "slow" here) coming along. I had electricians tearing apart the lower half of my house, including my home studio. My painting studio at Mainframe/Krab Jab Studio was an oven, due to the intense greenhouse August we're experiencing in Seattle. Plus, I was working long days preparing for what is now my last curatorial show.
As I've stated in an earlier blog post, I realized she's gotta go through veils of glazes to get where I want her, particularly with her skin tone. I actually went into the studio to work on that, along with adding her damask blue patterning on her dress. However, I really wanted to add blackberry brambles into the horizon line, and textured the grass, which I hadn't really touched in a while. I also felt that the deer needed more work, I hadn't done anything to it since I first painted it. I didn't get too far; after about three hours, the temperature in the studio soared up into the high 80s and a nice heat headache began to bloom. I started making rookie mistakes, and to boot, I've lost most of my good brushes ("misplaced" is probably more accurate) so I'm using spares, along with a makeshift mahl stick. All this is a recipe for potential disaster.
I probably have about 5 more glazes to apply to the painting ("glazes" are thin, transparent layers of paint that basically tint the surface of a painting). I want to do a little more definition work to Thecla herself, and soften up her hands. Her hair actually flows down her dress but I will add that after I add the damask blue pattern in. I have a few more weeks to work on her before she's finished and ready to varnish, frame, and ship out to France. I'm fairly confident I can get her to where I want, but boy did I learn my lesson on cutting corners in my process!
For the Love of Glazes
As I'm working on this painting called "Saint Thecla and the Deer", I've bumped up to a chronic problem with the figure, namely, how to handle her skin tone. She's in shadow, and the reality of shadow is that its not black. There's a myriad of tone and color in a shadow, including reflective light, and I'm kind of flying blind a bit with this painting because the photo was shot indoors with a lot of ambient lighting. I finally had to convert the reference photo to grayscale to keep myself from getting confused with what I'm trying to do vs what I'm seeing in the photo. I'm using a Waterhouse painting for the palette reference at the moment.
The reality of the situation is that the painting needs to build up in glazes, which are transparent layers of paint, mostly medium based vs paint based, so the particles of pigment are suspended in the medium. This allows light to pass through and bounce back, giving paintings a luminosity, as well as allow the eye to "mix" the colors. Its also incredibly time consuming.
I naturally like to glaze, and often my paintings will have 8 or more layers of glazes on them. Its a slow process and I'm a slow painter, so when I am hitting a deadline, I start to panic a little, which was the case with this painting. I tried to cut corners and paint the figure opaquely, but I'm kind of a shitty impasto painter and it was coming out very garish. I had to wipe down hours of work more than once on this. A few days ago I had to resolve to just suck it up and build up the glaze layers, so I've applied a few of them, a glaze a day, to the figure of Thecla. I've been slowly warming up the shadows. I jumped the gun with the blush on her face but I'm glazing over that with some yellows and pinks later this week. I actually went over the whole figure with a greenish gray, just to bring the values back down so I can rebuild, so she's still a little grayish.
The only thing that's close to finished is the birch trees behind her. That has been glazed a few times and I'm happy with them. Don't they look happy, like they're saying "hooray!"? I didn't intend that, but it works. I'll be adding some brambles on the horizon, deepening the grass (and add some flowers) and of course keep working on Thecla and her deer. I've got about a month to work all this out -- her dress is complete fabrication, I'm adding a blue damask floral design to it based on a Fortuny dress, but ultimately its fantasy, all made up. Made-up folded, patterned fabric is no easy task, lemme tell ya.
Anyway, I have several glazes to go on this but I think its the only way I can safely traverse these waters to get where I want to go. I've tried the "other ways" and floundered. One of these days I'll improved with a more opaque, impasto approach, but I'm terribly out of practice, seeing as I've only put out three paintings in the last year that are full blown oils.
But its coming along!
So this summer my frame shop, Mainframe, is hosting a photography show by Paul Hernandez entitled "Star Gazing". Its a collection of photographs, many never published, of Seattle bands of the late 80s/early 90s, including the grunge greats such as Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, as well as Green Apple Quickstep and even an awesome early shot of Duff McKagan. Most of the images are in black and white and either shot in the studio, or in places like The Vogue or Central Tavern. Some are shot out in the urban decay of Seattle (under trestles, abandoned buildings, crumbling edifices of the south side). There are a lot, I mean a LOT, of photos of Alice in Chains, but it makes sense since Paul befriended the band and fraternized with them in and out of the professional shoots. Because of that, he managed to catch a lot of "inside the moment" shots, when the guys let their guard down, sometimes smiling when they shouldn't, exhaling the pressure of the day, just being dumb kids on the cusp of Whatever.
I poured over the images, all made the "old fashioned" way in a darkroom from these things called Negatives, many of them pocked by time and needing retouching by hand, which Paul has done lovingly. These guys were all a couple years older than me -- Duff and I even attended the same high school -- and like most of us kids in Seattle, I was both super pumped and a little alarmed at how quickly they all skyrocketed into fame in such a compressed amount of time. I hardly turned 21 before the tavern shows were a thing of the past, and now all these bands played arenas and Lollapalooza and being a five foot nothing girl, it was impossible to see anything in a big show. Plus, I was in art school and couldn't afford more than a $5 cover charge, so I figured, fuckit, I'll just buy the damned CDs, watch the damned videos on MtV, and build my own empire. Which I did, by the way.
And these guys were my soundtrack.
I have plenty of Seattle musician friends, ex-girlfriend friends, I-used-to-hang-out-with-Jeff-in-1987 friends, so I have gotten a few stories about This Guy or That Chick. I've even hung out with a few of these rock stars - my face blindness is so bad, I've spent time with a couple rock stars and didn't realize it until much later on, which is kind of a mixed blessing for all involved (Sean Kinney needs to thank his Gods for the hour we spent talking about art, me being totally clueless as to who I was talking to, even when he mentioned his name very sheepishly and I just blankly stared at him like "ok, so what?", even though my little brain was like, wait, whoa, wait, noooo, really? It was such a great art conversation, I didn't want to blow the mood). Seattle is a tiny Big Town - if you grew up here, you can't help but know someone who knows someone. And people love to talk.
Paul, however, is kind of different to talk to. He's a different duck, to start with. He still dresses the part of a grunge guy, 30 years later, only his hair is silver, but still unflappably long. When he talks, his whole body moves, like a willow tree in the wind. His head bobs up and down, as if he's taking everything in at all angles; his conversations are not for the lazy. Its like Butoh with words.
He's very soulful, and can easily switch from a comment about crappy traffic to computations on the meaning of life, and you sense that whatever is on his mind will not be censored. I have learned that about photographers: they really do shoot from the hip. They understand the pregnancy and gestation of the moment, and there's nothing to waste, especially time and bullshit, of which they seem to tolerate very little of. They are both patient and anxious. Paul is very much on that razor's edge, a monk on the verge of losing his shit. But he never does.
When Paul showed me his photographs, he emitted both excitement and sorrow. I swear, if you see the photos reflected in his eyes, they wouldn't be static black and white images but moving pictures, living memories of a bygone time. The stories he tells tumble out hodgepodge and I can't keep them straight: did he get kicked in the head at a Pearl Jam show or Alice in Chains show? Was it Stone Gossard he cried with over the death of Andrew Wood? Whose idea was it to shoot pics at the old train trestle with which band again? I know I'm listening, but the stories, they tumble, and anyway I'm overly distracted with the photos before me and my own memories and the feels that wash over some stagnant part of my old lady brain, and, and, and... God, they all look so YOUNG.
Paul is a wizard. It doesn't matter what he says at this point. His magical camera apparatus caught reflective light bouncing off these mortal figures, these musical gods, my hometown heroes, and his magical brain picked the very second, the perfect second, to snap these photos and capture their souls and deliver them to my table at my frame shop. Paul keeps talking, and it doesn't matter. He could tell me he was Eddie Vedder's Siamese Twin and they did a vaudeville act together until they were separated in 1984, and it doesn't matter. The truth sits in front of me on photo paper, and also behind my optic nerves, the shooting stars in my own mind. Its not about him. Its not even about these musicians. Truth is, its all about me. How all of this shaped me. That's why the bands are so important, why we so badly want to "know" these people. When they die, I die too. Its why its seems to hurt so bad. I didn't have to know Layne Staley personally to be able to connect to whatever soulful energetic cable he was tethered to, through his music and voice. I took that energy and glomed it to my own during my painting sessions, and voila, I made game art and paintings and gave those to the world and now some kid out there plays Magic the Gathering with a little bit of Layne in there. And that kid will take that and make his own art or music or stories or whatever, and pass that along. See, its a beautiful thing, right?
Paul does matter, of course. His photos humanize these young men, remind us of how bright and honest and full of life they were, how we all were like that once. When we all *wanted* to be rock stars. That's what Star Gazing is really about; its not a death cult, or a rehash-the-past, or even a cash-in-on-nostalgia. I mean, it *could* be, but it isn't. Its mostly about us. Me. You. Paul. Seattle.
When the show opens in August, we've decided not to release a catalog, printed or online. Some of the images are too raw and controversial to publish right now - in fact, Paul has to get the blessing of the Staley family for one of them, it may get pulled altogether. But mostly, the photos need to be seen in person, as a group, in Seattle. I hope if you're in the Seattle area and you read this, you take a quick trip to Georgetown to visit this retrospective while its up.
(Show info: "Star Gazing: A Paul Hernandez Retrospective, Seattle Catalogue 1989-1993" opens Friday, August 10th, 7-9 pm with musical guest Tim Bertsch at Mainframe 5628 Airport Way S, Ste 150 Seattle. Runs August 11-October 7, 2018)
St Thecla and the Deer
I'm currently working on a new painting called "St Thecla and the Deer", expressly created for a show/event in France called Chimeria, which opens October 6th. Most of the artists invited are visionary or fantastical artists, and the theme is Myth. St Thecla is not a mythical person, she was a real person, but her life story has many magical elements to it, creating a sort of Christian myth.
But then... I got hit with a couple of issues. One was the reality of shipping such a large panel to France. The other was time. The amount of time to complete a large scale painting like this did not match up with my measly painting schedule. So I had to edit my idea down, and Thecla was revised to a square panel of about 24 x 23", in portrait form.
I have to admit, I didn't really do my homework on the composition very well. I normally do several thumbnail sketches, and then a full value sketch before working on the actual painting. Instead, I sort of attacked the panel with conte crayons, drawing directly on the panel, which does work in many cases but since its a new way of doing things for me, I wasn't able to make reliable decisions on the composition.
What resulted was me making a lot of changes mid-stream... which sometimes is fun, but slows everything down considerably.
The first change I had to make was the dress color and the general colors of the piece. The idea of a red dress worked in the full figure version, but not in this case. The use of high chroma -- intense colors -- would be claustrophobic in such a tight, portrait composition. I repainted her dress in gold tones but what I'm going to do is add a blue damask pattern on top of the gold, a sort of floral patterning common in Renaissance dress.
The second change I had to make was Thecla's hands. She kind of looked like she was choking out the deer. So I sanded down that area and added a softer composition.
Finally, the birch trees were too thick, too cool in tone. They looked like prison bars. So I sanded those down and made them warmer and thinner. I will add more branches to them once the paint dries, to give a sort of halo effect around her head.
Most painters understand the idea of the underpainting; you're laying down the building blocks of the painting. I work out a lot of my kinks and I like to build up texture in this state, but the details are not set. I like to glaze; I usually do several layers of glazes on my paintings, building up luminosity. At this state, things are pretty flat and bleh. Details are missing. Highlights are missing. Things don't really come together until way later in the game, which is why I am not very comfortable showing my work at unfinished states.
I know its not the easiest, cleanest way to work, and normally I would not have cut some of the corners I did on this piece due to time constraints. However, I kind of like the nature of the hunt, finding the painting, you know? I'll keep y'all posted on the progress of this piece as I hammer away at it, but I guarantee its going to look quite a bit different the next time I post an update.
Hugo is my not-quite-three-year-old Boxer. He is a very complex dog: he can be playful, but then suddenly cranky and sullen. He'll want to eat whatever you're eating, but when you finally give him a little bit of what he's been literally drooling for, he'll roll it around his palate a few seconds, spit it out, then stare at you in disgust, as if you've just pranked him.
I think he may be an old soul; while he does have typical Boxer traits (jumps, plays, kinda dumb, wiggles his butt a lot), he does appear to get lost in thought. After a few minutes of Deep Thoughts, he'll come over to me, whine a little, and want an ear scratch or belly rub. He'll thank me with a hearty lick to the face, then settle down for one of several daily naps, usually right next to me on the couch.
Sometimes I'll talk to him about my day, or things that bother me. I know he listens because if I raise my voice, he'll appear quite concerned. Sometimes he'll "talk" back, a sort of Scooby Doo sounding retort, and if I don't let him get air time, he'll get frustrated and speak louder and louder until he starts barking at me in utter exasperation.
So to honor him, I am calling this blog "Hugo Howls". I want a place where I can talk a bit about the very real issues of having an autoimmune disease that literally saps my life energy, or what it can be like being an old-school visual artist, or the pitfalls of dealing with chronic pain. Sometimes I want to talk about my dogs (I also have a Boxer named Duke), weird things about my hometown, or the art of fishkeeping. Really though, I just like talking a lot.
Julie Baroh is a US artist, entrepreneur, and chronic chatterbox.