06 September 2014

Some (light) advice to paint in London

I think it would be useful for anyone attempting to paint "en plein air" here in London to read a bit about my experience as someone that has painted elsewhere. I do not mean to cover the subject thoroughly but just share some thoughts on what is different ...if anything. Of course any native will have a lot more to say or will  disagree on the subject but here it is for what it is worth.

What to bring with you: London art supply stores cover most needs as far as oil paints,  brushes and mediums. However you simply won't find any panel carriers, not in the stores, not online, nowhere. So bring yours or use an alternative method of wet canvas transport. I made the mistake of not bringing my carrier so I had to improvise.

To the left, this is how I did it. Bought two cheap wood frames 8"x10" or 5"x7" , hinges and tape at B&Q which is the 'Home Depot of London'.  I hinged the frames. I later bought some velcro straps with loops at John Lewis which is the 'Target" of London (hobbies and crafts section) and tied the frames that way. You will need to always carry two canvases so as not to expose the painting. Obviously the boards have to be the same size as the frames fit. You snap the painting in the frame when you are done and go home.

 Here is the next caveat. 8"x10",5"x7" and 12"x16" board sizes are common both in the US and the UK. But all other standard sizes in the US are hard to find here. So you won't find many 11"x14" but plenty of 10"x14" and measuring canvas in centimeters is as common as doing it in inches. I suspect the rest of Europe bans inches altogether. So bring canvas boards  if you intend to come back with standard sized pieces.

On a side note, I like a store called "Atlantis" which is around Brick Lane. It is very large but it is not always well supplied. There is a lady at the counter which is an artsy type, she wears racoon make up, never smiles and talks in a whisper. In the U.S. she would be promptly sacked but I've come to like how insufferable she is. Oh well, London.  

What you will need: In the UK, it rains. In Los Angeles we don't know what "rain" means  but here it is frequent, random and unpredictable.  Let me say that again: unpredictable. You can blame the weather app that displayed a smiling sun behind an innocent looking cloud  all you want. You can trust your gut till the cows come home when the morning is radiant and not a cloud drifts in the air. You'll get soaked. Just when you though you had it all figured out..you'll find out London is humid so it can feel like Bali in summer,  London is freezing in winter and the rain doesn't stick to a top to bottom pattern. The winds can be insane.... it gets dark very early in winter...you get the picture. It's the weather you have to be ready for.
So, you will need to be ready with an  umbrella, proper shoes or boots, proper attire like a poncho and weather proof hat, a quick escape route and some choice curses. Also bring watering summer days.

The Thamesis. Plenty of subject matter.

London has great painting potential, no doubt. If it is sunny, there's almost nowhere you can't find subject matter.  It's heaven for watercolorists with its mix of greys and browns and lush rain day reflections.  However, London is busy. Sometimes it's "I can't breathe, where did all these Italians come from" busy. The subway at peak hours makes sardines look like they are at a dance hall.  So to put it simply, avoid the underground at those times. Avoid attempting to set up your easel in busy avenues. Predict if possible how and when someone or something will need that "tucked away piece of sidewalk" you found suspiciously empty. Act a bit shy for once. Travel light. Personal space is a luxury. Personal space plus backpack plus easel will get you snarls. Bring patience, it will be tested if you decide to paint the tourist spots.

Bring things that will supplement the lack of urban furniture and facilities. Did you know sketching with pencil is allowed in most museums including the National Gallery?  A folding chair is a good idea.  And you will definitely need to go to the loo before you leave for an extended period! London is not toilet friendly.

You won't need a car for London. You won't want a car.

What to paint: That's up to you but there is a pattern you will notice in everyone from Constable to Turner. It's the sky. There has not been a day since I arrived when the sky wasn't putting on a show.
Pack your emerald greens, your Payne greys and your colder tones as well. It's green here. It's atmospheric here.

There is no area of London devoid of subject matter. May be London is a big bank/shop  at its heart. Development is king and the city under permanent reconstruction has devoured many old buildings encasing them in all sorts of new construction, sometimes with unfortunate results. But there is plenty of charm left and even the new stuff offers interesting subjects like the unreal massive buildings in Canary Wharf or the glass monoliths that dot the skyline. Anywhere around the river is a good spot for starters. Greenwich offers astounding views of the river. The Tower Bridge does not have a bad angle. And on and on. Don't fret, this is a too-much-to-paint kind of place.

Another watercolor by the river.

And  then there's people. If you like people, costumes, faces, crowds...here is the rainbow with every race and creed and age imaginable. Londoners are not -particularly-  friendly and there are plenty of chatty loud drunks that could kill a horse with a sigh  but you will find those who approach you very appreciative of your efforts and very knowledgeable and they might even say what you do is so "clevah" which I love because "clevah" is the last thing I am. And as in America, they all want you "to paint them in" and think you make tons of money and they duck when walking in front of you and they have an aunt that paints. Some things don't change. 

16 August 2014

Leighton House.

Let others visit Sherlock Holmes Museum or do the Jack the Ripper midnight walk (I am booking it the minute someone joins me). I headed straight for Leighton House - the former residence and studio of Sir Frederic Leigton, a very succesful victorian painter that was quite the sensation in his time. The house.

sketch of the exterior which gives little clue of the Orientalist phantasy inside
The house  has been lovingly and painstakingly restored, someone might say re-created. Don't let that deter you. Even if you are not a devotee of Leighton's dismayed classicism, there is much to love in this residence. From the Arab Hall and its incredible decoration with Turkish and Sirian tiles to the enormous and well designed studio. All of which is in sheer contrast with Leighton's own spartan bedroom or the green expanse of the garden.  Plenty or artwork to admire, including Leighton's accomplished "natural" sculptures and a beautiful Millais "Shelling peas", a gift from one master to another. Millais succeeded Leighton as president of the Royal Academy of Art.

Narcissus Hall, inspired by Pompeian ruins.
I stayed virtually all day. Since photography wasn't allowed, I asked if I could sketch. They were not only very happy I wanted to sketch in fact but gave me a foldable chair. "Just not on the mosaic please".
Leighton wasn't necessarily an interesting character. Born into great wealth he was free to pursue his artistic career at ease. He stood out as an outsider because he was well traveled and didn't seem particularly  interested in following Victorian or even British (at the time) conduct standards. He never married which gave rise to speculations -well founded ones I'd say but he was very private and never hinted at any passions or private affairs in all his correspondence- and he was quite generous with artists friends and models.

The golden dome from the exterior.

But Leighton the artist is another matter. He certainly conformed to  classical ideals and his artwork emanates a quietude and elevation that keeps it a bit beyond reach. In that sense, he was an artist of the elite. His technique is exquisite as it is his draftsmanship. But again, he very much remains in an Olympic stupor. Even his studies and smaller pieces stay immutable in their perfection. I found his landcapes from Egypt, Venice and Algiers particularly beautiful and there is quite a collection of them in the house-museum.

Sketch of the Arab Hall.

The artist's studio was spectacular as it befits a celebrity artist of Leighton's stature. Very modern in its concept  and design, it would work perfectly well today. On display were his palette and his pigments, the best money could buy. It's pointless to reflect what would Leighton's career had been if it hadn't been softly cushioned by his upbringing.  One suspects his art would have dwelled much less in the ethereal mythologies he created...may be his considerable talent would have seen him through.  Who knows. I'm projecting again...but my suspicion is that he would have joined the pre-rafaelites. He was acquainted with their deeds and Dante Gabriel Rossetti visited the house on occasion.

Snuck a picture of Narcissus Hall
There is a lot I didn't know about this painter, his neighbors (other succesful artists of the Holland Circle -after the name of the street ) and the house. One can easily spend two hours of inspired learning here. Once the Tate Britain and the National Gallery are out of the way, I'd say this is a good use of an afternoon and 8 quid.
Studio. 1890

15 August 2014


I am in London now. It was actually a bit harder to relocate than I had braced myself for. Nothing is straightforward in a city that just happens to be booming while the rest of the world is still in a slump. I am just one more immigrant (albeit with a job lined up which makes a big difference ). That means I found a skyline dotted with construction cranes, sidewalks lifted and a wall of people everywhere. Every transaction from opening a bank account to  finding a room or adapting to my new whereabouts tested my resolve which was not too iron-clad to start with.

One thing that struck me immediately: There is a LOT to paint in London. And I mean, a LOT. Not only is there  a melange of buildings old and new set against dramatic skies -it's all about the skies in English landscapes- but there is an ocean of people of all colors and creeds and dresses and faces...just heaven for people watching. And the leafy greens, and the grey, and the browns, those dirty muted browns against the summer or the  lurid yellow of construction crews ...and did I mention the skies?

On a separate but essential note: If you plan to come paint plein air in London know this : a) It rains a lot, unpredictably, heavily, and coldly. b)  It'll be windy. c) They do not sell "panel carriers" in UK. People mostly use the "matchstick system, I'm told. d) Standard  board format sizes are both in the  metric system and in inches with 8"x10" a frequent format. Your favorite format from the US might not be available. For some reason they favor square formats.

So I start my blog with some sketches. Done in  a paper not suited for watermedia and hastily but still with the urgency of this new visual buffet.  Just to get acquainted to this new landscape. My palette has steadily but surely started to shift away from warm saturated tones, (reserved now for cloud rims and traffic lights)  and  towards cooler greys (Payne grey has become essential), cooler greens (emerald, I hardly knew yee), and toasty brick  brown.

Shadwell. My chosen neighborhood.

Sketched while taking care of Laundry.

The River Thames

Sketching the hipster crowd in Shoreditch

One of my first stops was to the "Making Colour" exhibit at the National Gallery, a show where you get to explore pigment through the ages. The exhibits include minerals, insects and roots but most importantly, the masterpieces where they ended up. Every room was dedicated to a hue with the notable absence of Black and White but the fascinating incorporation of Gold and Silver instead.

Another stop was the  BP 2014 Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery , an impressive array of wonderful portraits done by a legion of talented artists. Most american artists will recognize awardi David Kassan. Spain was also proudly and magnificently represented.

Leighton's House in Kensington was an obligatory stop. But more about this wonderful place later.

02 July 2014

Going away.

 Where to start. So after 1 full year of official unemployment, my benefits are coming to an end. It's been panic after panic with depression settling in and a total lack of direction.  I've tried to keep up my painting and I'd say I was getting better and getting more opportunities but not "fast enough".
It didn't help that I forged ahead to try finishing my paralegal certificate - I am close but for 100 hours more of field work that I need.  I did a 12 week internship at the Federal Public Defender Habeas Unit (Capital cases)   - which I enjoyed - and kept taking computer graphics classes as a way to keep my skills on life-support. But.... a two-unemployed-people household is a place you don't want to be, trust me. Income is needed. Career changes can't take place in a vacuum and every piece of advice sounds as hollow as when you have a death in the family.

So when a job in London came up, I said 'yes'. Think about the consequences later.  And the consequences are heart wrenching. Most importantly, I'll have to be away from Armando and we are not happy.

But this blog is about art and its vicissitudes. 
I am more determined to paint than ever. And I'll do whatever it takes including stop painting to take a job in London. But this means some things needed to be taken care of:

 Sold my studio furnishings, my frames, my paints and even my easel to lighten the load on our household  while I am away and in case we need to do the "nomad" thing like so many of our former colleagues have done. I know it sounds paradoxical but I believe less stuff will help me focus.

My studio fire-sale.

Sold my art books. That was hard. 

Books now  gone. Inspiration comes from paintings.
Destroyed about 40 to 50 paintings that didn't cut it. I can't sell them because it wouldn't be fair to the people that have paid good money for the ones they have. I also got rid of some early works (from 1983 no less).

Pile of now destroyed paintings.
3) Cancelled a lot of shows I had scheduled. Good ones too like the Laguna Plein Air and a show at the Debra Huse gallery. This was probably the hardest thing to do but I can't commit to the effort without some pre-investment.

At the Debra Huse Gallery. "Family by the sea" 11"x14"

 I am taking my paints to London. Whenever I can paint, I will. I am also contacting some British painters in hopes of having some incentive to get out. However, I expect work will take 110% of my time as this is a new job and a new company.

On the brighter  side, I have a new gallery representing me: Hillside Fine Art in Claremont, California.  I've also dipped my toes in the interior decorator market that I can think can generate some great opportunities. And I have two new shows coming up right before I leave.  After all, it's only six months, I might be back. I even took a day to travel to San Diego and visit the "Sorolla in America" exhibition. Out of this world.

"Ephebe Fountain"  12"x9"Hillside Gallery, Claremont

I wish I could say I've learned something from this. But all I have found out is that yet again, I have to keep postponing my painting again and again...and again, just to make a living "right now".  I 've learned that the Unemployment Office couldn't give a flying  crap about your desire to be an artist ...but you knew that and why should they :).  I've learned there is not such thing as living outside of risk. Someone recommended I do "visualizations", well, it might work but the gap between where I am and what I visualize is a vast chasm to say the least.  

I type this in a muggy apartment surrounded by boxes. My partner just got more bad news from the labor front. But here is some visualizing for you: This is Dennis Zieminski studio in Glen Ellen. I like Dennis, he deserves the studio he's got and he works hard. That's irrelevant, I'm visualizing....


11 May 2014


Scattered. I've been calling myself that for a while now and it's time to take an informed pause. Running around trying to "do" everything is just wearing me down and it's like trying to build three houses at the same time, with different blueprints and materials and locations. You spend more time running between the houses than actually building them. 

From my last post it is clear that I cannot live from painting just yet. By character,  I am not willing to risk it all in the pursuit of expensive and self-fulfilling marketing strategies. I'd be glad to teach workshops but need to invest in serious transportation and again,  more marketing, more business structure. What can I say, my taste for risk is limited considering how "wrong" would look like and how clueless I still am. Here's to mentors' and supportive families (mine is, they are just too far.)

So I'm putting my painting on hold. No more shows, contests, memberships and no more framing (yay). I will paint, I can NOT help it, I will blog  until financing it competes with food and housing. I will talk about art till I'm blue in the face but job-finding is the new urgent matter that trumps the only thing that matters to me. Need to be cold and calculating (ha!)  about that.

Here are some pieces I did for the Segil and Tirage Galleries' sponsored outing at Arlington Gardens in Pasadena. I sold one painting which is great. And I truly enjoyed the scenery and I think it shows. Summer has started in Los Angeles and that's the time when I want to crawl in the freezer and not come out till October.

"Step Inside"10"x8"

"Time is of the essence" 12"x9"

"The Breeze" 14"x11"

30 January 2014

The numbers

Ok, so here are the announced numbers in as stark a way as numbers can have to deliver bad news. By the way, I pondered again and again whether I should post them. Is it tacky? Is it an invitation to unwanted attention from the IRS? Hardly. The IRS will be sorely disappointed.
My goal posting this as I've stated many times is mostly to help me confront them and may be help other artists confront theirs. Numbers have a wonderful (and horrible)  way of delivering the truth.

Last year, from painting and workshops I made a total of $36,530 . Sounds good! Call the tax agents!
Not so fast. That is the gross. 
After gallery and venue commissions,  I only took 63% of that gross:  $22,960$ . Uh-oh. That is also subject to taxation and I haven't done my taxes yet so I expect even less.
And then there are the pervasive Expenses. I am including the following categories of expenses:
Framing, Art Supplies, Entry and Membership fees and Studio rent. I am also accounting to a certain degree for some meals and gas while on painting trips. This expense list does NOT include things like rent, groceries, insurance, cell phone, etc...

So after expenses I am left with an optimistic 9K for the whole year. Not so good anymore. About 3,000 dollars below poverty level for a family of 1 actually.With the 13K I got from unemployment insurance for the year (try living on that), I've been able to cope.

The good news is that I sold of lot of artwork. The bad news is that I won't make a living selling it, at least not yet. The good news is that I can see people respond to my artwork . The bad news is that right now I am devoting all my energy to finding a job, retraining as a paralegal and taking  Maya and Nuke and Photoshop classes.

On a side note:   After seeing the Zorn exhibit in San Francisco through the prism of my situation, I realized that fabulous careers in art are usually made by great artists, duh, people whose amazing talent spoke for itself -first-. (Sorolla, Sargent, Zorn, they didn't need to advertise... lucky them.)
Marketing is great and necessary, it can make the difference between doing what you love and staying put in a lousy job. If a painting takes your breath away however, that's its own advertising. While I  like my paintings well enough  and I think I should promote them, I need to get better or win some awards or both. At least until I can spend the money on ads.

In any case,  these numbers are exactly what I needed to make decisions going forward and finish the rest of my business plan.  If I can't paint, life has little to offer so back to looking for a job.  Oh, and here is a painting, just for  kicks.

"The Castro, San Francisco" 9"x12"

14 December 2013

The "shuttle" job and the season.

Time for another rant... Not attractive.  I'll try to make it funny.

It's been a rough December. I'm keeping all the fires burning by updating my computer graphics skills through unemployment grants (not nearly enough time or $$ but I love Concept art and Photoshop now) , trying to bolster my plan B which is becoming a paralegal (One more semester) and, oh yes,  painting. I'm the busiest unemployed person you'll meet. Why so much, well,  you never know. People say you have to be ready when opportunity knocks -or luck strikes- either way. Also, you are supposed to create your own opportunities and cultivate your talents and what not....

What, you don't believe I might become a paralegal? Perish the thought! Here I am on a field trip  of the Phi Alpha Delta paralegal fraternity to the Richard H. Chambers 9th Circuit Apellate Court in Pasadena  posing  with judge Paul J. Watford in his chambers and looking at the view from his window instead of the camera. I asked if I could paint from there, he said no, politely.

Don't you just hate bumper sticker advice. I think they complicate things actually. I hate bumper  sticker "wisdom". One favorite..."Follow your passion".  Should come with a warning, flashing lights and a picture of ALL of those who did and are strewn in that path to their passions. It's grim.  Have you noticed only successful people quote that every chance they get?

Food for thought 1) May be your passion is what you learn to be good at. It s not handed to you, it is something you discover you can do well. And then, it becomes your passion, not the other way around.

So I am busy as hell but the most relevant realization came to me through my very depressing search for jobs. In the form of an epiphany. One uttered by Sylvia, a friendly face in the unemployment office.  Epiphany comes from the Greek "manifestation".  So this Sylvia, who became  a very nice lady once Armando met her because my Armando can charm a rock into  pudding,  "manifested to me"  that I was using my former job to support my painting like the Boeing carried the Shuttle to Los Angeles. So while painting looked like a "hobby" because it wasn't the main money producing enterprise, it really was what I was aiming  to protect. Even if it meant being miserable at work. 

See, I don't see me doing anything but painting so it's hard to gather up the enthusiasm to keep sending resume after resume. My former job looks so remote now . It's quite unsettling because to make things worse  I was cursed with a fabulous job with some very special attributes, people that bordered genius  and made you feel inept all the time  and good money. How do you follow that up? Still, it was just holding the metaphorical shuttle. It was a"shuttle job". Plain as day.

Food for thought 2) Being fulfilled in your job is quite a new concept. People didn't use to be able to afford to think in those terms. If your job makes you unhappy you probably suck at it, seriously. If you were good at it, you would be passionate about it. So either it is supporting something else  that makes you happy or you can quit now and get to be good at something else.

 People stop in the street and say "Oh, what a blessing to have that talent. I wish I could paint. " Or something of that sort. Of course they are just trying to be nice and it is great  that they feel that way. But my answer lately goes more like snapping "I wish I had a talent to make money, then I would actually be able to paint." or " I wish I had an entrepreneurial bone in my noggin' , sir,  just one."  No one can accuse me of *not* being dramatic. But it bugs me a little that people think that someone gave me this talent and that I had a say in the matter. I cannot not paint unless forced by chains, get it?

Food for thought 3) If you truly fully believe in God and you believe that this God gave you enough talents to succeed and has a plan of some sort,  you have the advantage of that belief and neither hunger nor homelessness  nor lack of health insurance should scare you because death is not the end.  I don't believe in a God, I want as a good a life as I can get while I'm alive  and I recognize this is my disadvantage because all my risk taking is measured but I could not pretend otherwise.

So the bottom line is that I still search for  another Boeing to carry this shuttle. I'm committed to keep the shuttle flying until it can do it alone.  Or just crash. What that means is that I don't really care what job I do or how I make money as long as it s not too illegal, too unhealthy or too demeaning (even though I'll make exceptions if the money is good :)  ). There are things I'd enjoy for sure like Concept Art, Paralegal work of substance, Museum assistant, etc... but I wouldn't be opposed to cleaning toilets. I have a great respect for people that clean toilets actually. In my view, they beat hedge fund managers  at societal usefulness. If you are a hedge fund manager, relax, you can handle a slur thrown in your marbled living room.

Food for thought 4) If you pursue just one thing, you are very likely to obtain it. I think people that have this type of monorail ambition are the luckiest people.  The second group of luckiest people is the people that do not regret abandoning pursuits the moment they get boring.

What. You don't believe I'm learning Photoshop? Here is a  painting  fully generated through Photoshop.

Being the depressive type  Christmas is such a f-ed up time - excuse my French-  but it is. One good thing is Los Angeles is actually bearable this time of year. It is the best time to paint in Los Angeles right now. Sorry Minnesotans. California in general, actually. So to switch the mood a little, here are some of my favorite things I painted recently in this wonderful weather we are having.

First , San Francisco. I HAVE to go back to see the Zorn show but I was there early November and managed to paint a few pieces that sold very well to great people.

"Fillmore" 9x12 sold.

Octavia, 14"x11"
"Lyon Steps" 8x10
 I should mention Vayermo, CA next. What a great location to paint in  Autumn. None of the heat, all of the desert color. I visited it twice.

"Valyermo" 11x14

The Ballona wetlands. I went there as part of a commission. Great location with a bit of water.

Balloan Wetlands. 11x14

As an aside. some lessons learned  about commissions. Especially large ones:
1) Draft a written agreement of what you will do and what you won't and for how much.
2) The agreement should include price, deadlines, approval of preliminary work procedures, delivery date and payment arrangements.
3) Your client should know your work and know what to expect.
4) Keep your client informed at regular intervals, even if you did nothing. Keep the commission fresh.
 5) Spell out details like framing, transport, delivery,ownership of preparatory work, budget.  It will save you many headaches.

 And here are some pics of a commission that had none of that and -because of that- might or might not ever end.

"Bruin Walk" 30"x40"

Selfie with Royce Hall painting 38"x46"


 In my next post I will declare how much money I actually made from painting based on my accounting this year. 2013  I will reveal how much I sold, how much it cost me to sell and purchase materials, pay fees and  pay gallery and show percentages.  I bet you can't wait. Some might think this is tacky but how on earth are people going to come up with an art business plan -remember I said gazillions of years ago I was working on one? - if you can't put it on paper.