My Thoughts... Exactly!

Hey, you wanna know what I think?

Category: Acrylic

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Bain De SoleilI sat down and watched a movie last night that really touched me in many ways. The Pursuit of Happyness, with Will Smith is a must-see for anyone over 12 in America. It embodies the American Dream like nothing I have seen

But this is not a review of the movie, even though it does stir up a lot of my old forgotten emotions from the time period in which it was set, 1981, when I was just beginning my career as an illustrator. One of the things that impressed me was the movie sets, with authentic period decor… starting with the Ban de Soleil tanning lotion ad in the picture above.

Ban de Soileil was the tanning lotion of choice for snobs — or at least I thought so, sitting there on the beach with my bottle of baby oil and iodine.

PSA Taxi Card - 1981I knew they had done their research when this scene flashed by. Will’s character gets into a taxi with a Dean Whitter exec, and the ad card on the roof was a pristine PSA Airlines ad.

PSA was “out of business” by 1988 when acquired by USAir, but for the seven years they used that particular airplane illustration that had been incorporated into their logo, I seethed.

See, I was a new illustrator on the San Diego scene. After a nine-month stint as an in-house illustrator with General Dynamics, Covair Division in Kearny Mesa, I got washed out in a 400-employee downsizing, and found myself treading the scary waters of the unemployment pond. Rather than stand in line for government assistance, I hit the streets with my college portfolio, first meeting with San Diego Illustrator Darrel Millsap — who became a friend, and a mentor of sorts — and then to design groups and ad agencies, always asking for more referrals.

This all brought me to the little design team of Clem and Bonnie Schwartz who hired me, that day, to do an illustration of a PSA plane flying up and over to the viewer’s right. They were preparing a 2-page, black and white spread in a newspaper campaign, and wanted to dress it up with an illustration of the plane with the signature “smile” on the front.

I took the job. It paid $750, and I needed to pay my rent.

I went down to Lindbergh Field, stood outside the fence and shot pictures of departing PSA flights with a zoom lens on my film camera, prepared an under-drawing for my final illustration, got it approved, and then received a phone call from the Schwartzes. They wanted me to “paint it in color, just in case at the last minute PSA decides to run the spread with color.” I figured that wasn’t that big of a deal, so I complied.

PSA Airlines Artwork

I painted this in 1981 for a one-time newspaper ad.
It was then used as the company logo, with no additional compensation.

They loved my finished illustration… …so much so that they took advantage of me [read: royally screwed] and told me after a month or so that they could not release my payment to me without my signing-over copyright and ownership of the original art.

Now, even though I was a little green, I knew that there were at least 3 valuable assets attached to any original work for which an illustrator should be compensated:

  1. time in creating the work of art and the associated, pre-planned usage rights for which the commission is therefore engaged,
  2. ownership of the original artwork, and
  3. copyright to the work.

Whomever owns copyright — inherently with the artist unless transferred or sold in writing — can do with it whatever they please.

But, like I said, I had rent to pay.

They told me this was just a formality, and that I had nothing to be concerned about [except that signing it was the only way to get my check], so, trusting them (did I mention green behind the ears?) I signed the agreement [which gave them copyright] and my check came a few days later.

Within a month, the illustration had been incorporated into their previously barren PSA logo, and was used in virtually all print and media advertising until their merger with USAir in 1988.

I never saw the original art again, and I never received a penny more in compensation.

Movie note: The guy at Dean Whitter that keeps asking Gardner (Will’s character) to get him some coffee is none other than Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson.

Draped in Satin

As a beginning illustrator and very "wet behind the ears" in 1980 when I set out at 22 to make a living right out of art school, all I knew was "fast media" — I had only used oils in a few figure painting classes, and didn’t know the medium well. None of the instructors I had really talked much about the inherent properties of oil, drying time, block-ins, washes, etc., so Oils were a mystery to me until 2000, 20 years later, when I decided to learn them "for reals."

Old Acrylics
Click the picture for a larger view

Acrylics dry fast, so that’s what I used when doing all my time-sensitive commercial work. I did a lot of airbrush work back then, so It was an obvious choice. Still, the darks in acrylic dry a step or 2 lighter, and the lights dry a bit darker by the time the water has "flashed off" — so it was always a wait-and-see game, for me.

I decided to try a small figure painting in acrylic, using washes, glazes and scumbling to achieve an atmospheric effect. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane. For starters, some of the still-good tubes of acrylic I have are older than many of the people on my mailing list. In the picture of some tubes of mine, you can see that I dated them, sometimes, so I would know when I bought them — never thinking I would actually have them nearly 30 years later. The tube in the middle, dated 9/85 is a sure tell. But if you’re a Pasadena local, you know that the tube to the left (Modular Color) was from an old product line that was hue and value-based, sold in metal tubes, and in this case, from "Standard Brands" paint store on Orange Grove in Pasadena — that store long ago having changed hands. (The $1.03 price tag is certainly nostalgic!) That store tag means I bought it during my school years, 1977–1980. Yikes-squared!

And it still flows.

I put the near-full "Portrait Pink" tube in the picture to show how useless therefore largely-unused it is.

But I digress…

Stage 1 – The drawing in pencil and then brownish acrylic

I started with a canvas glued to 1/8" luan mahogany plywood. You can’t see it here, but the canvas has been highly textured with modeling paste, knifed– and bushed–on, coated in gesso, and sanded.

Stage 2 –  A quick, warm/neutral wash of acrylic:
Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna, greatly thinned with water

Stage 3 (2.5, really)  — I pat it and wipe it down quickly before it dries to get rid of
the drips and brush marks.

Stage 4 – I start re-working the darks before I completely lose my drawing,
then do another 2 or 3 washes over it.

Stage 5 — I alternate between warm and cool washes of color.

Here, a Payne’s Gray wash has been added mostly at the top. By the way, Payne’s Gray is merely a premixed Ultramarine Blue and Ivory Black — it says so right on the label.

Stage 6 — A Yellow Ocher wash has been added, plus some reworking
of the lost highlights using Titanium White Gesso and water.
Burnt Sienna is used in the shadows to keep them from going too dark, for now.

Stage 7 — Creating atmosphere with more thin washes.

Yellow Ocher and Burnt Sienna both have a slight opacity to them — they are not true transparent colors, like Ultramarine is. Therefore, they tend to lighten. This begins to create a "foggy," more unified look to the lights and darks. This also ties the cool highlights back to the color scheme.

Stage 8 — I wash in some local color and re-enforce the highlights.

I want a warm-to-cool graduated background, and I want something light behind the head to bring out the profile, so I start working the cool light on the wall. I also add the red of the drape on the chair, while reinforcing the satin white.

Close-up — A bit blurry, sorry!

Stage 9 — Oil Wash or Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber, Turp and Linseed Oil

What???

You may object to oil paint being used in an acrylic painting since one cannot paint with both. This is mostly true. The astute among you will know that you cannot paint acrylic over oil — ever. But the reverse is not true. You can paint oil over (dried) acrylic. This is completely archival.

The really super-astute among you will realize that this last stage — where I am leaving off for now — is where I became frustrated with the way the acrylic painting was going, seeing the seemingly endless work ahead to get what I wanted, therefore I "changed horses in the middle of this stream."

Goodbye acrylic, for now. This painting has plenty of potential, and it’s only going to be realized if I enjoy painting it, so… I did what I had to do. For now, I like oils better, and I believe I can finish this faster/sooner and with greater artistic freedom in oils.

Paint Smarter™

—Dave