Wednesday, December 6, 2017

If Picasso Painted a Snowman

The following is an interview I did with Howard Lyon for  Muddy Colors regarding the creation of our new book If Picasso Painted a Snowman. Thanks Howard for permission to repost it here!

My friends Amy and Greg Newbold have recently collaborated on a book called If Picasso Painted a Snowman. I think this is the first children's book that I have ever reviewed on Muddy Colors (I hope it isn't the last, there are so many great picture books out there). I happened to stop by Greg's house on the same day received pre-release copies of his book (I was there to pick up some black walnuts, he has a GIANT giving tree that I believe, without exaggerating, will let me produce about 30 gallons of ink).

This a wonderful book! Many of the readers of MC have kids or are aunts and uncles. This book is for you and yours (I'm including an Amazon link here and at the end of the interview). It is a great introduction to a large variety of artists and their work, but also opens up the imagination to all the possibilities of different artists paint, but also how different thinkers might approach the same challenge.

I asked Greg and Amy if I might interview them for MC. Here goes!

Where did the idea for the book come from?

It all started several years ago when my wife Amy visited Paris with her sisters on a girl’s trip. During a visit to the Picasso Museum she asked the question “What would it look like if Picasso painted a snowman?” She envisioned a book that would teach kids about significant artists and art movements in a fun and engaging way. Honestly, it was to be the book that we could never find for our kids in all the years of taking them to museums. For several years she polished the manuscript, we showed it around and reworked it. Nobody caught the vision of what we wanted to do until Tris Coburn at Tilbury House Publishers in Maine bought our pitch.

What was the most challenging part of creating illustrations in the styles of such a variety of artists?

Since I was young, I have always enjoyed the challenge of learning new styles or techniques. Like most budding artists, I started by trying to copy other artists’ work. In high school I did Prismacolor replicas of album covers and copied drawings from guys like Frank Frazetta and the Hildebrandt brothers. I sold some of them for ten or twenty bucks. Once in college I had the legitimate option of creating an old master copy painting instead of writing a paper. My professor told me my Van Gogh was the best copy she had ever seen because I tried so hard to get the materials and surface texture correct.

Because I like to experiment with new materials and processes, I also find it very instructive to paint these master copies. Studying and trying to recreate the works of great artists allows you to deconstruct and learn from the masters and it’s something I have done on and off over the years. This book gave me the opportunity to learn about the materials and processes of seventeen different artists. Some of those chosen for the book were quite familiar, as I had studied the likes of Grant Wood and Van Gogh. Others Like Jacob Lawrence and Sonia Delaunay were previously unknown to me.

Grant Woods Snowman - The stern coal mouths are perfect
I dug into their processes online and tried to find books that described the way they worked and what materials they used. My goal was to mimic each artist’s materials and process as much as was practical. Of course there are new materials available today and the time crunch I was under forced me to make some adjustments. For instance, the Roy Lichtenstein piece was created digitally as I had neither the time or inclination to figure out where to screen print it and there was no way I was going to get the Ben-Day dots right painting it by hand. Also, scale was sacrificed on a number of pieces.

Roy Lichtenstein Snowman - I love this one!

The J.M.W Turner painting I made is a miniature compared to most of his other pieces as is the Georgia O’Keeffe, who also typically worked much larger than I could justify. Sometimes materials had to change. For instance I painted the Grant Wood in acrylic rather than oil. It was a speed issue and I rationalized that Wood painted his oils using layers of crosshatch anyway, so the result was very similar.

Georgia O'Keefe's snowman is beautiful.
Is there one that you enjoyed the most or least?

Honestly, this entire project was a dream to work on. It was just so fun to try new things. I learned how to make a direct drawing monoprint for the Paul Klee piece, played with gold leafing for the Gustav Klimt painting but the most fun was probably the Jackson Pollock painting. I went all in to figure out what he was all about. I had previously read Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock by William Taylor Adams and I was totally intrigued by Pollock.

As a young artist I scoffed at Pollock thinking that it was just a bunch of random drips on canvas, but as I dug deeper, I began to understand what his “action paintings” were all about. Also, watching the ten-minute documentary filmed in 1951 by Hans Namuth was helpful. In the film, Pollock is seen painting outside and his voice narrates the process. I purchased a large-ish piece of raw linen and several quarts of Pollock-esque colored latex paint for the painting, forgoing the oil enamel Pollock preferred in the name of practicality. I used sticks and hard brushes to drip and fling the paint while walking all around the perimeter just as Pollock did in the film (minus the cigarette and discordant music). It was a little windy and I even had some grass and sticks get embedded in the painting. It was so much fun, there are plans for a Pollock party to let some of our friends create their own “Jackson Pollock”.

What is your hope/goal for this book?

As I mentioned at the outset, this is the type of book we wished we could have found for our kids at one of the many museums we dragged them to. We tried to put across the idea that the possibilities are endless when creating art and that you should not be intimidated or limited by what some people perceive as “rules”. There is no right or wrong way to create art, simply techniques that either allow or prevent you from achieving the vision you have for your art.

We have tried hard to make it more than just an overview of different art styles. With it’s simple text, it also reads as a nice bedtime story, hopefully appealing to fans of snowman books, gift books, or art books in general. There are enough inside jokes to appeal to adults as well. At the end of the book we have also included expanded bios and art making tips. We hope that parents, teachers and children embrace this book as permission to explore art with freedom and joy.

After reading the book, I want to draw a Caravaggio/Bouguereau/Waterhouse/Watterson/Frazetta snowman!

Are there artists whose work you didn't imitate but you would have liked to?

There are too many to count. Luckily we are in negotiations with our publisher to create a follow up book, so hopefully I’ll get to play with another batch of styles with that project.

How did you decide what artists to include?

With so many artists to choose from, it became a question of which ones would be recognized, which ones would add variety and touch on major movements and also which ones whose styles I felt confident enough to try to mimic. We also tried to choose artists that we were fairly sure never painted a snowman. Some artists did not make the cut for one or more of those reasons. We also tried to include a variety of artists including women and ethnically diverse painters. Knowing the overwhelming majority of dead white European artists that crowd the annals of art history, we knew it was impossible to give any sort of equality of diversity to the group, so we did our best and focused on the overall variety in the book.

Gustav Klimt Snowman. Beyond the theme of the book and Klimt's style, this is a touching painting!
What other books or projects would you like the audience to know about that you have been part of?

This year was crazy in that I have never had two new picture books released in the same year, let alone create all the art in that same year. I did all the art for If Picasso Painted a Snowman from January to March and then all the art for The Little Match Girl (coming from Shadow Mountain October 17, 2017) from April to mid July. In the past, I would have shied away from both of those time frames, but I’m at a point now where I have enough confidence to just say yes and figure out the logistics later.

In my twenty plus years as a full time artist, I have worked for most of the large New York publishers and have been fortunate to have my work accepted into all the major juried illustration shows over the years including, Society of IllustratorsCommunication ArtsSpectrumAIGA and Society of Illustrators, Los Angeles. I’ve also done quite a bit of advertising work for clients like FedexAmerican ExpressSmuckersHeinz and the like.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Here's the Scoop!

I am pleased to be working with Pioneer Theater Company again this year after a single season gap. I have done probably close to twenty posters for their various productions over the years reaching back to very early in my freelance career. It's always a pleasure to create new work for stage productions and I look forward to it whenever I get the chance.

This year's assignment happens to be for the musical version of Newsies. I admit I have never seen the film but I am looking forward to seeing the stage version later this year.  Here's some of the process.

Theater provided this photo as direction
The theater provided me with an historical photo of a newsboy that they thought had the feel they were going for and I in turn found a few more that I felt added a little more of the feel I wanted.

Since the intent was clear as far as the pose, I did something I don't normally do which is bypass the rough sketch and go straight to the photo shoot. Two willing neighbor boys, with the help of their mom, who held the lights for me were my models.

They did a great job and I ended up combining details from both of their shots to come up with my drawing.

After some consultation with the client, I was asked to make the boy look a few years older. I stretched out his face, gave him more of a jawline and beefed up his shoulders and arms a bit to age him to about fifteen rather than the younger age of my models.

The background was composed of actual newspaper articles from the 1899 newsies strike. I composited them  and changed a couple of the headlines to match the director's requests.

Overall, I am pretty pleased with the result. Physical drawing was scanned and painted in Photoshop and the entire background was composed digitally also with hand made aged paper textures. Total working time was about two and a half days.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

If Picasso Painted a Snowman- Progress Update

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram (yes, I have finally joined the Insta crowd) you have already seen some of this work, but for everyone else, here's a little update. If Picasso Painted a Snowman was written by my wife Amy after a visit to the Picasso museum in Paris where she wondered what a snowman painting by Picasso might look like.

Picasso's Snowman- By Greg Newbold
That thought generated the idea for the book and expanded to ask the same question about more than a dozen other artists. What might all these snowmen look like? Well, this book answers all those tough questions! At least it will answer the question of how I might paint a whole bunch of snowmen, attempting to do so in the style of each of the artists mentioned in the book. It's been so much fun to work with Amy to make her vision of this book a reality.

Mondrian's Snowman- By Greg Newbold
If you don't like snowmen, we have thrown in a cute hamster to act as museum guide. This book has been a blast so far and also a lot of stress. The timeline for production has been compressed to just over two months painting time. I did all the sketches in early December and then had to bust out a big project that took the better part of a month. I'm scrambling to get all the paintings done and hopefully do them justice. You can't imagine how challenging (and fun) it is to change stylistic gears every painting unless you have attempted it. Switching gears each piece has required a lot of homework. I have studied up on the materials and techniques of each of the artists before painting each piece.

Pollock's Snowman- by Greg Newbold
Some concessions have been made for each piece for practicality or necessity. The time crunch is a factor here. For instance, Jackson Pollock used an oil based house enamel called Duco for his paintings. I opted for  a more affordable and faster drying latex house paint.

O'Keefe's Snowman- by Greg Newbold
Georgia O'Keefe created her works at a monumental scale. Covering so much real estate was not in the cards on this deadline, so I painted my version about fourteen inches high rather than four feet.

Lichtenstein's Snowman- by Greg Newbold
My version of a Roy Lichtenstein snowman was created digitally. I saw no other practical way to create the Ben Day dot patterns by hand and I think the digital version looks adequately passable. The cover and all the little hamster character spots are black Prismacolor drawings. I then scan them into Photoshop and color them using some awesome watercolor Photoshop brushes from Brandon Dorman.

I'm pleased how much these brushes and textures look like hand done watercolor. I continue to be impressed with the increasing pace of digital artists' ability to make pixels look and behave like natural media. Click in the photo to see the texture a little closer. and click Brandon's link above to get your own set. I am now over halfway done with the project but the next few weeks will be a real challenge, as I have a couple of other assignments in the hopper also. I'll post more as I get closer to finishing this.

The book will be released this fall through Tilbury House Publishers, just in time for Picasso's birthday and all your Christmas giving!

Follow me on Instagram

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Remembering James C Christensen

Two Angels Discussing Botticelli- By James C. Christensen.

Some people say seeing is believing. You know, "I'll believe it when I see it". What if the opposite were true? I will see it WHEN I believe it? In Latin, it is "Credendo, Vides". Believing is Seeing.

Around the time I earned my undergraduate degree in illustration, I had the pleasure of walking through an exhibit of paintings titled Winged Words by famed fantasy artist James C. Christensen. I was fortunate enough to peruse the works alongside the artist himself and he kindly explained each piece and why he was or wasn't happy with each one. Among the paintings were several in which he had painted Latin phrases. Jim explained that the hardest part was finding someone who knew Latin who could translate accurately into Latin what he wanted to say, so he could translate it back in the title card for the viewer to understand. I asked him why he just didn't just paint the words in English. "I don't know" he replied, "It just seemed more meaningful that way." Christensen's paintings can be described in many ways but the most common description is magical. But I think that all the trappings of magic were just a facade for the underlying meaning. A vehicle, if you will, for him to communicate his message. And I loved his messages.

James Christensen with dear wife Carole

I woke up Monday morning to the news that James C. Christensen had passed away at the untimely age of 74.  Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened at the news and I spent all day wrapping my brain around the loss. To me, Jim was more that just a brilliant artist known for his intricately painted fantastical scenes filled with elves and trolls and magically levitating fish. Jim was my friend. As I read the many tributes and reminiscing posts about him, I realized that Jim was everyone's friend. He had a beautiful way of making you feel important and necessary in HIS life, which I think was one of Jim's true gifts. I write this not to give a chronology of Christensen's work or accomplishments, which are legendary. But simply to celebrate the man I was blessed to rub shoulders with and learn from. His techniques and motivations are well chronicled elsewhere. I want to remember him today for the truths he left embedded in my life and the imprint that will linger with me forever.

Low Tech

I was first introduced to the artwork of James Christensen when I was still in high school. I had only recently come to the realization that it was actually possible to draw and paint for a living. I poured over whatever publications I could find featuring amazing art and was particularly drawn to the work of artists like Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta and the Brothers Hildebrandt. Right there in the mix was this guy named Christensen who painted all sorts of quirky characters doing odd things, like flying a spaceship cobbled together from a flashlight, an eggbeater, powered by corroded Energizer batteries, all while wearing only a bomber jacket and a gas mask. I was hooked. I had never known that art could be so delightfully offbeat.

I also soon discovered that all of the artists whose work I so admired were illustrators. Jim preferred to call himself a painter who paints things that don't exist, but I think he fits nicely in the illustrator category. I decided this was what I wanted to do and the illustration program at Brigham Young University was the perfect fit. It also happened that this painter of floating fish which I admired also taught at that institution. I continued to follow Jim's work reveling in the new treasures he had dreamt up. His creativity, fueled my earliest efforts in illustration.

The Widow's Mite

Eventually, I got to meet Christensen when he showed his work in one of my illustration classes. I didn't realize when I enrolled that Jim actually taught painting and drawing in the Fine Art Department, while all the illustration classes were taught in the Graphic Arts Department. In  a completely different building. On the other side of campus. Finally, I figured out that I could take some elective classes in the Fine Arts Center, including a drawing class taught by James Christensen. To this day, that class remains one of my favorite undergraduate experiences. Jim was a mesmerizing storyteller. He could keep you on the edge of your seat spinning yarns or whimsically sharing anecdotes.

Lawrence Tried Not To Notice That A Bear Had Become Attached To His Coattail

I wish I had taken time to write down a few specific things, but what matters to me most is how I felt in his class. I was entertained, but more importantly, I always felt both challenged and encouraged. I was pretty confident drawing what I saw in front of me, but Jim would come in and throw a wrench into the system on a weekly basis. At times we would all tape a sheet of paper over our board and blindly draw underneath it, looking only at the model. Or he had us test our memory by looking intently at the model. Then the model would step down and and we had two minutes to draw what we remembered.
The Responsible Woman

Once, all easels were placed facing away from the model, We would look,  turn away to draw, and then look back to see if we had captured anything worthwhile. These methods were all, to an extent, exercises in frustration for me. I had never been forced to draw this way. I had never tested my memory like that. One day we even did figure drawing roulette where everyone would draw for two minutes and then rotate clockwise and draw for two minutes on the next person's page, adding or fixing, until we all made it back around to our own pages. It made me see the model from 360 degrees and the subsequent drawing of the same pose was much better. I began to see drawing in a completely different way.

Man with A Lot on His Mind

The final in that class included an exercise in drawing a head "out of your head". Jim wanted us to draw as realistically as possible in both front and profile views. I was convinced mine was a disaster yet Jim assured me that it was a decent effort and not to beat myself up. Jim always had a smile on his face and was always someone you felt better after having been around. I loved that drawing class and was sad I never got another chance to take a class from him.

Your Plaice or Mine?

I graduated and a couple years later I jumped to full time illustration. When I was in Provo, I would try to drop by the department and talk to my professors who were all now becoming my colleagues and friends. I had just landed my first picture book project travelled to campus to take reference photos of one of my professors, Richard Hull. While there, I decided to drop in and see if Jim was around. I found him busy in a painting class but he immediately ushered me outside and down the hall to his office to show me what he was working on. Entering the outer office, he paused and asked if I had a copy of his book. Greenwich Workshop Press had released "A Journey of the Imagination" a year or so previously, but I had not been able to justify the forty dollar price tag. He promptly cracked the cellophane off of one and dedicated it to me. I sheepishly said, "you can't do that". Jim laughed, smiled at me and said "Yes, I can. And I just did" as he handed me the book.

I cradled my new treasure while we looked over his new work. More books followed and I had occasion to get a couple of them signed to me as well. His dedications were always personal and heartfelt. I treasure those books. Since then, I have had several of my own books published. I often take pleasure in making unexpected gifts of my books to special people.

Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself back on campus during BYU's Education Week. My book "The Touch of the Master's Hand" had been released a few months prior and I was scheduled to sign copies at the bookstore. As I found my table, I realized it was directly across from Jim's where he was signing copies of his new book "The Voyage of the Basset". Well, Jim would have none of that and promptly moved my table across the aisle next to his. In fact my table fell ahead of his so that the line had to pass right in front of me (and my book) to reach him. I know he did this on purpose to get me a little more exposure. Jim was never intimidated by anyone else's success. In fact, he fostered it. We spent a delightful two hours chatting and signing books together. I am sure quite a number of my sales that day were due to Jim's thoughtful gesture.

During that signing, I also expressed interest in getting into the art print market. I had seen how well Jim was doing and felt like it might be a good time to dip my own foot in as well. Jim graciously introduced me to Greewnich Workshops' head folks and I had a short affair with the fine art print market. During the time I worked up paintings for possible prints, I got the chance to visit Jim at the his cabin near Sundance ski resort. Affectionately dubbed "The Cottage", Jim would often work there to be free from the distraction. Visiting was like stepping into one of Jim's paintings. It was a place lovingly fashioned in an Old English style but with lots of fantasy touches that I am sure sprung straight from Jim's imagination.

There was the sculpted fireplace mantle and the bronze flying fish weather vane topping the turret room above his studio space. But my favorite part was the secret bookcase door that separated the studio from the rest of the cottage. With the flair of a magician, Jim swung the bookcase aside and we entered the rest of the cottage. He toured me around as we chatted and then returned to the studio where he looked at my work and I looked at his.

The Fablemaker

I was transfixed as I gazed around at shelves lined with skulls and trinkets and all sorts of bits that inspired his work. He showed me the tiny collection of Dungeons and Dragons figures that he painstakingly painted for fun. After a bit,  Jim jumped up and said "come on, it's time for my walk". We proceeded out the door and up the hillside, through groves of golden aspen trees. He explained that he liked to get in a walk at least once a day. In addition to the exercise, it gave him time to think, time to dream. That was typical Jim. He was inviting me into his inner sanctum, allowing me to traverse his sacred spaces with him.

Once Upon a Time

Evening Angels
Fantasies Under the Sea
Over the years, I kept in touch with Jim and we would run into each other at shows or guest lectures or signings. I remember once we were at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah to see some plays at the Utah Shakespearean Festival when we ran into Jim on the edge of campus. Jim had created several posters celebrating the works of Shakespeare and was there signing his latest.  We had a great chat and Jim ended the visit by wishing me good luck and that it was great to see me.

Touching the Hem of God

In the fall of 2014, I volunteered to organize a show titled "Lost In Fantasy" at the Loge Gallery in Salt Lake's Pioneer Memorial Theatre. I had created the poster for their production of Peter and the Starcatcher and the gallery director thought it fitting that a fantasy themed exhibit run concurrently with the show. As curator, I could hand pick the participating artists. Of course Jim was at the top of my wish list, but I knew he was busy and I might not be able to secure his participation. When I got Jim on the phone, he admitted that  he normally would decline such an offer, but replied, "For you, I'd be happy to be included. Let me know what you are thinking." I explained that I didn't want him to go to any effort, and that I would take whatever he had already framed and available. I would even pick up and return the art myself.

White Faced Fence Walker- 1978

Falling In Love Again- 1981

He thoughtfully pulled out a rich mix of early work, fine art prints and newer paintings that showed a cross section of his long and storied career. Jim's paintings were a fantastic anchor to the show. I was honored to hang my works alongside his.

Tree World Trilogy- Book Cover Art

Guardian of the Woods- 1998

Around the same time that I returned his work in early 2015,  I had occasion to visit with Jim at the BYU Motion Picture Studio where he was painting murals for the soon to be completed Provo City Center LDS Temple. This massive undertaking occupied an entire sound stage as each panel was around twelve feet high and forty feet long. He was in his element, painting breathtaking scenes of the creation and nature alongside a few trusted artist friends. Jim took time to show me progress on each panel and describe what was going to happen in the unfinished areas.

One Light
Sometimes the Spirit Touches Us Through Our Weaknesses

On the walk back to the parking lot, I lamented the rough stretch I was going through with not enough work or cash flow to sustain my family. He was kind and encouraging and left me with this thought. "It will be alright" he said with his trademark grin. "You are talented and you work hard. You will figure it out." Then he told me of his own struggle with cancer and his hope to beat it and keep on painting. " Artists are survivors." he said "We have careers because we stick it out, right? You'll be fine."

The Listener

I listened. I believed. We weathered the down time and kept moving ahead. the reality we saw in front of us eventually grew closer to the vision we dreamt of and we pulled through. Jim taught me many important lessons in art and in life, but I think the one that sticks with me the most is that Believing is Seeing. You have to have the faith before you see the miracle.

Journey by Faith

Thank you Jim Christensen for that gift. Peace to you as you traverse the heavenly realms, my friend. Until we meet again.