I went to college for Art, then later for Biology. Deciding on a major wasn't easy. I spent the first few weeks changing my major every other day. I settled on a painting and drawing degree, though natural resource management might have been more practical. A couple of years after graduation and several odd jobs later, I wanted stable employment so I went to grad school so to be a science teacher. This was pretty rewarding for about 11 years.
The Covid Pandemic make teaching very difficult, especially teaching chemistry on a computer to students I never saw. I tried to make the best of the situations by getting creative with the periodic table and color schemes. The image to the left is one of the first novel periodic tables I came up with.
I removed the constraint of the traditional layout and looked at new ways to organize the periodicity we see in the chemical elements, which are arranged according to their behavior and characteristics. In this early attempt at chemical reorganization, my goal was to extract the large scale patterns and tendencies and make them more explicit, with only a few colors to allude to the old scheme. I ended up with something like a wave form. I liked this new symmetrical way of presenting chemical organization. After a few more iterations I turned to color coding the tables I was coming up with. The colors could be consistently applied across formats as I came up with new ones.
The Periodic table is divided into four "blocks" which have to do with how element's electrons are distributed. This determines how the elements react with others. Since there are four blocks, I needed four color schemes (enter art back ground) to apply to the designs. The four schemes I chose varied in their complexity and number of available colors, which suited the application of color to the blocks, which could be treated like matrices and which had different numbers of rows in them.
Color coding is helpful in communicating the more abstract transformations I put the elements through to come up with unconventional designs, like the circular table, and acted like a key for referring back to the original/traditional Table. One constant or topological invariant feature of the tables is that certain amounts of elements always take up predictable amounts and ratios of area, visually.
The color schemes I used and which can be seen across the designs, are: Warm/Cool, CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), Tertiary Colors (Red orange, Yellow orange, Blue green, Yellow green, Red violet and Blue Violet) and the colors of the rainbow or ROY G BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet). I wanted to create a way of thinking about chemical organization that made learning more interesting and connected chemistry education to color theory.
As I came up with different geometries on which to map the 118 Elements, I speculated a lot about topology, number theory, the physics of light, pigments and math in general. Many of my later designs were simple geometric explorations that represented numerical relationships from the periodic table in different ways. I thought this might have implications for predicting even heavier elements than the ones we know, or the standard model of physics. I don't know if any of this will win me a Fields Medal, but I certainly learned a lot and think about patterns even more than before.
Most of these tables are drawn and inked on 15x22 Cotton printmaking paper, like Arches hot press watercolor, 120 lb. Its heavy stuff and these pieces like to be picked up and handled. I made them to be durable and interactive, something a student could pick up and pass around during class. I figured this would make them more engaging, and I had them posted up around my classroom for the second half of 2022. I used PrismaColor Markers for the most part, or ink that could be applied with a brush. The first two images for example were brushed ink, and the following four were with markers. After a while I started working on black paper too. This was really satisfying, especially with the addition of silver, gold and white ink (see second gallery below).
Below are photos of one of the more speculative and abstract designs I came up with. It had more to do with geometry than chemistry. This one was really an experiment in geometric and aesthetic thinking. As I connected lines and drew circles and thought about spatial relationships, my imagination took off. I really enjoyed working with metallic ink on black paper and using traditional tools of geometry.
Any time you make art, you face constraints. These are either externally given and imposed on you or chosen for whatever reason. Invariably I am constrained to a greater or lesser degree by things like the dimensions of my surface, the shape and size of my brushes and the paint colors I have. To the extent that I have experience with color mixing and persistence in doing so I can mitigate many problems presented by a limited number of starting colors.
I often realize that a particular color scheme resonates with the scene/subject I intend to paint. In this case, the more I worked, the more it occured to me that a secondary color scheme predominated the landscape and Pronghorn. At that point I began to lean toward a more limited palette. This meant using more greens, purples and oranges and trying not to use as many blues, yellows and reds. You will find primary touches here and there, but overall I tried to limit my color choice, in the same way a musician choses a particular key.
I took the photo I worked from for this painting in late December last year. Yellowstone was blanketed with snow at that point, which meant I would have lots of "whites" in this painting. If you look carefully enough and give your eyes time, you'll see that most "whites" are really subtle pastels. This is because white objects almost always reflect colored light from somewhere, which is why most shadows on snow are blue. They are reflecting the sky. In some cases I painted the snow to represent this phenomenon, in others, I exaggerated the coloration of the plant life in the back ground to create a tension with the colors of the Pronghorn. By doing this the foreground and background compete spatially, which helps with the illusion of depth.
Finally I have a bad habit of making "tonal" paintings, which means being too literal when I try to recreate color. When I try too hard to color match what I see in a photograph, my colors tend to have one "volume." This means that because I have mixed them to the degree that they lack their original intensity, none really sing out. Alternatively, not mixing colors (literally or spatially in terms of mark placement) the painting will be "loud" all over, like music turned up all the way. In light of these twin realizations, I try to incorporate a range of color intensities in my paintings. For example if you look at the back of the Pronghorn you'll see intense red-oranges juxtaposed with larger areas of darker earthy reds. Of course my more vibrant intense marks didn't show up in the photograph, but then I'm not trying to recreate that experience in its totality. This painting preserves something essential about that original scene but also gives you something new and imaginative to consider.
Environmental Justice is a natural extension of social justice insofar as we have to confront the reality that our choices affect an environment we all share. Buckminster Fuller said we are all astronauts aboard “spaceship earth,” and there's no way to take this other than literally. All we need and have and will be able to use for existence is confined to this pale blue dot (to borrow a phrase from Carl Sagan). Earth is no different than the “spaceships” we send out of our atmosphere. We don’t go to space, we’re in space. Resources have to be recycled constantly, they’re finite. Earth systems are superbly suited to this task and our best efforts only approximate this grandeur and efficiency on the tiniest scale.
Because we are connected in the macrosystem that is Earth, all of our actions have moral import on an ecological scale. For example, city planning often affects the disadvantaged and minority classes in disproportionately negative ways. African Americans in cities are often exposed to much higher levels of lead than others and urban areas are often the sites of toxic waste dumps and incinerators. Someone has to answer for these environmental injustices. Often the corporations that perpetuate these crimes against community go unpunished.
The only just use of resource sand interaction with our environment is one that remembers that we are all responsible to each other and in community on a global scale. Environmental justice extends the concept of neighbor to those across and around the globe. In a very real sense, we are all one. The artworks that follow are meant to stimulate reflection on whether you are interacting in just ways with your world and neighbors, human and other.
Our attention is often brought to animals (or other organisms) that are threatened using images of iconic megafauna (big animals). Interestingly, before humans had even established agriculture 12,000 years ago “we” drove nearly half of Earth’s megafauna to extinction. Consider for example the ancient Giant Sloth. We don’t see them around anymore and “natural” environmental changes aren’t to blame. Bighorn sheep aren’t especially threatened but illustrate how one notable and highly visible species can redirect our focus to how our actions as a species can and does disrupt ecosystem balance, often endangering innumerable creatures. These large beasts help us imagine a romanticized nature somehow different and disconnected from our domesticated existence and in so doing appeal to us at a heart level to be concerned for species other than our own.
Colonialism and Imperialism were born in and emanated out of Europe. Europeans envisioned themselves as entitled to hoard and amass wealth, material and otherwise from all over the globe. Technological advances during and after the “age of exploration” allowed Earth’s natural and human resources to be exploited at exponentially increasing rates (even the term “human resource has built into it the notion that humans are mere exploitable economic entities). Thus began an era of mass global injustice, a course that needs correction and redirection. This will require the will of collective humanity if we are to avert global environmental disaster.
Roughly 200 rings (I did my best to count). Hundreds of chances to consider the passage of time and growth of the largest organisms on Earth. Tress stand as “witnesses” to the passage of human action and history. Sadly trees this size are rare because of unsustainable human practices. The are seen as mere material to be exploited and consumed. What if anything, do we owe our plant neighbors? How does their treatment lead to just or unjust future for later generations of all kinds.
Self portrait with a Turban.
My most recent portrait is in the style of Jan van Eyck. It's a very diminutive work and the composition is simple. The head sort of floats in the dark and the red turban is vibrant against the black back-ground. While painting this I was reminded of the scarcity of blues in paintings over 200-300 years old (the master work that inspired me was painted in 1433). Reds and blacks were plentiful though, mostly in the form of Earth Oxides. I am lucky to have Cadmium at my disposal for reds. The black I used is Chromatic black, a mixture of green and red pigments.
This is the first portrait I've painted using oil in the last 13 years or so, and in those past portraits my marks were more loose and spontaneous. With this work I wanted a more polished, finished look, like that of Northern-Renaissance painters. I had been using Gouache and acrylic for my smaller portrait work lately, due to the easy clean-up and quick dry time, usually painting using glazes. By using Gamblin's alkyd-based oils I was able to blend the brush strokes and produce gentler textures. I was really encouraged by the experience of doing a portrait this way and will most likely paint most future portraits with oil. I have yet to make a frame for this picture. I'll get some moldings from the local hardware store and try to recreate something like the frame on the van Eyck original. I did something similar in my last portrait, where I tried to recreate the frame on a recently auctioned Da vinci.
Painting a master copy always comes with many lessons. Trying to re-create something in the style of another artist teaches you about composition, color mixing, and breeds appreciation for the work of others. It's also empowering to complete a decent approximation of what's considered a masterpiece. After each picture I complete, I get more ambitious. The hardest part of any painting for me is having the patience to study the original/source material through drawing and actually working through the revision process that is painting itself. If I settle for my first attempt at a picture, I'm usually being dishonest with myself and sacrificing quality. Painting really is laborious if done right.
I have a lot of fun imitating things. From an early age I enjoyed doing impressions of TV personalities and cartoon characters. There's something about pretending I'm something else that's always appealed to me. Painting for me has always also been a species of pretend and imitation. My recent work in iconography is a prime example of this.
Many an art student will relate to drawing on 8.5x11" printer paper. In high school, you might get a 9x12" sketch book from your teacher in Art 3. This increased space is a new world to be explored and an expansion of boundaries. One's limits are still there, just greater in extent. Still more do you feel your limits increased in college when you move on to the 18x24" drawing pad. More revolutionary still is cutting your own paper to size from a roll. We tend to adjust to and accept our limits as conditions of existence.
Zion is was one of my favorite parks to visit this summer. There are plenty of places to go hiking and for me the geologic history is fascinating. Each layer of rock tells a story of past conditions and events. The whole park is a record of Earth's history and one can still see the forces in action today that formed the topography over tens of thousands of years.
This location really lends itself to representation with a complementary color scheme. The greens and reds of the scenery play off each other nicely and contribute to the overall vibrancy of the composition.
Not only do green and red complement each other visually, there is a geochemical/biological connection in nature between the two. These two colors are intimately related in that the green chlorophyll of the plants makes photosynthesis possible, which itself produces oxygen as one of its products. This atmospheric component was/is responsible for rusting the Iron that went into the rocks we find all over Zion. These rocks tell us a history of ancient climate/atmospheric conditions and indirectly tell us what life was like on Earth so long ago.
Driving through Yellowstone, one is almost guaranteed to see several kinds of large mammals. I've seen Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Bison and Elk all from the road. On one occasion I was fortunate enough to snap a few pictures of Big-Horn Sheep, which are imposing and impressive in many ways. These creatures have a large set of horns made for running into things. Plenty of reason to keep your distance. Luckily we saw them from the car about 100 feet off the road.
One of the challenges you face in painting Wildlife and Landscape in the West, is communicating colors in interesting ways. For this painting I chose to increase the vibrancy of the colors from the photo. The source colors for this composition were rather dull, but lent themselves to complementary & split-complementary color schemes.
Yellow and violet are complements on the color wheel and on either side of yellow are green and orange. Adjacent to violet are red-violet and blue-violets. These opposing colors harmonize really well with each other helped me by placing constraints on my color choice. Using a color scheme and limiting one's choices like this is analogous to composing music in a particular key or selecting certain chords to create the effect. Cool purples, blues and greens tend to recede in this painting while warmer oranges and yellows provide contrast and move forward visually.
I once again used my preferred medium of Gamblin Fast-Matte Oil to paint this picture. After about three days of drying I will protect the work with Krylon UV-blocking Gloss varnish, which is easily removed.
Prints of this work are available Here.
Recently, my El's Clay colleague Maribel and I, performed at the Terakedis Gallery in downtown Billings. Our show consisted of three hours of live dance and drawing (see the short clip below). This type of venue/performance was a first for us. Our last show consisted of both drawing and dance, but not simultaneously, so we both learned a lot.
Several visitors stopped in over the course of the evening and many paused outside the gallery window to look in. One of our goals as an organization is to bring attention to the Billings Art Scene and this performance succeeded in that respect. There are many creative people in our city and they often go unnoticed. By putting on performances like this we hope to connect more people with art and artists and build a richer sense of community.
I ended up completing three more-or-less life-sized drawings (see below) while Maribel danced. Periodically she paused for extended poses so I could work on the composition. Each drawing is about 4x5 feet in size. I had not drawn for this kind of extended period since college, so I was reminded of how taxing it can be. Maribel was tired as well, but remained graceful and energetic through the end. She definitely worked harder than me and is truly a professional dancer.
The next El's Clay event will be at the First Congregational Church UCC in Billings on August 4th as part of the Billings Artwalk. We will have live poetry readings, drawing and dance at this event as well as information about El's Clay. This event will run from approx 5:30 to 9 pm with refreshments provided . We hope to see you there.
A recent act of re-vision I committed was my drawing of DFW above, inspired by two classic works below. Velasquez executed the painting below on the left around 1650. It is of Pope Innocent X. Later, Francis Bacon, a 20th century painter, copied this master-work in his own grotesque and evocative style, seen below to the right. I learned about both of these works/artists in college. I became and remain an admirer of both and now find myself situated in an artistic lineage of inheritance and synthesis. In creating this work, I pay tribute to Bacon and Velasquez and keep my memory of and enthusiasm for David Foster Wallace vivid.
After painting a small (6x12") version of this composition (see my earlier post) I decided to scale things up a bit. I chose to stay with the double-square format, so I could bring attention to both the Bison and field vegetation. I had a piece of plywood handy, which was about 2x4 feet, so I primed it and set to work. I used a combination of cadmium red light acrylic, mixed with clear acrylic gesso, to provide the ground, then began blocking in large areas of color (see time-lapse below).
The main difference between this and the earlier smaller bison, is the size of mark I used. On this scale I intentionally use larger brushwork, it just makes more sense in the context. In the same way, I used larger charcoal a while back to draw my large Tetons picture (seen here). The resulting larger Bison has a stronger presence, not just because of the increased size, but the increased color exploration I can do in that space. The smaller Bison painting was a study, because it forced me to look at the subject for a prolonged period of time and get acquainted with the colors and composition. When I painted this larger version I didn't really refer back to the smaller one. I re-examined the picture I was working from and tried to see more detail the second time around. The result was that I found more colors in the big painting. It's not necessarily a better painting, but it is different.
I framed this with a simple oak frame, mitered at the corners. The plywood I painted on is dimensionally stable and will not warp. On future panels, I'll use thinner plywood, maybe 1/4 thick to minimize weight, as plywood can get heavy and be an obstacle to hanging the picture. This work is currently at the Art House Cinema and Pub, in downtown Billings.
If you're hiking in Yellowstone, you shouldn't approach certain animals, especially Buffalo. But sometimes, they put themselves right in your way and you stumble upon them suddenly. This is what happened to me last October while hiking in the backcountry. My two friends and I had to go off trail to avoid this bull. Behind him were numerous others in his herd and he seemed to be standing watch. It was obvious that we weren't going to use that section of trail so we quietly scrambled up a nearby hill to avoid being gored or trampled.
I took the photo above about 30ft away and was pretty nervous as we crept by. We had one more similar meeting with a Buffalo on a later hike. It's surprisingly easy to miss something so big as you crest a hill, but it happens and reminds you that you can't let your guard down that far from civilization. Luckily we didn't have any bear encounters during our time in Yellowstone, though there was no shortage of bear tracks and scat. Healthy reminders.
A few days ago, I decided to work from this photo and experiment with some recently acquired oil paint. Traditional oil paint takes several days to dry, unless you add dryers and mediums to it. I purchased Gamblin's trial set of their Fast-Matte colors because I wanted the working qualities and open time of oil without the days of waiting. The difference with this paint is that it's composed of both oil and alkyd resin, which explains the quick dry times. The Paint also dries to a matte finish, so it must be coated with gloss varnish if you want saturated looking colors.
I was very pleased with how this painting turned out in terms of working qualities of the materials and the formal elements of the painting. My first paint layers were dry and ready to be worked on top of after one day. By day three I was finished with this picture and able to varnish on day 4. This pace was very satisfying and I can see that this paint is going to open some creative doors for me. My next project will be a larger version of this same composition. The larger scale will create a very different experience of the Buffalo, and further enrich my appreciation for this creature.
I can't overstate the importance of reworking an image (and while I'm at it,re-imagining work). This is the time and context in which we rethink and re-examine what we're doing. Re-visiting an image forces us to confront the prejudices we bring to the experience of translating a scene into a shareable medium. This experience has a strong analogue in daily life. It's of at least equal value to regularly examine how we experience, think about and inhabit the world.
Having long ago come to terms with being an artist, I realize how iteration fits into my everyday life. Each day presents me with opportunities to relive the ordinary and be-in-the-world differently. My most recent series of drawings is no exception to this. One of the most compelling and moving sights is the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. They are fault-block mountains and rise dramatically from the valley floor. I've visited the mountains several times and on my last visit took several photos of the range one very cold morning.
My first step on this project was a smaller drawing, 8.5x24 inches. The second was larger, 30x44 inches. Finally I scaled up the image to an imposing 42x84 inches (7 feet wide). This is one of the larger drawings I've done and in so doing, I was reminded of how important scale is. The effect of working large is that the visual presence of the source scenery is retained. A larger format requires different marks and mark making devices. As a result I resorted to a 2x6" inch piece of specialty charcoal from Nitram. This stick of charcoal was reminiscent of smaller vine charcoal in terms of texture and pigment darkness. It didn't give the darkest blacks, but was very good for initial expressive layout marks (See Video at the end of the post).
Surprisingly, each of the three drawings took about two hours. This was a very satisfying series to complete and I now have works that can fit into a variety of display spaces. I'm also left with a deeper appreciation for the sublimity of the Tetons.
Last year, I was struck by the tragedy of Alan Rickman's death. It was especially poignant because he died on my birthday, January 14, 2016. Rickman was always one of my favorite actors. He was unique and I found myself enamored with his characters, no matter the role. Rickman was the perfect actor to play Professor Snape. Sinister, mysterious and subtly endearing. I thought it appropriate to honor him and his work in my most recent Icon painting.
J0hn Hunter Speier
Recent work, and explorations of techniques, aesthetics and poetics.