Passion Projects ep. 14

Passion Projects ep. 14

Sourdough Bread

 

Hold onto your aprons, we’re about to get frisky in the kitchen. 

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The Recipe

If you want the full, long story, keep scrolling down.  There are lots of pretty pictures.  If you're a no-nonsense, cut-to-the chase kind of person, this section is for you.  The recipe I use is adapted from this one of the Firehouse Bakery in Ireland.

 

Ingredients

  • 500g King-Arthur All-Purpose white flour
  • 5g salt
  • 325g water
  • 150g sourdough starter (composed of 25% all purpose flour, 25% whole wheat flour, 50% water)

 

Essential Equipment

  • Digital scale
  • Bread scraper
  • Razor blade or super sharp knife
  • Dutch oven

 

1. Combine ingredients

Weigh all four ingredients into a large mixing bowl and mix with your hands and bread scraper into a shaggy dough.  Dump onto the counter.

 

2. Knead

The shaggy dough will start to feel more wet and sticky the more you knead.  This is good, don’t add any additional flour.  If your hands get too doughy, you can scrape the excess off your hands with the bread scraper, or simply wash your hands and begin kneading again with wet hands.  Knead the dough with the palm of your hand until the dough tells you it’s ready (about 10 minutes).  The dough will cling to itself more than it clings to your hands by this point, and it should pass the “windowpane test.”  

 

3. Proof

Let Rise for three hours in a bowl, covered loosely with a towel to keep off dust.

 

4. Shape the dough and ferment

Empty the dough onto a counter.  Pinch the sides, stretch, and fold into the center to begin creating surface tension.  Do this four times from the north, west, south, and east.  Turn the dough over seam-side down, and begin to shape into a round loaf.  Suggested methods are dragging the bottom along the counter or spinning the dough in place.  After 2-5 min of shaping, place a towel over a bowl and liberally flour.  Place dough seam-side up into the bowl, flour the top, cover with the ends of the towel, and place in the fridge for 8-24 hours depending on how sour you want your bread.

 

5. Bake

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Place dough seam-side down in Dutch Oven and score the top with a razor blade.  Go to pinterest if you’re feeling crafty.  Bake covered for 25 minutes. Then reduce heat to 425 degrees and bake for 25 minutes more.  To preserve moisture and freshness, let cool before cutting open.

 

 

The Long Recipe:  How I Fell in Love with Sourdough

I started baking sourdough on a whim.  While I can’t remember what it was that made me want to start in the first place, I remember vividly the first time I felt the sticky dough between my fingers as I kneaded into the dough like clay on a potter’s wheel.  There was a certain zen that washed over as both my hands beat and stretched the dough.  It was the same feeling I get after the second or third or fourth hour working on a painting, where I feel detached from any worries in my regular life, where the only thing that matters is what is in my hands and how I mold it. It was that feeling that hooked me. 

This is a summary of everything I’ve learned so far – all the things that I’ve found to matter and the things that turned out not to matter so much.

 

Ingredients

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The simple beauty of bread is that you really need three things – flour, water, and a pinch of salt.  Then you just need a lot of time.  You start by making a natural yeast called a sourdough starter.  You combine 50% flour, 50% water, and let it sit at room temperature to ferment for a week.  Then as you add more flour and water daily to it to, the natural yeast in the air find your food and begin to grow and multiply.  In a sense, you're “feeding” a living colony of yeast, so if you always leave a bit of starter in the jar, you can technically keep your pet alive for years and years. 

  Jorge the sourdough starter.  He’s only a few months old.

Jorge the sourdough starter.  He’s only a few months old.

  A well fed an happy starter will have lots of bubbles!

A well fed an happy starter will have lots of bubbles!

 

One trick about sourdough starters is to feed them with a whole wheat / white flour mix.  The yeast take longer to munch on the whole wheat flour, so you don’t have to feed it as often.  My recipe is to feed Jorge 50g white flour, 50g wheat flour, and 100g water once a week. 

 

The most important ingredient – the flour

I can’t stress this point enough.  The brand of flour makes a difference, and the brand you've got to use is King Arthur All-Purpose Flour.  The first loaf I made with King Arthur flour, I actually gasped when I cut into it.  Something about it encourages the gluten bonds to form more completely, and you end up with a gloriously chewy inside with air pockets the size of almonds.

  Do yourself a favor, and buy King Arthur All-Purpose Flour.

Do yourself a favor, and buy King Arthur All-Purpose Flour.

 

Step 1 – Combine the ingredients

Weigh out all the ingredients you need - and use a digital scale.  I tried to wing it with measuring cups and tablespoons the first time, and what came out of the oven was so dense that even my chinchillas wouldn't eat it.  And to be clear, chinchillas eat sticks.

Some recipes will tell you to mix your starter in water to evenly disperse it.  Some will tell you to combine all the ingredients and let it autolyze for 30 minutes.  Skip that junk – just combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix it up.

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  Then when you’ve got a somewhat shaggy dough, dump it on the counter and finish combining.

Then when you’ve got a somewhat shaggy dough, dump it on the counter and finish combining.

 

After a few minutes of mixing, there won’t be any flour left on the counter and the dough will start to get sticky.  THIS IS A GOOD THING.  Don’t add any extra flour - just rely your trusty bread scraper to keep it all in one place. 

 

Step 2 – Knead

In the words of baker Patrick Ryan,

You will get a lot of recipes suggesting the best technique, how best to knead.  To be honest,  the one piece of advice I give most people is to think about someone you don’t like and just go for it.

 

Most recipes will tell you to do this for 10-15 minutes, but it’s important here to consider the feel of the dough.  As the gluten bonds form inside the dough, you will start to notice the dough retaining its shape.  You’ll notice less and less dough sticking to your hands because the dough wants to stick to itself.  My ultimate guide is the windowpane test, where you hold up the dough and stretch a part of it thin like a windowpane.  Dough with enough gluten strength will hang and not tear.

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Upon passage of the windowpane test, throw that bad boy in the bowl and continue to step three…

 

Step 3 – Proof

Cover the bowl with a towel so no dust gets on the dough and let it rise at room temperature for three hours.  You can go do your grocery shopping here, write a poem, watch a few episodes of Queer Eye – it’s really up to your imagination.  I’ll typically start the bread at 6:00p when I get home, then come back to it at 9:00p to continue to step 4.

  After kneading

After kneading

  Three hours later...

Three hours later...

 

Step 4 – Shape and ferment

Dump your dough back onto an unfloored counter – it’s time to make your loaf.  Like kneading, there’s a million ways to do this.  I’ll typically cup my hands around the loaf and give it a few spins.  Dragging along the dry countertop creates tension on the surface of the dough and makes it stand up straighter.  This is a really wonderful video since I don’t have any of me shaping dough.

When I’m happy with my dough, I’ll line the inside of the same bowl with a towel and sprinkle liberally with flour.  I’ve never used proofing baskets (featured in the above video), but I hear they’re the bees’ knees.  I manage to get pretty good sourdough without them.

Sprinkle some more flour onto the loaf and wrap it up with the towel like a nice, neat package.  Now…we wait.

For a not-so-sour bread:  let it sit in the fridge overnight (8 hours) and bake it first thing in the morning.  Your family/roommates will thank you.

For a slightly sour bread:  let it sit in the fridge overnight + all of tomorrow (16 hours) and bake it when you come home from work.  Anyone who comes home after you will also thank you.

 

Step 5 – Bake

I’ve tried a few methods of baking here, and the Dutch oven is what I’ve found to be the most consistent.  Preheat the oven to 450, then put your dough into the cold pot.

Next to kneading, this part might be my FAVORITE PART OF MAKING SOURDOUGH:  scoring the design.  Use a razor blade or just a really really really sharp knife and make some ¼ inch cuts across the top. 

  I think this does something scientific related to releasing steam, who knows.  The main purpose here is to make a picture-perfect sourdough loaf.

I think this does something scientific related to releasing steam, who knows.  The main purpose here is to make a picture-perfect sourdough loaf.

 

Now we bake.  Twenty-five minutes covered at 450 degrees, then twenty-five minutes uncovered at 425 degrees. 

And then we bask in the glory of what we’ve done today.

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Thoughts?  Comments?  Got your own tips and recipes?  Send them over to info@zacharyflynt.com

Passion Projects ep. 13

Passion Projects ep. 13

Passion Lightning Round!

 

Instead of taking a deep dive on one thing this month, I thought it would be fun to talk about a lot of different little passions I have going on.  While a lot of the bigger things are still the same (commission painting, portrait painting, and painting outdoors), I don’t usually talk about some of the smaller things I’m really into.  It’s the little things that keep us going after all.

 

Rediscovering Fantasy

It all started by accident, when a few of my favorite improv artists / comedians launched a new podcast about Dungeons and Dragons.  I didn’t know what D&D was, but I loved their other shows so I gave it a listen.  My first step into the realm of nerd-dom.  When I took that step, it was like something had been re-awakened inside me.  It was the smell of your grandparents’ house that you never quite forget, how when you first step inside the house all the old memories return flooding your mind.  Listening to this podcast adventure, I was a kid again reading Artemis Fowl, living in my own imagination.  I had the epiphany that I never really outgrew fantasy, I just put it aside.

I needed more of this in my life, so I started reading again.  I’m now on my third fantasy novel (The Lies of Locke Lamora) since this revival, and it’s making me feel like a kid all over again.  Every day I can’t wait to get home just so I can open this book and disappear into the ancient world of Camorr.

 

The Latest Portrait Commission

I was commissioned to paint a loose-style watercolor portrait (example) of an old friend’s baby nephew, and I’m torn about it.  Portraits have been something I’ve particularly struggled to learn and struggled to get better at.  I sketched his nephew, did some rough paintings, but so far, I can’t seem to come to anything that I’m happy with or proud of. 

The tricky thing about portraits is that one little thing can be off, and all of a sudden you want to say, “That’s not my [nephew, grandmother, brother, etc.]”.  It’s not just about painting the exact details, but it’s about capturing the essence of what makes the subject uniquely themselves.  So I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I should accept this commission if I can’t do a good job.

I’m going to paint a few more rough-takes of this portrait, but if I don’t think I’m improving, I’m going to have to be honest and turn down the work.  Making that decision has been a learning experience for me.

 

Baking Bread

This one has surprised me.  I love to cook as a creative exercise, no recipes, using whatever I have in the cabinet.  Why has something as scientific and controlled as bread making be fun?  I’ll tell you why.

The first time I threw a dough onto the counter and kneaded into it with my palm, I got the same Zen-like focus you get after spending hours on a painting.  You forget time, and the only thing you feel is this sticky dough on your fingers.  It was like the feeling of molding pottery with your hands, or playing wet sand on the beach.

That’s half of why it’s so fun to me, but the other half is the anticipation of waiting for your science experiment.  You have to be so meticulous through so many steps, and then you put this beaker of chemicals into an oven and wait.  You wait in anticipation.  Then when you finally open the oven, it’s like the mystery of unwrapping a present. 

I’m learning to make sourdough right now, and I’ve been culturing a sourdough starter for about a week now.

 

 I found out that there is a joke in the baking world about sourdough starter being a pet.  It's essentially a culture of bacteria, and you have to "feed" it new flour and water every day so that it gets more and more sour.

I found out that there is a joke in the baking world about sourdough starter being a pet.  It's essentially a culture of bacteria, and you have to "feed" it new flour and water every day so that it gets more and more sour.

 So I named my pet George.

So I named my pet George.

 

One year of Passion Projects

Reflecting on the past year, I’m glad that I took the time to do a minimum of 12 episodes.  I stuck with it, and I took the time to see where it led.  Moving forward, I am going to keep posting about my passions, but I’ll be posting these quarterly. 

The funny thing about a monthly passion projects newsletter is that I should have a new passion each month - but, I’m still passionate about a lot of the same things.  I’ve been thinking about the “Why” for these posts, and I want them to be a little nugget of fun for you all, not just a window into my life.  I want you to learn something, or at the very least I want to give you something that makes your day brighter.  So, if I’m on deadline to write about something new…but I’m still doing the same things as last month, they quickly become diary entries. 

As I’m getting back in touch with the “Why” of these posts, you can expect the next post to be come out in July.  Until then, I’ll leave you with this quote I’ve been mulling over recently.  Hopefully it brightens up your day.

 

“May your first word be adventure and your last word be love.”

-- Bruce Feiler

 

Passion Projects ep. 12

Passion Projects ep. 12

I’ve been on this plein-air kick lately. 

 

This post is going to be about painting outside.

Let's start with this video by M Kazmi (13:54).  It's what got me hooked on plein air, and I’ll tell you why I can’t stop watching his content.  

 

Muddassir Kazmi is a watercolorist out of Lahore, Pakistan. 

I found him searching through watercolor demos on YouTube, and I immediately fell in love with his work.  He picks basic primary colors for his paintings, but he gets so much out of them.  The technique and values are very intentional, and you end up with something that's sophisticated but easy for me to understand.   It's like how you feel when you hear a really good lecture or Ted Talk, and the speaker tells you something that's complicated but uses words that you understand.  That's how I feel when I look at Muddassir Kazmi's art.  The other thing - and the point of this post - is that he always paints outdoors.  I had only painted indoors myself, and I was only learning from other studio painters, so this piqued my curiosity.

Then, while watching this video Easy Watercolor cityscape painting tutorial for Beginners | M Kazmi Studios (14:59), a weird thought struck me:  he’s not using pink for the skin tone of the people.  Duh, he’s in Pakistan and not painting white people.  But then I started noticing other things, like how his cityscapes have as many motorcycles as cars, and how there are a million telephone wires between the buildings.  He’s painting what is around him.

Compare that Umberto Rossini, to another painter I learned from and have written about in another post.  He’s from France and his cityscapes look closer to what I’m used to seeing living next to DC – white people on sidewalks surrounded by modern (not rusty) cars.  People are colorful and fashionable and have long hair.  He’s also painting the world he sees.

I started coming to this conclusion:  to train my artist's eye, to paint better paintings, I need to start painting the world I live in.  Since becoming a painter myself, I’ve come to realize that everything in a painting is put there on purpose.  If a person is painted on a sidewalk carrying a purse, it’s because the artist chose not to paint them empty-handed.  But also, it's an art of learning what to leave out.  Which tiny details detract from the overall image?  So as I'm working these things and getting better at the cognitive side of painting, painting outdoors is one of the things I going to start doing .


Equipment

I’m working on building my own setup now.  Sure I could buy a pre-made easel for $100 or $200 on amazon, but that’s no fun.  I’m making my own.

For inspiration, I'm using this video by artist and author Judd Mercer (7:30).  You really ought to check out his Instagram by the way (https://www.instagram.com/juddmercer_art/).  He’s got a wicked cool style with classical training, but he paints fantasy art.

 

His rig is essentially a whiteboard on a camera tripod.  I loved this one because of how you can tilt the board in any direction as you paint.  It’s actually very similar to what Umberto Rossini uses in his studio.  On the first attempt, I bought a cheap tripod, but the gimbal was different from the one that the two of them use.  So I didn't exactly have a great way to attach it to the piece of whiteboard yet.  The first attempt had a few screws and bolts and a lot of super glue, which promptly broke while I was painting on it.

 More parts are in the mail, and I'll get a take-two soon. 

More parts are in the mail, and I'll get a take-two soon. 

 

I’m so excited for this project and ready to get outside when the weather warms up.  When it’s 70 degrees in a month or two, I want to be able to pack my paints and my tripod in a bag, hop on my bike, and go somewhere cool in the city and paint for a morning.   After spending so many nights and weekends in the studio (aka alone in my bedroom), I’m stoked to get outside and take advantage of all of this beautiful city I’m living in.

Passion Projects ep. 11 - Goals Audit 2018

Passion Projects ep. 11 - Goals Audit 2018

This is an update to an earlier post, Mid-Year Goals Audit 2017. 

At the start of 2018, I took a look at what I said I wanted to accomplish over the last six months.  It fell into four categories:

  1. Painting:  measurable increases in skill from hobby to mastery
  2. Music: begin creating and publishing content
  3. Side hustle:  sell paintings for regular monthly income
  4. Writing: begin writing drafts of children's books

For the most part, I came close to hitting all the metrics I was looking for.  I put up three music videos, drafted some book ideas, and sold plenty of paintings.  Now, I’m reflecting on what worked well and what I want to stop doing.  Let’s take it line by line.

 

Art

My goal was to make definitive moves from hobby to mastery, and I feel good about my progress.  Landscapes and colorful animals continue to be a strength of mine.  I'm getting a better grasp on values and color combinations, and I'm really excited that the depth my art is starting to come through

 
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But when it comes to things like cityscapes, buildings, and especially portraits - namely the kinds of art where the rule of perspective are much less forgiving - I still struggle.  So how do you get better at perspective?  Paint from real life.  Painting outside and painting from photos, that's what I'm focusing on in the next six months.

What's neat about this too is that it improves my eye for composition at the same time. This means my ability to deconstruct a photo into what is essential for the painting.  This is one quality I've noticed separates the good from the great artists, people like Azman Nor or Umberto Rossini who I look up to.  With time, I hope to get to where they are.

I've begun to paint from photos a bit so far - here’s an example:

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 Reference photo of Hooker Lake by Andy Kerr,  link .

Reference photo of Hooker Lake by Andy Kerr, link.

So reference photos are a primary focus for the next six months.  I'm pairing that with a goal of four paintings a month to make sure that I don't lapse in how often I paint.  I'll check back in on this all during the summer.

 

Music

I wrote more about that learning process in this Passion Projects post.  Even though I managed to put out three videos by Dec. 31 like I was aiming for, I don't think I'll continue to produce this kind of content regularly.  I'm still so happy I did it, though.  I was surprised at how steep the learning curve was on some of these softwares, and I’m grateful that I invested the time to learn to do something that I love. I now know how to create music videos quickly and efficiently if the need ever arises again.  

There’s still room to improve of course.  I’m not kidding myself that both the audio and video quality are perfect.  What’s important to me is that I learned enough of a foundation to decide whether or not to pursue music production further.  While I may make some more videos down the road, at this stage I’m happy not spending more time on getting better at it.  For now, I'll keep it on the back burner and let it make me happy when I reach for it.

 

Side Hustle

I’m still figuring this one out.  I sold a bunch of paintings, especially around the holiday, so in terms of revenue I hit my mid-year goal.  But the number of people reaching out to buy art has gone down in the past 6-8 weeks, so as this newness factor wears off I know I still have more work to do.  

Another piece I'm trying to figure out is commissions.  For whatever reason, the first question from everyone who sees my art is, “Can I commission a piece?”  It happens every time without fail, and I'm scratching my head why people don't ask about the originals I've already painted.  I even had a conversation with one person asking if they could commission me to re-paint a painting I’d already done.  What??  Some commissions are fun, but after doing a few I have to admit painting other people's paintings was a chore at times.  So I’m trying to figure out a way to paint what I love, but also position what I’m selling in a way that fits how people want to buy it.

A steady second stream of income is still a priority for me, so as I looked at how to tackle all these issues, I went back to some old journals from when I first made this website.  I was writing about how to build my brand, and it all started with trying to get better.  My theory was that if I cultivated quality, people would come to it.  For 2018, I think that’s a fair place to return to.  No worrying about business cards or art shows or anything, just keep getting better at painting and let people know I'm getting better.

Here’s how it's going to play out.   First, I'm working on all the tactics of the "Art" section I wrote earlier.  Second, I need to regularly post to and maintain my social media.  This has been an area of weakness for me in the past, but it is to-date my most effective way of promoting and selling art.  This leads to my third activity.  To maintain a steady stream of posting, that means painting at a steady clip as well.  One post a week has to come from one painting a week.   Last, I need to get my art into more people’s hands.  I need to look for more opportunities to give paintings away, making an evangelist out of anyone who has one.

To sum up, get better at painting and show more people that I'm getting better.

 

Writing

This will be quick.  I hated writing children’s books. 

I told myself three drafts of children’s books before 2018.  I did just one, and it was like pulling teeth out of my own mouth, or force feeding myself medicine.  Sometimes we love the idea of something better than the reality of it, and as it turns out, writing a children’s book is that for me. 

 

Wrap up

Here are my takeaways.  The last six months were a structured, goal-oriented way to do a lot of things.   I threw a lot at the wall, and now I'm looking at what stuck.  I’m no longer investing the time and energy into certain practices, and I’m putting that energy into my art.  I’ve got some new ways to get better at painting, and I’m taking a more thoughtful approach to making that into a business.  I’ll take stock again in the summer to see what’s working and what’s not.  So if you made it this far, thanks for reading and thanks for being interested in my passions.

Passion Projects ep. 10 - Painting a Commission

Passion Projects ep. 10 - Painting a Commission

Recently, two different people contacted me and asked to commission a custom piece of artwork.  This post will talk about 1) the process of one of the commissions and 2) some of my thoughts on the experience.

Process

One friend asked to commission a painting of a particular house in the Blue Ridge mountains.  We started with some photos of the house and surrounding area for inspiration. 

 
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  All photos used with permission.

All photos used with permission.

 

They said it wouldn’t be complete without the two beagles in the front yard and included an extra photo of the dogs.

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I especially loved the sunrise photo and wanted to make that heart of this painting.  The next step would be to arrange the composition so that it looked good on paper.  How much space should the house take up? Which trees do I use to frame the edges of the painting?  How much could I reduce the tree line to fit in a beautiful sunrise sky? 

And the dogs, where should they go?  What position should they be in?  I had no idea how to paint a dog, so I spent a lot of time practicing that.

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Once I felt I knew enough about how the painting would eventually look, I did four mock-ups.  I mainly wanted to try out different color palettes and combinations, but also I wanted to test a few ideas in composition and gather early feedback.  If I was missing the mark, I wanted to course-correct before I painted the final.

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We exchanged a few emails, I took notes and made changes, and I painted this final copy.

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Reflections

I remember when someone first asked to buy my art.  I was floored that someone would want what I made, what I saw as amateur and imperfect.  It took a lot of getting used to.  I'm very happy and fortunate to have sold several paintings over the past year, but to be honest, I still get butterflies every time someone asks to buy my art.

Then someone asked me if I’d do a commission!  Someone who I knew from a few years back, someone who loved my style, had an idea for a painting and thought I could bring it to life.  I was equally exhilarated and nervous. I thought I was completely unqualified to paint what they had dreamt, I had no idea even where to start, but I said yes anyways.  It was difficult, and even though I felt like quitting many times, I managed somehow.  I finished the painting, and my friend was thrilled.

As I reflect on the last few months since I wrote a mid-year goals audit (link to that post), I’ve noticed a trend.  I keep trying things I have no idea how to do, assuming I’ll figure it out along the way.  I said yes to painting a commission.  I taught an art class for the first time.  I painted a portrait for my grandparents (link to that Instagram post) after just last month, I painted my first portrait ever.  I keep saying yes to things that I don’t know how to do, but what's so cool is that it's making me a better painter.   I was looking through old photos the other day and realizing just how much I've improved.

  before August 2016 goals audit

before August 2016 goals audit

  Painted December 2017

Painted December 2017

I also was reflecting on how art has brought me to connect with so many unexpected people.  I’ve re-engaged with old friends from college.  I now have social media followers from Israel and Ukraine who regularly view my art.  I’ve had friends-of-friends reach out to say they admire my work, even though we scarcely know each other.  I’ve even sold art to one of my high school teachers!  Social media is a funny thing how it reaches so many people in so many corners of our lives, and I’ve been so surprised at who emerged from the masses.   

This part has, without a doubt, been the most gratifying part of diving headfirst into the world of watercolor.   I've learned how it doesn’t take much to make a connection with someone - just be genuine and people appreciate that.  A part of that is sharing both my bad art and my good art, and I keep writing this silly blog even though I don't have to.  I keep putting myself out there, because as far as I can tell, genuine is what sticks these days, and that's the person I'm trying to be.

Passion Projects ep. 8 - The Making of Hipster Abe Lincoln

Passion Projects ep. 8 - The Making of Hipster Abe Lincoln

For this month, I wanted to show a painting demo of one of my more recent paintings.  This post will talk about my technique for painting from a photo and balancing what I see with what’s in my imagination.

 

And most importantly, how I accidentally painted a younger, hipster version of Abraham Lincoln.

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Why Paint a Portrait?

This past month I’ve been learning about portrait painting.  The video that hooked me in was a PBS special about an artist named Stan Miller (link to the video).  Here’s the link to his YouTube channel if you want to dig deeper.  As I watched each of his instructional videos, I was inspired and decided that I wanted to take a stab at portrait painting.  I had never painted a portrait before, and I knew it would be difficult.  Part of the draw though was because I had never painted anything like it, I knew I would learn skills that would help me become a better painter.

 

Choosing a Photo 

When painting realistically, you follow certain rules.  The three main ones are color, perspective, and value.  To make this first portrait experience easier, I decided to choose a black and white photo to paint.  That meant that I only had to follow two rules – value and perspective.  In other words, I had to put the eyes and the nose in the right spot on the head, and I had to color the shadows all the right darkness.   Then I could do whatever I wanted with the color.

I also thought it would be a neat experiment to paint something like Stan Miller's portraits, like this example.  You see yellow, green, magenta, purple and all sorts of colors that don’t usually belong on a face – I wanted to get away with something like that!

Here is the link to the black and white reference photo I found (original digital painting, artist unknown).

 

The Sketch

Abe 1.png

The goal of the pencil sketch is two things:  to figure out where things go, then draw in the darkest values.  By “where things go,” I mean the location on the page and the proportions of what you’re about to paint.  It could be testing how a two-inch margin looks between the head and the edge of the paper, then erasing and trying a three-inch margin.  It means following rules like putting the nose halfway on the face, then the eyes two-thirds on of the way on the face.  It's not necessarily getting the shape of the nose right yet, but this planning stage keeps you from getting halfway into a painting and realize something is lopsided or out of place.

Or in my case, realizing that you’re accidentally painting a young, hip Abraham Lincoln.  I went with it anyways.

Additionally, I'm trying to pick out all the dark spots and scribble them on - the corner of the mouth, the back of the neck, etc.  This familiarizes me with the shapes and regions that will be super important in the next step...

 

First Wash

Abe 2.png

Here I used a large brush and large strokes to throw down some base indications of value.  Which spots needed to be dark?  Under his neck, side burns, etc.  Which spots needed to stay paper-white?  Side of the nose, part of forehead, cheek, etc.  Any value in the photo between dark and paper-white, I'd block off random strokes.  For example, look at the top left forehead.  It's not a real shape, but the stroke just says “This is where the forehead ends.”

Then I started picking out shapes from the photo.  They get more specific in the next wash, but you can see a few at this stage - the corner of the mouth, the inside of the ear, the goatee, etc.  I'm outlining the shape of things that I want to hone in on later.

The colors are mostly random.  I try to vary them to keep things interesting, but really they're flowing from my imagination.

 

Darker Wash and Adding Details

Abe 3.png

With equal feelings of regret and humor, I've embraced that this is looking more and more like a hipster Abraham Lincoln.

I went on to work the details area by area with a smaller brush.  I’ll break down one spot for you as an example.  Look at his left eye, the eye that’s in the light.  If you scroll back up to the last wash, it used to look like a big splotch on the top of the eye, plus a little line below. 

I first painted an eyebrow with dark paint, because he didn’t have an eyebrow yet.  I looked at the photo, and that shape looked like a boomerang to me.

I darkened up the middle of the eye like an almond, but I left a few white lines in there so it’d look like creases in the photo. 

Last, I painted in the crease underneath the eye.  Three simple shapes, and I moved on to the next section of the face.

Abe 3 eye.png

This stage takes the longest of the entire painting.  It’s also my favorite part where I lose myself in the work and the time starts to fly by.

 

Final details

At this stage I’m focusing on darkening certain spots and adding little details I've missed.  You can compare this photo to the last one and see the new colors on the ear, the neck, tee shirt, hair, and the facial hair. 

Abe 4.png

The last thing I did was wash in some random colors in the background.  I wish I had a method to it, but it’s honestly a random process trying to look artsy.  Maybe one day I’ll find an artist with strong opinions about abstract background smudges, but until then, I’m making that part up too.

 

Passion Projects ep. 7 - La Vie En Rose

Passion Projects ep. 7 - La Vie En Rose

I'm excited to put out my first ever solo-produced video.  A ton of hours went into this project, and it feels good to have this permanent thing to show for.

 

Backstory

I first learned this song in December of 2015 as I was trying to learn French.  I was planning to take a trip to France, and I was bringing myself up to speed on basic conversational skills.  One of the things I've traditionally done to help with that process has been to learn music in the target language.  It's a fantastic way to practice pronunciation and to learn vocabulary that you wouldn't otherwise learn in a textbook.

I couldn't tell you where I first heard La Vie En Rose, but after hearing both the French version by Edith Piaf and the English version by Louis Armstrong, I knew I had a something in the works.  I pieced together a bit from each and adapted it to an acoustic guitar cover.  I'm really happy what it's grown into over the years.  Every time I've played it, it's been a bit different. A lot of the melody that the guitar carries has grown organically from all the times that I've played it, and I'm really happy with where it's at today.  

 

Reflections on the first video

To recap from an earlier post called Mid Year Goals Audit 2017, one of my self-imposed deadlines before the end of 2017 was to produce one video by October 1st.  Let me tell you, there's nothing like a deadline to make things happen.  On September 1, a reminder went off in my phone that I had four weeks to learn how to produce a music video, and boy did the panic set in. 

I first bought the audio equipment, and from there I'd say it took three straight weeks to learn the rest.  It was a long and arduous process for me to learn new software - in some ways like learning to speak in a new language.  Some programs like NCH VideoPad took just one late night of playing around.  Others like FL Studio 12 took me days and days to manage to pull together the audio that I did, and to be honest I don't think I understand what I did well enough to really explain the process to someone else.  It's amazing to me that I managed to pull this off with that limited understanding.

This project was also a struggle for me, like the old saying, "Good is the enemy of perfect, but perfect is the enemy of good enough."  I wanted so badly to put out a flawless video that made me look and sound better than I actually was, but I think in the end, the fatigue of late nights editing and working a full time job beat out my desire to push the envelope any further.  I had to keep reminding myself that there would be more chances, and no matter how good this one turns out, the next ones will still be better.  In short, it was good practice in being happy with what turned out well, and letting go of the parts that were wasting my time.

 

So what's next? I've got another self-imposed deadline of two videos by December 31.  I'd like to do another independent one, and one collaborative one with another musician friend of mine.  Either way, the goal remains that I've got two videos due by the new year.  From there, we'll evaluate if this is something I want to stick with and invest more energy into.

I hope you all enjoyed this first video, and thanks for following my content.

Beginnings:  Recording Music

Beginnings: Recording Music

One of my six-month goals was to begin to give voice and share with the world this side of my life of composing and playing music. 

To anyone who doesn't know, I've been playing music since I was 11.  I started with guitar, then I picked up piano, vocals, and various instruments from various bands.  Ever since music has been a huge source of joy in my life, and there was even a point where I thought about making a career of it.  Over the years I've recorded a few videos and put them on YouTube, but in terms of published and shared content, I haven't ever made that a priority.

My goal since the last newsletter was to begin creating and sharing that musical content.  For deadlines, I committed to 1 video by October 1, and 3 videos by January 1, 2018.  I had envisioned starting by making videos like these - non-cinematic music videos where the audio quality is high and the video element essentially serves as filler while you listen.  So in order to get the ball rolling, I recently sat down to dinner with a close friend launching his own rap career.  We talked audio and video equipment, he shared the story of his own journey, and by the end I had a vision of the next four things needed to bring this to life:

  1. Audio-editing software
  2. Video-editing software
  3. Microphone 
  4. Video Camera

 

Audio-Editing Software

The consensus here is that every software is expensive and powerful, it just comes down to which interface do you like.  They all have a free trial period, which I'll use to my advantage as I try out a handful.  My top three that I've researched are:

  • ProTools - I used this in my first band to record and produce our album.  Regarded as the industry standard for quality.
  • Ableton - recommended by Justin Boreta from the Glitch Mob as well as Ira Glass from This American Life as the best balance of horsepower and ease of use.
  • FL-Studio - I used this to produce several albums electronic music, and it's the interface I'm most familiar with.

Video-Editing Software

This is a lower priority as I don't intend to do much editing other than adjusting coloration or fading in/out videos.  There are very expensive programs, but Lightworks is recommended as one of the best free programs out there.

Microphone

There is a ton of variability in this segment, but I wanted to approach this thoughtfully as it will be the most expensive part of this venture.  I'll be deciding between two types of USB-input  microphones.  The first says "This is a good microphone but I'm on a budget since this might not ever go anywhere." (Samson CO1U).  The second says "I'm spending more because this might go somewhere." (Blue Yeti).  

Video Camera

Frankly, we're gonna give it a go with my phone camera.  After comparing lots of different kinds of video recording devices, my Galaxy S7 has a stellar camera at 1080p that rivals a lot of $100-200 cameras. A nicer camera could be an investment in the future, especially if video editing becomes its own passion project.  But for the time being, a tripod for my phone only costs $10 on Amazon.

Wrap up

I'll be hard at work on this passion project, so look for a video in the next four weeks.  In the meantime, you can always pop into my Facebook or Instagram for the latest paintings.  

  Quinacridone Dream,  8.29.17  Find the inspiration at   http://allthatwillburn.com/artwork/  , site by artist Judd Mercer.

Quinacridone Dream, 8.29.17

Find the inspiration at  http://allthatwillburn.com/artwork/ , site by artist Judd Mercer.

Mid Year Goals Audit 2017

Mid Year Goals Audit 2017

While I've written the past couple newsletters about artists I've been exploring, I wanted to use this to come back to the original reason I started Passion Projects.  It's to let my family, friends, and anyone who wants to tune in know what I'm up to.  A big part of that is the topics that I'm learning about, but it's also an update what I'm doing and where I'm going.  This month, I'm posting an update.

I recently heard a quote from Naval Ravikant to the effect of "Define your ten-year plan.  Now what is stopping you from making that your one-year plan?"

I took that to heart, so I sat down this week in the middle of 2017 to think about where I want to end up, and how the next six months would get me there.  

To turn my Passion Projects into long-term realities, I'm chasing 4 goals for the rest of the year:

  1. Painting:  measurable increases in skill from hobby to mastery
  2. Music: begin creating and publishing content
  3. Side hustle:  sell paintings for regular monthly income
  4. Writing: begin writing drafts of children's books

The rest of this post will describe what the actionable steps I'll take to get there.

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1. Painting - measurable increases in skill from hobby to mastery

To put it visually, I want to move from this (first painting in September 2016) to this (painting from July 2017).  So what has changed?  The lines are more careful.  There is a greater attention to value (meaning how dark or thick the paint is).  I'm also starting to learn where to leave empty space.

These are all things I can continue to improve, especially in landscape and cityscape painting where I still have a lot to learn.  What this means is a greater attention to my own paintings (example of one with messier lines), but also paying attention to when really good artists get it right (Old building Semenyih, by Azman Nor).  

I'm teaching a volunteer DC art class on August 5 because there is no better way to solidify your own understanding of a topic than to teach it.  In October I'll have a skills check-in to compare photos of my work from then and now.  

 

2. Music - begin creating and publishing content

The header tab next to watercolors above is Music, which was intentional despite the fact there there isn't yet much content there.  I am going to begin recording more original music, editing video, and posting it here.  The jumping off point is connecting with friends who own recording equipment and are already create their own content.   While I have over 100 songs playable at any time as well as past experience mixing and producing music, the difficulty so far with this project has been simply the act of starting.  

My goal is to have 1 video uploaded by October and 3 videos total by December.

 

3. Side Hustle - sell paintings for regular monthly income

This is the category I've given the most attention so far.  As of July 2017 I've sold a handful of paintings, mainly to family and friends.  I've been taking notes on the selling process with the intention of creating a small business venture that can scale to a modest size.  The eventual target would be 2-3 paintings sold per month.  

So far I've let people come to me (pull method), so to make this side hustle take flight, it comes down to actively selling (push method).  Here are a few actionable steps I'm test-driving for the next six months.  First, promote more social media than just Facebook.  Second, print business cards for family/friends to pass around.  Include them in paintings sold.  Third, reach out to warm leads and those who've expressed interest in buying or commissioning work.  

 

4. Writing - begin writing drafts of children's books

I would like to write a successful children's book one day, and today is the day I hold myself accountable to that statement.  I'm going to start by reading best-sellers (so many are free online) and looking for commonalities.  I'm going to dive into other works of authors that turn me on - expect a Passion Projects episode or two about children's books to come.  

I'm also committing to 3 drafts of stories by 2018, the first by September. 15   When I first was scratching this goals audit down in a notebook I wrote that I could keep them to myself and didn't have to do anything else with them.  I simply needed to start writing them.  

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Six months is a long time to get a lot of things done.  But it's also a short amount of time, and enough that if one thing isn't working, I can pivot or ditch the idea.  New things will pop up, and things that were not as important might suddenly become more important.  The point of this exercise is 1) to hold myself accountable to all of you and 2) to be thoughtful about how I'm spending these months and years of this period of my life.  There's no reason why my life has wait 10 years to take off, and I don't want to be sitting in a chair years from now thinking "If only I had started this project 10 years ago."

Here's to starting now.

Passion Projects ep. 3 - Misha Lenn

Passion Projects ep. 3 - Misha Lenn

To get better at painting, I took up reading books of famous watercolor artists.  I'd turn through the pages, every now and again pausing to take in one that I liked, maybe even bookmark one that I wanted to see again.  I was leafing through endless landscapes, boats, flowers, abstracts, and all the other boring things that watercolor artists paint, when suddenly I stopped on a painting that was so unique, so clever.  The artist was doing something different than the others were doing.  I had to break down what was going on here.

This episode is about a Russian watercolorist named Misha Lenn.  He's an international award-winning artist and fashion designer (check out his website at www.mishalenn.com).  Here's why he's the coolest artist I'm into right now.

Let's start with the themes he paints.  As I look at all his work, it immediately makes me think of high society.  Two examples I love are "Yellow woman with fan" and "Corsair."  The thing is that it's not exactly the kind of high society that some one says with their nose turned up, glaring at you behind their spectacles.  It's the kind of extravagance and elegance that you dream of as a little kid, like the kind that draws you into Disney movies.  It's the kind that seems so fantastic that it makes you think fancy people just live to be fancy and do fancy things all day long.  

The next thing that you can't miss are these diamonds.  They're a running theme through all his work, like Misha's signature.  Sometimes they're subtle, like in the painting "Holiday on State Street/Boston Impressions."  Sometimes they're loud and ostentatious, like in "White Nights- St. Petersburg."  Peek back at the other photos, they're in there too.

I can't imagine the amount of planning and pre-sketching he does to put together such an intricate work of art.  I admire the hard work, but I also think they're just the most clever artistic tool.  He's using geometry to suggest a mood and add depth, like his own take on impressionism.  

In addition to the loose, impressionistic feel you get from the paintings, you've also got a consistent motif of light.  He's focusing on a special kind of light though - the kind that flashes and then is gone in an instant.  The light reflects off some surface - maybe it's a flashy diamond necklace on a woman, maybe it's a streetlamp reflecting off the damp road.  It's the light that you routinely overlook because it's gone so fast.  But a painting is like a snapshot - you take a moment that moves, and freeze it in place.  It's then, inside that snapshot...you can't help but notice it's everywhere.  It's the spark that gives a scene life.

I'll leave you with one more thought about Misha Lenn.  This is the painting that made me stop what I was doing and dive head-first into the artist's entire work:  "Park Avenue Red".  We see a lady all dressed up walking a fleet of dogs.  The style of painting is loose, almost abstract.  The diamonds and the flashing lights make it look like it's going to all come apart at any minute.  It's got all of those things that I talked about and that I love Misha Lenn's style.  But the kicker here, what made me laugh out loud, was that an internationally-renown artist chose to paint tuxedos on the dogs.

Dogs wearing tuxedos.

I love that with all the attention to detail, all the effort to create a fantasy world of decadence and high society, he chose dogs with tuxedos as the glue between the parts.   He's taking a minute to play around, and I love that.  Even in this world he's created, the dogs get to be fancy too.

Passion Projects ep. 2 - Steven Cronin

Passion Projects ep. 2 - Steven Cronin

Another of my favorite watercolor artists to date is Steven Cronin.  He's an English painter that runs a YouTube channel full of painting demos, perfect for anyone learning to paint for the first time.  I've watched almost every single one of his videos by this point.

What first drew me to his style were two things.  The big, dramatic skies he paints, and his limited palette of colors that he uses.  You can see what I mean by dramatic in the painting above.  Here's another example of how he makes even a sunny day seem dramatic.  He uses large strokes, variations of grey, red, yellow, and blue all at the same time, and he paints them into a page that's already wet.  The result are some complex hues of primaries, blended together beautifully.  And he does this by using a limited palette of only seven colors.

  1. Ultramarine Blue
  2. Lemon Yellow
  3. Payne's Gray
  4. Alizarin Crimson
  5. Raw Sienna
  6. Burnt Umber
  7. Burnt Sienna

With this combination, he mixes all his greens, blacks, browns, purples, or anything in between.  I learned this method from Steven, and I much prefer it because the in-between colors that you paint look  much more natural than if you would have used a stock color.  If you look at the first painting at the top of this post, you'll see how the sky modulates between blue and purple and yellow.  There's even a bit of orange in there, and the beautiful thing is that you can't tell where one color ends and another begins.  It's all so fluid, and it's the direct result of his limited palette.

Here's an example of one of my paintings created from a limited palette.  I don't own a green paint - all the green you see here is mixed from my two blues and two yellows.  That way when I wanted to paint a brown tree growing from a the green field, it looked natural in its environment. For comparison, here's what it looks like when you don't mix your in-between colors.

Another thing that I think is just the coolest about Steven's painting style is that he uses just one main brush - the large hake brush.  Although it looks like a brush you'd paint a wall with, it's actually a Japanese-style brush with super-fine and soft hairs.  It doesn't hold very much water compared to a sable flat brush that everyone else uses, so the brush strokes come out a bit rougher and more defined.  There are certain textures that you can only get with a large hake brush.  The large hake also encourages you to paint minimalistically.  Take for example the next painting of his.  Learning to paint in Steven Cronin's style has made me a much more thoughtful painter as to where I choose to place brush strokes.

Take this painting as an example, "Scottish Landscape #28" 

Notice how he paints an entire treeline with just three scratchy lines!  The mountain looks very complicated, but it's really quite simple if you're using a large hake brush.  He loaded a bunch of different colors, unmixed into the bristles (which you can do since it's such a wide brush), and he turned the brush sideways to push in some triangles.  Then the mountain's shadows and contours mixed together naturally on the page.  I also want to point out how I love the sky here.  He doesn't try too hard to make realistic clouds, just drags that big old brush across the paper to make straight lines, lets the colors move around and blend like they want to, and next thing you know it looks like God is pointing towards that mountain.

If love Steven Cronin's style as much as me, you should check out more of his art on his website and his YouTube channel.

Passion Projects ep. 1 - Umberto Rossini

Passion Projects ep. 1 - Umberto Rossini

Umberto Rossini

The man who single-handedly taught me I was good enough at painting to aim bigger.  In the first couple months of learning watercolor, I stumbled upon this French painter's YouTube Channel.  It didn't take long before I had watched every single one of his videos, and even attempted to do some of his paint-alongs.  

What I love most about Umberto is his style.  He paints abstractly, not caring too much about the details or the exactness of any of his subjects.  He'll use a few strokes, let the color mix naturally on the paper, and he lets the viewer put together the pieces.  One of his videos on how to draw figures shows what I mean.  Obviously people aren't triangles, but he only needs to indicate a red triangle and you know that it's a woman in a dress.  This is still something I'm working on.

Another one of my favorite things about Umberto that I noticed makes his style so unique is that he uses a swordliner brush.  Usually you'll see artists use round brushes or mop brushes, but the swordliner's unique triangle shape makes more really cool effects when painting trees, foliage, and figures in city scenes.  Watch out for it if you dig into some of his videos.

I'll come back to my first point about why this man was so important to my learning watercolor - that he taught me I could aim bigger.  He showed me lots of little tricks like highlighting with white ink or flicking water onto the paper - little cheats that make the painting look much more advanced.  He helped me break down how to paint what I would have guessed were very complicated paintings.  At the end of the day, he gave me confidence that I could make some pretty amazing paintings with only a couple months of fooling around.  So while I'm still an amateur painter, he helped give me the confidence to put my work up on a website, and for that I'm thankful.