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Commission Completed: The “Homicide Posts”

Earlier this week, I delivered the finished project to my very happy client. (After having seen my Oxidized Macros series, she asked me to create a group of photographs based on what I call the “Homicide Posts”–the old, paint-layered lampposts outside the former Police HQ set of the TV show, “Homicide: Life on the Streets” at Fell’s Point Recreation Pier in Baltimore.)

Homicide Posts Photography Commission; Nick Rusko-Berger, May 2011. www.ruskoberger.com

(click for larger): Homicide Posts Photography Commission; Nick Rusko-Berger, May 2011

I had them printed on canvas and gallery wrapped; the sizes range from 10×10″ to 16×24″.

They now live in sunny Florida. 😀


New Painting: “Drive-By Landscape No.1”

“Drive-By Landscape No. 1″

Oil on Board, 12 x 12”

"Drive-By Landscape No. 1"

"Drive-By Landscape No. 1", Oil on Board, 12 x 12", 2011; Nick Rusko-Berger

New Painting Start: “Anna Reclining; Hotel Chelsea”

Here’s the latest start; oil on board, about 18×24″.

Rarely do I start with a vine charcoal framework, but the exaggerated 3-point  perspective  asked for it. Even still, I just wung the drawing, and as it turns out I pushed it even further–opening up the forms–which I like. As for the underpainting… in some places it’ll be complementary, and in others the intensity could roil underneath whatever analagous-ness goes over it.

Anna Reclining; Hotel Chelsea, New York City

Anna Reclining; Hotel Chelsea, New York City; Oil on Board, 18 x 24"

Photoshop and Me: Editing Power

I’ve always called Photoshop “the Pencil of Digital Art”, and here’s Reason # 32,359: This image is a before-and-after example of a photograph I’m working on for a commission.

The series is part of my ongoing Oxidized Macros series and comprises a number of photographs of what I’m calling the “Homicide Posts”–the old, paint-layered lampposts outside the former Police HQ set of the TV show, “Homicide: Life on the Streets” at Fell’s Point Recreation Pier in Baltimore.

In these series, I don’t do any digital painting or rearranging of elements; the only editing I do is cropping, focus and tweaking the colors.  I amazed even myself with this result–all done with Image Adjustments and Image Adjustment Layers…and again, no painting or additions. In other words, all the changes you see in the right image were extracted from the information in the left image!

An image from Nick Rusko-Berger's "Homicide Posts" commission series

Before and After: Right Image from Left image's "dormant" information. All editing using Photoshop's Image Adjustments; no painting or additions. (Black lines are a quick "watermark mask" and not part of the image.)

Oil Painting, Mark-making…Problems with the “Masters” Part I

This all started in January of 2008, when Anna and I went to see the Edward Hopper show at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Anna and I were both Hopper fans, so we were happy to have made the show before it closed. Then something unsettling happened…

Walking through the exhibit–piece after piece–showed an artist struggling with the medium (oil paint)…and mostly not coming out the winner.  I actually started to feel a bit sorry for old Ed, like I caught him with his Art Pants down. In terms of his paint application (or, mark-making) the work “amateurish” kept surfacing in my head. I’m sure my face was a strange thing to behold, because I was shocked.

To keep from Poisoning the Well, I kept my mouth shut and said nothing to Anna. (BTW, on top of zillions of reproductions, she and I have both seen a good number of Hoppers “live”.) When I told her my take on the show, she said that she’d been thinking the same thing. We went back to the beginning and looked at everything again. Same thing.

Now, there are no two ways about it: Hopper knew how to compose stunning images that, on their own merits (of light, color, and mood) are aesthetically pleasing and historically significant. But his mark-making was simply Godawful. I’d always found his figures to be weak points in any paintings that incorporated them, but up close, that same uncomfortably-integrated aspect intruded upon so much beyond that.

Needless to say, there were some strong passages. But more often than not, he just seemed to find himself needing to cover an area while he happened to be holding a brush loaded with oil paint.

Edward Hopper: Stiff oil paint mark-making, "A woman in the Sun"

Edward Hopper: Stiff oil paint mark-making, " A woman in the Sun"

Now I have a whole bunch of questions: Is it because he was a graphic artist for so (or–too) long? Is it because his paintings are actually better viewed as reduced-scale reproductions? Why are his watercolors generally more fluid and immensely more tuned-in to the medium–when watercolor is a harder medium to employ and “let go” with?

(Incidentally, Hopper’s etchings exhibit what I call “Diebenkorn-y Drawing Funk”–a sort of stiffness-of-draftsmanship that becomes a stylistic/translational success in spite of itself.) Example:


Example: Richard Diebenkorn Drawing Funk in his Landscape Etching


How is it that Hopper shows a clear understanding of “marks and gesture adding up to form” with a pointy medium (etching)…




…yet it doesn’t translate into his oil painting brushwork? It’s like he had an impenetrable wall between media.

I don’t know, but it was the start of my noticing all kinds of Dicey Oil Painting Marks Made by Masters in subsequent museum visits. More on this later, in Part II…

Mechanical Vision: my “Blur Glasses”, Photography, and Context

My Mechanically Altered Vision: Beyond the Camera…

This past weekend, Anna and I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art’s  “Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960” exhibit. While it didn’t rock me back on my heels, it was reasonably engaging, and afforded me one stand-out: Andres Serrano‘s “Black Supper”, a piece that existed as a beautiful, visceral, engaging image–on its own, outside the context of the exhibit and the medium.

Andres Serrano's "Black Supper", photograph(s) [fair use, as not-for-profit example]

Andres Serrano's "Black Supper", photograph(s)

(In other words, it was the polar opposite of the two video “art” pieces. Actually–opposite of 99% of video pieces anywhere.)


After returning home, I was reading through some posts at ConceptArt.org discussing the perennial issue of artists–mostly beginners and poor draftsmen–using photographic reference crutches (to bad effect) in drawings and paintings. (At the moment I won’t be getting into the details of when and how photographs are used/misused. It’s not cut and dried, so maybe another exciting time!)

It got me thinking about cameras, their distortions, and the attendant preconceptions they animate in people. Cameras have points of view and biases–just like everyone else–be they mechanical (what type/format), technological (what era of development they were designed in), or administrative (how the photographer employs it, and under what conditions, to what end, etc).  Then, there’s the baggage (positive and negative) a viewer brings to a photograph. There are a lot of variables there, huh?

I kept coming back to the fact that photographic images are often taken as de facto representations of Reality, even despite all of those contextually wishy-washing attributes I mentioned above. Most of the problems artists have when using photo reference stem from the common misapprehension that a photograph is telling the Truth–or worse, the whole Truth. This is a Perfect Storm: the camera’s mechanical distortions are given a free pass to Truthdom via peoples’ needy-willingness to accept them as Real. This questionable perceptual stew becomes a “default mode of contextualization” for a lot of people–even whole societies. (Look at ours, especially when it comes to documentary news photography and the whole other issue of Photoshop manipulation.)

So…I thought that it would be interesting to confound several aspects of photography at once; I’d intentionally, mechanically alter my vision as I worked. I took a pair of $20 pharmacy glasses and farked up the lenses. Several coats of Crystal Clear and Polyurethane later, I had these:

Mechanically Altered Vision: Beyond the Camera

the Blur Glasses...brought to you by Crystal Clear & Polyurethane

The “Blur Glasses” are my Anti-Camera. They are mechanical…but they blur, they are obvious (and therefore, beyond ignoring or forgetting their contextualizing), and don’t freeze anything in place or 2D-ify.

p.s. My eyesight has been degrading over the past few years. My far-sightedness can be a benefit (in the same way squinting is), but these glasses help in a couple of ways. One is that I don’t have to constantly be tensing my face up, as with the squints. The other (odd, but palpable) is that the lenses allow my eyes to focus “naturally” while still fuzzing things up. And there you go.

Why Drawing is Important (Why We Learn to Draw)

Why is it important to learn how to draw? Why do we need to spend gobs of time doing it?

Here’s why: the basis of all that we, as artists, do is Drawing. The act of drawing isn’t simply to output “a Drawing”; it does so much more. On one level, it’s like taking notes. Your visual, motor, and cerebral processes work more and more in sync. New neural pathways get made and practice makes those paths stick. You’re also storing a whole lot of knowledge, even though you’re not consciously aware of it all.

Finally, there are two Biggies: 1) Practice and lots of time logged gets you comfortable with your Marks. All drawing and painting are (at their abstract baselines) are a series of marks you’ve put down to translate what you’ve perceived. 2) That practice and time will also make you comfortable with your own Drawing Funk. Anything that deviates from the “exact” form/etc that you’re drawing is that Funk. And this, after a while, turns into your style (in the good sense, not the put-on/fake sense). The Funk still has to be based on good observation and skills (and it can’t be arbitrary, careless, or tacked-on), but it’s what everyone is looking for.

There’s no shortcut for this learning process, and besides guiding words of wisdom, no one can do it for you. It can’t be taught (for example, if someone shows you how to ride a bike, they’re only improving *their* skills.) You hafta do it yourself by putting in the time.