Cartoon and Illustration

Hangin’ with “the Dude”

I was going to write a massive article on what it was like to take a class in oil painting–studying under Steve “the Dude” Rude.  But frankly, it’s beyond words in so many ways that I cannot begin to attempt it.  However I will share a shot of how I saw much of last week–from behind Steve as he painted and taught us about the process.

Now, as to what I discovered personally I can speak a bit about that as well as reminisce on some discoveries made during the week that have nothing to do with oil painting technique (which is going to take me months or years to assimilate).

I was one of two students.  Me and Kurt Blumberg (I don’t know if I’m spelling that right, because I did not yet get Kurt’s info–my bad–hoping that he’ll send me an email when he gets home).  I don’t know why there were not more students there as it was worth every penny (admittedly quite a few pennies, maybe that had something to do with it) to study with a master like Steve.

But those of you who missed it–if you call yourself serious about making comics or illustration, for shame.  It worked out providentially for Kurt and me though.  Two students in a class like this?  Huge one-to-one instruction time.  Kurt knows.  He came all the way from Wisconsin to this one, and he’s been to several before.  If I had the time and money I’d follow Steve all around the country doing the same thing.  It’s not a cult of personality, it’s just getting good advice from someone who knows.

Anyway, each day started out at 6 am for me.  (Everyone who knows me reading this is saying, “You, Doodle? Up at 6 am?? Impossible!” But it’s true, so was my mania this past week).  I’d rise at 6, get ready for the day and then drive over to Solid Studios in Asheville for arrival around 8:15 to spend some time with Steve, his wife Jaynelle, Kurt, and our model for the workshop, Sarah.

We had a lot of good conversation–and when Kurt and I weren’t berating ourselves for our own feelings of inadequacies I found out that Steve is a lot like my late father-in-law, Ernie Guldbeck.  Similar to Ernie, Steve is a big, gregarious guy who works hard to make friends with everyone he meets.  Nobody is a stranger for long around Steve.  He was constantly inviting people down to watch the workshop in progress from Comic Envy (which is located on the top floor of the same building).  He also spent a lot of time upstairs at Comic Envy during our lunch break (compulsory break, BTW–Steve didn’t want us taking on too much).  I had to wonder about a lot of people who were in the shop on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday not realizing that the “really loud guy” was Steve.  I don’t know any comics fan that isn’t also a fan of Steve.  So how many people passed by and didn’t realize who he was?  Who knows.  It made me smirk a lot.

Jaynelle was a picture of patience.  She’d be working away on her laptop, putting out fires that were popping up all over–both personally (they’d left their two teeners in Arizona with Jaynelle’s Mom) and with the upcoming Nexus Online Comic Strip.  Got to see some insight into how that process works.  There were also things like arranging airfare for collaborators on Nexus (Mike Baron for one) who were flying out to meet Steve in the coming weeks; as well as fielding illustration queries from major ad agencies while Steve was busy with us.  She really is a hands-on manager for all of Steve’s business concerns and worked really hard in spite of jet-lag and allergic reaction to the falling leaves of western North Carolina!

Kurt and I were going nuts most of the time.  The fact is that drawing comics and painting in oil are completely different animals, and Steve was working really hard to get as much across to us about the process of learning the difference as he could in the 3 days we had to spend with him in the studio.  On Wednesday Kurt and I drew, and drew, and drew in charcoal trying very hard to shake off our years of comic book short cuts and get back to those things we’d studied in art school about “drawing what you SEE, not what you Think you see!”  About 2 o’clock on Wednesday I had to admit out loud to everyone there that part of the problem was just simple human pride.  It’s hard to realize that though you may be quite good at one facet of your craft that you have been taking the short cut route for a long time and it’s time to toughen up and do things the hard way again.

I also have to admit on Wednesday night I was ready to punch a wall.  Fortunately, Steve understood and so encouraged me to go home and take a long walk with Karin.  He assured me that in spite of his tough teaching that I was making progress.

Thursday I asked a bunch of friends to pray for me before I took off for Asheville.  So kudos to Joel, Shane and Kaysha for any and all prayers–because on Thursday it began to click.  Found out that Steve (like all cartoonists) is a fan of the film “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” when he made a joke about “Brupreckt”.  So there you go.  After that it was all bad jokes, puns, and more jokes as the day progressed.  At one point Steve pointed out that we were “going through the three stages” of making good drawings and I quipped–“Three Stages? I love those guys! Nyuk, nyuk!”

That will give you some idea of what it was like.

Thursday was also my first stab at making an oil portrait in many years.  Steve had us work on one half of a canvas–then had us look at the results.  Then he painted a similar “corrected” version next to it, demonstrating how to go about approaching the medium correctly.  My first stab I have dubbed “ghost in a fog bank” as I way overused white paint in it–a common newbie mistake Steve informed me.

As I was preparing to leave for the day, I looked at what Kurt had done.  It wasn’t bad at all–certainly not as good as Steve’s correction, but not bad.  I told him, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re way too hard on yourself?”  And as we shared a moment of awkward silence Steve piped up and said, “You know you BOTH suffer from that don’t you?”

I do wish that I’d been able to stay more into the evening.  Steve actually made himself available to us in that manner–he let us know he’d be back in the studio after dinner if we wanted to come back, but I really needed to be home with Karin to help with things around the house as much as I could–as well as “decompress” a bit every night before bed.

When I came in on Friday morning found out that Steve had done a copy of a Santa Claus painting by one of his heroes Haddon Sondblum–just to see how it would come out.  Kurt had been there to observe Steve’s work on that, as well as do a bit more painting on his own pieces.  Me?  I was walking around the lake with Karin and our pal, Beau.  So I don’t regret that.  Good walk, good talk–it helped a lot to get out and do that.

Friday Steve did the full length portrait of Sarah in a satin gown.  We watched him work all morning and then he said, “What? Holy Cow!  It’s lunch time already? You guys are going to have to get to work on your paintings after we eat!”  So we had lunch and then put our big canvases on the easels to begin work.

This is when it got really intense.  We each started our canvases by doing a sketch in thinned down oil.  Steve would come around and look at the piece and say, “Don’t try to fix a bad beginning–just wipe the canvas clean and start over.”  He did this (I think) three times with each of us.  It may seem cruel to the outsider, but it could not have been better for us.  We didn’t suffer that period of doubt thinking we might be able to fix the piece.  Just, “Start over,” and we did.  I got to the third sketch and Steve thought that the proportions were good.  But he stopped me and said, “Jim (he calls me Jim) take out your charcoal and newsprint pad and do some head sketches until you’re sure what you’re doing there.”

I should mention that I had chosen a difficult angle to work from earlier in the week.  We’d discussed how theoretically this should make no difference, but practically it made a huge difference.  So now I had to tackle that practical difference.

So for 45 minutes I beat on the head part of the illustration while Steve worked on the highlights of the satin gown painting and Kurt blocked in the color for his painting.  It was truly intense.  Finally I got to a place in my sketching that both Steve and I thought had the essence of Sarah down reasonably well.

I actually had to go walk around the parking lot for a few minutes after that.  I just had to blow off some steam.

Anyway, I returned to the studio and began knocking in some color flats.   That’s about all I was able to do before our time was up for class.  We had to clean up and take what we had home with us.  So I’ve got a few dozen photos of Sarah to work from, and a large canvas sitting in the corner of the studio right now waiting to be finished.

I know it will take many months to accomplish anything with this painting, but I’m going to apply myself to that.  Now is the time to assimilate what I’ve learned.

After that Steve and Jaynelle invited us all to dinner.  We went to Sunny Point Cafe over in West Asheville.  My toddler stomping grounds–I have not been back to West Asheville in years for any real length of time.  So I marveled at the difference that has come in the past 50 years.  It was great sharing dinner with one of my heroes–and finding out how much he’s like “Pop” was (though Steve’s not that much older than me, really–only about 6 years).

Some things learned:

“The advantage of oil paint is that it stays wet–the disadvantage of oil paint is that it stays wet.”

Painting is a whole different animal than drawing.  They’re related, but not that related.

Steve Rude has a very big personality–once you get comfortable with that, you’re going to be fine.

Try to develop a definitive line to your work.  Don’t be searching around for your line.

Poppy Oil will keep oil paint from drying as fast and will actually bring back life to various paints that have dried already (particularly “earth colors” like burnt umber).

Do not be afraid to use black paint!  (It’s perfectly appropriate in paintings if you use it correctly).

Don’t use so much white!  (Ghost in a fog bank).

Okay, that’s it for now.  But if you ever see that Steve Rude is giving another workshop you should hock your car and take it.

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