Here I’ll share details, the process, and my interpretation.

Sometimes I forget that my art may not be accessible to others. Not only do they not share my background or social underpinnings, they don’t have access to my process and haven’t spent dozens of hours crafting the piece in question. We tend to think we can access and assess a piece of visual art in a matter of seconds, because we can see it all in an instant, but we’d never presume the same about a song, or even a poem longer than a few lines. And in the case of my digital art, one is seeing a radically reduced image on screen, in which case a lot of the detail isn’t apparent. So, here’s a little background to shed more light on this piece, though there’s no accounting for tastes and everyone is entitled to legitimately dislike any and all of my art.

Details at actual pixels

The coin at “actual pixels” which is its actual size on screen.

Above you can see the gold coin and the hand. This isn’t zoomed in, you have to zoom out to see the whole thing at once. I make my pieces as large as my computer can handle it without slowing down or crashing, so they can be printed professionally and possibly shown in a gallery. This one can be printed at 36″ wide at 300 dpi (which is the clarity of slick magazine covers).

The sun over the mountains at actual pixels.
The back of the frog at actual pixels. I’ve been looking for an excuse to use more greens.

If you are seeing this and don’t know my recent work, I should probably mention it’s a digital painting. I know, it really looks like a painting, down to the canvas showing through, but this is a process I’ve developed over several years to create a feel that I admire from traditional oil painting.

Sections (with descriptions). These are reduced to fit on screen.

The Head

The head. Notice the lines going through the eyes.

The whole image is a bit of a revival tour for me, and this kind of head has appeared in my earlier paintings and sculpture. He looks not like a skeleton, but as though he’s been flayed alive.

In this painted sculpture I used hangers for eyes, and the lines through the eyes of the head in the new image are a direct reference to this piece from more than 20 years ago.
These three paintings from @1990 all have heads in them similar to the head in the new piece. You might notice the influence of Francis Bacon (not to mention Edvard Munch) on these early paintings, which I did before attending UCLA as an undergraduate (but after a couple years of community college).

The main reason there’s a similarity between my current piece and this early work is the method I used to create it, even though I’m working with a drawing tablet and a computer instead of brushes, paint, and canvas. More about the method later.

The iguana head

The lizard head definitely looks like an iguana, but not your traditional green variety. More like a “Rhinoceros Iguana”. They use their tongues to catch the scent of food, which has something to do with the title.

I’ve been crazy about lizards since I was a kid, and just this morning had a dream in which I discovered lizards everywhere I looked. I like to think of these recurrent dreams as good luck. At one point I made a tally of every breed of lizard I’d kept, and it was 25. I’ve even successfully bred European Green Lizards (Lacerta Viridis) and incubated the eggs. Nowadays I just have some guppies on my balcony.

Detail of “Lizards of Laos”, from about 5 years ago, showing a kindred lizard, also tasting the air with its tongue. Notice how my digital painting style has evolved to be more impasto.

The hand

The hand

The hand finally having lost its grip on the gold coin. Notice the streak of yellow is slashing through its wrist.
The hand with exposed broken arm bones.

Even I am a little uncomfortable with the bones sticking out from the hand above. At one point I thought it was too dark. Some compositional and color changes made it less outrageous. Notice how the shadow of the bones makes them angle up from the picture plane, three dimensionally. The yellow streaks are like lightning, swords, strands of taffee, and most appropriately, puppet strings.

The frog

Possibly my favorite part of the image.

I love frogs just slightly less than lizards, and have also kept them as pets. This one is not very realistic. It’s more fantastical and symbolic. The frog just happened to appear in the image, but the way I realized it might have something to do with the foam rubber frogs I have tacked onto my bathroom door to make my generic hotel room a little more personalized and friendly. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever put a frog in my art, so it’s long overdo.

Kids foam rubber frogs on my bathroom door
Kids foam rubber frogs I put up on my bathroom door.

The wave

the wave
The wave, with a lot of crimson in it, along with some slimy greens.

An upsurge of water contaminated with blood and sewage.

The ring

Giant yellow ring hovering on the water and encircling the sun
Giant yellow ring hovering on the water and encircling the sun

You might associate the ring with that of “my precious”, and all its associations, which are not far off the mark, but it reminds me more of another ring from one of my drawings from @1990.

Winged Entities, Charcoal on paper, by me. @1990
Winged Entities, Charcoal on paper, by me. @1990

Another circular form hovering over water in this early charcoal. I didn’t know what it represented exactly then, nor now. Though, obviously it’s the darker of the two entities in the drawing.

The Process

This was an experimental piece. I wanted to start with colors and a composition that I liked, and then find imagery within it. The strength of this kind of process is that it’s unpremeditated, and one has no idea what one is going to come up with in the end. I have a list of over a dozen images I want to make, but this one was a wild card. It has a lot in common with two of my recent abstract or non-representational (these words get used interchangeably) works, but here I chose to realize recognizable imagery. Part of my philosophy of art making is that it strengthens one’s skills to try different approaches. We see how this works in MMA, where a Judo fighter might study kick-boxing for a while to incorporate its wickedly powerful roundhouse kick. This rounded approach makes one a more skilled artist as well, but because of marketing pressure for artists to only work in an easily recognizable signature style, many artist are unwilling or unable to break out of their commodifiable pigeon holes.

Here I started by “brushing on” some color until I came up with a general scheme that I liked. Then I continually altered all aspects of it until it evolved to completion. I made a short video (28 seconds) that best illustrated this process.

The short video shows 14 stages of the image


Since this has recognizable imagery, and some of it fairly graphic, people are going to want to try to interpret its meaning. I really don’t think the meaning is as important as the more intangible aspects of the image. Any message could be written, and I think writing is a better mechanism for conveying explicit messages. You can make cogent arguments, site sources, and dismantle common counter arguments. Painting and music can convey subtle feelings or understanding that may not be translatable into words. [By the way, “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Just a thousand?! I’ve got lots of posts over a thousand words that took a lot less time and imagination than my visual art.] Making the message primary is missing the point in a big way. I don’t care what the meaning of “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin is. It’s the opening guitar riffs and Robert Plant’s screaming that makes it. It’s a different level of meaning.

Nevertheless, I do have an interpretation for this piece. The figures are not completely “random”. I need to have some sort of logical relation between them and an overall context. Here it is.

This is an apocalyptic image, and the title should suggest that. It’s the popularly christened “Zombie Apocalypse” of the every-man-for-himself, post-collapse of civilization following widespread devastation due to unfettered global warming. “The Last Scent” implies death – why else is it the last scent – as obviously does the dismembered red figure who has visibly lost his hand. “Scent” is a triple-entendre, meaning scent, sent, and cent. The red figure clings to his last cent.

No, he doesn’t represent me. He represents humanity at large, or the factions that are undermining our civilization, environment and futures. The man has destroyed, and is being destroyed in turn, by the environment. He lost his hand clinging to a gold coin, much like the monkeys who once they’d reached their hands into an aperture in a coconut with peanuts inside, couldn’t get them out, because they refused to un-clench their fists. His clinging to money as the most important aspect of life, and delineator of success, has destroyed his world and him along with it. The abstract gold streaks coming from the sky, like lightening, and the same color and material as the coin and ring, carve up the man.

Most the world is under water, and the water is mixed with blood, sewage, and everything else. The sky is molten. The mountains are blackened and only their peaks rise above the water.

The frog, on the other hand, floats blithely on a leaf. The frog and the lizard represent nature/animals. Damage to the physiognomies of frogs are some of the first tell-tale signs of environmental contamination by pollutants. Their permeable skin is easily infiltrated by toxins. The frog here has been mutated, and has blood dripping from his mouth. Still, it is a casualty rather than a perpetrator. It holds an ear and loop of flesh that suggests the blood on his face comes from eating human flesh. But the ear is also the scroll of a string instrument, and has tuning pegs. The frog/nature, and music/art, are not the source of the corruption, but are nevetheless vulnerable to it.

The lizard is the distant descendant of the dinosaur. Its gleam has a tint of mischievous revenge. It suggests the dinosaurs might outlive humans after all.

And once again, the full image.

Click on the image for a larger view!

Art Prints


3 replies on “A closer look at “The Last Scent”

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