I thought I would attempt an abstract style with this subject, from a snapshot I took walking through Charleston. That bright pink tree caught my eye, and I wanted to create a picture with a slash of pink to show the arresting nature of that moment I experienced. I did the opposite. I drew with tight perspective and moments of precise detail. However, I did change my technique. I tried something I hadn’t done before: glazing. You use thin layers of paint—darker over lighter--on top of each other. It takes patience and time (also not my style) because you need to let each layer dry completely.
This used to be the typical way to paint a few hundred years ago because of climate and materials. Thin layers worked best with slow-drying oil paints in cool, damp Europe. But I also think thin layers were necessary for the style and purpose of painting then. Painting was the only visual documentation, so realism was important, and that was achieved with viscous paint handled with delicate brushwork.
Fast forward to 2017: I was looking for a way to create large areas of monochromatic shadow that looked rich and deep instead of muddy. I got out my reference book, The Painter’s Handbook (Mark David Gottsegen) to see if glazing was the answer. I tried to figure out what transparent colors I had in my paint box (it’s not just written on the tube—thankfully Mr. Gottsegen made a chart in his book), and I gave it a try. I drew the details of the foreground buildings with burnt sienna. Let it dry. Then I went over the whole foreground with a light wash (using a paper towel) of the same color. Let it dry. I created a second wash mixing Hansa yellow light, burnt sienna, and a teeny bit of black. I applied it with a wide brush then used a paper towel to rub away some areas to make them lighter. I was surprised at how well the technique gave the effect I wanted, especially on the left building. What I didn’t realize when I started is that the look I needed for my shadows was luminous, but that’s exactly what I got.
I was sick a couple weeks ago and took it as opportunity to watch art movies that no one else in my household would ever watch with me: Peggy Guggenheim, Art Addict (2015) and A Model for Matisse (2005). They were fine little documentaries that you might yawn over if forced to watch them in your art history class, but I was more than happy to watch them by choice on my couch that week. There were a couple of great little nuggets from each one that made them extra satisfying.
In Peggy’s movie there was a bit of old film from a “meeting” (more like just smoking and gabbing) of some soon-to-be-important artists. Willem de Kooning said that in his daily life he’d catch a glimpse of something and feel like he had to paint it. “I’m very interested in painting that, this frozen glimpse. That’s a wonderful sensation to slip into this glimpse. I’m a slipping glimpser.” Me, too! I’ll notice something in a quick moment, and I’ll want to remember it as a painting. But I don’t always know how. It’s not a full scene I want to record, but rather a feeling that comes from a glimpse. For example, the above photo from a stroll through Charleston was an attempt to capture a glimpse. That bright pink flowering tree exploding between these dark, worn structures obviously stopped me in my tracks. It's a terrible photograph, but I wanted to bring it back to my studio to try to remember how startling it was and make something from it. Maybe, like De Kooning, abstraction is the answer.
The Matisse film was about the creation of the chapel he designed in Vence, France, but my favorite part was at the beginning in an interview with the woman who inspired the chapel. They first met when she, Monique Bourgeois, was his caretaker while he was convalescing after surgery from intestinal cancer. (He had posted an ad for a “young and pretty night nurse” at the local nursing school. In her words, “Well, I was very young.”) They became friends and he soon asked her to pose for him. After the first sitting, he asked her opinion of the portrait. She didn’t like it all, didn’t think it looked like her, and she told him so. His response: “If I wanted something that captures reality, I’d take a photograph.” HA! I love that response because it speaks to the artistic difference between photography and painting. There is something about using paint that transmutes a subject to something beyond representation. The physical qualities of paint are an obvious factor, but the more important one is that every painter's hand is unique, every one takes their liberties, even when working from a photographic reference. I know I do. I’ll make the colors brighter, shadows darker, etc., and that’s what makes it MY interpretation of a scene. This reminds me of a quote from Robert Henri: “Don’t try to paint good landscapes. Try to paint canvases that show how interesting a landscape looks to you—your pleasure in the thing.”
I have read from a number of artists how they prefer painting on smooth boards, and I’ve used it once before with bad results, but I thought I’d try again in the spirit of experimentation. I know that I prefer painting on canvas, but based on recent praise of boards and the fact that I have a better knowledge of my materials, I wanted to see if I was missing something. Results: Maybe?
My problem with board (I used Gessobord by Ampersand) was that my paint would not stay put. With each brush stroke I was picking up more paint than I was putting down. It seemed that its surface was too smooth to hold the paint. And sure enough, when I did it again last week, I had the same frustrating problem from the first brush stroke.
Before I started, I had tried to find other painters who had the same problem. I read one mention of it in Carole Marine’s book, and her solution was to use bristle brushes. She said it made all the difference. So, I used bristle brushes. Nope. What the $%*#?!
I finished the painting anyway to see if I could learn something from this disaster. Yep. I don’t like panel AND bristle brushes. I have fine-but-not-the-highest-quality bristle brushes, but could that be it? Amount of paint on the brush? Layers of paint? I don't give any more consideration to these factors when painting on canvas with synthetic brushes.
After my first pass at this, my opinion was: It looks like I painted with my fingertips up in the areas of thick paint, and because I kept picking up paint, I can see too much of the raw umber underpainting, which makes it muddy looking. Sooo, a day after this thunderstorm I went back to it to see how paint would stick on top of paint that had dried a bit. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes I pulled up big strokes of paint all the way down to the underpainting. Come on!
I am very happy painting on canvas with my synthetic brushes, but I want to know what I’m doing wrong. To make myself feel better, I painted the exact same picture, same size, with my favorite supplies to prove to myself that I’m not imagining this difference. So, here I present all THREE versions 1) Bristle brush on board 2) a second layer of paint with bristle brush on board a day later 3) synthetic brush on canvas-wrapped panel.
I was so much happier with the last one. Smooth, flowing application of paint, even coverage, aah, that's better. I still can't figure why I have a hard time keeping paint on board, I gave it a try, and at least I can say "Good for you! Not for me."
I started a landscape oil painting last week of some soft green hills and cliffs from a snapshot of a trip to the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. I was excited about the composition: I had captured a small road running over and around the area, and the silhouette of the cliffs cut out some great negative space against the sky. I sketched it out and blocked in some color. Then I walked around my house for almost a week questioning my purpose as an artist and a human being.
When I hadn’t come up with any answers I finally slinked over to the canvas to do something. Anything. I didn’t want to abruptly end my painting renaissance IN THE MIDDLE OF A PAINTING [whisper voice:] like I did last time.
During my week of self-exploration and apathy I read a great article in the Artist’s Magazine all about painting with greens by Michael Chesley Johnson. Coincidentally the subject of his example was in Scotland, too. Aah, the Isle by the Emerald Isle. Landscapes used to be difficult for me, and I realized recently that a big part of that was differentiating masses of green and knowing how to temper the greens with other colors. Green is everywhere, dammit! I mean, the color even has its own movement. So after reading Mr. Johnson’s helpful green color chart and numerous tips, and after an internal “eh, what the hell else am I going to do,” I jumped back into my Scottish scene.
The first greens I mixed were on the dull side, planning to build up lights as needed. This is a scene with a lot of distance from foreground to background, and I’d need to create some dramatic depth with a great range of hue and tone to get all the way to the top of the mountain. It’s also a cloudy day, so my bright greens are few.
I laid down some good colors on the first pass, having mixed my greens with ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, Hansa yellow light, Alizarin crimson, phthalo blue, and white. This was a really good greens primer for me, as well as a career primer. Everybody gets in a rut, even if you like your job. I think I felt this one hard because I don’t have the routine and interruptions of an office setting. Though my cat comes into the studio and screams at me at least twice a day. I faced it head on. I’m not completely through it, but I think if I schedule a quarterly review with myself I’ll get myself back on track in time for annual bonuses. And I am a generous boss at bonus time.
After a fruitful year of painting small canvases of landscapes and still lifes (fruit-ful!), I wanted to get back to my favorite subject—the figure. The big figure. This was my thing in high school (I could have had an entire exhibition of paintings of my teenage sister), college (mostly drawings), and then during that brief painting resurrection around 2005. I did a few figure paintings when I started up again a couple years ago, but I hit a wall when I was working on one of them. I had to stop, remove it from the room, and lean it against a wall with its back to me. About this time, I had also picked up Carol Marine’s book Daily Painting, an inspiring read by a woman who, like me, had been an art major, got exhausted with the time and energy of working big and thus worked infrequently, then had a baby and had to change her schedule altogether. Her answer was go small. And, like her, I found it to be liberating. Smalling (I made up that terrible word) has been a great exercise in experimentation, speed, and practice, but I missed my biggies.
I pulled out a photo I took two years ago and a 30-inch-square canvas I bought two years ago (for that photo). I wondered if I’d approach this painting differently after a year of trying new techniques and materials, as well as tons of reading about and by artists. Yes and no.
I changed some of my materials. I had been using Turpenoid as an all-in-one substance for brush cleaning and paint thinning, and I forewent a medium altogether. I bought some new stuff and set it up using the Goldilocks organizational method: A big jar of brush cleaner, a medium jar of medium (heh heh), and a baby jar of straight mineral spirits for erasing and thinning.
I used a much lighter layer of paint to tone the canvas--I used to slather it on—then I lightened it more by wiping it pretty good with the mineral spirits. The lighter layer was just as helpful plus it dried a lot faster.
I worked quickly to get paint down on the largest areas in the foreground, and I painted outside of my lines so that I could carve out shapes with the abutting paint colors. I wanted to be looser and get some more energetic lines. I thought that if I weren’t trying to literally stay in the lines then I’d loosen up. Although I wasn’t going for Impressionistic style, I did want looser brushwork.
I put the most work into the focus of the painting: the head, cup, and hand. This area contains the most color subtleties, greatest areas of contrast, and the most detail.
If I failed with some passage after a couple of tries, I wiped it clean with mineral spirits and started over. This, instead of trying to make it work with more paint, which can in turn make color muddy and paint layers uneven.
I varied my brushes to try new techniques. Turns out that my old bright works great for making a spikey, shorn haircut.
I spent a lot of time getting the drawing right. I outlined it with a thin layer of raw umber, and I stared at that for a long time before putting down any paint. I had chosen a point of view that anyone in my family would recognize—as if I had snuck up on the subject. Which is exactly what I do. The composition was typical of my style and so was the color palette.
I tried listening to new music, but I fell back on my old favorites: ‘90s rap and hip hop played really loudly. Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack stuck in my head. It kind of felt like my anthem as I returned to painting this subject that I like so much. Nothing about the song is relevant to my experience except the title, but I'm sticking with it.
Later is what?
After settling into various desk jobs, I always said I'd get back to painting later in life, and later is now. Again means that I tried once before. I decided to write about my painting endeavor, too, as a learning tool, an accountability tool, and to stay sharp in case I have to go back to a desk job. Again.
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