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."
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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