I just finished a piece that I’m very excited about, and as a fellow (and much admired) painter put it – Making an Art Joke. It is an art joke, and also dropping a big heavy anvil clue as to one of the artists I’ve drawn a great deal of inspiration from over the years. So much so, it crept into my psyche to the point where I wasn’t even thinking about it consciously as this piece progressed, up until it was a chuckle over how obvious it was. That is why I decided to just chuckle to myself, have fun painting, and stick a floating rock in the background. The rock is from Rene Magritte’s “La Bataille de l’Argonne” (The Battle of Argonne), and I relished in getting to have something of a conversation with him during this “master copy” inserted into my own work.
This idea for this piece was born in a PetSmart. I was browsing languidly to buy a food bowl, and stopped to look at the beautiful tiny birds for sale, and was struck by their gorgeous coloring and stripes. I took a bunch of photos deciding to paint one of them. I’d been thinking about making a painting exploring and weighing the concepts of Free Will vs The Law of Causality. This is a topic that has haunted me since college philosophy classes, which spun me around and pulled me in two directions at once while I struggled to blend the two ideas into something I could live with. As I age, I keep leaning more and more into Causality being the responsible party for our lunch choices and more, tugging at the strings of our hearts with a cold firm grip. But let’s keep it light, shall we?
Originally, I decided the live bird would represent Free Will and a stone bird to represent The Law. I thought about this for a long time before even sitting down to sculpt the stone bird (which turned out a little derpy to be honest, so the painted stone bird does not resemble the prop I made) for my model to hold during the photo shoot. The model is my friend Katrina, someone who works tirelessly to help those around her, supporting and building up her community of artists and volunteers.
I think my favorite part of the entire painting, to be honest, was solving the puzzle of painting lots of little braids. I still think they look a bit like dreads (which I’ve painted before and adored every moment), but I’m happy enough with the results. I had to figure out both the color and the application technique – darks down first, then mid tone, then highlights. Solving this was vexing at first, but as it started to click things flowed smoothly, and the experience was joyful. A lot of my painting time is trying to solve problems and failing! I go through a long list of what doesn’t work before finding something that does. The most vexing part of the whole piece was the clouds – I painted them several times, and now have a photo file of cloud reference photos, because making them up didn’t work out quite how I wanted. My clouds will evolve to be certain, needing a lot more practice! But those are fluffy and floaty and do fine for this piece. There will be more clouds in the future. Finally, I really enjoyed the flesh tones recipes I used here, but think next time I paint these wonderful tones I will use the limited pallet to develop more broken up color. The colors here are off a base of yellow ochre, cad orange, b. sienna plus titanium white, with the reminder that lead whites make for less chaulky mix.
Something I think about constantly – and you likely do as well, is time. It doesn’t feel like there is ever enough of it to accomplish what I’d like. This is definitely because I went back to working a day job and paint around that now, which is why my production slowed so much the past 6 months. One the one hand, working a day job is great, obviously for the financial security that being an artist doesn’t always provide, but also because it makes me appreciate the time I do have to paint more, and forces me to be more productive with that time. I had started back full time, and now getting ready for a bunch of shows, I’ve gone to four days a week, so I can focus more on painting again. It’s also great because it takes so much pressure off of what I do make. I don’t need the sale to pay the utilities, I’m free to make what I want, for myself, and then just put it out there and see what happens. If it stays with me for a time, that’s okay. I made it for me anyway.
This painting is definitely for me, I made it while ruminating over time, what I’m doing with mine, how I spend my nights after work, and it’s really just a little kick in the butt – a painting about getting back to the work of painting. I don’t have forever. None of us do. The urge to paint for me is a compulsion, but if I don’t have the energy, I can’t always force it. If I go too long without painting however, I start to feel… itchy. Unsatisfied, lazy even. I feel unfulfilled. Once I get back to work, all feels right again, I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing with my time. The precious little I may have, and there are so many paintings I want to make! I struggle a great deal with maintaining balance in my life – work, painting, family and friends, and simple alone downtime, those things all need to happen, and they need to be balanced. Too much of any one thing, and everything begins to feel a little claustrophobic.
So this is my good friend Sandra, personified as time. It’s okay for her to tell me to get off my ass, because we support each other a lot. She’s never actually said anything like that, but it felt right for her to be the subject in this one. I had envisioned it as a female Chronos, the keeper of the ticking moments, though definitely sans the whole child eating thing. She’s staring hard at me, goading me, saying “Hey, quit wasting time. Get to it.” The original reference photo has black lace draped over the chair, but I decided to leave it out because it didn’t need the extra reminder of death, it keeps it a little lighter, more positive and I can’t bring myself to cover the peacock chair. Man, I love that chair.
The experience of painting this feels like a bridge in a strange way – I’m happy with the painting, I’m proud of it, but there are a few things about it that vexed me throughout and still do – it’s best to be seen as a learning experience for sure. Proportional issues and edge work, brushstrokes and all. I love painting large hands, because I love hands, but it really bugged me here once I got there. If slightly larger hands are a mark of my work, I’m for it, usually. I was working on it last night and listening to an artist interview podcast, and the artist said something that really struck me as being exactly how I felt at that very moment – the reason I’ve been so frustrated is because I’m learning and growing. All the things I see that are wrong with this painting are because I can now see what could be better about it. All my successes with it are points to be proud of, for sure, but the problems are glaring at me like a neon sign. The hand placements was different at first. I got over a week behind schedule dealing with it. Here’s a peak at what it was like, I felt it was unnatural looking and the entire arm was moved!
I posted before about one of my favorite pieces suffering an impact crack and how it broke my heart. I decided to paint the same image again, on a sturdy Ampersand panel, with a lovey 2 inch cradle that I stained cherry red. I’ll go ahead and say this was a really good choice on my part. The second piece turned out so much better then the first. I was able to apply all the new things I’ve learned in the 4 year span since making the original, and on a rigid substrate. Phew!
I had mixed feelings about repainting a piece, it felt kind of strange, but the experience really was so different from the first time because I was so much more proficient in craft this time. The first painting was a plodding struggle spanning months. The second version was still a struggle, sure, but I had so many more tools at my disposal – a better eye and more experience. I also got to fix a couple of issues that really bugged me about the first painting.
I’m still working this formula – first layer verdaccio, second layer to refine. Then glazing flesh tones, but I admit some areas get too opaque, I’m still struggling with adding too much color over the shadows, where the paint is supposed to remain the thinnest to show the underpainting. My understanding is that the midtones are where the shadows blend into upper layers.
Verdaccio is done, awkward first flesh tone layer
Getting into the details!
If you’ve been following along on this journey of self taught glazing, you might see that each time I attempt a piece like this they get closer and closer to what I’m aiming for. I’m not there yet, and I waffle between thinking this knowledge is finite or limitless. I’m slowing down though, a recent break of painting a landscape during sunset was a refreshing change of pace that I wish to repeat! It was so freeing and loose after these years of tightly controlled detail painting. As to whether or not I’m changing my subject matter, well, that’s what series are for, right?
*This post has been edited because I included information about mounting canvas to panel and I have learned a great deal about conservation techniques since writing it. 3/19/18
Hello again, so soon! I’m really sad to have discovered a circular impact crack in one of my most favorite paintings – Wood vs Muscle from 2012. This painting is the sister companion of a painting from 2007, Infrastructure.While not as technically proficient as earlier pieces, they both hold a special place in my heart for the concepts they broach. I have already talked about this piece, but now I have to discuss options for fixing it. It’s not looking good. Consider this instead, a cautionary tale.
Once you have a cracked painting, there isn’t much you can do for it. That’s why it’s best to be mindful of the Fat over Lean principle, and to work on high quality substrates, and to be so very careful during transport. This painting is from a short period where I was trying out linen instead of cotton duck canvas. I bought a few prestretched linen canvases, and I have had nothing but bad luck with this particular brand, which had been sworn off before I just recently discovered the damaged to this favored painting. I still stand by (more so then ever) stretching my own and not buying premade. I have read about stretching linen, and tried it once and it was much more difficult then stretching cotton duck. My understanding is that many professionals buy super expensive linen, stretch a large amount onto a chassis and then prime it. They then cut out the amount they need for a smaller chassis, and stretch the preprimed linen. I haven’t gotten this far yet, because I can’t afford the fancy expensive linen yet. (A hopeful “yet” indeed.) So I settled for trying the cheap kind, and I have regretted it due to cracking, now in both of those paintings. Not cracking from badly constructed paint films – a more painful kind, impact cracks. These cracks are certainly my fault, clearly the painting was not handled well at some point, and I have no one to blame but myself (I think). I don’t recall *when* this damage was done, but I do transport the pieces often, and surely that’s how this happened. But to be sure, never again will I paint on cheap thin linen. Linen is supposed to be superior to cotton duck – the fibers are stronger (it’s made from flax, the same as linseed oil!) and it will last years and years beyond the point when cotton duck will eventually begin to rot with age. Sure, the canvas will rot well after my lifetime. I don’t mean this will happen anytime soon. But longevity is what I am after, and linen is fancy and pro, and supposedly stronger. The elasticity is what gives it this strength, however what this means is it’s more elastic. Linen will loosen up while you work on it. It’s very different feeling then canvas. So while being technically a stronger weave, linen damages and dents easily. I know, it’s a tough pill to swallow. All of this is prefaced however with the disclaimer that I have never painted on fancy heavy expensive linen. I would like to try it, but this experience has perhaps ruined me on the idea, and for medium to small images I might stick to panel from now on.
Impact crack on linen canvas
Let’s look at the damage and discuss what to do – life isn’t perfect, and shit happens. It can’t actually be fixed, but I tried to minimize the damage. When either cotton duck or linen start to sag or get loose, or you find a dent, the first thing to do is try brushing the back with water. That’s the most simple solution usually. You don’t want to soak it, just brush a small amount evenly and this will tighten the fibers back up. My best option for “fixing” it is a long hard road – removing the linen from the stretcher, mounting it to a panel with PVA* or high quality acrylic gel medium (I have found gel medium to work better then PVA, but you must work quickly and it’s tricky to do) and then I’d have to remove all of the varnish to paint over the crack. It’s not possible to remove just the varnish in one area, and replace it and have it look like that isn’t exactly what I did. Looong Sigh. Removing varnish is a serious, slow, laborious task and I never want to have to do it ever. I am not a conservator, that is not a degree that I carry, and I have no desire to spend hours meticulously performing this act huffing harsh solvents trying to get it all off evenly and perfectly. I am now refraining from going off on a tangent about varnishes. Not the point of this post, not the point of this post… but real fast, if you haven’t tried Gamvar yet, I highly recommend it. I discovered its wonders a mere year ago, and I’m never going back.
Once I have theoretically removed all of the varnish without horribly damaging my painting, then I could use some Cold Wax Medium or Acrylic Gel Medium in the deepest part of the crack, to sorta fill it in. Then I could attempted to paint over the crack. Would this work? I have no idea. Oil paint layers thin and become more transparent over time. Back to the plate of spaghetti analogy. I highly suspect the crack would still be visible in the end, after all that work, but at least the crack would not be at risk for getting larger.
In the end, as seen in the photo above, I “fixed” it the lazy way. I used wax, referred to my amazing studio notes from 2012, found the recipe for the colors I used (at least the crack isn’t on the figure!) and painted – YUP! – over the varnish. I so totally admit I did this. Is is sooo bad? (The answer is yes.) This painting will forever hang in my home now, it is absolutely not fit for gallery presentation now, so there ya go. I might make it again, on panel, for gallery presentation. I was never actually happy with the hair anyway, or how you could see the hard lines of the shoulders under the layer above. Many lessons to be learned, including this one – keep impeccable studio notes. You will thank yourself one day. Comments, suggestions and pointers are all very welcome.
*Edit – I say to use PVA or gel medium to mount canvas or linen to panel, and I really want to stress that this is NOT how conservators work. It might be done for a small piece that is going on archival panel, but in real painting restoration there are materials used to preserve the piece without permanently altering it. Using PVA is permanent. Cracks can be fixed to a larger degree then I thought, but it requires relining the piece on new linen and using wax as the adhesive. It also requires ironing the piece, and it’s a huge, tedious process. Spot touch inpainting could be done over a layer of varnish, the key is that it’s not on the original paint. Things are different when a conservator is working to preserve the piece, versus the artist them self.
Edit * I decided to go ahead and try the fancy linen after all. I don’t feel one brand is sufficient to make my mind up about the nature of linen et all. I special ordered a 39.5 x 42.5 sheet of Artfix preprimed Belgium Linen and I will definitely describe my experience with it once I try it out!
I haven’t made a post in a while because I’ve been so consumed with finishing this painting around working fairs and shows for the last few months. It’s done now though, and I’m back! I thought it would be fun to show how this painting came together. I’m really happy it’s done, clocking in at around +/- 200 hours, so it’s quite an accomplishment, and it really tested my dedication at times. It also showed me some serious weaknesses that I need to focus on improving if I am going to continue making paintings of this scope. If you have tips or tricks of your own, feel free to share! I don’t normally graph, and this piece was too large to *not* graph. This really challenged my poorly developed left brain, since I spend so much time in the right side. Wait, maybe that has been disproved at this point? In any case, here’s the photo of the finished 30 x 60” canvas. Without getting into the meaning of the piece at all, (unless someone really wants to discuss that, in which case I’m open to it, as it is a pointed piece) let’s dig into the details!
I began with a print out at half size for graphing. I picked up this trick from a really talented painter I’ve met along the way, but she recommends always printing out at full size. I figured at half, it would be really easy to simply enlarge 2x and that turned out to not work out as perfectly as I had hoped. I spent a lot of time working out the graph, and then realized the figure wouldn’t be large enough to fill the canvas in a satisfying way and also to satisfy my love of painting faces and hands and feet. What I wound up with was a figure with a head, face and feet that are a touch too large for the body. But forward I marched! The lesson here – don’t do that. I’m cool with it for this painting, because I do so love to paint those features as large as possible, and I don’t want to deal with canvases that won’t fit in the back of my pick up truck.
Verdaccio figure, first layer
Verdaccio Feet, Second layer
Verdaccio Full Figure
I have been experimenting with different flesh tone palettes over a verdaccio underpainting for several years now, and I’ve hit some that I kind of like, but haven’t really found *the one* yet. It took me awhile to even really figure out the verdaccio recipe I like most. I have now, I go for the Flake White, Ivory Black and Yellow Ocher route, and I’m very happy with it. When I first tried it with Oxide of Chromium, the figure was REALLY green, like alien green. I refined it for a bit with different ratios, and then tried it without the actual green – yellow ocher and black mix to somewhat of a green, and found I like the subtle green-gray much more, and it’s the correct mixture used back in the day anyways I believe. I did the full figure in verdaccio first, attempting a refined layer but only somewhat succeeding.
Getting the background in and the dress was a slow process. The Dress -what an ordeal! Stay away from Lamp Black unless you use a drier, it takes FOREVER. I’ve been waiting three weeks for this dress to dry enough for me to touch up a couple of spots, and then I’ll be stuck waiting another month before I can even think about Gamvar varnish. I can’t use a drier for the final touch ups because I’d risk cracking if I did so. So. Much. Frustrate. I have an actual gallery waiting to see this piece, and I’m stuck cooling my heals for a bit now.
As for creepy owl, which was extra creepy because I love owls, I created a paper-clay model of a dead owl so that my model would have something owl shaped and I could get her fingers perfect for the photo shoot. My only thing about this is that I wound up painting a super stiff owl, because my reference was super stiff and I didn’t succeed in giving it a little droop. So goes that, I get so focused on my references sometimes. It’s a really great thing to be able to separate the piece from the photo, it’s crucial actually, sometimes when you are making creative imaginary things from based in reality images. At a certain point you should ditch the photo and focus on the painting, and what makes it a good painting! It’s way more informative to work from life, but for images like this, and for my financial ability, I can’t ask a model to pose for the whole time I am working on the model. I hire a model to come in for an hour, pay the best wage as I can afford, and have a photo shoot. I also give the model a print of the painting for free. I think that’s good form.
Here comes the fun stuff about the skin tones. Most of my attempts to glaze over the verdaccio obliterates the verdaccio. The point is to build up paint over the light areas, and leave the shadows thin. I have failed over and over, and with this one it started to click a little better. I found a full list of Adriane Gotleib’s palette on his website, and substituting several of the colors I didn’t have for ones I did have, sticking to mainly transparent colors, I came to a pretty good place with the mixtures I made from this. They didn’t work well for me when I tried it over a white background, but over the cool verdaccio… yesss. I substituted another couple of colors for ones I liked more, and arrived at something similar but different, and I’m really happy with it. For my next piece, I am working with a grisaille underpainting, but I am going to use the same base colors to compare between what it looks like over grisaille vs verdaccio, because I want to know how much the green plays in. If it doesn’t work so well (I suspect it won’t but need to see for myself) I can always tweak it to better suit the grey scale without the cool green. I went for a Mars Black grey mix, so we shall see, experiments continue as always! I’ll probably blog about it too, cause if you are as dorky as I am on it (if you have read this far, you are. It’s okay. We’re in this together.) you may want to know as well!
If you’d like to view a video of me applying flesh colors over the verdaccio you can see it here. (It’s really helpful I think, and I wish there were more videos out there for people learning like myself.
The single glaze for the flowers mostly worked, but a couple of the lower petals didn’t have good enough variation in the grey scale for depth. But not to worry! A little bit of glazing Viridian over the red (complimentary colors, they are your friends!) and VIOLA! Depth where I needed it so the shadows popped, giving the petals the full forms I wanted. I spent a lot of time on the necklace and belt buckle as well, I love those details! While conceptually the meaning of the piece is a little away from Instinct vs Intellect, I view them as sister pieces. I find full series to be a bit tedious, but love pairing paintings, and sisters pop up a lot. To me this is a series of two. Not quite a series, I know. But I like to think they have companions at least. Please feel free to ask questions, make suggestions, share your knowledge, or to just leave a comment! Thanks for reading!
One of the things I love most about painting is also the thing that overwhelms me about it – the are so many different ways to paint. There are so many different things to paint, too. Plenty of people absolutely adore painting landscapes. That’s not quite my jam, but I can certainly appreciate a beautifully painted landscape. Some people paint hyper-realistic fruit. That’s also not quite my thing, but again, I sure can appreciate the effort and time it takes to glaze layer after layer to achieve realistic transparently glowing grapes.
I enjoy really passionate art, no matter what the style. I tend towards somewhat intense art as well, which many people do not. That’s the thing about art – it serves different functions for different people. For example, this is one of my most favorite paintings ever created, and it sure isn’t for everyone.
This painting is by a fellow named Ludwig Meidner, born in Poland in 1884, he died in Germany in 1966. He lived and painted during the second wave of expressionism and this piece was made in 1913. He is most famous for his Apocalyptic Landscapes, which are amazing as well, but I love his portraits so much – probably because I prefer portraits. Expressionism is most assuredly my greatest influence, and the art happening at around 1913 is my favorite period in art history. These paintings and the style and the brush strokes and the colors chosen just hit me so hard in the feels I have a hard time expressing it in words. This is where the passion and greatness of painting comes from for me. It’s antiquated at this point most certainly, and it’s safe to say most abstract expressionism doesn’t do it for me. Some have, but most don’t. Many would view this painting as overwhelmingly disturbing and creepy, and try to not think about it too much. That’s totally fine. I find it completely visceral and raw and honest beyond comfort. This is one of the greatest roles art can function in. There is a time and a place for beautiful things to put over the couch, but there is also this ability for art to serve as a force to humanize. There is a space for art to connect, de-alienate and to allow us to not all feel so alone. This painting does that for me. This painting lets me into the world of an artist who is long dead, and allows me to see him as he saw himself in his most private moments, and he is HONEST. So honest, the vulnerability of the piece is a corkscrew to the heart. I get to share in his humanity because he shares this intimate self view. We are capable of so many terrible things, we commit such atrocious acts. Alice Walkers’ words pop into my mind whenever I see a painting like this. “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?”
Here is one more, this time of a house located in Dresden.
It’s a house, sure. But the energy and movement makes it seem alive, and even threatening. The perspective conveys a great deal about the subject. How he chose to handle the planes, even in the sky, all make this painting convey tension.
I have copied several paintings at this point, and I recommend you do the same if you are learning and have never done so. Reproducing another artists work will teach you invaluable lessons in color, brush strokes and more. I’ve reproduced Joan Brown’s Self Portrait with Fur Hat (this paintings is SO great), Van Gogh’s Postmaster taught me about the color blue, and Carlo Carra taught me about adding orange when mixing, and I have a side project (which I need to get back to) where I enjoy copying master portraits with Crayola crayon. Maybe more on that later. For now, here’s another of my favorites, Carlo Carra’s Penelope, which I reproduced at twice the size of the original, because hey, why not. It was a challenge, and I didn’t know how to blend yet, so I’ll show the original painting he made. This is the best photo I could find.
Carlo Carra was an Italian Futurist and coincidentally, this painting was made right at the same time Meidner was working. This painting is from 1914, and it probably reminds you of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Futurism was a combination of Cubism and mechanical imagery. There are a lot of things about this piece that make my heart thump. The way he chose to break the shapes of a body into planes of metallic material make her very robotic, but very human at the same time. The braid going down her back floors me, and so do the folds of the dress. Mixing the colors to reproduce this piece took me up to 45 minutes sometimes before the actual painting could start. Some of them were quite tricky to figure out. It was a great experience though, and again I recommend you pick a wonderful and complicated painting to learn from.
I have a total love/hate relationship with painting. Sometimes the painting is so difficult I’m hurling obscenities and about to just give up and set the thing on fire. Sometimes I really enjoy the challenge and sometimes I can really settle in and relax and just paint. But it’s very often a struggle, and I can’t imagine making these paintings were easy. To be a fly on the wall when these paintings were created! I make it difficult on myself as well – I choose difficult subjects, or fabrics or whatever because I like challenging myself and I want to learn how to paint better. Each piece is about expanding my proficiency. I may curse and mutter during the process, but eventually I’ll manage to push through the problem and eventually I’ll be satisfied enough to stop. There is an element of masochism to this, I admit, but it’s for the greater good at the end. I am positive most artists feel this way often. It’s an obsessive drive that moves us to create, and painting is truly about problem solving. I keep coming back for more, and after all of the trouble and growing pains I have a serious accomplishment (usually, sometimes I don’t!) and I’m ready for the next.
That was an aside, that little rant, so here’s one more from my favorite time in painting and then I am done for now. Here’s a painting I discovered in a museum in Houston and I stared at it for a long time. Then I tried to look at some other art. I was pulled immediately back to this painting. It has a power to it, the green of the wallpaper in stark contrast to the blue black of his shirt, the sitting position, as if he is contemplating something quite secret… It’s a very powerful painting to me, and it’s a contrast to the Meidner above. This painting is by a French fellow named Georges Daniel de Monfried.
This post is getting pretty long, so I am not going to indulge in too much of a rant about self portraits, though maybe by now you can tell I adore them. It’s been said that every painting a painter makes is a self portrait, regardless of the subject. It’s also often noticed that people learning to draw may tend to even portray their sitters with a bit of their own features, that it is a subconscious tendency. de Monfreid in this painting is not quite inviting us in, he seems a bit on guard in fact. It makes me feel like he is trying to decide how much to reveal, and this feels like the truth of this piece. He is posturing and that tells us a great deal. The paint handling of the hands here makes me love it even more so then the well described beard. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these paintings!