Tuesday, December 2, 2008


oil on linen panel
12x9 in

NOTE: see Feb. 9th posting for revised version of this painting.

For the time being, I have set my pastels aside (for the most part--my love of them won't let me stay too far away). I'd started noodling around seriously with my oil paints, trying to get a feel for them. It felt like a battle. Painting is usually almost a meditation for me, but this was a struggle. Dozens of unfinished or unsatisfying paintings, on heavy watercolor paper, hardboard, even linen. Most of the ones on paper I not-so-cheerfully put in the trash. Most of the board and linen will eventually be repainted in one way or another. But I was baffled about how to deal with my frustration.

I finally decided to just give myself a no guilt break from it. No sketching, no peeking at supplies online, nothing. For weeks, I read book after book, novels, history, biographies-- but no art. I wrote friends, and talked to them on the phone. I got reacquainted with all the shops downtown (but stayed out of the galleries).

In the midst of this, I attended the art show and film event I talked about in my last post. It was a marvelous success. I was so impressed with all the work that the organizer, Linda Marcille (http://crowhousestudio.com/) put into pulling it together. I ended up staying over, tucked into the corner of a suite with several other Lyme folks, talking into the night.

The next morning, with the entire day in front of me, the weather good, I decided to drive across the southern Vermont mountains to the Clark Institute in Williamsburg, MA. A special hanging of paintings from their collection by John Singer Sargeant and Winslow Homer had been held over, and I wanted to see the paintings while they were together.

Layered paint. Colors built up through glazing and blended, scumbled. Color mixed on the canvas. Texture suggested. Up close, the appearance of meaningless brushstrokes. Step back and it all pulled together into a whole. Oooooh. Representation and abstraction both. Not really impressionism, something beyond it. I was entranced. That's why I've been struggling! I need to learn how to do that with oils. It's one of the things I love about pastels. In this case it wasn't a matter of seeing, of visualization, but one of not having the technique I needed to make it work in oils.

When I was studying painting in school (a very long time ago), the rage was color field/hard edges, and a kind of brittle hyper realism that. did. not. appeal. to. me. period. Little instruction available for oils--everything was acrylics, which would not do what I wanted. That's when I shifted to doing 3 dimensional stuff and meandering around writing poetry and essays. I'd never had the chance to learn how mix colors on the canvas, though I understood the technical stuff. Time to put the two together.

Play time. Rules: Subject doesn't matter (paint whatever pops into your head). Don't get overly picky about details. Or fuss about composition. The only thing that matters right now is finding out how pigment bound with oil behaves, and learning to control it so it evokes my subject. Oh, whew. It's fun again. And I'm stepping back even from my failures with a sense of accomplishment, because I am learning something, and I know where I am going now.

The little scene above is several attempts into my exploration, and the first that I'm willing to expose to public view, mundane as the subject is. For the record: I used ultramarine blue, azo yellow, quinacridone red, and titanium white. That's it. And more brushes than I needed probably, but what the heck. I didn't have to keep wiping them, at least. It was done alla prima, and took 4 hours. Oh, yeah, there was the spatula with which I removed sections to repaint....

The subject? My memory of standing atop one of the parallel ridglines of the western mountains, looking across a mist-filled valley between. That mist means there is a lake or a good-sized river in that valley. I know this without even being able to see it. My next painting like this is likely to lean a bit more to the abstract side. One thing at a time.

PS: That lumpy thing at the middle top? That's the edge of the canvas holder that I forgot to move out of the way. Please ignore it. This is the only photo that didn't come out with too-much fresh-paint glare. I'll take another one when it congeals a little more.