A Sinking Feeling

Last night, as I was finishing an underpainting, Dave called to me from outside, come quick! I opened the door but looking out from the brightness of the studio into the darkened yard I couldn’t see anything. Then Dave started cackling, because what he had wanted me to see was our cat Moby, who had managed to catch a very large rat, and he had just run past me into the studio where he released it onto the floor and proceeded to play with it, an (in)famous cat behavior I had not previously witnessed in the flesh, or shall I say, fur. I was displeased, to say the least, at the prospect of sharing my studio with this game of cat-and-rat, and made Dave go in and shoe the poor beastie out with a broom, followed by Moby nipping at its pink heels, while I stood outside balancing on the slippery upturned edge of the plywood that encloses our raised beds. If I had been wearing skirts, I would most certainly have clutched them about my legs.

I was torn between pride in the hunting prowess of my silky, big-eyed baby (nicely demonstrating the evolutionary reason why cats came to live alongside humans — to eat the rats and mice that eat our hard-grown grain) and pity for his blinking dazed prey. I didn’t entertain high hopes for the rat — last winter we found another one, unmarked but quite dead, lying supine across the bare earth of the garden, hands pitifully folded together, as if so arranged carefully, by a rat undertaker.

The underpainting I was working on was an exercise serving as a diversion from actually finishing a painting, the larger version of the Breughel homage/knockoff that I started in December, substituting a impossibly laden container ship for his delicate sailing vessel. I worked on it a lot all through late January/early February, having first abandoned this small version (19 1/4" x 21 1/4") of Breughel's sailing ship in disgust.

Here's the progression of the bigger one ( 3' x 4'):

First, an abandoned start for something completely different.

The following image is of terrible quality, taken at night with a point and shoot camera, but it does at least show the development of the painting.

Below, the large white patch in the lower right hand corner is where I was trying to work out where to place the falling legs, and how big they should be.

Then I decided they should be bigger. And put in a red earth layer as a base, which I always use when painting flesh.

And then I stalled, feeling mostly happy with my container ship (fun with acrylic paint, the hairdryer, and blue painter’s tape),

. . . but unsure how as to proceed with the legs (smooth & classical? brushy and expressionist?). I started a small version (12" x 9 1/2"), as a study:

and then got to thinking about when I first started using a red earth imprimatura and grisaille, and I couldn't actually remember. It must have been in part from poring over old master paintings in museums, trying to discern how on earth these mysterious, magical objects were made, and gleaning tiny clues. And certainly also from reading Max Doerner’s exhaustive and exhausting book The Materials of the Artist, first published in 1934, although in the end I found it of little help. (Anyway, his student/protegee Kurt Wehlte, who in 1967 came out with his own exhaustive manual The Materials and Techniques of Painting, quotes Doerner in the first page of his introduction as saying “Learning the technique of painting from a book is just as impossible as learning to swim on a sofa.” Indeed.)

On re-flipping through Doerner's book, I found the recommendation that “[a] light gray underpainting in the flesh is always profitable," and decided to make another study of the legs, using a gray underpainting, and considering that I use warm colors to paint skin, it should be interesting to see what difference the contrast of a cool underpainting should make.

All this, of course, is merely a fun, technical diversion from my sneaking suspicion/sinking feeling that this painting is kind of a one-liner. But I'm going to do my best to actual finish the damn thing, regardless, so that it can at least be a finished one-liner, rather than three-quarters finished and abandoned in disgust, as is my usual MO.