Finished Work

6/100 Household Objects: Small Blue Level

The series of ordinary household objects has continued, although I am (ahem) quite behind in posting them to this blog. This was finished a year or so ago. I don't hate the finished version (at the bottom), but in retrospect, I mourn the beautiful looseness of the first version. Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

I do wish I hadn't nailed this particular butterfly to the wall in the quest for a greater precision, and looking at it again, while it kind of hurts, is reminding me to stop sooner next time, a lesson I only seem to learn at the rate of one millimeter per year.

The work is the death mask of its conception.

— Walter Benjamin

 

 

 

100 Household Objects

I've started a new project, which is going to take me a couple of years, at least. I'm going to paint 100 household objects.

This is the first one in the series.

Dave is always telling me to write shorter posts, more often. So that's all for now. More household objects to come.

 

Over time

After getting so excited about Dave's portrait last month, I have been persuading friends to model for me. It turns out that writers are good subjects, because they not only have flexible schedules, but can keep themselves occupied by thinking deep thoughts while they are sitting and giving me their faces. Zach went first, and was a lovely subject. I was surprised to find myself, in the first few moments of beginning the painting, deeply shy of looking so directly and hungrily at the face of someone I didn't know very well. It's both an intimate and demanding thing, this gaze. You never look that intensely at someone's face in ordinary life; there is no social equivalent.

Here's the first state:

And here is the finished (mostly? I still feel like poking at it a bit with a brush, but judiciously) version:

What with my newfound interest in painting people's faces, I finally watched the Alice Neel documentary. I've never truly loved her paintings, but I deeply admire her energy and commitment to keep working, all those years in obscurity. And I carefully transcribed this Robert Storr quote from the film, because I think it is the perfect philosophical/metaphysical explanation to anyone who asks what the difference is between painting from life and painting from photographs:

The business about the difference between painting and photography becomes crucial in the sense that the photograph does capture somebody in a manner which freezes that person in an instant. Painting never freezes in quite that way, painting takes place over time. But the mere fact that painting is not a second arrested, but is a relationship of seeing and of the seer and the subject means that painting contains duration somehow. When you look at a painting you’re seeing an extended moment, you’re seeing time happen, not just time stopped, which gives the photograph a somewhat more obviously morbid characteristic and painting a less morbid one.

Yesterday, I started a new painting of our friend Jesse, or "Ole Pretty Eyes" as we like to call him:

He is threatening to get a haircut and shave, so we'll see how different he looks at the next sitting.

And I also started a self-portrait a while back, that I want to pair with the portrait of Dave as a diptych, so that we're looking at each other, a la Piero della Francesca's portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza. But then I realized that while I can do the face from life (or a mirror, as the case may be) I will need to work from a photograph to get the eyes looking in the right direction (i.e. towards the painting of Dave, not out towards the viewer). So photographs do have their uses in painting, even from life.

Finally, I also recently re-read Dave Hickey's essay, "This Mortal Magic," from his classic book Air Guitar, in which he riffs on Storr's notion of painting containing duration, and therefore being less morbid than photography.

It’s not so much what we do, or even what happens, it’s the way things overlap and intersect:  I was sitting at the desk in my office, in my apartment in las Vegas, reading John Shearman’s observations on the historical circumstances of Renaissance portraiture. Shearman had begun by positioning these portraits within the lives of their sitters, sketching in their lives before and after the paintings were made. Now he was suggesting, on this evidence, that the technical obsession with capturing the palpable vivacity of the sitter in Renaissance portraiture was very likely due to the fragility of life in that period, to the poverty of communications in Italy, and to the mobility of the class of people who had their portraits made—arguing that the portrait, where it hung, functioned less as a picture or a documents than as an icon of the sitter’s actual presence in the space from which she or he was absent due to death or duty. Thus the passionate vivacity of these pictures. The sitter was supposed to be there.

Reading about these short, perilous Renaissance lives on a quiet, desert morning in the late twentieth century must have sharpened by awareness of time whooshing by, because I suddenly remembered that I had to make a telephone call. Closing Shearman’s book, I pulled over my Rolodex and flipped it open immediately, accidentally, to the late Scott Burton’s card. I wasn’t surprised to find it, since I stopped  clearing dead people out of my Rolodex years ago. Throwing those little cards away into the trash is a very depressing chore—and leaving them there, with their disconnected numbers intact and their abandoned addresses appended, is a way of remembering, of being reminded in the midst of life. On this occasion, seeing Scott’s name there, on the little white tombstone of his file card, in the midst of reading about mortality and Renaissance portraits, made me think of how nice it would be to go somewhere and see a full-blown, luminous sixteenth-century portrait of the artist in his glory.

I could have pulled an exhibition catalogue off the shelf and looked at a photograph, of course, but photographs are nailed in the moment of their making and when the subject is dead, this distance from the present only reminds you of that. I would have preferred an image that reminded me, persuasively, physically, that Scott had once been alive, that we had told some jokes, had some laughs—something that caught the little tremor that flickered around Scott’s upper lip, always threatening to burst into a smile or a sneer, you never knew which. That’s what painting used to do—what only painting can do—and does no longer, and this seemed a pity, since regardless of fashions in image-making, we continue to die at an alarming rate.

Portrait of Dave

The other day I got Dave to sit for me. We spent about an hour and a half, and came out with this:

I was happy. Even unfinished it somehow captured how Dave looks to me. It was painted with acrylic paint and was really fun; I've been feeling more comfortable with acrylic paint recently. I've also been wondering (sacrilege!) if the color isn't a little brighter and more vibrant than oil paint. I'm becoming a big fan of Golden's line of OPEN acrylics. They stay wet and workable on your palette for hours and hours, but dry pretty fast on the painting, and if I want to speed up the drying time I just blast it with a blow dryer.

Yesterday we had a second session and I finished it. The whole thing took about 4 hours total, split between the two sittings. I want to do more portraits!

Up and Down

I am almost finished with my Breughel inspired painting. I like it. What a strange feeling to not loathe something I've made after it is finished. I could get used to it.

All that remains is the final fixing and fussing, which I have to be in a particular mood (both meticulous and ruthless) to do.

The small studies I made of the legs, comparing red and black underpaintings, turned into a piece of their own. It worked out well, actually; the community college where I teach has a faculty show every summer, and as the gallery is quite small the work submitted must be modestly sized. I finished these just in time to put them in the show. As for the red versus black question . . . it didn't make a huge amount of difference, but I'm glad I questioned my own orthodoxy. In the end, I found that the black underpainting made for more interesting layering, because you're putting warm tones over a cool underpainting, instead of warm over warm, so I will probably switch to using a gray underpainting from now on.

 

I realized if I turned one of them upside down, they made kind of palindromic bookends. (The gray underpainting is on the left throughout.)

 

 

I wanted the space to be a bit more interesting, and to maybe give a sense of movement, if possible. So I repainted the background white with a fairly thick impasto that you can't really see in the below photographs.

 

And I thought about stopping at this point. You know, I had spent all that time painstakingly rendering the legs, and there was something satisfying about them delineated against the crispness of the white background. But it just didn't seem that interesting, ultimately. So what if I can render. Lots of painters can, but unless they have something to say with it, no one is going to care except for those who will be impressed that it looks "like a photograph." So then I went all smeary on them, and for a day was depressed that I had ruined them.

 

And then I broke out the orbital sander, and was happy again. Finished!

 

"Up and Down," oil on canvas over panel, 9" x 12" and 9.5" x 12", 2011

Luckily for me, the opposing tug between slaving away over something to make it "perfect" and the corresponding, atavistic urge to destroy that same object of my affections worked out nicely this time. It doesn't always. I both want to be in control, and want something outside my control to swoop in and do something surprising and hopefully awesome to my paintings, without destroying the parts I like. Ha ha. I suppose that's what a lot of us would like for our lives, as well.

Dave helped me figure out a title for this diptych. I don't want to always cop out and have everything be "Untitled," but it's so hard to walk the line between overly descriptive/proscriptive titles that leave nothing to the imagination, and overly obscure vague ones that don't give your viewer anything to go on. I had been mulling over "Flying/Falling," but we decided that titles with slashes in them were pretty much always pretentious and terrible. I re-perused my inspiration, the Auden poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" to see if there were any snatches of it I could use, but there weren't, really. So when Dave proffered "Up and Down," it seemed like a good fit, and I took it.

Christmas Collages

I realize that I haven't posted in quite a while, since I fell into a somewhat crippling depression round about the new year, and have yet to either heave myself out of the depths or figure out how to write amusingly about it. This is my third winter in Oregon, and I don't know if it has been rainier than the two that preceded it, but it seems as though it has been raining EVERY DAY, and has been since the end of October. In combination, obviously, with various internal factors, I find the relentlessness of the gray skies wearying to the soul, and can't help but wonder if I would be feeling quite so hopeless and helpless right now if I lived in a sunnier clime? Anyway, for Christmas this year I readdressed myself to the Paint-by-Numbers paintings I had promised various family members last Christmas (the shame!), and decided to do them as collages, which I figured would both be faster and an entertaining break from painting. I had never really made collages before, but I was introduced to their usefulness in teaching as a way for students to analyze and transcribe Old Master paintings without having to actually, you know, paint, and got excited about the possibilities.

Instead finishing the copy of this fabulously weird painting for my sister Annie (which I had started and abandoned), I decided to go with Ingres' The Valpincon Bather. It was spectacularly fun to turn into a collage.

Here's a smaller version to fit on your screen:

And here's a bigger version for more detail:

And for Katharine, instead of the Diebenkorn painting she asked for (also started and abandoned) a collage of Vermeer's The Lacemaker.

I have been in the studio a fair amount recently, working on my painting of Icarus with a container ship . . . despite my generally grim outlook these days I am feeling cautiously optimistic about actually finishing it . . . a shocking concept for me, finishing a painting. However, perhaps because I'm afraid of jinxing myself, I've been feeling a bit shy about posting any process images. Also slightly inhibitory is the fact that our tiny point and shoot Canon, with which I've shot all of the photographs on this blog, is juuuuuuust a tiny bit crappy, and especially not so great with larger paintings (this one is 3' x 4' — not large in the general scheme of things, I know, but much larger than I've been working on in a couple of years). So. Perhaps soon!

Tuscan Landscapes, 2010 edition

I've been home for two weeks now, and am finally getting around to posting, as promised lo! those many weeks ago, all the plein air landscapes I made during the 6 weeks I spent teaching in Tuscany this summer. When I look at these paintings and back to the ones I made 2 years ago, I'm pleased to see how much I've loosened up since then. You may very well laugh at my interpretation of the word 'loose' but really, I'm working on it. I mean, I wish I wasn't the kind of person who has to "work" on loosening up but . . . I just am.

 

I don’t think anxious, uptight people like me can “fight” that aspect of our personality, per se:  you can only recognize it, and slowly, fiber by fiber, unwind those parts of your psyche that are so tightly wrapped, a process that I’m finding does get easier and faster as I let go of more and more things and, periodically looking back, cannot for the life of me see what the hell I was even holding onto, anyway. It’s both liberating, and a little depressing, to see so clearly, retrospectively, what mountains I have sculpted out of molehills. Perhaps my entire painting trajectory will ultimately be a record of this very process, written in ever messier paint.

 

Frankly, although it’s great to be back, I’m also a leetle bit depressed. I was painting almost everyday in Italy, so freely and so happily, and now I feel like I’ve kind of landed back in the same narrow rutted routine, where  I don’t get much done, and yet don’t much feel like painting, either, even though I’m still on summer vacation time, precious free days I should be grabbing greedily with painty hands and wringing all the studio juice from that I can. I thought it was going to be easy to transplant my italian painting joy back to Portland . . . and yet, so far, it hasn't. I feel most myself, most alive, most happy, when I am painting. Even when the paintings aren’t necessarily so great. It’s sort of magic. Why is what Gerhard Richter calls “the daily practice of painting” so much harder for me to, well, practice, when I am ensconced in my so-called “real life”?
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A caveat on sizes:  all the paintings look like they're the same width, which, of course, they're not. The way images are formatted on blogs sort of equalizes them in a weird way — the tiny paintings look huge, and much more in your face than they are in real life, and the bigger paintings get squinched, and don't look their best because the nuances of color & brushwork are lost. Alas. I’m not sure how to do it better.

 

6" x 6"

The first painting I made, in less than an hour of slap-happy palette-knifing and pure joy in being outdoors in a beautiful field, with the sun warm on my shoulders.

15 cm x 30 cm

Made standing in a wheatfield in the rain. I couldn't figure out why my thinner wasn't behaving normally — I thought it was because of the rain beading on my palette — until I realized that the funny smell of nail-polish remover emanating from my jar was acetone, instead of odorless mineral spirits, and completely useless for painting purposes. It also slopped all over my nitrile-gloved hands, and due to its rapid evaporation left them numb and shaking with cold, so that I had to stop painting and go take a hot shower.

17 cm x 17 cm

Sometimes when it's raining, it's handy to have a nice view to paint looking out of a window.

8" x 10"

I don't really care for the way this painting turned out, but I had an absolutely transcendent experience while I was making it, strangely enough.

5" x 7"

This little, fast painting ended up being one of my favorites, maybe because for once I just . . . stopped. I like how you can see so much of the salmon colored ground showing through, and the un-mucked about brushstrokes. It was overcast that morning, so there weren't any of the nice dramatic shadows I usually like to paint, but somehow it turned out okay anyway.

25 cm x 35 cm

I went back and made a bigger version when the sun came out. Weirdly, I don't think I'd ever done that before — made a study, and then a bigger version of the same subject. It was interesting, trying to take successful elements from the study but not to repeat myself exactly, finding some new things to do on the second go round, or a change of emphasis. The problem when you like something too much the first time is that you'll try and do the same thing again, which is usually deadly.

5" x 7"

Another personal fave. Maybe because I made it the day after an absolutely disastrous painting session, and was absurdly cheered to discover that I wasn't doomed, after all, to a lifetime of hideosity?

20 cm x 20 cm

Another small study that led to . . .

30 cm x 30 cm

A bigger revisit, with the composition slightly adjusted to fit in more of the parasol pines. I love those trees. I also learned that, apparently, they are the tree that give us pine-nuts. So, they're beautiful, and they also give us the taste. How great is that?

17 cm x 17 cm

This was a revisit of a spot where I made a painting 2 years ago, in a wider format that also included the church which is just to the left. This was another one where I just felt free and fresh and fast while I was working, and hopefully it shows in the results.

8" x 8"

A similar experience here, as well. You can see I have a thing for a) long shadows falling across roads and b) telephone poles and wires.

25 cm x 35 cm

This painting was also made looking out of the window, at a part of the property they call the 'Sacred Grove', for reasons which remain unclear to me. But it's a lovely little hill punctuated by cypresses, which you approach via a long path through two anomalously manicured hedges. This was meant as a quick and dirty study for a larger version, and originally looked like this:

until I came back and palette-knifed the shit out of it, which resulted in some interesting textures, even if the composition isn't quite quite, somehow.

(unfinished) 30 cm x 40 cm

I was in a super good mood about this painting initially . . . but then could never quite get in the mood to finish it off with a bang. I think the intense citrus yellow on the hedges is too bright, and the blocky shadows of the trees are too hard-edged next to the softness of the foliage and the clouds. It's sort of hard to get back in the headspace to work on it, now, but you never know.

6" x 6"

Another small favorite. I guess I have a thing for road signs, too.

(unfinished) 25 cm x 35 cm

I was calling this painting the 'quadfecta' because it has a telephone pole, road-signs, shadows, AND a car in it (which gave me no end of trouble). Maybe you have to be a boy to really be a natural at painting cars? Not to mention a roadside shrine! Unfortunately, I ran out of time to finish this one too. I have a photograph to paint from, but it's not really the same at all.

30 cm x 30 cm

This is definitely my favorite finished painting from this summer. I revisited the site with some trepidation, but ended up enjoying the hell out of myself, in a slightly different way, for this bigger version. Is it too terribly sacrilegious to confess that it reminds me of all those crucifixion paintings, with Jesus on the cross & the two thieves on slightly smaller crucifixes on either side of him, only with telephone poles, and no dying people?

Yeah, I guess it probably is.

Think Tight, Paint Loose

My sister thinks my problem with finishing paintings stems from a deep-rooted need to prove to viewers that I’m a “good” painter, that I need to always demonstrate what I can do. To show off my technical skillz, such as they may be. And that this means that I keep on painting the shit out of my paintings, when I should really just stop. To recognize the possibility of doneness in a work at a much earlier stage than I usually am able to. (This may, of course, be the work of a lifetime, compulsive wannabe over-achiever that I am.) I’m sure she’s not wrong exactly (I came to painting late, and spent my twenties striving sincerely to be a “good” painter . . . by which I meant a fairly limited notion of being able to paint things"realistically"), but that isn’t the only thing, either. The lived part of the experience is just looking at a painting and being irritated by certain parts of it, feeling very strongly that things remain to be fixed, improved, perfected.  Of course, usually when I finally am done with a painting and have “fixed” all the parts that were annoying me, when I look back at pictures of its earlier incarnations I see a looseness and openness that I then find really appealing, that makes the tightened down final version feel uptight and closed-off. As evidence I submit before and after shots (not terribly high quality, unfortunately) of the Ikea chair in this painting of our old living room.

Looking at these photos I think my sister is right, goddamnit, why couldn’t I have stopped a bit earlier, preserved some of that airiness? Damn my literal-mindedness, my compulsive need to neaten things up, to (literally) color within the lines. If I were a writer, I could just go back to that earlier draft, because I would still have it saved on my hard drive. But unfortunately for painters, the earlier drafts are gone for good, irretrievably overwritten by layers of hardened paint. There is a recklessness to painting. Every mark you make obliterates a previous mark. The one-way path presses relentlessly forward. Potential regret stalks every swipe of the brush.

Stop me before I kill again, as my old painting teacher Nancy Mitchnick used to say.

The finished painting, of the living room in our old apartment just before we moved:  (for some reason it doesn't seem to reproduce well, I don't know why. It looks infinitely better in person.)

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The thing is, my ideal painting has both precision and looseness in it, specificity and a dash of what-the-fuck. While I admire the hell out of Euan Uglow’s paintings, for their rigorous observation and carefully balanced compositions, not to mention the beautifully nuanced colors, ultimately I yearn for something to mess them up a little. Just a little. To offset —or set off— all that perfection.

Ideally, I want to build up some parts of my paintings to a fine level of finish, while also preserving looser, earlier stages of other parts. But it is such a difficult balancing act, trying to have it both ways, and I pretty much inevitably end up going too far and then having to mourn earlier stages of the painting. Going too far in the pursuit of consistency (a la Emerson:  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”), and ironing out all the lively imperfections that create the very contrast I’m trying to achieve.

I think maybe this kind of both/and scenario is what I was trying to achieve with my hybrid figure paintings in a very literal, subject-focussed way, by fusing a more polished academic style of figure painting with something more improvised, whether observed or imagined. Maybe those figures were me being overly literal again, taking my taste for both finish and freeness in a painting and kind of just illustrating it, making the paintings about that contrast in a super obvious way rather than just having it serve the painting in subtler ways. Because it’s slowly become clear to me that I can do a lot of different things within a more cohesive way of working; I don’t have to smash two really different styles together and be so schizophrenic about it. In working from life, I am finding incredible leeway for both precision and invention:  I don’t have to look to myth or fantasy to find subject matter with the possibility for both — both are amply present in the quiet strangeness of ordinary objects and daily life.

Old Stuff, New Start

Did I ever post the finished version of this piece? I don't think I did. I pulled it together sometime last summer. It's watercolor, gouache and colored pencil on paper. Size: can't remember exactly but it's on a sheet of 22" x 30" paper.

And recently I finished this little oil painting, the last of the people-turning-into-trees:

It's 16" x 12". Well, basically finished:  the right foot is a little stubby in the toe department, but I'm not feeling too urgent about fixing that right now.

But on both of these, the part I most enjoyed was painting the leaves from life. And it got me wondering why I couldn't just give myself permission to paint a plant, if that's what I really wanted to do. Why did it have to be more complicated than that?

So I've started a new painting, working from the same philodendron that modeled for me before, newly arranged and trussed up with thread.

Wish me luck.

Less is More

h20-peony

I am enamored of this greenish yellow color, which goes from a pale verdant gold to a murky, dark algae.

Working in watercolor is good practice for me in doing just enough. In holding back. In stopping. In conceiving something clearly at the outset, and carrying through, not second guessing myself if the process unfolds more slowly than I hoped. In knowing the limits of the medium:  unlike oils, you cannot push past a certain point. It cannot be overworked and then turned around, the way you can sometimes save oil paintings by pushing too far, and then still farther. Once a certain freshness is gone, it cannot be regained. Watercolors, unlike oil paints, do not embody the possibility of their own resurrection. It is a more fragile medium.

I felt as though I were walking on a kind of tightrope making this. I was aware of the balance of my body, and my breath, the way I am when I practice yoga. Judiciously deciding when to move and when to stay my hand. It seems to me that so much of what I need to learn, as an artist, and as a human being, is this: when to stay my hand. When Paul Newman died recently, I heard a re-broadcast of an interview with him on Fresh Air, and something he said so struck me in its simple relevance that I wrote it on the studio wall. Terry Gross asked him about his career and he said he wished he had a chance to take another crack at his early films. She asked him why, and he said, “Less is more. I was working awful hard in most of the early stuff.”  I sense that I am still very much in that place, early in the arc of my development, still working awful hard at everything.

The feeling of performing a balancing act is due to the specific constraints I place myself under when I work from life. My feet must stay within the outlines I have traced on the floor around them, and I must not sway too far in one direction or another, or slump (as I am wont to do) into my customary hunched posture. I must continually close my left eye, as I recheck the placement of my head relative to the plant, and the plant to the grid I have drawn onto the wall behind it, which corresponds to a grid on the paper before me. This chain of contingency built, link by link, in order to control both the overall composition, the array of shapes within the rectangle of the page, and also to be able to unravel the specific & intricate tangle of leaves and stems before me. It is both an intellectual and bodily task. I analyze and interpret visual data, but my capacity to do so is based on my physical stamina. You wouldn’t believe how tiring standing still in one place can be.

In all of this, I establish parameters and boundaries and yet hope to transcend them, to surprise myself somehow. I build a structure inside which I can, carefully, relax.

h20-leaf-drawings

I want to make more watercolors, to reinvigorate myself and make works on paper in a day or two, instead of the months I spend on an oil painting. It is refreshing. And yet I know from disappointing experience that for me there is no faster way to undermine my own expectations than to set up a nice, lofty, unrealistic goal, something like: from now on, I will make four watercolors a week. In dark moments, I fear that I am lazy, unable to provide for myself sufficient impetus to rise as early as I should, to efficiently fill and utilize my hours. But I hope that I may yet be subject to improvements, and that my work may benefit from them one day, as well.

Of course, I know that to try and “improve myself” in order to improve my work is to doom the undertaking from the start. Refining one’s consciousness cannot have any particular end other than itself, or it perverts the entire enterprise. Although the process brings with it many side benefits, it is short-circuited if they are conflated with the primary motivation. It is a paradox. You have to genuinely want only a little stillness and clarity, and in going after it, your life and work can benefit in material ways. But if you’re really after stillness as an aid to “self-improvement,” you mostly get more anxiety in the pursuit of yet another result.  Listening to Paul Newman talk about working so hard as a young actor, I recalled a sentence from the Bhagavad Gita which sometimes rings in my mind when I meditate, quiet yet sonorous:  in truth, I do nothing at all.

How to take that paradoxical knowledge into the studio, the site of all my most freighted doings?

Mutual Support

mutual-support I think that's going to be the title of this little painting, because of the way the two tiny pears are balanced, kind of holding each other up. It's showing up here at about it's actual size, 6" x 6". I can't resist painting fruit (especially if it's got some nice blemishes); I am perpetually ravished by Courbet's late nature mortes of apples and quinces, and I enjoy Raphaelle Peale's more tightly rendered still lives of fruit as well, although in a quieter, less bodily way. I'll probably always make still-lives of fruit, alongside my other work.

Landscapes from Italy

This past summer I taught a landscape painting course for Boston University as part of their Study Abroad program. It was located on an farm/estate called Capitignano, in the Mugello Valley in Tuscany, a few miles outside of a little provincial town, Borgo San Lorenzo. Capitignano was extremely beautiful, and quite isolated. My students were a great group of 16 girls (not a single guy!), who bore up pretty well despite enduring weeks of unseasonal rain, which put a serious damper (ha) on our landscape painting. It's basically impossible to paint en plein air in the pouring rain. We did a lot of field trips, as there's obviously no shortage of amazing art close at hand, but we were all pretty psyched when the sun finally came out, bringing with it 90 degree days, lots of lizards, and a short two and a half weeks into which we tried to cram what was supposed to have been 6 full weeks of painting. They did their best, and I managed to get a little painting in, too. 

Unripe Apples (6" x 7.5")

This was the first painting I made there. A side note:  fruit trees thrill me. I have made other paintings en plein air of apple trees, and will make more, as I find them to be among the most beautiful and evocative things on earth, and the whole cycle from leaf to flower to fruit the most romantic spin through the seasons. To me, orchard is a word to conjure with.

Capitignano (5" x 7")

The view of Capitignano as you come up the long driveway with the grapevines to your left. My first try at painting buildings. I have to say, I've never been the slightest bit interested in painting buildings, but I'm discovering that many of the things I say I'll never do . . . I eventually try, and find interesting. Along that note, I had also decided some years ago that I hated painting on board, and would never do it again. And yet for practical reasons, because I had to transport all my painting gear from Oregon to Italy without damage, I brought a bunch of small boards to paint on (more durable and packable than stretched canvases), and found them to be amenable. It's a very different experience from painting on the linen I love, but one I can now enjoy. 

Country Road (8" x 10")

Painted between 8am and noon, although the sweet time for those long blue shadows was the hour between 10 and 11. Painting alone in the remote Italian countryside was a funny experience. Periodically people would drive by, and they would often stop, get out and come look at my painting & talk to me. Italians have less sense of personal space than Americans, and often would come straight up to me and stick their faces right into my easel. One guy rapped on the back of the panel I was working on, as though to test its soundness. Luckily, it was duct-taped to the easel so it couldn't blow off. (Duct tape is a great friend to landscape painters in the field.) Once I had a conversation about the American presidential election with two older gentlemen (they started it). He asked me who I was supporting, and I said proudly, "Obama." He was dubious, because he didn't think Americans would elect a black man president; he really wanted the Republicans out of the white house, and he thought Hillary would have been a safer ticket (I'm pretty sure this is what he was saying). I tried to assure him that Americans weren't that racist, but I could tell he wasn't buying it. It was a funny conversation to be having in broken Italian on a dirt road, surrounded by hale bales and sheep. And as I remember it now, biting my nails and spending way too much time surfing political blogs, waiting and praying for the election to just be over already, for Obama to have won and McCain/Palin to go away, I sure hope that I was right.

Telephone Wires (5" x 7")

I got really interested in the telephone wires here, how they carved up the sky into little chunks while receding into the distance. Again, not a subject I ever thought I'd be interested in but which I ended up loving.

Pool Vista (6" x 6")

This was a one hit painting. I meant to go back into the tree to modulate the green, but never did. The pool there was fabulous: constructed right at the top of the hill, so that the far side of it had a 10 foot drop down to a slope covered with olive trees. Because the drop was so severe, you didn't see anything in the near distance beyond the pool but miles of empty air and the far vista of the opposing hills, and then even farther away, the valley floor with Borgo San Lorenzo looking like toy houses, and farther still, the pale violet hills behind Borgo, which you see in this painting.

Parasol Pines (10" x 8")

The back view of the great house at Capitignano, which apparently has bits dating back to the 12th century, and one of the outbuildings, the Stalla, where students lived, and which was once indeed a stall for animals.

I never finished this to my satisfaction, as I ran out of time, unfortunately. But I did love those fabulous umbrella shaped pine trees. And the dark cypresses were marvellous vertical punctuation throughout the landscape. One of those things that's both a visual cliche when one thinks of Tuscany, and also just true.

Something Finished

Oil on linen. 16" x 12". (I never know whether height or width should come first). Still untitled. I think of it as tree-legs (man version), but hopefully something more . . . better will come to mind eventually.

This painting is small, because it was meant as a study for a larger version of the same idea. I had a made a large diptych (2 canvases, each 6' x 3') of tree people for a show I had back in the fall of 2007 at Boston University, and was deeply unsatisfied with it. I had been rushed, trying to finish the paintings before I even quite knew where they were going, and it was an unhappy experience. I decided afterwards that for me, having a show wasn't worth it if I wasn't happy with the work in the show. Given that I appear to be painting ever sloooooooower, this will probably mean I won't have a long list of shows on my resume like so many of my peers already do.

Anyway, being still hung up on this image of a body metamorphosizing into foliage, I thought I would try again. I'm not an artist with a thousand and one teeming ideas; I tend to get an image stuck in my head, something both iconic and mysterious to me, and I have to figure out how on earth to realize it. I usually don't know how I'm going to do it, which is somewhat terrifying. For a long time, I thought that real artists always knew how they would go about making their work, and it made me deeply insecure, because I didn't - and still don't, to a certain degree. I have to actually make the painting to figure out how I'll make that painting, which means that a certain percentage of the time, I fail. This, for obvious reasons, is hard.

Getting back to this particular painting, I have found it deeply helpful to spend the time working various things out on a smaller canvas before scaling it up. I'm trying to find the right balance of control and freedom in my process, which involves both carefully rendered parts and looser, more contingent passages. For anxious person like myself, I'm beginning to discover, a measure of control is necessary in order to feel free, somewhat paradoxically. If I set certain parameters for myself so I don't feel like I'm thrashing around in a void, I actually feel freer to improvise, more open to chance and serendipitous discoveries and larger detours from where I thought I was headed. I don't want to know from the beginning exactly how a painting is going to look finished. In this interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Amy Sillman (a hero of mine) describes her process as  "[a] conversation at first, until it comes to be about undoing it and trying to redo it and making it get to something that has meaning that wasn’t the original meaning, and then I’m stumped and surprised. That’s the whole game right there—to be surprised." I wouldn't say that thats my whole game, but I do certainly want some element of surprise. Otherwise there's no risk at all, and how boring is that? You have to bet something to win something.

Although the larger version will doubtless differ in many, unforeseen ways from this one, my hope is that I have managed to avoid several months of flailing around on a large canvas, feeling desperate & wasting paint, before figuring the painting out. I've also decided that maybe I'm just not a super large-scale painter, and instead of making this 6 feet tall, it'll only be 4 feet tall. I'm hoping that will do away with my anxiety about covering all that square footage. I think maybe I have a bit of a large-painting hangover from Yale, where serious paintings were a minimum of 8 feet on the smaller dimension, and could easily stretch out to well over 12 feet on the larger. Oh, and also they had to be made very quickly. During critiques, Peter Halley, the head of painting at the Yale School of Art, used to expound his theory that all the most significant 20th century works of art were made in a day. This, and other such grad-school absurdities, used to make me feel crazed with frustration and rage, like Alice in a looking-glass world. But it's just too patently untrue to waste any more ire on it now. 

More tree-people paintings-in-process coming up soon.