Materials and Techniques

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.

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.