Work in Progress

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




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.

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.


A smattering of stuff I'm working on lately. The latest stage of my Breughel/Auden homage/knock-off:

Getting close but not there yet . . .

In my last post about this painting, I said that I had originally intended to make a big version of it, including a pair of vanishing legs in the lower right corner, but then decided not to. Well, I changed my mind. Yesterday I was feeling terribly impatient with the slow, accretive process of my observational paintings, and felt like doing something freer and less narrowly defined. (I keep thinking I have to choose between observation and invention, but perhaps it's a false dichotomy, and I actually need both ways of working, as complementary modes? Emerson's "a foolish consistency" and all that.) So I repurposed an abandoned 3' x 4' canvas and made a start on it. Except, to contemporize it, I'm doing a cargo ship with containers instead of a sailing ship of yore.

Remember a year ago when I thought it would be a fun little project to make people in my family paint-by-numbers versions of their favorite paintings? Yeah, me too. I managed to finish my mom's Vermeer in time for her birthday in January, but it turns out that these little babies take a while to do, and everyone else's has been languishing. Happily, I'm almost done with my sister's boyfriend's Fra Angelico:

What's left is the last pass, when I go over everything and make all the final adjustments, smoothing the edges and perfecting the colors. The chopped-off heads in their bubble-haloes are giving me the most trouble.

Also, I recently started a new still-life painting of a globe. I find that setting up still-lives takes me a long time, and because I like to have things at eye-level, it usually necessitates cobbling together an assortment of stuff that I can pile up and leave undisturbed for however long it takes me to complete the painting. Which is usually quite a while. Note use of various paint cans and art books:

The painting itself is just barely underway. Here are the first 2 stages:

The idea is to try and capture some kind of movement, to not paint the globe as a static object, but to give a sense of it spinning around, while still showing recognizable bits of the continents. Frankly, I'm not sure yet how to do it and if I can. I'm also struggling a bit with the black background. I thought it would be kind of cool challenge, and I was thinking of this Euan Uglow portrait of a woman wearing a black wig in front of a black background, in which he manages to make all kinds of subtle differentiations between various shades of black and gray:

Of course, the other bitch of black is, it's impossible to photograph accurately. Much of the nuances are lost, and any shine or glare can totally misrepresent the actual color. Anyway, we'll see if I can do it.

Somewhere To Get To

This August, I reconnected with a friend from college who in the intervening years had suffered a terrible tragedy, which is not my story to tell here. And it struck me how, after our meeting at the coffee shop, our hour and a half of conversation, I simply walked away. Got in my car and drove off. Shaken, to be sure. Sympathetic. But already thinking about the rest of my day, the things I had to do. And that seemed like another tragedy. How no one else can fully share another’s suffering. Others can sympathize, but they are not forced to live through it. They get to walk away.

And I remembered W.H. Auden’s famous poem — and one of my favorites — “Musee des Beaux Arts”

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters:  how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The line “But for him it was not an important failure” pretty well sums it up, I think. Nobody really cares as much about your tragedies or failures as you. Oh, people will empathize, they might really truly feel your pain. But then they move on, back into their own lives — as they must, as we all must — having, as Auden says so succinctly “somewhere to get to.”

Thinking about it, I felt tremendously sad, and looked again at the Breughel painting. It's shocking, how utterly inconsequential Icarus's death is, his miniscule splash only a footnote to the rest of the world as it plows relentlessly on. And I decided to paint the ship, so much lovelier, with its creamy wings of sail, than the cargo behemoths we have in this century.

It’s not finished, but I don’t really know how to wrap it up yet. And I have had an uneasy feeling while working on it that this type of painting is not my “real” work, that although parts of it were fun I was not hewing to my natural tendencies. By “this type of painting” I mean largely inventing the image (even though I do of course have the original painting as a reference). I have written before about this same discomfort, about how I am made uncomfortable working without tethers to something physically present.

Strangely, given complete freedom to make shit up, I feel anxious, thrown back on my own imaginative powers and finding them meager. It is only within the more straitened boundaries of observational painting that I feel truly liberated. I had initially thought to make a much bigger version of this painting after this small one, and this time include a small set of legs vanishing into the sea in the lower right hand corner, like Breughel’s original . . . but I don’t think I will. I think I could . . . but it would be a time-consuming undertaking, and unsupported by that dumb, innate conviction that fires the most essential work, I foresee a potential foundering.

Odio i Millipiedi*

I’m in a rural corner of Tuscany for the next 6 weeks to teach a landscape painting class for Boston University students abroad, and everything is much the way it was two years ago, the last time I did this, including: 1. The staggering volume of birdsong in the pre-dawn hours. It’s downright noisy.

2. Having to share my casetta with a multitude of millipedes. They range from tiny to fully 2” long, with a shocking profusion of baroquely curly legs. I loathe them. I whack them dead with a rolled up magazine, but if I don’t get a clean hit and squash them flat they break apart into little pieces which go on twitching spasmodically. They run around on the walls, and I often find them trapped in the bathtub and sink, ineffectually trying to climb out. I wash them down the drain with a furious jet of water.

(I had a legendary english teacher in high school named Mrs. Nunes, whom I vividly remember saying that she thought the reason women tend to fear bugs more than men is because we have a sort of primal terror that they could scuttle up our legs and into our vaginas. That's definitely the kind of thing you remember when you’re a teenager. I think there's maybe . . . something to that? At any rate, I viciously enforce a zero-tolerance millipede policy in my little house.)

3. The suicidal insanity of Italian drivers. It’s the kind of cultural stereotype that one thinks maybe is exaggerated to be colorful . . . but well, no. Yesterday after Mark, the program director, picked me up at the Florence airport, we had a 45 minute drive home through the hills, which are traversed by some of the most sick-making, curvalicious roads I have ever driven on. Lots of blind corners and stretches bounded narrowly by stone walls and houses. No room for error. And Italian motorists don’t believe in maintaining a car’s length following distance:  cars and motorcycles both will cling to the bumper of the car in front of them as though magnetized, only to swing out for the pass given the slightest opportunity — or none at all — often on a blind corner or in the face of oncoming traffic, cheating what seems to the onlooker to be imminent death by a millimeter. Last summer I got sort of immune to it, but in my jet-lagged and nauseated state, it was shocking all over again.

Below is a post that I’ve been meaning to put up for oh, about 3 weeks or so, but which got subsumed in a late May rush of house-guests, travel, and then for the last week or so, preparations for Italy.


Despite not having posted any progress shots in the past 2 months, I’ve actually been hard at work on a painting that is getting pretty close to being finished. I ditched my first attempt at painting the philodendron, not being quite happy with the format — it felt too wide (that canvas was 24” x 36”). Happily, I had in the basement another canvas ready to go that was 24” x 30”, and lopping those 6” off the width seems to have made all the difference. I also swapped out that pink background cloth. It was just too loud. The new one I originally thought was a kind of warm gray but has turned out to be very purple-mauve, which in any case fulfilled my desire to have a warm complement to interplay with all the green of the plant.

I also made the first couple of passes in acrylic, which is turning out to be a great way to work for me. It’s just so much faster, in the beginning when I’m impatient to get it all down and see what it might look like and if the composition is going to work out. And then after not too long I get frustrated by not being in control of the nuances of color and also with the plasticky feel of acrylic when it gets thicker.  So then I switch back to lovely, creamy, delicious oil paint, which doesn’t change color when it dries, amen.

I was very doubtful that I would be able to finish this painting by the time I leave for Italy in June, but now I think it could maybe happen.**  Apropos of my last post, about trying to leave my paintings a bit more open, to not frog-march them to my own preconceived notions of completion, I think I may be able to stay my own hand on this one. A lot of it has to do with the sheer impossibility of pinning this plant down, anyway. It moves so much from day to day, following the light from window to window, and raising and dropping its leaves depending on how much I’ve remembered to water it. It has ended up being a kind of kinetic painting, a record of the plant’s movement in space. I do want the terra cotta planter at the bottom to be more carefully captured, however, as the only unmoving thing in the painting, and a kind of anchor point for the action above it.

I’m going to Italy again this summer, to teach landscape painting course for a Boston University summer program. It’s very exciting . . . and I love Italy . . . and the location is very beautiful . . . but it’s also hard to leave Dave and the cat babies for almost 2 months.

It’s lonely for both of us, and quite difficult to stay in touch, given the 9 hour time difference between Italy and Oregon, the glacial dial-up internet connection and shared computer, and the fickle cellular reception up on the rural hilltop where I’ll be. Sadly, I’ll also be away for our 3rd wedding anniversary (I missed our first anniversary as well, during the first year I taught this program). It’s also disruptive to my studio flow, now that it’s finally starting to emerge from the scant trickle of the past year or so.  Ah well. I think I can find a way to make a painting or two that is meaningful to me, that isn’t just a totally random slice of Italian countryside. I find myself rather interested in telephone wires, the way they carve up the sky.

I have a lot of other ideas for paintings that I want to make, when I get back, and I’m excited to start. None of them will sound very interesting if I write down here what they are, so I’ll just say that, regardless of subject matter, I feel like I’m finally just setting foot on the right track, a way of painting that feels genuine and generative for me. That eschews spectacle while avoiding staidness (hopefully). Whether I’m painting plants or people or the view out my living room window, I become more and more convinced that to quietly, carefully observe the specificity and strangeness of everyday objects, places and people can be — maybe more than ever — among the most radical of artistic acts.

* I hate millipedes.

** Ha. Dave, if you’re reading this, don’t forget to water the philodendron!!!

Studio Tour

Well, my plans for having the studio all perfect by last Sunday night were, as usual, a mite over-ambitious. As it happened, finishing off the bookshelves took more time than I thought, what with all the sanding & polyurethane-ing. However, I was in good shape by Monday night . . . and then went off to jury duty on Tuesday . . . and got put on a trial! It was supposed to last for 3 days, but luckily ended up only taking two. It was actually a pretty interesting experience, and I’m not sorry I had to do it (criminal case, the charge was animal abuse in the first degree, the state prosecuting on behalf of a male Boston terrier named Paxton, and we found defendant not guilty — basically because of insufficient evidence, but privately, I thought the guy looked like a jerk, and probably did mean to hurt the dog.) So by Thursday I was finally in the studio, which is now clean, (relatively) organized and quite pleasant. While it’s by far the smallest studio I have ever had, and with the lowest ceiling (only 7 1/2 feet, yes I know I’ve complained about it before), I’m actually very happy in the space and look forward to getting good work done there. I don’t make huge paintings anyway, so the ceiling isn’t a problem the way it would be if I regularly made 6 foot or 8 foot or 12 foot paintings, the way so many of the people I went to school with do. Pretty much the largest I run to these days is 4 feet, and that’s not an issue. I just need to manage the space well, and keep it clean and spare so it doesn’t start feeling cramped and crowded. Luckily I have the basement for storage.

I ended up making three free-standing bookshelves that fit one of the long walls exactly, rather than building them into the wall as I originally thought. It was just a lot easier, given that nothing in that building is particularly square. I used 12” wide engineered boards — you know, the ones made up of long strips of wood glued together — because it was a lot cheaper than similarly sized 12” pine boards. Plus, I like how they look. I ended up whitewashing them so you can see the grain but they still blend in with the wall by taking a half a can of old white latex paint and diluting it with water. And I finished them with two coats of water-based polyurethane, which frankly smells just as toxic as regular polyurethane and has all the same dire warnings on the label. You’re supposed to do three, but I’d finally lost my patience.

I’m pleased with them. They’re not exactly fine furniture, but they’re a hell of a lot nicer than they actually need to be, for a studio setting. Probably yet another example of me going overboard and making something much more work than it needs to be, but — I’m glad I did, in this instance.

Among the other amenities the studio now has now acquired: a proper heat-exchanger/ ventilator, which sucks up the old air and blows in fresh, keeping the air in the studio breathable and preserving the temperature (and happily, it runs nice and quiet). And an in-wall electric heater (significantly less quiet, but at least it doesn’t take too long to get the space up to temperature). And all new can lights in the ceiling. And it’s fully insulated — we had cellulose blown in the walls and the attic space (oh yeah, I also framed out a hatch door to access the space, which you couldn’t before), which is makes a HUGE difference to the temperature in there. So:  yay studio. No excuses anymore not to get down to bidness.

Here's a panoramic tour of the studio, starting on your right-hand side as you walk in the door, and pivoting around to your left:

Which brings me to the philodendron painting:  This is how it looks after about 3 work sessions. I’m struggling with the pink cloth backdrop, even though making a pink & green painting was my initial idea. But it’s pretty . . . intense right now. I’m not sure yet how to make it work.

Also, the latest Scatterplot version:

Getting veryvery close to the end here.

Paint By Numbers

So I've been working away on the paint-by-numbers Christmas paintings. It turned out that they were a great way to get me in the studio after such a long break. I managed to finish the one for my mom, Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance.

Sorry about the glare. I've been trying out a new walnut oil medium, and it makes the paint really shiny. Shiny dark paint is just impossible to photograph. I rather particularly enjoy God as an apocalyptic spider in the painting above the woman's head. Doesn't it/He look just like a wrathful bug in the original?

Next furthest along is James's painting, Fra Angelico's The Beheading of Cosmas and Damian:

Gory choice, James! I approve.

Katharine wanted Diebenkorn's Coffee:

This one is proving to be really hard to paint-by-numbers-ify, because it's so brushy and loose that it's hard to separate out the colors into discrete little shapes. But I will persevere!

Claire requested Bonnard's The Table, which is also hard, due to it's shimmering brushwork, and the way the colors get all up into other colors' business and just general Bonnard-ishness.

I spend a day and a half starting it, and got so frustrated I painted the whole thing white and have to start over again. Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

And finally, Annie requested Water Mill, by Fritz Thaulow, a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of art that I was not familiar with:

I like this painting a lot . . . but instead, as a kind of sisterly joke, I decided to give her one of my own long-standing favorites, Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters, attributed to the School of Fontainebleau, and one of the weirdest paintings I know:

This one is well under way, but I don't seem to have a photo of it currently uploaded, and I'm just too dern lazy to go and get one. Sorry Annie! Soon, soon.

All of these little numbers would be progressing even more apace if my studio weren't currently torn apart and uninhabitable. We are having a proper electrical conduit run out to it and a sub-panel installed (Before, there was just a wire buried in our backyard. Mmmmmmm. Sketchy.). Plus an in-wall heater, a ventilation unit, and 12 can lights in the ceiling. When it's done, it should be really nice, but at the moment it's dark, freezing, and covered in plaster dust. I've been painting in the dining room, which is never totally conducive to awesomeness, plus there's the added hazard of Izzy the three-legged yet indomitably troublesome kitten, who yesterday managed to launch herself into my momentarily unattended palette, necessitating a highly stressful for all parties paw cleaning session with vegetable oil and soapy water. Even that couldn't remove the pthalocyanine green tinge from her white fur. Of course, diligent licking on her part eventually took care of it. Sigh. I hope she's not too poisoned.

New Space

Well, that was a depressing post that I’ve left up for way too long now. In real time, shortly after writing it, something turned around inside me and I didn’t feel so hopeless anymore. In fact, I feel re-energized. I love my new backyard studio. In fact, I don’t know how I ever painted without it. And it’s not because the space is sooooooooo amazing — it’s not. Its square footage is only adequate (17’ X 13’) and the ceiling is downright low — a mere 7 1/2 feet. However, it really is like going to a different place when I walk the 15 or so feet across the yard to it. Totally unlike the miserable 6 month period when I tried to paint in what had been the master bedroom of our old apartment in Watertown, MA. Yuck. Painting in the living quarters is not for me. But it is so awesome to be able to just duck into the house for a cup of tea, to cook something for myself for lunch, to not have to set off for the studio like an arctic explorer, armed with sufficient edibles to keep me sustained for a long haul, and feeling like if I’m making the schlep, it’d better be worthwhile. No fucking around allowed.

But now! I can fuck around! I can just dip in, do a thing or two, or look around and leave. I can work for a couple of hours in the evening after dinner, something I NEVER did when my studio was in a separate building miles away. I feel nicely apart, in my own art space, and also close to home, in a comfy, non-stifling way. I can’t wait for spring, for our garden to get going. Then it’ll be even better.

Anyway, I’ve been long on whining, short on pictures for some times now. Boring! You may remember a painting that I started this summer, inspired by one of Jesse’s poems (well, probably not — why would you?).  I picked it up again and have been trying to finish it. Here’s the three latest versions, most recent at the bottom:

It’s at the point where when I look back on the earlier iterations they look much better to me:  more open, airier. Of course back then, they looked empty, like not enough was going on. So I’ve been stuffing more and more bits into it, and now it looks overstuffed. Time to edit, obliterate, hack away. Prune. Give it some space.

Moving House

condensation view 1 For a long time, I’ve been so unhappy in the studio, and with my work. In fact, feeling miserable was the primary motivation for starting this blog a year or so ago. I wanted to do something that made me feel that I was at least a little bit connected to the outside world, that the hours I spent in the studio were not meaningless, uncounted by anyone except myself, and to post updates on my slow daily progress on the internet, so that, even if nobody ever saw them, it was at least a gesture, some small public proof that I existed.

(You know, if a tree falls but no one is there, et cetera et cetera, only my version was, if a painter spends 8 hours a day in the studio, but never finishes a painting, let alone shows it to anyone else . . . is she really an artist? (And how long before she goes completely MAD?))

And the months wore on, and paintings didn’t get finished, and I got more and more fed up with myself and bored by the limits of my own brain, and less and less happy to spend my days within the narrow four walls of the studio. Life was going on outside, without me.

condensation view 2

So I kind of just stopped for a while, this past summer. Not completely. But largely. I experimented with acrylic paint, with an eye to having a less-toxic alternative in the event of pregnancy & motherhood. And basically hated it. And got really depressed thinking about having to give up painting when we decide to try and have a baby if I couldn’t find a workable alternative. (Even though I was already depressed and not really painting anyway—there’s nothing like the thought of having something taken away from you to make you desperately cling to it.) I started a collaboration with my friend Jesse, a poet, which got off to a promising start, and then stalled due to my lack of follow-through (although I hope it could potentially enter a new and different phase, maybe less trying to create a specific correlation between a poem and a painting and more of an ongoing conversation between makers of different kinds).

And I thought a lot about happiness, and what Art Means to Me, and whether I could maybe just stop doing it, and what other kind of job I might be able to do without hating it too much and maybe making actual money at, and whether being afraid that if you don’t have children you’ll regret it terribly later on when it’s too late is really a sound enough basis on which to launch a pregnancy attempt or whether really, truly, sincerely wanting to be a parent in the full knowledge of how it will likely lay waste to your life as you know it is the only ethically valid reason for bringing another human being into the world.

I didn’t answered any of those questions, really, but I did come to a few realizations apropos of my studio practice — that is to say, painting — the most important being that no, I cannot give it up. Painting is such a fundamental part of my identity that even if I stopped doing the activity, I would still think of myself as a painter. David pointed out that in my horrible nightmare, I was going to be caught on the evidence of my painting glove, which he thought spoke psychological volumes about my self-identification as an artist.

Another realization, which was not so much of a realization as the compounding reinforcement of a feeling that I’ve had for some time, was that I am happiest, truly happy, when I’m working from life. Looking at something in the world. And conversely, that I am not happy working out of my own head, despite years of trying. I’m just not that imaginative. I end up feeling sterile, and the paintings stunted. I had a conversation with Catherine Murphy as I was about to graduate from Yale about working from life, how I thought that was the direction I was going to go in. So I've had this inkling that it would be the right process for me for a while. I don’t know why I’ve resisted it for three plus years, though. My old friends, fear and doubt, no doubt.

condensation view 3

Another snippet of the Fairfield Porter interview with Paul Cummings:

PC: Do you think that painting is more of an emotional thing than an intellectual thing?

FP: No, I don’t think it’s more emotional or more intellectual. I think it’s a way of making the connection between yourself and everything.

PC: How do you mean “and everything”?

FP: Well, I mean “and reality,” which is everything. In other words, you connect yourself to everything, which includes yourself.

PC: Through the painting?

FP: Yes, through the process of painting. And the person who looks at it gets it vicariously. If you follow music you vicariously live the composer’s efforts.

PC: But don’t you think the person who looks at a painting has en entirely different relationship to it than the person who has painted it?

FP: Well, for one thing they see something that is hard for the person who’s painted it to see. I mean they see the person who has painted it and they see his emotions, which he maybe doesn’t see.

Porter’s brief, unsentimental description of painting from life resonated with my own experience very strongly:  that it’s about connection, both inward and outward. Restating it in more flowery language won’t improve it, so I won’t try. Only: YES.

I’ve been walking around these days and finding the world to be almost shockingly beautiful. Feeling connected, feeling awake, looking at everything more than I ever have before. Everywhere I look I see paintings, waiting to be made. Forms and shapes and color masses before me coalesce into paintings, group and regroup into new compositions, waiting for someone to translate them into paint. Houses, trees, cars, telephone wires, our television, a wind-up red ladybug, the cord to my laptop, the view from my bathroom window. Nothing too mundane to be beautiful. Where even to start?

condensation view 4

I’m in a hurry to finish this painting of our orange living room, because, among other developments, we’re buying our first house and moving in less than two weeks! It’s almost incredibly to me, but true. With gratitude to parents and grandparents for making it possible. So I hope I can pull off this painting, in the midst of the packing and the frenzy. And I’m looking forward to all the new paintings I hope to make in our new home.

Orange Room 1

Orange Room 2

Orange Room 3

Orange Room 4

Orange Room plant detail

Orange Room house detail

Orange Room computer detail

Getting it Wrong

My painting is bad enough to warrant constant practice. —Fairfield Porter


You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.


Or maybe the italics should be: You have to do it wrong before you can get it right.


This sentence came to mind this morning while I was painting away, happily. (Happily! Did you read that?? I have not painted “happily” in lo these many moons. Indeed, I did not know if I would ever care to paint again for the better part of a year now.)


I’m painting an interior scene—the living room in our apartment, which is painted a melony shade of orange. We didn’t choose it—our landlady, Jean, did—but luckily orange is maybe my favorite color. Also, it helps fight the Portland winter grays.


I’ve never done this before—painted an interior. Just set up and painted right in my own house. But I’m loving it. I’m not sure how well the painting is going to turn out. I’m not sure it looks like anything right now. But every day when I paint on it, I experience pleasure. Pleasure in the process of painting. And when I’m done, I always experience a bit of a let down when I look critically at the painting, and it doesn’t look as good as it felt. But I’m not letting that distract me too much. I think this could be a sea-change.


I was reading my Fairfield Porter book, a painter I love, and envying his practice. Painting his household, his family, his rooms & furniture, the landscape around him. And I found myself wanting to do the same. And feeling like I couldn’t. That it somehow wasn’t serious enough as an enterprise. That it was also boring, and bourgeois, and archaic, and not a cool contemporary thing to do. And that it wasn’t a focused enough project, that it would be scattered and piecemeal. And then I just thought, fuck it. Having a more narrowly focused project (pictures of figures turning into trees, for example) wasn’t working for me anyway. So maybe I’m not a project artist. And this feeling that my overall work has to be “about” something, preferably something based on critical theory is just a hangover from graduate school. That is to say, more or less bullshit. And maybe, just maybe, things will come together somehow anyway. Over time. If I can manage to keep painting over the Valkyrie chorus of my own nay-saying.


I am not trying to interpret any slogan or phrase in my painting. The visual arts are non-verbal and direct; modern education is verbal and indirect . . . The experience of a painter while he is painting is about the nature of the paint—that is his most direct experience—all other things, like what he is looking at outside the painting, what he remembers, what he thinks about with the left-over part of his mind, all talking to himself, etc., and all translation of outside sensation, insofar as they have to do with the painting, have to do with illusion. Therefore the realism of my paintings is its illusory side. What illusions this evokes in the spectator is mostly beyond my knowledge.

—Fairfield Porter, Interview with Paul Cummings, 1968


The thing that I am experiencing very intensely with this painting—besides, of course, always and forever “the nature of the paint,” as Fairfield says—has to do with getting it wrong. By which I mean, when I go to paint anything, I initially always have it in not-quite-the-right place, and not-quite-the-right color. And I used to be very discouraged by this and think, why can’t I get it right? If I were a better artist, I would get it right from the beginning. But what I’m seeing more and more clearly is the utter fallacy of this idea. In fact, the only way I can see how something should look is by painting it and then seeing how it isn’t quite there yet. I have to paint it first so that I have something to compare with the world in front of me. That first attempt is not just a regrettable error, to hasten past on the march to goodness and rightness and doneness, it’s an unavoidable, deeply necessary part of the process. The wrongness is what gets you to rightness. Only actually making something allows you to see how it can be adjusted, moved, tweaked, changed, to better reflect reality or express yourself. You have to write the first draft before you can write the second draft, let alone the final draft.


I’m not sure I’ve fully expressed how revolutionary this is to me. Maybe it sounds damningly obvious. But to actually experience this in action feels nothing short of of revelatory, hitting home with the force only a truism can bring to bear when you suddenly realize that its cliched wisdom actually applies to your own, unique existence. (And yes, air quotes and eye-rolling accompany that "unique.")


And furthermore, if I actually just painted a painting perfectly straight from the get-go, everything in the right place, nothing to be scraped out, or moved or repainted ten times, the surface of the painting would be about the most boring surface ever. Smooth and flat, with no history of its own making:  no brushmarks, no depth, no layers, no impasto, no glimmers of colors showing through other colors, in short: none of the physical qualities that I love about paintings. The haptic stuff. The textures you want to touch. The actual paint, built up on a surface that both makes an image and is a thing itself. All the reasons I started painting in the first place. Whoa.


You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.

Black Box. Cipher. Plums.

I do not know who I am.


Is this what adulthood is like? You find yourself being carried along, heading somewhere, somehow, surprised how it all seems to keep happening, with or without your best or feeble efforts to make it one way or another?




I am painting the plum tree in our friend Tom’s amazing garden and a friend of his asked me if I was painting “just for fun.” It stumped me. Because, basically, yes? Since I don’t have a gallery, or anything resembling a career at this point. Except, no? Because I take what I do more seriously than “just for fun” or, god forbid the dreaded word, a “hobby.” And, *self-hatred/pretentious ass alert, despite saying I’d never prop up my ego with this, I did go to Yale. So I hedged, saying, “Well, I do teach painting,” in an attempt to give myself some faltering sense of legitimacy. But seriously. Saying that you teach to give yourself cred as an artist is putting the cart before the horse, big time. And wicked lame.


Ego, ego, ego.


But the truth is, painting the plum tree is 'just' for fun. It gives me great pleasure to paint outdoors, in the sun and fresh air, negotiating the boundless complexities and subtleties of stuff in the flesh. I like being overwhelmed by all the visual information in the world, how it forces me to simplify, omit, choose. And fruit trees just make me happy.  I like painting leaves and fruit. There is no conceptual angle to put on this, no way to make it more complicated or sophisticated.


I just hope I can manage to pull a decent painting out of it.






Having been feeling blog-blocked recently, I resumed my old habit of dictionary browsing:


black box: 1:  a usually complicated electronic device that functions and is packaged as a unit and whose internal mechanism is usu. hidden from or mysterious to the user; broadly:  anything that has mysterious or unknown internal functions or mechanisms


cipher:  1: the symbol 0 denoting the absence of all magnitude or quantity:  NAUGHT, ZERO  2 a: a method of transforming a text in order to conceal its meaning (1) by systematically replacing the letters of the plaintext by substitutes in the same sequence either singly or in pairs or other polygraphs (as by writing 1 for A, 2 for B, etc., or F for A, S for B, etc., or QL for AB, etc.) or (2) by systematically rearranging the plaintext letters into another sequence (as by writing them normally in a rectangle and then copying them off from the columns taken in an arbitrary succession) — called also respectively (1) substitution cipher and (2) transposition cipher; b: a prescription for a cipher system:  a key or memorandum that enables decipherment c: a message in cipher:  a text in secret writing  3: an arabic numeral:  NUMBER, FIGURE 4 a obs: a symbolic character (as a letter, hieroglyph, or astrological sign) b: a combination of symbolic letters; esp:  the interwoven initials of a name:  DEVICE, MONOGRAM c: a sign in Karl Jaspers’ existentialism serving to mediate between the existent and the transcendent  5: one that has no weight, worth, or influence:  NONENTITY 〈doomed to die as a 〜 in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted . . . but our death itself would be unknown — Norman Mailer〉  6: the sounding of an organ pipe caused by a mechanical defect


2 cipher:  1: to use figures in a mathematical process:  do sums in arithmetic:  FIGURE  2: to produce a cipher—used of an organ pipe  1 a archaic: to express (as thoughts or words) by written or graven characters  b obs: to show forth:  make plain by visible evidence:  PORTRAY  c: ENCIPHER d obs: DECIPHER  2 in shipbuilding: BEVEL, CHAMFER 3 a: to compute in figures:  calculate or figure arithmetically—sometimes used with out 〈a sum -ed out〉b dial: to figure out as if by calculation:  solve by pondering


Some random notes I jotted down in my Human Development Psychology class, about one’s Thirties:

-consolidate identity -come to terms w/ personal limits -”sometimes I would like to be everything and I’ve learned that I can’t. You have to work with what you have.” -deeper awareness/consciousness of self -”I found something that I had before but I had no way to get to, like a new room. -Yeah, I can compete at X job, but maybe I just plain don’t want to. -create a new dream or modify an old one


Why am I taking a psychology class, you ask? Maybe now that I've mentioned it (and that the course is over) I’ll finally get my act together and write a post about it. I’ve only been procrastinating for about three months now.


plum palette

Laziness. Or Synecdoche. Palimpsest.

So, I started to write about the poetry project and instead deviated yet again into the litany of my discontents. Yeesh. Did I forget to say how much I’m enjoying Jesse’s poems?

The main challenge in working from poems is that I'm so literal-minded, it takes me a while to get past the most obvious, pure illustrations that first spring to mind, to something a little more interesting, elusive, allusive, oblique. It's a fun challenge, though, in associative thinking.

When I wrote something to that effect to Jesse, he wrote back:

i think i know what you mean about the impulse toward the literal.  for me, when i'm responding to some other work (a painting, a poem, often a movie), i often start with some detail (not necessarily a primary one) and then spiral out or away from it, feeding more off of the state of mind into which the original work pushes me than off of further details in the original. and in the end, the original detail might disappear. other times i take several details and rearrange them in different ways and then look at the blank space on the page that now needs new connective tissue.

And that seems like a great way to approach making paintings as well as poems, especially for me:  to practice being more flexible and letting things go, once in a while. I hope that some of these paintings end up being completely different from the way I had envisioned them at the beginning, even if it means that when they’re finished one can no longer trace the thread that connects them, Ariadne like, to the original poem.

Here is one of the poems that I’ve been working with:

What They Wanted

I wanted to want—  what they wanted

To dig a pit and stand at its overhang

To wait for gusts—  lean when they did not come

I might have believed in palimpsests—  beneath my skin

A part of me wished to measure out my other parts and scatter them—

so long


—in the wind

A part a part a part a part


I don’t know that I can write specifically about what I am drawn to in poems, but it is usually an inchoate pull towards certain words or phrases, rather than the poem as a whole. One of the very few things I have retained from my many years of studying Latin is the rhetorical device synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole. (A contemporary example of this would be the use of “wheels” to mean a car.) Anyway, I've decided that my own approach to poetry (and novels too, actually) is fundamentally synecdochic:  certain parts of the text come to represent the whole text, in the congress of my mind. It’s a kind of selective vision:  my brain only really focuses on the parts it likes the most, and sort of ignores the rest. You could justly say that I’m a lazy reader, and don’t take the trouble to integrate the work as a whole, as the author created it. But I’m going to call myself an interpretive, nay, a synecdochic reader.

Anyway. I just decided after I wrote this paragraph, re-reading What They Wanted, that it’s even appropriate for me to read the poem that way, viz. the last line:

"a part a part a part a part"

So I feel fine about my reading habits.

The image that came to mind after reading this poem was of a kind of whirlwind, pieces eddying in mid-air, a cloud of undoing. I’ve explored a similar image before in the painting Atalanta.


Atalanta, for me, was about the process of making or unmaking yourself, caught in an ambiguous moment between creation and dissolution.

But that painting is kind of a squishy whirlwind. This poem makes me think of a person cut up into pieces, like a flesh-colored paper doll. Sharp edges. Angles. Discrete pieces of paint.

For the first time ever, I’ve been using tape to make hard edges and straight lines.

(The irony is that in creating an image of pieces blowing apart I’m actually carefully building the painting. Painstakingly constructing an image that’s supposed to be about deconstruction.)







This painting is a funny size, I forgot to write it down exactly, but something like 19.5” x 26.5".

Also, since the canvas is going to be stretched over board when it’s finished, I’m playing with the idea of having a shaped canvas, because I can cut the underlying board to whatever shape I want with my jigsaw. So the white areas are places I’m thinking of cutting out. We’ll see if this actually turns out to be something that fundamentally, structurally enforces the idea of the paintings, or is just an extraneous “cool” idea.

I’m thinking of making a bigger version as well, maybe 4’ x 3’. This poem, this image, really resonates with me.

I also very much like the line: "I might have believed in palimpsests— beneath my skin"

I love the word palimpsest. It’s the perfect metaphor for paintings, and for life. Coming from more medieval times, when there was no paper and parchment was so expensive that it was habitually scraped clean and then written on again.  All paintings are literally palimpsests, of course, layer over layer, the final image a thin surface crust over the history of its own making. And our bodies palimpsests of the years of our lives, although never scraped clean but only perpetually overwritten. Every new experience lying atop the accumulation of previous ones, so that we can only make out our past through the scrim of all that has come between. The illegible sum of our parts.

scatterplot detail2

The Old Masters, How Well They Understood . . .

Titian copy 6 Titian Copy 5

Titian Copy 4

(The most recent version is at the top.)

The Titian copy continues apace, albeit slowly. I just switched over to oils, since I finally needed to really get precise with the colors, and I can't seem to do it with the acrylic. I need to have unlimited mixing time to get a whole range of subtler hues laid out on the palette, and be able to smoodge them around over the course of a couple hours to find whatever peculiar color I'm looking for. The acrylic just dries too damn fast for that. Putting the oil over the acrylic seems fine, except for the difference in gloss:  the acrylic underlayer is all uniformly quite shiny (a little too shiny, actually, for my taste), and the oil paint patches are matte and dull in comparison. Either I need to mix more oil or medium into the oil paint, or figure out what the deal is with varnishing mixed media paintings, so as to obtain a uniform finish when it's all done. I wish I could combine all the best features of each medium into one perfect, Platonic paint. It would be non-toxic and use water was a diluent (acrylic), and you could have the option to have it dry right away (acrylic) or stay open and workable for several hours (oil), and it would dry the same color as it was wet (oil) for optimal color mixing/matching. Sigh.

I find it weirdly relaxing to work on this, perhaps because the parameters are clear:  I pretty much know what I have to do, and it's pleasant work to mix the colors and measure all the funny little shapes. I often work on it upside down, so that I'm more apt to transcribe what my eyes are actually seeing, in all its odd particularity, rather than what my brain thinks I'm seeing.

Some details:

Titian copy detail 1

Still all acrylic here.

Titian Copy detail 2

This detail is a little out of date; I've since started working on the nude with oils, and don't yet have a current photo.

Titian copy detail 3

I have started in with oil paint in this section. Somehow, working on that little patch of grasses was exhilarating.

Trying to negotiate the balance between getting certain things very precisely rendered and leaving other areas less pinned down, more abstract, letting the measuring marks assert their own primacy, was . . . really fun. Like a dance. Trying not to go too far and smother the open feeling (which I usually always do). And I love mucking about with all the subtle greeny variations. Afterwards, I came home and wrote this:

Feeling, for the first time in a long while, yesterday in the studio, thrilled to be painting:

I’ve been so busy feeling inadequate that I forgot to notice my competency, my own helping of talent, the excitement of my visions and their potential realization. I forgot that I love this. And that, goddamn it, I’m good at it.

Why does it seem easier to walk away than to believe in myself? The relentless pendulum of emotion.

I wonder all the time if I am a coward, why I don’t seem to have the same driving passion to paint regardless of the circumstances and consequences the way I imagine real artists do. Why I am not possessed enough. Too bourgeois. Wanting a house, nice things, security, comfort. And yet when I think about not painting, I feel myself suffocating. Sometimes painting is enough. And sometimes it isn’t.

Um, hello? It's me, your blog.

I'm sorry I haven't been posting much recently. I've been navigating some heavy internal weather and am working up what is likely to be a somewhat epic post about it. In the meantime, here's the latest with the Guerra paint experiment:

guerra paint

It's going pretty well, but it’s really different! I'm still figuring out what the colors are like, and how to mix them. This process has been hampered by the fact that I inexplicably forgot to order any white. (It's on the way now.) The main problem is figuring out how to mix a range of any given color, from dark to light, something I routinely do with oil paint. With the acrylic, if I do it in small amounts, it just dries out before I can really get into painting. The solution, I guess obviously, is to mix larger quantities of paint and keep them in little tupperwares. I don't know why I'm such a miser about it; I guess I just don't want to waste the paint. But if I don't mix enough, then I run out of paint and I've wasted both time and effort. So it’s probably better to accept a certain amount of wasted paint as the cost of doing business, and, somewhat counter-intuitively, the only way not to waste it is to make it in sufficient enough quantity that it won't dry out too fast. I'm still very far from being able to really control it, though—to be able to make very specific, exact colors. To do that, you really have to be intimately familiar with the pigments, their tinting strength and mixing qualities, and I have a ways to go.

I have to say, it is really nice to just have a big bucket of water to swish my brushes around in, and not feel like I need to decontaminate myself at the end of the day.

For a kind of "get to know acrylic" project, I’m painting a copy of one of my all-time favorite paintings, Titian’s Concert Champetre, by way of Euan Uglow’s The Massacre of the Innocents (after Poussin); a kind of Concert Champetre (after Titian by way of Uglow), if you will.

The Titian (yeah, yeah, I know art historians have argued for years about whether it was painted by Giorgione or Titian or whether Titian finished it off after Giorgione's death; the Louvre has called it for Titian, so that's the attribution I'm going with) is a glowy, magical touchstone for me:

Concert Champetre, oil on canvas, 105 x 136.5 cm, c. 1510

I saw it a few years ago when it travelled to the National Gallery as part of the exhibition Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting—which was an absolutely amazing show—and have been kind of obsessed with it ever since. It has a certain enigmatic quality that has enabled it to remain mysterious despite centuries of scholarship, keeping itself to itself, while still allowing the viewer a full measure of lush beauty, as compensation.

The British painter Euan Uglow made rigorous, in many ways extremely conservative figure paintings, but I think that his exactly measured, super-precise compositions are softened and made unexpectedly contemporary by his amazing color.

The Massacre of the Innocents (after Poussin), oil on canvas laid on panel, 16.25" x 19.25", 1979-81

I thought of copying the Concert Champetre because I loved the way Uglow made a copy of the Poussin in order to gain access to it. From the book Euan Uglow:  The Complete Paintings:

Questioned about his occasional decision to copy an Old Master painting, Uglow somewhat reluctantly answered:  “I just think it is such a fantastic image. I am not trying to  make a better picture or a worse picture (silly trying to make a worse picture) but just to say,  here’s a marvelous picture, I know Poussin is better . . . but there are some pictures you may get somewhere near and other pictures you won’t get near at all.

I don’t know that it’s even possible to “get near” to Titian, but copying is certainly a way of getting to know as intimately as possible a work of art you love. It reveals to you the structure of the painting, its compositional bones, how everything all fits; people, sky, trees, space, all the funny little shapes locked tightly together and all packed inside a rectangle. Copying a painting is like both putting together a jigsaw puzzle and taking it apart at the same time. You understand more about its mechanics, if not its magic.

Titian Copy 1

Titian Copy 2

Titian Copy 3

I think I will probably have to finish it with a layer of oil paint, if only because I'm unable to achieve the exact colors I want with my as yet ham-handed acrylic color-mixing. But it has been marvelously speedy so far, and I think will be finished much faster than if I had done the whole thing in oils. Anyway, that is what I was hoping might be possible with acrylic, to do the bulk of the heavy lifting in acrylic and then do the fine-tuning in oil. If it turns out well, I might make a companion copy, as a little art-historical in-joke:  Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, which, besides being a fabulous, weird painting in itself, is also a kind of latter-day reworking of the Titian. Nothing (that) new under the sun, after all. Kind of a relief, really.

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, oil on canvas, 81.9" x 104.5", 1863

Luddite Looking Forward

woman headcase 24 In trying to finish this painting I spend a lot of time waiting for my eyes to see things in a fresh way, for an unexpected vision of possibility to jump out of the by now dull, locked-in, familiar sight. It’s like staring at one of those visual puzzles that have two potential pictures in one—a young lady or a crone? a vase or two profiles?—and trying really hard to see the young lady when your brain stubbornly refuses to see anything but the crone.  The alternate vision cannot be forced; seemingly of its own accord the brain flips between one thing or another. Similarly with this painting I cannot seem to force new solutions to the visual puzzle. Often it helps to turn the painting upside-down to jog my brain. It definitely helps to go away for a while, or turn it to the wall for a bit and then look at it fresh. A couple weeks ago I went to  hip-hop dance class with my friend R., which was really fun—and hard—and involved totally unfamiliar body movements, and I noticed—happenstance?—that I had an awesome day in the studio the next day. I've read that doing new activities literally makes your brain grow new connections to process the information, strengthening ye olde brain muscle, and I wonder if those new pathways in turn can help with creative thinking. I get so stuck in my safe, comfortable ruts. It takes a lot of energy to heave myself out of them, but whenever I manage to do it, I find there is corresponding energy from new experiences that more than compensates.

Speaking of new activities, I’m embarking on a new studio adventure. I just received a shipment of acrylic paint from Guerra Paint, and I’m getting ready to try it out. I’m super excited, and also totally bewildered by it. Guerra Paint is a company in New York that sells a DIY paint making system—but without much in the way of instructions. You purchase the colors you want—and they have an amazing array—as pigment dispersions, that is, the pigments come already mixed with water as super-concentrated solutions, and you also purchase the acrylic medium, which is the binder, and then you mix up the paint yourself. (The binder is what holds the pigments together in a paint film on the canvas; if you tried to paint with the pigment dispersion, the paint particles would just fall right off after the water evaporated, because there would be nothing to bind them together. In oil paint, linseed oil is the binder; in watercolors, it’s gum arabic. In acrylic paint, it’s acrylic resin.)

This is going to require a lot of experimentation to figure out the right paint “recipe” for my painting style, which will involve jiggering the proportion of pigment dispersion to medium, the amount of water, and this stuff called Silica Flat, which you add to make the paint more matte, acrylic medium generally being quite shiny. It also means I need to get a bunch of containers with lids to store the paint in once its mixed so it doesn’t dry out before I can use it. It really is a lot like cooking, stirring and mixing and measuring and tinkering with proportions, and ending up with a bunch of stuff in Tupperware. Why not buy the paint already ready to go in tubes? Well, as I understand it, the advantages of making your own paint with the Guerra Paint system are many. First, they have an amazing range of pigments. Second, once you get comfortable with using the components you have complete control over what kind of paint you want to make, thick or thin, matte or super-shiny, and can make it to your own exacting, particular specifications. Third, the paint will be better quality, that is it will have a much higher quantity of the actual pigment in it compared to commercially mixed acrylic, as explained on the Guerra site:

Acrylics most often used by commercial artist paint manufacturers generally have a solids content of 45-50%. Generally more water is added with the pigments or fillers, bringing the solids content down to 30-35%. This means 60-70% of the total volume of commercial paint evaporates, which tends to lessen the overall quality.

If you have never painted, a gigantic difference between oil paint and acrylic paint is the drying time. With oil paint, I’ll spend anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour mixing a palette with the colors I think I’m going to need for a particular painting, and then use them for the rest of the day. Oil paint is made simply of pigment and oil (usually linseed oil), and it dries by oxidation, which can take a couple of days or much longer. This means you can squish it around for a long, long time—which painters call working wet-into-wet—and also that it blends with ease, lending itself beautifully to the painting of flesh, among other things. It also means that the color is the same when the paint is wet as when it is dry (which is not the case with acrylic paint, which tends to dry a bit darker; this can make it difficult when you want to match a color). Acrylics on the other hand dry extremely rapidly, because they dry by the evaporation of their water content, which happens exponentially quicker than the oxidation of oil. If I tried to mix a palette of acrylic paint the same way I do with oil paint, the paint would be drying on the palette before I even finished mixing, let alone ever getting to the painting. Due to this, it’s much more difficult to blend acrylic paint, or paint wet-into-wet. However, it’s also precisely for this rapid drying time that I’m giving acrylic a try. I cannot stand how long it’s taking me to finish these paintings, and so much of it is merely waiting for paint to dry—and then usually scraping it off or painting over it. With acrylic I could probably do in a day work that is currently taking me a month, and making me feel like an idiot. My hope is that it will rapidly speed my process, because right now I am so unbelievably slow that I am on the verge of driving myself insane, and perhaps even right out of the studio.

Anyway, I’m excited about the prospect of making faster paintings, and I’m also pleased that working with acrylics is basically non-toxic, as you simply use water to dilute it and to clean brushes, rather than a solvent. I use odorless mineral spirits for oil painting, which doesn’t make me feel ill the way turpentine does, but I’ve gotten really paranoid about my chronic exposure to it, even in the small amount I use, even with the window open & fan blowing etc., so anything that cuts down on my solvent exposure is a good thing. (Especially as I contemplate the possibility, the still completely vague, utterly terrifying, yet also strangely entrancing possibility of someday being pregnant . . . FUCK it scares me that I even wrote that. Let’s not talk about it.)

Finally, and maybe most apropos, I think that using acrylic for parts of the paintings is also conceptually appropriate to my fascination with the idea of hybrids, which are in a way a tug of war between my completely sappy romance with oil painting and the history of oil painting, and my desire to make paintings that reference and build on that but also find a way to innovate, to do something that hasn’t been done before in quite the same way, that don’t fall into that sticky trap of Old Master worship unredeemed by a grain of irreverence, by the recognition that we are in fact living in the 21st century, where painting is, for all its ardent fans, more or less irrelevant to our visual culture, outside of a tiny, snooty sub-section. Why should people care about static, unchanging, low-tech rectangular images, when you have utterly seductive, entrancing, ever-flickering high-def rectangular images on your television, movie screen, computer, iPhone?  It’s a losing battle—a lost battle, really—but I’ve always been a bit of a Luddite. I’ll still use oil paint for the bodies in the paintings, because that's what it was invented for, but I’ll use acrylic for other parts of the painting, the invented parts, a combination of mediums which I hope has the potential to further emphasize the two halves of the hybrid, one part looking backwards and one part forwards. The future grafted onto the past, like apples onto rootstock. Which could be interesting. Hopefully.

Jack is Back

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I got a new plant to replace the mysteriously blighted vine I was using as a model for this painting in its earlier incarnation. It is a kind of camellia that can grow into quite a large shrub or even a small tree, and which one sees in yards all over Portland. It has dark glossy leaves, and in the spring, an almost shocking profusion of bright yet plasticky flowers, a cheap n' cheerful efflorescence, whose slight tackiness is exacerbated by the way they then fall to the ground in a thick, browning carpet, like litter left over after a parade.

I've been having some trouble negotiating my criteria for making these tree-people paintings. I get really into the working from life part, in which my criteria is to represent the leaves and stems and negative spaces between them accurately. So I’m painting the leaves in reference to the measuring marks on the wall behind the plant, but then I forget to evaluate how the leafy part is melding/interacting with the legs below, to gauge how the two halves are going to come together to make a whole painting.  I want the painted leaves to have a certain fidelity to their real-world source, but I also want them to fit into the world of the painting, which means looking like they grew out of a pair of legs. I’m trying to shuttle between working loosely, and being quite precise, and if the world were perfect, and I were a perfect painter, I would do everything loosely first and then just bang in the precise bits right at the end, in just the right places. Unfortunately, what generally happens is that I spend no small amount of time getting something just so, and then decide it’s in utterly the wrong place, and obliterate it and do it again somewhere else.

Speaking of moving things around, and even obliterating layers of work, I discovered a new painter online recently—Alex Kanevsky— and I really like his paintings (with the caveat that I haven’t seem any in person, and you never can tell how you’re going to react to the actual physical object). I’m envious of his painterliness—how I wish I were not such a tight-ass—and I was particularly taken with his description of his process in this interview.

Vivianite: Your use of motion, light and color is truly stunning, how did you invent or learn your technique?

Alex Kanevsky: I didn't really invent or learn it as a technique. I am a slow learner, so it developed over a long time. I am also fairly slow when it comes to actual painting. Slow but impatient. That can be a problem, but over time I figured out how to turn this contradiction into my own way of working. I can't do slow and methodical accumulation painting: I get bored with careful, planned sort of activity. I also depend on freshness of perception, what zen-buddists call "beginner's mind". That is difficult to sustain over a long period. After a while you are just not a beginner. So I work fast, trying to hit the right note every time. That is nearly impossible, so I constantly fail. But I keep coming back to a painting. It accumulates layers, each one - more or lass a complete painting. Complete but failed. The layers are sort of like Swiss cheese - they have holes through which in right places you can see the previous layers. Eventually there are enough of "good holes" and also, because of all the repeated attempts, I manage to do a good top layer. And then I have a painting that has enough intensity in every passage to satisfy me. Then it is done.

I love this idea of the layers of a painting as swiss cheese, with holes in them that allow you to see through to previous stages. Interestingly, he also has a section on his website where he documents the successive stages of several paintings in progress (although the link is misdirecting right now). It’s cool to see how radically different each hit on a given painting is. When I get this blog redesigned I’m hoping to have a similar horizontally scrolling set-up to post my own works in progress, rather than this vertical column.

Some painting advice for the day (or year):

Vivianite: What would you say to an artist just starting out?

Alex Kanevsky: Build up your self esteem to the level that might seem unwarranted. This will help you ignore both positive and negative responses to your paintings. Both are usually misguided, since they come from the outside. Be your most severe and devastating critic, while never doubting that you are the best thing since sliced bread.

The moment something works well and is under control - is the time to give it up and try something else.

Put all your eggs in one basket. Precarious situations produce intense results.


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I've been bearing down hard on this painting, trying to finish it. Which can result in a certain amount of progress, but usually backfires after a while by making me feel completely burnt out. I sit and stare at the painting, sit and stare, and cannot think of what to do to it. It's utterly frustrating. I took the weekend off, but I'm not sure I'm feeling terribly inspired today, either.

I've been reading the dictionary again. Following are some new favorites:

Enchase — 1.  encase, enclose:  set (a diamond enchased in a gold ring) 2.  ornament, decorate as a: to cut or carve in relief:  engrave b: inlay (a table enchased with ivory) 3. obs:  to enclose solemnly:  enshrine

Bridewell — London house of correction established in the 16th century: house of correction, jail, prison.

Boatel — a waterside hotel equipped with docks to accommodate persons traveling by boat

Alchera — [native name in Australia]: dreamtime

Aliquant — being a part of a number or quantity but not dividing it without leaving a remainder (5 is an aliquant part of 16)

Aliquot — 1. contained an exact number of times in something else (5 is an aliquot part of 15); opposed to aliquant 2.  fractional

Aliter — otherwise

Little-ease — a place of confinement (as an extremely small prison cell) or confining device (as a pillory) making it impossible for a prisoner to have even ordinary comfort or freedom of movement

Litham — a strip of cloth wound round the head covering all but the eyes and worn by Tuaregs of the Sahara desert

Fielden — of or having to do with fields; rustic

Firefall — a tree whose fall is caused by the partial destruction of its roots in a ground fire