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.

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.

Goodbye, Beanstalk

jack-81 I pushed the restart button on this painting. I bought a new plant yesterday, and I hope it will both be fun to paint and that it will stay alive long enough to finish the goddamn painting. Unfortunately, it's not at all like the original plant, so I guess I'll have to give up my jokey little Jack & the Beanstalk concept. The new one is a kind of camellia, and more like a miniature tree than a climbing vine.

It's hard for me to take a decent photograph of this diptych with my tiny little point & shoot camera. I've been making such small paintings for the past year that it hasn't been too egregiously inadequate, but I feel the itch now to make some larger work and I know I'm going to have to eventually invest in a SLR to shoot photographs of the proper quality.

Jack & the Beanstalk

jack-4 jack-5 I finally started work in earnest on this diptych that I began last fall. I had been waiting till I found and moved into a new studio, because I didn't want to get all set up and then have to move, which would've been disruptive. However, I've nonetheless been stymied by an unexpected consequence of the move. The plant — which I find charmingly, distinctively odd, with little pink curly bits left over from where the new leaves emerge, and which I was looking forward to painting — has seemingly decided to die off, from the bottom up:



I went back to the garden store where I purchased it to see if they had any more, but no luck. The woman there surmised that perhaps the different environmental conditions in the new studio don't suit it as well as the old studio. Well, the old space did face south, and got a ton of light (too much, actually, for a painting studio). This new one faces west, and while it is plenty bright, there isn't that same flood of direct sunlight. I don't know what I'm going to do now with this painting:  I was so taken with this particular plant, and was amusing myself with the conceit of having the central stalk sprout out of the body and climb straight up, like a beanstalk.

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I'm flummoxed. The idea for this painting was predicated on this very singular plant, which is now dying. I'm not sure what to do, except for try to find another, beanstalk-like plant. When you're working from life, the devil really is in the details.

Another Tree Person

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I've started another small scale study for a person transforming/dissolving into foliage. But this time, I'm thinking of trying something a little different: making it a diptych, by stacking another canvas on top of this one, in order to separate the body part from the leafy part,

I can't show you the two canvases together yet, because I don't have the second one prepared. In order that the two stretchers will be level, that is, stick out the exact same amount from the wall and thus have contiguous painted surfaces, I had to mail-order stretcher bars for the second canvas from Blick (we don't have one here in Portland, only a Utrecht, which is basically fine, if a bit limited). It so happened that the canvas for the legs was  made with Blick stretcher strips, and they happen to be maybe a 1/8" - 1/4" thicker on the side than Utrecht stretcher strips, making it impossible to combine the two brands into a nice, level diptych. Slightly irritating. Re: stretchers: I have a real saga to share with you on this subject, but it's not quite resolved yet into an entertaining screed. Stay tuned.