Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Landscape 911

When There Just Isn't Time...

Seems to me that there are an awful lot of days when there just isn't time to go painting en plein air. At least there are an awful lot of reasons for staying in the studio, leaving all the schlepping for another day.

Wednesday seems to have become our obligatory plein air day. But this week Todd is swamped with commitments he must fulfill before heading off to the Vermont Workshop next week. So, for me, there isn't the peer pressure there might have been.

Still, since Todd couldn't come, I invited some students to join me at Appleton Farms----me to paint, they to draw. It seemed a good mix of some painting time for me and some casual drawing instruction for them.
But, of course, real life intervened. One student had a gallery errand that must be run, another had a mid-day doctor's appointment, etc. Also rain was forecast.

I , too, had things I needed to do, and so I had more than enough excuses I could make to myself about why I couldn't possibly go do an outdoor grisaille.

Unfortunately, when it was time to head off to the studio this morning, it wasn't actually raining. It's true there was a lowering sky, but no drops. Hmmm.... what now for my excuse?

So, trying to be a real grown-up, I headed off to Appleton Farms, in Ipswich. But I'd only gone part of the distance when I noticed a road I'd seen a hundred times. This time it was clearly saying "Paint Me!" So I screeched to a halt, and set up. I knew that I only had Liquin, ultramarine blue, and burnt umber in my kit. But these are my standard ingredients for making a grisaille (a useful term, even though neither of my colors is gris, or blanc or noir either).

At this point, I've set up my new easel, thankfully with an improved version of paper towel stowage since the debacle of a few weeks ago.

This road is little-travelled, so I didn't need to worry about being in anyone's way.

The only canvas I had with me was 18"x 24", and so I was really in for it. No wee, tiny vignettes-----no mini-excuses for a painting.

As it turns out, I spent 45 minutes on the grisaille, rushing along because of fear of iminent rain (which never came).

I mostly wanted to get some of the larger masses indicated, so that, if I had to stop, I'd have something to show for my time.

Having come up with a version of the scene, I packed up, ready to carry on with the other items of the day.

Although I hardly had a plein air masterpiece completed, I did have a sense of a painting that I might work on another time. 

Later in the day, after my chores, I arrived at the studio. Now I had a chance to flesh out some of the masses, and to add a bit of transparent color. I also used a bit of opaque paint to change some of the drawing in the grisaille.

Now I had another 40 minutes invested in the painting. It definitely has issues that need to be resolved, and it largely still needs to be "painted".

But maybe next February, when New England is locked in winter snow and ice, I'll pull out this bit of a May day, and amid all the whiteness of the season I'll find a cheering suggestion of Spring.

None of us ever has enough time. And we all have a million excuses. But it seems to me that this morning's 45 minutes, and this afternoon's 40, were well spent. Because I certainly didn't have the time, or maybe the weather, for "making a painting" today, I might easily have skipped the whole exercise.

But now, because I convinced myself to make what the time and weather would allow, I have stored up possible treasure for future days.

Go forth and do likewise!  Catch some fish for future frying.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Landscape 911

The Third Gathering of The Dead Paintings Society, 25 May 2012

We met, as usual, at my Amesbury studio, to consider a painting (18"x24"--46x60cm) which had been declared dead by its creator, and was now turned over to science.

This was our first painting not to have water as a primary feature, and our first to have a rugged topography. I found myself troubled by a number of things. First, I was not fond of the two pointy mountains and their two distant relatives. They seemed to me to be much too volcanic for New England, and to be monotonous in their repetition of form. Next, I felt that too much attention, and space, was given over to the foreground, perhaps 60% of the total area. It was unrelievedly of the same hue. I found the small trees/bushes(?) distracting and not convincing. The yellow flowers seemed to me to be a rear-guard attempt to enliven the foreground. The whole painting, including the sky, had an overall yellowish cast. 
My first task was to introduce some cool colors in order to defeat the yellowness. I did this by replacing the mass of the yellow clouds with white, right out of the tube, scumbled over the forms. I changed the farthest pointy mountains to a ridge, and redesigned the two more-prominent peaks. Where the original had us confronting an uphill slope, backed up by the mountains, I sought to change the scale, and to look down onto the nearest planes. My idea was to create a greater sense of "bigness" in the land forms, achieved, ironically, by making them smaller, and farther away. I spoke of creating mountains and hills that evince a sense of muscularity. One needs remember, when drawing them with paint, the outline against the sky only describes two dimensions. I usually draw in contours coming toward the viewer, too, to remind myself of the tremendous bulk of the land. This fullness, if well-conveyed, is an easy, but often-overlooked, key to making convincing landscapes.

At this stage, some of the original scene is peeking through the somewhat vigorous paint from this session. I've made a decision that a wee bit of water, on the right edge, would be fun. The general consensus of the group was that painting a deer drinking at the lake's edge, a la Bierstadt, might be too much. We did talk a good bit about 'western' paintings, those which, for New Englanders at least, start at Poughkeepsie. In this case, however, we meant really west, like Colorado. The discussion emboldened me to put in a white wigwam. Alas, my wigwam skills were sorely lacking, and the wigwam quickly disappeared.
Because we only have three hours for the operation, we must, of necessity, keep moving pretty fast. I deepened and strengthened some of the colors, trying to get a richness into the general tone. With a 2" brush, I painted in a shadowed area in the lower left, gaining another strong diagonal to pitch the painting down toward the lake and, more important, gaining yet another opportunity for dark/light adjacencies. 

While we hardly have a finished painting----I can see many things left to refine or even to change---there does seem to be a sense of place emerging. I hope the donor is pleased with the result.
The next meeting of The Dead Paintings Society will be on Friday, 1 June 2012.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Landscape 911

The second gathering of The Dead Paintings Society took place last Friday, May 11th, at my studio.

Under consideration this week was a painting of one of the local marshes, by a resident artist. The painting had been declared dead by its creator, and it was brought to Amesbury by the Art Ambulance. An initial assessment was conducted, and it was determined that several factors joined together to make the painting somewhat less-than-successful.

Not least among these problems was the placement of the horizon near the middle line of the painting, and the location of the muddy bank, definitely a barrier to the viewer. 
I liked the variegated aspect of the foreground, and the sense that was conveyed of a sandy waste, filled with wiry, scraggly growth. The sky, on the other hand, seemed to suggest different weather than one felt in the foreground. The division of the canvas into two, nearly equal parts, and the disunity between the sky and the ground, suggested that it was time for ultramarine therapy.

I grabbed a two-inch, cheap, bristle brush (from the hardware store), loaded it with ultramarine and liquin, and laid a transparent veil over the whole canvas. In the photo, the ultramarine has just been applied on the right side, the left side not yet covered.

The point of this is two-fold. First, I want to shock the image into a riskier, more uncertain state. This enables me to think about the canvas with no preconceptions about the subject. Second, I want to create an artificial unity between the sky and the the earth.

Depending on your approach, at this stage I've either liberated the canvas from a state that didn't work, or I've destroyed a perfectly good painting. Since the point of The Dead Paintings Society meetings is to entirely rethink a painting, it's important to me to make a start that is somewhat startling, one that encourages less-usual results.

In the third photo, I've added white and grey to the ultramarine in the sky, and brushed it loosely with the 2" brush to make rather a watercolor-like, overcast sky. Obviously, I've lowered the horizon. In lowering it once, and then in deciding to lower it again, I accidentally left a whitish section just above the land. On staring at this space, it seemed to want to be a stretch of sea.. I invaded the right side of the land with some sort of water in the foreground, thinking about echoing the sea. Ultimately, though, I won't keep this. I generally added some rather khaki-colored paint to the land, representing sand. You can still see many individual bits of the original foreground which have persisted into this state.

At left, I've introduced some ovals of light, which must be coming from a rent in the clouds, up overhead, and out of the picture. There seems to be a port city appearing on the far horizon, left. Now there's also a new object on the edge of where the beach meets the estuary. We'll use that as something which can be lit up by another bit of errant sun.

The painting is now about a very different place (different continent?) than where it began. But saving dead paintings is, in truth, about being willing to put all your previous hard work at risk, in search of an imaginative leap. Of course, for me, it's really much easier than for the original artist. I have nothing invested in the painting. But maybe my dispassionate approach is instructive. Do something hugely disruptive to what you had originally intended. This act may well show you the way back to the creativity you had when you were playing with pots and pans on the kitchen floor. You were able, then, to make whole universes from the most banal of objects.

And so to the end of this exercise in resuscitation. Somewhere along this odyssey, I was thinking of my friends among the 17th c. Dutch painters. While this effort would certainly never be confused, either in conception or quality, with their work, there is a something here that would not be foreign to them, or to their later successors in the 19th c. Hague School.

Truth to tell, it was a great three hours of fun. Although I can't claim that the current state is necessarily an improvement on the original, it nonetheless feels more alive to me.

As usual, I much appreciate the artist giving her painting to science, and I hope everyone enjoyed the process. 

The next meeting of The Dead Paintings Society will be held at my studio on Friday, May 25th.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Landscape 911

The Dead Paintings Society: First Gathering

Last Friday, May 4th, marked the first gathering of The Dead Paintings Society, which met at my studio in Amesbury.

There were nine painters, plus me, and we got to know each other a bit as we shuffled chairs and settled in. Many of the artist were well known to each other, and they had some enjoyable catching up to do.

In the meantime, I looked over the 'dead paintings' which had arrived. I chose a water scene, measuring 18" square.

My job was to see what this dead painting might become. Of course I know nothing of the place where it was painted, and have no attachment to any of the particular elements of the painting. Equally, I bring to the painting my own painting concerns, my likes and my dislikes----au fond, my own way of seeing.

My first question is always "What is this painting about???" In this case, it seemed reasonably evident. It was a painting of a summer's day, in fair weather, with a substantial, green lushness. All these things had been communicated quite straightforwardly.

As I looked at it longer, however, I began to find faults. It was too-unrelievedly the same green. Although the shape of the water implied a recession from the viewer, the artist hadn't used either perspective (in the sense of forms of diminishing size) or aerial perspective. The central line of trees almost exactly bisected the canvas. The cloud form was not modeled, and it was placed very close to the center of the canvas.

So I started to work, keeping the same horizon line, but introducing a mountain to break up the overall rhythm. I changed the shape of the water and, in doing so, radically changed the the subject of the painting. What may have been a pond or lake became a definite river. I modeled the cloud to make it a bit more dynamic, even while leaving it in its central position. I tried to establish a light scheme, both sunlight and shadow, to animate the canvas in terms of values. Overall, I sought to enliven the painting by increasing color contrasts and value contrasts, and by supplying a more inviting composition. The class was three hours of painting for me, and I subsequently spent, perhaps, another 90 minutes, over several days, changing little things.

The original artist has been very kind. She is still speaking to me after I trampled all over her canvas. But, hey! It had been consigned to the dead paintings corner. And all's fair. She won't, now, paint as I do, because we are different artists and different people. But what may have been valuable is that she was able to observe the sort of choices I made, and to hear my explanation of why I made them. One hopes that she, and the other members of the gathering, will remember to continually ask themselves hard questions, both in the field and in the studio.

The Dead Paintings Society will hold its second gathering this Friday, May 11th. 


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In the Field

Plein Air Painting Inside

Tomorrow's Wednesday again, and it should be time to trundle our kit out into the landscape. But the weatherman is promising a likelihood of rain, between 80-100%. It doesn't sound good.

Donald Jurney, Maudslay 25 April, unfinished

Perhaps I'll work on the 18x24 I started last week at Maudslay (where the workshop will be in just two weeks), snug in the studio.  This is its current state. Last week was the paper towel episode, and the ominous clouds. But, when we were first setting up, it was sunny. I guess the whole traumatic experience should be considered an opportunity for memory training. This light-filled version is what my memory is offering.

Todd will be coming by, late morning, and I expect we'll be checking that we have everything for the workshop. Todd, as the monitor, has more to do than I at this point, making his lists and checking them twice. My time is coming.

Chris Volpe, our usual, intrepid, Wednesday painting chum, has an opening this Friday, at Kennedy Gallery, in Portsmouth, NH. Click on the link to learn more. Consequently, he won't be joining us tomorrow. But we'll see him at the Friday opening.

Jakob van Ruisdael, 1655, The Jewish Cemetery(detail)
Also, some preparation must be made for The Dead Paintings Society's first gathering, this Thursday, May 3, from 9:30-12:30. Everyone is welcome, but an RSVP comment on my Facebook page is important, to let us know to expect you. Location, and more details, can be found here.

We hope that Bruce & company have a successful painting day in France, and more equable weather.

Why not leave a comment about YOUR Wednesday plein air outing?