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.


  1. I think you write as well as you paint! Very good information and illustration. Thank you.

  2. As usual, informative and entertaining. I love the lit areas in the foreground, and the streak of sunlit city on the horizon. They add the sizzle to the steak. Wish your studio was closer.