I’ve taken care of some final details, added a few minor elements, and finished the background. Hopefully there’s still enough energy in the foreground, and the composition’s central arch is not obscured.
The progress of this painting has been recorded at regular intervals of duration. As my paintings progress, less appears to happen during the same duration as more happened earlier. Now, my inside voice—my informed intuition?—tells me to be cautious about going too far. What is the correct balance; what is the elegance not fully conscious?
These later stages aren’t as exciting, but they’re more satisfying. The vision I have for the image moves in a progression that becomes higher in resolution. An ellipse or two is still getting corrected and the contrast between adjacent passages of value is heightened and glazes are applied to make color areas richer or less saturated . . . because I think I know where the image should arrive. These later stages are more about control than experimentation, but I am mindful of opportunities to take liberty, especially where liberty improves upon the source image.
Here’s where some of the drawing gets corrected, pictorial relationships are clarified, and decisions about more or less are made. Hours are chewed up, and often transparent layers are applied over areas to be later reconstructed with color values and color temperatures. This is a middle period, a necessary grind, with the foreknowledge that things will work out . . . as long as things don’t get overworked or mistakes multiply.
Another four or five sessions, and all the bare canvas is covered. Trying to pick out rhythmical areas and emphasize contrasts. Trying to stay loose with handlings, even as the composition and relationships become tighter. Having momentum makes successive trips into the studio less anxious, right?
Here’s another painting in progress, which shows three days’ of underpainting sessions. I have never been able to begin a painting with a clear idea of what the final image ought to look like. Never. I’m not boasting, and I’m not complaining, although often I have felt pressure to begin with the clarity that many artists can and do. (I have the same “approach” to writing.)
I’m not sure where this experience and practice comes from, but I’ve known it since I was a teen. One painting instructor encouraged a responsive and immediate approach. A later painting instructor promoted working with a drawing / design and carefully building layers to a finished work. Somewhere in there I am. I prefer to begin with a foundational concept—symmetry in the example shown below—and I prefer to build the painting out from its beginning center . . . which is not always centered two-dimensionally.
This image required two more sessions, really concentrating on the scale of some color-marks. I also tried to balance an overall soft quality of light with the kind of juiced space I experienced on that particular day. To take this image any further would require that I sacrifice a little bit of its wildness to “corrections” purely aesthetic, if that makes sense.
I’m not sure where I acquired the nagging attitude that every effort at painting a picture or making an image ought to be an improvement over previous efforts. Does it come from being trained in a modernist academy, from reading artist biographies, from listening to jazz improvisations, from experiences in athletics and coaching, and / or from the Christian walk of faith? All of these possibilities probably involve a questionable transfer from the original source. What about just doing a thing as well as one can and not being anxious for it being a continuous improvement project?
Well, here’s another day’s work on the little landscape and being anxious not just about improving the painting, but about making some kind of breakthrough in it.
A couple hours later, and the painting has proceeded to a muddy middle, where scale gets clumsy and color becomes sugary. With all due respect to skillful, practiced results of plein aire painters, my vision is a little bit different, being squared up somewhere between Fairfield Porter and Camille Pissarro. What I have here and now is a slightly bloated and sloppy version of my vision. My vision for this particular image is more like a good, garden radish than a bowl of berries. Clean and brisk with energy. Hmmm . . .
On day three, the pace has slowed as more time is taken for making decisions and responding to decisions. I am most conscious of the plastic and color relationships—opaque vs. transparent, and warm vs. cool. Ultimately my goal in landscape is to capture a remembered experience of lighted space and the energy of the space’s structure.
I was fortunate to spend this session of painting in the company of the Miles Davis All-Stars, Walkin’, 1954-57. (Thank you, Dave Schildkraut, for your brilliant alto solo on “Solar”!)
Another hour or two (the second day), and the image moves irrevocably away from all of the possibilities, toward a narrower range of possibilities. From here on, one’s vision (an informed intuition) increasingly exerts its ways upon the choices. I do a little more drawing, add a transparent and iridescent layer of self-leveling gel, and then commence to covering the bare areas of canvas. Also, the first white and opaque mixture is applied; this technique (tinting) seems inevitable right away, and I wish I knew a way to postpone it. The technique is like adding gouache to a watercolor, and there is something in my training, going way back, that causes me shame for relying upon it.
It’s probably the artist and other like-minded artists who get excited about the possibilities held in the beginning of a painting. Other people probably see little more than something not nearly finished. In my particular process, the first, foundational layers of a painting are exciting because between these and the final layer is a lot of inevitable struggle and disappointment—struggle to wrestle the thing toward its finish and disappointment in all the clumsiness and misstep along the way, which I can never seem to avoid no matter how “good” these first layers are.
After an image has been scaled, from its original source, to the canvas, the structure is marked out by a linear drawing and a wash of color is added to emphasize a major division. I admit: nothing heroic will result from such a small canvas and such an incidental image . . . but this is what my vocation requires of me, and at this stage I am happy to start work!
In his book, The Faithful Artist, artist and lecturer Cameron J. Anderson writes about the importance of mentors for young Christian artists. Without a mentor—a like-minded Christian who is an artist or scholar—it is difficult for the young Christian to have a ready apologetic for the internal and external wrestling with their vocation. Mentoring is especially important because most American Christian churches are ignorant, dismissive, or disapproving of artistic vocation.
I was blessed to have a supporting family; my parents and a grandparent approved of my choices. I attended a state university, and several of my professors (Don, Kent, Erv) were respectful of my Christian beliefs while they pushed me to further my education by going to graduate school. My future in art at the time owed a lot to the mentoring I received from Don, who was and is an exceptionally gifted artist. But doubts arose in grad school, as I weighed the odds or prospects for my “success” against the ethic and responsibility of my vocation. Gary Faleide, a Lutheran pastor and theologian with whom I struck up a friendship, was very helpful; it was he who provided the theological mentoring for my deep wrestling with vocation. So I agree with Anderson and his priority for mentoring, which is probably even more crucial today than it was over 30 years ago to me.
Here’s a thing more artists should take advantage of more often—sketching with artist-friends. There are all kinds of good reasons for doing it, among the reasons being: to share a time and a place and a concentration with someone who has similar interests. Sketching together, especially if the day is right and things are going well, creates memories to treasure through a lifetime of cold and lonely winters.
The example shown here is where my painting is "of its own kind." I practice several different styles, but this one in particular feels the most natural or authentic. Buildings that are unremarkable, except for their ruin (here and elsewhere, a little leaning), are my preferred subject matter. My palette becomes muted in its saturation, and the contrasts created by light are developed with hue differences, as well as value differences.
And there is a corner in my mind, instructed by my modernist training, that is suspicious of how familiar and comfortable this style is. So, is that suspicion a kind of rigor or merely a monkey on my back?
Earlier (left) and later (right) versions are shown above of a head / type study modeled after a foreground figure in a Bruegel painting. I isolated the figure's head, placed a halo behind it, and treated its features in a way that might be appropriate to a portrait of the Apostle Paul or the prophet Jeremiah.
The left version was done at a quick pace, using a kind of shorthand for a model that would be used to create a larger, more developed painting. The right version, is a reworking of the same image, slowing down the pace in order to develop representations of light and form. I'm not sure what pace is better for me. The slower pace is more familiar.
In the field of color reproduction, gamuts (ranges or spaces) are observed by each medium or delivery. In diagrams of color spaces, the space of the visible spectrum is much larger than RGB (video) space, which is larger than CMYK (paper) space. Every color technology tries to enlarge its space, working within the inherent limitations of the medium.
In a 1984 radio interview, Jorge Luis Borges recounted how languages are not able to match up to the complexity of things. Borges refered to Whitehead's and Chesterton's ideas about the gap between perfect languages and normal human consciousness. Employing another reduction, Borges quoted Stevenson to imagine the reduction of "gamut" that occurs from ten minutes of human experience to all of Shakespeare's vocabulary.
Consider any language and imagine the reduction in "gamut" that occurs in its usage in mass media and then in social media. Or consider the language reduction in rhetoric that occurs in politics and then in national politics. Today. In America. The gamut is exceedingly small, in part because the actors think it effective to make the language space even smaller?
Every exchange involves something gained and something lost, and many of our choices are expressions of our values—what are we willing to lose in order to gain?
Printing, which was a revolution in mass communication, offered many well-documented gains. Would only a privileged, sensualist elite pause to rue the revolution's losses? A handmade book will always be more intimate and pleasurable than a printed one, but who has access—economically and aesthetically—to such a beautiful object? Only a well-educated and sophisticated person, often a collector, places appropriate value on a limited edition or letterpress book, right?
What is interesting in our time, shortly after another revolution in mass communication (the internet), is the revival of niche publishing, used bookstores, and vinyl recordings. There is something more than nostalgia at work here.