Lately I've been toying with the idea, actually more than toying, I've started to act on it, of starting a new, more focused body of work. Not that my work lacks focus, I think I clearly have some reoccurring themes, but I'm thinking of narrowing that focus a bit to see where it takes me. I'm starting to realize that I prefer the simpler compositions in my smaller works to the more complex ones in my larger pieces. I think it may be that the simpler arrangements seem more iconic, more monumental, and the arrow, so to speak, goes directly to the bullseye. With that in mind I started an 8"x10" painting of a banana placed on a miniature canoe that sits on top of a cigar box. Once the drawing was done I took it over to the copy center to have it enlarged to a 16"x20". A task that I thought would be easy but that actually drove the clerk a little crazy. It was worth it! It was great to see the sketch enlarged. Originally I was going to complete the small painting first as a kind of study but I decided to work on them simultaneously because for one thing, the colors were already mixed, and the fruit wasn't going to last too much longer. The other factor that motivated me to give this a try was the fact that I paint in an alla prima method. That means I work wet into wet. I don't glaze or scumble. The brushwork is actually quite fluid, but you have to get pretty close to see it. By enlarging the scale of my smaller pictures, I realized that I would also be enlarging my brushwork and that's something that I've been wanting to do for a while. I already have a truckload of thumbnail sketches worked out, so we'll see what happens, if this is a passing fancy, or a new direction. Stay tuned.
These I-phone photos show the transfer drawing, and then the color wash stage. The next step would be the final wet-in-wet, finishing pass, which I've already completed for the fruit (photos to come).
Recently, I've started to make some changes to my basic pallete. I have for many years used titanium white. Titanium white is a good, strong, opaque white that easily lightens any color. It does however have some drawbacks. For one thing, it seems to push most colors towards the blue spectrum, even earth colors. I would compensate by loading in yellow ochre when I wanted to bring the color back towards orange or yellow. Another problem is that it dries somewhat unevenly so that you lose some of the more subtle mixtures that you're seeing while the paint is still wet. When I was studying cast painting I was instructed to use lead white (cremnitz). I enjoyed using it but I was reluctant to make it a permanent part of my palette because I believed that eventually it would be banned. Well, it wasn't banned but it has gone way up in price. At any rate, I decided to go ahead and start using it, I really don't use all that much white in my mixtures anyway. It is a bit more transparent then the titanium but it also gives some very subtle value changes that don't go away when the paint dries. The other change that I've made is to start using hand ground earth colors. They're a bit more expensive, a few dollars really, but the pigment load seems much stronger. Since I use a lot of umbers and ochres the stronger pigments combined with the flake white have changed the appearance of my paintings. I'm finding that I have less dead zones and the overall color harmonies and tonalities seem improved. I am generally of the opinion that when one is looking to improve their work that the fault doesn't usually lie in the technical area; brushes, paints, canvas, etc;. Usually improvements are made by spending more time on the setup, drawing, color mixing, etc;. In this case though, I feel like making the changes that I made was the right way to go. Here's a new piece that you can judge for yourself.
I'll never forget the first time that I learned of the "block-in" and the "straight line" drawing method. It was my first day in a still life painting class run by Robert Armetta www.robertarmetta.com . I was working in charcoal on a small canvas depicting a few oranges and a vase. I was freely rendering the oranges when it was pointed out to me that they all looked like ping pong balls, perfectly round, with no way of distinguishing one from the other. Robert pointed to a poster of an enlarged Bargue (Charles Bargue artist) drawing on the wall, and explained to me that if I used straight lines at first, like the Bargue drawing, I'd be better able to capture the unique quality of each specific orange. I didn't get it right away, and in fact I'm still working it out 15 years later, but it has probably been one of the largest factors in shaping the look and direction of my work.
I've recently started a small still life of a mermaid figurine placed inside of a shell; no symbolism implied, I just like the way the forms fit together. Last week I went to see the Sargent show at the Met. The show was great. It was very crowded, even though the museum had just opened. Leaving the exhibit I remember feeling very anxious, I wanted to start a whole new body of work with thicker paint and more brushstrokes, and less underpainting and preliminary drawing. Than I happened to notice that there was a George Caleb Bingham exhibit. The galleries were empty. As I walked through the exhibit I was captivated by the calm workman like way that Bingham had struggled to capture a particular slice of American life. There were lots of drawings and you could see what a large part the drawings played in the look of the finished paintings. It calmed me down considerably. I realized that everyone isn't cut out to be or needs to be a John Singer Sargent. Not to take anything away from Sargent, he is still one of my favorite painters, but I don't feel bad anymore that I don't have his bravura technique. The work that I find myself drawn to these days is a meal, to use an analogy, that's prepared on a slow cooker. Anyway, getting back to my drawing, I suppose I could draw directly with brush on the canvas, but there's something about the contemplative nature of the block-in that I believe ultimately gives strength and character to the eventual painting. Maybe the difference is subtle, and I'm the only one who sees it, but in this era of figurative painting where artists seem determined to figure out who can come up with the most expressive applications of paint, it seems important to remember the Classical ideals that gave me my start.
Here you can see my initial straight line block-in, including the envelope used to measure out the forms. The second drawing shows me adding further refinement while not losing the underlying structure indicated by the block-in. I will give it one more pass of refinement before I transfer it to a canvas.
I 've spent quite a bit of time working on this drawing. The painting is 16 x 20 and the composition is pretty complicated. I find that the more time I spend on the drawing the less I have to fudge around while I'm painting. Some artists prefer to find the edges as they paint and I totally get that, but for me it's those little almost unnoticeable nuances that give beauty and life to a painting and I'll never get them with the blunter point of a paintbrush.
These were taken with my cell phone so I apologize for the glare. The second photo is after I've transferred the drawing to the panel using conte crayon on the back. I used to make a photo copy of the drawing but then I started to accumulate all of these still life block ins and my studio is already crammed to the gills, so now I trace over the original drawing. I'm excited about painting this one, and as my usual procedure I'll start with the perishable (bread) first. Some artists have started to dispense with the wipe out stage and go directly to the color wash, but I find that it gives a certain richness to the subsequent layers.
These two pics show the setup and beginning block-in for a new large still life, "Charity", 16" x 20". I've been thinking about this idea for a while now, probably over a year. When I saw this old window in an antique shop in Connecticut, I immediately decided to take the idea off the backburner and get started. Eventually a piece of crusty old bread will go in that wooden bowl. I had this vision of a mysterious window in a small town somewhere where food and drink was left on the ledge for any traveler who might be happening to pass by, that was in need of nourishment. The rose inside of the window was meant to symbolize the good intentions of the person who left the food out. These days I've been thinking a lot about incorporating some elements in my paintings that are made up. Some artists are quite happy when a viewer makes the comment that their painting looks "as good as a photograph". They realize it's meant as a compliment. I personally cringe whenever I hear that, because I want my work to be so much more than a literal depiction of what's in front of me. With the addition of things that I'm imagining rather than depicting, I think it will be less likely that the "photograph" comment will come up, and people will begin to see the qualities of the work that are unique to painting and could never be captured by a photograph. Why "Charity"? I often think about how even with the best plans and intentions we often need someone's help to get ahead. I'm a pretty proud and stubborn person and many times that has led me to refuse offers of help that were probably genuine and would have benefitted me greatly. As I look back in reflection I realize that most of the milestones that matter in my life could not have been achieved without a little "charity" and for that I am eternally grateful.
I've gotten a bit further on the small painting "Pomegranate, Canoe, and Box" oil on panel, 8"x10". My usual method when painting fruit is to do a raw umber wipeout and then do a color wash underpainting (ebauche) focusing on the fruit because that's the perishable. I use Liquin for the ebauche, it gives the paint a nice semi glossy transparency and it dries quickly. The photo below shows the completion of the next stage. I start the finishing pass by first laying a couche (thin coating) of my medium (Gamblin Neo-Megilp), which is a modern substitute for Maroger medium (black oil). I mix up my neutral string of colors and my color specific strings and I begin to lay in my block-in adding medium as I go. I usually pick one area that includes a large range of hue, value, and chroma and bring it to completion in order to key the painting. Once I've blocked in that area I'll go back in with "bridge" values and colors so that the larger areas will have smoother transitions, and yet still show some brush strokes, what Ted Seth Jacobs calls "shaping the light". Even though I have a string of colors mixed I'm still doing a lot of improvising with my brush, it's not "paint by numbers" by any means.
I'm teaching an art class at the Brooklyn Museum of Art to teenagers, which is fun, because they want you to focus on a current exhibit along with your art project. Even though my work could be classified as "academic" that doesn't mean I'm not open to other types of art, as they say "variety is the spice of life". Occasionally I'll get to incorporate some of my own methodologies into what I'm teaching. I'm also starting to teach an adult still life class this Monday at the National Art League nationalartleague.org . I've got seven students signed up so far, so I'm excited. It's a lot of work preparing, I have to construct seven shadow boxes, and lighting setups. I want to focus on working from life because I feel that that's the best way to learn.
You can see in this snap with my phone that I've painted the pomegranate and canoe up to a finish. I usually do a bit of the background because I want to work the edges while the paint is still wet, and it also makes it easier to judge your value relationships.
I've decided to try out selling some of my smaller paintings, 5" x 5" on Ebay. (look for direct from the artist Shawn Sullivan). I'm recently retired from my day job as a high school art teacher for thirty years and now I'll have the time to try out something that I've always wanted to do. My larger works will still be available in galleries, these will just be some fun smaller paintings. I wouldn't call them daily paintings because I spend about as much time as I do on the larger ones. I'd call them affordable Classical Realism! Here's the first one "Binoculars" oil on cradled gessoboard, 5" x 5".
I love painting pomegranates, but I haven't done one in quite some time. There's something about the grittiness and those dusky sunset reds that I find very appealing. The two pics below show the start. I transferred a carefully made pencil drawing to gessoboard and then I did a wipe out using raw umber. The next day I began a thin color wash underpainting starting with the pomegranate. I always enjoy painting something that requires me to use several hues of the same color. In this case I used permanent alizarin crimson, cadmium red deep, cadmium red medium, and cadmium red light. I generally mix out several strings of color, including a neutral string, before I start to paint. This is a pretty small painting, 8" x 10", I'm hoping that the pomegranate will keep it's glorious color long enough for me to paint it. If it doesn't I'll just go out and get another one and use the colors to paint it from memory.
Lately, I've been incorporating some elements into my paintings that are made up from my imagination. I've been looking at some of the artists that I admire, Chardin, Vallayer-Acosta, and the Dutch masters. I started to realize that Chardin probably didn't live in a castle with stone walls and Neolithic looking table tops. A lot of that had to be made up. I don't know it for a fact, but it seems to be true. It seems to be part of a tradition that maybe has been lost, where paintings are either pretty straight forward realism or so expressive that they border on Surrealism. I want the imaginative parts of my paintings to be in harmony with the observed parts and to seem as if they could be real. It's been a lot of fun so far, and it's been opening up some new ideas that I hadn't considered before. Here's a couple that feature some imaginative elements.
"Silent Partners" oil on panel, 9"x12", "Texas Rose, and Lemons" oil on panel, 9"x12".
Here are a few shots of what I've been working on lately. I'm a bit behind in my scheduled postings because I started a new job and I'm a little overwhelmed.
The top picture is a portrait in progress "Ashley with Lures" oil on panel, 16"x20". What you're seeing at this stage is the colored underpainting (ebauche) and the eyes painted in up to a finish. It seems like this one is taking forever, but I'm trying not too rush. Ashley is a great model so I can't wait to see it finished. "Camera with Apples" oil on panel, 8"x10" is finished. I'm doing two small paintings for a small works show. I decided to have some fun and try different lighting, so the two small paintings are lit directly from above, and I'm working with a small spotlight attached to my easel. I almost don't know what the paintings look like until I'm finished, but so far I'm happy with the results and I'll probably do a few more with the same setup. "Red Onions and Canoe" oil on panel, 8"x10", is the other small painting. It's shown in the underpainting stage except for the onions which are finished. I always paint the perishables first because you don't want them to lose the fresh appearance. It's a risk because you haven't got all of your colors in but it's really the only way to do it. "Carved Bird, Lion Mask and Bowl" oil on panel, 12"x16", is in the halfway stage. Everything is finished except part of the lion and the background and tablecloth. I had to stop this one to do the small paintings so I can't wait to get back to it because I'm really enjoying painting these animal figurines.