Sunday, January 31, 2010

Practical Magic

Art is about having visions. We all have such experiences. Artists are charged with the very special job giving those visions physical form. You have to do it by working with your materials and by mastering the craft. I like to think of being an artist as a kind of magician. Like magicians, we have to be knowledgeable and extremely practical.

There is nothing more hopeful than stretching a new large canvas. Above is a brand new 36 x 72" stretched linen canvas waiting to have its oil ground applied before I can begin actually painting on it. It's labor intensive and repetitive. It takes hours to build the wooden stretcher bars, cut the cloth to shape and staple it down, and finally apply the glue sizing. In a way it is meditative. When you are finally done you unconsciously know the terrain where your new painting is to unfold. That's why I like doing all these steps myself.

The glue that I use to seal the fabric off from the potentially damaging oils in my paint is made out of rabbits, hence its creepily poetic name rabbit skin glue. As a vegetarian I'm always wince a little when I use the stuff. But I also like the assurance it's been used by the great painters I admire so for many hundreds of years. You have to suffer for your art, some say. Apparently some unlucky rabbits do too.

I have two easels side my side, one to hold small studies at eye level and a larger heavier easel at the left to hold the really big canvases. To the left of both is my palatte table with a 24 x 36" well oiled sheet of masonite where I mix my colors. I always work standing up as it keeps my eye more alert, so there are several sheets of corrugated cardboard laid down to soften the impact on my feet as well as catch at least some of the drips of oil paint that go flying when I work fast.

Years ago I discovered how useful it is to me to leave works in progress out where I can see them out of the corner of my eye. It's a little bit of creative disorganization. Here's the corner of the studio with some pastel drawings paired with the oil studies that then followed from them. Most of these will be turned into larger studio paintings this year.

Nothing under the sun is more frustrating than running out of a particular pigment just when you get a great idea. So I stockpile the stuff. Also there is no such thing as having too many paint brushes. Here's some of my arsenal.

This afternoon I laid the ground on the stretched fine weave linen I prepared yesterday. The linen has a smoother surface than regular cotton duck canvas which is why some artists prefer it. Unfortunately it is much trickier to stretch properly and often decides on its own to suddenly get too tight in one area and go slack in another. It's also dreadfully expensive. You need to be sensitive to be a painter, true. You also need to pretend you have nerves of steel, as you sometimes have to throw the linen out when the stretch doesn't work. My wife thinks I'm way too perfectionistic about the surfaces I paint on and obsess about tiny flaws nobody else can notice. She's probably right, but I seem unable to help myself in this department.

Here's the titanium white oil pigment being pushed into the tiny valleys between the linen thread with a trowel. It gives a delightfully smooth surface that I can only liken to a new baby's behind.

Here I am under the watchful eye of a wooden cat sculpture applying the white oil ground over the linen. At the present time I don't have any real cats in the studio. Hope the wooden version can still share some of its mojo with me.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Radical Eye

Here's a view of Long Island Sound by the 19th century American painter John Kensett, who I've mentioned before. Superficially it looks like a whole lot of other pastoral landscape painters. But I think it's anything but ordinary. There is a startlingly abstract composition that hides beneath Kensett's delicately handled textured grasses. Squint your eyes just a tiny bit and look at how Kensett ties together the dark green shapes distant trees with the darkened horizontal line of the reddish distant field. To make this work his foreground had to be held much lighter in tone than was customary.

I think Kensett, like all the great painters, had a remarkable grasp how much stranger and more surprising reality is than how we usually imagine it. He knew a lot, but when necessary he could let go of preconceptions and just see more clearly than most. The composition he ended up with was hinted at by the actual landscape he painted from, but it required his radical eye to strip away the interruptions and incidentals, leaving the sharp and surprising composition he presents to us.

Below is a plein air oil Kensett painted of Niagara Falls that particularly speaks to me. My family lived in nearby Rochester, NY and took me when I was about six to see the Falls. I remember mostly that at that age they scared me to death. I already knew the world was way bigger than I was, and here was this raging torrent of water that looked dangerous as all get out. I remember my dad, always a bit of a dare devil, loved it.

Kensett concentrates his attention on just a few key features. One is the silhouette of the shoreline, especially stated at the far right side of the painting. The other is the exquisite horseshoe of the waterfall itself. The water takes a hard 90 degree turn and plunges down. To add drama, Kensett restricts the pure whites in the left side of the painting to just the vertically falling water- all the other whitecaps on the river's surface are kept to a darker off white.

One of the great things about this little painting is how few contrasts there are in the foliage. The painter knew a painting, especially a small one like this, can only say a few things, and he carefully saves up his contrasts and accents for his favorite shapes. Everything else is toned down. Actually way down.

Something that is often forgotten in our time about painters like Kensett is that most of his oils were painted back in the studio from outdoor drawings done at locations such as the Catskill Mountains like the drawing below. This wasn't an all bad thing. When a painter paints from a drawing they have previously done, there is an extra remove from the authority of the source.

So often painters can get "taken over" by their source without realizing what is happening. Nature especially is so big and so powerful she can seem to cast a spell over you. If that happens, enjoy the moment of reverie, but then come back to the present. Maybe what is so radical about a painter like Kensett is he combines a willingness to be moved by what he was seeing in the landscape, but combined that with a clear-eyed objectivity toward what was actually developing on his easel. To balance the deep flow of emotion with such open eyed clarity of purpose is pretty amazing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Baltimore Museum of Art Visits My Studio

It's funny, my studio is usually the one place I go where there are no other people. Yesterday I had forty some new faces staring at the easel I usually face alone.

It was a studio tour organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art's Prints, Drawings and Photographs Society. Led by Rena Hoisington and Ann Shafer, two of the Curators from the Museum, and my MICA colleague Trudi Ludwig Johnson, a printmaker and President of the Society, the group is focusing their program on the pastel medium this spring. They had a morning and afternoon visit to my studio where they asked me to talk about working with this delicate and sometimes marvelous material. Next Saturday, Rena Hoisington, one of the BMA Curators, will be leading a seminar at the Museum on the history of the pastel medium with examples from the Museum's collection.

As I told the group, I'm very glad there's a Museum group devoted to looking at work on paper. Too often this branch of the art world gets short shrift. In my own history, more than anything, I think working on paper has made me a more original artist than I could have managed had I limited myself only to oil on canvas. Working on paper is quicker and there is less at stake with expensive materials- as a result, artist tend to be more adventurous and playful on paper than on canvas. Sure is the case with me.

My soft pastels.

We touched on a bunch of topics. One was how different pastel is from my usual medium of oil paint. I have an array of 300 different pastel chalks to work from yet I'm constantly amazed at how many more hues are out there I wish I had in my grasp. Almost always the reds seem either too light or too warm and you keep scanning the rows of pastels in their neat little trays in hopes you've overlooked just the right stick. You don't have it. Pastel doesn't really work that way. It forces you to make do. You can layer two or three different colors on top of each other and adjust the hue somewhat. But compared to oil paint, where you can literally mix tens of thousands of variations of color, pastel is limiting.

Ironically, this is a good thing. A real trouble I fell into with oils was getting too comfortable with favorite mixtures of say yellow ochre with ultramarine blue to make a subtle mustard color. I kept reaching for that exact same combination over and over. In pastel, I'm forced to use that color's cousin. At first this seemed strange to me and a little upsetting, but is there anybody who doesn't need to get vigorously shaken up from time to time?

About 13 years ago I started using pastel in earnest for color studies in my studio. Very different chords of color resulted than what I'd been concocting in the previous decades with oil pigments. And I liked the new color sense- it was more vibrant and a little more other-worldly.

Here's some of the smaller pieces I showed the visitors. Above, are a pastel at left and at right the vine charcoal on which it was based. Below a vine charcoal and at bottom an oil on panel painted from it back in the studio.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Little Children and a New Painting

Philip Koch, Memorial, oil on panel, 18 x 36", 2010

This is my first completed oil of the new year.

The title was chosen because I've been reflecting a great deal on the notion of memory and what we do with the past. It comes with lots of questions. What is it for? What do we hold onto? What needs to be changed? Just as this is true of our lives, these questions emerge in the way we make a painting.

Below is the way the then in-progress panel looked a week ago. There was a promise of a great deep panorama unfolding, but I was troubled by much of the background. Other than receding into a misty distance it didn't seem to reveal enough of a unique personality.

At times like this an artist has to roll up his sleeves and do some serious trial and error with the brush. It probably took several hundred variations in the lakes and islands to come up with the sweeping rhythm I wanted. Anyone who has ever painted knows this is hard slugging- more like digging in a mine with a pickaxe than waiting for inspiration to guide your hand. One of the things that guided me was the idea of cutting away the land masses that were already in the painting. Subtracting can be as creative as adding.

The final version has a more sweeping horizontal flow to its far distance than the earlier stage. Yet for that to be intriguing it had to offer unexpected counter rhythms to the main arrow-like thrust from left to right. You have to get playful and inventive to get the little new additions to come on board in a way that adds to the overall effect.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was playing make believe with my grand daughters (Nora 3 at left and Maya 1 on the right).

Each of them showed the amazing capacity of the child to enter into a fantasy and at least for the moment let it totally become their world. Invention I think comes from imagination- an ability to envision something beyond just what lies before you. Artists of course aren't little children. We have the adult ability to concentrate and see things through to completion. What the little girls remind me though is how useful, and how delightful, the child-like spark of imagination is to creating. The young have a magical energy level to them. Often it runs off in many directions at once. But as adults, artists can steer that same energy to run down channels we carefully choose. When an artist accomplishes that, they have reached back into their own past with seasoned adult hands. Youth and experience join hands and something wonderful can happen.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Beauty of Storms

Winslow Homer, Summer Squall, oil

I've posted before that Winslow Homer was the first painter I noticed as a little kid. My folks had a nice print of one of his watercolors hanging over the couch. Funny how these things stick with you.

Often I wonder about the vividness of childhood. Lots of things delighted me as a kid, but I can also recall being shy, and frightened too. Often I had a sense of awe in the face of what seemed a very big world. Homer painted lot of pictures that looked just like where I grew up- rocky shores and big waves. As a kid I loved the big storms that would sweep down from Canada and bash the shoreline of my home on Lake Ontario just outside Rochester. I think Homer was well in touch with his inner thrill seeking kid too, based on a painting like the one above.

One of the reasons Homer affects so many viewers is his masterful sense of space. Take this painting. That little boat with its sail blowing loose is really out there in a different world than we standing safely back on the rocks. He achieves this a bunch of different ways, but one of most telling is the change in the light that happens about half way up the canvas. Notice how all the truly light tones are segregated down to the foreground. Once you pass the big white capped wave, everything is pushed into a cool darker grey-green. It's totally convincing.

The artist is smart enough not to try to paint every wave. He describes the volume clearly for only two, and just hints by implication at the rest. Lastly, to generate the impressive force of blowing wind and moving wave, he counterbalances them against the big immobile foreground rock. The contrast is exquisite.

Homer to my knowledge never came to my hometown to paint on my boyhood home's lakeshore. But nobody else can take me back in time to that place as he can. Thanks, Winslow.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rembrandt and the Cat

I posted yesterday about taking my daughter Louisa's old cat Clifford to the vet to be put to sleep and about how hard that was for all of us. Here he is in better days, sitting in our dining room on a favored chair. The trouble with falling in love is eventually every relationship you have has to end. Yet who would want to live a life without loves both large and small in it?

Why have humans always made some sort of art? Everywhere you go, any continent, any century you sooner or later just trip over the stuff. Fortunately some of it is pretty good and every now and then you'll see something from another time that just takes your breath away. A good Rembrandt can do that for me. Rembrandt was a man who experienced serious losses in his life. There's not much written record of what he said about art or living. Nonetheless he has a lot to say to us.

Here's a favorite of mine, one of his paintings of a windmill. It's the very end of a sunset, a time when the light is sliding rapidly towards the darkness . Obviously given its prominence in the painting, Rembrandt felt there was something of real beauty and great value in the windmill. Yet he chose to picture it just as it was about to disappear from view. I think he was telling us this was something we should look at and value while we can, and then hold it in our memory. Fortunately for us Rembrandt was a talented painter and could give his emotion a physical form. Rembrandt left us long ago, but his painting still remains, quietly radiating his gentle gift to us.

Cats don't talk much. A simple little soul, Clifford nonetheless was a cat of strong opinions. What would Clifford have to say to us now with the benefit of hindsight? I was actually wondering about this yesterday sitting in the waiting room at the vet right before going in to see him for the last time. A large black dog was brought out from the back by one of the assistants to be returned to its waiting owner. The dog's delight at seeing that familiar face just erupted through the small room. I imagined Clifford looking at this thoughtfully before turning to me and saying "Look- that dog is doing just what he is supposed to do. He's into this moment. He's being alive with all his heart. That's how we should live." It was just a brief little fantasy I know, but it felt very real. In its way it was real.

Here's Clifford leaving my studio after a hard morning of the brushes and canvas.

And here's Clifford showing the proper way to get really comfortable and silly.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Memory of a Very Short Studio Companion

This is a photo I took two weeks ago of Clifford, my daughter Louisa's 13 year old cat. Just this morning I picked him up off this same rug and took him to the vet to be put down. His kidneys had failed and he had become severely anemic. The vet assured us it was time. Most of all we knew he wasn't ok as his usually scrappy personality had diminished to only an echo of itself.

So we went in and held him as the vet administered the sedatives that gradually brought his heart to a full stop. It is surprising to me how hard this feels.

Clifford often boarded with us while Louisa traveled. He spent a great deal of time in my studio, often sleeping but other times staring intently at everything around him. There is nothing quite as intense as a cat's gaze. These are animals who seem to set the standard for being sharp eyed. Vision for a cat must be a powerful and deeply sensuous experience.

What did he think of my paintings? He never said much about them. I'm quite sure he was critical of much of what he saw and privately thought I should keep struggling to do better. "I could paint it better myself" his expression often seemed to say, but in the end he seemed to think it best that I learn without his help.

Still he had a warm heart and was willing to accept a scritch on the head from me whether I'd painted well that day or not. You have to admire that. Good bye my friend. I will miss you very much.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Last Sunday my wife Alice and I drove down to Washington, DC for an afternoon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). If the heavens opened up and in a booming voice God announced he is going to destroy all art museums except one and he's going to make me choose which one to spare, I'd reluctantly have to issue the white arm band to the SAAM. It just has so many of my favorite paintings. It'd be a tough choice as I have a soft spot in my heart for little regional museums, but in the face of divine wrath, what's one to do?

Above is Alice standing in front of one of my favorite's, Thomas Hart Benton's huge Achelous & Hercules, 1947. It is a massive, impressive painting. Here I am below standing by the other end of the same painting. Benton had a marvelous sense of expressive silhouettes and knew how to squeeze the empty spaces between the figures and animals to create wonderfully charged intervals of empty space.

I had already fallen in love with Benton when years ago I read a piece by the then lead art critic for the New York Times, Hilton Kramer, where he called Benton a cheap and overly theatrical cartoonist. Shortly after, I happened to be standing in a New York blue chip art gallery viewing a not very inspiring show of paintings by a painter I thought really 2nd rate. When I'd entered the gallery a young gallery attendant glanced at me with remarkable indifference and remained silent in the face of my "Hello."

A minute later in walks a somewhat weary well dressed man to likewise take in the show. I sensed immediately from the surge of anxious energy that propelled the young gallery attendant to his feet that this was no ordinary gallery visitor. With enormous deference the young attendant walked over to the second visitor and bowed slightly as he asked "Would Mr. Kramer care for a glass of wine?" Mr. Kramer responded with a weak smile and nodded saying he'd care for a chardonnay. I bit my lip to stifle myself from chirping in "I'll have the chardonnay too." Sure would have been fun to say it though just to see what would have happened. A few days later I read Kramer's glowing review of the same exhibit of the paintings I hadn't liked. Must have been really good wine they served him.

The little Benton oil Wheat hanging next to the artist's huge mural at SAAM last Sunday shows Benton was anything but cheap or a cartoonist in my book. It's a lovely and infinitely subtle study of the rhythms of crowded stalks in seemingly endless planted rows. This kid in me want to play hide and seek in between those rows.

Below is a Morris Kantor oil hanging in the same gallery. Years ago when I studied at the Art Students League of New York Kantor was an instructor there. At the time I knew nothing about him and chose other classes. Looking at this painting makes me think he probably would have had some good things to say about painting.

And finally below a last oil hanging in the same gallery at SAAM. It's a Joseph Stella painting. I'm tempted to title my photograph Alice in Wonderland, as Stella creates an amazingly plausible fantasy world. He's particularly good at playing off areas of decorative pattern against empty spaces that allow the viewer's eye to rest. Alice commented "I like the duck" though I suspect it's more of a goose.

Not far down the hall is a masterpiece by Rockwell Kent. To my mind it is one of this artist's very best oil paintings. In it he reaches the very high level he achieves in his elegant wood engravings. Kent's work is far too little known in the US. I would recommend to anybody to pick a paperback copy of the edition of Moby Dick illustrated by Kent. Prepare to have your mind blown by the quality of his prints.

Interestingly, Kent was briefly employed as a studio assistant to our next artist, Abbott Thayer. Thayer to his credit realized early on how talented Kent was and urged him to stop working for others and concentrate on developing his own vision.

If there is any artist who could make me believe in angels, it would be Abbot Thayer. Below I am standing in front of his heartbreakingly beautiful Stevenson Memorial. It was painted many think as a remembrance of his deceased wife and has an almost otherworldly tenderness to it. I think a lot of Thayer's brilliance comes from his understanding of light and shadow. He fills the painting with elegant gradations of tone. It is very rare to see such nuance and subtlety on such a large oil painting. Hats off to this guy.

To close here's a photo a fellow offered to take of Alice and myself standing in front of work by one of her favorite artists, Albert Pinkham Ryder. As sailboats have been such a meaningful symbol to me throughout my life, I thought it appropriate to stand beneath one of Ryder's paintings of threatened mariners.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Finding the Path

As a boy I used to go on long walks through the deep woods with my dad. An explorer at heart, he loved to go a different way each time. Part of the fun was getting lost and searching out a new trail. I remember asking him who it was who had made the meager little trails we were following and why hadn't they made them wider and easier to follow? I was amazed to hear they were the trails made by the animals who lived in the forest. Cleared gradually with each passing hoof or paw following the line of least resistance through the thickets. Over time, a pathway formed.

Artists are followers too. One that I followed at a critical time in my study was the early British master of the landscape, John Constable (1776-1837). Above is one of his paintings, Deadham Mill, that was a particular favorite of mine when I took my first tentative steps with painting plein air landscapes in graduate school in the hills of southern Indiana in Bloomington.

Why Constable? More than anything else it was his trees. They looked to me the way I remembered the trees looking in the forested lakeshore where I grew up in Webster, NY. There were other artists like the French impressionists who struck me as more exciting colorists than Constable, but somehow the crusty Englishman's browns and greens felt more authentic to my own experience. None of this was conscious at the time, but I was in the process of marrying my own memories to the traditions of painting. Finding echoes of how the world looked to my own eye was at this point critical.

What was stopping me with my early landscapes was how to describe the trees without getting stuck in the myriad details. My first attempts looked like forests of melting natural sponges. I got an inspiration one night that it might be fun to try copying a Constable from the little paperback I'd purchased at the University's bookstore. I chose Deadham Mill for the rhythms in its foreground trees. What I realized Constable was doing that I'd never tried was to build his trees up in layers of differing hues. It was an abrupt change from the previously housepainter-like approach I had been using. Sometimes there is magic released when you let the viewer glimpse what lies beneath the surface.

The first copy turned out so well I then faithfully copied the Constable below, The Cottage in a Cornfield.

Years ago copying was at the core of the art student's activity but gradually this has all but faded away. The fear is of course that it will hold back the younger artist's imagination. I think this fear is justified, but only half right. Knowing my personality I probably would have refused if I had been assigned to copy some master's painting. But if I decided to give myself the assignment it was a different story.

None of us is so bright that we're the first and only to feel something brand new. There are artists out who have gone down the path, at least part of the way, for us. Like the deer in the forests of my childhood, they can show us at least part of the way we need to go.