Surgery for Artists

In a real operating room I'd faint at the first incision. Yet isn't there a fascination at the notion of plunging beneath the surface to grasp things by their bones and move things around to make them work right. Painters are partly just squeemish surgeons. Like them we want to grab a scalpel  and get to work, we just don't do so well with real blood.

I like operating on little paintings, especially when doing exploratory work. You make changes quicky, can graft limbs back on if amputations don't work out so well, and families of your patients who die on the table never coming after you with pesky malpratice suits. I love painting large canvases, but it's my work on "little patients" that teaches me how to master the big ones.

Above is a plein air vine charcoal drawing I did on Deer Isle in Maine two summers ago. I was drawn to the contrast of the light early summer greens of the foreground peninsula contrasting the heavy darks of pines on the second promentory farther into the distance. In reality, their was a third band of darks along a far shore that stretched all across the background at nearly the same height as the pines. In short: too many trees. It's amazing what you can do with a mental chain saw.

One of the key things people ask of us artists is to pare down reality for them. With too much information bombarding their eyes, the ordinary person gets distracted from the most meaningful contrasts. Often making a drawing means clearing away distractions. 

This second drawing, also from Maine is more truthful. It's from the Otter Cove area of Mt. Desert Island in Acadia National Park. (The famous Hudson River School painter Frederick Church stood within yards of this spot to paint studies for one of his best oils of Maine about 150 years before). A pair of pines had grown together almost as if they were hugging. That sort of intimacy intrigued me. I spotlighted it by casting a shadow over probably 50 surrounding sunlit branches. Again clearing away distractions.

I looked at these two drawings on and off for a long time before trying them out as paintings.

Above is Stillness, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2011. While it's a faithful response to the first charcoal drawing as far as shapes go, it departs more radically in color. I had the idea of playing off a blue violet gradation in the water against an extremely pale yellow sky.  The entire painting was done on top of a bright golden-hued ground. When I got to painting into the foreground I was pleasantly surprised to see I could leave a little bit of the yellow underpainting showing as the bright yellow grasses. 

The remaining charcoal I wasn't as sure about. I liked it as a drawing, but felt an exact transcription of its shapes wouldn't fire up my imagination sufficiently. So I adopted a more "oh what the hell" approach and moved over to the realm of nocturnal fantasy. I wanted to do something with contrasting intense color against a neutral grey. There is an old saying for painters that "All color is no color." It's true. Conversely, there's nothing more expressive chromatically than a pure grey pushed up next to a bright hue. 

I'd recently done a moonlit landscape that was predominately blue to blue-green. This time I wanted to try that color's chromatic opposite, an alizarin violet red. So here surgical expediency dictated borrowing neutral greys to play off against the more fanciful violets. Actually my favorite area in this painting is the near shore with the many variations of pure grey against subtle dark pinks.

I'll be doing expanded larger versions of both these small oils in the next period. I'm curious to see what my little patients will grow up to be.


  1. but there are so many types of surgeons,
    I wonder if teachers think of their students as patients and experiments.
    As artists are we curing disease or building little gremlins?

  2. Jessie, I honestly think 99% of the time artists are at least trying to
    "cure disease" of confusion, broken hearts, and hopelessness. The world is a far richer and a much warmer place for their efforts throught the years. It is an honor, and a great challenge, to trod the same path as a Rembrandt or a Winslow Homer.


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