Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ghastly Music

Years ago we lived near a house where an eager teenage garage band of five boys would practice daily. Actually they weren't that near, they just played really loud. At 200 yards you couldn't miss their distinctive sound. Each of the five was determined to take the lead all the time and would amp up their part trying to drown out the guy next to him. You had no idea what parts were important and what was supposed to be the backup. They were just awful. I had to paint with the windows closed to stay sane.

Above is the new large oil I'm including in the upcoming Sabbatical Exhibition at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Dec.1- 18. It's Horizon, oil on canvas, 40 x 60." Begun last summer, I had it all blocked in with the initial layer of paint completely filling the canvas. Then I had to turn to other paintings to complete them for other shows and only returned to this canvas a few weeks ago. So it rested in my basement art storage racks for a few months.

Good things happen when you lay work aside for awhile. You forget some of your original thinking, sometimes enough to let a new and better idea to creep in.

The small oil study on which this composition was based had very intense yellows throughout the sky- not out-of-the-tube intense, but right up there nonetheless. Returning to work back into the large canvas, I began by laying in the sky. Almost immediately I noticed my earlier initial band of yellow in lowest section of sky was much less intense than I wanted. It looked timid and tentative.  I was going for bold skies- you know, dramatic, assertive, masculine, daring, etc. 

Figuring I'd get to intensifying that area soon enough I busied myself with the upper sky and the water's reflections for about two weeks. Their color got gradually ramped up in intensity and contrasts.That's when things started shifting on me. 

You know you're on to something in a painting when you find yourself absentmindedly returning to gaze at the same area over and over again. In this case it was that left-over too faint yellow strip at the bottom of the sky. What was happening was that the painting had developed along a different path, one that was right next to the one I thought I was on but leading to a different destination. The story had become about the drama between subtlety and sharp intensity- bright yellow playing off against a pale cream yellow. It was just too good to pass up, so I changed gears.

To give the pale section of the sky some extra impact I went back into the larger yellow sky and darkened it everywhere (in the process easily using up twenty bucks of cadmium yellow pigment). Against a darker (though more intense) yellow sky the light cream-colored  strip would have something it could sharply contrast against. 

Artists get into tricky waters when they work with something subtle. If you fail to make your choices look deliberate, the subtle things can read as indecisive and vague rather than elegant in its restraint. Good art is really the dance you do between forcefulness and using a light touch. Too much of just one and the whole thing goes down the tubes.

I don't know what happened to our band of youthful musicians. One day they mercifully just stopped playing. Paintings can look like that band sounded with every color reaching for the spotlight. As individual pigments coming out of the tube they're just lovely in their pristine intensity, but corralled together they're a mishmash like those terrible green musicians. I'd like to think that band just got a new practice space and began listening to their overall sound instead of just their own parts. I do know when I've fallen into being aggressive everywhere in a painting I'm working on I start to hear the echos of their songs. 


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