A fine first class in Exploring Oil Painting

Session 1 - Exploring Oil Painting, 7-20-15
Wish I’d photographed the underpaintings later — what a strong showing.

The conditions were not perfect — a scorching hot and humid day, so the blinds were closed, limiting natural light; the window-unit air-conditioner making that low humming noise that makes chat so difficult — but what a strong group I gathered for this rendition of Exploring Oil Painting at Your Home Public Library014 The underpaintings were wonderful, and everyone was so helpful in helping me clean up at the end. There were lots of questions, including a request towards the end for a full critique. I did my best in all of this, and in return got hugs, thanks, and promises to come back next week. I do love teaching this class. It’s so varied in enrollment, and filled with people who really want to learn. I do my best to oblige. Thank you, YHPL, for this teaching opportunity! And thanks to the students, who continue to challenge me, and grant me such rewards.

Down to the wire with Unlikely Dance

Unlikely Dance: Confluence, 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Unlikely Dance: Confluence, 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

My Unlikely Dance grant period is over on November 1; today is October 2, and I have one more painting to do. Yes — it’s deadline time again. In fact, I have a solo show of the completed grant-funded Unlikely Dance series OPENING on November 1 (details on that to come). That means I really have to have this last painting finished by the 24th so it’s dry when I hang the show on the 29th and 30th. Yikes. Work steadily, and hope that everything comes together well — that’s my plan.

It’s the second part of that plan that didn’t work on the piece I just finished (above), and I blame the Pre-Raphaelites. You know the Pre-Raphaelites, that super-sincere, uber-romantic, technically amazing group of 19th century English artists? I’ve loved them since my college days, when my second-generation abstract expressionist instructors were horrified by that forbidden love. I wrote papers on the Pre-Raphs. I collected books on them. I hung prints of their works on my walls. Meanwhile, over the last 15 or 20 years, they’ve become enormously popular in the mainstream. Oh, it’s gorgeous, schlocky stuff, and I still love it. But it’s not where I’m going with my own work. What happened was, after I’d done the underpainting of Unlikely Dance #5 – Confluence – I was unsure of how to proceed with the foliage of the tree, both on the trunk and over the figures. So I pulled an art book from the shelf to consult… a book called “The English Dreamers,” a collection of Pre-Raph and related works.

I’m so easily unconsciously influenced by others’ work I love — it amazes me sometimes. It just happens, somehow — images come off the ends of my brushes, with no conscious thought of the original on my part, that reflect some art I’ve recently seen. (Take for example the Della Francesca-looking face, far right, in Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds, which appeared just after I’d seen “Piero Della Francesca in America” at the Frick.) So Confluence turned itself into a Pre-Raph imitation: pretty, detailed, and without visual impact of any kind. I loved it — until I suddenly hated it.

I despaired. I combed the internet for clues. I discussed on Facebook. But in the end, I went back to Degas, and then, for some reason, to John Singer Sargent. I own books on Degas, but not on Sargent, so I went to the public library and borrowed a couple. I’ve seen and admired more of his work recently, thanks to a Facebook page called I Require Art, but knew little about him except that he was American, turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th), and had painted Portrait of Madame X, that wonderful profile portrait we had to learn in art history. He was a master of “bravado brushwork,” (his idol, Diego Velazquez, was, as well) and that’s what I was after. Degas was never as consistent as Sargent, so I spent a couple of days perusing Sargent… and it worked. As I posted on my professional page on FB, “Confluence 18 – finished at last! John Singer Sargent certainly had a thing or two to teach me, this time around. Clarified the light source, punched up the contrast, simplified many elements, changed a head. I could go on…”

So now I’ll go on. Here’s what got straightened around:

1. In the first place, I’d made a composition with four equal figures, and that’s a no-no. Three, yes. Five, yes. Not four. I realized that in my previous paintings of four figures, I’d singled out one in some way, so it read as three plus one, rather than four. How to do that here?

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent 1882
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent 1882

After a couple of days with my library books, I turned back to Sargent’s portrait of four young girls — The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit — and noted how he’d not only singled out the sitting figure for that necessary “three-plus-one” compositional effect, but also set them in varying degrees of light , with one girl barely visible in the shadows.

2. I’d gotten far too detailed and democratic with the tree on the left, and it was a distraction. So I painted a dark glaze, made with a brownish “mother grey,*” over the tree trunk, and then over the foremost figure, which overlapped the tree. This solved the problem of visual clutter, of singling out one of the four figures, AND of the next —

3. My light source wasn’t clearly defined. I had light falling on the back of the left-most figure (#1), on the backs of the two right-most figures (#3 and #4), and on the face of the second-from left figure (#2). The face of figure #4 was also in multi-directional light, and I had dappled light falling through the foliage onto the grass.

My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna
My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna. *Mother grey is made up of all of these colors mixed together. This preserves and promotes color harmony within the painting.

With the dark glaze on the figure #1 and the tree, one of my light sources went away. With a change of head on figure #4 and a diminution of highlights in the figures’ black dresses, the light became more defined and less ambiguous. And with a slight shading of figure #2’s face, that ambiguity gave way. I also gave the piece more contrast, mostly by making the darks darker — divisions between rocks, the underside of the waterway under the bridge, and the barely-visible rocks under the water on the right.

And I think it all worked. I have impact. I have definition. And I have two weeks left to paint Unlikely Dance: Velveteen! I can do it.

The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York
To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

Unlikely Dance: Fresh photos, fresh paint

The Ballyclare Irish Dancers, in the bandstand at Recreation Park
The Ballyclare Irish Dancers, in the bandstand at Recreation Park
Last evening, in the heavy summer heat and humidity that’s settled over the Binghamton area, I photographed a women’s dance group called the Ballyclare Irish Dancers. What fun! It was all I could do to not start jigging myself, though my jigging experience — what there is of it — is in the English Morris tradition rather than Irish. All shapes, sizes, and ages these women were — and all of Irish descent/heritage — and how wonderfully they danced, in their simple dance kits of black knit skirts and tops, black stockings, and Celtic-pattern neckscarves. This is the real stuff, to me — not the costume-y children’s competitions. The joy of dancing was contagious, even in that oppressive air, and I got a lot of material to work with on my next Unlikely Dance piece.

But here’s a dilemma — the current piece on the easel, Beethoven Oaks, is set in Recreation Park (though I photographed the dancers in Gilbertsville, NY), and the neo-classical bandstand is visible in the background. Last night’s shoot was IN the bandstand, and the setting is lovely. So far each piece in the Unlikely Dance series is in a different Southern Tier location — Green Skirt in The Forum, Golden Clouds on the street in Johnson City, Entry Hall in the Phelps Mansion Museum, and Beethoven Oaks in Recreation Park. (See the first three together at the bottom of my Unlikely Dance page.) WHAT shall I do with the Irish dance piece?

Beethoven Oaks, stage 10
Beethoven Oaks, stage 10 (unfinished) – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Speaking of Beethoven Oaks, I’ve been slowed down a bit lately in pulling it together, but I’m very happy with it so far. Hoping to have it finished in time for Binghamton July Fest, July 12-14.

The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York

To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.

The Mirror finished, and lessons learned

The Mirror
The Mirror, on Etsy at GreenBoat Gallery. Click on the picture to see the listing! More in-process photos below.

I’m pretty sure “The Mirror” is finished, and it’s been a real learning adventure. I rather like it — have already signed and listed it — but there are a lot of things I’ll do differently on the next one.

First, I’m going to work on heavier paper. This was done on some Strathmore Laid charcoal paper I had lying around and hadn’t used because I didn’t care for the color. Lesson learned: use a ground color I actually LIKE, and that will complement the subject matter. I’d eventually like to work into using prepared hardboard panels like the ones I’ve been using for colored pencil pieces (but with more grit in the ground), but since I’m going to be teaching this pastels course using paper, I suppose paper should be my first priority as a substrate.

Next lesson: I will NOT use white conte pencil for my grid! It still shows slightly, in the finished piece. Not only did I emboss it into the paper because the medium was so sharp and relatively hard, but it seems to resist coverage by the soft pastels. I do love using a grid; it gives me proportional and composition control while allowing freedom of movement for my drawing hand. However, I have to find another, gentler, less permanent way to line it out.

Another point learned: although the indiantrene blue and the burnt umber sticks are very dark and make interesting substitutes for black (I don’t generally use premixed blacks in any medium), the violet, though lighter, is a livelier black sub.

Over the last few days I’ve done a bit of online research on pastel technique, and one artist wrote that she generally works top to bottom so the pastel dust from above doesn’t fall on finished work lower in the painting. That’s a very good point. I don’t know if I can muster that kind of discipline, or how it would affect my work, but the falling pastel dust gave me some problems for sure. The last time I worked with pastel it was not upright on an easel, but that’s what I prefer now.

Last, a potential problem I haven’t yet confronted: color shift due to application of the final fixatif. Without fixatif, pastel work is incredibly fragile. But everyone I’ve read cites the color-shift problem as a serious risk. I do remember it from when I last used pastels, but I wasn’t as fussy then as I am now… we’ll just see how that goes.

Here are the final steps of my process:

The Mirror - stage 4
The Mirror - stage 4: blocking in the darks, bottom and center. I've also lifted some of the brown from the mirror frame, and gone back in with an olive green.
The Mirror - stage 5
The Mirror - stage 5: adding more dimension to the darks and the fleshtones, detailing the faces a bit more, blocking in the arm and hand at lower right, as well as the adjacent round pot form.
The Mirror - stage 6
The Mirror - stage 6: finishing details in the background/mirror, burnishing fleshtones a bit, finishing the modeling of the hands.