Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cinderella's Seamstress

Cinderella's Seamstress
Oil on canvas, 48"x48"

A couple of days ago, I finished my newest large painting, "Cinderella's Seamstress".  This one is about the backstory in everything that's beautiful.  Those beautiful things don't just appear by magic: they require a lot of dedicated, hard work by some creative individual.  Often, the work is done alone in a small shop or studio that's a far cry from the glamorous scene that it's meant for.

I've written about this painting in earlier posts.  I started sketching the initial ideas back in April and the basic idea was quickly settled.  Then I had the model come to my studio.  She really is a seamstress, quite good, very accomplished, and a helluva hard worker.  I asked her to come in her working clothes.  She did and brought along with a few accessories.  The leather tool pouch, for example, is what she wears, and it's stuffed with sewing supplies, scissors, and other tools.  Her grandfather was a carpenter and this was his tool pouch back then, so she has this great reminder of her family tradition of making things.

Amy came ready to work.  She brought along her manikin and used a scrap scarf from my studio to whip up a "dress", tacked stuff up on the wall behind her, and we did a lot of studies of her interacting with the manikin.  Oddly enough, the pose I finally decided on was only about the third or fourth one she did.  Although we did a bunch after that, none of them had quite the energy that I was looking for.  So her pose and the position of the manikin were locked in right at the beginning.

Almost everything else, though, changed, and not just in the details.  I had been looking at one of my favorite painters, Jerome Witkin, for inspiration on how to put this narrative painting together.  I couldn't make it work.  Witkin's paintings have an intensity that just didn't fit with my approach.  My paintings are generally quiet and fairly contemplative, so I started looking at another favorite artist whose paintings are also quiet and contemplative: Johannes Vermeer.  I studied his paintings, looking at how he arranged his people in the room, his use of large spaces and small, busy areas, the lines leading the eye around the painting, color of light on the wall, and so on.

Analyzing Vermeer's artworks to see how they work is one thing.  Trying to put those principles to work in a new painting is something else.  I went through many different compositions.  The window was originally on the right, but that put the light onto the seamstress and backlit the dress, and that wasn't right.  An ironing board was at various times behind, to the right, to the left, and in front of the seamstress and dress - sometimes as a visual device to connect the woman and manikin, other times as a visual barrier to establish distance.  A large poster was briefly on the wall.  The window was once more prominent, but it implied that you could look outside, which was not what I wanted the viewer to do, so now it's just barely indicated to provide a logical source of light.  The director's chair came in as a way to help guide the eye around the painting.  The "dress" she made in our first session didn't really work, so I found a photo of one that did, then bought some shiny blue fabric and mocked up the dress on the manikin.  And on and on.

When working on a complex composition like this, I will do sketches of everything - the seamstress, manikin, director's chair, and so on - then cut them out and move them around on a large sheet of paper to figure out how they need to relate to each other.  I'll draw some things in several different sizes as things come forward, backward, or turn.  Once I get something that works, I'll do a value study of the whole thing to look at the arrangements of lights and darks, then move things around again as necessary.  If it passes that test, then I'll transfer the composition to gessoed paper and do a color study.  The first several color studies resulted in me going back to square one and reworking the composition from scratch.  But finally the composition that you see above came together.

The next step was to prepare the canvas.  I built the frame and stretched the canvas.  It's polyester, more or less the same stuff used in sails, so it's extremely durable, much tighter than cotton or linen, and won't rot or mildew.  It's the same material that museums use to re-line old master paintings when they're restored.  I gessoed the canvas and then toned it with a coating of cool gray.  To transfer the composition, I drew grids on the final drawing, drew equivalent grids on the canvas, and copied the major outlines.  And then it was time to paint.  I built it up gradually, in multiple layers.  There was a good bit of adjusting going on - the director's chair turned out to be too large, so I had to shrink it quite a bit, for example, but mostly it was minor detail stuff.  The painting took a couple of months because this is a good-sized canvas and I wanted to take my time and do it as well as I possibly could.

And there it is.  Finally.  Done.  I feel pretty good about the way it turned out and am looking for exhibition opportunities for it.  And I'm already thinking about my next painting.  Haven't started the sketches yet, but there are a few ideas floating around ...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Landscape Painting

Clouds over the French Broad River
Oil on canvas, 30"x40"

For the past few weeks, I've been working on paintings for the upcoming exhibit, "Of Time and the River".  It's a fundraiser for RiverLink, which is a non-profit in Asheville that has been working for years to clean up the French Broad River.  They've done a great job: the river is much much cleaner than it has been since this was Cherokee territory.  Now there are river rafters, kayakers, and parks and greenways all through the Asheville area.  All this takes money.  Artists are happy to help, since the river is a great source of inspiration for artworks.  Another thing in RiverLink's favor is that they treat artists as professionals.  Rather than asking us to give them stuff that they can auction off at ridiculously low prices, they partner with us very much like galleries do.  And as a result, they get much better artworks that are worth higher prices.  Win-win-win.  I'm going to have seven works in this event.  Six are paintings and one is an etching.  Several of the paintings were done specifically for this show, including the one above, which I just finished and signed today.

This painting was really tough.  I wanted to get the rich glow of light in the clouds right at sunset.  So in July and early August, when the clouds really pile up in late afternoon, I made several trips to local spots where I could get a good view of both the clouds and the land and river below, right at sunset.  I took my sketchbook and my camera, making lots of notes about color variations, cloud shapes, reflections, the way the land looked, and so on.  And I took a couple hundred photos.  Sunset is such an amazing thing: it creeps up on you slowly over 45 minutes or so, and then wham, the light and shadows change so fast over about 10 minutes, and then it's over.

The next step was to do a lot of color studies to try out different ideas and compositions.  As the saying goes, the best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.  Most of them wound up in the trash, and the initial study using the idea of clouds reflected in the water looked nothing like this.  But trial and lots of error finally came up with the basic composition you see above.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I started in on this canvas and immediately ran into issues that hadn't been clear on the small studies.  One was that the cloud kept growing until it was this huge monster.  Oddly, the bigger the cloud, the less remarkable it was.  The technical reason was that the yellow and orange cloud dominated so much of the canvas that it was no longer a focal point.  By shrinking it, it became a warm center of interest in a large cool-colored canvas.  A second problem was color.  When dealing with clouds, you're dealing with almost pure color.  It's not muddied like paint is.  So to get that pure color, I was using my purest paints.  That lead to over-saturation.  The blues were BLUE, the purples were PURPLE, the greens GREEN, and so on.  It was hideous.  I had to mute the cool colors somehow without muddying them up, while leaving the warm colors in the clouds strong.  I tried layering colors, and that worked in the clouds but not in the sky and purple clouds.  So then I tried using the purest complementary colors to tone things down.  For you non-painters, that means mixing a bit of orange into the blue for the sky.  Blue and orange are on opposite sides of the color wheel, so as you add orange to blue, it becomes less BLUE and more muted.  At some point, though, it becomes gray and then a muted orange, so you have to walk that fine line of mixing.  So, bottom line, I spent a lot of time working on the blues and purples, toning them down enough so that the yellows, oranges, and reds in the clouds really popped.  I'm not convinced that I hit it right.  It still looks over-saturated (especially in this photo), but it's as good as I can make it now.

The process, though, was both very challenging and a lot of fun.  You might not have thought "fun" if you heard me cussing at it, but once things started happening, it really was fun.  I want to do more paintings of clouds, and the river, and reflections on the water.  Each one of those subjects has a lot of subtleties that I had to deal with in this painting, and they're going to need many more paintings before I can begin to understand them.