Friday, January 5, 2018

A Thing of the Past 

photo: @younglovemedia
     Happy New Year 2018! If you're at my blog, you've probably noticed that I haven't posted here in awhile. For me, it seems like my blogging days are a thing of the past, and I have devoted more time and energy to painting, drawing and teaching. My plan is to leave this site up, as a documentation of my thoughts and process about my work, but I would encourage you to follow me on Instagram (@francissills), if you haven't already. It is there that I keep up with regular posting of my work, including finished and in progress images. Thanks for reading and being supportive of my blog over the years! 👍

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Kaua'i trip summer 2016

Kaua'i landscape; oil on paper, 12" x 16"
   I just got back from a 3 week long trip to the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, where I was able to do some drawings and paintings. It's been my family's routine to leave Charleston every summer, mostly because it gets so unbearably hot here, but also to introduce our kids to different parts of the world (and my wife definitely has the travel bug!). On these long extended trips I like to bring my painting materials as a way to document a different landscape. It usually requires an entire separate suitcase to pack everything, but after a few years of doing this, I've got the routine down. It usually includes the following:
- Jullian half box French easel. I have the full box that I use at home, but the half for traveling because it is smaller and lighter.
- Best Brella umbrella, includes clamp, extension rods and one umbrella
- oil paint packed in plastic Art Bin container. I separate this out from the easel, because the half box is kinda small and doesn't hold all the tubes of paint I use (about a dozen). I'm always afraid of some leaking at 30,000 feet, so this keeps it contained. I print out the material safety data sheet from one of the paint tubes and put it into the paint box in case something comes up with the TSA bag screening. Oil paint is safe to travel with on planes, but the words 'oil' and 'paint' might raise a red flag, so that shows the flash point and other specs.
- brushes in a separate plastic Art Bin brush container. Again, all the brushes usually don't fit in the half box because of the size, and the container has these foam slots which keep the brushes from sliding around and mashing up the ends.
- box of vinyl gloves
- brush cleaner
- C clamp and bungee cord. usually needed to secure the umbrella or palette on a windy day
- back pack to hold everything
- rags
- roll of white artist tape
- can with lid
- Art Bin container with pencils, charcoal pencil, eraser, X-acto blade, and conte crayon.
- a few smaller sized sketch books; I like the Holbein multi-drawing books for watercolor and multi media.
- the solvents are the tricky part, since they are a volatile liquid and definitely wouldn't pass through bag screening. I have to get this stuff at my destination, and fortunately they had a small art supply store on the island where I was able to get turpentine, damar varnish, linseed oil and copal medium. There was also an ACE hardware in town where I got the rags, a few cans with lids, and mineral spirits for cleaning brushes. I try to research all this prior to the trip, and dispose of it before I travel home.
- for travel, the Arches oil paper works great. The paint dries quickly on it and it can be stacked flat, so it takes up less room than framed canvases. The suit case I use has hard sides, so I slip the paper between 2 pieces of cardboard, which is slightly bigger than the paper I'm bringing, then put the whole cardboard/paper sandwich in a clear bag. I usually tape the paper to a board in my studio, but because of the weight, I didn't bring that. A trip to Walmart and $12 got me a cheap 18" x 24" poster frame which was sturdy enough to use for this purpose.
Iron wood tree roots, Tunnels Beach; pencil on paper, 6.5" x 9"
    It was great to be back in Kaua'i again. The last time my wife and I were there was ten years ago, when our oldest son was almost 1 (he actually learned to walk there!) We had also been there on our honeymoon, so Kaua'i holds a special place in our heart. It's just so breathtakingly beautiful, with brilliant color and flora everywhere. I was really captivated by all the different brightly colored flowers near our rental condo and the gnarly tree roots on the beach. My wife was gracious enough to give me time to paint while our kids played on the beach. She did her own body of work too, using watercolor and collage back at our condo. Unfortunately it rained a lot while we were there, so we were stuck inside too much, but there was always a few hours each day where the weather would clear and we could be outside. There was no shortage of inspiration and we were all sad when our 3 weeks were up. Looking forward to going back and hope it doesn't take us another 10 years to do that!
Kaua'i landscape; pencil on paper, 5.5" x 7.5"
Kaua'i landscape; pencil on paper, 5.5" x7.5"
Iron wood tree roots at Ke'e beach; pencil on paper, 6.5" x 9"
Tree roots at Anini Beach; pencil on paper, 6.5" x 9"
False Kamani tree, Puu Poa beach; pencil on paper, 6.5" x 9"
False Kamani tree, hideaways Beach; pencil on paper, 6.5" x 9"
Tree and rock face; pencil on paper, 9" x6.5"
Kaua'i landscape; oil on paper, 12" x 16"
False Kamani tree; graphite/oil on paper, 15" x 22"
Kaua'i flora; oil/graphite on paper, 22" x 15"
Iron wood tree roots; oil/graphite on paper, 22" x 15"
Plumeria tree and flora; oil/graphite on paper, 22" x 15"
Iron wood tree roots; oil/graphite on paper, 22" x 15"

Thursday, April 28, 2016

ACE Hotel New Orleans


starting the 2' x 5' masonite panels
     For a couple months this Fall, I worked on a series of decorative panels for the new ACE hotel in New Orleans. I was contacted by their designer this past summer, who found my website somehow (I guess those Google searches really do work), to see if I would be interested in creating a series of painted motifs for custom armoires in the hotel rooms. The ACE brand is a trendy boutique hotel from Portland, and they try to use original artwork in their spaces and rooms. I was definitely intrigued by the idea, and since I had many years experience with decorative painting and interior design work, I thought it would be a fun project.
starting the first set
     They basically wanted Southern pastoral scenes, inspired by the Bloomsbury group artists, to act as vignettes or portals in these armoir door faces, to both add color and a sense of expansiveness to the room. Due to time and budget constraints, and the fact that I've never been to New Orleans, we agreed to reproduce details or sections of existing paintings that I've done, rather than create a whole new series of work. They helped me select images from my website, and after some modification, I agreed to paint 10 sets of 2' x 5' panels. The 1/4" Masonite panels were shipped to me and I was responsible for prep work, painting them, putting on a varnish and repackaging.
blocking in the shapes
     I've wanted to work on a larger scale recently and this seemed like a great opportunity to do so. I bought large chip brushes and house painting brushes and set up my large palette to mix large quantities of color. Originally, they wanted the paintings to be done with water based paint, but since I'm more comfortable with oils, I told them I didn't want to try and figure out a new way to paint on this project. In order to ensure a quicker drying time I used an alkyd white as the base (a regular Benjamin Moore white) and mixed tube oil colors into this. Gamblin also makes a quick dry white (also an alkyd base) so I was able to use a combination of these two, along with a medium of higher proportion mineral spirits than I normally do to dry out the oil fairly quickly. They also gave me a Pantone dark green that was going to be a reoccurring color in the room, so I had a quart of Ben Moore alkyd mixed to match that, which I could add to the panels as I went along.
panels in progress
panels in progress
     I primed all the panels with a water-based primer first, and then applied either 2 coats of gesso (if I was working off a white ground) or 1 coat of gesso with a toner coat of burnt umber/raw umber mix (if i wanted to work off a toned ground). My biggest concern was the drying and turn around time, since there was only about 8 weeks between the time that I got the panels and when they needed them back. The combination of painting in oils, a humid Southern autumn and the fact that they needed to be varnished too, had me somewhat stressed, but all went well. It was kinda nice to work on paintings that didn't require me to think too much about working out a composition, since I was basically reproducing images or details of my own work, scaled up. Having a lot of experience in the decorative painting world and being used to production work, my biggest concerns became surface quality and color purity. It was very nice to wield a big brush again and sling paint around in my studio.
     I tracked the hours I spent on each panel, and rotated through them, sometimes working from the original painting if I still had it in the studio, or from a JPEG if it was either sold or in a gallery. At times I felt like the smaller version, especially with the brush marks, didn't 'translate' to the larger 2' x 5' version, so their was some modification along the way either with the structure or the color of each. Since it was an extremely wet Autumn here, I bought a de-humidifier for my studio to help things dry out quicker...I needed all the help I could get.
packing with my studio assistant
      For the final varnish, they left it up to me to pick one. I usually don't varnish my paintings, so I had to find one that was both quick-drying and would yield the most even, matte finish. I asked around at Artist and Craftsman supply, and I left with a few choices: Windsor and Newton quick dry retouching varnish, Golden MSA varnish, and Gamblin Gamvar. I made a few small, sample 'paintings' on panel scraps, and did some varnish tests. I settled on the Windsor and Newton quick-dry retouching varnish, because a) it was removable if needed and b) it dried the quickest and left each panel with a fairly even, low gloss sheen.
      After drying them out for about 10 days in my studio with the de-humidifer, I repacked them in the original crate, wrapping each in clear plastic wrap and layering with bubble wrap. I called up the shipping agent who came back and hauled them away to New Orleans. I had to wait until the hotel opened (March 14th) until I could publicize this project.  So if you're ever in New Orleans and stay at the ACE, snap a picture and send it too me!
in situ (not my painting though!)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Watercolors from Costa Rica

   I just got back from a great trip to Costa Rica last week, and I was able to do some small watercolors while I was there. I love working in oils, but a lot of times for travel, especially with my entire family, it is more practical to bring along a small watercolor kit and some paper, rather than a french easel and solvents. These all have touches of goauche over top of the watercolor and are 7" x 10". The tropical flora in Costa Rica was quite fun to paint, forcing me to use brighter and more intense pops of color than I normally do.

Friday, February 19, 2016

from the James Island Connector

     In the Fall of 2015, I worked on two separate commissions. The first will have to wait for another post, but this one was a landscape from the James Island Expressway, a high causeway which connects James Island to the peninsula of Charleston. The client had seen my work in Charleston before they moved to Utah, and wanted a painting of this view as a Christmas present for his wife. He contacted me around Thanksgiving, and since I had a lot going on at the time, I told him it wasn't possible to get the entire painting completed by then, but that I would do my best to get a few studies to him for approval by the holidays. He described the view that he wanted, which is a great panorama you see coming into downtown Charleston. The elevation is high (unusual for the Low country) and from there you can see the Charleston marina, various church steeples punctuating the skyline and the iconic Ravanel Bridge in the the distance. It's a similar view that I've wanted to paint for years, from another causeway bridge that I drive over almost every morning after dropping my kids off at school, so this seemed like a fortuitous opportunity.
     Since this spot is impossible to paint on site, I had to work exclusively from photo reference. Although I prefer to work from observation, in the end, I can work either way (and I'm usually the only one who can tell which are done from the motif and which are done from photos). It proved to be a difficult spot even to take the photos. I managed to convince my wife to pull over to the shoulder of the expressway one afternoon, with my whole family in tow, risking life and limb as I reached out the passenger side door as cars were zooming by at 40-50 MPH, to take about 2 dozen reference photos. I edited a few larger panoramas and from there the client and I agreed on the final scope of the scene and size (it was a longer format than I'm used to painting on, and I rounded the proportions off to a double square, 12" x 36")
     From the photos, I did this mock up drawing, trying to set up visual rhythms in the rectangle and adjusted certain elements so that they would line up with the rebatement of the square.
     After the drawing,  I transferred this to some paper, in order to do a color study. The thing that I dislike most about working from photographs is the amount of distortion that occurs in the color. Things usually tend to be 'bluer' and have more contrast then if observed with the eye, but I pulled out some other plein paintings that I had in the studio with a similar light (midday) and painted during the same season (late Fall). In the end, all paintings are fabricated 'lies' this way; an artist tweaks and distorts various elements of color, light and form to make a constructed, 'painted' reality.
     After the client approved both studies (he was a pleasure to work for, having no objections to what I proposed and sent along the way), I stretched the final canvas and began work. Because there was a lot of earth colors in the foreground and a large area of water, I decided to start off with a toned canvas rather than the white of the gesso. I usually do this by thinning a mixture of raw umber and burnt umber with turpentine, brushing it over the gessoed linen and then rubbing it off after about an hour. Once this dries, I start back in with a thin brush and black paint, drawing the linear elements and blocking in larger patches of color with a palette knife and wide brush.
     My biggest problem with studio paintings, especially ones done from photographic sources, is that the situation lacks the immediacy of working directly from the motif. Trying to capturing Nature's more fleeting elements (clouds, light and shadow, and the different subtlties of color) keeps me on my toes; without that, the brush work and paint handling can stiffen up and get contrived. I try to augment this tendency by sometimes working on the painting upside or without any reference in front of me, seeing the painting as an abstract organization of colored shapes and textures. Here are some of the progress shots along with details that I sent the client along the way:
     I usually frame my own paintings with a recessed dark shadow strip and oak edging. I can control the color of the shadow strip by actually using the same dark oil paint that is in the image, so there is a cohesiveness to the whole thing. Once the final was approved, I let it dry for a few weeks, framed it up, made a crate and shipped it out. Here's the completed painting with frame: