I started a new painting a few days ago, depicting a flowering bulb on our kitchen table. There are 5 flowers ready to bloom and, as of now, only 2 are fully opened. I'm waiting for the pinnacle of it's growth to paint that part, which should be in a few days. This probably means I'll have to get the flower done in 1 painting session, because of it's transient nature. Until now, I've mostly been working on other aspects of the painting, like the light and the space. It's really exciting capturing these slow, incremental movements of a plant's life cycle through time. (see the post I did about the banana palm painting) I'm beginning to feel Nature's slow, almost imperceptible growth all around me, through the paint.
The idea to do this painting came quite suddenly last week, after my wife Faith, moved the bulb from a corner of our kitchen onto the center of our table. I had sort of forgotten about it, as it had been slowly incubating there since Christmas. I'm always really impressed by her love and appreciation of plants, as well as, her excellent horticultural skills. Growing up as a kid, I was used to my mom placing plastic plants in unseen corners of our house where they would slowly accumulate dust (not such a green thumb). I love watching the slow passage of movement in a plant's growth cycle, as well as the bursts of bright colors that are sprinkled throughout our house and yard. It makes me aware of how dense and full of life the world really is.
I didn't do any prep studies for this one, but just grabbed a canvas I had in my studio and started painting. Usually I like to do some drawings and sketches first, to determine the composition and size of the painting. Recently, I've been determining my canvas size through drawing; working out from my field of vision, rather than having to fit what I see into the parameters of a pre-determined canvas size. This one is an unusual proportion for a still life, 14" x 22". Last Fall, I made a bunch of wide canvases like this to use for my quick, plein air landscapes. I like the wider format, as it is helping to re-emphasize the sweeping expanse of the horizontal table in front of me. I'm recording the slight bend and sag of the table as it sweeps away from the focal point of my vision, the flowering bulb.
Behind the bulb, is one of my wife's paintings. An initial impulse in painting this scene was how the flower was eventually going to mimic the colors and forms in her painting. We both feel that it's one of her best pieces, which is why it hangs over our kitchen table. By including her work in mine, it is bringing our paintings into a new dialog; a fuller relationship of the interconnectedness of our art and life together.
I figured I'd write some thoughts on how I've used (and not used) the aid of photography in my work. There tends to be this deep divide in painting about how artists use photography as an aid in painting, and it's probably been around since the advent of the medium. The Impressionists, probably just after photography became available to the general public, grappled with how this new way of picturing the world was going to effect painting. Compositional devices such as the cropping of figures along the edges of paintings (I'm thinking of Degas in particular) seemed to generally mimic what was happening with early photography. It seems like now, we live in a culture that is saturated with photographic images (and more recently, computer generated imagery (CGI). From billboards to online ads, subway posters to Facebook profile pictures, we live in a never ending stream of the photographic image. I think that photography and it's related media are a beautiful and wonderful thing (as I write this, my kids are watching Pixar's "A Bug's Life", an amazing work of Art), but painting is quite a different beast. Besides being made by hand, a painting is an image created out of nothing. You start with a canvas, and through the accumulation of ground minerals and various plant materials, you arrive at a representation of reality. It is filtering the 3 dimensional world (along with the passage of time) through a consciousness, into a 2 dimensional, flat representation. The magic of painting for me is about condensing my vision of the world into the parameters of the canvas; it is a much slower experience than photography.
I find working from a photograph very limiting, both in finding the space of a painting and in observing the nuances of color and light. The photographic image is static, and sometimes the best surprises in painting can come when, after looking at an object for a long time, you tilt your head a little to the left or to the right and see something new. You lose that 'air' between objects, since you've compressed the image already. By slavishly copying a photograph, one is just making a facsimile of an already existing image. Your color sense becomes limited by the colors of the printing ink, which is very different from the color of Life. What I'm after in painting is the experience of seeing and looking deeply at something. It has it's advantages of course, like if I'm trying to paint a very transient thing like a cloud or a crashing wave. The photograph has to supplement my experience of looking at something, not replace it.
One painting that I did last year with the aid of a photograph is a winter scene of some rooftops in Gowanus. I had met someone who had this great view outside his woodworking studio on 6th Street, a few blocks away from mine. The view was looking southwest, with the sun causing the elevated train line to be in silhouette as it went down. I started a medium sized painting (18 x 24ish) in early November (gotta love that November light!) at dusk, wanting to capture that orange glow of the sun as it went down. I worked on the painting over 3 sessions (about 2 hours each) and was happy with the progress of the painting. Unfortunately, it was getting cold fast and I had started a job in which I couldn't come back and paint on site. So in mid-December, I arranged to come back and take some photos in order to finish up the painting in my studio. However, when I got to the roof, the entire scene had changed. Not only was the light completely different, but the rooftops were coated with a layer of recent snow. The snow made the rooftops pop out from the deep shadows, and really put the whole topography into relief. There were these beautiful blue-violet shadows falling in the foreground, and this new sight completely changed the entire painting for me. Excited with what I had found, I went to the studio in the subsequent weeks and reworked the painting. I added the snow on the roofs and changed the light from a fiery orange sunset to a more mellow, diffused sky. In this instance, there's no way I could have done that painting without a photograph. It definitely helped me that the painting's space was already established, and I had put in a number of hours looking at the scene. In the end, it's the painting that dictates what it needs.
Now that it is too cold to paint outdoors, I've started a few paintings inside. Besides being more comfortable, I've found that it's much easier to paint when I'm in control of the light source (lamps). As I've described previously, working outside puts me at the mercy of the weather and the variables of sunlight, so these new paintings are a welcome relief.
The most recent painting I've completed, is of a banana palm plant that is in my kitchen. During the winter months, my wife and I take many of our plants from the deck, indoors. Besides giving our house a lush, tropical feeling, it also protects them from the elements. One that I repeatedly find most annoying to deal with is the banana palm. First of all, it's now so heavy and bulky, getting it indoors is a 2 person job, requiring a dolly and some cursing. Secondly, the only spot for it is in our kitchen next to a window, which is just to the left of where I keep my laptop computer and our toaster oven. It's now about as tall as I am, and given the small space in New York living quarters, it sometimes feels like we've added another member to our family. It's leaves fan out over and in front of the window, and I find myself always bumping into it while checking my email or making toast. So after much procrastinating, and before the first frost, a friend and I finally pulled it inside. Looking to continue my work through the winter, I thought I'd somehow redeem my annoyance with this plant by doing a painting of it. I was struck by the towering grace-fullness of the plant, bursting out of it's heavy aluminum base. I also liked the idea having my computer in the painting; the organic next to the machine.
I did a sketch and a larger charcoal drawing, then determined that the size of the canvas should be about 18" x 24". One thing that fascinated me as I worked on the piece was how fast the plant was growing. Having scrutinized and observed it for about a month, I noticed how rapidly the plant's leaves were unfolding before me. There was this very slow, but perceptible rotation upward and outward of the plant reaching for daylight (phyllotaxis). I found this completely amazing, but also frustrating in regards to working on the painting. Having picked something to paint which I thought was static (a still life), I found myself painting a moving target again. It forced me to render the leaves' positioning in a one-shot painting session, usually about 2 hours. A few days later, when I returned to work on the painting, I found the position of the leaves had changed, forcing me to destroy and repaint it anew. At a certain point I was happy with the way the leaves were painted and worked on the rest of the painting. After about a month, I thought the painting was complete and took it to the studio to put some finishing touches on it. A few days later in the kitchen, I noticed that one of the large, lower leaves protruding out into the space in front of the plant, was beginning to slowly change color. The fresh, 'ripe' leaves, all have this dark variegated green with purplish splotches, which was was a thrill to paint. The dying leaf in the front was slowly losing that deep viridian color, turning yellowish-orange from the tip on upward. This last element is what finally tied the whole painting together for me. The new yellow-orange in the leaf mimicked the yellow orange of the floor and cabinet to the right, and added a focal point to the sprouting jumble of green leaves in the middle of the painting. I brought the painting back for one last sitting and repainted the front-most leaf in one shot.
It's moments like these that remind me of why I enjoy painting from life. There's no way that the dying leaf would have meant that much to me if I had just taken a photo and decided to do a painting from it. I had observed and witnessed the birth and death of this plant's life cycle over the past month. The course of the painting contained a succession of frozen moments which were seen and recorded. The unfolding of growth and decay; from the striving fresh shoots in the middle of the plant, to the dying leaf in the front. It is by this slow, sustained looking at things which allows me to see and know the world.