I started a new painting recently which depicts the elevated F/G train as it passes above the Gowanus Canal, and right over my studio building. The painting is quite large for doing on site, about 21" x 37". I've been drawn to doing larger pieces lately, partly because my subject matter is dictating it to me, and partly because I enjoy painting on a 'bodily' scale. The train track looms large over a long expanse of space, bridging the 2 neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. The canal lies in this low point, prone to flooding, which I guess necessitated the need to create an elevated train line, instead of being dug underground. From inside my studio, I can occasionally hear the low rumble of the train above me, and always wonder which was there first, the building or the train tracks.
My first study was the drawing above, which I did in the late fall. I was initially attracted to painting the black mesh which covers the entire structure. It's such a striking piece of art in itself, reminding me of a Christo and Jeanne Claude sculpture. Talking to an MTA engineer one day while painting, he told me the mesh catches all the cement that periodically falls off the supporting beams as the trains vibrate the tracks. It's gradually beginning to fray and rip in areas, flapping in the wind like a defiant, battle-scarred pirate flag. I'm intrigued by the range of tones in the black as the light drenches it; one of those gritty, muted colors that I like to paint.
I knew I wanted to paint as much of the track as possible, causing me to compress a large angle of vision onto the canvas. I picked a spot where I could get this view in, which is located on the far side of the Lowe's parking lot. This spot is in a low traffic area, with the sun behind me from around 12-5, giving me ample time to paint. I have a fairly large umbrella to position behind me, which helps to diffuse the direct light and protect my skin from getting scorched.
This drawing was the second one I did, and worked on it over a few consecutive days. Where as the first drawing was done to stand on it's own, being denser and more active, this one I'm using as a way to gather information, developing the position of objects and lines of sight; a map for the painting to come. Because the bottom half of the painting depicts a large expanse of the parking lot, there is going to be a constantly changing field of parked cars, shifting during each painting session. I'm looking forward to how this will influence the process and end result of the painting; how the different objects will be painted in this relationship of stasis and flux.
Next up was this small oil sketch, done over 2 days, from about 2-4pm. I captured the light that I wanted, and plan to depict a cloudless day in the final painting. From this and the drawings I can transfer all the information to the larger canvas. Not only does this save me time, by building up a 'bed' to paint on before I go outside, but the process of doing multiple studies forces me to draw and re-draw the same scene, preparing me for the scrutiny that's ahead. Let's hope this summer's not too humid and the mosquitoes not too deadly...this one might take awhile.
The 'Kentile Floors' sign is like the Eiffel Tower of Gowanus, Brooklyn. Located directly across from my studio, and visible from the elevated F and G train which passes overhead, it is a structure of instant familiarity to many commuters. The building on which it is perched no longer makes flooring (it now makes garments), but it is a mysterious reminder of the area's long history of manufacturing. The letters actually contain tubular light bulbs, which I assume worked at one point (what an awesome sight that would be!), and depending on the angle of the sun, glow with a crimson intensity. I've done a few paintings of the sign before, and thought I'd return to a familiar subject to paint over the winter months. I started this one in early December, once it got too cold to paint outside. However, I found that I still had to layer up and paint with my fingerless gloves on, due to the drafty nature of the studio building. I picked a spot near one of the hallway windows and knew I wanted to capture the sign as it towered above the skyline, all aglow with oranges and reds contrasting with the cold blue of a winter sky.
I started off doing a small oil sketch (12" x 16") with the light I wanted. I painted this in a few hours over 2 consecutive days, from about 10am to 12pm. In the study, I had captured this great swell of clouds behind the sign, which unfortunately didn't make it into the final painting. I find the sky the most difficult part of a landscape to paint. Not only is it the most transient element, especially if clouds are rolling through, but also because there is a unique and seamless quality to the atmosphere; a very particular field under which things are being played out. Painting a sky is so subtle; it's not just blue and white, but also contains reds and yellows. New York has the added element of that smog layer too, which broadens the color range considerably.
After the oil sketch, I realized there were things happening outside the picture frame which I wanted to include in the larger version. As I stood in front of the window, I found myself leaning to the left and watching the way the street curved away and up the street. There were a few open loading dock doors, as well as, a street light which caught my interest. I was also peering downward, looking over the window ledge at the street below. I had picked a difficult spot to paint from, since I couldn't step back from the painting (I was literally backed into a corner), but wanted to include these different extensions in space. I preceded to work on a large charcoal drawing from the same spot, investigating the way I was going to try to bend this space to include these different elements. In the drawing I added more paper to the bottom edge, in order to include the slow curve of the painted lines on the road. I liked the way the space was curving around the focal point of the sign, slowly sweeping around and up the street. While doing the drawing, I also got a chance to quickly sketch in a plane on it's flight path to Laguardia; a counter point to the static nature of the sign.
So from the drawing, I determined the size of the canvas, which was slightly larger. I transferred the drawing and blocked the colors in using the oil sketch as a guide. I continued working from the motif in front of the window, over the next few months. At a certain point the light had changed drastically, getting too low in the sky from my initial vision of it. I could work on the roof-line on up, but the bottom half of the painting, the face of the building and the street, contained a fleeting ocean of shadows. Early in the painting session, from about 9:30-10:30, I could see the lower half the way I wanted to paint it, but it was gone too quickly.
As the painting developed, I became increasingly frustrated by the curvature of the space, the thing that had intrigued me the most before I started. The constant craning of my neck around the window, proved too difficult to maintain. I kept losing my space in the painting. I realized I was trying to include too much...the right hand side of the painting was sliding off the canvas. I had to pull in my field of vision by cropping the sides of the canvas. Back in the studio, I started cropping the top, right, and bottom of the painting, taking about 3 inches off those sides. I let the painting dry for a week and pulled it off the stretcher bars, cut it down, re-assembled and re-stretched it. I've added more canvas to paintings before, but removing it was a first. It proved to be the right solution in this situation, reorganizing the space and pulling everything together.
By now the painting had been going on for about 3 months, me slowly watching the light creep higher and causing shorter shadows. Working on sustained paintings like this becomes a dance; working and re-working sections, fine tuning the light, making adjustments, working for periods in the studio from memory, trying to find that initial vision I was looking for. Spring arrives, the clocks change, things shift a little more. The blue-violet shadows of winter are gone and replaced by the warm yellow light of April. The sign proved the most difficult element to paint; the focal point and most intricate element of the painting. How do I paint all those supporting beams without painting every thin metal bar with a tiny brush? How do I keep this painting from freezing up and losing that freshness and immediacy of the sketch?
One of last things I did to the painting was to block out the lamp-post towards the right side of the painting; too cramped over there, and besides, I wanted the sweep of the sidewalk to go 'un-interrupted' off the side of the canvas. I re-worked most of the colors of the building's facade to adjust to the new spring light and painted the cloud formation behind the sign in one session. I loved the way the subtle arc of the dispersing cloud acted as a counter-weight to the arc of the building in the foreground...another one of those vapor-like visions that the painting needed. This is definitely one of the longest paintings I've worked on recently: December to April, about 4 months. It will always remind me of the view from my studio building and my many commutes into Manhattan. At some point I can imagine this sign being torn down like so many things in New York...a fitting portrait for a transient city.