Sunday, December 30, 2012

Angel Oak revisited

untangling a giant knot!
     It's been almost a year since my last series of paintings of the Angel Oak tree. Since then, I had an idea for another one, from a different spot, where all the branches are reaching towards me (actually the sun and water in back of me) It was nice to return there, feeling the calm and quiet stoicism of the mighty tree. My heart skipped a few beats when I pulled up one day and saw a large chipper and some guys hanging down from ropes with chain saws, but it was just her annual routine maintenance pruning.
pencil drawing, sketchbook
     I started with this quick pencil sketch. Since you're not allowed to set-up equipment just anywhere under the tree, my options are somewhat limited as to positions to work from. I already knew the spot where I wanted the painting to be, and actually, I have also picked out another spot for a painting in the future (as it turns out, all the paintings and drawings I've done will be at points around the canopy's circumference). In this quick sketch, my main objective was to capture the energy and movement of the branches and try and determine the scope of what I wanted to paint.

charcoal, 22" x 30"
     I returned later to work on a larger drawing in charcoal. This drawing took about 2 or 3 hours. I think of these larger drawings that I do as pieces that can stand alone, but their main purpose is to inform the painting and allow me to get to know the forms. Along with the sketch and photos, I used this one to determine the over-all composition and size of the painting. After the drawing was finished, I took a bunch of photos as reference for the light. Although most of my work is done from observation in front of the motif, I'm not a strict purist in regards to this. In this season of my life (with a new 4-month old), most of my painting time is at night after my kids go to bed. The photos allow me to continue the work in the studio, between visits to the tree.
photo collage mock-up

     With the photos, I made a mock up about the size as the final canvas (24" x 36"). I use this to grid out and transfer the image. My biggest problem working from the photo is that the space of the tree limbs are compressed and flattened; no sense of the space between things. Having painted and drawn this tree so many times, I can sort of move through the space in my minds eye, which helps a little. Obviously the color is different than in real life too. The photo does allow me to lock in the 'drawing' part of the tree.

in progress- 24" x 36"
     Here's the painting after about 3 painting sessions. At this point, it's all about blocking in the shapes and keeping the flow of the paint loose. In this initial stage, the most important thing is to capture the sense of space and the light; the details and form comes later and at a slower pace. At the beginning of the painting I use larger bristle brushes, which hold more paint and allow for a quicker build-up of the surface. After that, I can proceed with smaller sable brushes, but usually alternate between them depending on what kind of mark is needed. I plan on documenting each stage of the painting process...I might try and put these together to show the chronology of the painting through it's completion.

     This will be my last post for 2012. I don't keep up with this blog as much as I should; but I like to maintain it as a public journal for my paintings and my process behind the work. I would encourage you to 'like' my Facebook page: Francis Sills, artist. That has more frequent updates on paintings and drawings that I do and it's easier for me to dialog about them there. Hoping you have a blessed and prosperous New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Marion Square

oil study: 10" x 15"
     I've decided to continue the with a series of paintings of Charleston from an elevated vantage point....my parking garage series. The highest points downtown (besides the church steeples) are the top floors of parking garages, and they offer me a good spot to paint. Nobody's there, the parking fees are low and the views are great. 
     This one is of Marion Square, a large public square at the heart of downtown. I was there a few weeks ago for a holiday celebration for my kids' school, and afterwards I went up to the roof deck to check out the view. A large "X" forms as two walking paths cross diagonally across the square; I found these shapes interesting...a pattern only appreciated from this elevated view. I decided create a symmetrical composition with the steeple of the Baptist church in the center and having it slightly off-set with this large X.

charcoal: 22" x 30"
       I did a few drawings in my sketch book and returned to do a larger charcoal drawing. A few weeks had passed and most of the leaves had dropped from my initial viewing. A few of the trees had wonderful yellow leaves, and I would have liked to had them to work from for the painting...The small oil sketch has them, but now the landscape looks somewhat more barren and muted. The sun is extremely low in the sky now, so there are some nice raking shadows to play with. Not sure how this will evolve as I just started the larger painting. I've got some photos to work off of, but it might be interesting to work on it through the winter and see how the scene changes with the coming of the new leaves in the spring. Another advantage of working in the South is that the Winters are really mild and short....I might have leaves start coming in March.
     I'm planning out another Angel Oak painting which I will blog about soon, and I will also be working towards putting a show together of about 12 paintings and drawings to show in Charleston in May. Check back soon for more updates...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Charleston Rooftops finished

25" x 34"
     Here's the finished painting "Charleston rooftops".  I've been working on it obsessively for the past 2 months or so and I feel like whenever I do a large involved painting like this, I can no longer "see it". When I get to that point it's time to wrap it up, sign it, put it away. Sometimes I'll pull out a painting after a few months of not looking at it, and instantly see a change I need to make. I used to be very strict about not working on a painting after signing it (for me the signature was always like some door that was locked, and you could never go back to working on it again). Now I'm a bit more casual about it. I have a painting of mine hanging in our bathroom, that I stared at for about 3 years, until I was able to figure out it needed a few more brush strokes in certain areas. Paintings can never really be finished for me; there is always something that can be improved, moved, heightened or done better. At a certain point, the artist just has to leave it alone...nothing more can be gained from the experience. Of course there are always areas that need to be freshened up, a color that goes dead or a line or brushstroke that isn't animated, but this process can go on endlessly. It's always better to not overcook it...the painting will let you know if it needs more.

Here are some details:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Charleston Rooftops

     I've got a new, larger painting going on in my studio right now. It's a view from a parking garage in downtown Charleston,  and is 25" x 34". I've wanted to do a series of paintings downtown since I moved here, in particular, scenes that depict rooftops and the architecture. I got the idea for this one on the way to an opening a few months ago. It had just rained and the light was beautiful as it was setting behind the city, a hazy blue-grey light with reflections in the puddles on the roof. I snapped a quick picture with my phone and mentally ear-marked it to return for some drawings later.

     I knew that this was going to be a complex painting, not only because of the size, but the location from where I wanted to paint. The view from the parking garage is pretty dark and there's not a lot of room to set up an easel and paint. I decided for a more synthetic approach to working on this one, a combination of drawings and photos. I might try to return to the site with the large painting or maybe do a smaller oil study...I 'll have to see how it proceeds. I started with my drawing pad made some initial compositional sketches, and took photos:

     With the photos I constructed a mock-up collage, similar to some of David Hockney's photo work from the '70s. From the same position in space, I took a series of shots with the same depth of field as I turned my head. I then mounted these on a large board of foam core and gridded it out. Between the sketches and the photo-grid, I was able to determine the size and cropping of the scene.

     I did do some bending of the space, especially the edge of the building in the foreground. In actuality the roof slants severely to the right; in fact a lot of the buildings in Charleston are askew for one reason or another, either by sagging from age or damage from earthquakes or hurricanes. The slow frontal curve of the building mimics the panoramic view and leads your eye back into the space. Here's a progression so far in the studio:

    I prefer working from observation, but in this instance, the photos have proved useful to me. First, since I have a new infant son, my working time now is mostly only at night, for about 3 hours. With my studio at home and the photos, I'm able to jump right in and paint. Plus the light is stable, and things like the clouds have been easier to develop. Things that I'm missing with the photographs: atmosphere and clarity of color. It will force me to do some inventing...
     Finally, here's the completed painting that I wrote about on the last post:

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Studio

     So I recently moved my studio into a different room in our house. I was in our study previously, and had done a few paintings of that space last spring. At the back of our house, we have this great room with high ceilings and awesome light, which we had used as a guest room. Being that we only have a few guests a year, it was a shame not to use it more, so I decided to move my studio back there, and my wife moved her studio to the study I was in.

     Even though I mostly work on my french easel, it's nice to have a large white wall to view current work on. I constructed this temporary wall using plywood and 2x3s and can place my palette stand directly under it. The daylight is very adequate, but I've also placed clamp lights overhead for working at night or when I need extra light. With views of our garden and tree house in the back, it's been really great so far.
     My first painting in the studio has been of the day bed in the room at night. The patterning on the pillows and floor make a nice contrast of textures. I've also included the reflection of my easel in the windows, but my 'portrait' is blocked in the cross hairs of the window moulding. I've got a ways to go still on this, but the painting displays a sense of solitude and quiet reflection that I'm feeling in the space right now.

in progress- 22" x 28"

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Gift

18.75" x 22.5"
     I've been working on a new painting over the past few weeks, another interior my house.  My initial idea for this painting came late one night as I was walking across the room depicted. Since I usually have my Iphone on me, I quickly snapped a picture. I've been doing this a lot lately, sometimes using the photo to mark a location outside or just capture an initial idea for a painting. In this instance, the whole painting appeared at once...one of those "this would make a great painting moment".  The light in the room was so mysterious and beautiful, with the deep recessed space through the pocket door and the cat peering in. Any painting with a cat in it usually reminds me of Balthus, which is always a good thing in my opinion. Right next to the open door, is our TV cabinet, which we use to "close off" the TV while we're not using it. Here I saw these 2 different opposing rectangular shapes: one hollow, and one full, one protruding and one receding. The 2 aqua vases act as a  nice accent amidst the sea of browns. Again, the heavy patterns became an emphasis in the room, both the ornate rug (which I painted before when it was in our bedroom in Brooklyn) and the different grains of the wood.
     In a lot of these recent interiors, either because they exist in the actual space or are projections of what I'm feeling, I'm painting spaces that are hidden or unknown; somewhat mysterious and 'heavy'...corners, hallways, stairs, dark shadowy spaces that are undefined, both literally and metaphorically. My family and I are anticipating the birth of another child (a boy) in few weeks, and for me, this painting captures some of the mystery and anticipation of this. I've told my wife that watching her go through pregnancy is like staring at a large gift box for 9 months and not being able to open it. While she's experiencing the changes in her body and the movements of the baby, I'm only able to observe, watch and wait...for the gift that is to come.
     Here's the sequence of the painting as it progressed along the way:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Downtown Charleston

     Here's a few new ones that I've been working on, both done in downtown Charleston. The rooftop one I started a few months ago, and though I'm not sure if it is entirely finished, it's far enough along to photograph and view here. I like the format of it, the double square, and the complementary colors of red and green create a nice balance. I was attracted to the elevated vantage point and I'm thinking that I'll do a few more from this same location.

12" x 24"

     This second one was done on the harbor side, right next to the aquarium. My kids love the aquarium, so we go a lot...they have this great view looking north, with a few giant cranes used to lift the containers off the large ships after they pull into Charleston harbor. The spot reminded me of the cranes I used to paint in Red Hook, Brooklyn. While I was there, a few ladies stopped by, and while we were talking, they told me they were visiting from New York, and that their father used to work at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s. They thought my subject matter was interesting; I said I thought so too.

12" x 16"
      I painted this one fairly quickly, over 2 days, in about 5-6 hours. I started first with a drawing in my sketchbook, which I did to map out the composition. I usually like to work my paintings out by doing a drawing first, where I can determine the position of the different elements, as well as, the over-all scope of the scene. From there, I generally determine the canvas size and build and stretch one accordingly. I do, however, usually have a bunch of random sized canvases around my studio, to do 'quicker' paintings such as these. I try not to over-think these a much, and generally try to keep them loose and fresh...this one falls into the later category.
     It was blazing hot both days I painted, with the temps hovering around 100 degrees. Good for having the paint dry quickly but not so good for my stamina. I like the trio of primary colors (Red, Yellow, Blue) and the different structural and linear elements...I plan on doing a few more of these industrial based landscapes this summer.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Studio Visit-Volume Eighteen

    I just received the latest copy of Studio Visit Magazine, where my work appeared on page 190-191. It's nice to see the work in print, and even though the left image came out a little darker than I'd like, I'm happy to be included in this magazine...enjoy!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's on the stove

Here's a quick post on some new works in progress:

12" x 24"
     Started this one about a month ago, but I've only worked on it for a couple of sessions. The location is from the top of a parking garage that we use a lot when we go downtown. The large red roofs caught my eye while I was there one day with the kids, so I ear-marked it for a future painting. There aren't too many elevated spots in Charleston that I can get to and it definitely reminded me of the kind of scenes that I was doing in Brooklyn. Instead of a skyline of factories and warehouses, here we have church spires....you can't throw a rock down here without hitting a church! I liked how those thin points of the steeple punctuated the skyline and the bright red roofs compliment the greenery in between the buildings. It's been overcast and rainy here for the past couple of weeks, so I'm looking forward to some clear weather to finish this up.

15" x 20"
     Started this one a few days ago, and I'm just smitten with it. I did a sketch of it awhile back after my daughter complained about being scared of the staircase. I told her that sometimes when we're scared of something or don't understand it, it can be helpful to do art about it. Well, I don't think she ever did that herself, but I thought it would make a great image for a painting. I do think that I captured a certain sense of 'scariness' here, but I'm not sure I can place my finger on why, other than the dark shadows as they recede back into space. I've only worked on it for a few nights, and have to articulate a lot of the details, but the scale and the composition seem really locked in. For some reason it reminds me of a combination of Alfred Hitchcock and Edward Hopper.

21" x 28"
    In my last post, I showed an interior scene with the vaulted ceiling and my kids craft table...that is what's underneath this painting. (You can still see some of the raised markings of paint from the previous image here). After working on it for awhile, I sort of lost interest in it. I felt the space was a little forced and not engaging, so it ended up not making the cut. I usually don't like painting over other paintings any more (due to the residue of the texture underneath influencing the new image), but after scraping it down with a razor, I feel that I'll be able to build up the new surface to conform to this new image. I've also started working with a new medium, something that I feel will help with the surface sheen and the ability to hold the pigment and brush marks better. Previously I had used a formula of 1 part poppy oil to 3 parts turpentine. Now I'm back to using the traditional Ralph Mayer formula of 1 part stand oil/1 part damar varnish/5 parts turpentine. To this I'm also experimenting with adding about a 1/4 part Copal medium, which increases the flow of paint and quickens the drying time. So far, I'm pleased with the way it's drying and the luminosity of the paint film. The image is from our front porch, and although it's in the really early stages, I like the feeling of the light and banality of the scene. Our car sits parked in our semi-circular driveway, along with a tire swing which my kids love, which hangs from a wonderful Live oak tree. There are interesting bits which I'm looking forward to clarifying, like the bright red car parked across the street, as well as, the different sections of green foliage as they recede back into space. I like the visual tension that is produced with the different depictions of wood on the right side...the cut lumber of the railing post next to the organic contour of the tree trunk. Have a long way to go on this one...

21" x 28"
     Finally, here's the finished painting from the previous post, the living room. I'm pleased with the way it came out...I was a little worried about reconciling that lamp shade with the rest of the composition, but I think it anchors the whole painting. I like how your eye gets moved through the space, from details of things near to little pockets of space in the background. I really like the couch and the red details...the green/red and orange/blue compliments played out nicely.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

New Interiors

     I've started two new paintings, both of them interiors of our house. Coming off my last paintings for a group show here in Charleston, I figured that I'd explore this theme more. They are fairly large for me, 21" x 28", and will probably take a few months to complete. One added bonus is that when it gets so damn hot down here in the summer, I'll be able to work on them in the comfort of my air-conditioned house.
     Both of them I've had in my head for awhile, and this first one is actually based on a drawing I did last summer of our living room:

charcoal on paper, 22" x 30"
     I did this shortly after our move to Charleston last May, and one of the things that spurred me to draw it was the rug. A few years ago I had painted our parlor room in Brooklyn, and this rug was one of the dominant features of that painting. Besides being attracted to the patterning and colors, this drawing also represented our big move...the transition of our furniture (and lives) into a new space. A new place, a new beginning.
     As I went back to the same spot to start the painting, I realized that I couldn't position my French easel to get the same vantage point as the above drawing. I was pushed back a few steps and to the left, which gave me a view with part of the wall over my left shoulder. The lamp shade in the lower corner came more into my field of vision and I thought this created an interesting tension in the resulting sketch I did:

sketchbook drawing, 10" x 13"
     I liked how the smooth, white shade allowed the eye to roll off it into the space, and how the simplicity and blankness of it contrasted with the rest of the heavily patterned elements. The shapes began arranging themselves in the rectangle nicely, and I'm looking forward to the challenge of balancing the depiction of things both very close to me and very far away.

oil on linen, 21" x 28 (in progress)
     This is where it's at after about 3-4 hours of painting from the motif. My main objective when I start a painting is to lay down the basic shapes of the composition, positioning the different elements in space and going for the over-all feeling of light in the piece. I usually do this simultaneously with the largest and smallest brush in my box. With the large brush I'm going for the big shapes, blocking in the tones and building up the surface. With a thin brush, I'm drawing in the lines, similar to what I would be doing with a pencil, locating the position of things and finding the edges. This opening sequence lays down the foundation for what follows. There definitely is a looseness with the paint that I want to preserve at the end, and this is where it starts.

pencil drawing from sketchbook
     The second painting I started, is done in our guest room, which doubles as my kids' "arts and crafts" room. The previous owners designed it as a music room, which explains the high, pitched ceiling (for the acoustics). It's an amazing room, and kind of has the feel of a barn, with all those rafters. I thought it would make an interesting painting to depict my kids' "studio"...
     As I was drawing this sketch, my eyes and pencil gradually began creeping upward toward the ceiling. I included this in the sketch, but not the final design for the painting...I thought it had too much going on already, although I might return to this idea in the future.
oil on linen, 21" x 28" (in progress)
      I want to play with the idea of 2 distinct types of space in this painting; one near and one very far. The hallway on the left recedes deep into space, and is balanced by the elements in the foreground (table and rug) which tilt and compress into the space right in front of me. There is also the dichotomy of an indoor/outdoor space, with it's two different types of light sources, both natural and incandescent.  With both of these paintings, I really want to emphasis the geometric shapes that I see in the room...a conglomeration of circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, and ellipses.  The patterns and light will suffuse these paintings with an air of clarity and detail that I usually gravitate towards.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Looking in/Looking out

   I'm working on 2 paintings right now for a group exhibit at Robert Lange Studios, in Charleston. The theme of the show is "Everything Changes". Each artist was asked to make two to four pieces that are the same size and depict the same subject, but in two very different ways (different vantage point, different tones, different angles, subject in different positions, etc). Just before I found out about my inclusion in the show, I had started this painting, which I had in my head since last summer:

18" x 24" (in progress)
   It's been a nice change to paint inside after doing a bunch of paintings en plein air. I work on these at night; a few hours at the end of the day after the kids are in bed. I've noticed that the interiors that I do seem "tighter" and more controlled then the work done outside. I think this is a product of me slowing down and not having to deal with things like shifting light and weather conditions...there's a constancy to what I'm looking at each time. Inside or outside, they're all landscapes to me.
   I wanted to do another painting of my studio, similar to the one I had painted in Brooklyn. Both have strong vertical elements...instead of paintings on the painting rack, here, they're books on the shelves. Both depict an accumulation of things over time (art works and knowledge) and describe a very personal space where they are created and experienced.
   The first painting was based on this drawing, which I did over the summer, before the room became my new "studio":

charcoal on paper, 22" x 30"

   My idea for the second painting in the show, was to depict the same space, seen from another part of the room. The chair depicted in the 1st painting is one of my favorites (from IKEA), so I decided to do a painting sitting in the chair. Now that I'm well into the painting, I remember how much I hate sitting down while painting. Too restrictive for me...I need to glide easily back and forth from the canvas.

18" x 24", in progress
   Both paintings share similar objects, particularly the foot stool and the cream-colored, ratan rug. While the room is the same, the space in the paintings function in completely different ways. In the first, the space is closed off, a corner, where your eye pinballs around to the different geometric shapes. The second one is much more open, where your eye wanders diagonally through the space, with the open door acting as a literal and visual exit. In the first painting, on the easel, is the second companion painting, which link the two together. I'm was always fond of how Lucien Freud would paint his other paintings inside his paintings...a sort of meta-narrative about the act of painting.
   I'm also playing around with different light sources and how they effect and create divisions in the same space (the overhead spots in the far room, the lamp light, and the light from the computer).  There's also a lot of patterning that happens in both (a constant theme in our house), from the wood grain, to the coloring of the book spines, to the weave of the rug. The vertical format reinforces the sense of enclosure and visual compression in both, something that architecture inherently produces.
   Because I'm painting in such a dark space at night with only a clamp light overhead, I usually have to go back to tweak the colors during the daytime. The room has windows on both sides, so I can see how the paintings look in natural light. I love walking in first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee to check out what I've done the previous night. Both of these are almost finished, and I'm looking forward to seeing them framed and hung in the show next month.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Angel Oak series: Finished (for now)

25" x 37"
     I just finished my largest and most involved painting of the Angel Oak tree.  It was definitely the one I wrestled with the most...my wife called it my 'White Whale', referring to the story, Moby Dick. I spent hours staring at it, working and re-working certain areas, waiting for warmer weather so I could go out and paint on site again. I took a bunch of photos of the branches from the spot I had painted, but they could only get me so far in resolving the space of the painting. It's a difficult way to work, going back and forth from photo reference to working from life. The main reason I don't like working solely from photographs, is because space gets compressed and flattens out, and the richness of color just isn't there. It helped in mapping out the intricate branching structure of the tree, to a certain extent, but after a while of working from the photos, I just hit a wall. I needed to go back and be with the tree.
     A few things that help me out while painting in the studio: a small handheld mirror and a camera. In my studio, I stand across the room and with my back to the painting and hold the mirror in front of my left shoulder, so that I can see the painting behind me reflected in the mirror. This flips the image, and allows me to 'see' the painting in a new way...it's one of those old tricks that painters use. Somehow my mind sees what's 'wrong' with the image more easily, or at least forces me out of the conditioned way that I've been looking at the painting.  Another way to do this is to photograph the painting, and look at it on the computer. The photographed painting shrinks down, giving my eye a fresh take on what's there. I can also manipulate it by flipping it upside down or sideways. Because of this, I now have a record of the different stages the painting has gone through:

Early version with the different panels (and Persian kitten, Belle)

started over on the single canvas

Final, finished state
   Calling a painting finished is one of those things that is so hard to define. On the one hand, I know I have to keep working on a painting when I can still see problems with it, whether it's structural or some way the light just isn't working, or the color is dead in a certain area. There are also those moments in the painting that become special, either by way of the paint handling or a certain color relationship. These need to be preserved, and worked off of. I guess I conclude that it's done when all those different elements are working in harmony. Sometimes, it becomes a matter of fatigue...you just resolve it the best you can during a certain point in time, and the painting just exhausts itself. There's no need to keep working on it. You definitely have to stop before you get bored with it...if you're bored with the painting, either the idea or the paint itself, it shows.