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:

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