Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Starting The Year Out Slowly

DarkWater 20x20

I'll readily admit that I begin the new year with the best of intentions, as many do, but Time is not easily herded into corrals of productivity, and it slips away incessantly, new year or not.  Inspiration does not herd so well, either, and my latest projects have moved more slowly than I had hoped.  The above rascal refused to cooperate, probably because the intention was far too complex; the subtleties that attracted me made it much harder to execute than an ordinary and straightforward landscape.  What seems like a clever idea can turn out to be an invitation to frustration.  The most difficult part, for me, was the delicate tracery of the mossy limbs that floated like ghosts and defied representation.

Morning Willamette 12x16

The more traditional landscape above took far less wrangling, though it did not promise the potential excitement of the more colorful one above.  The rocks on the shore were initially much more stark, until I laid a faint glaze of Indian Yellow over them, resulting in that soft glow I was after.  I love learning about a technique, waiting for the right moment to use it, and then discovering that, yes, it does work just as promised!  Painting, I am discovering, is not quite like climbing a mountain; one is not necessarily rewarded with better and better views at the accumulation of more hard work.  A step forward may not feel like it, and it is only after many steps that one may look back and be assured that progress has been made.  

Thursday, December 28, 2017

River Mood Sketches

I find myself drawn again and again to the river for inspiration, and I have to admit that a great many of my paintings are either of the Willamette River (as above) or its tributaries, like the Tualatin or Oswego Creek.  The mood is always different depending on the light or the atmosphere and in the cold of winter, it can sometimes be bleak, but most often the light is remarkable in one way or another.  I never tire of it.  It is constantly inspiring and exciting to the senses.  

It has been hard to find time to keep at a schedule of painting with the holidays and the eating and drinking that go along with it, but this morning afforded me a nice long walk along the banks of the Willamette at Mary S. Young Park, and the following sketch was a result.  We watched for quite some time as a sea lion lifted his head above the water and trashed a big steelhead again and again, whipping his strong neck so as to rip bite-size pieces he could swallow, slinging the fish several feet away.  Seagulls harrassed him, hoping for some scraps.  A bald eagle drifted overhead observing it all.  That, and a foggy light - who could ask for more?  These first two paintings are 16 x 20.  The one below took just over an hour, and I still need to figure out how I can slow myself, and spend more time on a painting.  Careful intention has a place in my painting that I am displacing with the rush to achieve other aims, and having no instructor standing behind me, I need to learn to direct myself better.  But I still feel I got what I was after in this painting, sketch or not - the feeling of the special light on the water and in the atmosphere.  I intend to do a larger version of a recent painting, and the sheer size of it will require more of me.

I am not done with the recent painting "Below the Powerhouse"and there were several things about it that bothered me, so I did another version of it, but rather than doing it in a larger size, I did the opposite, and made it smaller, 11 x 14.  I am happier with the composition, but the original version may have captured the feeling a bit better in its somberness.

Lastly, a portrait sketch for making myself get to the easel, to warm up.  If nothing else, it is drawing practice, and I think there can never be a point at which one no longer needs to be concerned for drawing.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Morning Light

24 x 24 oil

Those morning walks are proving uplifting, the eyes are rewarded with a special kind of light, not as soft and warm as that evening light, but instead pure and clean.  The sandy beach, almost frozen under the cold, clear sky, crunches underfoot, but takes on a magical blue cast.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tender Art

Below the Powerhouse. 16x20 oil on board

Above is a recent start, a work that I stalled on after pausing to take a look at it, since I observed a number of things I want to change but I am not ready to alter it yet until I better understand what I am trying to do here.  I was working at composition and trying for the values I was after, and paid little attention to the method of paint application.  I was attracted to the power of the compositon, the dark promise of the stream leading into... there's part of my problem.  I didn't really want it to lead to a destination, but instead to pull one deeper into the somber overall tone.  It is more an exploration than a finished thought.  At one point I almost felt it should head off into abstraction, and that's also a possibility still.  This is the first thing I have worked on in which I felt the pull of abstraction, but my nature still resists it, wanting something more concrete.  Is it my experience as a builder that steers me in certain directions?  Does my process derive from methods of construction in some way?  I do know that I feel a certain impulse to slap things down quickly, move along, and I think it is the years of framing houses that makes me feel the need to push through toward structure, rather than delicately add marks that accumualte into a coherent whole.  And I have not resisted these urges, even when I question them, because I have believed that there is so much to learn about composition, value, color temperature, etc.  It seems to me more important to learn lessons than to create finished work.

But at what point do I need to change that way of thinking?  Have I deluded myself into thinking it is okay to just forge ahead, assuming that a voice and a style will miraculously appear out of all that effort if I just persist.  Am I kidding myself?  Is this an excuse for not doing the hard work of learning the skills referred to in the following quote from John Ruskin?

From The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin:  "...there is one quality, and, I think, only one, in which all great and good art agrees; - it is all delicate art.  Coarse art is always bad art.  You cannot understand this at present, because you do not know yet how much tender thought, and subtle care, the great painters put into touches that at first look coarse; but believe me it is true, and you will find it is so in due time."

There is little tenderness in my process.  I have observed other painters working, and I have witnessed their tenderness in mark-making, envious of their almost magical touch.  And yet when I grab a brush, it feels more like a power tool; I feel the need to hammer out something, scrubbing it down, scumbling, sloshing, stacking...  When does my inner maestro wave that wand?

And even realizing all this, even seeing the need is not enough to convince me that I have to make a dramatic change in what I do.  I instead try to plunge ahead in search of passion and meaning.  I do not discount the notion that little by little I may succumb to the truth that a part of my mind can recognize, but in the end it is even more critical to me to hold on to the interest in the doing of it.  It has to be fun, too, and not all intellectual self-direction.  As my friend, Andre Bonhomme, once told me "C'est le plaisir qui count."

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Blue Dawn

This is from this morning's walk with the dog, on the bank of the Willamette at George Rogers Park.  The light was wonderful and rich and moody, the river was high, silent and flat with no wake or wave to interupt the calm.  We had a good time there, Greta and I, letting our souls link with Grand Nature, updating our moods like new software for the Iphone.  

In an effort to recycle old canvases, I have been painting over old work.  When I have small boards under 11x14, I will normally use paint off my palette to give a solid coat of a random color and then let it dry, ready for use.  But when it is a larger canvas, like this 20x16 above, I tend to paint directly on the old work, making the underpainting a little difficult, since so much reads through from below.  But I charged ahead in this case, trying to use a little heavier application than I normally use to get the thing done in one sitting, rather than waiting to let the underpainting dry.  So it came out a little choppy for my taste, but I was really trying to see if the overall effect was going to be what I was after; call it a larger color study.  As usual, the photo distorts the color a little, but I think I might revisit this one at some point to make it more finished.

It isn't often that I don't find my work wanting in some aspect or other, but this above portrait of Javier Bardem is something I futzed with over a couple of hours and it's just fine the way it is, for a notebook sketch.  I love his nose and his expressive eyes, so heavy-lidded and relaxed.  He would be fun to paint from life.

And yet another study of Oswego Creek, endlessly complex and changeable.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Looking Forward

 The next couple of paintings are works in progress in search of a different direction.  Sometimes I just follow a path not knowing where it is going, but like a rat in a maze, I seem to encounter a lot of dead ends.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Dark Water, Bright Light
8x10 oil

Lately I have struggled with painting, producing turkeys - whether from a lack of enthusiasm for my results, general ennui surrounding the coming months of rain, or maybe just the heavy anchor of inescapable aging.  Whatever the reasons, it is discouraging to feel not just a lack of progress, but a loss of ground I thought I had gained.  This feeling is compounded when I do a little straightening up and encounter the stacks of failed and miserable canvases and panels that I know I should just paint over and ready for a new attempt, but then the idea of having those dozens and dozens of waiting canvases seems too great a burden, and so things are just rearranged, old work stacked like cordwood.  This piece above feels a little like a success (I am happy with the tones, the composition, the original idea and the mood) but it lacks finesse and feels clunky in the brushwork.  It was a departure from my normal process: I worked mostly with the panel on a table instead of upright on an easel, and I tried to work up a soupy underpainting into which I could add delicate passages.  But as often happens with me, I get caught up in color, or temperature, or some other specific element and my brushwork becomes crude and unpleasant.  I think I could have gone back into this one after the paint had a chance to set up just enough to be blended or modeled to improve things, but unfortunately Life got in the way and by the next day things were dry and it was too late to make those kinds of improvements.  

What I often do when I hit these walls is just keep plugging away, doing portrait sketches in notebooks, honing the ability to quickly capture likeness, hoping against hope that the miles of brushwork will eventually lead down a path with a pot of gold at the end.  What is my destination?  Why, again, am I devoting so much of my waking life to painting?  My intention was never to become a "painter"; Originally, I simply wanted to get better at occasional painting so that when the mood struck I could entertain myself and end up with something good enough to hang and announce "There, I dabble."  But as I encounter the endless challenges, all the things one must learn, I am caught up in the struggle, I love the mental exercise, and I especially love the way my eyes and mind are awakened to the beauty that surrounds me in ways uncommon to the average Joe.  Painting is a beautiful way of being.  I feel it keeps me connected with a better way of living - with attention and focus and purpose.  It is a meditation, a spiritual quest, and I am as unlikely to give up on it as one is unlikely to walk away from a religion.  But I suppose that doesn't mean there won't be times where I question the existence of God, where I wonder if I will ever bust through these walls.  

One of the many sketches I have worked on recently.  I am playing with the ability to arrive at likeness by using various beginnings; this one was started with a big brush and broad plains of dark and light, avoiding all detail at first, slowly pushing paint around to arrive at a face.  I now have three notebooks of multimedia paper that I first gesso so that I can work in oil without the paint being sucked into the paper.  It keeps me from worrying that they need to be anything other than what they are - practice - and it also is a tidy way of keeping track, a record of my journey that doesn't have to be stacked up in a corner.  

And sometimes Nature is just beautiful in a way that doesn't lend itself to being captured on canvas and I need to learn that that is okay, too.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Where the Wild Things Are

Summer is gone and the vivid natural growth fades, but the colors left behind are far from drab.  Even as the days grow shorter, and the skies are often gray and overcast, there come moments of clarity, light streaming through, exposing the wildness of the color all around.  It is more of a challenge to capture the essence, with cold and rain intervening, but the goal is never to give up.  Inspiration comes in fits and spurts, and maybe there is more quiet time in the studio working over old ideas, or old faces.

Along the Columbia River, at the confluence of the Sandy, what is called The Thousand Acre Dog Park provides endless opportunities to discover the muted and tender colors of autumn as the trees give up their summer garb and go into hibernation.  There are lessons to be learned in mixing grays.

The delicacy of these colors is compelling, and I struggle to find a way to convey them, lacking the very light touch needed. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Working Fall

On Golden Backwater
18 x 24 oil

This Fall seems like a time for reflection, both literal and figurative, and I find myself drawn to subjects that are complex and offbeat.  I know I should break a painting into large tonal areas, simplifying and creating a composition, rather than trying to transcribe the landscape I see, but one of my weaknesses is that I feel indebted to Nature for providing a beauty that is not easily translated, or at least I don't have all the skills necessary to translate it into a language that can be shared, and so I tend to keep trying to provide more detail than perhaps is needed.  This one I will call a work in progress, because I see a lot that still needs to be done; I do like the "S" shape formed by the water, and I think it can be an effective way to lead the eye into the painting.  It can probably be emphasized  by darkening the foreground and the mid ground, or at least by exaggerating the temperature difference.  I'd like to learn to observe my work more and make changes over a period of days or weeks, and I do see things I'd like to add, but it is a question of reinvoking the spark of focus that comes in the original rush to capture the feeling.  Perhaps practice is the answer to this, as it is to so many things about learning to paint.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Reprieve

Riverside 16 x 20 oil

After a pounding storm that drenched us and blew down trees and cut off power, we find ourselves enjoying a relatively rare week of autumnal sunshine and balmy temperatures, so it's back outdoors to make hay while the sun shines.  Normally we don't get to enjoy the golds and reds of fall like other parts of the world, because our leaves usually get soaked and drop to the ground too soon.  

I feel it is such a privilege to go out into the world with the eye of an artist.  Not that most people aren't also enjoying the beauty of Nature, but that as a painter I am obsessed with the visual sense, transfixed by the nuances of color and temperature, translating them in my mind into mixtures on the palette, ever exercising the craft that is so elusive, so demanding and yet calls to me like a Sirene.  Even when I repeatedly fall short of capturing on canvas what I see or imagine, the rewards are still there, in the journey and process.  I imagine even the stragglers in a marathon can experience the runner's high.