You are an artist-in-residence. Now, what?
The last time I was a resident at A.I.R Vallauris in 2008, I left a box of materials. This time I decided not to take any materials with me and to just make use of what was in the box and whatever I could find in the street.
I had two notions about how I would use my time. One, I wanted to experiment, respond to the moment and not plan everything out. And two, I wanted to look at Goya’s paintings and see if there is a way I can distil their essence into something abstract. I didn’t think that I would do these two things together.
When I open the box, I have plenty of paint, some brushes, and several pieces of 300 lb Fabriano watercolor paper. But what really excites me, is the box itself. It sat in a dry shed for eight years. The cardboard is soft and no longer has much structural strength. One side is white. I tear off one of the flaps and start painting.
Goya’s Dog on Cardboard, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Goya on My Mind
Since Goya was already on my mind, I start by loosely painting one of his portraits with black ink. I switch to oil paint and the soft cardboard yields under my brush. The un-even torn edges make a beautiful deckle* around the piece. When I paint Goya’s, “The Dog” I like how the creases in the cardboard interact with the image.
All the pieces are small, averaging 4 inches x 2 inches. In the end, I branch out to include the back of a tuna box and a crushed can that I found in a parking lot.
*deckle edge paper—a type of paper with rough edges
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Maja on the Can”, oil on soda can, 2.5 inches x 5 inches, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Dona Tadea Arias de Enriquez on Tuna Box”, 6 inches x 4 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: The Countess of El Carpio on Cardboard”, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Arsensio Julia on Cardboard”, 2 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Goya’s Countess on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, ink on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Portrait of the Countess of Chincon on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected. What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? For me, it is meeting artists in the environment in which they work, getting a sense of their connection to the place, its history, the other artists who surround them, and connecting all that to who I am as an artist, both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.
My Path to Monet and Giverny
There were ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny. When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public. But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.
It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated. It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, deKooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.
Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.
Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up. As it turns out, he was making up precious little. To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced. What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.
Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.
Before Giverny, I was making paintings based on images from Giotto, Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light. What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.
Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.
My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.
Bruegel, “Return of the Hunters”
I stood immobile in the woods and listened carefully through the headphones to the two jets flying over head. For weeks we had been filming* in the most rural parts of Washington County, New York, yet every few minutes the silence was broken by another plane. If it weren’t for this 21st century intrusion, I would think I was in the 19th century or even the 15th century, as the hunters and trappers we are following with the camera walk through streams in the their boiled wool pants that sag at the knee like a figure out of Bruegel’s, “Return of the Hunters”.
Davey hit a deer and we follow the blood trail through the forest carpet of scarlet, orange and yellow leaves. Despite being a highly visual person, I see nothing: not the tiny dot of red blood on the yellow leaf, nor the small broken twigs that lead David rather quickly to his deer.
The months I have spent with Dave and Steph have completely changed my understanding of landscape. I saw the landscape as a view outside my car window, something molded and harnessed by men for their homes and farms. When I am with David, I see the fields as habitats for the deer, bear, fox, muskrats, minks, beavers, otters and wild turkeys. The roads cut through them like rivers. Dave knows how to move through this landscape. He is as comfortable in the woods as I am in my bedroom. One night, after some excessive drinking, while being followed by the cops, Dave ditched his jeep behind a barn and spent the night walking home though the woods using the light of the moon to guide his way — for all 17 miles.
Dave could read the signs of the animal scat, and broken twigs, and gnawed bark. Each day he checked his traps. It is cruel and illegal not to. Despite any love I have for animals, I admire his skill as a trapper, and the intimate connection he has to the animals. Even skinning and preparing the pelts to be sold was something he did with great care and skill.
When I watch him work, it connects me to an earlier time, when one was not quite so removed from one’s food source. Dutch paintings, in particular, come alive for me, as I watch Dave pile up the animals to be skinned. When Steph butchered a deer on the dining room table, Dave’s girlfriend’s daughter picked up the deer’s severed leg and marched it across the bare wood floor chanting, “I’m going to the castle, I’m going to the castle.” Later that night, she would be eating that deer.
The final revelation came for me when I saw Davey draw a deer on a piece of cardboard, that he and his partner would use for target practice with their compound bows. He placed a crayon at the foot of the deer and drew the deer in one line. His mark was so sure he could have been tracing his own hand. It may not have been a brilliant drawing, but it was remarkably accurate and came form a place of certain knowledge of the animal.
Davey propped the cardboard against a couple of bails of hay, and from the roof of his cabin, Steph took the first shot with his bow and put it through the heart of the deer. Davey took aim and shot the deer though the same hole — exactly, not even widening the initial hole. I felt that this must have been what went on in the caves of Lascaux: these men connecting with the animals they stalk.
* For seven years I worked as a sound person for the documentary filmmaker, Michael Marton.
American Trap 1982
60 min. WMHT Schenectady, NY and German TV
The story of two laborers in upstate New York who decide to live the life of their ancestors and become full time trappers and hunters.
(Video Center, Hamburg, Germany / Anthology Film Archives, New York)
Below is a continuation of my experience of working with Master Printer Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press in Otego, New York. You can read Part I by clicking here.
Tim in his spot.
I believe that one of the reasons we were able to accomplish so much in a short period of time was due, in part, to my planning, but in a larger part due to Tim’s organization and economy of movement. His studio is set up, just as with a short order cook, with everything at hand. Tim stands in one spot in the studio with two glass slabs in front of him, his inks to his right next to an old Uline catalog that serves as paper on which to clean his palette knives, rags below him, solvent to his right, the press behind him, and printing paper to his far left. He didn’t move more than three feet all day.
Old Uline catalog used as scrap paper.
I, on the other hand, walked miles, as I found a spot across from him to watch as he mixed colors and then moved to the other side of the room to watch the print being rolled with ink.
Tim Inking Plate
Tim and I worked through all the color permutations. There were several points where we would have loved to have stopped, because the results were so beautiful. It was time to add the black that depicts the branches. This was the final step, the last layer of color. He pulled the first print and THUD! Disaster! Worst print of the day.
Tom looked worried and disappointed. I think he was afraid that I’d be devastated. Instead, I felt that the print confirmed what I had felt ever since seeing the first tentative proofs weeks earlier — the black just didn’t work. In paint and even in the computer generated image, the black acted like a gestalt – stunning and integrated into the overall image. In the print, the black sat on top of the page both dwarfing and destroying the colors beneath. It might as well have been a black and white print. Tim and I both thought that switching to a middle gray would accomplish what I was after. Even within the gray you can have a range of color, and I wanted the gray skewed toward lavender.
Pantone book, oil paint sample and computer generated image.
This is when Tim finally pulled out the Pantone book. This is the printer’s Bible. It contains every color he can mix with his inks, and gives him the formula to do so. I flipped through the color samples and pointed to the color I wanted. The improvement was immediate and dramatic. It quickly became apparent that the other color versions of the print could also use gray, but the value of the gray would have to be adjusted to work with the other color versions.
Getting exactly the right shade of gray (don’t even go there) was as much work as determining the other color combinations.
As we printed each layer we were both delighting in the detail. But here is the truly confounding result: it seemed that the print would have to be viewed from about 18 inches for them to be appreciated. That is exactly the opposite effect of my paintings, which look best when viewed from across the room. The paintings look painterly close up (down right messy, in fact), but at a certain distance they snap into focus and look almost photo realistic.
When we added the gray to the print Tim and I found ourselves backing up across the studio. The prints were still reading well from twenty five feet away. We managed to produce the same effect in the print as in my paintings.
Once we saw these qualities in one print, it was a matter of bringing that effect to all the prints. Sometimes remarkably small adjustments made the difference between reading the print as color and reading it as light. This is where the skill and integrity of a Master Printer makes all the difference. The work is demanding and exhausting. At the eleventh hour, Tim was still willing to mix one more color and make one more adjustment so that I could see if we could perfect the print.
A great Master Printer hangs in there with you to the end. When your energy flags, he shores you up, so that you can produce the best work possible. Tim told me over and over that it was about my vision, and he did everything in his power to make that happen.
Tim Sheesley in the print shop.
In early December I spent two days at Corridor Press in Otego, New York, working with Master Printer, Tim Sheesley. In two twelve hour sessions we were able to put together proofs for a suite of four prints that were inspired by my painting “Almond Tree – Biot”.
I was blessed with beginner’s hubris. Creating a print with just the right color, using four plates would have been project enough for one day. To get four of them completed in two days was an insane proposition. This is where the experience of a Master Printer made all the difference.
I had worked out all of my color combinations ahead of time. With the help of graphic designer Chelsea Nye, I made a virtual print in Photoshop. We generated computer swatches of color for each plate, which I then converted into color samples made in oil paint. I sent my color swatches, along with the names of the oil colors I used, to Tim and he made a sample print from these instructions.
What I did not know was that a printmaker’s palette of litho-inks is not the same as a painter’s palette of oil colors. Lithography inks must be transparent. Some of my oil color pigments are opaque and cannot be used in lithography ink. For example, none of his blues approximate ultramarine blue, a color I use extensively. He was able to mix a blue that looked very much like ultramarine blue, but it didn’t have the purity or brightness of my blue. The mixture of colors had dulled the effect.
Tim is not only a print master, he is a color master. He mixed any color I gave him perfectly. However, as with the blue, occasionally there was a limitation inherent in the pigments available.
Palette of Lithographic Inks
Tim is used to working with artists who have a concept in mind and the expectation that they will be able to produce that concept exactly. In Tim’s experience, watercolor artists are the most insistent in this regard. Tim was very concerned I would blow a gasket when I came up against the limitations of his palette. What he didn’t know, was that secretly I was hoping to use this project to expand my experience — to find new and unexpected ways to interpret my work. This road block was just the sign I was looking for to head off-road and see what adventures awaited me in the woods.
The first step was a tiny one — abandoning my concept of ultramarine blue for one in his palette that could give me the quality of light I was after. But changing one color has a domino effect — all the other colors had to be changed to work with that color. If it is the 3rd color you have added to the print, it can cause mayhem.
Tim Mixing Ink
In this process you start with one color, then try to make the next one work with it. The third color has to work with the first two and so forth. This is a tightrope walk, especially when everything about your print is an expression of color.
Tim folds the mixed wet ink into aluminum foil with my name, print version name, plates number, and color mixture listed on the outside. At the same time he makes a running list with the same information on a pad. This way, when he remixes the color he can compare wet color to wet color and not wet to dry, which would be different.
As a painter I noodle and adjust colors all the time, sometimes scraping up a color from a palette of a previous painting and using it in a new one. That can’t happen in print making, because you have to be able to replicate the color perfectly for each print. Each color you use must be recorded with a formula and connected with that specific print, as well as with a certain plate from that print. You have to record all of this information for each mixed color, whether or not that color is ultimately used. This is because you may make several versions and compare them before you settle on the perfect color combination.
We were not doing this for one print, we were doing this for four! But we did not do one print at a time. Since the prints shared colors on certain plates, we were doing all four versions at once. That we both didn’t get a migraine is a small miracle, although I noticed that at the end of the day, we were both unable to put a sentence together, as simple words escaped our memory.
The Print Project: Working with a Master Printer – Part 2 Click Here
Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press
After spending the night at the home of artist Ashley Cooper and her family in the surprisingly beautiful Cooperstown, New York, I headed over to the rolling hills of Otego to meet with Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press.
Tim showed me samples of other artist’s work to give me some ideas of how I might use the medium in my own work. I was thinking a lot about this myself. The research I have been doing over the last weeks not only into lithography, but also other forms of print making, made me think how I might best use the medium to expand what I was doing in paint. But until I get my hands dirty, I am not really going to know what will work best for me.
Sondra Freckelton copyright © Sondra Freckelton, 2009, “Braid and Tea Pot “, original lithograph from stone and plates paper size: 11.25″x13” printed in an edition of 42, paper Rives BFK white
I am especially interested in the ways I can use print making to explore the use of color in my work. There are two ways of going about this (I am sure there are more, but these are the ways that most interest me at the moment). One is to use what printers call “process” color. That is to break down the image into CMYK – cyan, yellow, magenta and black. This is also the way the color is broken down to make a straight forward reproduction of a piece. When an artist uses this method of separation, its a little like math for artists, as they have to think about the layering of colors to achieve a full color variation.
The other way to approach the print is to pull particular colors from the original and lay them down distinctly, one next to the other. There can be some mixing, of course. But since you may not have the elements of a color wheel — red, yellow, blue — but colors like umber, lavender and ocher, it is far more likely that you would lay them down next to each other and not over each other.
I love seeing how artists use lithographs and all the variations involved: the type of plate, the quality of ink, color of paper, and the drawing medium.
Here is a video of Tim showing me how Sondra Freckelton produced the print pictured above. I took the video without looking through the camera, so that Tim wouldn’t think about it while talking to me. Please forgive the occasional missing head. Video of Tim Sheesley.
You can check out the prints of the artists featured here at Tim’s website: Corridor Press.
Books of interest:
Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at IndieBound.org