From the start, I knew that I wanted to make paintings from the broken television “grid” photographs, but they posed a lot of technical difficulties. To begin with, I paint in oils. Making a clean stripe in oil is more difficult that with acrylic paint. With acrylics you can mask out your stripes with tape and then seal it with a clear acrylic layer, then add your color and it won’t bleed. That pretty much insures that you will have a sharp edge.
It was the atmospheric look of the background that most held my interest in the photographs. How to achieve that? I thought a spay gun might work, but having once tried to spray paint chair in my living room, I know that the paint, suspended on air goes everywhere. In very short order I could destroy all the work in my studio, as well as, stacks of paper, rolls of canvas and other materials. I would need a spray booth.
A person in my building, Keith Davitt from Thirsty Cat Fountains, suggested a spray painter that achieved its effect through vibration. He used it to glaze his fountains. It was much less likely to permeate the air in the studio. I still haven’t settled on a solution, but I am leaning toward an airbrush, like a spray gun, but much more refined and allegedly easier to control.
I wasn’t going to let a need for new equipment stop me. I thought of other ways I might achieve a similar effect.
Rothko mixed pigment with rabbit skin glue in an effort to achieve both depth and luminence. (The glue is what artist’s used to size their canvases. First layer was usually the glue by itself, followed by pigmented glue called gesso.) Agnes Martin worked with very thin acylic paint.
I thought of all the ways I might get the atmospheric background. Spray painting was one way, glazing (using thin layers of transparent pigments suspended in medium), coloring rabbit skin glue, all seemed possible. But as I was set up to do some pouring in my studio I thought I would try that first.
Once I poured in the background I started adding large areas of color.
I knew that I don’t really have the personality to make absolutely perfect stripes. With oil paint I was anticipating that some of the color would seep under the tape. Like Barnett Newman, I was going to live with it. You wouldn’t think choosing the right tape to make your stripes would be that great of an issue, but it turned out to be. There is the issue of the stickiness of the tape. Will it pull off the painted surface below it? Will it block out the layers of paint over it? Will it stick to the canvas and not pull off at all? And then there was the issue of the width of the tape. You can usually find half inch tape at the harware store, but any smaller than that you need to scour the internet. The main issue for me was to get the tape to stick.
While I fololowed the photograph in a general way, I was not entirely sticking to the color scheme. I wanted a little more vibrant color in the final piece.
What followed next was not what I expected. I would lay in the colors and then see that this passage was working, but that one wasn’t. I felt as though it was like playing music. Passages would work, but then how did it work with the whole piece. And other parts were just plain wrong, but why? The painting was tutoring me in what it needed. Here is what it needed: the “ground” needed to be organic, the poured surface relating the the quality of the atmosphere in the original photograph, as well as, being a signifier that this was made by hand and not machine. Colors next to each other had to work together, but there were also passages across the surface of the whole painting that needed to work together. Unlike the “flat surface” that painting has been emulating since the begining of the last century, this painting sat not on the surface of the canvas, but in space. For the whole painting to work, certain stripes cleved to an imaginary plane, while other moved in and out of that plane.
Here are some of the versions it went through. I hadn’t expected the process to be so specific. That is, only certain colors of certain values and certain instensities worked in certain places. Change one, you had to change many of the other ones until it all worked together again. Here is the final version:
You may notice that the original photograph also had horizontal stripes. This canvas was not the right proportion to add those stripes, but there was also the consideration that if I attempted to add them and failed I would have ruined weeks of work. I am now in search of a way to also incorporate those stripes.
Several years ago The Crandall Library in Glens Falls, New York had an exhibition called. “Battenkill Inspired”. This year Hannah deGarmo started filming the people in that exhibition. All of us live on or near the river. I traverse it every day on my way to work. Finding how to convey both the look and feeling of this river has preoccupied me for years.
My painitngs are about light. When I paint representationally and I am about the business of rendering light, I often choose a subject that is back lit. It seems to offer the most extensive and complex qualities of light — light on a surface, passing through a surface, reflecting off of a surface, often highlighting transparency, translucency, reflection, or glitter. The most complete expression of this can be seen in my china paintings, although it occurs in most of my work.
But how do you get these qualities when you work abstractly? It’s not something I figured out all at once. It started when I was trying to paint the light that glitters off the surface of water. I used white paint, but it felt dull and did not leap off the surface of the canvas. Then I scapped the silver off of a CD and applied that, and that didn’t work either. As I drove home one rainy night I noticed how the stripe on the road reflected the light off my headlights and I thought — that’s what I need. I called the highway department and asked them if I could buy some reflective road paint. It’s not the paint that is reflective, he told me, its the beads of glass that we put in it, and with that he gave me the address of their supplier.
Later I came upon diamond dust, which is even better than highway glass for reflecting light, but I was unable to find a supplier. I used the highway glass to good effect in the river painting.
Then I was working on a series of almond tree paintings, which at first I rendered quite realistically. But after taking a workshop with Vincent di Siderio, a well-known representational painter, who mentioned that he often started a painting by throwing tar on it or rustoleum, I thought, why not approoach this work that way. Apply the paint differently and why not use mettalic paint, after all, Jackson Pollock did.
When I finished “Tree in Twilight” and hung it on my west facing wall, I observed how the light reflected off the surface of the painting and changed every time you moved. It also took on different qualities of light at different times of the day. Immeditately I saw that instead of showing the light of the moment, it was creating a different light each moment. With Monet’ s paintings of the Epte River, he shows you how the light changes moment to moment. With “Tree in Twilight”, the painting itself changes each moment.
From there the work became more and more abstract, but the quality of light and sensation of light remained the subject. Whether I paint representationally or abstractly, I still want the painting to have light emanating from the surface.
I’ve been having conversations with Giotto di Bondone [c. 1267 – 1337, born in Florence, Italy] since I was twelve years old and my class studied the Rennaissance. The conversation became obsessive when in 1987 I created a cycle of paintings recreating the paintings of the Arena Chaple on seven shaped canvases, the largest of which is 18 by 24 feet. [You can see them here.]
“The Last Wall”, oil on shaped canvas, 18 feet x 24 feet, 1987
There are three stories about Giotto. One that as a child he was drawing a sheep on a rock and Cimabue saw this and was impressed and invited him to become his apprentice. Another is that one day while Cimabue was out Giotto painted a fly on Cimabue’s self portrait that was so realistic Cimabue tried to whisk it away several times. Many years later, the fly becasme a symbol of the artist and was inserted frequently into Dutch still life paintings.
But it is the third story that has occupied me recently.
Vasari [the chonicler of “Lives of the Artists”] relates that when the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill, Giotto drew a red circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a pair of compasses and instructed the messenger to send it to the Pope. The messenger departed ill pleased, believing that he had been made a fool of. The messenger brought other artists’ drawings back to the Pope in addition to Giotto’s. When the messenger related how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without the aid of compasses the Pope and his courtiers were amazed at how Giotto’s skill greatly surpassed all of his contemporaries. [Wikiwand]
This winter when I started to paint circles, of course I thought of Giotto, but never more so than when I began to draw them on a large canvas.
To do this I sort of dropped into a meditative state. If I thought too much about what I was doing my mind would interfere with my hand.
Several years ago I was crossing the Mall in Washington on my way back to my hotel when I decided I had to duck into the Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, and see the Asian work there. On display was the Price Collection, on loan from Los Angeles. The first piece I saw as I entered the exhibition was “Pine and Plum Trees in Snowstorm” by Jagyoku Katsu, the 18th Century Japanese artist. The room was dimmed and soft light fell on an enormous screen with branches and falling snow. I felt completely enveloped by the piece. I had both a calm and emotional response to it, it was a feeling that has stayed with me to this day.
Jagyoku Katsu. “Pine and Plum Trees in Snowstorm,” a/k/a “Crows and Plum Tree, Rabbits and Pine Trees in Snow ,”
A representation of these screens on a computer cannot begin to give you the feeling of the atmosphere, nor the enormous scale of the pieces. I was impressed by the way so much was conveyed with such an economy of means, and almost no color.
When I get shaken by a work of art like this, it is going to find its way into my work. The piece that was most directly affected by this experience is this one:
I chose to use the motif of the almond tree, which I have been working with for years, perecisely because I am so familiar with it, I can work with it freely. This time I painted it on several panels to give it the feeling of the screens. My pallette was limited. What is impossible to see here is that I have used reflective paint that makes light bounce off the surface of the canvas and also changes with the light.
The piece is currently at Gremillion and Company, Fine Arts, Inc. in Houston, Texas.