Every painting is a challenge, but my most recent work took an immediate and unexpected turn. It often happens that I'm drawn to an arrangement of shapes or a line in the landscape. So, when I decided to tackle an image that I had photographed before, I thought I knew, generally, where I was headed. I was drawn to the beautiful way that cedar limbs (defoliated) had re-curved over snow-laden branches. That shape combined with curves from tires in the snow made for a wonderful, quiet balance. However, as I set about my effort, three words popped into my mind that I hadn't considered, and those words would completely change my direction and challenge me in a new way.
Of Course I'm Certain
My original idea was to follow nature's lead, to use texture to build up striations and bumps that I could rake paint across. This approach would help "paint" the little snowy parts that I didn't want to pick at or linger over. Texture helps fill in interesting visual information that I would otherwise have to fill in mark by mark, and that's just not my thing. So I set about beginning the work normally - a wash with some wiped out parts messed up with a paper towel. (This is when I have a non-absorbant surface. A rough, acrylic-primed cotton surface would suck up my wash and inhibit my moving the wash around like I want.)
Even though the reference spoke of beautiful design, as soon as the title (those three words) broke into my mind, the design had to conform. I tried going with the reference, but certain words just kept coming up: cold, unchosen, weight, neglect. Even worse, the "cold" wasn't the welcome chill of a snowy walk through a quiet place. It carried with it the added visual of a long-abandoned fire. No smell of smoke, no ember, no warmth. Nothing. Dead.
Thus began the real challenge. It is hard enough for me to successfully depict anything, but I had never experienced my own mind interrupting the process and insisting on another direction. The insistent words did not support the beauty that I had originally been drawn to. How can I balance neglect and beauty?
Thus ends the backstory. From here, I will walk through ideas and materials strictly relating to oil painting. To skip to the end, scroll down to "What Did I Learn".
I used stretched linen (I normally use panels), Gamblin chromatic black, transparent earth red, 1980 titanium white (why not regular titanium? Ask!), gold ochre (barely – for greens), and Utrecht ultramarine blue (I was out of Gamblin).
Two Rosemary evergreen flats (really like them), a larger, soft synthetic brush for the initial stages (the red-tipped ones from Jerry's Artorama), and some sort of synthetic, ragged round “craft” brush (apparently made for floral work) were all I used.
Medium was used throughout because I needed to meet a deadline. After a call to Gamblin (who always answers, though, if they had caller ID they wouldn't because I call so much) I decided to blend Gamsol with Neo Megilp for a fast drying medium. Wow. Totally works. Actually (as I was reminded during the phone conversation), any of the Galkyd products can be used more or less freely, especially when cut with some Gamsol. I moved away from solvent-free gel here because there is a restriction on how much one can use (the proportion of gel to paint, that is). I didn't want to have to think too much. I love Neo Megilp anyway, so I pressed on. I chose to make small directional marks everywhere, even where they are not the focus. This gave an unspoken uniformity that I liked. Another kind of harmony.
Design, Application, and the Problem
The main points for me were the shape of the branches and boughs and the point made where the tire tracks diverged. The base of the subject tree was around the center of the surface (which I liked) and made a pleasing angle down to the “v” made by the tire tracks. I wanted a balanced center arrangement. I liked that the snow was weighted on one side.
Working started normally with a division of space. I mixed chromatic black with one of the other colors mentioned and placed a purplish line across to delineate flat ground from vertical parts. I then washed over the entire upper part with the same purplish mix. I lightly wiped out the area where the main shape would go, messing it up with a wad of paper towels (some may choose to say that I “knit” it together. I don't know). From here I put in what I thought would be important light shapes and the bases of the trees – some of my darkest areas. The main branches and lit rim of the tire tracks were added. It looked promising! I had a good shape hovering over a interesting “v” line. I liked it.
I continued adding light paint to the areas that were receiving snow loads, and it reminded me of a Japanese print of waves. I darkened areas in the background and eventually placed more of the snowy ground behind the uprights. At some point I scrubbed in the dark growth beneath the boughs...scrubbed in, wiped out, added back, scrubbed more in, etc...
A Big, New Change
I was thinking in value and shape mostly, but here's where moving to a better spot to work in really paid off. In this new spot, I am able to take, maybe, 15 or more steps away from the work. Big difference. From a distance, the work became about the balance of light and dark, big and small. At this stage there really is no color, just subtle variations of temperature mixed from the same puddle, so balancing color was no concern (this just wasn't about color – yet).
It also happened that, in the quiet space several steps away from the work, my thoughts began to bubble with new words (previously mentioned). A title cemented itself inside my mind, and I began to deviate from the reference.
Steps away from the work was like another plane. Critical, yet malleable. Demanding, yet forgiving. Ordering while listening. Open, but eyes forward. From steps away, I wasn't fighting the work as usual, tasked with the responsibility of building, barking orders and yelling when they didn't work. I was cooperating with a willing participant. The thing I thought I was fighting was actually trying to help tell me what to do. The thing I thought I had to tame was trying to tell me how to be free.
I began approaching the work only after consulting the distant view. From there, an internal discourse was held and, only after consensus, marks were made. It was slow sometimes. I slept on many decisions, but in a twist, the work progressed better than normal.
A New Reference
I don't remember when I stopped looking at the original reference. I remember looking to it a few times, but at some point I internalized the reference. The compass moved from a screen to somewhere within me. Even so, painting is hard.
I struggled to keep the main shape (boughs) large enough, wide enough, and shaped “just so.” The important branches were changed several times. Still not perfect. I got the tire tracks right the first try. It was virtually impossible for me to work as quickly as needed and build up texture, so I (in conjunction with The Council of the Distant View) decided to skip the impression of lots of snow everywhere and go with a bit of snow deliberately placed. It was easy to let go of the idea of a beautiful, interesting background. I just kept saying, “One thing. It's about one thing.”
As I sit here typing, I'm considering one more snow mark and a few tiny stalks poking through the ground snow as in the reference. Perhaps I'll add them, perhaps I won't. I like the little stalks. I may need the snow. (Update. I added the snow and the little ground stalks. Too much snow, perhaps. You be the judge.)
What did I learn?
- I learned that deviation is how we find our way. Our way.
- I learned that a bad session or lack of focus may just be an invitation to consult the distant view for a while.
- I learned that if a section or relationship isn't right, work on it immediately.
- I learned that my working space really, really matters.
Pursue the concept. Deviate from the reference. Add to. Create.
I was found present in nature and thankful for it. I started with a good idea. I chose materials purposefully. I remembered that the work ebbs and that I should relax, step back, and find the real problem. The answer is found through working, not being mad at it. I experimented (brush, medium), followed a new trail, redeemed the time (no tv), and made a painting that has something to say, has a voice, even if it isn't up to professional standards.
What were the three words that would not go away? Those three words became the title. It is called