Tad Spurgeon oil paintings
An ongoing Thermopolye of the heart and mind.


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A weekly look at process and work in progress.

october 4

      Waning moon, cooler but solid overcast and rain all week.


      Recent set of medium tests on a tile, about two weeks old. The goal is to develop a system that simply doesn't yellow at all. No colour is promising at this stage, but not by any means conclusive, it will take a few more months to see what begins to develop here.


      Worked on the watermelon again, looking for a little more in terms of the tension between warm and cool, volume and space. This is fun, but also a matter of shifting each layer in relatively small increments of colour. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Another layer on the jellyroll, there's something nice but elusive in the original that I'd like to get at, I like the tension between the relatively classical space and the object itself, but don't want this to become unkind. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Copy of an older painting from life that always intrigued me, this has been close for a while, still seems close but not quite done.


      A third version that began recently, layer three on this one. This addresses some things that occurred to me about the first two, I get intrigued by the way small elements add up to major psychological differences in the image. 12x15 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Don't know, layer six or seven on this recent peony. This one has featured some pretty close change in colour all along, but this week the medium was a little denser because it has gotten colder, and that proved really interesting. I've worked with paint that could be placed or blended before, but not quite at this degree of fineness. Not done, and taking an odd photo because of the interaction of the layers, but this was an interesting step forward for the system. 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Recent, second version of this image, it was on gessoed paper but I decided to put it on a panel. This is a little tricky, it worked out except for a little extra white space on the edges. But, interestingly, the image looked different without its frame of white gessoed paper, so it got a thin layer of paint overall as well. Close to what I want, but I'll do it again. About 13.5x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper over canvas on panel.


      Third layer above on this version of my favorite therapy image of a farm in the Mugello. This was originally conceived of as an alla prima image, below, and I really liked the way it worked out, holding very close translucent value and temperature changes. But, the system shifted over time enough that, after three years, the painting no longer had the element that I had originally liked. So, this type of thing, the slow but relentless loss of subtlety over time, has led to another version of the system. It's a question of the ingredients used to keep translucent paint stable, certain of these, and certain combinations of these, are more reliable than others. This is of course not an issue unless the system wants to capitalize on translucency. I think that's part of why the original systems that used translucent paint were so technically rigorous, there is not a lot of wiggle room in this type of system. But, anyway, I miss the original and will work with aspects of it as a reference coming forward with this one. About 8x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper over panel.


      Slightly larger version of a local landscape that worked out, urban image of one of those curious small deserted areas. Started this on pure gray, it's proving hard to warm up, but this provides an interesting tension between positive and negative colour. Possibly one more layer. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.

september 27

      Week of the Pope in town, week of the full moon, full moon later on today, hope the world doesn't end this time either. Intense week, a lot happened on a lot of fronts, still got a decent amount done. Not quite sure why, but it feels like the majority of the hard part is over for this project. This might simply be a matter of deciding that it has been hard enough, long enough, not sure. There have certainly been a number of approaches that have worked out, but none of them have felt conclusive. Not sure why I feel so much better about what happened this week, it probably doesn't look that different here. I think it's that the system has reached another level of maturity, but that, instead of being about what can happen next with the materials, this level is about using the materials information to finish paintings. This seems to be simple: I just finally really like the look of the paint itself. Not too modern, not to OM, not too matte, not too shiny, not too thin, not too goopy, etc. An inscrutable balance on a number of axes, which of course I like. It's still a pretty open-ended system, but it's not exploring so much as focusing. I realized that I can't be thinking about anything, including the paint itself, in order to let through what wants to come through. It has to be physical, extra-conscious. I would have agreed to that before, but didn't realize the extent to which working with alterations in the paint was distracting. At the same time, the look that has begun to seem like a reasonable destination only began recently. Anyway, for whatever reason, it feels like there's been a shift in emphasis, that I'm not pushing anymore, but being pulled.


      The medium went through an interesting metamorphosis this week. I've been working with a putty based on chalk and hand-refined linseed oil, and cycling various other ingredients in and out in small amounts. This week I ended up adding fumed silica to the putty again, this creates transparent density but the paint also moves more than when the same density is made with chalk. This increased movement is a little tricky, since I tend to like things to be more additive, but at the right proportion of chalk and silica and the right overall density there's both layering and movement. This is not new, but the iteration of it is a little more evolved now. In general, this type of paint allows more spontaneity, the approach can be adjusted to be more or less painterly as needed. I don't see fumed silica as a panacea, on its own it's a little slick, but it works well in tandem with the greater strength and stability of chalk. I'm also sticking with a little beeswax, this is helpful for keeping layers from drying down and isn't really noticeable in small amounts.


      I knew I had to give up on the lo-tech system of a piece of plywood on a keyboard stand, but really didn't want to make a worktable. But, there was really no option, unless I got a cheap woodworking bench and put a plywood top on it. That may still happen at some point. Anyway, made a work table this week! Just 2x4s and plywood, simple and sturdy, but very helpful in general and especially for making panels. For a while I've been putting canvas on the top of these first as a kind of couch, but between the two fabric textures the surface of the linen has a tendency to dimple in spite of lots of burnishing. Not a huge problem since the work tends to get lots of paint, but not ideal either. So I went back to paper over the plywood, Rives BFK, this burnished out very nicely. Also, there's the magic new Surebonder stapler, great design that's easy on the wrist.


      Had not the best day last Sunday, it felt like this. I'm pretty positive as a rule, so this type of thing is always unexpected, no rhyme or reason to it, just have to hold on and try to transform it. I've always liked these wabi-sabi sort of still life paintings, though, although they were not exactly a hit in Vermont. Not quite done, I'll mount it on a panel before continuing. 9x11.25 inches, oil on gessoed linen over canvas.


      Third layer on the watermelon. This is sort of the flagship now of the new approach. When Nick Lowe was producing records they called him The Basher, because he would tell bands to bash it out now, tart it up later. I'm thinking of this approach in a similar way, bash something out in each layer, but don't get too finicky, ever. Had some fun with this playing with the weight and dimensionality of the object in space, kept the background a little warm for the next layer. One more? Maybe two. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      A second layer on this study from a study begun last week, like where this went but there's more to go. About 10.25x14.5 inches, oil on gessoed linen over canvas.


      An image from Vermont of a place I worked for many years, some lovely evenings in this location. Still in the thin paint stage, this seems to be inevitable until I can see clearly how to complete it with denser paint. I used to rush these and get into trouble, but maybe it's time to start rushing them again. About 8x16 inches, oil on gessoed paper over canvas.


      Started this peony based on an older alla prima image, two thin layers of straight paint. May just keep going this way, this has a quality that is working so far. 12x15 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Mounted this image on paper onto a panel, this is a little tricky but I'm beginning to understand it better. Something older I had always wanted to complete, but there's no reference anymore so I'm on my own. The paint was a little slick, but this had become sort of confused with adjustments to the edges, added chalk and kept going. Surface is a little more consolidated or flat than I want it, but that's okay for now. About 13x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper over canvas on panel.


      Yesterday afternoon, still wet so a lot of glare, remade this image with the most recent paint but made it less slick. This was really nice to work with, conformed to my consciousness, lots of changes, pushing and pulling, warmer and cooler, lighter and darker, the ideal situation. Not done, but on its way somewhere I like in terms of the balance of colour and atmosphere, observation and paint.

september 20

      Another warm week, fall is starting very slowly here. Experienced a lot of examples of cultural fusion this week, Korean barbeque tacos, a band playing original klezmer Parisian gypsy jazz. It feels like things are fusing along in the work, too, but that the process can only go so fast. I get a little bugged by this, but then remember the many years in Vermont when I was painting for food, rent, dear life, and think, Okay, we don't want to go back there either. The sense that the process improves regularly but without any interest in resolution became a little focal yesterday. Had an interesting dream about this last night. In this dream, I was trying to get a train ticket from a large machine. In Vermont, of course, there was no such thing, and a feature of my new life has been minor kerfluffles with this type of technology: parking kiosks, or the Manhattan subway machinery. And, true to life, in the dream I didn't know how to work the machine, and made all kinds of errors inserting the money, pushing the wrong button, etc. People behind me in line were getting impatient. Well, maybe I felt they were getting impatient. Anyway, eventually I figured it out, more by accident than anything else, and got the ticket. I see the ticket as the next step in terms of fruition for the work, which I have worked on now since asking for more in 2001. Although it could also have to do with the work emerging more once again; the two are related, and I certainly don't know how to work the art world machine. This is a case of being careful what you wish for, since I wanted more of a relationship with the paint itself and certainly got it. There's a great George Washington Carver quote, "If you love something enough, it will tell you all its secrets." Maybe not all, but some, enough to suggest there might always be more. Anyway, it feels like the message of this is that there's a process that has to complete itself in it's own way to be real, true, authentic, whatever word it is that defines actual art as opposed to imitation art. This provides the most functional commentary. If I were just able to breeze through and hop on the train, I wouldn't have the same level of appreciation for the trip or the destination. I often get the feeling I've done all this before, that it has to be done a certain way now for specific reasons. I can guess at the what and why of this, but it really doesn't matter that much. The point is more that there's only a certain way.

      First week of the moon, a relatively hard one to figure out, for the first few days it wanted something I didn't understand. Got more into the feeling of it later in the week, had a few days of good developments in terms of using somewhat more dense paint. I got very involved with dense paint years ago, but found the topography of the impasto was curtailing development as often as not. Recently got involved with some paint whose character I liked, but it was too thin. So am now readjusting things again, it's interesting to realize how far the conception of the paint has come since 2007, when I first started using hand-refined cold-pressed linseed oil and chalk. This is something I am often asked questions about, given the advice in the 20th century textbooks it is difficult for people to believe that paint can be as stable as it can be using this system. I try not to be sort of evangelical about this, everybody loves their own system the best, and either someone's had it enough to start making their own oil or they haven't. It was the last thing I wanted to do, believe me, it was much more fun to figure out amber vanish. But hand-refined oil proved to have more to offer than I could ever have guessed from the behavior of modern oil.


      Made a lot of thicker oil this summer in the studio. This oil is auto-oxidized, and pre-polymerized to some extent. But not as much as a thermally polymerized oil, one thickened in the presence of lots of heat. Thermally polymerized oils have more film strength and more resistance to humidity and oxidation. In older painting, they may have also contributed to being able to draw in the paint, and to paint that was saturated with oil that was relatively thin. But I'm not the hugest fan of the thermally polymerized oils, a little is okay, but in larger amounts they tend to make the paint too literal for me. Anyway, here's some linseed oil I refined in 2011, put it in a pie plate and let it go a little too long without stirring it so it skinned over. I poured most of it out, but there's always a little more so I got some of that this morning, pretty thick now as you can see from the way it sits up on the knife. The folded over area of oil to the right is about 3/8 of an inch thick, so there is some colour to this, but for all practical purposes, it disappears in the pigment. Poppy oil might be less coloured at this thickness, I'm not sure walnut oil would. But with this linseed oil you get the drying speed, and the film strength.


      Put another layer on this one of a clearing rain shower in Vermont, am having issues with getting the right combination of unity and movement in the sky but this type of sky is always that way, the land has been moving forward. This was on a pure gray underpainting, not sure that was the best idea but it will stop influencing things eventually. It's a little frustrating to go slowly with this, but probably wise until it lets me know more about where it wants to go. About 14.5x26 inches, oil on linen.


      Put a relatively dense layer on the black and white beginning for this from last week, think it could use more paint but then I pretty much always do. Might try a larger version with a different composition, we'll see. Around 6.5x10 inches, oil on gessoed linen.


      One of the first local landscapes here was of a small empty lot near where I grew up, I used to see this spot all the time as a kid, it was a small used car place for a while, but has been empty now for decades. The area around it is pretty prosperous, but this spot is on a corner, in one of those transition zones between neighborhoods that can become no man's lands. This is a bigger version of that image, started it in black and white, then got one layer of colour on top of that. More to go, when the time is right it's always interesting to revisit something that worked out, there's always more to discover about the components that went into it. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Another older image I'd always wanted to go back to, the reference was the first painting itself. Started this one with a little colour in the grays, that seemed to help, then held onto the grays a little bit n the second layer. Don't want much for from this, hopefully one more layer with some saturation to the paint. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      I worked outside in Vermont for about a decade all in all, most of the better work is gone, but there are a few that were close, that have elements I'd like to return to. Started this based on one of those, got reasonably far for one layer and the number of changes involved. There's more detail in the foreground in the original, I think this is the largest issue, it needs more sense of what's really going on there. A little more challenging to do this with a landscape than a still life, but it was also from a painting that hadn't really worked out to begin with. About 10.25x14.5 inches, oil on gessoed linen over canvas. This was something I made at one point, a fabric sandwich, had some fine Belgian linen from a fabric store, made a sandwich of this with rabbit skin glue so the linen could be used unmounted.


      This one has developed steadily, but in increments that were pretty small. Saw a few things that could be changed, and put somewhat brighter colour on it this time. At first this looked a little Disney-ish, but then it dried about where I wanted it. There are lots of things about the art of landscape that I took for granted because they were easy to look at. More to go still, but closer. About 12.5x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

september 13

      Last week of the moon, new moon this morning, feel almost physically itchy right now. Something new is happening! But what?!? It may be a few days before I know. Cooler this morning, looks like the end of the greater heat, got a lot of work done, feel like things continue to open up into territory I haven't understood. But have to admit there were some less than equanimous moments, this is somehow easier in a hot city of six million people than a rural state with 500,000. Culmination yesterday afternoon when the fire alarm here went off. Insane massive frantic sound out of nowhere. Turned out it was for no reason but it took a while to figure that out, then to figure out how to shut it off. So, started thinking about the various other alarms that are going off. I hope that, as a species, we finally figure out that there's no combination of violence, prevarication, and social injustice that is going to work, we must be near the end of all the possible permutations at this point. It's strange to feel that we are so near to two types of turning point, I wonder if both of them will simply happen at once.


      There's an old arboretum near here, more there than meets the eye. A little brutal on a summer afternoon, last weekend it was full of brides on golf carts too, I love stuff like this, but couldn't bear to take photos of them, Robert Frank would have. This time it was easier to see all that colour on an overcast day. Much older Philadelphia here, sort of under the surface, an interesting tension there between old and newer horticulture, what a garden is about, what the land is about. Lots of amazing plant varieties, a nice wilder water meadow area, similar to the area near the lake in Vermont, the riot of fall wildflower blooms and colour beginning. Some adventurous plantings now in the formal gardens, fun to see more than endless tea roses. Although there was a dark red rose with an amazingly deep and multi-dimensional fragrance, lyrical base but with clove, nutmeg, and somehow the thorns as well.


      The famous spike lavender, a more elegant, less penetrating smell in this context.


      I can't remember the name of this apple but they have a dense floral aroma, almost a reek, and as soon as I came near them I was at the big farmstand near my grandparent's house in Berks County, circa 1965. This has happened before here, memories brought back by the smell of boxwoods, or the smell of baking leaves in the fall, but this smell triggered a very specific place and time.


      I did some experimenting with thermally polymerized oils in the last few weeks. It was something I sort of bypassed, and a correspondent wondered why, since "heat-bodied oils" are often found in older painting. I can see their usefulness: they work thinly for their viscosity, dry hard, and are more resistant to oxygen over time, you can draw with the brush more easily. But have to admit that, on their own, they're not my favorite. They're too literal or limpid for my sense of the paint, I think would also be more at home larger scale. However, they're very nice when mixed with an auto-oxidized oil. This week tried out a mixture of 1 part BPO#7, 3 parts SRO linseed that had been heated to 200C for 2 hours, and 8 parts SRO linseed that had been thickened in a half full bottle for a few hot months, pretty thick, not terminal. This was very nice as a couch, rubbed on quite thinly, the mix of thick and thin thermally polymerized oils slides, but the density of the auto-oxidized oil helps them to stay put more.


      Got two more layers on the watermelon, very thin couch of the mixed oil on the last one. A strong composition, started to get a little more into the colour to balance this out, when things are too simple I get itchy, need to dial in something more. More to go but am happy with where this is at this point. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      This peony keeps getting closer, an image where I've learned a lot about the colours within the colours, I like the background sense of brighter chroma. One more layer? 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Layer six on this relatively graphic cornfield, it's bugging me but will just keep going, adding chroma and warmer colours, adjusting the sky pattern, making the whole thing a little more abstract. The slightly larger scale of the images below on coarse linen is easier to resolve. About 12x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Got three thin layers of paint on the larger start on linen from last week, Farr Cross, late afternoon in May. A lot to balance! Not bad for this stage, nice cloud pattern in the sky but it's interfering at this point with the overall sense of unity. Similarly, need to break up the strong lines in the land more. It's always a fine line between happy and saccharine in something like this, lyrical colour needs an added element of rigour. About 14.5x25.5 inches, oil on linen.


      One of the most interesting types of weather in Vermont was clearing after a rain. Usually with these shaft of light type images there's too much drama or contrast, but I liked the way there was more light overall in this, and was intrigued by the strange glow of the foreground meadow in shadow. Two thin layers of straight paint, need to recompose and unify the sky, a lot of pieces but they don't go together yet. But otherwise not bad for this stage. There's a point at which to solve something by simplifying it with a lot of paint, but not quite yet with this one. About 14.5x26 inches, oil on linen.


      Apple I've been working on for smooth surface ideas, I'd put a really thin layer of thermally polymerized walnut oil on this as a test, this dried but with a kind of rubberiness that I associate with walnut oil. Ground this back with fine sandpaper before putting the mixed oil couch on it, this was pretty tight or adhesive over the dried walnut oil, worked for this image but was deceptive in terms of using the couch for other things: the walnut oil beneath was in fact adding adhesion or grip but I didn't realize it. A lot of minutiae, but something to consider: when you read that a painting is made with "just oil," there may be more to that oil than meets the eye. About 8.5x11.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile.


      Small study of one of my favorite places in Vermont, late September, used this to test the couch idea again, in this case the paint was too mobile for the scale, but that's okay, it needed to be altered anyway, became a little better. This is something that seems to happen near the end of the moon, asking procedural questions, fiddling with older stuff. About 7.5x10.25 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Image from Lucca I worked with years ago, had always wanted to revisit it. Beginning with black and white is interesting, I used to avoid it because it looks ugly to me, but in a way that's its great asset. I'm fascinated by the tension between literal and psychological reality, wanted to get the sense of this without too much fussiness or detail. Will formulate something goopy and adhesive for the next layer in colour. Around 6.5x10 inches, oil on gessoed linen.

september 6

      Third week of the moon, just into the last quarter now. Very warm week for the season, I pretty much hid out and worked, mostly on older things, got a lot done but more solid layers, nothing too amazing happened. Still, it adds up, I don't get stuck as much anymore. Began some new things that I'm hopeful about, the balance between new and old is always tricky, something to be learned from both approaches. For me every image sort of dictates its own terms, has a certain way it wants to be made. It sometimes takes time to find out what this is, but if that's the process, it really can't be changed without risking it's basic purpose.


      When I heard about the big summer Impressionist show downtown, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I like these paintings generally, on the other hand, the idea of Another Big Impressionist show seemed a little much. And, that's about how it was in life too. No photos were allowed, encouraging you to purchase the book, which I would gladly have done if the reproductions had been better. There's no excuse for this. But of course, this is more of a popular-historical show than a show about the paintings. So, what I can give you is a photo of the well-appointed Impressionist gift shop. A long way from the Salon des RefusÚs. The Degas emphasis here is interesting, because the Degas works in the show were mostly oddballs, interesting in their own way but not a major presence. Is it safe to say that pink sells? In theory, this show was about the Commitment of Durand-Ruel to the New Painting, but, because it didn't originate with the collection of a major museum, it also was made up of what they could get. So, there were a lot of odds and ends, which was fine with me. The surprise was seeing a large group of the Monet poplars, these were only shown together briefly before being dispersed. They are not that big, and uneven compared to the cathedrals, but also sort of refreshing too. A few that were more finished and colourful, a few that were clearly done in one sitting. Manet, modern critical darling, was not that well represented, but there are a couple great ones by Berthe Morisot, lots of feeling and paint energy there. There were some very nice Sisleys, the Impressionist with the worst luck commercially. There's a lot of Renoir bashing among my contemporaries, there was one really nice portrait of a girl, pretty famous, from the first exhibition, but not that much besides. Pissarro showed up very well in contrast. They didn't have any of the famous ones, none of the peasants either, mostly earlier ones when his style is still related to Corot, and one of these was just amazing. So, I wish I had more on this, but it was fun to see, stirred things up in a good way in terms of emphasizing the presence of the paint.


      Got one more layer on the cornfield, this makes five, not bad for the type of image, but less resolved. In some ways this is happy, in other ways this is intense, would like to find a balance without cancelling either of them out.There are a couple different routes this could take at this point, will just keep going, augmenting the colour to be more lyrical, adjusting the composition until it feels solid. About 12x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Third layer on this image from way up in the Grafagnana, am still having issues with what to do in the upper left but otherwise am happy with this, don't want it to get too fine, there's something a little goofy going on right now that I like. About 12.5x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Third layer on this recent study of Farr Cross in Vermont. May, had kept the colour quieter, but decided to see what would happen with more chroma. This was fun, but it dried a little brighter than I'd anticipated. So maybe the thing to do now is go back to lower chroma, and alternate those approaches. About 9 x 14.5 inches, oil on gessod paper.


      Small older study of Cape Cod that had become too graphic, wanted to see how much mid-range I could re-establish in one layer. Bumped it but it still needs more, about 9x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Layer five or six on this one, turned the corner in terms of the colours. It dried down a little, I was surprised since drying too bright has been an issue lately, but that's okay, it's close. About 11x14, oil on gessoed line over panel.


      A recent floral that began a little differently, the last layer dried a little too light, a high class problem with oil, so dropped this one back again with a little more chroma. More to go, but going somewhere interesting. About 14x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      An image I like that has gone through a lot, would probably be best to just start a bigger one but every now and then I go back to this one for the heck of it. Have used it to try out a lot of things, some of which have worked out better than others. Still, there's something about an image with lots of paint, it's supposed to be one moment, but is obviously not. Not done but back on track, about 10.5x11 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Fourth thin layer on this recent start, going slowly in an effort to let it make itself from less paint in more layers, without the need for sanding back, corrections, etc. Old-fashioned economy Renaissance palette without blue, about 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Small still ife from the beginning of the year, something I'd done before and felt confident about, but I saw it differently enough, that is, more of it enough, that I gave it a rest. Adjusted the edges, more to go but the composition is better, will mount it on a panel next. About 7.5 x 14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Fourth thin layer on this onion, am going slowly with this in an effort to keep it essential, make all the necessary adjustments before trying to make anything detailed. About 7.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Something older that I'd always wanted to do again, strange tension between elegant and fun. Started this in what I've come to think of as the vivid tetrachromatikon: black, white, and a bright modern yellow and red instead of the earth colours. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      With these relatively spare images of an object soliloquizing on the stage of life, the relationship between the object and its space is really important. Here are two versions of an image, the first one done from life on paper, the second done from the first one on a panel. Don't think there's any point in continuing the second one, it became pretty damaged in the move, but, more importantly, the jellyroll morphed into the wrong size, making the whole thing sort of dorky and claustrophobic. So, something I'll be working on soon.


      Just before I came back here from Vermont, I made a nice batch of linen on a hollow core door. The door has to be covered with thin plastic, then the linen is stretched, sized, and primed. I used white lead over the glue, rubbed it on with a nitrile glove, wanted to get a very 19th century type of surface. Used a piece of that, aged a few years now, to start this image of Farr Cross. I'd tried this before, years ago, so remembered a few things not to do. Wanted to get a general feeling for it, begin to translate it at this stage. This creates an intereting tension between observation and interpretation from the beginning. Didn't have a lot of time for this before other stuff had to happen, so moved right along. The clouds are complicated, but adjustable, so I'm not that concerned about creating balance there. The main issue is the way the line of trees sits on the land, and the pattern of light and dark in the foreground, these need some attention in the next layer. About 14.5x25.5 inches, oil on linen.

august 30

Week of the full moon, not quite so hot, cooler mornings and evenings. A lot of different things happened in the work, investigated higher temperature oil again for the first time in a while, and made a trip yesterday with friends to the Princeton Art Museum, some highlights below. Slightly thinner medium, slightly brighter colour, don't feel like I've got it but the work is changing in a way I like, am seeing more things around that look finished or close, the newer beginnings are moving forward more quickly. Almost September, it looks like one more hot week to go.


      Chardin, interesting for the way the palette is set up, earth colours in the first line with the white, then the brighter colours in a second line, from left they look like Prussian blue, lead tin yellow, vermilion, and realgar. Chardin really owns orange, I think it's the way he can begin with the burnt ochre, then come over it with something higher chroma using the realgar and a little lead tin yellow. That looks like what happened with the left hand side of the terra cotta bottle.


      Very nice late Morandi, part of a great series from 1957. Simple paint, relatively thin, consistent translucent syncopation pattern interrupting the realism, lots of fine chromatic details. Totally, wacky frame, but it works. Looking at this made me think a lot about finished, what it might mean at this point. I'd say around 9x 16 inches.


      A real surprise, a Minerva with the Gorgon shield, a piece of a 15th century fresco from a palace in Siena taken off the wall and mounted on canvas. The quality of the colour and surface were both really exceptional, hard to describe, different than frescoes I've seen in life, I'd love to know what is on the surface, the colour was matte but saturated, felt quite deep, the natural ultramarine was warmer and softer than I could get it here, lovely contrast with the various grays made with black.


      I left the white lead in its box with the acetic acid for a few more weeks, didn't refresh the CO2 generator so this was a more oxygenated atmosphere. It still developed, and took on more of a blue cast from copper acetate. Why, I have no idea, but this gets washed away. Anyway, harvested all of this this week, carefully, wearing a mask, cleaned up the area well afterwards. Glad I did this, it was always on my list, but not sure I'll do it again. The problem is not making it, but processing it safely.


      Had an email from Australian painter Sam Broadhurst this week, talking about the findings of the Indra Kneepens paper, "Understanding historical recipes for the modification of linseed oil." My friend Roland had sent me this paper last year, but I hadn't had time to look at it closely. There are aspects of the way the research was conducted that didn't work for me, some choices that seemed arbitrary, but of course, this is not research by a painter for painting, it's a scholarly comparison of some historical recipes. Similar to the context of dissection being used to explain the frog, I felt there was much more to the frog than could be discovered through the method. Then again, I would. But, these complex prejudices aside, there's always more, and Sam brought up the role of "heat-bodied oil" in older painting, having succeeded in heating refined walnut oil to 265C without it darkening too much. I got away from heat bodied oil early on, I tried heating walnut oil until is got reasonably thick,but didn't like the look of it that much, and linseed oil and chalk produced a very strong and stable paint film. But I've often found that revisiting a given procedure after time yields very different results, so there was no denying that there might be something more to learn. Recently, I'd worked a lot with the 150C temperature threshold, which works for some things, but doesn't necessarily prepolymerize the oil. For thicker oil, I'd used hand-refined linseed oil that was exposed to light and air, but this isn't that pre-polymerized either, in terms of molecules linking together in longer chains. Still, I've found it very strong and stable. But, there may be a specific optical quality to the thermally polymerized oils, a way the pigment is suspended. So this week I did a few small scale experiments heating the oil a little more. I use a nice old Corning hotplate for this, it's got a stirrer but I broke it years ago making amber varnish, and an external thermometer. This kind of thing needs to be done outside, or with lots of ventilation, because once the oil reaches its smoke point, variable depending on the oil and its degree of refinement, it begins to release acrolein, which, as it's name implies, smells terrible, and is toxic to boot. For a small amount of oil, I had a fan blowing out an open window here.


      From the left: Started with some walnut oil I refined, heated it to what turned out to be the smoke point, about 200C, for two hours. It got a little darker, but not much, could probably go twice as long without darkening further. While physically thicker, this was quite fine in working, spread out very thinly, dried with a gloss. Being walnut oil, it still took several days to dry, but that's okay. Next is some four year old sand and salt-refined linseed oil, heated to 200C with ground calcite. I did this because I read in a paper that metallic salts lower the threshold of both the Diels-Alder reaction, which organizes the molecules into hexagonal units, and the cross-linking of the triglycerides. This oil was cloudy in the end from the way small molecules became involved with calcium ions, so I froze it twice, this helps it to clear. One more round of freezing and it will probably be crystalline. Haven't had a chance to do anything with this yet, it will probably be very similar to the walnut oil, but with more body, and dry very quickly. Then did an experiment heating some aged, very thick sand and salt refined linseed oil. This is something Daniel Graves very nicely told me about, but I hadn't tried it with a really thick oil. The heating releases the water and various other byproducts that occur from the interaction with air. It is exothermic, at around 100C there is a great deal of bubbling and the temperature goes way up, fast. So here, the oil is made thinner, it's still got plenty of body but slides more, and even though it has some colour, it will arguably age better. Next to it is what it looked like before heating. This is the oil I've been using to paint with for the last few years, aged sand and salt refined linseed oil that has been thickened to various degrees in the light. Last is something I've wanted to try, heating an oil with the lead carbonate I recently made. I did this with some sand and salt refined oil that was thicker, but the exothermic reaction darkened the oil very quickly. So, I let this go an hour afterwards, then added an equal amount of aged sand and salt refined linseed oil. This thinned it out, and I think most of the darker material is going to fall out over the next week or so. This oil could be tried again after the exothermic phase, adding the lead carbonate at 100C. Or it could be tried using thin oil, in theory the addition of lead carbonate allows the oil to pre-polymerize far below the usual 200C. It would be interesting, for example, to try four hours at 100C. I feel kind of nervous about the higher temperatures for a couple reasons, but the most compelling one technically is that a higher temperature oil is more likely to darken over time. Darkening is an inconvenient truth, there's a tendency to act like it's never going to happen if the painting gets through its first few weeks on the bright side. There are medium recipes out there that use a lot of Canada Balsam, for example, acting like it won't darken. But everything oxidizes, so it will. Ask a conservator what 100 year old damar varnish looks like, it can be pretty bad, but damar was the chosen perfect material of the 20th century! Etcetera. One thing you can say about oil paintings made with permanent pigments is they do not get lighter over time. So, it seems like a good idea to try to maximize the chances that the chroma and value structure will remain stable, since there are so many examples around where it clearly has not. I'm not saying a higher temperature oil shouldn't be used, but, like a hard resin varnish, it's something to use with an awareness of probable darkening in the proportion it's been used. Of course, there are things that mitigate this, egg yolk for example, but egg yolk needs to be used on panels and cancels out the saturation of the pre-polymerized oil. So, as you can see, this goes on and on. Enough for now?


      It's really good to do materials tests, especially yellowing tests. I was concerned about the dark colour of the original leaded oil this week, upper left, but this appears to be fugitive. Similarly, while the Olio di Graves had some colour, lower right, this is pretty much gone. Both of these oils dried overnight, given that they're based on SRO linseed I'm not concerned with them darkening in the long run.


      Mounted the beach from last week on a panel and did another layer on it, took out the umbrella and added to the sky. Needs more but there's something here, will break up the colour in the sky and beach a little more so the figures don't seem as focal or jumpy. About 7.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper over linen on panel.


      Decided to try a more figure oriented version of the beach image, just got one layer on it. This was really interesting, but it feels like there's a lot to learn about what this is, where it wants to go. About 8x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper, will mount this on a panel before the next layer, it might be a little long.


      Pretty graphic image of late corn from a hardscrabble area in Addison County, Vermont. Did a small study of this that looked promising but then fell apart. So, regrouped for something larger, began it slowly in one colour to map things well. Learned this is a little tricky as a composition, depends on a lot of little elements moderating that strong horizontal.


      Layer four, still in the development stage but I think that's a good idea for this, a lot of patterns to get right without them getting too locked or strident. Nothing major as an issue, will keep refining it in relatively thin layers with more attenuated colour. About 12x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Small version of the Mugello farm image I return to for general solace, an adult teddy bear. Did this on a rare, take no prisoners day, just saw what to do and did it, no reference, this is pretty much always how things get finished. On the bright side, but it's small. I'll leave this for a while, it has a frame, might actually be done but I like to sit with things if possible. About 8x13 inches, oil on gessoed panel.


      Larger version of the image above, slightly softer colour scheme that goes with the scale. Not quite done, but pretty close. About 13x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper on canvas.


      An image I always liked, way up in the Garfagnana in late September, finally saw how to do it without being too finicky, this is first layer of colour over the underpainting. About 12.5x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      An image I've always wanted to work with, scruffy little plot of vines, also way up in the Garfagnana in late September. Did this with a putty of chalk and the Olio di Graves, mixed with some burnt green earth pigment. A little bit too goopy or melting for me, but not by much. Learned a lot, several different ways this idea could be developed from here, I'd like to do something fairly graphic of just the vines, then maybe something larger of the whole thing, again starting slowly. Also think this needs to be longer. About 13x8.75 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

august 23

      First quarter of the moon, the heat finally beginning to let go a little bit here, a great old fashioned summer day yesterday. Had a few really stopped days this week, followed by a few good ones. Never sure what this is about, but part of the August factor, just have to go with it. Stopping always provides an opportunity to get more perspective, more of an overview, and this can really help in terms of seeing what wants to happen next. Feels like I've never known more, or less, about what to do next. Like, it could all go anywhere. This usually means that a new pattern is forming, but this can't be rushed, it arrives when it arrives. This week showed me that, even though starting new work always sort of opens up Pandora's Box, this is fine in moderation. After a certain point there's no choice, the older work can't be resurrected to the level required by the present. Don't really love the tension involved in this, the endless itch, would like more resolution, but have learned from both new and indirect work, so maybe resolution would be boring. This aspect of process is beyond words anyway, what wants to happen happens, and the process accrues more information. I may want to get there quicker, but if the river didn't meander, it wouldn't be a river. Cooler days are coming, it will get easier to work again. Just as August is always a challenge, September always feels like getting out of jail.


      Went in town on some recreational errands yesterday, took a walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge, a place with lots of space and light, and a lot going on all at once. I'm not the hugest fan of heights, or of bridges that shake with the heavier traffic, but it was better this time.


      I took a lot of photographs as a kid in Philadelphia, this is one type of material that interested me, still plenty of it around. Not sure what type of material is there for paintings yet, but keep looking.


      An image I'd worked on off and on for years, was never quite satisfied with it, decided to let it go and start a new one with a different composition. Like this much better. Am approaching it slowly, I think my enthusiasm for the image created a situation where I was always overpainting it, or overshooting it. There's always a lot to learn in something simple and close like this, no place to hide yet it has to get beyond rendition. Two layers on it, much more to go. About 7.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      I'd wanted to go back to the figures on the beach, focus more on the figures, do something loose in one layer. Made this with a more saturated medium, but overshot things a little bit, it was kind of a pain to work with, did the small stuff well but not the large stuff. I like the general feeling of the colour, but the complexity of the composition was hard to puzzle out. If it's cropped tighter, less long, the umbrella begins to work better. As it is it works better the umbrella removed. So, an improvement but more to learn about this, might grind this back and rework it thoroughly, might leave this alone for the time being and just do another one. About 6.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Something older of Farr Cross in Vermont that just came to light. It was fun to redo this after a year or so, felt how much I'd learned. More to go, a little too lyrical in the sky, a little more detail in the land. About 8x16 inches, oil on gessoed paper on panel.


      When I got back here last year I did a few local landscapes that turned out well, but these are dependent on both the material, and on simplification. This is layer three on this one, I liked late light and the reference to the older outdoor studies in Rome. It came together a little but there are still some questions, the single red roofline on the upper right is taking over. About 9x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.

august 16

      Last quarter of the moon, a little cooler, some lovely mornings this week before the furnace kicked in. Plugged away, as stated I do not love August but if you show up long enough, even your own discomfort seems to become more spacious, almost comical. It's always good to question, rather than attempt to justify, my own resistance, but not always easy to do. The resistance sneaks in, full of righteous indignation, before you know it you're yelling about everything, the all-American pastime. But also one that doesn't accomplish anything. New moon on Friday, there have been a few mild ones recently but this one was jet propelled, kind of a chaotic day, a kerfluffle of newness that has yet to settle down. But that's fine, plugging away always leads to a point where there's a larger shift. At the same time, I want these shifts to be organic, natural, so they're always small, have to pay attention. For a long time now I've wondered how the landscape work would become further resolved, but began to see it more clearly this week. It's about balancing a lot of different things, so it makes sense it would have taken a while. I've just got an inkling, but in August, an inkling is a Victorian novel. Also began a somewhat overdue a swipe at the summer's accumulated detritus. Well, I guess there isn't any other kind of swipe. I don't revel in or glorify the messy studio. But it happens. Up to a point, I can understand the coziness of chaos generated by one's own process. But only up to a point, then I have to go after it. So, later in the week, after hunting in vain for several things I had just seen days before, did a round of that, along with starting a batch of new panels. Continued to adjust the medium, small tweaks of the emulsion but they're behaving as expected. Like how it performed in general but need to do more with it to be sure. Well, maybe not "sure", how about less totally uncertain? This is not a place I love, but I visit it often enough and it seems to generate growth. I think this is because, if certainty is the light, doubt is the shadow. Removing doubt may be more comfortable, but it literally removes a dimension from the experience. Not knowing is always the gateway to the next level of knowing. But this not knowing place is not ignorance, or confusion, either. It's a kind of receptivity, like saying, I thought I knew the answer, but now I've realized it was only part of the answer. The frame of reference expands, and even though nothing has changed, everything is different. This type of consideration, or observation, of course, is the basis of the examined life, the process I work with or document in paint. I mention this because I'm running into more people who say, "What's not finished about that?" and I realized this week that the answer is, "I don't know, but I'm in the process of finding out."


      Got involved in making panels this week for the first time in a while. I've been trying to resurrect older images off and on, but some recent beginnings have suggested I'm at the point in the bone pile where letting go would be wiser in many cases. So, did a round of removing canvas from older images. As is often the case, death and rebirth, realized how one of them should have been painted all along. But it needed a certain ratio of panel that I didn't have. So, the process began. I tend to go a little ape when this happens, make a lot, but that's okay. There's a lot of minutiae to doing this, maybe the biggest thing I've learned over the years is to attach a layer of canvas to the front of the panel first so the ultimate surface isn't quite so mechanically flat or perfect. Also, one of the panels I took apart was so old it had been made with acrylic gesso. That's pre-millenium! I used to add a little water and marble dust to this to make it more matte and open, but the process of removal showed that the paint was more firmly bonded to itself than to the ground. Admittedly removal involves some pretty extreme stress to the paint film, but the paint itself, six or seven years of layers, did fine. Something to keep in mind. Also, huge event, got a new staple gun. Years ago my old Arrow became too much for my wrist during these panel bouts, so I went to an electric one, but it really began to be persnickety, I spent more time clearing jams than stapling. Well, looked around on Amazon and it turns out I'm not the only one with this issue! Some pretty funny posts about badly designed staplers. Anyway, had found one by Duo-Fast that everyone loved, but I've got a lot of T-50 staples to use up, so paused. Then ended up at a great hardware store this week, Stanley's on Ridge Avenue, I guess it's East Falls not Manayunk, and looked at what they had. Got a manual one called Surebonder, the design had a good vibe, noticed it was made in India, not China, and that put it over the top. It's been great so far, not hard on the wrist at all compared to the T50 and the way the staples load is really ingenious.


      A place in Vermont I documented a lot, couldn't really paint there because it was actually at a pretty busy intersection, paved road just behind this view. Near the end of the day, an image I'd always liked but been puzzled by, it had gotten too dark, but thought the recent medium could overcome this and it did. Not done, but a layer that felt like a shift in a better direction. An image I'd like to make at a slightly larger scale, say, 12x20 inches, but it's a really good idea to puzzle these out small first. I don't know, larger is certainly easier in terms of the scale of the paint, getting the relevant details. Maybe with a slower beginning like the one below, less paint, it might work now without a study. About 9.5x14.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile on canvas. This will be glued to a panel next.


      New beginning, an image of Farr Cross in Vermont, the old road before the "improved" it, sigh, all dirt, no gravel, making this from before the millenium. Had always liked this but it was from May, so featured the Oz effect. Did two layers, the first was really thin, a good choice for this image, allowing lots of decisions and changes without much paint. Kept going with denser paint but low chroma, like the overall feeling although not sure if the cloudband can rise to quite that extent on the right. So, this could take a few more layers to develop or I could go in with a denser medium and try to complete it. I knew you were going to say that. About 8.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.

august 9

      Summer continues to continue. The months have personal moods, August is historically not the most halcyon of times, I'm always a little wary as a result. Pacing the cage, wondering not so much where the lions are, but whether the ecstasy will ever get ahold of me again. A little less relentless this week, into the fourth quarter of the moon, I'm pretty much waning as well, have a number of deferred errands to do in the week to come, may take a few days off, make panels and some new tubes of paint. Got a decent amount done this week all things considered, am slowly becoming more accepting of the process in all its iterations, less focused on the results I always end up chasing over the horizon anyway. This continues to be about paying attention to what is actually happening, rather than what I, in my infinite wisdom, expected. This process is a lot like those Russian dolls, levels that are hidden each inside the other. When I find a new one, it always changes the entire frame of reference. So it's kind of a paradox, because, while the levels are inside one another, each one is bigger than the one before it. But was this structure there all along, or does the search itself generate it? I guess what matters is that there is always more to find, more to learn. Sometimes it's a little daunting, realizing that whatever I know is conditional, not the answer but only part of the answer, but this same situation is also pretty sustaining. Like the summer itself, on it goes.


      Got one sheet of the lead white processed and tubed, used some aged linseed oil I refined, this paint is an interesting combination of dense and mobile, but not at all thick or glutinous or ropey. A lot more to learn here, may grind the next batch with oil that is thicker, this may supply more elasticity. Still, this was very fun to work with, has a lot more potential than I've explored yet even as it is.


      Got re-involved with handmade paint in general this week. This comes and goes, sometimes it drives me crazy, other times it seems crucial. Resurrected a few tubes of earth colours that had gotten too tight, thought about what to make to cross the current system with what I've been doing with the remaining Blockx colours I have. Not sure how much point there is in making something like Pyrol crimson, it's way more expensive from Kremer than Blockx, but maybe worth a try. Do want to try making a tube of blue that I like, this would be unique, I'm always mixing blues, but think I have a formula that might work now. At the same time, it's refreshing to go back to the earth colour palette, not that much has been done with the full potential of these colours recently.


      This one went through a first layer with too much oomph. An image I've done before, tried to muscle through a smaller one. But ultimately ground it back. Put a few layers on it, more backfill than conclusive. But this week brought it forward using lots of different colours of white and more mobile paint overall. For me it's a fine line between paint that is too mobile, and paint whose density is interesting to layer. There was always something I wanted to understand with colour, something to do with the way reflections help unify white objects, I didn't want it to get too fussy or relentless, but wanted a foot in that particular technical door. Some smaller things to adjust, but in a better place than the original could conceive of. 11x14 inc hes, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      This one suffered from a good first layer, I really thought it was launched. And perhaps a decade ago it would have proceeded, unimpeded, to a specific destination. But somewhere along the way I became more interested in understanding things than finishing them to plan. I think this was because it was clear that colour had dimensions in it that were firmly out of my grasp, locked away in the dusty Old Master vault. Well, I don't really want that Mancini type of command, it gets a little much, relentless subtlety is as wearying as relentless anything, but I wanted at least some aspects of it available. A little blue now, a little subfusc, I've been holding off on all the fallen petals, there are lots of these but they're kind of chaotic to paint around. Think they're necessary, though, without them it's a little too pure.


      Another version of a favorite early peony, an absorbent ground, got two layers on it in thin handmade paint. No blue in this, I always like the look of this palette after using blue for a while. This way of beginning is pretty crude, the paint is firmly attached but am beginning to question the way the way the surface impedes movement. This may be because I'm more able to rescue things at this point than a decade ago. Still, the slow beginning often leads to a more conclusive finish. We'll see, I may need to break the table line on the left as well. 11x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      One thing I tried with the gessoed panels was putting a lean putty and lead white mixture over them with a broad knife. This both sealed the surface and eliminated most of the linen's texture, perhaps went a little too far. Anyway, this panel had been aging for a while so I ground it back with oil and sandpaper, wiped it well and then with alcohol. Got two thin layers on it, one slightly dark, the next with white, this approach would have seemed too facile for me before, but know I know that most of these images are going to take a long time anyway, might as well start them further along, with less paint, more rendering. 12x16 inches, oil on linen over panel.


      Got two thin layers on this image of the local cat, a genuinely wise and kindhearted being. Handmade paint on a handmade panel, first time I'd used my own ivory black, made it with aged hand-refined linseed oil, it was strong compared to the Blockx I've been using. I think this might have been part of the older system using earth colours, aged oil accepted more pigment, making the colours stronger. I liked how the homemade lead white performed, although its combination of density and movement took a little getting used to. More to go, I'm a little more confident with this one so it's blockier, but the expression is of course the important part, centered in the eyes. The eyes with their sense that, even though I'm undeniably human, there just might be hope. Original image below, four layers, both are 6x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.

august 6

      Continuing with the handmade lead white experiment. Began to grind the damp pigment in three year old hand-refined linseed oil two days ago, but it was too wet, decided to stop and let it dry out overnight. So, this part is a little tricky, the pigment is coarse and holds more water than it appears to hold. Still, the damp approach is logical for someone who made the pigment themselves. It dried out overnight, was then able to finish it the next day with a little more oil, the old oil really absorbs a lot more pigment. Still, there's some water in this paint. Left it a little coarse, it has a very nice combination of density and movement, is not glutinous. I'm not sure how much of the "nacreous plumbonacrite" effect I'm going to get, but this is not like any lead white I've made or purchased. We'll see what happens, plenty of variables still. Also, left it a little loose since it's only going to get thicker as it ages in the tube, but it has plenty of body. Am thinking about the painting to make with this, I need to make some black, then have all the colours handmade in hand-refined oil, on a handmade ground, on a handmade panel. Just for fun, as an experiment. I can stop whenever I want to.

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