Tad Spurgeon oil paintings
Numenist, anachronist, maroon.


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A weekly look at process and work in progress.

june 28

      Waxing moon, stormy week including rain, downed trees, and blessed coolness the last few days. Plugged away but felt antsy, then got involved with something new that was interesting but also, well, new, lots of questions about how to develop it still. In larger terms am still fighting the battle of process vs. product, have made progress so far this year, but things are slower now with the heat. There's more to go, but "trying" to get there just doesn't work. This is all stuff I read about long ago, not aiming, etc., but it's different when you're in it to this degree, especially when the project feels so close to completion. Still, it keeps on changing, which is great fun, and I'd rather have the next step than improve the previous one.


      Recently put about two dozen eight ounce bottles half full of oil on the windows to thicken, an experiment in sun oil under more control. It's been a month, the oil is losing colour but is still pretty thin. Maybe by the end of the summer it will be moderately thick, that's all I need, then I'll fill the bottles and start the leftover ones again. Anyway, the bottles had small necks so poured the oil in from this Pyrex measuring cup. Of course forget about cleaning it, and a reasonable amount of oil accumulated at the bottom. This is from August, 2011, so almost four years old. I was happy that, at this amount, and in a relatively dark and humid situation, it still didn't darken very much.


      Attila Gazo of Master Pigments sent me a link last week to a very well-done video he put up about making your own Flake white. As you probably know, white lead is basically banned in Europe now and the white lead that exists is from China. Commercially, it's also a different pigment now chemically, mostly neutral lead carbonate instead of the complex mixture of lead carbonate, lead hydroxide, and a few other things that makes up traditional stack process lead white. So, I've been talking about Attila's process with my friend Roland, and Roland sent me this picture of a test he has started. Roland was a little concerned about the procedure generating enough carbon dioxide, but it clearly does. There are lots of different types of white lead both historically and in terms of how the paint made with it handles, lots of subtleties of manufacture, so this will be interesting to begin to explore in the months to come.


      This week's putty, a few days old, getting tight and sticky. Still working with a little bit of wax, starch gel, and fused damar, trying to get it to be firmer in the warmer studio, but otherwise like the look of the surface: saturated but not too shiny, fine overall impasto, sort of a brocaded look.


      For many years I worked with a road in Vermont that had no houses, just a road through farmland, this is in Addison County near the lake. Late summer rain, third layer, looking fior for a certain quality of light and air. I got very beat up by the first small study of this, which thank goodness has disappeared somewhere and can't be referred to. Nothing too elegant yet, but am happy to be this far with a larger one. A little literal, and have a feeling this will take a while to change, but the foundation is there. About 15x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      First beach, layer five, this one started out kind of literal and seems to want to stay that way. Put the figures in, they were way off on the dark sand by the water, but they were too small, too focal, so took them out. Lots of fine colour shifts in the middle, haven't quite gotten this to click yet. A little subfusc here compared to life, some less than suave areas overall, but in the ballpark, feels like this doesn't need change just more paint. About 12.5x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Second beach study, this one began less literally and is continuing that way. The tidal finger in the foreground was too long and focal, I was going to remove it but then stopped with it smaller and chunkier. The sky in this is pretty hopeless, deep horizontal banding, so have to make up a lot there. Like the general feeling of this, and where the alternations have gone so far, but it may take a few more layers to achieve the effect of effortlessness. About 12x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      The scale of the figures in the painting above seemed a little small, so I tried one with a sprinkling of larger people looking for shells on the point. This was a group that really appealed to me, humanity trudging forward, but they were pretty hazy, tried to make them brighter. This was interesting but also sort of frustrating, seemed a little too literal. It would be fun to change this with a goopy layer, but decided to move on for now.


      Re-did the same image with the idea of making it more atmospheric. This pretty much always makes me feel better, it's just a question of how it happens in a given image. Started out with a red chalk drawing on a pretty grippy glue gesso ground, then sketched in the figures lightly, then put a veil of the blue-gray in putty over the whole thing with a knife. This worked because the ground was grippy and the paint was sticky, the figures where literally below the broad blue-gray layer. Cropped the beach on the right out of the photo here, I liked how this one turned out better, more paint, more mystery, but it also brought up some issues about the people themselves. For example, it might be better without the guy in the hat with the teal knapsack, or maybe there's more space between him and the boy, or maybe the gruops all have more space between them. We'll see, juggling like this gets complicated unless you just see a solution clearly. I'll give this idea a rest then do a third one. These were both quite small, about fifteen inches across, having the figures a little bigger might help now that I have a clue about how to execute them.




      Beginning of an image from Ocracoke. Did the first one of these in one layer a few weeks ago but it was a little much. Needed to do some cloudscaping in this as well, so started it out with plain paint thinned with chalk putty. The ground was pretty grippy, glue gesso with some fine sand in it, had to put a lot of paint on to fill it and then wiped about half of it out. Hopefully will be dry tomorrow. About 11.5x20.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper, nice heavy stuff from Twinrocker.

june 21

      Warm week overall, sort of an endless loop of moody, thunderstormy weather. New moon, it definitely wanted something new but wasn't really saying what. We went to the beach for an overnight, back to a place I used to visit as a kid, still sort of quiet and family-oriented area. The beach is such a strange amalgam of human goofiness and natural elegance, always good to experience the spaciousness and light, the mystery in the evening. The stormy weather produced some very different images, began to get to know them this week.




      First new beach image, this was the victim of a medium test that was too literal. I kept going with it, four quick layers on four days, but it's still too literal. Still, learned a lot about where the colours were and weren't. Stormy day, lots of sun at this point but also lots of haze. This is very interesting but requires some pretty pinpoint colour mixing, just beginning to get my foot in the door. There are some images of this spot with a nice extended family group of shellers, wasn't sure whether to put them in and at what scale, but now I think so, we'll see, they may be too small down by the water. Anyway, this is going to change. About 12x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Decided to try a variation of the approach used for the small tree study last week as an underpainting. Used a different type of ground, it wasn't absorbent but the paint stuck very firmly to this for some reason. This made it hard to get anything too specific but also made things much more broken.


      Then got a layer of colour on it, a reasonable number of issues still, some of them pretty large. But the approach is an improvement over the first concept, the gestural figures may need to be bigger in the future, although a smaller scale of mark overall may help this too. I like the broken look better, need to figure out how much to simplify, how much to put in, and how to keep it bright and fresh as the layers proceed. So, something pretty new in a way, a lot to learn about how this wants to develop. About 12x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Layer three, Sunday afternoon. Lost the larger figure, drat, but it became too focal. I'd like to keep the tidal finger in the foreground too, but, in terms of the composition leading into the figures, it would probably be simpler to let it go. Less specific, more atmospheric, emphasis on memory as opposed to analysis.

june 14

      Very hot week, leading into what looks like a very hot month. Unseasonably hot? Who can say anymore! People here, myself included, are beginning to get a little fried mentally, there's a lot of unfocused physical energy but the brain just doesn't keep as many balls in the air in the heat. I had a decent week overall, especially for the end of the moon. Did get the Ocracoke painting made on Monday, very close but not done, still, a breakthrough in some ways. Always hard to know what to do when this type of thing happens. I get excited, tend to want to just make another one, a better one, but that doesn't work. So, some midweek doldrums, the dark side, more typical of the waning moon. But I'm getting better at not going into the red zone, there's just no point. The paint is working in a fine line between semi-additive and too slidey, depending on the temperature in the studio. The AC is two rooms away, so the studio is not cool. This may mean a shift to a different approach, since it's only going to get cool again here in October. Maybe a fan would equalize things more. Not sure quite what to do, but that's okay, no point in pushing in the heat, I only get frazzled and ornery. So, more patience in the short run, oh boy! But overall, feel close to a next step both in terms of the paint and completing things with it.


      I don't like having solvent around at all, any solvent, and did a little work with fused damar this week. Tried this years ago but it made things too limpid and mobile, too long an open time. Melted more damar into thicker walnut sun oil this time, it melts at a little above the boiling point of water. This is still mobile but at least it isn't thin. Inconclusive, between the wax in the medium and this stuff in a warm studio I ended up with a couple days of pretty slippery paint. So, something solvent-free to use in very small amounts, especially on stretched canvas. Keep in mind that this supplies no tack, ever, but does add brightness to the paint film.


      I went to making my own cerulean because the pigment from Kremer was so nice, also because cerulean is typically cut a reasonable amount as a way to keep it in suspension. Well, this is probably not the case with Blockx, for example, but for that price you can get a lot of cerulean from Kremer. Anyway, as a cobalt pigment cerulean dries fast, and this tube, after six months or so, was becoming too tight to work with. After a couple weeks of fiddling with it, it seemed surgery was the only option. So, made the incision and pried it all out, added some poppy oil to try to calm it down, and retubed it.


      Left off last week knowing that I wanted to make this image from the beach on Ocracoke Island next. It's odd how sometimes an image becomes focal, has to happen, what's that about? Waning moon, iffy time to start something new, but it really wanted to happen, always a sign. Did this with a variation of the medium pictured last week, it was warmer, that definitely had an effect, the paint was a little more mobile and slidey, but a little, in this context, can be a lot. This system ended up being pretty good for sort of advanced blocking in, but it wasn't additive enough to complete this the way I wanted to. On the one hand, I like the feeling of this, and it is unquestionably the most Beautiful paint I've ever made. But on the other, it just doesn't seem done, and, stylistically, Beauty with a capitol B makes me kind of nervous. When I read aesthetic theory and they start talking about Beauty, it feels like the oxygen is leaving the room, I'm much more comfortable with the Collingwood's approach in The Principles of Art which is more about the living role of art in culture. But let us return to the paint. I did what it wanted to do, and it was interesting, supplying, in larger terms, some high class problems. Mundanely, a lot of things to adjust and clean up but I'm happy to get this far in a first layer. The scale is less finicky, that is definitely a factor. This happened over a red chalk drawing on a somewhat coarse ground, lost some time there, between the drawing and the ground, things were pretty broad. I used to do very thin underpaintings with solvent on an absorbent ground, I liked these but not the solvent; now, of course, solvent is out of the question. But I wonder if an underpainting in watercolour might be a good next step. Nothing tight or fancy, just take the sense of the forms a little further so the initial oil paint can be more certain. Then there's my ongoing issue with damar, whose presence is more obvious in this version of the medium than the one below. Same amount, just a change in the ambient temperature. That's okay too, it may be best to trade specificity for atmosphere at this stage. I'll wait a while, until it seems obvious what to do next. The second layer is often a little puzzling, but it will be fun to see what happens with this one. Decent photo, but a little more oomph or vivacity in life, as usual. About 10.5x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      The medium for the painting above was a little do or die, and didn't have a second open day in the heat. Adjusted it to be leaner for this image from Vermont, wanted to see if I could get something similar, but with more chances. But it was too warm, things slid around both times I worked on it. It doesn't seem bad considering that, just more to go. It's easy for me to get hypnotized by the detail, especially with this place where I worked for sixteen years, so I'm trying to keep this more essential, get at the soft light of a semi-rainy summer afternoon. Second layer here, colour is a little nutty in the photo, want to resolve the transition in the sky, it needs to read as one piece not two. Farr Cross, about 14x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      I always liked the shape of this tree, an old image from Farr Cross that I've wanted to work with it for some time. It seemed best to explore it first in monochrome, I wasn't sure whether to do a larger drawing or a smaller painting, chose the smaller painting of course. Made some burnt green earth for this, an old favorite but brighter than I remembered it, a little black as well would have been good. Felt kind of torn at first between the underpainting concept and something more essential or Asian. This became a little bit literal, a function of a few things, nothing to write home about in the art department but I liked the way the system was both additive and subtractive. About 10.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Detail here of the tree trunk, about twice life size, smush supplied by a little starch, fineness by wax, a nice combination in general but I'll leave the wax out in the future for the time being. Although it makes the paint work more finely, it also melts somewhat at the current studio temperature.


      Maybe this is a better composition, might start this at a larger scale this week, keep the values lighter overall. Late evening light, nice sky in the reference, the old, really messy Farr Cross, but I'm mostly interested in the great contraposto of the tree, it will be easier to get at this if it's little bigger.

june 11

      Yesterday's information about the discovery of starch in an 18th century Spanish painter's work, Zacharias Gonzalez Velazquez led to a simple question: what is the difference between starch and flour? Here we have some nice unbleached white flour from the Amish in Lancaster County, mixed with two parts water. Starch begins with flour, which is purified, and heated to the temperature of gellification for about half an hour. This temperature is different for different starches: for corn, 62 to 77C, for rice, 61 to 82C, for wheat 64 to 67C. An example of a pure, readily available commercial starch is the cornstarch used to thicken sauces. If this is heated instead to 62 to 77C with 6 to 8 parts water for half an hour, it makes a dense pellucid gel. When starch is referred to in technical art history, i.e., "We found that Rembrandt used starch in his ground," it is this type of starch, something precooked, then dried and ground. Starched clothing was a big deal in 17th century Holland.


      This is the precooked wheat starch from Talas in Brooklyn, an acid-free material used by conservators in conjunction with PVA glue. When first mixed, this is elastic and rubbery, as you can see. It works better if it's made an hour or so ahead, or the night before. Starch gel can be kept in the refrigerator, but begins to fall apart in a few days. This phenomenon, called retrogradation, can be fixed by a little hide glue, methyl cellulose, gum arabic, etc. A little methyl cellulose makes starch keep a few weeks, more convenient. Starch is great for making emulsions with oil paint, but if you're working on stretched canvas, not panels, you want to keep the amounts quite small. It's actually very tough and flexible with oil, used with vegetable oil to make biodegradable plastics now. But everything gets more brittle over time, except wax, so if you get into this type of painting, it's best to do it, like egg tempera, on panels. At the same time, oil and water do not mix, so even a small amount of starch makes a medium more mobile and thixotropic.

june 10

      Something interesting arrived this morning from my friend Roland in Belgium. This is information about the discovery of starch in an 18th century Spanish painter's work, Zacharias Gonzalez Velazquez. I started working with starch a while back when it was found in the ground of a painting by Rembrandt, so it is fun to see it actually being used in the paint itself. The authors remark on the vermilion sample as being particularly brilliant, this is one of the many positive contributions of a small addition of a starch gel to the paint film.

june 7

      Third week of the moon, this is usually about older work but some new things happened as well, including an interesting surprise. Unusually cold and rainy week, easy to focus and got a lot of different things done. But ended up not being sure of anything. Have been working to keep the process focused but this week it got up to its old tricks and pretty much broke out of the coral. This quality of confusion used to be sort of upsetting, but it tends to mean that a new frame of reference is forming. It makes me feel antsy, sort of like I wasted my time even though I learned a lot. But what I learned hasn't formed a pattern yet, that's the real source of the issue. Just have to be patient, wander around a little longer, the next direction always shows up.


      My friend Roland sent this fascinating micro-photograph of the manila copal rejection gel from last week. You can see the fibrillation of the oil quite clearly. Some people have gotten kind of excited about this, which I understand, nothing is better than a surprise in the alembic. But please remember, all resins are going to darken over time, you want to use this in small amounts, and with plenty of ventilation!


      One thing I've tried to do off and on is develop a pre-industrial version of the cold wax medium. The current cold wax approach is essentially a different paint-type, the oil paint behavior is trumped by the wax behavior, with just enough resin added to keep the larger amount of wax from becoming too soft. Reformulating this somehow has been a little bit of a puzzle, because the cold-wax basis is a paint that sets quickly due to the wax amount and the solvent evaporation, and I don't want to use that amount of solvent or wax. Haha, easy! Anyway, this week for some unknown reason I got back into the cold wax approach with starch, and ended up making three of these mediums. This is the second one, which wasn't ideal, but had the most interesting behavior. It works best to make mediums like this in test amounts with firm proportions and components that are easily replicable. The damar concentrate is damar dissolved until no more will dissolve. This lives in small, full amber glass bottles. The idea here is to incorporate damar with minimum solvent. The starch is something Roland wanted me to try, stabilizing it by heating it with a small amount of methyl cellulose. This mixture is quite dense compared to the cold version, nearly a solid, but also very stable, and mashes into anything smoothly. The wax is melted into thick sun oil, this lives in a tube. The sun oil makes it melt a little less but even so, this is not a medium for a hot day outside. The chalk is self-explanatory, the fumed silica putty is dense but moves well due to the fumed silica. This last ingredient is really interesting, but often kind of a double-edged sword. A little bit is plenty, because the movement can get excessive really quickly. This is of course what the fumed silica gel is good at, but what I'm looking for here is what might be called an evolved balance of grab and glide. This is tricky because, in spite of the array of ingredients, the major component is still the sun walnut oil at 80% of the ingredient used in the largest proportion. Wax amount ends up being a little more than 5% in the paint, not that much but twice what I've been using, i.e., seemed like plenty. Photo of the medium when mixed below. If I were to do this over, I'd use less of the fumed silica putty, go back to the original proportion. The damar is less elastic than the Manila copal concentrate, making it more literal, but this medium managed to bypass that and did do some interesting things.


      Painting made with the medium above. I mixed it into the paint at about one to one, making this medium a little more than five percent wax. This is on an oil ground also made with starch, not that much starch, this ingredient creates an interesting combination of density and a subtle granularity. Also, the ground might be a little absorbent. A cooler day, this was also a factor as the wax was not soft but setting a little more. Anyway, this paint was sort of heavy and sticky, but mobile. It wasn't layerable, but it was additive to an extent. It was long and very tender, could do unusual detail, but the detail could be quite painterly, not so much the brush, but the paint itself. The paint could be blended, or remain discrete. This made some interesting things possible. I'd have liked to get more paint on the background, for example, but the quality of painterly detail in the salt shaker was very fun. So, not done, but has a nice quality and an internal glow even when dry. An example of learning something unusual from an experiment, the behavior of this paint was a total surprise. About 9.25x12 inches, oil on panel. This paint is not for stretched canvas.


      Something so old is was actually done with wax, damar, and stand oil originally, probably pre-millenium, yikes. This Morandi-esque work was not a big hot in Vermont except with my painter friends. But I'd always liked it and wanted to finish it, it was a little too long and skinny. But the reference has disappeared and this concerned me for a while. Anyway, ground it back and got another layer on it this week with one of the cold wax experiments, more to go but interesting to visit this style and way of working again, sort of soothing. About 12x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper. I think the thing to do now is put this on a panel.


      Image from Tuscany, outside Barga. The third cold wax experiment, made this with larch instead of damar. Again, not really layerable but additive to an extent, more to do but got closer than usual with this type of image in the first layer. About 9.5x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.


      Also did some images with the less wax medium approach I've been working on for a while now. There was a tree in Vermont that I worked with a lot. Small, early study of this tree I'm in the process of working up a little more loosely. About 10.5x14 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      The same tree, about a decade later, seen from the other direction and on a foggy morning. There were aspects of this I couldn't really see when I started it, so it was fun to go back and get it a little closer. About 13x20 inches, oil on gessoed linen.


      Same tree, began this image a few years ago but saw how to develop it further. Probably still not done but getting pretty close. About 9.5x12 inches, oil on gessoed line over panel. This scale is too small, but I learned a lot from working with it.


      So, think I'm finally done with trying to resurrect older things for a while. It's not that it doesn't work, it's sort of fun, but I'm fighting stuff that sometimes seems silly to fight. The more recent beginnings are much easier to move forward, and are more in the energy of the moment. Here's something I want to do next, an image from Ocracoke Island. Did this soon after returning from the trip itself at a 3x4 ratio, but have learned a lot since 2008 and want to do it differently. It's always good to go to the beach every now and then, tremendous sense of light and space.

may 31

      Very warm week, hard to work at first but then gave up and put in the AC in May, yikes. Waxing moon, full moon this coming Tuesday, got a lot done in spite of a few afternoons that turned confusing. Pretty high energy days in general, feeling like completion of this project is possible. At a certain point more oomph helps the process lose self-consciousness. This is good, no thinking, things just happen. But then, if it goes too far beyond that, things begin to get erratic, and this is not so good. Worked on the half-sheet landscapes this week, these are far easier than the smaller ones, have an informal list going of favorite images to start at this size, that should be fun as the newer starts are the easiest to complete. Lots of work happened, edited it down to the better or more interesting developments.


      My friend Roland is an amazing resource and sent me a lot of information this week, mostly about research into biodegradeable plastics and other materials based on starch. This is all incredibly interesting but sometimes I have to pause and figure out just how to apply it. I'm sold on using a small amount of starch in the paint, it creates thixotropy and inhibits both drying down and yellowing. (These paintings are of course on panels or will be. Although I think a little starch is going to be more tough than brittle on stretched canvas, this would be pretty hard to determine accurately. For me, the simplest thing was to abandon stretched canvas instead of worrying about keeping the paint film as flexible as possible.) So, starch and oil are a very interesting combination, but one of the issues with starch is that the plain gel retrogrades, i.e., loses it's density and bounce, over time in the fridge. This can be solved a couple ways, including just making it up the night before, but I wanted something simple, that would keep the starch well, starch-like, over longer periods of time, not introduce another quality of material. So this week was about what other acceptable ingredient keeps the starch gel stable. I tried fumed silica, glycerin, and methyl cellulose. The clear winner was methyl cellulose. Then Roland told me to try the procedure in hot water, about 77C or 170F. This was interesting because at this temperature methyl cellulose is hydrophobic, it just sat on the surface of the water in tiny granules. But this allowed the starch-methyl cellulose mix to be more intimate, the methyl cellulose went into solution after the starch was added, as the water cooled. This was done with 1 part methyl cellulose, 12 parts starch, and 16 parts water. Anyway, this was quite dense and rubbery compared to the same formula done cold, even being heated for only a few minutes. On cooling, it was nearly solid, could be cut with a knife.


      I was a little concerned that it would be useable, but this consistency was helpful in the medium, making it more elastic and stretchy in spite of the melting nature of oil and beeswax in the heat this week. This medium dries up in layers, and has a look I like a lot, but I need to get it to layer just a little more, go a little further in one sitting. So, a very similar material to what I've been using but with a slightly more broken quality to the colour, which I like. It's interesting that this medium, which clearly seemed like the "final" one when I first used it, has gone through several pages of development in the notebook since January.


      To the naked eye, starch appears to swell when water is added, but something more complex happens, as seen in this photo taken through a microscope. A small amount of starch can result in a big change in the medium's rheology.


      This medium also makes use of another ingredient that creates stretch, this is Manila copal dissolved in spike, oil of rosemary, or the quite reasonable oil of eucalyptus. This is not a material found that often in older painting, but it was used as a varnish in Italy in some cases, see NGTB 22. Manila copal is young for a copal, with lots of bounce in any application. The spirit varnish used here is mature, i.e., aged, which is apparently something important in terms of the quality of the material. I had actually read about mastic varnish being better when it was older, but, like so much information about mastic, had lumped it into the "generally unreliable" bin. And of course it wants to be aged in an amber glass bottle that's full. Anyway, this copal is a concentrate, quite plastic and elastic, and in fact dries on the soft side, which is a surprise since spirit varnishes, i.e. damar, are typically on the brittle side.


      When this material is mixed with the thick hand-refined oil, a kind of gel occurs. This is a physical reaction, a rejection gel, different than the mastic-leaded oil type of gel, which is a chemical reaction. It even works with stand oil which really surprised me, nothing makes stand oil stand up! Although the gel is more granular looking, it doesn't stay that way when mixed into the paint. So, something interesting for the alembic, more stable than a mastic gel, but still involved with solvent, if you try this please use solvent hygiene for the copal – small amber glass bottle, keep full with pebbles, etc. – and use in very small amounts with lots of ventilation, these are really strong solvents.


      When I packed to move here, a lot of paintings ended up in the dark for a long time. These were mostly beginnings made with just oil and chalk, so some of them have really lost colour. This one was sort of crude as well, but I really like the image and couldn't find the other, better one to work on, so re-did this one. Ground it back well and started with some cerulean in white, just to get a sense of how grayed out it had become. Used cerulean here because it's something I made and tubed. The Kremer cerulean is really nice, but I made it with linseed oil and it's getting pretty dense after only a few months.


      Stopped it here, a step closer without too much paint, and in a good place for the next layer. About 11.25x17 inches, oil on gessoed linen.


      First somewhat thicker layer of paint on this recent start, more colour but still keeping it broader. I like the sense of space, but will probably make the road darker. It was limestone at this point, but the older road was simply dirt, this might be better. About 13x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Image from the Mugello I always liked, this is version three, the first one was hopeless, the second one is possible, but this one seems more confident. A little further along than the one above, but could use more detail in the colour, a more broken application. About 13x21 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Another favorite location, this time in Vermont; again, the first layer of paint with some saturation. Have been really beaten up by this image in the past but feel like this one has a prayer. I like the way the paint and colour are working in the foreground, need to work on the sky with something a little more broken in the next layer to get it playing in the same key. About 15x20 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Soft moody rain in late September, I couldn't resist trying this a few years ago, but the softness of the colour was beyond me. Found it this week and moved it forward somewhat. This will get finished with more mobile paint but want to make sure the colours are quite close first. About 11x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.


      Another one of the same location, more saturated layer. Quiet but not too quiet, I've always had a good feeling about this one and it's getting pretty close. There's a larger one, about 28 inches across on linen, it will be fun to go back to that one with what I've learned here. About 10x17 inches, oil on gessoed panel.


      Began this image from the Mugello this week at the larger, half-sheet scale. Had to do some landscaping with this, had several images to work with but none of them had an empty foreground. So, put very little paint on this and concentrated on getting the major masses lined up. Still, this ended up some unexpected issues, which is why I go slowly when landscaping is involved. About 13x21 inches. oil on gessoed paper, that lovely dense stuff from Twinrocker.



may 24

      Waxing moon, cooler weather, pretty idyllic. Was not a ball of fire with the work, a week of showing up, feeling a little submerged, as with the recent Far From the Madding Crowd, a relief that it's over. Sometimes the new moon acts like nothing is new enough, this was a quieter variation, kind of snuck up on me. Plugged away on older images and learned some stuff, mostly that these layers work best when they contain more risk or change, not less. With less the sense of change can easily turn into an illusion when the paint dries. There's always a point with a given painting where the romance ends, things have to start to get real in terms of what will create the next level, worked with several older images like that this week, on the sobering side. There's a nice place in one of Pisarro's letters to his son, where he talks about his fear of the paintings he's turned to the wall: how they'll look to him when he faces them again. Of course, this type of week is necessary if things are going to grow. Have a feeling next week some different things need to happen, more in the way of new. It's sort of tricky balancing the opposites of new and old, I think of it as balancing oil and water in an emulsion, the differences inform and enhance one another. At least, sometimes. It's good to work without thinking, just let it happen, but once in a while things need to be redirected. I think a lot about the dichotomy of force and grace, how to maintain aspects of both. In larger terms, still a lot of tension between wanting to speed the process up, and accepting that, it having developed a certain way for many years, forcing change is probably not going to work.


      These fancy reproductions of paintings from the museum downtown have sprouted all over the tonier commercial section of the neighborhood, some foundation's idea of "freeing the paintings," or bringing "art to the people," a "museum without walls," no doubt, complete with weatherproof label. Some of them have pretty good colour reproduction, although always very saturated, this one was surprisingly off given that it is virtually the museum's mascot. As I get older I keep thinking things have gotten as weird as possible, but in this life, there's always more.


      I tend to work with the medium premixed into the paint. But sometimes the medium makes the paint too tight or discrete for a given surface. Even a little bit of oil fixes this, a few different thicknesses help, thicker oil still creates more movement. These are all made from the salt-refined cold-pressed linseed oil, the oil is about three or four years old now. The older oil is slightly more gelatinous, absorbs more pigment if it's used for paint.


      A few years ago I went through a major starch phase after reading about starch being found in a painting by Rembrandt. Although made from modified flour, starch is a very tough material and also keeps the paint brighter in layers. After having worked with various other water soluble binders as additions to the medium, I'm back to working with starch again now. Wet starch above, dry starch below.


      Starch makes a very interesting ground on panels, here's a close-up of a titanium white and calcite paint with about ten percent starch gel mashed into it. Between the starch and the calcite, the paint has a subtle granular quality in spite of being put on with a knife.


      Recently the colours dropped into a place that I've been really liking, they operate as an ensemble, and they're playing together more harmoniously than ever. The one place that I'm still fiddling with is a more high chroma yellow. I think this one was a little warm, will go back to just two parts of the warmest yellow again.


      There are several versions of this image, this was the worst and may still be, but not by as much. Put a thin couch of very thick older oil on this after grinding it back, the behavior of the system was a little rococo but I began to get it after a while. Sometimes it feels fine just to rescue something, this had some moments but got ended up in the area between brighter colour and dumber colour. I'll keep going with this at some point. 9x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Kept going with this image of sun through fog, then, when it was dry, adjusted the thicker oil layer for this, made it thinner, less goopy, wanted to see what it did to the gradations in the sky. some unexpected changes, which I expected, I'll sand this back lightly with 600 or so to get rid of some of the small pointille stuff, then put another layer of thin and saturated colour on it. A little small, but have gotten it to another level, it feels like the morning. The next (larger) one will be easier for having done this. About 9.75x14.75 inches, oil on Arches Huile, mounted on canvas and a panel. The Huile is nice but mounted straight on a panel it looks a little too flat, the canvas layer makes it softer.



Worked into the thin thick oil couch on this one, an image that's fun to experiment on, wanted to get more in the way of atmosphere without making it too blurred. About 8x15 inches, oil on gessoed paper over panel.


      Something from Tuscany whose simplicity has held it up, I liked the contrast between the busy foreground and the empty sky but it hasn't quite gelled yet. Just put a saturating very thin layer of thick oil on it to see what would happen. Dry overnight, hand-refined linseed oil forever, will sand this down very lightly before proceeding again. A better feeling for the image, will just keep making this more like the evening. About 9.5x13.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile over canvas. Might be a good time to mount this on a panel.


      There are several of these in progress too, this one is on coarser linen. Fiddled with the balance of movement in the sky, this got better but the cloud over the house is still too bright. A different style, this one needs more force, didn't switch gears enough from working with the other ones. Relatively close to done, but you've heard that before, will try the next layer with more paint, way more paint. About 9.25x12 inches, oil on linen over panel.

may 17

      Last week of the moon, new moon tomorrow. As usual at this time, had less creative energy, no actual days off but just plugged away on some older work with the latest medium using a small amount of wax. This was okay, I like the look of this medium but it has a complex personality and I'm only just getting to know it. Liked how these turned out in general, but I tend to like the feeling of an image that's been worked on, thought over. There are any number of new things that might happen, ideas for this or that, but I've learned to leave them alone until they physically want to happen. In other words, there's no point in breaking out for its own sake, it has to have something that feels real behind it. Did start something new yesterday, in a new way, it didn't quite turn out but was interesting, might be on it's way somewhere new in the week to come. It still feels like I'm on track to have a reasonable amount of work finished by the end of the summer. Somehow this has become a goal, I don't know why, I'm far more interested in process than product, but I'm not sure the process can be called complete if it isn't officially generating product. This is a tangled web, I hope there's a way to learn from both aspects of this tension until it solves itself, rather than simply making one pragmatic decision or another.


      Things here continue to bloom, azaleas now waning, rhododendrons beginning. Elegant standing form of wisteria here I've never seen before.


      Went out for dinner on Friday night, very nice simple Japanese restaurant downtown, this was a standout, homemade seaweed salad with lime and fresh shiso.


      My friend Roland has been up to it again, trying to make me jealous with his superior forms of goop. Roland's suggestions are always excellent but sometimes I have to ponder them for a while because I know they're going to introduce something new into the equation. This was the case working with starch originally, maybe I was prejudiced against it because of those awful starched shirts as a kid. Anyway, I ended up really liking a little starch gel in the medium, this is pictured here on the bottom row, can probably be wallpaper paste but I got the pre-cooked wheat starch from Talas. You just mash it into the putty, a very small amount changes everything. Anyway, I'm sure you know about the research into biodegradable plastics made from starch and oil. There's also research into films made from wax, starch and oil. Roland sent me some of that, along with pictures of a wax, starch, and oil experiment he made. This stuff was basically sculptable, and and I instantly suffered sharp pangs of rheological envy. So, I melted a little of the current wax-oil combination, and mixed it with some starch gel in the proportion that I use these ingredients in the current medium, stirring while it cooled with that cute little whisk discretely borrowed from my significant other. I was a little surprised that this worked out, felt it might need larger amounts and a blender or food-processor. But it's very smooth, bouncy and stretchy. So, this introduces another type of micro-dispersion for the wax, probably some different chemistry as well even though the amount of heat involved was small. It will be interesting to work with in terms of possibly refining the current medium a little bit. Micro-photograph below from Roland of beeswax spherulites dispersed in a mastic gel medium, something that was done in England in the 19th century. The structure of the wax helps explain why it acts to interrupt the oil flow.


      Did a little more to this image of fog in May in Vermont. Not quite done but I'm sort of excited about this, was finally able to get some things to happen here that have been a puzzle for a long time in terms of the final finishing procedure. About 14.5x7 inches, oil on Arches Huile over panel.


      Study from the Garfagnana region in Italy that had stalled, become sort of subfusc, saw it differently which is always good after a pause, made it as bright as I could but it still dried at about half that. I think this could be solved short term with more resin in the medium, but I'm not sure about the long term effects of this, so I'm still trying to keep resin at a minimum. The other great ingredient for brightness is egg yolk, but that's a different track entirely, the whole painting would need to be made that way from the beginning. About 9x12.75 inches, oil on Arches Huile over panel.


      A really old one that's been through many permutations, decided to just clean it up rather than really try to overhaul it, this was good as it allowed it to change more. It's still sort of a puzzle how to get what I want from this but I like the idea of fragmenting it a little more, improving it somewhat each time and seeing where it goes. About 10.75x14.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper over panel.


      Another older one, this has been close several times but became damaged in the move. Again decided to loosen it up a little, let it remain more fragmented so it could change more. The hardest aspect of working in layers for me has been learning to let things develop themselves rather than trying to finish them. Looks a little funky here but in life this is going somewhere new, which, at this point, is good. 8x16 inches, oil on gessoed panel.


      The oldest one I have, an alla prima image from 2001 that just never felt quite there. Messed it up the last time I worked on it, this is more rare now but still happens. This of course leads to paying more attention, and it's at least moderately on track again. About 10x13 inches, oil on gessoed panel.


      A recent start, this one is sort of inscrutable, have done several layers of almost the same thing, trying to puzzle it out, but it went somewhere more interesting this time. It ewill need a few more layers, but I like the feeling this older approach to colour applied to more modern objects. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed canvas over panel.

may 10

      Unseasonably warm this week, with more to come, the neighborhood is in another round of flower. I remember all this from having grown up here, but don't take it for granted the same way now. These sights are kind of soothing now, the specific terrior of the neighborhood. Third week of the moon, usually a week of doing layers on older work, and that's what happened. Kind of a nose to grindstone time, not so much inspired as focused, kept going with the most recent medium except for a departure one morning, tried to simplify things but it was sort of a disaster. Still, oops is also part of the process, it's just as important to know what doesn't work. Did work in several different styles, nothing too conclusive or new happened but a lot of things came closer to being done. There are a few times when I lot of paint flies around confidently, a few times when no paint does anything, and a lot of times in between. Some frustration with a few images that have stalled somewhat, but this always leads to the next step one way or another. Maybe the biggest thing that happened technically was trimming the number of colours on the palette down. It's always hard to do this, there are all kinds of excuses for using more colours. Just one, I really need it; well, okay, maybe just two, etc. But, like using the same medium means you start to use it better, using the same colours means you understand their orchestration better. So, I'm going to try to keep going with what I trimmed it down to this week, eight colours and white. It could go lower, but that would mean eliminating the earth colours, and I don't feel comfortable with that yet.

      In larger terms, painting remains really good therapy, allows me to focus on telling the story, learn more about how to do it. This of course goes on and on, but what can be learned is always predicated on what has been learned. At this point I'm pretty certain that what can be learned has no end, is in fact always reinventing itself as new letters are discovered, that can make new words, that can make new sentences, etc. But this process makes no sense until it begins. This means opening a door, leaving the old, boring level you know for the new exciting level you want to know. There's complexity in this sometimes, as in the way a given ensemble of pigments plays together on the field of the painting, but there's also something really simple that has to do with looking at things in a different way, of realizing that the new level is defined by a new frame of reference. This means that the language of the old level, it's whole dictionary, in fact, may suddenly become irrelevant. The point becomes finding what's being taken for granted, what's effectively hiding by resisting examination. A simple way to explore this is to paint by asking what colour of the primary triad is lagging, or under-represented in a given passage. This is often exactly the right colour to move a passage forward. This is like the great Rumi quote: "You think because you understand one you must also understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand 'and'." In working with colour, any application of "and" changes the context, therefore everything. But until we are relatively far down the road of studying colour, there's too much distraction to realize this, because we're simple applying "and" so often, so globally, that we can't see that it is in fact changing the experiment much more than we think. Anyway, this too goes on and on, the quest not to become habituated, to see everything as though for the very first time. This is where religion meets science, perhaps uncomfortably for both parties, the place where "things are not quite as they seem" on a regular basis. This approach puts the avenue of enquiry beyond opinion, turning it into simply one discovery after another. It may be possible to link these discoveries into a theory, an organized, defensible opinion, but since the frame of reference is always expanding, why bother? It's just about the application of "and," i.e., more, and how this consistently changes everything. But until we actually experience this shift beyond opinion or the known, it doesn't exist. We may even defend out boundaries with great vigor. Perhaps it is wiser to let them do what they want to do: expand.


      One of the things I do now and then is tend the thicker oils. They're important to the process but they're always polymerizing, and at a certain point they have to be thinned a little or risk suddenly becoming a solid. This is some pretty old walnut oil that had gotten quite thick, some crusts and lumps in it too, enough that it was a little hard to work with. Decided to add some thinner oil to it, heat the mix in a waterbath, then strain it into a new jar. This is still pretty thick, and will also thicken more quickly than its density would lead you to expect.

      Kremer sent out an e-mail about a paint DeKooning made, a few people have asked for comments on this. I think the idea here was to end up with a paint that was loose, but did not run, so this is the reason behind the use of water, as a way to create an internal gluiness that would inhibit flow. The emulsifying agents of alcohol and aluminum stearate may be less than ideal, alcohol sort of dissolves oil, and aluminum stearate is something to stay away from if possible. On the other hand, this stuff is all a matter of proportion. The paint obviously worked, and did what he wanted it to do, but the tenuousness of the emulsion is indicated by the directions themselves: to put it in a blender for half an hour. Anyway, there are lots of other emulsifying agents that are more reliable, egg yolk of course being the best one possible if the work is on panels. Still, I'm not sure this type of paint could not be made with a little egg white and gum arabic or a thinner methyl cellulose instead of the stearate and alcohol. This is not in any way to knock De Kooning, who was pretty responsible technically for the period. I wouldn't make the Annigoni tempera medium with mastic either.

Pdf of a very nice book here, a compendium of articles on historical technique from the Getty. Lots of interesting stuff in this, link courtesy of my friend Roland.


      Something I've fiddled with a lot off and on in the last few years, had a little bit of an issue integrating some titanium white into things, but that's easy to tone down. A few clunky places left, but overall a nice feeling at this point. One more layer? About 9x12 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      An image that I've always been very interested in. Have done several versions of it without anything close to success, this one looks like it will work out. Had to clean up the rose on the right a lot, but got the central rose and the colour in general to a place I like, this was the painting this week where I felt like I'd learned, and was implementing, something at another level. Will clean up the table in the next layer, stretch the value scale a little more. This is a little small for everything I seem to want in it, have drawn one on a larger panel, may start that soon. About 11x12 inches, oil on gessoed panel.


      This is a peony in the older style, something I did from life years ago and missed enough to make another version of. This one also got better, can see a little more but this is pretty close to done in life. Still, this is when they get really fun to fiddle with further. About 12x15 inches, oil on gessoed canvas over panel.


      A more stark situation with this more recent peony, this one had a strong beginning which I've noticed can lead to a long middle. Made it better than it was but it's bugging me that it didn't evolve more, which is good, means it will probably change more next time. About 14.5x16 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      The same applies to this one, above the table is getting there but the table and its dual reflections from the water are a real issue here. Reaching that force is the midwife place where frustration will generate change. About 14.5x15.5 inches, oil on gessoed paper.


      Shifted back into some older landscapes later in the week. Some of these are sort of pushing it in terms of reaching back to where I was and bringing it forward, but, we'll see. This was Schoodic Point in Maine in October, I felt like I'd walked into a Sierra Club calendar. The issue here was always the integrating reflections, but it came forward, a few more layers might do it. About 11x20 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Put a layer on this using officially richer paint, the level of saturation involved tends to create problems with the colour when the painting is photographed, and it did. Still not done, I want to get this smaller one further along in order to work on a larger one that's a little more finished, but it may not matter because they're pretty different. It's May, a time with pretty intense greens in Vermont. Still trying to get those greens right, not too bright, not too dulled down. Not done, but the paint itself it getting a nice presence. Will grind this back lightly with very fine sandpaper to remove the gloss before starting again. About 14.5x7 inches, oil on Arches Huile over panel.


      Something a little larger I hadn't worked on since leaving Vermont, it was fun to put a layer on this, a primitive road through farmland that I studied through a lot of changes from 1998 to 2014. Will keep going, this has a nice feeling in life. About 12.5x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen on canvas.


      Another older start that it was nice to dig out and put another layer on. Somewhat coarser linen, fun to work on. This will take a few more layers, but if I stay away from foreground detail, there shouldn't be any issues. This is in Addison County, the area of Vermont near Lake Champlain, a place with a lot of farms where I spent many years. So, there are many versions of Vermont in my memory, fun to visit different ones periodically. About 13x21 inches, oil on gessoed linen.

may 3

      Still relatively cool but getting warmer bit by bit. Lots of large old flowering trees in the neighborhood. There's one in the backyard in bloom that smells like a combination of cedar and carnations, it just envelops the little back porch with casual cosmic redolence. Which I for one can always use more of. Waxing moon this week, typically a positive week for the work, and it was. Wasn't sure where the beeswax medium route would lead, but after two weeks it finally landed somewhere interesting. At this point, I'm used to being able to get what I want more quickly, so this has been a good exercise in puny mortal always more to learn. Did work a little too hard, had to stop on Friday with the usual s.i. joint issue, three decades of this, you think I'd learn. I used to feel sort of judged by these incidents, but now it seems like they're just relatively gentle reminders that there's more to life than painting. I know, I find that really hard to believe as well. Anyway, taking a rest today, the week tells its story below.


      Detail from The Highland Family (1824) by Wilkie from the Met trip, on panel. The royal painter after Lawrence, Wilkie probably used a mastic gel medium, and that's what interested me here. The pellucid stuff on the wall is very nice, daylight mixed with reflected fire light from an open hearth, a pretty gentle example of utter bravura. Another example is the translucent piece of drapery to the right of the child. This features something that could only be done with a thin medium that became sticky and tight, some pretty elegant carving of the lightest value to reveal what was beneath, possibly with a brush handle turned into a fine calligraphic nib. This is really well done, I guess I mean pretty well concealed, but it is carved. This painting is also interesting because mastic typically yellows significantly and, while it's lower middle values are probably darker, and the high values feature the pearly translucence typical of mastic and lead white, it has not yellowed. It also hasn't cracked, but then, it's on a panel. So, a conundrum: either Wilkie did not use mastic or he used so little that it did not make the paint film yellow. Wilkie is someone who, like Greuze, had incredible hands and an unusual sense of colour, the sort of palette that makes yellow ochre look like cadmium yellow medium. But just as Grueze isn't Chardin, Wilkie isn't Constable or Turner, that larger than life dimension is missing. Still, there's great sincerity here, and a great deal to learn from the way the paint is handled in this, more interesting to me than the later, more flash academic styles of the 19th century.


      Another English one from the Met, the Lawrence portrait of Elizabeth Farren from 1790. This is large, has a really nice location in terms of light – i.e., the Met likes it, although the photo of it on the website is ghastly – and is pretty stunning in life: she's just there. Lawrence was of course known for this ability, and there are some of them whose winning charm is a little over the top. But this one is really nicely balanced. Aside from being excruciatingly well painted, everything done with its own quality, leading to the great savior-faire of her face. Farren was a comic actress who was very well known when this was done, the look is a cross between amusement and a kind of stage-fright. Perhaps this is a feeling that Lawrence knew well, professional confidence mixed with the nerves of yet another high-wire act before a demanding audience. There's also a nice sense of motion in her being "about to go out," the invented landscape is gently integrated with the strong studio sidelight. The motion is from right to left, deductive towards intuitive. Probably not conscious, but these things happen. A guilty pleasure? I don't know, maybe this is part of almost all portraiture. This doesn't fawn, he is just in genuine sympathy with her. Given that creating this was her profession, it's pretty reserved. Still, In Search of an Honest Portrait would be a fun book. Is this what made Bacon so obsessed with the Velasquez portrait of Innocent X? Speaking of innocence, or the lack thereof, it would be interesting to see this side by side with Madame X, another large, consciously theatrical portrait.


      Continued to develop the medium containing wax, it now contains very little wax and I like this the best so far. How little? Well, things could be a little more accurate here but less than five percent for sure. There's sort of a tension in this medium, the different ingredients pulling the rheology of the paint in various ways. This is really useful, but it means that the medium changes with really small shifts in proportion. For example, I need a 1/16th teaspoon measure, estimating half of 1/8th is not good enough. This is a larger version (12x16 inches) of something from the winter that I liked at 9x12. The smaller one was a study, pulled together by simplifying everything. This one was larger, and called for a different solution. Worked on this for two days, then decided to stop and let it really dry. As is often the case when redoing something, some aspects get better, while other aspects don't. The roses themselves need to coalesce more, this is tricky since they're bigger, can be more detailed. The folds in the tablecloth also need to be altered, there's some zooming to the right of the bottom of the jar that I didn't intend. Still, pretty far along for layer one, and the behavior of the paint made me enthusiastic. Detail below, about three times life size.


      So I took the new medium and redid some older work in progress with it. This is an image that I've always liked, sold a few years ago and there are several in progress. The hard part for me in this is integrating the stronger graphic and value element with a presence in space, I tend to get hypnotized by the oomph and forget the envelope. This was very interesting to work on, not done but closer than it's been. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Another peony in progress, this one has always had a certain something, and it did get closer. There's more that could happen, but this is the most evolved floral at this point. There are some that are more finished, even done, but this one has the most potential. About 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      Another development layer on an older floral, somewhat flatter or older look, a little more like an early tempera painting. Originally had issues getting the flowers to read the way I wanted but this medium has a nice balance of glide and grab, which solved the larger issues. A foot in the door, about two or three layers away at this point. About 12x14 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      On Thursday did some still life work. This is something older that stalled because it was too minimal for what I knew technically. Years ago I lived in a very small house in Vermont, the upstairs has a very small bathroom with a very small tub. When I got there, this bar of soap was in the tub, and became kind of a symbol of the living situation for me. I never used the soap, it was an icon, still there when I left. Anyway, was able to clean this up and bring it forward. Something like this could go on and on in terms of the layers involved, but I'm going to just try to put it away the next time, focus on the presence rather than getting involved with the ineluctable surface. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.


      There were some complications on Thursday night – i.e. life – and I didn't get to sleep until late. On Friday started to redo this landscape from the Mugello. I could feel that I was tired, things weren't quite flowing as they had earlier in the week. For the first time, for example, I made some errors in terms of procedure, mixing colour, cleaning the brush, etc. The difference between knowing what to do, and having the energy to do it simply. But things had been going so well, so I kept going, corrected the errors and pushed it through to another level. Not done, but with a foot in the door once again, it will be straightforward to develop this to completion. But by the middle of this my back hurt, and I realized that, once again, I'd worked too hard. Not by a lot, but had to stop today and take it easy. It's always hard to stop when you feel there's someplace you've got to get to in a hurry. So, not for the first time, and probably not for the last time this year, there's a sense of frustration at being so close to fruition with this phase of the project, which has been going on now since 2002, and yet is still in progress. It's been surprising, too, that the technique keeps demanding more. Still, I think the new excursion into wax, though also frustrating at first, has been a good idea. I still need to work now on balancing the work with the quality of life, remember to embrace tortoise, abjure hare. It feels like I've found the thread, making it a little exciting to think the work might actually emerge from the labyrinth someday soon. Still, what can this possibly mean to anyone beside me? Ha, probably not that much! Something to bear in mind: one's arrival is personal, not necessarily to a ticker tape parade. Most of my favorite work was made in a relative vacuum. Diderot gets into this with his distinction between la naïf et la théâtral, a big topic that is most often avoided. Circus maximus versus the still small voice: who ya got?

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