Tad Spurgeon oil paintings
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A weekly look at process and work in progress.




april 20
      

      Another week in which a great deal happened. I made this move mostly for personal reasons, so am going to give myself plenty of time to set up a life here that's related to painting. The principal thing I'm aware of now is the potential for a lot of growth on the one hand, a lot of fear on the other. Life has a tendency to take on patterns, these have the dual purpose of organization and limitation. In Vermont I felt had come to the end of my ability to alter the existing patterns creatively, so the opportunity to simply exchange them for a new beginning seemed worth exploring. This still seems to be true, but is also requiring more of a sense of faith and trust that the relevant chance is going to be supported in larger terms. There were a few challenging days this week when the changes seemed to be overwhelmingly large. At the same time, there's a sense of having escaped from a vortex of limitation, not so much about Vermont specifically but about who I had become there. I'm going to go back to Vermont this week for another load of stuff. This will allow more to happen here in the work and more of a sense of grounding in terms of actually having a life here instead of camping out.



      

      It looked like this here earlier in the week. There are lots of these little rabbit warren views around here, the crazy quilt of houses, gardens, fences, and sidewalks in an old suburb. From my perspective they require a lot of creative simplification but might turn into a series of paintings at some point. It's interesting to have grown up here, but to now see it from the very different perspective of having been in Vermont for the last three decades.



      

      There are also lots of flowering trees out now. The magnolias got a little zapped by the frost, but the cherries didn't seem to mind. These can be quite large compared to anything I've been seeing in Vermont.



      

      Processed a small sample of handpressed linseed oil from Canadian painter Thomas Hirsz, This was made as primitively as possible, without added heat or humidity and is noticably different than commercial oils, less mucilage to remove and much more sensitive to the electrical attraction of the silica. Third wash pictured here, the middle layer between the oil and water is not the usual gunk coming out but a great many small bubbles of oil still holding onto granules of sand. Ill bring it all over into a water only rinse and see what happens.



      

      Have done several more layers on this image from the Garfagnana, have decided not to let it sit but continue until it's complete. For me this brings up issues regarding the rheology of the paint, so I'm working with how elastic, how dense, how thixotropic, et al. It's getting better, developing sense of the light in the location and a lot of fun movement in the darks. Even if "finished" remains elusive, I'm able to turn the colour around in a finer way than a year ago, keeping it alive through the various layers. One more? No, probably two or three. About 19x28 inches, oil on Arches Huile..



      

      Have put three more layers on this one since it began, the first larger floral of the recent series, started it with tremendously gritty and goopy putty. While the painting itself was not done in the first pass, the peony was. The painting itself is better now, but I want the whole thing to have a little more of the original swoosh supplied by the goopier medium. So, not done but closer overall, possible to complete this next time by returning to the original conception. About 20x22 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Went to New York yesterday for the first time in years with my intrepid significant other. Great weather, the city was in a good mood. This was a fun trip but also full of challenges with regard to timing. The most important of these went well, but, at the end of the day, we just missed being able to stop into Kremer Pigments, where I've ordered materials for decades but never visited, then went to B&H only to find out that they were closed for the holiday. Do I really need a new camera, even if it's a really cheap one? The city, of course, would say yes. I'd like something I could just put in my pocket for walking around, maybe I'm just supposed to wait.



april 12
      

      Second full week in Mt. Airy, went to the co-op, got my car repaired, thought about the kinds of things that might be painted around here. It's getting pretty warm already, lots of trees about to flower, and some of these are of course quite large. Waxing moon, things came forward in the work without too much issue, picking up that sense of knowing what to do next from where I left it to work on the paintings for the show. There's a background feeling that more can happen here, that I won't be perceived as that "weird Old Master guy" as was so often the case in Vermont. Otherwise, not sure what to do yet, there's a personal life here, which is a lovely change, but nothing else so far, this makes it feel a little precarious sometimes. Still, I grew up a few minutes walk away from where I now live, so it's a pretty logical place to return to and start over. It's probably best to get set up here more fully, make a few more trips back to Vermont for stuff, before thinking too much about it.



      

      Kept things simple again this week, used a putty I tubed before leaving, a few different thicker oils, and chalk, nothing else. I keep fiddling with the composition of a brighter yellow, then saying who needs brighter yellow anyway, then trying again. The light here is very nice, and it's warmer, so things are both tightening and drying quickly. Different to learn more about the depth of the same system, but this is of course where things can get more subtle.



      

      Got the linseed oil from Thomas Hirsz yesterday, this is pressed by pressure alone, an awful lot of pressure. As Tom has commented, it's surprisingly light, although also on the green side and cloudy due to being completely unfiltered. I'll rig up some way of refining it this week, it will be interesting to see how it compares to commercial oils. When Leslie Carlyle got involved in "historically accurate reconstructions" of older materials, she commented to the effect that, past a certain point, the prediction of accuracy is simply not possible. There are also situations where the identity of a given material may have changed: De Mayerne records that a varnish made from Venice turpentine dries in a few hours, meaning that the only possible historical material for his "Venice Turpentine" is silver fir balsam, olio d'Abezzo, not the current mixture of larch balsam and colophony called Venice Turpentine. This basic shift in identity is also possible here, as flax seed is routinely modified now for better oil yield. Still, this is as close as it may be possible to get to an older oil as a point of departure, so definitely something worth exploring. You can read more about Tom's adventures in paint and oil making here.



      

      Did some more work on this image from the Garfagnana, became a little bugged by it but have to admit it came forward, is the closest to finished yet of the larger pieces. A little too saturated here, and that blue is a little nutty, but otherwise pretty accurate. Working on something of this scale is easier for me than things that are smaller, I think because there's more territory to cover, so it's more likely I'll stop before overdoing a given layer. More to go, I'm going to try to have it done next week. About 19x28 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      A painting I've been very interested in, but felt I didn't know how to finish. This situation was helped by the finishing marathon for the show in Stowe. It has a frame now, the frame is a little bright so I'm finishing the painting to be a little brighter as well. Mostly worked on the background and the jar this time, it came forward, didn't do more because the edges have grown and are going to need a few more coats of paint anyway. Apologies for the skewed photo, could not figure out how to get it straight with the current software. About 14.5x15.5 inches, oil on canvas over panel.



      

      Did layers on a few more of the florals I started before leaving Vermont. These all came forward, but in ways that were somewhat unpredictable. This may be due to the amount of time in the process between when they were started, in January, and now. The element of unpredictability is fine, they all seem to end up with their own individual style anyway. About 20x22 inches, oil on Arches Huile. I'll mount these on canvas before framing them, this makes something very stable.



april 5
      

      Week of the new moon, started work again this week. It felt good to pick up the work where I had to leave it while finishing things for a show in the last few months: Yes, I remember this, this was really fun. My new home is working out well in general. It's more urban than Vermont, more ambient noise and activity, but pretty easy to get used to. Still a lot of new life to put together here, but it all feels familiar since it's where I grew up and it hasn't changed much. Not the best photos this week, no tripod, different computer with different software, so, camping out a little on the news too.



      

      I brought more studio with me than anything else, sort of a security blanket but it worked out well this week. I'm not going to do anything fancy or experimental for a while, just develop a set of paintings at a larger scale for me, the 22x30 size of the Arches Huile paper.



      

      An image that I did a small study of in 2013 and liked, amalgam of several influences in a tiny town somewhere up in the Garfagnana. Worked on this for four days, kept the technique simple, paint and putty, added more each day, the last day the paint was pretty tarry, made the paint-putty combination a little richer, making finer things possible. I'm not sure this process couldn't be telescoped somewhat, I began it a little more indirectly than necessary. This is tricky, though, because too direct a beginning can accidentally lead to an obvious conclusion. Still wet, reflections interfering with the saturation overall, not done but in a good place for week one, nice sense of light and place, the art established though not crystallized. The idea now is to be more normal, just make paintings with what I know rather than trying to extend the knowledge base constantly. That was fun, but it also took on a life of its own, in that I had to make sure I had explored the territory thoroughly. Conversely, it's now kind of a relief to simply concentrate on what finished means, rather than asking a priori technical questions as well. This is about 20x28 inches, oil on Arches Huile. I'll probably let it sit a few days, I like it in general but a rest often produces a clearer sense of the next step.



      

      I've been corresponding now for a few months with Canadian painter Thomas Hirsz. Tom has become involved with refining linseed oil, and, having a mechanical turn of mind, decided to make a traditional oil press as well. This is exciting since even "cold-pressed" linseed oil is processed at the temperature of boiling water. Some of the higher quality nutritional oils are processed at a lower temperature – 50C for Flora – but Tom's oil is even below that, and straight from the press as well. He's generously sending me a sample, so this will be very interesting to process in the next few weeks. You can read more about Tom's adventures in paintmaking here.



march 30
      

      Last week of the moon, new moon today, a lot of transition this week. Loaded the car Thursday morning early and drove down to Philadelphia, not exactly the neighborhood I grew up in since things here are so compartmentalized, but pretty close. Things are very familiar here, but also different. I've got a good apartment for the work, nice since I took it sight unseen, am in the process of setting it up. This part is going to take a while, though I think some work will happen this week. There's a sense of starting over, but also a sense that that's good. It's pretty hard to explain it all, an epic risk in progress, but so far it's going well.





march 23
      

      Waning moon, more nutty weather, temperatures up and down, lots of bare spots, lots of spots with lumpy ice. Taught Monet in a Day yesterday, the third time in the last few months, it went pretty smoothly this time, more experience now with what matters and what doesn't in the time frame. Then went to the opening at Stowe in the evening, the gallery had very nicely featured my work in the room, even re-painted a panel in the room in a darker colour for the paintings. A nice night, saw lots of people I hadn't seen in a while, got to connect again with some old students, met some interesting artists. People around here are still sort of winter-shocked, so the opening was more of a party for the gallery than a "selling" opening, only saw one red dot on a smaller painting during the evening. Talked to one local collector who was interested in the work and couldn't have been nicer, also talked to some younger painters interested in the materials. A big day and late night for me, but fine once in a while, part of the process.

      I'm still reading The Principles of Art, while not a day at the beach, it is the most fascinating book of its type I've ever read, a logical and heartfelt look at the ways we can both help and confuse ourselves through our definition of art and its ancillary terms. Most recently, Collingwood has gotten around to defining art – any actual art – as an imaginative emotional experience for both the viewer and the maker. That is, that the real art is not of the given sense, i.e., sensual, but of the imagination. He has defined imagination as positive, a way to experience emotions we may need, or have lost touch with, as opposed to amusement, which he defines as negative, the art of distraction and addiction, emotion as fast food as opposed to nutrition. Anyway, while simply written, this book is pretty condensed, a lot happens on every page. While gentle in his own way, Collingwood is not holding anyone's hand, he is telling a truth that is pretty imperative for him. Combined with an old-fashioned sense of fair play, this gives the book a lot of ethical oomph. There's more to come, and lots to consider already from what I've read so far.



      

      This was a very quiet week in the work. I'd planned to take a few days off, but this is turning into an extended vacation. I know what wants to happen next, but, for the time being, it just can't. Sometimes art and life are on the same page, and sometimes they're not. I'm going to be leaving Vermont on Thursday for at least the month of April, but will have materials with me and check in here. In looking over my life this past winter – standard 4 am activity past a certain age – I found I had one real regret, one place I just did not want to look, and decided to try to do something about it. This wasn't easy, but, on the other hand, there didn't seem to be much of an alternative. It took me a long time, but I realized I had to go back to a wrong decision and try to right it. The attempt has been fruitful so far, with a lot of hope now on both sides. We'll see what April brings. You don't often get a second chance, and it of course involves taking that chance, but a lot of interesting things seem to be becoming possible this year. It's almost as though time is becoming more transparent, or more obviously circular, but that we have to recognize the difference, therefore the opportunity, in order to make use of it.



march 16
      

      Still freezing, below zero again last night. We had a decent snowstorm, about a foot of snow like fine sand that blew all over the place for over a day as it fell. Had to go pick up frames in Burlington the next morning, drove up on a fine washboard of ice because the state had tried brining. You'd think this would be fine in the middle of March but it didn't work that well because it was still so cold. Strange, stressful at first, but I got used to the sense that traction was sometimes a little iffy, the car was just floating every now and then. I got everything done I'd wanted to except one that got close, figured out its issues but had no time left to put it over the top. Got one bonus in the form of an extra frame that fit something existing that was already finished, so delivered seven paintings to West Branch in Stowe yesterday afternoon. It's a very large space, with a modern architectural look that's very accessible. They've added a new room for landscapes where my work will be shown, this is more intimate. So, like a museum, they kind of switch themes between rooms, it's an eclectic approach but tied together by a consistent sense of taste. The West Branch owners, Tari and Chris, are both artists, and took several hours with me there, discussing the work and the history of the gallery, which also has a sculpture park fronting the river that is amazing in the summer.. Everyone thinks of Stowe as a giant money ski town, but in Vermont the story is always more complex than that. These are resourceful folks, with whom I share a sense that art needs to be real on the one hand, and figure out a way to be sold on the other. Tari has put together an amazing assortment of landscape approaches for the show, and wants to feature a copy of the book in the gallery, so I think it will be a fun opening for me. My sculptor friend Merv, veteran of many a California opening from the brie and chablis era, advised me to go in disguise, explaining that openings were much easier with an adopted persona. I know a Dutch painter who's devoted to Rembrandt who always wears period costume to any public gathering, but I think I'll just go as the innocent, somewhat befuddled painting professor, peering at the world through thick glasses, hopelessly lost in the ozone of older texts, clueless about what is hip and what is not. Anyway, the most grueling month in a long time, no wiggle room, just had to run the course, get to the finish line. It was good to explore completion more throughly, helped by a waxing moon in the last two weeks, but it will be nice to get back to my old friend, the process, which has been looking askance at this shift in emphasis, to say the least. But first, I'm going to rest for a few days, no painting, no nothing.



      

       In the past few years, partly as background research for Living Craft, partly because it turned out to be interesting in its own right, I read a great deal of writing about painting. Most of this has been wondrous, but, given our immersion in duality, some of it less so. Contemporary academics can write cleanly and purposefully, such as Laurinda Dixon's book on Bosch, weave a personal but fascinating tapestry of commentary in the manner of Diderot, such as Norman Bryson's Looking at the Overlooked, or create a variety of glass bead games that really have little to do with the subject, such as, well, never mind, let's just say that, if everyone who wrote about painting were required to know how to paint, a lot of folderol and tail-chasing could be avoided. Technical art history is more consistent because it is necessarily more grounded in the facts. The level of prose is high, people like Joyce Townsend or Leslie Carlyle tend to get a certain spin on the science. Mention can again be made here of the extraordinary book by Susie Nash about the Northern Renaissance, an introductory text that is basically a work of art in itself.

      I ran across R.G. Collingwood while researching what Plato had actually said about art in The Republic. His way of writing was immediately sympathetic and I got a copy of the book the excerpt came from, The Principles of Art, first published in 1938. The aim of the book is to answer the question, "What is art?" Collingwood was a philosophy professor at Oxford, but, interestingly from the perspective of current academic writing, is not particularly devoted to large words. In fact, quite the reverse: he makes his points in simple declarative sentences. Now, if the subject is complex, reducing it to its essence is the ultimate challenge, but also the most fruitful approach in terms of testing the sense of the arguments at the most basic level. Similarly to Nash, The Principles of Art stands alone in terms of an author tackling and taming a complex subject with an absolute minimum of waffle. This is especially amazing considering that Collingwood must cope with the infinitely murky waters of centuries of aesthetic theory. His genius is not to wade into them, but rather, part them, and walk right through, taking the reader along with him. If you have ever waded into aesthetic theory, (Elizabeth Prettejohn's Beauty & Art offers an accessible overview of the history of the subject and asks some interesting larger questions as well) you know that this is in fact a kind of miracle. Collingwood accomplishes this by establishing a series of logical distinctions that serve to clear the air. He refuses, for example, to let art be defined by technique or style, distinguishing several categories of pseudo-art before ultimately exploring the concept of art as applied emotional integrity, and why this is culturally so vital. He does not attempt to separate art and life, but unite them, and, as a result of an extraordinary world view grounded in Greek philosophy, makes some incredibly prescient comments about art and the life of a society. As with T.J. Clark in Manet: The Painting of Modern Life, he understands that the Industrial Revolution involved capitol in the spiritual disenfranchisement of the lower classes, and goes so far as to say that the education of the English rural population in the later 19th century robbed it of it's sense of magical connection to the earth via its traditional culture. This from a professor at Oxford writing before Munich! But, unlike Clark he does not use this as a platform for an incipient Marxism, rather, he simply says this does not work, citing the way ancient Rome tried to permanently distract it's proletariat with bread and circus, only to crumble via a way of life that had no meaning for those who were living it. This is perhaps the most unnerving thing about this book from the current perspective, since, similar to Delacroix complaining that trains and clipper ships introduced too much speed for its own sake, the situation Collingwood found alarming in 1938 has multiplied exponentially since the time the book was written. Anyway, this has really stirred the synapses, a search for aesthetic definitions in the best Platonic tradition, and is highly recommended if the current battle between Beauty and Irony seems just the least bit silly.



      

      Not much happened technically this week, just kept developing finishing layers on a few paintings. When I picked up the frames, the framer had very nicely tried to take as little of the image as possible on the smaller ones. This did result in some white space showing, so I inpainted that with the methyl cellulose tempera I've talked about off and on I love this stuff, want to do more with it.



      

      Group shot of the paintings I took to the gallery, with examples of the newer work that went on hold for the last month or so above them. A little bit of a motley crew, I tried to keep to a grouping but also had to keep selecting which ones to focus on simply due to the possibility of completing them in the allotted time. But all things considered it turned out well, I never thought I would figure out that buttercup squash, started that in 2007, well over two dozen layers of paint on it.



      

      This is an image that the gallery liked, I didn't have a frame to fit the existing one so I made a new one at a size for which I had a frame. Pretty close given it's not even a month old, some things I like, but it didn't feel quite done, time to give it a pause. About 14x18.75 inches, oil on gessoed linen on panel.



      

      Also got a frame for this peony, which has been hanging around semi-complete for a while now. This has been a great favorite of mine, I'd really like to just keep it for good, but at the same time, letting things go also means letting things grow. Realized that I'd learned enough about the finishing process to continue with it, thought a frame would be encouraging. About 14.5x15.5 inches, oil on gessoed linen on panel.



march 9
      

      Waxing moon, this week featured some record cold but ended at least a little more seasonally. Continuing to finish paintings for this show in Stowe that opens on the 22nd, I'm due to deliver work on the 15th. Haven't focused this much on finishing in a while, this is week four, it's sort of a matter of doing what comes naturally each day but not forcing anything, so there's more to work with the next day instead of getting into deficit. A little caffeine is okay, but no wine, sigh. I've done okay, will be able to deliver a few more. At the same time, this isn't that creative in larger terms; have to admit I'll be happy when I can go back to developing the more open textured, larger scale work that had just started when this gallery opportunity began. Still, I've learned a lot about finishing, about when to stop on a given day, how to rethink something when it's direction is muddled, and how to get paint to dry quickly reliably without additives in a cooler studio. Anyway, everything is wet, impossible to photograph right now.



      

      It looked like this this afternoon on Farr Cross road outside of Vergennes. Winter is slowly receding, although one more snow storm is due this week.



      

      I spent most of this week in this room, finishing paintings for the upcoming show in Stowe.



      

      Did a lot of work with various couch formulas this week, rubbing them on very thinly on the panels with my fingers. Maybe the best one to use is thick hand-refined linseed oil (or sun oil) that has been thinned with solvent. This goes on very thin, sets up quickly, and is dry the next day even now. But it also involves solvent in a closed space, so I've been trying other things. A little egg white emulsified into the oil works well, and I've also liked a small amount of cooked starch gel. This gets mashed finely into the thicker oil first, then the resulting sticky paste is thinned with thinner oil. It starts out translucent, below, but becomes transparent as it sits. The translucence isn't an issue as it is put on so thin. Any of these tempera additions make the oil tighter, stickier, act more as though the medium contains a resin.





march 2
      

      Still here, still finishing paintings, still really winter but at least more sunny than not. Last week of the moon, this is typically lower energy for me but a reasonable amount happened, things sort of fell apart on Friday afternoon and I took yesterday off. Have a few more weeks to work for this show, I'm in reasonable shape, would like to finish a few more, and possibly will, but in larger terms a finishing system is coming together in place of the exploring of the last few years. It was fun to explore, and this has allowed some things into the final system that wouldn't be there otherwise. But it's important not to try to get too much done too quickly, this tends to result in short term success but longer term debacle. In general the work I'm finishing now is older, can't wait to get going with more recent work again, this has more energy, but have to be patient a little longer. I've done this type of thing often in the past, but not in a few years. There are a lot of things to consider in the endgame of a painting. I kind of like this, as long as there's a sense of pace, of spaciousness to the process. This is up to me to keep in awareness over the next few weeks.



      

      Cleaned up the paint and putty deployment area yesterday, this tends to get overcrowded so a purge is always therapeutic. No changes this week, although the palette did end up with a lot of colours on it from working with lots of different images. I've been making a finishing couch using a small amount of starch gel mashed into thicker oil until it emulsifies, then thinned with some thinner oil. This gets rubbed onto the paintings very thinly after they've been ground back slightly. This material has been really cooperative, and I've learned that, just as resin or egg yolk in small amounts prevents drying down in layers, starch in small amounts does this as well. See below. Starch gel in the clam shell above, this gets inverted for storage and keeps a few days.



      

      The last time I cleaned the slab, I saved these shavings of dried putty from it. They've been sitting on the windowsill in a jar for a few months now.



      

      There are several smaller landscapes I'm finishing for the next round with the gallery. These are going to go on the back burner for as few weeks, but I wanted to show this one, because it's an example of how a little bit of cooked starch gel mixed into the oil as an emulsion creates the same type of sequestering as a resin medium. I rubbed an emulsion couch on the first layer of this with a bit of starch gel in it, then put on the second layer. I made the second layer a little bright, calculating that it would dry down somewhat into the darker first layer, but it didn't, it remained up, about exactly as I painted it. About 9x13 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      The major problem child of this current finishing exercise is this buttercup squash. You know you have problems when the gallery's website has an image up that just isn't finished. Ground this back today very lightly, image is the painting covered with the slurry produced by grinding. Then wiped it back with my all time favorite shirt that is now, after twenty odd years, officially starting a new life as rags, then put another layer on it. The trick is always to remain calm in the middle of one of these situations, just keep turning the colour around. It's pretty close to done now, but I'll be able to work on it one more time as well. 12x16 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Image of Quoddy Head near Canada in Maine that stalled years ago because I knew I just didn't know how to finish it the way I wanted to. Put a softening layer on it, added more atmosphere, fiddled a lot in the trees, one more concerted (or lucky) layer could finish this. It has a frame... About 14x30 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Did another layer on this painting of cheese last week. Hadn't worked on it in a while, it's always interesting what gets seen that's new, how the image changes through another layer. 12x16 inches, oil over linen on panel.



      

      A recent start, my favorite tree. About six thin layers on this now. The next one will have more saturation, couldn't ask for something to be teed up more cleanly, but we'll see. Has a frame... About 14x19 inches, oil on linen over panel.



      

      Got a layer on this image of a flooded field in Spring, this one has been through a lot but still hasn't quite gelled. There's enough time to work on it, but I don't quite see or feel the solution yet. I think the bottom remains too amorphous. 14x18 inches, oil on linen over panel.

      Last but not least, here is a very nice demonstration of camera obscura technique by Jane Morris Pack.



february 23
      

      The weather continues to be focal here as in many places, a semi-thaw later in the week that produced semi-ice, some places getting more than others. Vermont is equipped to deal with snow, but ice is harder. One of those weeks when Monday feels like a long time ago. That was the day I was supposed to visit the framer, but, with the car all loaded up, found I had a dead battery. So, ended up laughing about it but it took a while, the paintings got there later in the week, and will still make the deadline for the show. I haven't seen the framer in a while, but he's a great person and it's always fun to get some local art world scoop. In thinking about painting as a blood sport, the frame is sort of the bait in the trap, so it's fun to get together with someone who knows this art so well.

      Taught twice this week, Wednesday's class was a little wintered-out, but Monet in a Day part two yesterday did better. They had all taken part one, and were really more in tune with the Monet system this time. Having the right colours helps, but I think the larger strength of Monet as a teaching tool is the inevitable emphasis on the visual rhythm of the paint. This is an area where people tend to hold back, and, in this situation, you really can't hold back, it has to be physical. They used less paint this time, but deployed it better, more cleanly, the level of improvement was really significant, there was much positivity at the end, usually not the case. So, while I was hesitant to get back into Monet in a Day as a class concept, re-tooling it has made it something that seems helpful for balancing, perhaps even combating, the more digital type of landscape.



      

      Kept going this week with the same colours, there's a modern yellow on this palette, and a little modern crimson, otherwise the colours, and their progeny, are all older. Also used the same types of putty in the paint, the same type of couch for finishing smaller, more 19th century study style landscapes. In this finishing strategy, a balance between mobility, density, and thixotropy is really fun to work with, and fiddle around with technically. In the past I've used a dense leaded oil to introduce thixotropy, but this week used Roland's homemade burnt plate oil, and then a little bit of sandarac varnish that I made a long time ago, and had the sense not to cut with solvent. These are both ingredients that produce thixotropy in minute – about one or two percent – amounts. Sandarac gets occluded by amber as a "secret ingredient," but it's really a nicer material I think, dries faster, darkens less over time, not to mention easier to make, and probably the oldest hard resin varnish used in painting.



      

      Another version of an image that I like, and the gallery likes, this one fits in an existing frame. This is the crunch now, I have frames, but not necessarily images that fit in them. Third layer, the strategy when working to a deadline is to get in, do as much with as little paint as possible, then stop. This approach keeps things from locking up, getting significant, therefore fraught (Middle English for freight), as long as possible. Things develop organically, in an out of focus way. This means that the last layer is more spontaneous, as much like an alla prima layer as possible, but with more consideration beneath it. The only drawback now is that it's just not that warm in the house, things are taking about three times as long to dry as in summer. But I think this one will be done on time. About 14x18 inches, oil on gessoed linen over panel.



      

      Mostly worked on finishing layers on smaller work this week. Some of these I thought were done a few years ago, but now can see more. At one point I used to get confused about detail, but now understand that "more" is about feeling, which usually translates into atmosphere, the unity of the art part. So, these are coming along, but won't go to the gallery in the first round as they have no frames. Still, I'm getting the sense that my version of the Gere Collection, full of various putty medium tests over the last few years, is going to work out commercially. If only small paintings were easy to make, instead of the reverse. I became very attached to these for the last few years, but now it's time to begin to let go of them as part of generating the next step. I didn't know when being on the shelf would end, wanted it to be organic, part of the process, rather than forcing it. Now things are changing very quickly, just have to remember to let this continue until it reaches a new configuration that feels like home.



february 16
      

      Week of the full moon, lots of snow, but, as usual, less than advertised, we are overdue here for something large. Spent most of the week getting things ready for the gallery, the best way for me is to try to finish a variety of things, then select the best ones at the end. I'd like to get this project nailed down as soon as possible and return to working on the larger florals and landscapes, but even giving these a break of a week has brought up some new ideas for how to develop them. Similarly, giving the smaller work a rest has suggested a different approach to finishing them. So, is it all good? Hard to get that perspective on some issues, but within painting maybe it's possible. It seems more and more to be about following the natural motion of the process, not getting locked into "should" when "is" has much more energy. Had a good class, I'm trying to teach myself to back off more in terms of energy expended, and they are at the point now where they are setting the agenda themselves, I just respond to their questions. I had a few teachers in high school who taught by tossing exploding questions into the room, and, while it can be overused, this technique has a lot of appeal in terms of getting a group to self-teach through it's own dialogue. So, I have an exploding question for them next week: "What is the opposite colour of white?" This will be fun.

      A book came into my life last month that has proven really helpful. It's called Journey of Souls, by Micheal Newton. Newton was a hyno-therapist in California, and kept running into past life situations being related by clients. He was quite resistant to this, but eventually, because of the consistency of the information, began to explore it further. So, the book is a group of excerpts from sessions with clients, the first of s series (there are also YouTube videos of him talking) designed to establish the basic outlines of the life-afterlife dialogue. Why does a soul choose a particular experience, or pattern of experiences? What are the long term goals of the soul? Why do we feel like we've known certain people before? Why is life so relentlessly difficult? All these kinds of questions get answered pretty clearly, outside the frame of reference of religion. But for me, the most interesting thing to come out of the book is that the soul's agenda for life here is essentially growth that cannot occur in less stressful environments. In thinking about the cases, it seemed to me that this growth occurs through a triad of lessons: integrity (blue), perseverance (red), and service (yellow). Integrity is knowing who you are and what works for you, believing in yourself no matter what. Perseverance is implementing this in spite of everything that may be arrayed against you temporally, and includes both patience and courage. Service is taking who you are and finding ways to fit this into the larger whole of who everyone else is. In the recorded comments the souls make on their lives, everything else is seen as a form of distraction. "Oh, I got distracted by power. Oh, I got distracted by money and possessions. Oh, I wanted to look attractive but that proved to be a distraction." So, in thinking about getting back together with a gallery, I've been considering the often inverse relationship between worldly and spiritual success. If this were to be set up as a Venn diagram, the area of intersection between these two circles would be pretty small, and would look a lot like the eye of a needle.



      

      The weather continues to be pretty prominent. The bigger icicle here was about four feet long, finally fell yesterday in a crash of snow from the roof that felt like an earth tremor in the studio. We didn't get a lot of snow compared to places south of here, about a foot during the course of the week, everything from the serious small wind-driven flakes to the goofy larger ones that fall up as much as down. I like winter, and this one has had an incredible variety of moods, but it does make it more difficult to get anything done. I write with some people in Australia, they have been having incredibly hot temperatures during both the day and night, hard to conceive of from within weather that is so opposite. Duality is so thoroughly built into this experience that the planet even has opposite kinds of weather at once.



      

      Mostly did finishing layers this week, a variety of things that might work for the gallery over the next few months. I've been using egg white as the seizing agent lately, either in the putty or to make a denser oil more mobile and thixotropic, but went back to a starch gel towards the end of the week. It is more likely to generate overall low impasto in a simple putty than egg white, has been a feature of some of the paintings I've liked best over the last few years, although all of these things can be engineered to behave more of less like each other.



      

      Some of the paintings on paper that I mounted this week onto canvas. The canvas gets stapled to a board, then the glue is put into the outline of the paper, then the paper is applied, and burnished flat. I like parchment paper for this, fingers on the paint, bone folder on the edges. This is not my favorite thing to do, but it looks better, more organic, than mounting the painting directly onto a very flat panel. In the past I've used straight PVA for this, but thought that might be a little strong over time, possibly a little brittle, so made up some starch paste and cut that with PVA. Ha ha, this made it tricky because a lot more water was involved and some of the paintings bowed for a while, not ideal. I also tried mounting one on acid-free conservation cardboard, the stuff used to make folders, and this really buckled; after 48 hours it's almost flat again, oy, not recommended Anyway, no outright disasters but all reason to leave what works well enough alone. Funny how that approach just never seems too appealing.



      

      One of the paintings I mounted, actually a pretty good photo of it. I'm going to miss this, in life this has a certain je ne sais quoi, my framer will be ecstatic about this, the gallery owner who visited was on it like a shot. Sales, of course, are about making people reach for their wallets without thinking, pretty much a blood sport, knowing what's going to sell easily is important in a given location. There are several of these, one that's an exact copy but not as good, a little too happy. But, if I let this one go, I'll be more motivated to get it back by making another one that really works. 8x13 inches, oil on gessoed paper on canvas.



      

      Another one that I'd like to get to the gallery, a larger version of a favorite outdoor painting from long ago, early August morning on Farr Cross. Some of these views have changed dramatically over the years, but this one is still the same. This had become too cool and pale, dropped it down and warmed it up. I'll probably go over it one more time, the distant hill seems a little prominent from the perspective of the composition. These landscape paintings end up being so formal, ready for that hallowed spot over the mantlepiece, framed ones always seem a little odd to me in the work environment. Some studios historically have emulated this, Leighton's final studio was huge and well-appointed, but I wouldn't feel comfortable in an opulent or formal space. Somehow, there needs to be process, up until the last possible moment.



      

      Started this one yesterday, there are several versions of this and one of them may leave. Still wet, a lot of glare, on the other hand this allows the overall low impasto to be seen. Better in life, the best version of this so far in some ways, but not others. I keep looking for that magical balance that is neither too bright nor too dull, neither too messy nor too organized. This is different than looking for the Holy Grail, which you either find or don't. With this quest, it's more of a journey towards a destination that is always slightly further away than it looks. After a while, you inevitably realize that the journey, not the destination, is the point.



february 9
      

      Waxing moon, still freezing but sunny, we had some snow but not a lot, strange storm that operated in shreds or stages. A lot of scary press about the storm, everything was cancelled here including my class, but, as usual, things in Middlebury were on the mild side. A very complex week, an amazing variety of things happened. Life takes on a pattern, and that pattern seems, for better or worse, inviolable until, suddenly, deep within, the tectonic plates begin to move. A couple different plates moved this week, and I feel really up in the air for the first time since the move here. But in larger terms this is good, the current pattern has been explored, it's time for a new one to begin. The work is in the same place, I've never been so excited about what is in the process of happening. It's all still at the beginning stage, but, like baby hedgehogs, they are pretty beguiling in their own way.



      

      Proof that the immaculate studio can be more than a conception. This took a few days but was very fun in the end, reclaiming the space for the next round of work within it. This happened because a gallery representative came here this week. It went well, this is someone who is smart and evolved, understands the larger complexity of the artist-gallery-buyer menage, and discusses it openly. Yikes. The gallery operates at a scale that could not have happened twenty years ago. Probably most importantly, they gave me a good idea of what they want, of how I fit. So, I'm going to get into this and see what happens. It's tricky in a way, because they want the more evolved work, and this is the older, tighter work I'm in the process of leaving behind. But, there's a market for it, it's not something many people do because it takes time to both learn and execute. Still, there's enough of it finished, and close to finished, to meet the delivery date without too much of an issue. I'm scared, but maybe that's good. I think this is like riding a bicycle, it will come back quickly.



      

      The packing and shipping department. Got the first proof of the dust jacket this week, it's on a book in the lower left. The file itself needs to be tweaked a little, it doesn't quite fit right, and the printer made the image pretty dark. It looks kind of cool, but it's too much. You can see a version I printed out above it, in the frame. Anyway, this process continues at a snail's pace. The book is selling well without the dust jacket, but somehow I think this element is important for marketing it more broadly as a text. Got some Natural Pigments from Saint Ed at this week, on the table at the bottom. I was wondering about that very pale ocher, it's a light kraft paper brown in oil, very 17th century Dutch genre painting colour. Ed also sent some Nicosia green earth, this is the coolest one I know of, very elegant colour. This colour is sometimes made from more normal green earth and a little viridian. There's nothing wrong with this, but the real thing is always nice somehow as a benchmark. Once sophistication begins, it's only a matter of time before there's no Nicosia Green Earth in Nicosia Green Earth.



      

      Second layer on this larger landscape start, perhaps the place I've been most obsessed with, and version of it I've been most obsessed with, in my life. I like this one so far, open, loose, but organized, the major pieces in place with accuracy but no fussiness. In life, this breathes. The question is how to keep it breathing all the way to the finish line. About 24x30 inches, oil on linen.



      

      Only got one more beginning underway, but it was very interesting, got everything just right for this one. Thought it might be fun to avoid white as much as possible in the beginning, keep as much translucence in the paint as possible as long as possible. I think I'll do the same thing in the next layer, keep the pigment open while bringing the value structure down more. This was very physical, intuitive, and fun to do. That's what I'm looking for from the process now, more fun on the way to completion. The gallery representative was of course not as interested in the next step as I am, but did look at this one very closely. About 20x23 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



february 2
      

      Less cold but still mostly sunny week, the roller-coaster weather continues to dominate things. We have been kind of lucky here, just some ice and frigidity, although Vermont is under no illusions about winter being benign and this helps. Week of my birthday, a new solar cycle, always nice to let go of the old one, which still seems to drill it's lessons in with untoward relentlessness, a kind of gleefulness at the puny aspect of mortal. Also week of the new moon, and this one did usher in new things pretty quickly. For the last few years I explored a lot of options in the materials for the book, but now the book is basically done. There will always be more, but, if each edition takes it halfway to the wall, I've done the majority of what I can, or maybe even want to, do at this point. So, a return to making work that emphasizes product more has seemed inevitable. In a way I haven't felt that comfortable with this, it has been sort of cozy being a monk of art, but developing a functional but evolving definition of finished seems to be the logical next step. My friend Wim also suggested this week that making things for people, as opposed to for art, is a form of service. In Europe of course there is much more of a history of painting comprehension, I'm not sure how I feel about this in the context of America. But, as though on cue, I was contacted by a gallery last week, and they'll be coming by to look next week, so we'll see what transpires there. I did the best I could with the book to establish an alternative frame of reference to prevailing ones in every possible aspect of painting. At the same time, the present tense is really all I have, and to the extent that it means a return to the circus, perhaps it's best to accept this, the venue does not necessarily dictate the larger quality of the performance.



      

      Continued on the larger painting program this week, it is getting up a little steam but that's not saying much compared to summer. It is easier to see what is essential at this scale, let go of detail, fun to manipulate more paint and be less fussy. But I'm fighting the winter, and there's only so much it can be fought.



      

      For a long time I put various "official" putty formulas into tubes, but this turned out to be a mixed blessing, and have recently been making the putty to order on the palette. Still, there are times when having something ready made is helpful. So I've been using up various older tubes outside, or during figure drawing. There was one formula I kept noticing had an interesting quality, and last week I ended up giving it to a friend who also liked how it worked alla prima, making straight paint more feminine, less starkly mechanical. So I went back, found it in the notes, and recreated it. Well, sort of. It was more interesting to consider what it did, and how I might try to improve it. Sometimes this works out better than others, but I think I actually did make it better for what I want now. The original was made with chalk and fumed silica, along with some denser leaded oils, and had an odd quality of melting with density, it moved well but held detail relentlessly in the paint as it was manipulated. This next version minimized the various melting factors, using denser SRO oil for saturation and substituting a small amount of BPO for the leaded oils, but still moves well with density. This stuff is kind of hard to describe! But, as usual, I may have gone a little far in the opposite direction of the first version, there's probably a third formula too that's kind of in the middle. Anyway, I think this is the type of information that might be interesting in the book at some point, a little on the geeky side but useful, documenting the how and why of a formula's development over time.



      

      Received this great impasto detail from Roland this week, part of the fur of a bison he made with the help of his famous homemade burnt plate oil. This is a material often proposed as the seizing agent of older painting, and it does work, although, in the context of handmade paint especially, there are several types of thicker oil that also produce thixotropy. I love the warm transparent glaze over the fine but intensely textured impasto.



      

      When I went to Tuscany, I tried to get off the beaten track as much as possible. This involved leaving the river plain and going up into the little roads that wound around in the Apennines. In the lower elevations, there were often groves of chestnut trees, and also often older couples collecting chestnuts in the middle of the chestnut covered road. This image was on a dirt road off a dirt road, from a grove of older trees that were still being tended. Like all places full of old trees, it had an amazing energy. I always liked the starkness of it, but also realized the only way to paint it was just to do it, and that "doing it" at the level required was not yet available. So, this one had to wait about a decade. This, on the other hand, makes it easier to paint as a memory. Layer two, crude still, but not bad considering that layer two is usually about correction more than progress. More paint than usual, but that was the idea and it helped. Still not resolved, this may just be a test for a certain way of working – looser, bolder, lower chroma – but it may also be completable, we'll see, it has been fun to work on. About 17x28.5 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Well, quirky photo on this one, deep red is always hard, could not get the flower and the background relationship right, nor the colours: the background is less green, the zinnia more red. Layer two, in life I'm pretty happy with how this came out, a nice combination of comedy and majesty, bright and attenuated colour, the flower is a just little insidious somehow. It should only require one more pass. About 20x22 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      Decided to commit some linen to a larger start, this is fun to work on but I'm going to have to make more of it soon to stay ahead. I make it now on a hollow core door, this is manageable but doesn't really make that much, about three paintings, at this scale. A place I've been obsessed with, a particular image of it I've been obsessed with, so at this point the bigger things that can go wrong have. Just mapped in, used a lot of calcite in this instead of chalk, bigger granules that slide more, kept the palette as simple as possible, will shift the sky more towards a warm blue in small increments. About 24x30 inches, oil on linen.



january 26
      

      Back to serious winter here, fine snow off and on, then brilliant sun, and quite cold. The thermometer has been lower, but I've never been as cold as I was walking to class on Wednesday as a result of the wind in the hollow. The creek is too agitated from the last thaw to freeze, but there's lots of pancake ice bobbing around in the eddies, massive amounts of rime on the surrounding trees. People have been in decent moods, sun is always preferable here in the winter.

      The larger painting or bust project is slowly gathering steam, it's slow because of the winter more than not knowing what to do, this is the culmination of a lot of planning, a lot of waiting for the spiral of process to return to where it began, but at a different level. I like what happened this week but it's interesting how the process keeps asking questions in terms of the rheology of the paint, and how it should be applied and developed at this different scale.



      

      The new hardback edition of the book arrived, ten boxes of it, an incredible feeling of accomplishment in that I wrote not one impolite e-mail during the four months this process took. I'm trying to get an attractive dust jacket made for this edition by a local printer, but –wait for it! – this project is also running into issues. Of course, I'm simply viewing this as another tremendous opportunity to expand my definition of patience. Anyway, the dust jacket may prove to be too expensive, or result in a price increase. On the other hand, maybe the dust jacket is extraneous. On the third hand, maybe I should just buy a larger printer and do it myself on rolls of Strathmore 400, much better paper than any printer is going to show me. Ah, life, always a plethora of options! And yet, why do they all seem to lead to yet another Pyrrhic victory? I must need more caffeine!

       I rewrote the book several times from beginning to end for this edition, and there are reasonably large sections of it now that embody the Strunk & White ideal of Zen-like clarity within what is typically, given that we are discussing painting, a multidimensional frame of reference. A lot of things are described in Living Craft that have never been described before. And, there is no mechano-technical boilerplate in the book, it is all living prose written by a living human being. Edition four also features a conclusion listing the various actual lost secrets of older painting practice, as opposed to the ones that have been proposed over time by Doerner, Eastlake, Maroger, etc. Analyzing older painting at the molecular level, modern technical art history has now told us a different story, the story I explored. What do the actual secrets of older painting now appear to be? A few of them are:

      The unique rheology of Hand Refined Linseed Oil.

      The nuanced use of a limited palette through Optical Colour Separation.

      The fascinating technique of Oil to Oil Thixotropy.

      Rembrandt, Velasquez, and the Ventians used Chalk, Calcite, and Silica.

      The art of Black and Gray as Colours.

      I have a feeling from e-mails that there are a reasonable number of people who are waiting for edition four, so I'm going to start selling it now – as is, no beguiling dust jacket – for the same price as edition three. Also, I've put the PDF files up permanently, so feel free to link to any of them if you find them useful. Oil to Oil Thixotropy is the one that is most technically interesting, disproving the "it must be amber varnish or a mastic gel" theory conclusively. Gasp!



      

      It looked like this earlier in the week, looking northwest into the Adirondacks from Weybridge.



      

      Made this earlier in the week, it's funny because it now seems like ancient history in terms of what's going on. Had done an underpainting for this years ago that I really liked, enough to photograph it, then the painting itself became a disaster. So, this one was based on that underpainting. No drawing, just a grid on both the reference and the painting to start, I like this because it forces the process to always be refining itself, not ever involved in the colouring book technique of filling in the colours between the lines. I made this with a putty that was pretty coarse, granular, and, although the photo exaggerates this, this did go a little too far. But, trying to reign this quality in later in the week, I ended up appreciating this one more. In life I like this, but I'm not sure most galleries, certainly in Vermont, wouldn't want more colour and pizazz from an image like this. I'm not saying art history would, or the rare collector who could actually look at this and say where it comes from, but I want to balance quieter ones with ones that have more oomph. This was the general strategy before when I worked with galleries – one for them, one for me – and it worked well. So I started one with more colour, but with a putty that was too specific. We'll see how that one develops, it may need to wait for a second layer. The ideal is to finish these in one layer, this is really the best way at this point. I spent a lot of time developing finesse, but really, exist in a culture where this is essentially a negative. Now I just need to start hitting the ball as hard as I can. This is actually a relief in a way, and is far more likely to be understood. No more Mr. Nice Guy always plays well in America, that may well be the theme for the coming year.



january 19
      

      Week of the full moon, it was a pretty grim week for the most part, not as cold, mostly overcast, although some sun in and out the last few days. Very little happened this week in the work, got two layers on the larger Mugello painting and that's it. I didn't get sick, had a good class with the few people left who aren't sick, but the weather roller-coaster is beginning to take a toll in general. Painting is based on feeling, and if I don't feel it, that's really that, I've learned there's just no point. Just have to go slow, be patient, lower expectations for now.

      I'm still waiting for the hardcover books, in theory they were shipped on Friday, but, I've learned that this company is sometimes overly optimistic about dates. It has taken over almost two and a half months since I got the first proof. Went to visit the local printer this week to get moving on the dust jacket, he's a much more reliable commodity so this part should be fun. He mentioned a bindery in New Hampshire, I think I need to some further research about what's available for the next printing, there's a sense with the outfit I've been working with of communication just not being all that clear. I did find a new font, this is sort of a bonus. It's another Garamond variation, but older, turn of the century, a little rounder, more archaic and slightly playful. It was used in an art history book, and I was able to figure it out by doing a question and answer session online about the disposition of various letters. So, it's been fun to play around with that for the next edition. I sort of like the process of making things better bit by bit, layer by layer.

      I read a lot of books for the book, and now there are a few I want to go over again. One of them is Notes on the Science of Picture Making by C.J. Holmes. Holmes was a painter and writer, friend of Roger Fry, ran the National Gallery for a while, taught at the Slade, there's a painting of his at the Tate, but he's a much better writer. He's smart, funny and a little dated in turn, with a taut, almost epigrammatic prose style. Some of his opinions seem prescient, others kind of fuddy-duddy. The book has a great sense of that period, after Impressionism, before WWI, and is not so much about science, but a system for both viewer and student for analyzing and understanding painting. He's for a middle way in painting, and has already figured out in 1910 that copying the photograph doesn't work. There are lots of comments about materials and processes, lots of avuncular advice; for example, he suggests that often, attempting less will create a more successful work of art, that failure is often about trying too hard. This is tricky, but has me considering the essential more as a concept with which to begin. He rails about a lot of things I agree with: size for its own sake, raucous colour, et al, it's interesting to see the extent to which the writing was on the wall at even this early date. I'm getting something interesting out of this, a sense of a similar mind grappling with something essentially insolvable, the bizarre present tense relationship of painting to culture. In a way, it makes me feel better, one can point out that art history always comes up with the same answers about what great painting is, but to no avail. The lemmings just need to go over the cliff now and then. I feel pretty stalled by winter, but when I read this the pot gets stirred up, I think about interesting new or different things that could happen next. If Holmes weren't a little peppery, a little empire, a little too certain of his ground, it wouldn't work as well this way. He acknowledges in the text that we learn as well from being annoyed by a painter; the same is true of an author.

      Critically, there is a strange kind of battleground developing between Irony and Beauty in painting these days. In a way, it has to do with the role of the mind. Is the mind all powerful, as Irony demands, or is the mind subservient, even non-existent, as Beauty demands? I tend to go for a third option altogether, one where head, heart and hands are treated as equals in the process. This helps keep things balanced, rather than getting ideological and excessive. In the second half of the 20th century, we saw lots of excess from Irony. But look out all you cynical hipsters, Beauty is in the process of striking back.



      

      It looked like this yesterday afternoon on the way to Farr Cross Road, an unusually gentle or lyrical moment.



      

      About half an hour later, the sun more behind the clouds, the day beginning to close in.



      

      Did two different layers on this, tried to remain with one blue, but ended up using something warmer as well. I keep having to compensate for the gray underpainting, which I made too strong, but in a way this is okay since I'm always making it warmer, brighter, happier. If I can get the colour too lyrical with that gray underneath I'll be surprised. More paint, the surface is getting that lapidary look I like, the issues are getting smaller, but it's not quite done yet. I sent a photo of this to someone this week who said they couldn't tell what scale it really was, thus, the hand. I like this scale, not big by contemporary standards, but a natural scale for oil paint. About 18x30 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      We did some longer poses in figure drawing this afternoon, an opportunity to make small paintings. I like to just experiment with these, there's not enough time even at a "long pose" – half an hour or so – to do more. The first two had too much paint on them, too much specificity. Tried with this one to keep the focus on the feeling, the surface. It was a little frustrating because I knew it was a better approach, but, like the model, I was a little worn out. Cleaned it up this morning, simplified some things, softened some edges. Maybe there's something to this approach for larger work as well, we'll see. About 6x9 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



january 12
      

      Waxing moon, but it was pretty much trumped by the truly nutty weather, a temperature roller-coaster featuring two rounds of snow, ice, and rain. This only gets weird when you have no idea what's under the snow, or when you're out on a sidewalk and suddenly hit a patch of glare ice that can't be navigated. No ice now at last, and an above-freezing week to come. I got a little bit done, but it was sort of frustrating, things went as much sideways as forward. The kind of week that makes me appreciate what has happened, the energy to paint now seems unattainable, miraculous. January is the end of my solar cycle, birthday at the end of the month, and always seems to be more about reflection than action, whether I like it or not. Something new always begins in February, slowly, unexpected at first, then turns into the focus of the year to come. There had been such consistent progress this last year I got used to it, but will have to be patient with this weather and its effects for a few more weeks. Have not gotten sick, there is something going around that is reasonably evil so this very good. Just have to remember that the shortest distance between two points is a spiral. That is, the process is organic, and my various willful attempts to find shortcuts actually just interrupt or confuse it.

      Class was fun, we hadn't been together since before Christmas because the holidaze fell on Wednesdays. I talked to them about the triad of head, heart and hands, the roles of idea, feeling, and execution, again emphasizing the role of the hands in making something physical, and creating a rhythm in the paint that guides the viewer. Also talked about the triad of positive, negative, and neutral colour. Positive is red, yellow, and blue, negative is black, white, and gray, and neutral is their offspring. This seemed to be a helpful model for framing how to conceptualize colour more realistically, more as it is seen in life. We ended up discussing the pros and cons of using simple grays made from black and white, chromatic grays made from opposites or red, yellow, and blue, and compound grays that combine both. This is a fascinating puzzle. I don't feel there are any hard and fast answers, just that it's interesting to explore the territory. There does seem to be a lot of contemporary pedagogical prejudice against black, even online. This is hard to understand given the incredible paintings that have been made with it.



      

      I write with a lot of materials enthusiasts, and never know what might be in the mail in terms of rare and fascinating items. This was sent to me by famed international painter and explorer Wim Van Aalst, who knows I'll try anything once.



      

      Made this outside last Sunday before drawing at Fred and Mary's house, the view from their driveway into the Adirondacks. Set up the putty to put as much paint on as possible, then cleaned it up a few days later. Only 9x12, but I did get a lot of paint on, it might be possible at this point to move to 12x16, we'll see. This was fun to make, although the best part was leaving out all the foreground stuff I knew would just get in the way. It might be a good study for something larger and more essential. I think this approach could be developed more as well for working outside. Looking back over a decade or so of outdoor work, the ones I like best have the most paint on them. So that seems like the place to start if this type of work wants to happen again.



      

      Continued to work on the painting of the Mugello farm from last week, did two layers. This illustrates what tends to happen in intermediate layers: something is gained, but something is lost. I like the quality of the colour better overall, but it needs to feel fresher once again. So, the finish is always about getting it to be like the beginning again, more spontaneity, more motion. Of course, to be spontaneous, one needs to feel spontaneous, about the last thing I have available at this point, I can just about make toast. This will probably go on hold for a while, then I'll come back with a layer of more and thicker paint, using a thixotropic medium designed to be conclusive. But, more importantly, I now know a great deal more about how to make the next painting at this scale: what to do that I didn't, what to avoid that I did. Yes. About 18x30 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



january 5
      


      New moon on the first, I felt mostly antsy, not inspired. That's okay, the other side of the new moon, given what I'd been told about it being "intense" I was kind of relieved. We got some, but by no means a lot, of a nor'easter in the middle of the week, took some books to the post office in the snow and thought, "Boy, it's cold," and it was, minus two before the windchill, unusual temperature for snowfall. I like this kind of cold as long as it doesn't get to feel dangerous, there have been a few times in the past where happy winter outdoor jaunts got a little serious due to sudden weather changes. But winter is the only thing that keeps the entire population of the east coast from invading the adorable hobbit kingdom of Vermont, so I tend to factor that in. It's important to get out in it, feel at one with it instead of fighting it. It stayed really cold, the snow squeaking like comedy shoes, but has also been sunny, the postcard winter of Gruppe. Possible ice in the next few days as it warms up, then gets cold again. But I broke down and got some consumer crampons, the UPS guy was having way too much fun bounding around in his when he delivered the proof of the book. The book? Oh, it's so nice of you to ask! Well, I was doing some fiddling with the text for the next edition when I found a typo that was more than a typo, an official error, since the words "does not" had been dropped out of a technical sentence somehow. I've given up on this text being perfect, it's too huge, and it still gets changed a lot. It does get better each time through, more information and fewer glitches. But at a certain point the sense of imperfection overwhelms my resistance to yet another numbing edit and I get galvanized. After some frantic e-mailing and I was able to get a corrected text to the bindery before they printed, with the first eighty pages from the next edit as a bonus. So, I'm looking forward to marketing this, the next step is the supermodel dustjacket printed by my former printer, who's local, and a perfectionist.


      Otherwise, kind of a quiet but productive week in the work, stuck to the program of figuring out how to make bigger work.



      


      In the spirit of going back over older territory with more recent awareness, I made up a mixture of fine cristobalite and oil this week. Cristobalite is quartz that has been heated to the point where it begins to break down, the fine grind is partway to fumed silica, which makes a clear gel when oil is added. So, cristobalite makes a gel, but it's more mobile and not as clear. The use of fine silica in older painting is concentrated around Venice, where they of course made a lot of glass. Both ground quartzite and ground glass itself are found in older Venetian painting. It was fun to work with this again in conjunction with chalk, these two make a very nice team.



      


      Used my favorite version of this image of the farm in the Mugello as a model for a larger one. Felt a little perplexed about how to start so just used black and a putty of chalk and oil. In some ways this worked out, the single colour means there's nothing to be concerned with but the shapes and values, in other ways the darks in this, though not pure black by any means, are too dark. So, the question becomes, whether to use white in the first layer as well, safer in terms of the darkness of the next layer but potentially sacrificing the specific look this approach created. This is a high class problem, the most important thing being that this is about 2.5 feet across. There's of course greater freedom at this scale, and working smaller allowed it to have more of a sense of internal space. But on the other hand I have no idea what I'm doing here yet with this style, it looks a little dorky compared to the model. But, that's what underpaintings are for.



      


      Was able to get two layers of colour on the underpainting. Used a lean putty of chalk with the fine cristobalite gel, this held very well on the just barely dry underpainting and was tarry the next day, unexpected. So, this is not that saturated, and still slightly wet, a lot of very fine glare on it overall. The original is darker, especially in the darker values, where there are stronger grays underneath. So, another wrinkle to puzzle out in this process. It is most logical to start these as lean and simple as possible, using just oil and stone dust, but without some kind of added sequestering agent, the overpaint is basically going to meld with the underpaint. I've been using egg white for this, as opposed to the other typical ones of egg yolk, resin or beeswax, because it is the most lean, holds saturation, and has less potential to darken over time than resin. So, the photo is pretty close to the look I actually want, but the painting itself is now darker. Yes, dear readers, for once a digital came out better, and I'm taking it! The painting is made in cool daylight tonality, and because the photo was taken in cool daylight, the reflection structure of the photo fits into the painting. Kind of a process pun, but it's always nice to see what you wanted to see. But the next layer will involve egg white, meaning a more thixotropic paint and less drying down into the paint beneath. There are still some things to resolve in this, but I like the overall look so far. Did this with the simplest palette possible, earth colours and one blue, made all the greens with the blue. About 18x30 inches, oil on Arches Huile. I'll do these on linen once I'm a little more certain of the territory. I would've chosen something coarse, but now I think something finer.



december 29
      

      Less cold, still mostly overcast, rain today, and that somewhat hallucinatory feeling of the end of the year. Waning moon, chipped away at some older work this past week but it's all wet still. New moon on New Year's Day, some people have written me about this one, I guess it's got some major astrological oomph. I take this with a certain grain of salt, since all my efforts to comprehend the workings of the moon over the last decade come down to the waxing moon being more positive than the waning moon, and the new moon typically demanding something so new it takes all week to figure it out. Still, I haven't abandoned hope, am just more cautious about committing what seems like an increasingly finite supply. It would be nice after 2013 to have a year where progress in larger terms felt possible, it's always seemed that the year that should have come after 1967 was not 1968. But history makes it clear that it is possible for a culture to be insane longer than one's own working life span, so this last year I concentrated on the personal positive, the local community positive. And in this arena, progress was made, both in terms of focusing on what could be accomplished, and in terms of learning more about how to teach those impossibly ornery Vermonters the flexibility required for handling paint well. Still, it seems like things continue to get both better and worse, at the same time, like there are several versions of humanity operating at once, with a quite greedy one, and a quite generous one, occupying the pole positions. Will the lion ever lie down with the lamb? It seems inevitable in the long run – what else can possibly work? – but this year I got the sense on several occasions of human life on earth as an exacerbated or warped kind of cosmic theater. Like God was taking a cue from tabloid news. This was enhanced by a sense of greater clarity and support from dreams, as though to suggest that night and day, sleeping and waking, might be more equal as experience than is generally thought. The Higgs Bosun research suggests that matter is just a costume that energy dons, so maybe it's time to move beyond the supposedly reliable dispassion of empiricism and accept that life is in fact personal by cosmic design. And for an organism, the shortest distance between two points isn't a straight line, it's a spiral.



      

      Some year end thoughts, always fun to look back over a larger period.

       Didn't begin anything new this week, just did finishing layers on some still life work. Some of these are close to done, but the definition of "done" does seem to evolve along with the technique. At first it was difficult to comprehend how to work in layers and keep the painting alive, but now that part is getting better, it has to do with fine tuning the interaction of the positive colour space with the negative colour space. This is set up really well in the old Greek tetrachromatikon, with two positive warm colours (red and yellow earth), and two negative cool colours (black and white). So, there's the 3D positive colour space, the 3D negative colour space, and the 3D neutral colour space, all of which interact, but with a minimum number of pigments in play. This is very fun to learn more about, and, to me, vastly preferable to copying digital colour. There are a couple dozen of these still life paintings of various ages that just get a layer when the next step seems clear. But it's winter and they're all wet still, the photos would be full of glare, so that part will have to wait. I'm happy with what happened in the work this year, not ecstatic, I had hoped to get further, but I've learned that a natural process cannot be pushed beyond certain parameters without fracturing. I did this to the process at one point years ago, and it just disappeared. Like land that had been over-planted, nothing would grow. So now I'm more careful in the winter, especially between Thanksgiving and New Years. For a while after the materials project began in 2001 it seemed like the work would never emerge from evolving, that I'd asked too many questions for the process to ever answer. At the same time, this occurred in the first place because production painting made me feel that the process did not contain enough questions. So, I guess it's the usual question of how to juggle feathers and bowling balls, and inevitable that some trial and error occur. This year I made an effort to channel the process technically for the first time in a while. No more experiments! Of course, that didn't work, but it did succeed in simplifying the approach bit by bit. I'm now using basically the same putty approach I used in 2007, but with more awareness of how the materials involved – chalk, hand-processed linseed oil, and egg white – can be combined. That being said, I think all the water-based additions are interesting – gum arabic, starch, silica & water gel – and my favorite paintings from the last year or so use them as the thixotropy enhancer. But, egg white is new at this level, I'm working with it in a more refined way now, it has done plenty of thixotropy in the past. So, there will always be more to learn about the materials, but for now it seems that the majority of this work is complete, and documented in Living Craft.

      The other thing I wanted to learn this year was how to enlarge the scale of the work again. A few years ago I became fascinated with the small scale of 19th century outdoor studies as a way to learn more about more evolved landscape conventions. I think this worked, but this approach also contained its own type of limitation in the interaction of thixotropic paint with the scale itself. I tried a few different larger approaches in landscape this year, but these have been inconclusive so far. So, last week I returned to a larger scale still life, and this seemed to point out a new way to approach this scale. It seems like there's always a tension in realism between information and transformation. Perhaps this is like a border territory that is first part of one neighbor, then another, over centuries. I'm more interested in transformation, and problematically have developed a number of different ways to do it. The still life of roses from last week – not done, but conceptually complete – seems like a natural way of approaching transformation at that scale. We'll see what the new year brings, I'd like to make 22x30 the new study size, and then start making slightly larger versions of the best of these on panels. There are also some older large panels to complete, where I stopped, so to speak, before moving to this house a few years ago, and a lot of recent smaller images that are worth completing and will eventually start requesting attention. So, thank goodness there's still plenty to do, obsession is a little much sometimes but a blessing compared to boredom.

      I started writing about the materials here in 2004, but Living Craft began after I'd spent several years with both Eastlake and the DeMayrne Manuscript. I then read The Artist's Assistant, Leslie Carlyle's doctoral dissertation about 19th century English painting methods. What struck me about this book in relation to Eastlake and DeMayerne was its great organization and perspicuity, it is incredibly thorough as a research project but also written with unusual clarity and acumen. And if you have followed Dr. Carlyle, you know there is always a little something more on the ball in her work, she is thinking, not just jumping through the hoops of research. So, this text gave me the idea for Living Craft, to simply document what happened with the materials as clearly as possible. Little did I know how long it would take to put a reasonable text together, or how much the project would take on a life of its own, the process of examining painting closely producing an increasingly detailed account of what painting was about, both in terms of structure and technique. But I guess anything is like that, the more we look, the more we find. So, edition three is almost sold out, meaning close to 450 books have been sold so far. It has been a long haul this year to edition four, chopping through a tangle of personal brambles for more clarity in the text, but I'm glad I did it, and feel better about the book at this point in terms of completion than the work itself. But, of course, the work is subject to growth through sympathetic reverberation at a level the book could not access and remain readable. This was a real relief to realize this year: that a sentence is like a glass of water: it can only hold so much. Edition four in a hardback version will emerge at some point in January, and I'll start marketing it in a small way. The book is not for everybody who paints, but, having read all the texts in English, I do feel it is a unique resource in terms of its analysis of structure, materials, technique, and its discussion of colour. There are even some Doerneresque philosophical comments from time to time. Did I discover the lost secret? Mua-ha-ha! I'm afraid you'll have to come to your own conclusion. The world tends to want a lot to happen quickly, while I ended up wanting to study less in more detail, slowly. I imagine that, at some point, this difference in approach will generate controversy. So, whether the book can ever be the cultural turning point I originally hoped for, replacing painting as a mechanism with painting as an organism, my sense of painting both historically and as a personal path benefited immensely from writing it. And given how different we all are, that has to be enough.

      Received a very nice Christmas package of Zecchi goodies from my friend Allison B. Cooke, who has had a great run this year with her own great work. There was a note inside from one of her classes, which was very fun to read. Yes, Lindsay, you are not alone!





december 24
      

      Sunny at last this morning and very beautiful with the ice on the trees. Yesterday was very strange, dark and foggy, everything covered with lumpy ice. I was out putting out sand and salt when a UPS guy came bounding out of nowhere wearing crampons and dropped off the long awaited hardback proof of the book. He was having more fun with those crampons than I was with sand and salt. This process has been so relentlessly snake-bitten that it was with no little trepidation that I addressed the package. It would be perhaps overstating matters to say that the ganglions were pulsating, the knees knocking, but, nonetheless, a keen observer might have detected a reluctance of mien, a kind of Jobishness to the wristwork. But this time floor of heaven was in fact inlaid with bright patines of gold; the book looks pretty good. They did use the most recent version of the text, this included fixing some typos that were caught by Martin Kornaus. Thank you Martin! And the colour of the cover, whose name was "linen," is in fact pretty close to the colour of raw linen, so it looks good with the white stamping: demure and studious, effectively belying its raucous contents. Between the book cloth colours and the stamping, there are not a lot of choices, so it was one of those small personal triumphs that this worked out decently. This will of course be covered by the fabled dust jacket in glorious colour, the crucial sizzle, but that part will be done by a local printer who is a fellow member of perfectionists anonymous. I like how the text came out as well, it took a while for me to grok the various internal typesetting options in OpenOffice, but it looks right now. Maybe the pages are a little full, the margins could be larger, I became a little panicked about how much this edition was going to cost. But things like that can be adjusted in edition five. I'm not sure edition five won't have to have more graphics. This is something I've resisted, but tables have been requested a few times. I find tables gruesomely modern, but they may be necessary. Similarly, there are some things that could be illustrated well with diagrams, the behavior of mediums often functions along three axes. Then there's always the idea of peppering the text with colour photos, turning it into a giant National Gallery Technical Bulletin, a perennial favorite of its long-term friends, but this would require major outside blessings in terms of funding. One miracle at a time, don't you think? We've had sun, put another layer on the roses from last week, and this came forward in an interesting way, see below. Anyway, received what I wanted for Christmas, renewed hope on both fronts, and wish you similar gifts under your tree.





      

      Second layer on the roses from last week, a few more colours and some white in a slightly denser and richer putty medium. Not done but another step towards the shift I've been looking for in terms of utilizing the paint to augment or question reality as much as depict it. The painting as mysterious portal. About 19x21 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



december 22
      

      Third week of the moon, darkest days of the year, warmer the last few days, solstice yesterday, an incredibly gross day of freezing rain. Did not have that much to bring to bear for the work this week and concentrated on possible effective changes for when more energy returns. Ice overnight, but due to the Adirondacks this area leads a charmed life, most of it is to the north. Although the yard and driveway are like lumpy skating rinks right now, a day to lay low if possible. A little ice is lovely, especially if the sun comes out, but ice is also what takes down trees and power lines, causes falls that break bones. Yet another reminder from nature about who is really in charge. It's not that easy for me to switch into being rather than doing, but the transition is easier to accept as time goes on, and if you've lived in this type of climate, you know that combating ice successfully is a classic recipe for Pyrrhic victory. I'm kind of antsy in general these days, more comfortable addressing the issue than contemplating it, but just have to wait, sort of skry into time to see what actually wants to happen next.

      Class this week was on the day of the full moon. Class should always be on the day of the full moon, there was a great deal of positive energy, everyone did well and a couple longer haul students are getting very close to larger breakthroughs in terms of paint handling. To me this is the most interesting part, what I hope for, the way handwriting in paint develops, how someone ends up making their own language of colour and marks. If I were to design a curriculum, working in black and white in oil would come after drawing. Maybe working in oil sticks in black and white, then oil itself in black and white. I'd keep them there as long as possible, working out composition and handwriting, the major problems people have are madcap distraction by colour on the one hand, generation of an artificial style on the other. At the same time, maybe this is necessary, sort of like realizing that it's not so much what you eat, but how genuinely hungry you are. Someone who has the book wrote enthusiastically this week about the optical colour separation exercise in black and white. This is one of my favorites, using grays without white, then adding grays with white. It's possible to get a distinct sense of three different colours of gray because the translucent grays are so much warmer than the grays with white. But students tend to want colour, and not be patient with value and temperature as the foundation for effective colour management.

      The most difficult situation to be patient with continues to be getting the book printed as a hardback. It should not take over two months to get a proof, the contact person at the bindery went so far as to apologize. But it's not like short-run binderies grow on trees in New England. In theory, I was supposed to get the proof on Wednesday, but it's still not here. This has been the hardest part, like Calvin waiting for his propeller beanie. Difficult to have a project on hold when it is so close to its next stage, a more marketable product. But in larger terms, patience never seems to be at quite the level required by the next step. There will always be tension, friction, the situation that is out of one's direct control, the question is how to handle it, turn that lead into gold. You could say this is just Life 101, but it's also Life 201, Life 301, etc., it just goes on. After twelve years of research, six years of developing the text, and a thorough re-write this year for clarity, there's one final hold-up. I've decided its a compliment.



      

      Stayed with the same system this week, putty with a little egg white, continuing to work with a little bit of black, this seems to be really helpful for avoiding GGSS – global grape shadow syndrome – working with digital images. Tried something new technically that worked out, still a little rough, but interesting, details below. The palette now is based on a three triad approach, the foundation is dark and transparent, the middle triad is the most variable depending on subject matter, then the bright triad is opaque, higher chroma colours. In theory this could be done most effectively with three different versions of red, yellow, and blue, but, between pigment identity and subject matter, I tend to use one blue, and one green, although these are seldom made from one pigment. There are also still life situations where only two triads can be used. For older writers it was axiomatic that the best painter used the fewest colours, Doerner, Wehlte, and Speed mention this, and paintings like Juan de Paraja certainly illustrate it. I've tried several times to make a painting with only three earth colours and white, but always end up adding a little more variety. In Juan de Paraja, for example, I think there's a bright yellow ochre, but also a darker yellow earth, a dark raw sienna possibly. But that may be the only extra colour. And this was the painting Velαsquez made to impress the Pope. What panache, what brio!



      

      Worked a few times on the larger version of this on linen, it came forward, but then had an idea about a possible older technique and returned to the original smaller study, here, to try it out. One thing that most of the secrets of the old masters approaches – both older and more recent – have in common is the use of resin in the paint, but this is not really supported – certainly not as a global medium, in all the paint – in any older painter whose work has been analyzed. There's lots of grousing about operator error, that small amounts were used, etc., but to me it makes sense to avoid complexity if something simpler will do it, the process of somehow turning paint into art is complex enough. So, recently I've been using an addition of egg white again, and have noticed the way it makes the paint more discrete, tighter, lo and behold, like there is resin in it. So it seemed that, outside the context of the putty medium, egg white might also have been used as a way to thin a thicker oil rather than using solvent. This began with a very thin couch of a thicker hand-refined linseed oil into which a little egg white was mixed, the egg white thinned the oil, but the density of the thicker oil was enough to emulsify the egg white effectively. I thought this might create a situation similar to the solvent-flashing of a couch made with a resin medium like damar or mastic, and it did, the application of the paint became tighter and tighter as the couch set. So, like most of these innovations the first time through, this ended up a little more rococo than was ideal, but is much improved over the first layer. Most importantly, from the admittedly arcane perspective of proving – to myself anyway, this is way down the OM technical rabbit hole – that resin is simply not the lost secret, this was a great success. This paint really glows from within. I don't think it would work as well with commercial oils like stand oil, but it might still be interesting. A little dorky still, but the famous one more layer might complete it. Late Corn, Farr Cross, 10.5x15 inches, oil on Arches Huile.



      

      For a while I've been thinking about ways to expand the scale again that would be natural. I started exploring a smaller scale in emulation of 18th and 19th century outdoor landscape studies, and it did teach me a lot, but the pendulum needs to go the other way now, a combination of being ready for something new and realizing that the chances of Americans coming to appreciate small paintings in my lifetime are not large. Started this yesterday, worked from an earlier smaller painting of the image, was going to use the tetrachromatikon of black, white, red and yellow earth but never got around to the white. Decided to leave it a little soft, there's something more human about this, but it also sets the stage for more options in the future. The original scale for me in oil, the 22x30 sheet of paper, worked this way long ago. I think of this type of work as "easy," in that it doesn't require the sort of pinpoint chromatic resolution I want from a landscape, maybe that a landscape simply requires. But that's probably a good idea for developing something new at this point in the year. So this will get more paint, a cooler pass next followed by a warmer one, etc., I'm not sure how realistic I want it, more about a feeling. This scale does seem more natural in a way, but I think the last few years of working smaller added significantly to my sense of the space it contains. The sense of the marks, the internal animation of the paint, benefited from experience with something that required more control. Before working in oil I made some relatively large paintings in acrylic using a house painter's brush. I wonder if this direction will go back there, completing the cycle, but with a medium that required more experience to learn, in the year to come. Palette was Blockx yellow ochre, Venetian red, and vine black, simple putty of chalk and oil. The Blockx yellow ochre is synthetic, and pretty strong, but it opens up nicely when cut with the putty. About 18.5x20.5 inches, on Arches Huile.












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